Years ago, I read an issue of Roleplaying Tips about putting together a GM binder. I immediately started building a notebook for my upcoming game, and it was a lot of fun. It looked useful, too — but as it turned out, I never used it.
I suspect that for many GMs, a GM binder is a great organizational tool. Maybe I just took the wrong approach, or perhaps the game wasn’t really one that needed a binder.
Either way, I’d love to hear whether or not you use a GM binder — and if you do, what’s in it and how it’s organized.
I have one. I don’t use it that often, though. When I do, it’s most often only used for taking notes and for keeping character sheets organized.
In front, there’s a bunch of tabbed dividers, which I’ve not really found a use for yet. I’ve got a printout of an Iron Heroes/Elements of Magic hybrid mage class and the d20 modern adventure I used 2 weeks ago because I decided to run it off the cuff and didn’t have any ideas.
After the tabbed dividers I’ve got those full-sheet covers (you know, the kind that let you put something in a 3-ring binder without poking holes in it) and each is filled with custom-printed graph paper. Squares on one side, hex on the other, and alternating, so that each time I flip the pages I have 2 full pages of one type. For an instant, if small, battle mat. I’ve never used that either.
And then finally I’ve got a bunch of scrap paper. That’s the only part I ever use. 🙂
I think it has more to do with my GMing style. I don’t prepare anything, ever. I usually just come up with an idea and go from there. Hell, half the time I don’t even know how to get from point A to point B, so I let my players do whatever they want as long as it’s reasonably clever.
I find most often building the binder for the campaign is more useful than using it. It’s similar to how taking and transcribing notes for a class forces you to process the information in multiple ways (i.e. – listening, thinking, writing, reading, thinking, rewriting, etc.) rather than just copying and referencing the text. More often than not, I end up having more information collected than I actually use anyway.
What I have used even moreso is Microsoft OneNote, which acts as a digital binder and scrapbook. It’s a great way to organize content from different sources into a freeform, searchable tool. I can take that content and repurpose it easily enough, too.
I use a DM binder, and I rely on it pretty heavily. As much as I’d like to use a laptop at the game table, it’s just much quicker to make notes on every available scrap of paper I have at my disposal–especially during combat, where there’s a whole lot of tracking. I have a section on encounters (opponent NPCs and monsters), maps, campaign notes, and any appropriate game-related email printouts, just to keep myself organized (I keep a three-hole punch at the table so I wind up with a lot of punched sheets).
What I use instead of a binder is a file box. The box has folders for PC sheets, NPC party member sheets, other NPC sheets, player campaign notes, GM campaign notes, maps, a couple for scenarios, one for references, one for dead characters, and a few other folders depening on campaign (for example, my D20 campaigns made heavy use of a folder containing session log information – especially the stat blocks for encounters). The file box also has room for a few books and magazines.
I do also have a GM binder, but that mostly has rules or campaign reference material. Cold Iron makes the most such use of a binder because there are no production rule books. Since I play a weird combination of house rules for RuneQuest, I have a significant amount of rules in the binder. For D20 games, the binder might also hold printed PDFs (though many of those are bound in their own report covers).
There was a time I actually used the binder as a GM screen, and I have a couple small binders where the bottom half of the binder hinges out so the binder can lay open at an angle, sort of like a music stand, but that doesn’t turn out to work out all that well.
For some longer campaigns, some of the reference material does eventually make it into the binder, but the file box is most useful because it’s easy to pass sheets out, and easy to file sheets that are no longer needed in the current session (and you don’t have to go looking for the 3-hole punch every time you want to file something – great also for those small notes and such – though there are plenty of ways to file those things in a binder).
