Tips On Making Creative And Informative Player Handouts

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0107

A Brief Word From Johnn

Check Out This Cool Treasure Hunting Ezine

Here’s the ad as it was sent to me. I checked out the site and it has some cool plot, story, and treasure hunt ideas. [ QUEST ADVENTURES – Creating Your Own Themed Treasure Hunts and Adventure Puzzles Newsletter – FREE! Weekly tips, ideas, articles and puzzles for creating elaborately themed treasure hunts. Use all your skills gained from role- playing to create real life adventures for friends and family! Subscribe on any page or send a blank email to [email protected]Quest Adventure Hunts ]

And here’s a couple of interesting links I found at the site, which also relate to this week’s main article:

Antiquing Your Paper Clues and Maps

Creating Pirate Treasure Maps

A neat puzzle: “Indiana Jones and The Gold Bust of Ramses II”


Johnn Four
[email protected]

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Tips On Making Creative And Informative Player Handouts

From John C. Feltz

Often, a GM wants to give a handout to players that represents a real document they find in a dungeon or library. Here are some ways to use presentation and writing style to convey information without flat-out telling the PCs. They let you add non-obvious details, without being pedantic, requiring a dozen knowledge or lore checks, or boxing yourself into metagame thinking. Best of all, they encourage players to figure things out for themselves – and sometimes fool themselves, too!

Get Creative With Fonts

Most word-processor programs today offer hundreds of fonts, and a good number of them are script, calligraphy, engraving, etc. They may also let you stretch, compress, or otherwise manipulate the base fonts. Use a consistent font for each major NPC. To throw a layer of confusion in, use one font for a scribe (or a guild of scribes) who may write documents for many different NPCs. Let the PCs try to match up fonts and determine common sources of documents.

Some good fonts to use:

  • Algerian
  • Brush Script
  • Curlz
  • Copperplate Gothic
  • Edwardian Script
  • Forgotten Uncial
  • Parchment

Choose The Writing Style Purposefully

Write in various styles depending on the audience of the document:

  • Use formal language for pronouncements and contracts (“herein”, “party of the 1st part”…);[Comment from Johnn: here’s a cool link for you: Free Example Legal Documents
    Legal Documents Online ]
  • Use cryptic shorthand for notes that aren’t intended to be shared beyond a small circle of people:
    • Refer to people by a single initial
    • Use nicknames and “street-names”
    • Create some “inside jokes”
    • Use code words
    • Use symbols that mean something to the group
    [Comment from Johnn: alchemists were masters at hiding their recorded knowledge from the public and their competitors by writing in obscure codes. Check out this site for alchemy info:The Alchemy Web Site ]
  • Use simplistic language for letters that are going to be read by creatures with substandard intelligence (i.e. write only in the present tense, use short sentences, don’t use pronouns – “When Orcs steal horses and give to Grigor, then Grigor give gold to Orcs.”).

Make Handouts Imperfect

For non-native speakers of a language, use a stilted accent and make occasional mistakes in their documents. You know how Gerard Depardieu or Inspector Clouseau speak English?If you’ve learned a foreign language, think back on some of your memorable mistakes and bad habits, and incorporate them into your documents.

Use Archaic Words & Strange Speech

For ancient documents, use an archaic style and unfamiliar words. Remember how strange Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare sometimes seem? Dig out a thesaurus or good dictionary and find unusual spellings and synonyms. Use a consistent style for each time period or culture.[Comment from Johnn: check out Forthright’s Forsoothery for some great archaic word examples: And here’s a cool tutorial on how to imitate Dickens: ]

Use Fancy Paper

Buy different colored papers to represent regular paper, parchment, papyrus, leather, clay tablets, or other types of writing materials. You can get packs of 10 or 20 sheets of very nice, sturdy paper for just a few dollars at a copy store or office supply store.

Use Traditional Coloring Techniques

If you have access to a color printer, use different colored inks within documents. For example, Medieval manuscripts and Chinese calligraphy both used red ink as a way to highlight significant words, in the same way that we use underlines, bold, and italics today.

Use Wingdings & Symbols

Many people in a fantasy setting are marginally literate: use wingdings and other symbols to accommodate this.Remember the Greek letters used in math and science, or the alchemical symbols for the planets and elements? These types of symbols are especially appropriate to represent months, geographical places, compass directions, or common types of goods.

