Hungry, over at Ravenous Roleplaying, is a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery through his regular “Friday Faves” column, in which he collects links to the articles that have most inspired or interested him from the past week. When he has time, he accompanies those links with some comments; these are always interesting, and sometimes genuinely insightful and inspiring.
In his commentary on the article, Hungry described how his players didn’t seem to respect his efforts when he invested time and effort into game handouts, frequently spending just three seconds glancing at whatever it might be, and lauding Phil’s article as (he hoped) being the key to extending those three-second glances into three minutes of gaming value.
Having observed the “three-second glance” myself, at times, I was sufficiently intrigued to check out Phil’s article for myself, and found it to be both well worth reading, and yet somehow incomplete. Within the bounds of achieving the purposes for handouts that Phil establishes, his techniques are quite reasonable and effective, but I can’t help but feel that he has set the bar too low, and hence is not getting all the value that he could from his handouts – and that he has inadvertently passed on that low-bar objective to others who read the article and implement his advice.
His article, in other words, doesn’t go far enough, isn’t ambitious enough. Handouts can do far more than the limited and superficial purposes that he has assigned to them, and can be far more useful to the GM than his article allows. And that’s what this article is all about.
I want to start by specifically excluding two types of campaign material that could be provided in handout form. These should not be bound by the restrictions imposed on Handouts, because they are designed for players to take away and assimilate over a longer time-frame. If the material is not intended for “immediate consumption” then it should not suffer under the restrictions imposed by providing the material in a format designed to facilitate such consumption.
The first exclusion are any Rules Documents. These can be catalogs of precedents that are to be considered “official rulings” henceforth, they might be some specific extension of the game rules (see, for example, “I Got A Plot Device and I know how to use it: Bluffing in the Hero System“, or A strong wind blows: Environmental effects for RPGs, both of which include rules handouts written for the Adventurer’s Club campaign.).
The second exclusion is anything intended to impart Campaign Background or overall Game World information to the players. Some GMs produce such briefing documents (usually before play begins), some don’t; a relative minority treat them as living documents and actively update them as hitherto-unknown chapters of the game history are discovered by the PCs. Personally, I strongly recommend these and always try to provide them for my campaigns, but YMMV.
Note that this doesn’t mean that I tell my players everything, or that everything that I DO tell them is necessarily accurate. What I provide is the best information available to their characters, and no more accurate or complete than any other common folklore or historical overview. In fact, I don’t feel like I’m giving the campaign it’s best chances of succeeding unless about 75% of these contents are inaccurate or incomplete – because I can then build adventures and encounters around the differences between documented belief and “the truth”. Denying yourself such a rich source of in-game content is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
The 13 purposes of handouts
When I listed all the possible purposes to which handouts could be put, I ended up with ten – but Phil’s article specifically targeted one restricted form of one of the purposes, so I added the other three that I think can be included, in direct contradiction to what Phil has advised, as separate items, bringing the total to a lucky 13.
The first 4 are from Phil’s article:
- Downtime Filler*
- Info-dump (Immediate Relevance)*
- Eye Candy*
- Tactical Information*
The rest are what I think can be added to that list:
- Info-dump (Short-term Relevance)*
- Info-dump (Medium-term Relevance)
- Info-dump (Long-term Relevance)
- Characterization through Customization
* indicates relevance to convention play. The fact that 4/7 of the items so tagged derive from Phil’s article suggest to me that his initial approach may have derived from Convention Play, and that the larger potentials (which require a longer-term campaign before they can provide value) were largely overlooked for that reason. But that’s just speculation on my part.
A special note about maps
Phil specifically suggests including map information. I tend to think about maps as a separate class of handout simply because a good map needs to be at least one page in size to carry enough information to be useful, in my opinion. (I also tend to treat eye candy as separate items because I want to be able to display the graphics on my laptop as they become relevant to the adventure. But that’s neither here nor there).
Phil’s example shows a map that is so small as to be close to useless except as eye candy and two lines of text, in my opinion. It looks very pretty, but it fills a lot of the available space for limited functionality. I would rather have the two lines of text, and bullet-point summaries of the three towns in the region that are shown on the map – taking up about 1/4 of the space used for the map, leaving room for more content.
