With the recent focus on digital play through the past few years of the pandemic, and the upcoming focus on digital play when One D&D drops in 2024, there is one thing that cannot be duplicated on a virtual tabletop and that is physical player handouts. Crafty GMs have been taking advantage of this TTRPG tool for a long time, and if you still play in person at an actual table - think about using physical handouts as a tool in your games. Of course, you can give your players PDFs that contain images in lieu of a physical handout at the virtual table that they can print off on their own, but it's just not the same. However, feel free to use any of the following ideas for both at home and virtually. Here are a few of my methods as a Forever GM for utilizing physical handouts to enhance the immersive TTRPG experience on game night.
EXPLORER'S SKETCHBOOK ENTRIES
One interesting way to engage players, without info-dumping on them about monsters or creatures in your campaign, is to have them come across an entry from an explorer's sketchbook where the information on the page gives details about the monsters. I've done this only a couple of times in my campaigns and there was a good example of it by James Haeck on D&D Beyond I found recently (since I don't have any of my own at the moment). The idea is to have the players stumble upon a book during their research, and the GM gives them a handout which represents an actual page from a book that they can look over. One player may be chosen to read the handout out loud. The GM can either write and draw on aged parchment themselves if they're the artistic type, or just print it out on a piece of aged-looking parchment paper. The best thing about doing these things at home is that you can use basically any art assets you can find since you're not doing it for commercial use. So, if you aren't the artistic type and you want the sketchy look, or even just a particular art style for your handouts the world is your oyster. Just make sure to download a free font if you don't already have a handwriting font on your word processor software.
If you're a foodie like I am, it's fun to incorporate food in unique ways in the campaign. In fact, even something as simple as Iron Rations can tell you a lot about where a character comes from depending on what is included in their rations. A campaign I'm currently running delved really deep into the characters and their backstories, so much so that they all started at level 0 rather than 1. As orphans, they had the opportunity to visit town once per month or so, and the four of them along with their foster father visited a tavern in town called The Merry Dwarf. The highlight of the session was the players getting to experience the luxury of the food and to immerse them further, I developed and printed out a handout which was essentially just a tavern menu. I've done it before in the past, and something about holding the menu in their hands like they would at a normal restaurant in real life creates the actual expectation and desire for food. I don't do this for every tavern, just once in a while to give flavor to the area or if for whatever reason like in this campaign the food is very important. Feel free to use the menu below if you'd like, as well, for your own games but just FYI - Shane, the CEO of Headless Hydra Press, has created a really great tavern menu generator on this very website. Check it out!
ITEMS (MAGIC OR NON-MAGIC)
One easy go-to for handouts is for magic items especially, but also for regular quest-specific items. These types of handouts are less for immersion and more for information. This specific type of handout works equally well for in person as well as digital because the main goal of it is information on items the players may be using. In my current campaign, each of the characters were left an heirloom from their parents (who were famous adventurers in their own right) and so I created an info sheet for each one. It was an easy way for the players to reference their newfound magical equipment and to see what it looked like via the artwork.
LETTERS AND NOTES
One of the things I liked best about The Curse of Strahd was that it came with lots of player handouts, mostly notes and letters. Of course, you could always just read the "note" the players find out loud but giving the players the handout lets them feel the reality of the object in their hands and they're free to keep re-reading any portion of it they wish at any time they want without resorting to using their computer or phone. Just simply get yourself an aged looking piece of parchment paper, print out the note on the paper with a free downloadable font, and if you want to go the extra mile - melt a small bit of wax onto the paper and press it with something that makes a seal.
Anyway, player handouts as a concept can be almost anything. These are just some of the regular ones I've run into in the course of my many years of being a Forever GM. There can be many more examples than just the ones I've provided here. Do you have a favorite type of handout to use in your games? Let us know in the comments below! - Joe