An inventory sheet or caravan manifest can seem like incomprehensible gibberish to a stranger, but even the simplest peasant who knows the symbols will be able to read it.[Comment from Johnn: here’s a cool, but graphic-intensive site with alchemical symbols: here’s a collection of articles on “How to Read, Write, Print and Email in Greek” for PC, Unix and Mac users: ]

Accessorize Formal Documents

A royal message or writ always comes with seals, ribbons, and so on. Dig out your supply of gift-wrap materials and use the ribbons, colored tape, stamps, stencils, etc. Be consistent with colors and styles, so that they correspond with the heraldic conventions you use. Let the characters glimpse a document for just a moment in a courier’s pouch – if they’re good, they’ll deduce who’s written it just by noticing which ribbons it carries.[Comment from Johnn: here’s some wax sealing tips: ]

Fold, Spindle, And Mutilate!

King Arthur never used an aluminum briefcase or plastic page-protectors, and neither should you. Let the amount of damage to the document represent both its age and the conditions it has been stored in. Degrade documents by folding back and forth until they are about to fall apart on the crease.Make them partially illegible by using an ordinary eraser, soap and water, or cleaning fluids to smudge, smear, and deface them. Rip and crumple, tear off corners, spill coffee and tomato juice on the paper. Soak in salt water to simulate a sea voyage.


Todd Landrum, from Paladin Programming, has an awesome game master PC utility called “DM’s Familiar” that I’ve personally checked out and highly recommend.

Here’s a quick feature run-down:

  • Databases. Enter your Spells, Monsters, Feats, NPCs, and Skills so you can look ’em up quickly.
  • Import/Export. Lets you share anything you enter with your friends and they can share with you.
  • Codex Tree: Remember MyInfo? This is just like it–a cool tool for writing adventures. It also holds links to database items with simple drag-and-drop. Very cool!
  • Combat Board. Keeps combat completely organized with initiative, damage tracking, attack rolls, and more.
  • Dicebag. You can roll any dice, in any combination, any number of times.

On top of all this, Todd is offering 25% off the price of his program for a limited time to Tips subscribers! There’s a freebie evaluation version available too, so you can try- before-you-buy. You can find out more right here:

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

From Hanneth of Moonglow

I’m not sure if you read the NeverWinter Vault, or Gamespy regularly, but Gamespy has a top ten least played D&D Classes.

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Kickstarting Vampire Sessions

From Mitch

If you have any question on how to start a Vampire session, start with feeding. This is when vampires venture out into the night to hunt. They stalk, corner, coerce, or seduce a mortal then drink their blood. In most games and vampire literature (like in the Dracula novel), the mortal is weakened but not slain. Feeding scenes shouldn’t take forever and are normally run one character at a time.

When you describe what’s happening, make it vivid. Maybe the victim enjoys it, maybe they’re terrified. Sometimes it’s predatory, sometimes sensual, sometimes pathetic.

Don’t let the players be afraid to feed! Don’t let them get squeamish and say neutral things like, “I take 3 Blood Points from the dancer.” Make them describe the scene. Where do they bite the victim? What do they do if the victim struggles?

If a character ‘banks’ or drinks from a stored source of blood like a blood bag, be sure to make it painfully boring, dreary and distasteful. Describe what it’s like for the hunters out among the clubs or the lovers in their beds.

Feeding is the essential act for vampires. It doesn’t have to be Gothic or punk. But it does have to do with an undead parasite stealing a little bit of life from a victim … and that’s a good way to set the mood for a Vampire session.

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Character Mapping Tip

From Nordic

When I first encountered the problem of players not understanding me when I gave a description I used this as a reason to go and sharpen my verbal sword. Now my players understand me, and we have a method of mapping that works out well for everyone.

First, as GM, I will not map for the players, I have my hands full doing GM things. So, I have the players use lines and boxes for their maps. Let’s face facts here, PCs are not running around with tape-measures viewing the “fill-in-the- blank” from a topological view.

