by Mike Shea on 1 July 2013
In the excellent game Bioshock Infinite, the game's writers build a fantastic story and detailed world through the use of voxophones. These steampunk walkman-style record players give you tidbits of information from the points of view of the game's characters. Many of these characters have little time on screen, but you get to know them well through their former dictations, journals, and letters.
We can replicate this story-telling idea in our own game through handouts. Simple handouts might include journal entries, captured letters, pages of an ancient manuscript, a town crier newspaper, secret codes, or anything else an NPC, villain, or historical character might have written down that the PCs end up finding.
Writing handouts, however, can be hard work. And, as we all know, there is a better way. We already have to spend time preparing for our game session, even if that game prep is nothing more than jotting down a few notes on a 3x5 card. Who has time to sit down and write out all these handouts as well?
What if we look at this a different way. What if these handouts ARE our game preparation. What if, instead of writing out a few notes on a 3x5 card, we plan out the main elements of our game within one of these letters, journal pages, or historical texts that the PCs might find.
To do this, we want to look at the elements our handouts should have. Good handouts should tie together NPCs, villains, motivations, actions, and potential adventure locations. These handouts should make it clear how these NPCs react to the actions of the PCs. When you look at these elements, you see the very elements we consider when planning our next game. Who are the major NPCs? Who are the major villains? What are some plots that these characters push forward? What are some potential adventure locations? If we know these things, we have enough to let our sandbox game move freely.
Let's look at an example:
I am afraid our plans have taken a downward turn. Xeek has failed me and the investigators of Magnimar, as the rabble now call them, destroyed our harvest of the Violet Sleep below the den of the Creepers. The Sleep you have is all that remains. Continue refining it and take what you create to Foxgrove Manor. There Father Skinsaw will continue to build our creations and bring chaos to the streets of Magnimar.
I understand you soon travel to Lady's Light seeking another of the Shards of Sin. Should you need to contact me, my new agent, Ash, will liaise between us. He resides in the Emerald Chambers below the city rebuilding the network I lost with Xeek's demise. Seek my sigil within the sewers and you will find the path.
May we continue our mutually beneficial relationship, and may the Rune Lords rise again.
- Infinity symbol
If you look at the bolded sections above, you'll see that we have major NPCs outlined, we have the plots of these NPCs as they move forward, we have their reaction to the actions of the PCs, and we have some adventure locations. With this letter, our players have many clear options they can take and we DMs have just enough of an idea who is doing what and where that we can move the game in whatever direction the players take.
There are a few things we can do to make our handouts excellent without adding a lot of extra work.
First, a handout like this shouldn't shove the PCs in a direction you want them to go, it should spawn from the actions the PCs took during the game. These letters are a response to the PCs, not some forced set of rails upon which to send them.
Second, handouts look great when you use various handwriting or fantasty fonts. Use consistent fonts to represent the same NPC and choose a font style that fits the writer of the letter. Smart villains use a long spidery cursive. Brutes use blocky ugly letters. Choose the font appropriate to the NPC.
Third, print your handouts on parchment paper such as copper-colored resume paper. There are a lot of ways to get paper to look old, but buying some parchment paper is an easy way to skip all those steps and go right to a great final product.
The idea of using the same activity for multiple purpose is the cornerstone of the lazy dungeon master. By using notes like this both as a way to plan your game and as a way to clarify directiosn and reinforce the feeling of D&D at your table, you get a lot of value for your time. Give it a try.