Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Lost Art of the Player Handout

GBI Welcome
Campaign Introduction for my upcoming
Ghostbusters International one-shot.
Click on it to see it larger.
And now, I slip on my "crotchety old gamer" hat.

Ten years ago, when you bought an adventure, it often came as a spine-stapled bundle which was unattached to its cover, because the last few pages were nearly always handouts for your players that you could cut out and/or photocopy "for personal use only."

There were threads and threads on the various USENET groups about creating good player handouts - tutorials on how to age paper so it looked like leather or parchment or vellum or any of the other thousands of types of paper we have used down the years, discussions of fonts and links for places to get other fonts that mimicked handwriting or engraving or calligraphy, and the like.

One of my favorite discussions from back in the day was about the campaign introduction handouts. A good campaign introduction set the tone for the game and at least hinted at the world the players would be dealing with. Sometimes, it would reveal the major players in the setting. Either way, a good campaign introduction allowed players to generate characters who would fit into the setting, as opposed to creating characters without any idea how they would be used .  My favorite campaign introductions were at least two pages long - one page in character and one that was out of character.  The in-character page would take the form of a summons from the king or a wanted poster in a fantasy game.  The out-of-character page would note any special rules for the game: "no Healing magic exists in the world of Saphaara," was one I vividly remember playing.

The in-game handouts (meaning, of course, handouts that were given during play) were always something different - a partial letter from one NPC to another, for example.  Pieces of a map.  Good handouts included clues that led the party where the GM wanted them to go. Or where the adventure needed them to go.

Handouts weren't quick references for the system or character sheets. Those were nice, but the purpose of a handout was to further immerse the players in the setting or adventure.

But somewhere along the way, we lost them. I haven't seen a good player handout from a publisher in a very long time - it's rapidly become a lost art. All of the best handouts these days seem to be fan-created - and by "fan" I mean "GM." With very few exceptions.

Fantasy CoinageI'm in a D&D game which is currently on hiatus while the GM finds his work/life/new baby balance.  The very first session, we were given a "stone" code wheel with two sets of characters that he had made out of foamcore.  He clearly spent a lot of time working on it - and it's not complete, either. There are more pieces for us to discover.  As the game went on, we received map fragments and notes. When we searched an NPC's home, we received several letters that had been in his desk, not all of which were in "common," so we couldn't read them.

He even invested in campaign coins which - by the way - are REALLY neat in person. And are one of the rare exceptions to the "all of the best handouts these days are fan-created" claim I made early on.

But he clearly worked very hard on his handouts - and they were immersive.

Does anyone else miss the Good Old Days of Handouts? Or is it just me?


  1. Jason6:24 AM

    Hey, you forgot about the gems

  2. OMG I'm totally using a stone code wheel for my underdark campaign. What a great idea.

  3. Jason4:38 PM

    If you want more details on what I did LMK as long as you don't tell Eric