As GMs we tend to create a “toolbox” for managing our games and campaigns with. This toolbox changes and evolves over time. The toolbox is often eclectic in what it holds, with tools as simple as GM screens to high technology solutions like online databases. You can build a great game experience with just the raw materials of friends and a game system, but it is lot easier when you have the right tools for the job.
Here are five of my favorite GMing tools for your consideration.
- Dice Cup & Tray — Some might think it is frivolous to have a special cup for rolling the bones with, and just to throw them into a special tray no less! Well I have found that my dice cup and tray have other benefits. When I drop a couple of dice into that cup and start rattling them the players hear the sound and focus their attention on me quicker than Pavlov’s dog salivates to the sound of a bell. And thanks to the tray I no longer suffer from stray dice falling off of the table. Plus the tray is a great place to hide my next favorite tool under.
- Colored Index Cards — PCs stats, NPC stats, encounter notes, and items of treasure. Assigning a color to each of these categories and then putting all of the information onto a colored index card can make organizing your game a great deal easier. I especially like to use my inkjet printer to print on the back side of a card the stats and details of magic items or gear that the players might find while adventuring. There is something to be said about adding the tactile element of handing the player an object when their character discovers a cool item in the game. Plus colored index cards are an inexpensive way for players to keep track of powers in D&D 4e.
- Virtual Index Cards — Why use index cards only in the cold confines of reality? These versatile little buggers have infiltrated the virtual world too! If you are a Windows XP or Vista user and use aÂ PC to manage your games with check out Text Block Writer, a free program that simulates index cards that you can drag and drop as well as place on different pages. I purchased Text Block Author, a more advanced version with some additional features, and I use it to plan and run my games with on my tablet notebook.
- Sticky Page Markers — Just like sticky notes but in the form of thin stips of paper, these easy to apply and remove pieces of paper are about 3 inches long and less than a half inch wide. Available in a variety of colors from different manufacturers they are meant to be used as bookmarks that you can write notes on. Now you can use them that way to mark pages in the rules book and such, but where they really shine is with miniatures! If you have a dozen identical miniatures on the battle mat it is easy to lose track of which one was hit for 4 points of damage or which one is held. Take a page marker and apply to the bottom of the miniature’s base and then assign it a unique number. Now you know that #7 takes acid damage each round and that #3 is the one that went berserk on its last turn. Just another example of how we gamers look at every day items and think “I can use those for next week’s game session!”
- 3D Cardstock Models & Terrain — I own many vinyl battle mats, including one that I made myself for $7 (that is an article for another day though). A good battle mat is another wonderful GMing tool that I can not say enough good things about, but when I really want my game to have an extra kick I buildÂ the sceneryÂ out of cardstock. Why just draw a dungeon map on a battle mat when you can actually build the dungeon instead? You need to invest some time into cardstock models, but they are relatively cheap and easy to assemble. Fat Dragon Games is one of my favorite producers of cardstock models for gaming, but there are many great products out there from several different companies. If you have problems with the cardstock models falling over use foamboard to add weight to the bases, or do what I do and buy some Glue Dots of the removable variety to apply to the base of the model. That way the model will just stick to whatever surface you place it upon.
There you have some of my favorite GMing tools. What are some of yours? Be sure to share your own tips and tricks with the Gnome Stew community by leaving a comment below. Remember that the GM is a player too, so always make sure that you get your share of the fun at the table!
Initiative: whiteboard with magnetic paper. Print out players’ names (not character names) on different coloured magnetic paper, as well as generic Monster 1, 2, 3 and Boss 1 & 2. Shift them around easily to track initiative.
Marking: thin foam. You can get a package of 21 or 24 (7 or 8 different colours) for only $3 from any craft store or Wal-mart. Cut them into desired dimensions (1″, 2×2, etc.) and you have tokens to place under minis to represent Combat Challenge, bloodied, Divine Challenge, Hunter’s Quarry, Ray of Frost, etc. Every player takes a different colour, and the DM takes 1 or 2 as the DM colours, and use red for bloodied.
