Sunday, 16 November 2014

Dungeon Master: Player Notes and Handouts

There are a wide range of techniques a Dungeon Master can employ in a tabletop RPG like D&D. Other than the usual elements of a session, props and other enhancements can be added to sessions to try to make it more immersive for players. I will talk about ways I've seen these kinds of enhancements used with an emphasis on the technique of giving small notes to players during the course of a game.

When going beyond drawings of areas or copies of documents, it can be difficult to balance the time spent on enhancements with the other elements of the game. As such, I want to start by saying that knowing your group's tastes is incredibly important. They may actually prefer to spend more time reading documents and receiving notes as it allows them to have more control and react independently. Sometimes putting in the extra effort can really help the imagination run wild, especially for newer players. It is also important to try to minimize downtime as much as possible, meaning preparation should be made before hand to make the enhancements as seamless as possible.

The most common types of handouts from my experience are:
  • Drawings of an area (often included in pre-made adventures, especially older ones)
  • Documents (for example, a letter from the Arch Mage)
  • Isolated information
In general, drawings of an area and documents are straight forward to use though they can be supplemented by grid maps (if you use them). Sometime though, there will be information that only a subset of party members will know. The typical way to handle this is to just say it to the people who need to know the information in front of everyone and to make the other players pretend they didn't hear it. You could of course also just grab the members aside and tell them separately, but from my experience this usually takes too long. Instead, a quick note given to the affected party members typically works smoother for me. Used sparingly it gives the players a chance to role-play knowing obscure lore, for example (doing it too often can make the game grind to a halt. Also, if the players would prefer you to tell the group I generally found it better not to force it). It also helps if the information the players are given gives them a choice of how to act (even the possibility of backstabbing, perhaps) instead of just forcing them to repeat it back to the party and the information given has significance (notice something important in a room while sneaking, but can't speak or will alert people in the room), even if it is wrong.

Troubleshooting the Technique

When using these kinds of notes, eventually it becomes a signal of something bad. As a result I've seen the Dungeon Master that liked this technique add a rule that a player cannot show their note to anyone not approved by Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master also started to have a bunch of random notes (stomach rumbles, etc.) to make it less obvious. The places chosen for the notes as well were usually planned out in advance and important to the adventure (party member secretly charmed) but the notes themselves were written before hand to prevent the awkward pause of writing a note (though I'm pretty sure some were written during the pause of a player thinking).

There a bunch more techniques I didn't cover, but I'll list a few just for the sake of it.
  • Small items
  • Actual small games with special perks for those with proficiency
  • Mood music (for example, folk music when in an inn)
  • Sound effects for an area
  • Prerecorded and processed lines for big villains (takes a lot of work, but when done well can really set the scene, even if it is only one line and your imagination applies the voice for the rest of the Dungeon Master's lines)

I'll probably talk about some of the other techniques later. If I missed something about the use of small notes or I didn't mention a favourite technique, feel free to comment.  

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