Custom GM tools

Last week we talked about the standard tools in a GM’s metaphorical toolkit. This week I want to touch upon two additional tools for your belt, though these take a bit more work to get set up and are a lot more specific to your game.

A world map
A map of one of my game worlds, lovingly illustrated by one of my players. The lines depict travel for the first quarter of the campaign.

This means they’re not nearly as portable as the good old ‘use a notebook’ but when used properly, they can have a huge impact on your games. The two tools I’m talking about are custom character sheets and world visualization tools.

Let’s dig in.

First of all, let’s talk character sheets. You’re a GM, you’ve read your share of RPG systems and you know as well as anyone that game designers and layout designers aren’t the same people. And as a result, often the character sheets presented in your game of choice leave much to be desired.

Perhaps your group carries around a LOT of weapons and those three weapon attack lines just don’t cut it for them. Maybe you’re playing a magic-heavy game and desperately need four more pages for all the custom spells you’ve designed. Or maybe the game requires a lot of math at character generation that you either can’t be bothered to check or don’t trust your players not to screw up.

And those are just the basic usability issues you can experience during your game. What if you’ve been hacking a system to add new stats? Removed stats that no-one used anyway (such as appearance in Anima: Beyond Fantasy). Maybe you’ve bolted a whole new subsystem onto your game à la 3.5 psionics. If this is the case, you’re going to need a new sheet to work from.

At this point, there’s two options. One: you let your players muck about with pieces of scrap paper and stats noted on a post-it on a sheet two levels out of date. Or two: you provide a sheet for them to use.

Anima: Beyond Fantasy character sheet
See those tabs at the bottom? Yeah, you need most of those.

Pictured above is the custom sheet used for my Anima: Beyond Fantasy campaign. It was a juggernaut of a excel file that could keep track of almost anything mechanical you could do in the system.
Why did we need a 1.6mb character sheet with 8 different tabs? Because Anima is complex and we hacked it to change even more things. In anima, you get 600 build points to spend across your skills and special abilities. Some of those special abilities provide their own points to spend (Ki, Spells, Psychic) and most of the final numbers are governed by fairly complex calculations. Not hard calculations, just complex with a lot of looking up numbers in tables.

Superhero style games with build-your-own powers are notorious for this sort of thing, as are crunchy detail-oriented games like GURPS or Shadowrun. They often need a lot of fiddly calculations to make sure things work just right and it’s a pain to get right and keep track of whether you’ve already spend the points or not.

So we automated it. Gave players drop-downs for their abilities, put automatic calculations in place to deal with the more complex final results and generally automated and streamlined as much of character creation and character management as possible.

And this isn’t hard. Excel isn’t some sort of magical black box that only the most elite of accountants know how to work with. You can get pretty far with just references to cells and a few basic mathematical functions. Give it a try the next time you need a sheet and the game isn’t helping.

A second tool you can use is related to gameworld visualization.  So here’s the thing. You can be the greatest GM in the world with florid descriptions that hit all the right notes and are concise to boot. Congratulations, you don’t need this column. For the rest of us, we know that no matter how good the descriptions, players are going to be forming a different picture in their mind’s eye than you and that can cause problems.

Which brings us to your artistic skills. Break out the old notebooks, pencils or even that totally legal copy of photoshop you got a few years ago because you’re going to be needing them.

Drawing a map is as much as art as a science and it is a skill you’re going to have to practice. Related to my suggestion of getting some dry or wet erase markers in my previous column, this will help your players visualize the world and making a map makes the world real.

Do note that you don’t have to be able to draw pretty things to get this working. There’s plenty of websites out there that let you play around with their tools to make a really nice looking map. Inkarnate is one such tool but there are dozens.

Alternatively, if you’re not terribly artistic but have some really skilled players in your group, get them to do the heavy lifting.

The same goes for important NPCs, structures or iconography. Consider your descriptions and think about whether they’re sufficient to bring the idea across. If they’re not, whip out your pen and pencil so your players know exactly what’s up. Your game will be better for it.

And for those who are running a sci-fi campaign with some space travel, I have a special treat. For a campaign i’m playing in, I ended up coding a small tool to track planetary movement and travel in-system. It’s up on github where you can use it for your own game.

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