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Home » RPG Handouts in My Brown Lands Campaign & How to Make Them

RPG Handouts in My Brown Lands Campaign & How to Make Them

In various ways and in different media, I prepared engaging handouts to flesh out my Middle-earth RPG campaign. | Photo by Tim Arterbury on Unsplash
In various ways and in different media, I prepared engaging handouts to flesh out my Middle-earth RPG campaign. | Photo by Tim Arterbury on Unsplash

What I love about running an RPG in Middle-earth is, among dozens of others, delving into its fascinating lore – and preparing handouts for sessions requires amiably a lot of that. Luckily, I had a lot of free time for both when I ran the Ghosts of the Noman-lands. Last time, the companions finally got on the trail of one of the intertwining threads. The Gondorian ruins were one piece of a puzzle. Solving it was the whole point of the campaign, so I was more than eager to drive it home. And right when I write this post, The One Ring RPG 2nd ed. Kickstarter fulfillment is taking place, so there’ll be no better time for discussing physical props in Middle-earth. See my three ways of making those – with some great tools!

1. Text Handout

That one may be easily overlooked as almost too obvious to count. But in fact, textual handouts are one of the most effective ways of adding to the RPG. They are easy to prepare, too. After all, they are just a piece of text that you print and give your players. This way, you may be pretty sure that they won’t mix the facts that you’re putting together in your plot. Also, you may insert various types of riddles into your game without the risk of anybody missing some crucial word-play.

What about evoking the mood of Middle-earth by the textual props? The right font may do miracles. And there’s more than you could choose from available on the Internet. Some of my favorites include:

Languages of the Setting

If you want to put even more atmosphere into your props, you may consider using fictional language in the text. Middle-earth’s Sindarin is the language most completely developed by J.R.R. Tolkien, and hence it’s easiest to use. You can find a ton of translators, but I’d recommend two: for its Google Translator-like ease of use and for the unmatched database and comprehensive definitions. And if you’d like to write something beyond a few words, you may want to check for the grammar.

The Tengwar and Angerthas alphabets allow for some thought-provoking encryptions, too. I used Angerthas writing to drop Bruni’s character his News From Afar hints in the form of a dwarven adventurer’s journal. In this week’s session, I handed out a piece of an old Gondorian inscription as an element of the background. And while some people may enjoy delving into Professor Tolkien’s invented languages, be aware of the fact that not be eager to do so. Always be ready to simply ask for a test of Lore or a similar skill to provide clues.

2. Images For RPG Handouts

Complementary with the relatively simple text handouts are the illustrations of various kinds. They are great because they provide your players with a visual representation. It may not contain any vital information but helps memorize things by being visible. The single best tip for using those I can give you is that: Don’t try to make it perfect. Sometimes, you’ll have a picture of an NPC, an object, etc., in your head that matches all the plot’s key elements. And sometimes, it’ll be just your aesthetics. Striving to make that imaginary picture a reality may be chasing rainbows. It’s far better to use a picture from the rulebook or one found on the Internet. And here’s a one, super-easy way to make ordinary images great theme-evoking handouts for your RPG.

How to Make a Relief Sculpture-like Visual Prop?

If your party encounters some ruins or ancient finds, giving them an image that looks like it was actually sculpted or carved in stone may make the game feel much more immersive. To do that, you’ll need to follow these few steps:

  1. Download GIMP free graphics editor.
  2. Find a picture that fits what you want to “sculpt”.
  3. Get rid of any background beyond the main focus of the image. It will make the picture fuzzy and indecipherable. To do it, use Freehand selection tool (lasso icon) and select the part you want to preserve. Then press Ctrl+I (CMD+I on Mac, I believe). That’ll invert the selection to everything in the image except your focus. Then press Delete to, well, delete that unnecessary background.
  4. In GIMP’s top menu, go to Image -> Mode and select grayscale.
  5. Now the most awesome part. Go to the Filters -> Distort and select “Embossment”. Play around with the sliders until you get the desired result and click OK.
  6. There you have it! 🙂
Here is an example of my preparation of an image RPG handout, left to right: A cropped painting of two lords agreeing on an alliance (step 2); the same but with the background erased and colors turned to greyscale (3-4); effect of the “Embossment” filter; the final version of ancient Gondorian carvings with text and coats of arms of Gondor and Rhovanion added for flavor.

3. Interactive Textual RPG Handout

That one is my favorite! It takes a bit of time but works wonders. It helps you run two or more scenes simultaneously. This kind of prop helps especially when one part of the party is on a stealthy mission. It gives the players a feeling that their actions and choices matter a lot more while they watch the other part of the table, completely unaware (but probably dying to know) what the handout is about. I guarantee that they’ll be fully engaged in the game by this type! Such handout is a series of brief notes with their text covered and some numbers or other marks visible. You give a player a printed paragraph with an introduction to the scene. At the intro’s and the other notes’ end, you provide them choices and/or tests to make. Depending on their decisions or success/failure in the checks, the note states which note they pick up next.

How To Make Interactive Text?