But that’s my taste in such things, and readers shouldn’t feel obligated to take the same approach as I do. What it means is that you will find no reference to maps in the purposes I’ve listed above – I think Maps should be a third variety of “excluded material”. But I’ve placed them, and this discussion, in a sort of halfway-house because Phil’s article includes them. Feel free to consider them a 14th category if your style aligns with Phil’s!
1. Downtime Filler
I never use a handout as a downtime filler. I want my non-participating players paying attention to what is happening at the table even though their characters are not present, simply because it saves the playing time that would be required to bring them up to speed – and avoids fallible memories on the part of the player actually participating. If there’s something going on that really does require the player to make decisions or discoveries to which the other players are not privy, we step away from the game table.
In fact, rather than using a handout as a downtime filler, I will actively shift the spotlight to give a player time to assimilate a handout specifically targeted at their character – a subtle but profound distinction.
But that’s all a legacy of the number of available hours a month in which to game – 4 or 5 for any given campaign, sometimes less. If we were playing the same campaign every week, or had more hours available on a playing day, my gaming approach might be different – though it was the same when we were playing the Champions Campaign fortnightly, for 10-12 hours a day (sometimes more), so perhaps not.
Of course, not specifically targeting “downtime filler” as an intended function of a handout doesn’t mean that they can’t be designed with the expectation that the players will use that downtime to study the handout! On the contrary, I’m of the opinion that if you issue a handout, the players need to be given time to study it – and that can either be time spent on that activity as a group, or individually during character downtime.
Hungry specifically cites the toner required for the production of handouts as a reason why he dislikes them as a GM. I can sympathize. I get around that problem by producing just one copy of a handout, regardless of its length – it’s “read a page and then pass it to the player on your left”. This round-robin approach solves that problem and can fit with either of the approaches to including “study time” in your session schedule with only a little variation. I mention it here because this is where those approaches are discussed.
2. Info-dump (Immediate Relevance)
Phil makes a specific point about the information provided being directly relevant to the session at hand. In fact, he makes the point twice. Sorry, but I don’t agree.
That’s not to say that some of the information provided should not be directly relevant – it should be. You could even argue that the majority of it should be, and some of the remainder should be indirectly relevant – I’ll get to that a little later.
Restricting the value of a handout to content directly relevant to the day’s play makes the handout more of a disposable commodity, and that doesn’t actually encourage players to play close attention to it; rather, it promotes a quick skim and more detailed reading when the information becomes immediately relevant – hence the label applied to this sort of information.
The other problem with this sort of info-dump is that critical information is often not going to be available to the players prior to the start of play – so you either jump the gun, giving out the information early, or delay giving them the handouts until they get the information in question, or you have to produce a second handout.
I don’t consider any of those particularly acceptable. My solution is something discussed much later in the article (in the section “Different Handouts for Different Purposes?”); suffice it to say that I employ a variation on the “second handout” approach.
3. Eye Candy
I never – well, hardly ever – distribute Eye Candy as a handout unless it also serves as a prop, and then only if the plot mandates the use of a prop. Frankly, there are better ways of distributing eye candy. The last time I can remember doing so was during my TORG campaign, at least ten years ago, when I produced a letter which I artificially aged and very carefully imbued with a lavender scent by staining the page with Lavender Oil, hitting it with a blast from a lavender-scented air-freshener, and rubbing the carefully-died paper with lavender-scented talcum powder. The scent was an essential clue to the players, explaining why I went to such lengths – I was taking no chances!
That letter was a masterpiece, if I do say so myself – colored pencil, water-color paint, coffee and tea baths, ironing to compress the heavy paper, writing part of the letter in permanent marker (so that it wouldn’t run) and part in Lemon Juice which was made visible by baking the page, carefully singing one edge of the paper, abrading the paper in places with gentle application of sandpaper, dripping wax on the page, making an envelope out of the same sort of art paper, making a wax seal and carefully breaking it to show that someone else had already read it – I spent two full days making it. I even rubbed slices of fresh mushroom onto it to give it a slightly musty odor under the lingering Lavender scent! But it was central to selling the plot to the Players.
Getting back on point, not only are there better ways of disseminating eye candy, but not wasting space on it frees that space for more functional content.