So, I use descriptions like “you enter a vast vaulted chamber”, “the door opens into a modest cell”, “you find yourselves looking on to a room of moderate size with …”, you get the idea. The “mapper” of the group simply draws a box or rectangle, hexagon, etc., for the room. For the hallways and passages, he uses lines with off-shoot branches being denoted with a simple stroke of the pencil.

This also means that you DO NOT NEED graph paper as this works best on blank paper. And, after all, what is the PCs’ map for? Simple, to get your butts out of a place no real sane person would go into in the first place. That and to go back to a room with interesting items and/or money!!!

The PCs’ map does not have to be a carbon copy of the GM’s as long as it works.

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Another Character Mapping Tip

From Fred W.

I have solved the mapping problem by making a copy of the dungeon map, cutting out the various rooms, and sticking them to index cards. I then hand the cards to the players one by one. In the case of “secret” doors and rooms, I edit the picture before putting it on the card. Using heavy black magic marker, it’s a simple matter to create ‘maplets’ that only show what I want them to show.

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Dealing With Troublesome Players

From Ted O.

In the Player Feedback Supplemental #1, someone suggested punishing a player who doesn’t behave properly. This is a mistake I made when I was a brand-new DM, but out-grew almost immediately — it is just plain inappropriate to punish players for pretty much anything game-related.

Not only does it almost never get the desired response, but it ruins the evening for all the other players, too, to see their buddy get squashed by the DM. It *NEVER* adds to the fun of the game. Reward the good stuff, don’t reward the less-good stuff, and allow the game & players to evolve. Players WILL eventually modify their behaviour to get the rewards.

Here’s another thing — if you find yourself frustrated because you can’t get your players to “play right”, maybe you’re “DMing wrong.” Ask them, after the session is over.

Maybe even end 20 minutes early (pick a point in the game that makes sense, of course), and just say “Hey, guys — I sorta think of the game like this , but it seems that you guys maybe aren’t into that . Should I maybe be planning these sessions to be a little different? What do you guys want to see here?”

Then let them talk. Don’t get defensive, don’t try to convince them that your way is right. Don’t complain about all the time and energy you put into trying to create this really fun thing — just listen to what they say. Ask them to clarify parts you don’t get. Say “is that really fun? is that what you guys want to do more of?”, but not in a derogatory way — in a “we can do that, if you want” way.

Then think about it for a day or two. See if there’s not some way to do what you’d been thinking AND what your players say they think is fun.

The next session, try to open with things “their way”, and only occasionally work in “your way” stuff. See if it meshes. See how they like it.

After the session, ask if they liked that better. If so, ask what they’d think about a little more of your-way mixed in with their-way. Etc. Ask what they’d think about alternating sessions and a 2nd campaign — one your way, one their way. Would anyone come? Would that be ok for a change of pace? Etc.

[Comment from Johnn: here’s the link to Supplemental #1.]
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Liven Up Your Traps For Low-Level PCs

From G.M.

I have subscribed to your magazine for a while now, and have found it very helpful.

I’m sure that most DMs know of munchkins – a character that is overpowered for their level of experience due to DM leniency or whatever. I recently began DMing for players who had mostly gamed before, but all in different campaign worlds. Unfortunately, several of them turned out to be “munchkins”.

I required that all of them start out as first-level characters, rather than giving in to “But I already have this great character…” demands. However, several of my players are playing as though their characters are higher level. Most of the plot/story lines are not affected, but the players are almost too smart for their own good where traps are concerned.

I responded with a twist on the standard trap. I upped the level a bit on the traps I had scattered throughout my dungeons to cater to those who thought they could charge right through, and I also provided “clues” to what was up ahead, for those who were legitimately stumped.

Set somewhere before each trap is a small plaque with the letters FLW, followed by a quote, on it. FLW stands for Famous Last Words, and the quote can come from any of a half-dozen RPG sites, (my fav. is Rondak’s Portal, ) or from quotes made in previous games.

Each quote has something to do with the trap up ahead. The PCs don’t yet know anything more, other than a plaque precedes a trap, and I have caught them with both insanely simple traps (pull the lever and a block falls on your head) and incredibly complex ones.

The players now get terribly nervous any time they run across a plaque, or even a note or poster, anywhere.

Just a thought to liven things up for low-level characters.