Let’s talk letters. Yes, literally making letters, aging paper, wax seals and all that jazz, then handing them out to the players mid game. When implemented into a game they can be one of the most engaging moments for both player and DM. When the dungeon master is able to pull out something from the imaginary world onto the table it makes the game more immersive and the roleplaying far richer. Good epistolary pulls you deeper into the game like no other narrative prop.
Most games I run have a piece of missive, of some sort, hidden into the game - whether the players actually find it is another matter. A goblin’s poorly scrawled aspirations to be top fighter in his squabbling warband will be poorly written in charcoal, or suspiciously red ink, and it will probably be scrunched up to represent how it was stuffed quickly into its britches before ambushing the PC’s. The spelling will be decidedly bad and some parts may even be incomprehensible. Alternately, the love letter that the players pickpocket off a well-to-do lord may be several pages long, and folded into a perfumed envelope. It may even be wax sealed with the family crest.
In both these examples the Letters do something really wonderful in a design aspect, they manage to make a narrative element of the players experience feel like a reward. The letter that gets pickpocketed, or looted from a desk feels like treasure, and often feels just as exciting as the conventional treasure of gold or magical items. The player that discovers one of these letters, nine times out of ten, will hold it close to their chest greedily. When they can read it first and then get to relay it to the other characters, it feels like the sparkliest treasure. This is bloody amazing because it engages the player into the story the DM is spinning.
There is common a principal of storytelling that everyone learns early on, show don’t tell. With a letter you can pass very layered information to the players and let them have fun unravelling it. Lets use the example of a letter found on a dead Hobgoblin captain (see picture below). Before the letter was passed to the player, it was confirmed that they were able to read it. They needed to know either Goblin (or Dwarvish with an intelligent check since dwarven runes are the basis of the goblin written script). Once handed to the player, they would see that it has yet to reach its recipient, as the wax is unbroken. The envelope is quite small and had no proper address, other than a Hobgoblin Warchant, indicating that it was a militaristic message, most likely carried by hand between officers. The message in the letter was quite dense, a mission report, but the players were able to learn several things that may greatly influenced their gameplay. Have a look yourself.
In Brief, the players learn:
The high commander of Hobgoblin Forces in this region is known as Commander Pike.
There are potentially many more organised squadrons in this area, since their squadrons name is Gamma.
There are Elven territories to the east.
A being known as Jeruth that is corrupting creatures in this area.
This is so much information in such a small letter. It provides the party with so many choices and options. Do they pursue Commander Pike and work their way up the hobgoblin chain of command? Do they seek the forest elves in the east, anticipating their potential to be hostile to outsiders? When the players found this letter they huddled over it, because they had been wandering through a thick and dense forest wilderness for the last week unsure of their options. Rather than drop in a clunky NPC to give them a speech and essentially have the DM signpost their options, a sneaky a mission report in the captain's pocket is far more smooth. With one bit of paper they went from being lost to having choices. Sure i could have told them this was what their character read, but tangibility of the letter really reinforces the roleplay aspect, and encourages the players to talk to each other in character, even if it’s only “what does it say? Let me see!”
Another boon for using physical letters in game is the way that they can be saved and used later. If a new player joins the party they can be given the letter to help catch them up to speed. If the elves struggle to trust them they can produce the letter as proof. The players can even, with a proper forgery roll beforehand, alter the letter so that it reads differently and aids them in some deception. Sure they could just write down, but how many players write down verbatim, and how many characters have the intelligence to remember the mission report word for word. It feels so much more true to the world for them to just say “here, read this.”
On Drake the Ashbourne Runners and The Ravens of Mourne are the two large postal services (Robert Scurry's Rat Post for thief networks is also in place in some cities and villages, though can be unreliable). It’s so much fun having players send off letters, and then have the reply come back to them, next game or several games later depending on how much they paid and the PC’s location. It’s such a lovely bit of roleplay.
They can be such great plot hooks as well, such as if the tavern owner they befriended in their first game has written to them asking them for help because their business is going under! A postal system is a lovely way of reminding the players that the world around them is real, and that it keeps on going even when they're not around. This bit of worldbuilding makes the world more plausible and connected.
Ultimately, Letters are such an easy prop to make, and such a powerful tool at the DM’s disposal. They manage to get the player involved in the world like no other prop can. It's another way you can put in a bit more time and effort into prep so that your players have a more immersive experience. Also it's an incentive to stop the trigger happy sorcerer from fireballing before asking questions.
Most of the Letters used in this post were saved by Luke Mason, who plays the Gnome Bard, Jarryn in A Djinn's Wish! Go give him a listen he's a funny gnome.
Cheers for Reading!