4. Tactical Information
I suspect from the example that he included that Phil included this within his “info-dump” category, but I think it warrants a place of its’ own. The actual content that would be covered under this heading would vary from one game system and genre to another; for example:
- D&D/Pathfinder: Creature information shorn of game mechanics and using emotive, relative terminology in its place. “Immensely strong”, “Extremely Resilient”, “Quick-witted”, “Touch creates agony”, etc. This relates what the PCs already know about a creature the GM expects them to encounter in the course of the day, so a brief descriptive narrative or illustration may also be valid in a non-eye-candy way. In particular, if known to the PCs, preferred habitats, warning signs, and usual combat tactics (in general terms) are also useful. NB: if the creatures to be encountered are ones that the PCs already know, the GM can use this opportunity to provide misinformation while educating the players on another of the creatures they might one day encounter!
- Superhero/Law Enforcement: A one-paragraph capsule bio of a villain, or the peculiarities of a particular law that will be relevant to the events of the day e.g. “probable cause”, etc.
- Sci-Fi: An abbreviated summary of a scientific principle that will be relevant to the adventure at hand, or information on a particular planet, culture, or race, or information on a particular model of ship.
GMs should decide what the players need to know in order to make informed decisions in the course of the current day’s play for their campaigns. (And yes, I know that the examples offered provide a rather broad interpretation of “Tactical” – the key parameter is not necessarily combat, it’s decision-making).
5. Info-dump (Short-term Relevance)
Okay, so let’s talk about time-scale definitions. “Immediate” for me means the current game session; “Short-Term” means within the next 2-to-4 game sessions; medium term means within the next 6 months to a year; and long-term is anything more than that. But that’s playing once a month; if you play fortnightly, divide those time-frames in two (except for “immediate” of course), and if you play every week, divide them by three. Round up where necessary.
Having stated what I mean by the time-scale “Short-term”, let’s look at what and you might want to include under this heading, and why.
There’s a lot that can be done under the umbrella of short-term relevance. This is an opportunity to give players background information on broader topics that will become relevant in the near-future, and that might provide a context to the events that will lead to the information becoming relevant. For example, if you tell the players that Elves are going to become important to the campaign over the next few months, the PCs will start watching for anything that might relate to Elves, and will be more aware of any event that might connect with the Elvish involvement or attitudes. This effectively prepares the ground for the next stages of the campaign.
Then, there is the potential for misdirection. Getting the players focused in a particular direction or on a particular potential threat can influence their choices and behavior, steering the campaign in the direction the GM wants it to go. For example, describing Drow as the “masters of covert manipulation” is sure to arouse paranoia about Drow involvement when the PCs start noticing something that might be explained by “covert manipulation”. The secret to being fair about this technique is for the misinterpretation to be widespread amongst a large segment of the society; getting the PCs to be a little paranoid about Drow Plots is simply helping depict the PCs as part of their society.
Of course, this sort of thing is far less effective if the PCs aren’t used to receiving credible information about the game world under this heading. Before you can lie effectively, you need to establish your credibility!
6. Info-dump (Medium-term Relevance)
Today’s article was almost complete when an inadvertent click wiped out everything after this point. While I was able to recreate virtually all of the substance, a lot of the examples have been almost completely lost.
The medium-term is of extraordinary value as a means of making a campaign dynamic instead of static. In the real world, it takes years, decades, or even a generation for social, historical, and economic trends to manifest. Most RPGs don’t have that sort of scale, so it becomes necessary to compress time somewhat.
Such trends have three stages: Before the public become aware of them, after the public become aware of them but before they affect day-to-day life, and the period when they are of immediate significance.
I had a substantial example depicting the buildup to an attempted invasion of a neighboring Kingdom that was lost. The text below captures the essence of what the example depicted.
In terms of game-play, the first stage is when the trend is only noticeable by those with inside knowledge, and sometimes not even then, so it has no effect. The second stage is when people are expressing opinions on the subject, but the overall perspective is evenly balanced between different courses of action; as the stage proceeds, the trend is increasingly the subject of conversation, and the majority of opinions tends to shift into a few unified camps, one of which is in an increasingly-clear majority. At the end of the second stage, action is taken either as a result of, or to mitigate, or to take advantage of, the trend. This action then becomes a day-to-day factor that has to be taken into account by everyone in the affected society, either resident or visiting, including the PCs.