The only time I ever made serious use of a computerized note system was a Traveller campaign back at MIT when I was able to bring a luggable computer (the original Compaq portable). I used Borland Sidekick’s notepad to keep a running game log, all the PC stats, the PC’s ships and all the wealth and goodies they collected. I also made other random notes. In the foreground, I ran a program that calculated fuel use for jumps (I didn’t use Traveller strictly – I had my own starship rules – actually, the game was practically just Traveller in name). Since then, I have only used a computer during the game session only sporadically or for narrow purposes (initiative in one homebrew, treasure evaluation in an RQ camnpaign, and a few other things – I think there are three basic reasons I don’t use a computer more: 1. Since I use a computer for my job, I welcome time away from the computer, this is actually the biggest reason (though I still make heavy use of the computer for prep), 2. Getting software to do enough with the computer to justify it taking up a lot of space on the table (especially since I no longer play at a conference room/dining room table), 3. A minor reason – the computer seems out of place for a fantasy game).
Take away my minis and my GM screen and my index cards and even my DMG and MM — but please don’t take away my GM binder!
It’s been the lifeblood of my games for as long as I remember.
Even though I use mostly published adventures — the GM binder is what helps me make those materials my own, customizing the game to fit my players and campaign.
A three-ring binder (and a three-hole punch, of course) are essential materials, in my book.
I donâ€™t know how you can play a by-the-seat-of-your-pants game without some sort of binder. I know if I didnâ€™t have one, my games would devolve into, â€œOk, you see, um, whatâ€™s-his-face, you know, the guy you met in that town, with the thing, who told you about the whose-it. You knowâ€¦â€
Keeping all the little details straight is not a gift of mine. So I cheat and write notes. Most of my gaming now is online, but I still have my binder from my college days. It has the game-world calendar in it, lists of magical items I made up, the pantheons, house-rules, world map, maps of frequently visited cities, and some of the maps from the adventures. Itâ€™s fun to look back at that stuff and remember when, and sad to think about all the stuff that didnâ€™t make it into that binder. How many cool ideas that could be recycled today have been lost? How many adventures forgotten, good times that fade as the years go by? I wish now weâ€™d taken pictures, just to see what we looked like back then, and to remember all the fun we had.
I tend to use a campaign binder for between sessions activities. I’ll keep track of NPC activities, a random name sheet, city research, and so on.
For stuff I anticipate using during the session I prepare 3×5 cards, corner punched, with key info. It’s quick to cycle through and generally handy. I mostly use this for NPC stats, personalities, and key rule reminders.
I see your binders, and raise you a laptop.
Does everyhing a binder can, lets you roll “dice” without the players even being aware of it if you are so inclined. if you want to get abit more immersive, hook up some decent speakers, and use winamp for mood music and/or sound effects.
Daemon, if a laptop were in my price range, I’d be all over that. Alas, the only sounds my binder makes are the clacking of the binder rings closing.
Daemon – see my comments above for why I don’t use a laptop (even though I’ve owned one “yea, right, it’s a laptop because you can put it in your lap without crushing your legs” and two real laptops, and thought about using them for gaming).
The only electronic randomization I’ve ever used has been the aforementioned initiative and treasure evaluation. I like rolling dice (and more and more, I’m inclined to roll them in the open, though I haven’t gone that far yet).
And though when I first got a CD player, I played music during games, lately I’ve been leaving the CD player turned off. Perhaps that’s a regression to my high school days where one of the factors that made me not a music listener was my friend playing Jethro Tull during gaming sessions – and getting distracted from the game as a result (on the flip side, probably because of that exposure, I do actually enjoy some good Jethro Tull on occaision).
After seeing some of these ideas, I think next time I try a GMing binder, I’ll wait until the game begins to start building it. Then, every time I think of something I wish I had on hand to reference, I’ll jot down a note and add it to the binder between sessions.
Thanks for the excellent info, everyone!
I use campaign binders a lot. While the zip-up kind is handy (since you can keep pencils and the like in it easily) I usually use a plain three-ring, perhaps with a clip inside the front cover. I don’t use published adventures or (usually) even published settings, so I have a lot of paper to keep track of.
I like to split the contents into sections with tabbed dividers. Each campaign seems to call for different organization, but I usually have one for setting info, one for house rules, one for NPCs, and one for campaign notes.
I especially like the dividers that have pockets, since it makes it easy to keep character sheets, handouts, notes, and such handy without having to holepunch them and open and close the rings.