We all want to make our games more immersive and enjoyable.
Every GM, DM, ST, or Keeper of Arcane Lore strives to bring you the best tabletop experience they can, mainly due to the idea that when the players are having more fun, the person running the game is too. Sometimes, a game doesn’t really need any real physical aspect to it (apart from our beloved polyhedral buddies and their character sheet counterparts). Other times, a setting will cry out for something more, something tangible to help players connect to the experience. That’s where the handout really shines. Yet, how would one best implement such an immersion-enhancing supplement? Take heart, for I’ll divulge five different handouts and props that you can easily and enjoyably incorporate into your next big game world.
1 . Newspaper Clippings
Certain games, especially those set in our world, will allow players to affect change that will be reported by media outlets. Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness, Victoriana, and many others present opportunities for players to make the news in a bunch of different ways. Imagine your players’ collective surprise as you show up to the next session, folder in tow, and pull out a custom-made newspaper clipping, complete with accurate game dates and a detailed (if a bit exaggerated) account of their most recent caper. Most word processors will help you accomplish this task, and many will enjoy creating their article from scratch. This will require the creative game master to locate the best font and background, but many a GM will report that this experience is half the fun. With regard to font, I recommend Old English Text MT for the newspaper name, and good old Verdana for the body.
For those of us on a tighter schedule, there are websites that will do most of the work for you, producing a premium PDF for your perusal and printing preference. Just make sure to alter the dates on those suckers before you click that printer icon. We all know one player that will pick the piece apart before you have a chance to explain your oversight!
2 . Journals and Notebooks
In games in which investigation is the focus, or when an absent NPC needs a bit of fleshing out, the players can stumble upon a short journal or notepad with important or interesting tidbits. Moleskins, leather journals, or more interesting blank books of bound paper typically don’t cost overmuch, and can usually be purchased at your local bookstore. I was lucky enough to find a small leafy notebook decorated with forest finery, perfect for a dead druid’s spellbook. One of my players is still researching the diagrams that I scrawled in there, even though its initial plot significance has waned.
This option I recommend only to those who have the time to really flesh the journal out. Presenting a book with only a page or two of content really doesn’t feel authentic. You can fill out the rest of the journal with meaningless scribbles, then find a meaning for them later, or “magically” have text appear in place of the scratches in between sessions. The opportunities here are limitless.
3 . Poker Chips and Craft Gems
Fate points, Bennies, Essence, Mana. Nearly every game has some secondary resource that players use and regain frequently. While you can always keep track of these helpful points with a tally on your character sheet, I’ve always found it fun and easy to prepare a stack of markers that I hand out to the players. If you have something that comes in different flavors, such as Exalted’s peripheral and personal Essence, you can use two different colors of chip or gem. Both items should be available at your local dollar store or craft supply shop.
Having something tangible and visible in front of your players should help them keep track of their special resources more easily, and will give real weight to these special consumables. Keep a stack handy for your next game, and you’re sure to surprise and delight.
4 . Costumes
If you’re already LARPing, you probably know what I’m going to say. Dressing up as your character isn’t for everyone, but it is probably the most effective way to contribute the game’s immersion. For tabletop games, it probably isn’t practical to have everyone dress up every week. It may also be counter to your group’s style. However, encouraging cosplay during particularly important or intense sessions can be a great way to make a premier or finale shine!
Costuming can be as expensive or intricate as you like. Sometimes, you already have all the components to an effective costume just laying around. One of my favorite characters, Stanley the Ventrue Vampire, simply required that I wear the same old sport coat and tie every other week, no purchase necessary. Another, a professor in a Call of Cthulhu campaign, just needed some tweed and an old corncob pipe I kept from my college years. Fantasy and Sci-Fi can be a bit harder to cosplay for, but with a little imagination and a trip to your local party store, you’re sure to find what you need to help really sell the immersion factor.
5 . Individual Experience Notes
Every character’s perspective is unique, and their perception should flavor their experience. When everyone sits around the same table, it can be difficult to provide information to certain players while keeping it secret from others. One of my favorite ways to implement this focused information distribution remains the artistic and inspired ‘dream note’ handout. Just before the gang shows up for your session, boot up your word processor and write out a really weird dream description. Have fun with it. Play with the background and the font. Try to create one for each character, and keep them similar but with different details. This practice can help build mystery, and also puts the ball in the players’ court. Do they share their dream with the others? Do they act on this strange new information?
Obviously, each game will require different styles of ‘experience notes,’ and so you should be ready to write up hallucinations, radio messages, signed and sealed letters, and other such paper material, and present them only to the player who needs the info. Don’t go overboard though; you don’t want to cheapen the experience. If you feel like you want to add some variety, record a few messages and play with the audio a bit, then play the sound file during game. I personally recommend Audacity for any sound recording. You just can’t beat professional quality at zero cost!
Whichever method you use to spice up your games with a little real world influence, the most important thing to include is effort. The care and time you put into your handouts will sell the illusion and draw your players ever closer to a state of complete immersion in your game world. Remember to have fun making them, and remember to share your ideas with me on my site (located below). Looking forward to hearing about your best sessions with props and handouts!
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or you just want to chat about gaming and writing, check him out at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com .
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.