The tricky part of making this type of handouts for your RPG is being accurate. Omitting one detail or mixing the numbers of notes can ruin the whole thing. But here’s how you do it:

  1. Start with the intro to the scene. If that’s not intended as an opening of the session, try to make it fit for different moments of the story.
  2. Then, go straight to the possible outcomes of the scene. It’s key to define these points first as they will determine the actions needed by the character. Try to consider why the character will engage with the scene and what for. Infiltrating a closed room, escaping a maze or even a fight with a monster are all viable options.
  3. Determine how the various outcomes can be achieved. What will be success and failure? Which objective can be completed and how? Do they need to score a success in Stealth to enter a guarded camp? Or maybe an Athletics test would do the same as they could scale a palisade/wall?
  4. Add some complications. If the notes go from start to end in one step, that’ll be blunt and underwhelming. But if you’ll mix in at least one intermediate part, the aciton will surely speed up. Think what a character could do as a means of achieving their main goal. Maybe they’ll need to distract the guards (how?) or intimidate their foe first?
  5. Give them something to decide on. Repeat step 4. a few times to give the players some options to choose from. They may choose to distract and sneak past the guards OR look for an obsucre part of the palisade and climb it – in both cases entering an enemy camp unnoticed. This way, you make it fun and engaging for the player.

4. Audio Recordings As Handouts In RPG

This one may seem like a lot of work but, in fact, is trivial to make. Recording a pre-determined description is similar to the textual handout but allows you to take more control of the tone and atmosphere of your RPG. It works especially for narrating the player character’s dreams, memories, or other internal experiences. When one of the players puts on headphones and cuts themselves off from the rest of the party gives a feeling of depth of their character’s mind while the others get immersed in theirs. Suddenly, everyone realizes that they don’t know much of everyone else’s thoughts.

From the practical perspective, write a text of the description first to make it without breaks. Try reading it a few times aloud first to work with pace, tones, and emphases. Then, record it with your system’s default voice recorder. Just remember that while speaking to a microphone, you have to speak slow – trying to make it twice as slowly as in a regular conversation seems to get the best results for most people. This way, your voice will be easier to understand, and that’s vital since your players won’t have a chance to ask you for a repeat.

Even More Awesome Audio Prop

If you have a few spare minutes, you can take your audio recording handout to a whole new level. Given you have the narration ready, you may want to add some background to it. With free Audacity software, you can easily mix various tracks to make audio RPG props a fully immersive experience. Open Audacity and create a new project. There, drag and drop your .mp3 file with the recording. Then, look for a fitting ambiance and/or music for the background and add them too. You may adjust the volume of every track separately (sliders left to each channel), and when you’re happy with the result, save the project first and then export it as an mp3.

And if you’re into it, you may experiment with moving the tracks along the time axis or adding some sound effects to achieve complex audio scenes. Below, you may see the montage of Ingolf’s dream’s narration that his player listened to that session. It features two pieces of background music as well as the sounds of iron chains and crow cawing. I admit I had goosebumps while listening to it back then and even today.

It may look a bit complicated, but when you start from one track, building amazing audio handouts might help you take your RPGs to a new level. Here’s how my description of Ingolf’s dream looked like from the backend.

The Props Are Not the Game

Handouts are fantastic, but should never outweigh the RPG itself. They are cool to include in your game, but you should always do it on purpose. Of course, having some pretty accessories at the table is also a purpose. Just don’t distract the players’ attention from the plot. So what goals have all these homemade props served me?

What These Handouts Helped Me To Achieve On My Session?

I’ve already described Bruni’s dwarven runes in the post introducing the player characters. But on that particular session, it also was a way to make Bruni’s player busy for a few minutes as a setup for a pivotal scene. Next were the two audio tracks description two characters’ dreams the night I wanted to have their attention turned more to their characters. So, the evening after the company returned from their hike in Emyn Muil to Limesplice, the scene was like this: Bruni with his nose in the book (and his player deciphering the next chapter), and Ingolf and Rook more or less deeply asleep.

Thanks to that, I could manage to give Eradom’s player a few minutes of interaction with his returning elvish friend. Althain was already under a spell of a powerful dark spirit due to Sigurt’s and his master’s working. An elf showed up just for a moment, pretending that his mission urges him to leave Eradom at Limesplice. The Ranger’s player though didn’t catch the last chance to rescue his friend and the elf was gone with the information Eradon shared with him.

The next night, the autumn equinox was celebrated in the village around the “Kings’ Stone”. An old obelisk marking the ancient Gondorian border had dates and names carved on it that could help figure out the mystery behind Sigurt’s necromancy. And finally, during the celebration, Ingolf was given a chance to mix in the crowd and do his pickpocketing. He also raised his Shadow score too, which proved important later on.

More RPG Handouts?

These were, by far not all types of handouts you could prepare for an RPG session. I hope to give some other engaging examples in my Call of Cthulhu series – a system that can get really props-heavy. But I’m also curious what kinds of additional materials do you use? How do you make them? And what’s important to you while

2 thoughts on “RPG Handouts in My Brown Lands Campaign & How to Make Them”

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