We’ve spent a lot of time talking about our games, preparing for them and even running them. We’ve talked about the metaphorical tools in your toolbox and the different tricks that can be employed by the savvy game master.
What we haven’t touched on are the actual tools you can use to make your games easier to run or more enjoyable to be a part of. So that’s what we’ll be talking about today. I’ll mostly be going over the tools I personally use and why I find them to be a good addition to my ‘kit’ as it were but i’ll be offering a few suggestions that I intend to pick up at some point in the future as well.
Okay, let’s start with the obvious: notes and campaign prep. I have a couple of methods for these and i’ll go over them with the cheapest option first.
So, first of all: Google’s document, spreadsheet and form functionality. You’re reading this, so I assume you have access to a computer, in which case, you can use all of these functions for free.
So, what do I use these for. I tend to keep separate documents for different houserules once they get larger than a few lines. I have documents for custom archetypes, one for custom feats another for custom weapons and so on. I have one document that I always have open on my phone when running a session that lists the typical look and responses of each of the factions in my games, along with a few sample names. Incredibly useful.
So why use these. Well, first of all, I can access them anywhere so long as I have a computer or smartphone at hand. Have an idea while on your way to work or while waiting in line at the cafetaria? Write that sucker down. Suddenly wonder what you prepared for a specific location? Pop open your phone and look it up.
A final shout out goes to Google’s Forms. There’s many similar services, so don’t get stuck on the four-colored G. Rather, focus on the functionality. Ever wanted to know exactly what your players think of your game? Set up a little survey and send it out. You’d be surprised by the amount of useful data you can collect.
Onward to the next tool in my kit, the almighty GM notebook. I used to use some notebooks I got for free with my college welcome package and those work well enough. But of course space isn’t endless so I ended up having to buy new ones.
These days I use a single notebook per campaign. That way if I decided I want to cringe at my old efforts at art or preparation in a few years, all I need to do is grab the correct notebook and give it a read.
A few thoughts on notebooks specifically: get a quality one. You might balk at the slightly higher price tag, but this is something you’ll be using at the table and dragging around. It’s going to get crumpled, dinged, maybe even have your favorite beverage spilled over it. Trust me and spend a few extra bucks on it. The higher quality ones last a lot longer.
Do make sure that the notebook actually works in a way you like. What do I mean by this? As an example, I got a gorgeous notebook as a present a while back. It looks great, quality pages, everything you’d need. One small issue, the cover is made from thick leather so it won’t stay open. Beautiful notebook, entirely useless for GM notes. Similarly, you might get a notebook with really glossy pages that don’t work with your favorite pen (see below) or one with thin pages that your beautiful inked dungeon maps just seep through.
The final tool in my toolkit with regards to keeping track of my notes and prep is a wiki. I’m fortunate enough to have a place on the internet to put my things. So I’ve set up a wiki on a subdomain where I can keep a nice and readable log of everything that’s happened and that exists in my world.
My players have access and within a few days of a session, I’ll update it with everything they’ve encountered and learned. It’s a a bit of work to keep it all updated but as far as a reference work for the campaign goes, it’s second to none.
There are a few free wikis out there and I highly recommend giving it a look. I use dokuwiki myself as the platform, though I’ve made some tweaks already.
Next, let’s look at the rest of your kit. At the risk of stating the obvious, you’re going to need some way to take notes during a session. I tend to use my notebooks for this, filling the right page with prep and the left page with scribbled notes on what has happened around that specific moment.
You’ll also need some way to write. Most of you probably have something, a pen or pencil or whatever. I recommend getting one either specifically for this purpose or getting a pen or pencil you really like. Nothing kills my GMing flow more than having to look for a pen when I have an idea. So I keep mine with my notebook.
On a similar note, carry a few spares. Your players won’t always bring their own pens or pencils and it helps to be able to loan a few out to keep things moving.
Dry or Wet Erase markers and something to use them on. These things are my JAM. I got a whiteboard for my sessions at home and I haven’t looked back since. Sure, you could use a piece of paper but the ability to correct things or even use your shoddily drawn map as an improvised battlemat is invaluable. I got a set in different colors, grabbed some packs of magnets to go with them and I haven’t looked back.
I can use it to keep track of the map, keep track of initiative, life totals, spell effects and anything else you can think of. I put it smack in the middle of the table and everyone can keep up.
In the same vein, get yourself a pack of card sleeves. You can use the dirt cheap ones or do as I did and scavenge some unused ones from your MTG collection. Dry/Wet erase markers work on these, so if you slip a blank piece of paper in them, you’ve got a mini character sheet. I made some basic sheets for my NPCs with things like HP totals (and space to mark reductions) and spells slots on them and use my trusty markers to keep track of their status. If you’re playing FATE or a similar game, you can slide these around to give people Aspects or to keep track of wounds.
Dice. Everyone needs dice, unless you game uses cards, in which case, get cards. Now, consider for a moment how many dice you’ll likely need for a game. Get a few more than that. There’s always situations where you need a bunch more. Maybe someone rolled a crit and doubled their dice, maybe someone forgot theirs. Be a good GM and loan them yours. Of course, only loan them the cursed ones that’ll get them killed, but loan them your dice anyway.
However, make sure your dice are clearly readable. I personally hate it when I can’t tell at a glance how much someone rolled and I extend that policy to my own dice. Clean light colors on dark colors are best for this, though you can get a little fancy if you feel like it.
And those are pretty much the stock tools I personally use. There’s a few more tools I use but they’re a bit more specific and i’ll be talking about them in a later post.