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Getting Handy with GM Handouts

It is getting close to that time…Gen Con. A time when I need to run games for strangers. A time when I have four hours to introduce a setting, characters, and a problem; and then GM the players through a hopeful solution to the problem. Along the way, I may have to teach one or more people the game system I am running. That makes for a pretty intense and jam-packed four hours. The faster I can convey things to the players, the faster we focus on the action. That is why I rely on GM Handouts.

The Info Dump Conundrum

There is a saying in writing, “show don’t tell”, which means that you are generally better off explaining something through the action of the characters rather than narrating to the reader. There is a similar axiom in GMing, which is that its better for the players to be playing than sitting listening to the GM give exposition. (Sorry, I don’t have a catchy phrase for that.)

That is all fine and great, if your players know everything about the setting they are playing in, but in the case of a con game, they typically don’t. In a con game with a home-brew or world in development, its even less likely they will know anything about the world. Without that knowledge of the world, your session could fall flat.

The conundrum is how do you make your players knowledgeable about the setting, without having them sit and listen to a lecture at the start of the session? The best way is to take advantage of downtime and…

Make A Handout

A picture is worth a thousand words, and a handout is in the same ballpark. A handout is typically a single page of information that the players can reference. It can be a simple bulleted list, or it can be a fully formatted and laid out piece with a mix of text and graphics. The important part is that it contains the information you need your players to have in order to engage the game.

Where the handout shines is in the downtime. See, there is ton of downtime for players during a game. First, no one shows up at the same time, so handing a player a handout to read while the other players show up takes advantage of that time. Second, during the course of the session there is time to read the handout while other players are taking actions and talking. Finally, the handout is static, the knowledge contained on the handout persists, so that it can be a reference throughout the game.

What Goes In Is As Important As What Does Not

 The content of the handout is an important balancing act.  

The content of the handout is an important balancing act. The handout needs to contain relevant information to the session at hand, but at the same time it cannot be too dense with information or the person may tune it out or miss details buried in a wall of text.

The contents need to be directly relevant to the session at hand (especially in the case of a Con Game). Here are are some suggestions for typical things you might find in a handout:

When providing this info, avoid paragraphs. Summarize things into bulleted lists as much as possible. Even better, if you have maps or other graphics, use those in place of words. Be conscious of how dense the text is on the page. Players, in the middle of a game, are not going to be able to read and digest walls of text, nor be able to scan it for details.

Stick to a single page. Multiple pages or worse, multiple handouts, create confusion. Pages get shuffled and misplaced. The time to read all the material increases, and the chance of retaining important details across multiple pages also decreases.

How To Make Them

There are several options for how to create your handouts. They range from simple to complex, and from free to expensive. All of them can be effective when used properly.

Text Files

The simplest thing that can be done is to put some bulleted text in a text editor and print it out. This method is simple, and it is essentially free since there are free text editors and word processing programs.

These are quick to create, and with a little formatting can be made to look nice. Because it is simple to create and there is a temptation of blank page, the risk of filling it up with walls of text is higher.

Free Drawing Programs

If you don’t want a text file for your handout and want something more graphical, consider a free drawing program like Google Draw. This program will let you create boxes of text and arrange them on a page, as well as include some graphics.

These will be a bit more complicated to create, but still free. The challenge here will be to lay out the document without it being too busy or over-designing it. Keep your design simple, and it will go a long way.

Professional Drawing Programs

Taking a step up from Google Draw there are the professional graphic design tools like Visio, Adobe Illustrator, or OmniGraffle. These tools are specifically made for graphic design and will let you do a great many things with both text and graphics.

These types of programs have steeper learning curves, and if you are trying them out for the first time, they can be confusing and time-consuming. The challenge here is the same as above, you want a simple design, despite the ability to do all sorts of crazy things to the page.


If you are crafty, you can consider hand-making your GM Handouts. Perhaps you are skilled at calligraphy and decide to make scrolls, or create realistic agent dossiers. These kinds of handouts can be mind-blowing, and can be the things that everyone at the table remembers.

These kinds of handouts require some degree of crafting skill, materials, and time. The balancing act will be to make them visually compelling while still being able to deliver all the necessary information. They will also require more time than nearly every other method, so factor that into your prep. Finally, these are nearly impossible to backup or re-print so take good care of them, when you finish making them.

My 2014 Elhal Handout

By way of example, I have below a handout I made for the Elhal [1] adventure, The Harvest, which I ran last year. I created this in Illustrator, and used artwork which I had previously purchased, and repurposed for this handout.
Elhal Single Page Handout [2]

Here is a breakdown of what’s on the page:

I had color hard copies made, and each player received one along with their character sheet. Also, as a bit of marketing, I let each player take this home with them after the session.

More Action Less Exposition

We GM’s always need to convey information, but trying to front-load a session with information is too much. Likewise revealing important facts in the middle of the session is not ideal as it has the feeling of a railroad. This problem can be helped through the use of a GM handout. Single-page and sparse, the handout is able to help players get up to speed and act as a reference during the game.

Do you use GM handouts? How do you create yours? What do you like to include in your handouts? What are some of the best handouts you have ever seen in a game?

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "Getting Handy with GM Handouts"

#1 Comment By John Fredericks On June 26, 2015 @ 8:55 am

I have a map handout for my online game, and it gets a LOT of use by the players. I also have some frequent NPC images and a couple of familiar areas as handouts too.

Houserules are good for them too.

Great article and NICE Elhal handout, Phil.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On June 26, 2015 @ 9:43 am

The handout’s beautiful. You’ve got a good eye and had some nice art to work with.

I’m a big fan of player aids. In board games, a good aid can make a complex game inviting, confusing rules prove less so without distractions and edge cases, etc.

I’ve rarely made handouts for the table–and when I did, I’ve been a bullet list, no pretty pictures kind of a guy. They have worked very well at times… I just don’t plan far enough out to execute them regularly–or with such design skills.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On June 29, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

I go to great lengths fabricating realistic clues for my Delta Green game, but for one-shots I use a similar approach to that used in the article.

One thing I’ve experimented with is giving hint sheets to players that have to do with their character’s knowledge, which I break down into Things Your Character May Discuss As Freely As You Like(e.g. “What about those Bears, ah?”), Things It Would Not Occur To Your Character To Discuss Unless The Subject Came Up (eg “I Play Mah Jong every other Friday with friends”), and Things Your Character Doesn’t Want Anyone To Know He/She Knows (eg “I know how to cook Crystal Meth and put myself through grad school doing just that”).

I link the knowledge to skill sets and throw in a few Red Herrings that the player can simply have fun with. I often cross-link examples of that last category so that players can discover in a heated moment of danger that they have something in common that is a) useful and b) not something they want anyone else to know they know.

As for using a text editor, many people forget they have a fairly sophisticated word processing application packaged free on most windows machines – Wordpad.

One can also download free office software from a number of different places, of course. I use OpenOffice to make PDFs for player manuals and so forth.

Looking at your handouts, Phil, I’m tempted to say they would work very well as placemats. You could add space for the players to write their character name/player name (upside down of course) so the poor GM can see who is who in the heat of the action.