I must confess that I love handouts in roleplaying games. I love them a little too much. In the upcoming expanded Hideous Creatures, we’re doing player-facing documents for each monster, hinting at some aspect of the creature in an oblique way. Some tips on their creation and use…
Handouts are Artefacts
Handouts must feel real. You can spend many enjoyable* hours aging paper and carefully selecting the right font, but you also have to take care when writing the handout to make it a plausible document. It needs to be short enough to be read at the table, contain enough information to make it useful, but also drip with verisimilitude. Short reports obliquely hinting at strange events, newspaper articles, diary entries and the like are ideal.
You can also have handouts that are extracts from larger documents – a single page of a longer book or one section of a report – by including trailing text and references to other parts of the fictional document. (Group a bunch of short newspaper clippings in a scrapbook to create a handout that hints at but never states an awful truth – leave it up to the players to connect a death notice, a report about dead dogs, a mysterious classified advertisement, and a clipping from the catalogue of a rare book store that’s selling a copy of Cultes des Ghoules.)
The diary entry found by Dr. Armitage in The Dunwich Horror is an ideal example of this sort of extract – it’s short, atmospheric, suggests it’s part of a larger document with its throwaway references to other Dunwich natives and ongoing studies, and – most important of all – has an actionable clue for the players: “That upstairs looks like it will have the right cast. I can see it a little when I make the Voorish sign or blow the powder of Ibn-Ghazi at it”.
Everyone knows that boxed text is awful. It’s painful to sit there listening to a Keeper read prose aloud. It’s stilted, often hard to follow, and at odds with the inherently conversational nature of roleplaying games. Handouts, though, are much closer to traditional prose. You can tell a little story, or go to town on descriptive elements that a Keeper would struggle to convey in a bloc of text.
A handout that just conveys information isn’t necessarily a waste of them – all handouts have their uses – but if you just want to, say, give the players the name of the victim, writing up a police report is probably overkill. Use the space afforded by the handout to hint at horrors to come. Diaries, in particular, let you extend a scenario’s scope back in time by letting you do the Lovecraftian trope of listing a whole series of past incidents and weirdnesses that culminate in the present horror.
In any group of players, there are usually degrees of engagement. Some players are really, really interested in the mystery, or the Cthulhu Mythos, or fighting monsters; others become more or less engaged depending on the action in the game, and others are just there to hang out with their friends. In general, it’s a bad idea to pay too much attention on the overly enthusiastic players – they’re going to have fun and be involved no matter what, so the Keeper’s efforts are best spent drawing the more reticent players into the action. Handouts, however, are a place where you can reward engagement, giving those players a little more to chew on. Use handouts to hint at connections to the wider Mythos, to imply deeper and wider conspiracies, or to flesh out the backstory. Handouts are one place in the game where you can be as obscure and wilfully misleading as you like, as the players can take time – even between sessions – to chew over the clues.
The Clue Isn’t Necessary In The Text
While you can include clues in a handout that you expect the players to spot, you can also have clues that can be discovered with investigative abilities. A player might be able to use History to recognise a name in a diary as the site of a famous murder, or Cryptography to decode the weird runes in the margin as an enciphered message, or even Cthulhu Mythos (“after reading the diary, you start dreaming of that same strange house on the clifftop, and feel this weird urge to go east, towards the ocean. Something’s drawing you to a spot on the coastline overlooking the grey Atlantic. You suspect that if you follow that unnatural tugging, you’ll find that house.”)
You can also use investigative abilities to push the players towards the correct interpretation – “from your expertise in Cop Talk, you’re pretty sure this report was written under protest – whoever wrote it was told to provide a ‘reasonable’ explanation for the weird events. Maybe if you find the original author, they’ll tell you what really happened.”
Handouts Are An Anchor
Handouts feel significant. Even a tiny handout, like a business card, implies the players are on the right track in the adventure, (“If this musician wasn’t important, the Keeper wouldn’t have printed up a business card”) and you can use that feeling to reward the players. Successfully traversing a difficult challenge or solving a section of the mystery yields a handout.
Handouts are also useful for organising information. If you’ve a long list of similar leads – say, all the guests at a party, or all the victims of a serial murderer, or a set of addresses – it’s good practise to give the players the list in the form of a handout. It avoids transcription errors and miscommunications, and keeps the game running more smoothly. Similarly, handouts are a good way of conveying complex timelines or spatial relationships to the players – a map or a diary can become the frame of the investigation that the players then fill in with clues.
*: Hours may not be enjoyable if they turn into weeks, nay months…