DM Tips – Using Player Handouts

Some of my fondest memories of playing D&D back in the ‘90s don’t come from the games themselves. Instead, they come from the hours I spent digging through the massive boxed sets that TSR used to produce – worlds and cities and epic adventures laid out in minute detail, with exquisite poster-sized maps and tons of images, maps and notes to be handed to players. I remember pulling out the boringly titled Player Handout 11 from Dragon Mountain and just loving the depth something like this can bring to the game.

Dragon Mountain - Player Handout 11 - ©1993 TSR, Inc.
©1993 TSR, Inc.

The Dragon Mountain adventure books never fully explain what this handout is. It’s found in a slave den inside the Kobold-infested mountain, with no explanation of how it got there or what area it’s referring to. I remember wanting to know who drew the map, who annotated it, why they were in the mountain, whether they ever got out alive. What are the “pests”? And, when I actually got the adventure to the table, I got to witness my players go through the same questions themselves. The world suddenly felt alive, bigger than just the area inhabited by the PCs, and that was a great thing.

As a writer, I’ve often heard the advice to “show, don’t tell”. On the surface, it seems like player handouts are the perfect time to put that advice to use. Why tell the players what a letter or journal entry says when you could hand them a copy of it and let them read it for themselves? Over the years, I’ve made plenty of handouts for my players, very much inspired by the things I found in those old TSR box sets.

Sometimes I was lucky, and they did exactly what I wanted them to do – enhance the story, and the world, and maybe provide a clue to a good next move for the players. Unfortunately, though, that is not always the case.

I’ve already talked a little bit about my current campaign. The party tracked a bandit back to a ruined fort in the forest, where they expected to find the bandit leader (who had already fled due to general dicking-around by the party and a standard Leroy Jenkins moment from Captain Manbearpig). Once they reached the top of the tower they found a map marked with the location where they had been ambushed and the name of the merchant they had been travelling with, along with two other locations and very brief notes on who was to be robbed and when. I thought it would provide a good hook to pull the party on a cross-country chase.

worldmap002
Yes, that’s drawn on a newspaper from 1886. No, I don’t care this it’s not actually very good.

It did, but not without a little gentle handholding from me. The party pored over the map, trying to pick up clues from it but never noticing the notes written at the top of the page.

This is the downfall of handouts that are designed to progress the plot. If the party find a letter and you simply tell them that it contains a reference to a person, or a location, or whatever, the players immediately suspect that this is important – because you’ve taken the time to mention it. (Some people would argue that this is meta-game thinking and shouldn’t be encouraged. They’re mostly right, but sometimes it simply helps keep the game running smoothly. In addition, you’re always free to throw in a few red herrings to prevent them from immediately latching on to every word that comes out of your mouth.) If, on the other hand, you give them a handout that contains that same information hidden in amongst lots of fluff, though, and it’s just as likely that they’ll fixate on some tiny detail you added in a pique of creativity. Sometimes that’s great – I’ll be writing about how you can use this to add real depth to your games in a future post – but sometimes it’s the opposite of what you and the players want.

In the case of my poorly annotated map, the players were stumped. They wanted to pursue the bandits, and I thought I’d given them the means to do that, but with two seemingly random marks on the map they didn’t know where to go next. That was nobody’s fault but mine.

So, how do you deal with a situation like this? I didn’t want to step in as the DM and point out what they had missed, because the party were fully immersed in discussing this map in character. I didn’t want to ruin that.

Instead I asked Adam/Tharin – the cleric, who was holding both the map and the highest Wisdom score at the table – to make a Perception check. Mentally I set the DC at 10, because although I needed him to notice this text I still wanted there to be a chance of failure (after all, the plays had essentially failed their own Perception rolls to spot this same thing). Still, with a +5 to Perception, I knew Tharin had a pretty good chance of making such a low DC. The roll was a success. As the player’s examined the map I told Tharin that he suddenly noticed the writing at the top of the page – and, lo and behold, Adam suddenly noticed the writing at the top of the page. Everybody laughed that they had missed it, and the game got back underway.

I’ve had similar things happen over the years, and there’s not really any way to judge whether a handout will do what you want it to do until it’s on the table, at which point it’s a little too late to do anything about it if it causes problems. What I’ve found – and the way I intend to plan my games in future – is that the best handouts are those which help develop the world and the characters within it without really impacting on the immediate plot.

The real magic of D&D – the thing that separates tabletop gaming from video games – is in seeing a world and its people come to life and respond to the things that the players do. To take yet another example from my current game, Captain Manbearpig recently encountered a gnomish merchant who seemed to know about things that nobody but the Captain should know about. He also knew about the ManBearPig that the Captain both hunts and wears the pelt of (I know, I know – my group are truly ridiculous), and after much discussion he and the merchant arranged for some custom-designed arrows to be made to help bring down the ManBearPig, should the Captain ever encounter another one.

What Ash doesn’t know yet – and I’m hoping he won’t read this article and ruin the surprise – is that when he returns to town he’s going to find it plastered with tacky adverts for these new arrows. (Impress Your Friends! Mutilate Your Enemies! Slay the Fabled Mantiboar! You get the idea). And the real fun of it is that I’m not going to describe these posters to him. I’m going to hand one to him.

I don’t know how Manbearpig will react, but I can’t wait to find out. And unlike hiding a clue in a journal entry, there’s nothing riding on this. It’s a little bit of fun, and if it goes well the world will feel that much more real. And if Manbearpig brushes it aside and forgets about it? That’s fine. It won’t affect the game in any way.

As always, if there’s anything you think I’ve missed or anything you disagree with, if you have any fun stories or cool handouts you want to share, and if there’s anything you’d like to see covered in future posts, let me know in the comments.

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