In terms of handout content, unless someone gets advance warning through customized content (see later in the article), the first time the trend gets mentioned should be at the point of entry into stage 2, and it would take the form “people are talking about [X]”, or “There is a growing movement toward [X]”, or something along those lines. From this point on, it will increasingly get brought up in general conversation with NPCs – from occasionally (and fairly dispassionately), to frequently, to regularly (and with strong opinions). In addition, throughout stage 2, the consequences and side-effects of the trend should be increasingly noticeable, and influential people should increasingly demand action – often of radically different sorts. From the point at which such action is taken, the trend shifts from being of medium-term relevance to being of immediate consequence. Once that happens, it starts affecting the PCs in ways beyond being a mere subject of conversation.
Handouts during the time that the trend is in stage 2 should consist of general news-bytes, a few lines long, each highlighting one of: the trend itself (and it’s supposed causes); opinions expressed by notable figures; and mention of the immediate-level consequences of the trend. Depending on what the trend is, this could be anything from public protests, controversial demonstrations, civil unrest, public condemnation by hard-line authorities, perpetrated injustices, and economic and trade impacts.
At the same time as one trend is in the latter stages of stage 2, a second is generally in the early phases of stage 1, ready to start becoming a general subject of discussion (ie entering stage 2) sometime shortly after the earlier trend enters phase 3 and begins to head toward a resolution. The subject of this second trend is often related to undesirable side-effects or consequences of the action taken regarding the trend that is of immediate impact, or otherwise deriving from it.
Of course, once the trend begins directly affecting the PCs, they can also begin affecting the outcome of the actions taken in response to the trend, even if these are never a primary consideration; they can make a difference through inadvertent consequences of whatever they are doing. Remember the old aphorism that begins “For want of a nail“? Picture the PCs as accidentally impacting the nail supply…
Because the players see the trends highlighted in the handout having an increasing impact on their character’s lives, they become aware of the campaign world as a dynamic, changing, and evolving location. What’s more, the clear implication is that if the PCs do something in the game world, whatever it may be, it will have appropriate consequences for the campaign. These may be trivial, or profound, and will often not be what the players might have forecast at the time.
7. Info-dump (Long-term Relevance)
A section of the handout dedicated to mentioning subjects of long-term relevance is less concerned with the historical and social forces that are influencing, or will soon influence, the world around the characters, and is more concerned with the ultimate course of the campaign itself, and the forces that are driving those developments. Only as the campaign approaches a climax will the subjects mentioned in this section begin to manifest, first in trends of medium-term relevance, and then – at the actual climax adventure – in day-to-day significance.
Content that falls under this banner are an example of one of the themes of the campaign, a recap of an event that went unnoticed by the PCs at the time, and other events whose significance will take a long time to manifest.
One of the side-effects of the content described so far, a benefit that comes along for the ride, is an increase in the Verisimilitude of the campaign. It will feel more “real” to the players, because it will feel less like their characters exist in a vacuum and more like they are part of a wider world – one that sometimes impacts on the lives of those characters in a substantiative manner.
The medium- and long-term relevance info-dumps add depth to the campaign, and make it easier for the GM to focus game-time on the immediate.
Game handouts are a great vector for general trivia that adds color to the game world. These can be anything from gossip, to factoids, to anecdote, to superstition. These are items of deliberately-negligible immediate relevance, but which accumulate to show that there is more substance to the game world than is presented in the course of play. A few fantasy-themed examples:
- “The leading collector of militaria is Hawthin Longfellow, a Halfling.”
- “Any mage with fewer than two apprentices a year after graduation is considered professionally disreputable by the Thak-Durn Arcane Society.”
- “After he was badly scarred in battle, King Wallend ordered that all coins bearing his former face be disfigured and issued fresh currency with a symbolic crown in place of his likeness.”
- “During the neo-Barbaric Art Movement, the most expensive pigment was Greenscale, made from the blood of Goblins.”
You could spend a (short) paragraph describing the scabbard-carvings of a particular culture, or the “fact” that Troglodytes consider two to be an unlucky number, or the fashion in Dwarfish Beards. Anything and everything that adds color to the game world, in fact.
And, as an added side-benefit, these are a great source of encounters or adventures in a pinch!
“Context” is all about adding relevance to events that have just taken place. These can be direct, or by way of analogy. They call out those events that took place in the last session that will have repercussions at some point in the future, especially those that may have gone unnoticed at the time.