Action Points: decorative glass beads (usually used in flower vases). They’re cheap from a craft store and it’s handy to have physical tokens for remembering action points. Multiple colours can be used for Leader-role PCs to represent number of Inspiring/Healing Words left in the encounter. They can also be used to represent the number of death saving throw attempts, Second Wind availability, etc.
Small whiteboard. Small whiteboard. Small whiteboard. We only have two, but I wish we had three. It’s not that our campaign is big on intrigue.. it’s just that the players all have their own ways of getting information and don’t always trust each other. I spend as much time writing as I do talking, and sometimes I’ll be carrying on three different secret conversations at once while trying to describe the scene aloud to the group as a whole.
I tried using small pieces of paper, but very quickly ran out. The whiteboards are a godsend. We just pass them across the table face-down, and everyone knows better than to peek, because in a few minutes, they’re probably going to be passing a whiteboard of their own.
Mini poker chips. We use different colored ones below the minis to represent status effects. Green is a condition, orange is ongoing damage, blue is marked, yellow is quarried/cursed, red is bloodied, white is beneficial effects. The players love it when a monster’s token is half an inch above the table because of the number of chips below it.
Damage beads: When monsters take a hit, I place beads marking the damage (red=5, green=20) next to the monster. At a glance the PCs can see which one they’ve been beating up on and which ones are untouched.
I’m a huge fan of index cards for NPC stats; treasure and the like also make good sense, but I haven’t used them for it.
Old business cards get the PC names and generic NPC names/groups (exactly like Rafe’s whiteboard). After rolling initiative, I organize them and read them off in order. When someone readies I turn their card sideways and when they hold I remove them from the stack altogether. It’s handy, and works well with the order resets that come with holds, delays, etc.
A few I’ve brought up before:
– MS OneNote: It’s so easy to import pictures, create tables, and move around text that contemplating running D&D without it these days causes me pain. I can create pages very much like WotC’s tactical format, but without having the book open on the table.
– Gamemastery’s Initiative Tracker: Sure, it’s essentially a pretty whiteboard with magnetic tags, but being able to easily slide around the PCs as they hold/refocus has made my combats run that much faster.
…and a few I haven’t:
Post-it notes: This is my preferred method of passing secret info in game. I can stick the notes to related index cards or even to the top of my laptop screen so that it will still be there when it’s time to go to…
Obsidian Portal: Most of my games play 1-2 times a month and the Wiki function of OP has served as an incredible institutional memory. Even as a player, I can make notes to myself on important PCs and/or events.
Old junk. I keep an eye out at garage sales and thrift stores for neat-looking items that I can turn into fun props. I adore making props for my games, and have just about as much fun making the props as I do planning the game.
I once found this… thing. I have no idea what it contained originally. It was a short black tube with a cap that had black leather straps and metal claspy bits and it looked all the world like a steampunk scrollcase. So I designed a plot for my current (modern fantasy) campaign that included an ancient map (designed, drew, and superficially aged the map myself, stuck it in the scrollcase), and it really went over awfully well. Lots of cryptic clues on the map, which the players could go back to over and over again to try and figure out.
Also, when running my 30+ player LARP, I found the Grapevine program extremely helpful for keeping track of character sheets and XP earnings and expenditures.
My biggest tool is Evernote currently. A lot of the functions of MS OneNote, but with the aded plus of sharing and synching to the web. I’ve a couple of samples of this on my site.
Also, another recent favorite is the “Magis Set Editor”. This let’s me get creative with cards to share with my players, as well as the management of treasure. I’ve a series of standard cards for potions, coins and art objects.
My favorite GMing tools:
The players. The people at the table with me.
None of that other stuff matters much if the players are not invested and adding to each others’ fun.
@Mick Bradley – Most definitely need engaged players. Once you have that what tools do you use to hook them in and organize yourself and your games?
@Bookkeeper – With regards to OneNote, do you run from the same machine from ehich you plan? Does anything from OneNote get shared out to your players?
Wow! Lot’s of good stuff here.
