Behind the Screen – Chapter 16: Feelies, or how I love Player Handouts

What can make any tabletop RPG better? Immersion. And what helps increase immersion. Feelies and extra bits. All of them. Forever.

By feelies and extra bits, I mean those additional physical pieces of information that a GM can create and bring into a game to help the players immerse themselves in the story; the player handouts. Here in chapter 16 of Behind the Screen, I am looking at ‘feelies’, what they add and how to make some up for your own games.


What forms of feelies exist?

This is limited by four main factors.

  • The game being used – Games support different types of feelies depending on type.
  • Money – Some feelies will be cheap to make or acquire, some won’t.
  • Imagination – The sky’s the limit, but can you imagine that far?
  • Time – The more time devoted, the more and better feelies.

I will use Call of Cthulhu as my first example of feelie use. In games I’ve run, I’ve used a number of feelies, all paper-based. Some were supplied with pre-generated games, some I made myself. These have taken the forms of maps, newspaper clippings, typed letters, handwritten notes and more. Some of these are simple print-outs, some more complicated. They are things to give to the players that they can hold onto and study. It is better for a player to have something in their hand, to read it and understand it, than to hear “Your character receives a note saying your father has died”.

Of course, a feelie doesn’t have to be just something written or printed on a piece of paper. It can be so much more if you can afford it or want to take the extra time to create it. Players will generally enjoy a game more if they can see the GM has put that extra effort into it. An example of some feelies that are not just paper are physical representations of items in the game. This could be a statue, stone or box, suitably ’Mythosed’. Or a pair of gauntlets, a mask or even a sword. This is where the cost and time factors come into play.

How does one go about creating these sorts of things?

To me, the most difficult part is coming up with what the feelies will contain. Once I’ve done that, creation is pretty simple, as most of the time, others have already done the hard parts.

For example:

For a Call of Cthulhu game, I made a series of telegrams. I knew telegrams were printed on very thin paper. I found some low GSM paper. In the back of my Cthulhu book, I found telegram templates. I scanned those, edited the pictures to fit what I wanted and used a typewriter font for the text. Initial tests showed me the paper was too thin to run through my printer, so I taped the thin paper to regular copy paper and sent that through. It worked perfectly.

A pre-generated game I ran for Call of Cthulhu had some handwritten notes that I was instructed to print and hand out. To make it more authentic, I used sheets of paper torn from a notebook, leaving the ragged edge, and wrote the notes out with different handwriting depending on the author from the story.

In a fantasy game setting my friends and I created when I was young, we drew maps and aged them. We used a weak tea mixture to colour the paper a sepia tone, tore and crumpled it and burnt parts of it. These are easy and common methods used to age paper.

Using different types of paper for different feelies can help a lot. If you can find blank newsprint for newspaper articles, all the better. Thick, rough paper or parchment paper for ancient maps. Stamps, seals and real signatures will make the feelies look amazing.

Other than the paper resources, it all depends on the game and the content of said game. If you have some sort of cursed statue in your game, you could find something to represent that, or even make it if you have the ability and materials, and have that sitting in the middle of the table. Any and all items could be represented depending on how much time, effort and money you wish to dedicate to it.

Should you use feelies in your game?
Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: If your game supports it, do as much as you can, within reason. Don’t go beyond your means, and don’t let the story suffer. Once the scenario is complete, then come up with the feelies. If you are going to spend money on something, make sure it’s something you can re-use later. It is pointless having awesome feelies if there is a weak story to accompany it.

For all my previous Behind the Screen articles, I’ve now provided a nice convenient link here so you can go and read them all and comment too.

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