Where Context is about the past, “Subtext” is about the immediate future. This is the use of anecdote and metaphor to add additional layers of meaning to the events that are about to unfold. “Most people think Elves are paranoid when it comes to Drow” might be a good example. “Lefayre Citadel was thought impregnable until Grek The Great-Orc obtained the services of the Alchemist Droken-Thoria, who devised a waterproof corrosive paste that enabled the Orcs to cut an entrance through the bars protecting the sewer outlets. The moral: anyone who thinks themselves invulnerable is overlooking something,” is a better one.
In addition to verisimilitude, content types 9 to 11 carry another added benefit: Immersion. By highlighting significance and substance, the game world becomes less shallow and more substantial.
On top of that inherent quality, adding trivia about people and places with whom the PCs are about to interact makes it easier for the players to feel a part of the game setting without the GM spending additional playing time for the purpose.
13. Characterization through Customization
If you are only producing one copy of the handout in the expectation that it will be passed around, this won’t matter. But if you are intent on giving each player his own, why not spend a minute or two customizing the content to suit the background and racial profile of that character?
Fighters usually have a military background. Mages receive arcane instruction, which may or may not be the cultural equivalent of a “science” degree. Clerics receive training in theology.
Elves look at the world differently from Dwarves, who look at the world differently to Humans, and so on – or, at least, they should.
Both of these factors should shape the interpretation of some items, or even leave to some things being left out of their handouts because they aren’t considered relevant, replaced by an appropriate notation.
The Easy route to Customization
It doesn’t take much effort to achieve this. As you write each item, review it for distinct perspective shifts, and create the necessary variants at the same time. Add a code to indicate which specific characters get the variant version. Put everything into your master template, save it under a unique filename, then highlight and cut to exclude anything character one doesn’t get, “save as” to save his unique copy, reload the working copy, highlight and cut passages as necessary out to get character two’s version, and so on.
Ease Of Assimilation vs Depth Of Content
Phil’s article insists on bullet points for easy assimilation. I don’t necessarily agree; bullet points take up more visual real estate for each item, sacrificing depth of content. Bullet points are probably the difference between two-or-three sentences of content and four-or-five – so that’s around 50-60% more content that you can fit using a paragraph-based format.
Furthermore, some people work naturally in bullet points, others don’t. Johnn Four is one of the former, I’m one of the latter. I’ve learned to use them, but it takes me up to twice as long. So I would recommend either that you use the approach that best suits you, or you choose using a horses-for-courses approach; a lot of the content listed above is amenable to the bullet-point treatment, but a lot of it seems better suited to presentation as a three-or-four sentence paragraph.
For example, if I take the preceding paragraph and put it into bullet points:
- Some people work naturally in bullet points, others don’t.
- Johnn Four is an example of the first group. I’m an example of the second.
- If it doesn’t come naturally, you can still work in bullet-point format, but it will take up to twice as long.
- I would recommend either using the approach that best suits you, or,
- Using a horses-for-courses approach that is content-dependent.
The bullet-point format clearly takes up more space to say the same thing. The number of lines of text is not all that different, but the column width available is less, and there’s “white space” between the bullet-pointed items; furthermore, several lines leave empty space at the end of individual lines.
The Keeper Of Secrets
If you go with the one-copy-to-be-passed-around approach, it makes sense to designate one (reliable) player to act as “The Keeper Of Secrets”, responsible for archiving past handouts for later reference. Sure, the GM can do it, but he’s already got a lot on his plate.
My choice would be to use a clear-book, with a page of notepaper facing each handout so that there is somewhere for players to make notes, but that’s up to you.
Production Value vs Content Value
Phil’s example clearly puts a premium on production value. But where should your priorities lie? I would argue that content value is more important than making it all look pretty. On the other hand, using templates and pre-built background textures and consistent graphics, you can reduce some production value elements to one-time investments.
Content value should never be sacrificed for production values, but without crossing that border, you may be able to achieve quite satisfactory results that are better than plain text on white. It depends on how skilled you are with your word processor of choice and what it supports.
Different Handouts for Different Purposes?
Another unstated assumption that Phil makes is that he will provide only one handout, a kitchen-sink model that bears some resemblance to a campaign newsletter. To be honest, most of the time that’s not what I think of when I consider the subject of handouts.
