Illustration of a red d20, a GM, and a checklist.


A move to virtual has had me running many more games than usual. I’ve been refining and honing a few techniques to keep everything moving smoothly and keep track of everything for every game. One simple tool I have come to rely on is my “Game Night Checklist”. It helps me stay focused, on track, and prevents me from getting overwhelmed when I am coming off of a busy workweek or haven’t had time to jump in and prepare as much as makes me feel comfortable.

What is a game night checklist?

Let’s codify some definitions before we begin. For me, a game night checklist is a simple, bullet point reminder for myself and all the players of some of the meta elements of the game. It functions like an itinerary for a meeting and makes sure we don’t miss important, repeatable parts of the structure of the game. It helps the players think through some of the elements that help set the tone for the game and it helps the Game Master not miss any pre-game prep steps. It helps give a structure to things so you don’t have to try to force that structure. It offloads the work to a previous you and an external document.

Basically, a game night checklist functions as an external reminder to keep some of the game elements reliable and standardized between sessions. For me, a Game Night checklist is shared with the players so they have an idea of what you as the GM are doing and covers most of the general easy to forget stuff that isn’t rolling dice, playing out characters, and engaging with the rules system.

What should be on a game night checklist?

My current game night checklist is aimed at online play and covers lots of meta options alongside a few specific to the game and architecture of the VTT we are using. That being said, I think every game night checklist should contain the following:

  • Player Pregame Information: Prompts for the players to think about some things as they get ready to play, options they may forget about in your homerules (inspiration, etc.), reminders about interactions / social rules.
  • GM Pregame Information: Make sure you have prepped (preferably in a simple style that is easy to riff off of) what you need to run and improvise, reminders to set up things that may have slipped your mind, a prompt to review your plans and past notes.
  • Game Start: The general things you have set up about getting into the game. Do you chat for a bit? Do meta game stuff? Have pre-game rituals? Putting it here lets the players all be on the same page and remember.
  • Game: Some reminders and prompts for in-game options, such as Always roll 2 dice, one for advantage, move your tokens yourself, always try to click on spell names to throw them in chat, when it isn’t your turn plan next move, pay attention, etc.
  • Game End: Anything about wrapping up the game? Is someone volunteering to write notes? Any notes that need made? How do you award xp? Do you stop 10 minutes before game end time? Do you finish out combats, etc.

This is my current, generic 5e game night checklist.

Player Pregame

  • Review how your character works, what you want to bring into play
  • Setup your play space/test out roll20.
  • Think about your character goals, other’s character goals. What are you excited about tonight?
  • Think about the spotlight — How it moves between players, how to share it, how to use it when it’s on you.

GM Pregame

  • Overview plans for the night (make revisit the 3/3/3) and be ready to throw them out.
  • Set up maps / scenes / options in roll20.
  • Make sure improv elements (tokens, maps, generic stats) are ready.
  • Prep mood lighting – Points of interest (imagine or find a cool image to riff off of).

Game Start

  • Game soft starts ½ hour early. GM will be online to talk stuff (probably).
  • GM Opens Session notes to type into during game.
  • Meta Business? Housekeeping? What are you excited about?
  • Dole out inspiration points.
  • Review – Review big notes from last session verbally with players
  • The Book Opens, The Tale Begins, The First Die Roll is cast…

Game (Player Reminders)

  • Don’t forget to move your token.
  • Click on spell names/powers/etc to throw them in chat.
  • Click on the token, then click initiative. If you need to fix it, click in turn order and change.
  • When not your turn, Plan for the next action and try to keep things moving quick

Game End (about 10 to 15 minutes before close time)

  • Anyone volunteering to write session notes?
  • Make note about Inspiration for next time
  • Award XP (Whole Group same amount)

GM write up basic session notes.

Uhh, this is super simple. Why can’t I just get in the habit of doing all this stuff?

The best-laid plans of players and gms… I’ve always found that getting into and running games brings out the spur of the moment, fly by the seat of my pants parts of my personality. That’s a great help in accommodating player ideas, but it often leaves me a bit disoriented and disjointed as I move along in the game. A game night checklist for many of the meta elements keeps me on track, prevents me from collapsing into exhaustion after the game is done (and ignoring things like writing up session notes), and helps me get my brain on track before the start of the game. It really is offloading a lot of the work that may go into a game to a previous self and helps to set a single vision which you can deviate from and improvise off of, but return to as you need. It’s kind of like a simple meta-safety line you might use when rock climbing.

Do you use something similar to a Game Night Checklist? What is on yours? What other tools do you use to help structure your game nights?