What I create and use are documents designed for in-game interaction with the players – half prop and half document. For example, here’s a list of the handouts that were employed in a recent adventure for the Adventurer’s Club campaign:
- Catholic Churches in central London – a map & key
- December 193x London Weather synopsis
- M’s Appointments
- Notes to players – to be separated for distribution
- Profile, Archbishop Of Canterbury – a somewhat-revised version of the actual Archbishop of the period
- Chinese Embassy Personnel List – all invented people
- MI5 Activity report on Chinese Embassy Personnel for Dec 6, 193x
- Japanese Embassy Personnel List – all invented people
- M’s Case Notes & reports, all currently active cases
- MI6 profile of the “Shadow Demon” Tong – an NPC organization
- MI6 profile of Tatsuya Hiyatsu – a key NPC
- Telegram to Captain Ferguson (one of the PCs) about Kasugi activities
- “The Compact” – obscure and suppressed theological doctrine from the Roman Catholic Church
- Specifications of a tramp steamer, with blueprints and operational notes
- Tourist Map of central London, 1930s
In addition, there were folders of photographic reference, and amended versions of some of the above documents for GM use, and a couple of documents exclusively for GM reference.
In a nutshell, M was assassinated in his office. There was suspicion directed toward M’s deputy of the time, so the PCs were called in to uncover the identity of the Assassin since the intelligence organization could not be trusted to conduct their investigation in-house.
The murder coincided with the visit of a Yakuza leader who had established common ground with the PCs in an earlier Adventure. One of M’s open cases dealt with the Kasugi family, the arch-enemies of one of the PCs, and a supply of rare ores to Germany for munitions manufacturing in exchange for “re-birthing” and refurbishment of pirated vessels; they were certainly more than capable of using assassination if it advanced or protected their agenda. And the presence of a demonic being in London led the Catholic Church to dispatch a member of Opus Dei (which, in this pulp universe, is a super-spy organization under church control), with whom the PCs had crossed swords in the past, and who was also a potential assassin. So, no shortage of suspects.
In the end, it turned out that the Chinese Government had contracted with an assassin to Kill M using blowfish venom to make it look like the Japanese were responsible, in order to persuade the British Government to tighten bonds with China prior to an anticipated Japanese invasion of the mainland. It might have worked, but unknown to the Chinese, their assassin was a demonically-empowered Tong Leader who took advantage of his presence in London to seize control over several of the local criminal organizations. This kept him in town long enough for the PCs to get on his scent, uncover the real perpetrator, and identify his employers. As a result, the plot has backfired and Britain will keep China’s problems at arm’s length when the invasion begins – historically, several years before World War II officially begins.
We could have used Phil’s approach for some the above, but greatly enhanced the verisimilitude of the adventure by producing a reasonable facsimile of the contents of an “official” MI6 report. (You might also note that we haven’t specified what the current game year is – we intend to keep it mid-1930s for virtually the entire campaign), but are fully prepared to play fast-and-loose with times and events as necessary. So last year, game time, was an amalgam of 1935 and 1936, with infusions of 1933, 1934 and 1937; so far, the current in-game year is pure 1936, but that’s only because we’ve had no need to incorporate events from elsewhen. And next year will be, at least in part, 1936 again).
The Ticket to success with Handouts
Getting back to the point, the ultimate definition of a handout, in my opinion, is a communication designed to interact with the players. Phil’s handouts are one example of a single type of handout, and even within that narrow niche, are capable of far more than he currently uses them for. His approach works for him, but undersells the value and potential of handouts.
Of course, the GM can and should expect that the players have read the provided material – something that is not facilitated by long blocks of text or by bullet-points, most of the time. Instead, aim for a single three-or-four line paragraph or short list of bullet-points for each of the categories described and ensure that the plot requires the players to interact with the handout’s content.
The keyword is “interaction”. If handouts provide clues and reference material of vital importance to the current session’s game, the PCs will study them, making them a vehicle for other content and a substantial enhancement to any campaign, and Hungry’s “three second” problem will be a thing of the past; if they are disposable, they will be glanced at and disposed of. The trick is giving your handouts added value that makes them meaningful to the players in ways that are not apparent after a mere three-second glance.