@Mick Bradley – Yep. That is definitely true. That’s why I said in the article “You can build a great game experience with just the raw materials of friends and a game system, but it is lot easier when you have the right tools for the job.” Tools don’t replace your friends, but learning how to master the right tools will help you deliver the best experience that you are capable of to your friends. What tools do you use at the table?
As for some of the suggestions made they got me thinking of some other tools that I use and it is interesting to see that others are using the same tools as well. Here is my list of additonal tools outside the scope of the article:
Whiteboard – I have a large whiteboard on a folding easel for easy transportation. I also have a small clipboard whiteboard as well. Now that I have a tablet PC I don’t use these as much anymore, but the larger whiteboard is great for the players to have access to.
Mini Poker Chips and Mahjong Tokens – Mark a miniature, note it as held, hand them out as action points or fate points depending upon the game. Very versatile and cheap!
OneNote – Record the entire gaming session and add files as needed to the notebook. I use this as both a player and a GM. Add a digital camera so that I can take photos of the scene or GM handouts while playing and I have a great record of what happened long after the session ended. I’m hooked on this software now!
@zencorners – In regards to OneNote, I do plan and run from my tablet notebook but I use Text Block Author primarily. Using D&D Insider I copy stat blocks to Text Block Author cards, and I design the sessions on those cards because I’ve been using index cards for a long time to run sessions with. But my notes and the audio recordings in OneNote are a huge benefit to me.
Something else that I noticed is that certain tools have made me change how I GM. I love to improvise, but lately I prep sessions in more detail (and not just my D&D 4e games, but all systems) because the tools that I am using make it easier to do so.
Oh, and one more collection of tools worth mentioning is Tabletop Adventures excellent Deck O’ Names generators.
Very useful for prepped and improvised encounters!
@ZENCORNERS – Did you mean the “Magic Set Editor”? I can’t find a “Magis” app.
It sounds too simple, but Excel (or your own preferred spreadsheet application) is a tremendous timesaver, especially in games like Birthright that require a lot of calculation for each game turn. It may take a bit of time to set up, but having everything automatically calculate as you input and change numbers is a huge help.
To use the Birthright example: Our group has a “Spreadsheet of Doom” that tracks our kingdom’s budget. All of it: Troops, income from holdings (automatically calculated based on a lot of variables for each holding), court costs, projects, realm spells, realm actions, fortifications, treaties – anything that touches on money goes in the spreadsheet. Every province has its own tab, as does every player character. It’s terrifyingly complex, but it started out simple, and it’s a huge help to our DM to be able to change a small number of values (if we have, say, a “Curse Land” spell cast on one of our provinces) and see what will happen to us – or for him to do it and know that we won’t have to spend two hours re-figuring our math.
Now, Birthright is an extreme example, being a D&D-meets-Civilization sort of game, but this holds true for anything heavy on numbers. I know one player who has a very simple spreadsheet he copies anew for his recurring D&D character; he has a tab for each attribute (stats, AC, attack rolls, etc.). Each tab features a sum, a column for modifiers to the die roll (base numbers, then good and bad effects), and an adjacent column to label them. All he has to do is keep an eye out for modifiers that don’t stack, and he knows exactly what his numbers are and what’s affecting him.
I have been using Evernote, much in the same way. Also, since I can synch to my laptop, desktop and cell phone, I have a constant link to my game and notes. It’s pretty awesome so far and am going to try prepping both in OneNote and Evernote to see how things work. One of the advantages of Evernote, is that I can easily share my notes. Right now, that’s been mainly focusing on different bits aimed at 4e, but also campaign info for my players. Take a look here: http://www.evernote.com/pub/zencorners/MaidensHead
@Saragon – Magic Set Editor can be found here: http://magicseteditor.sourceforge.net/welcome
Also, a sample of what I have for my Fourth Edition game can be found here: http://maidenshead.com/2009/01/magic-set-editor/
Laptop. ‘Nuff said. The best private messages are ones sent to the players’ cell phones.
Tact-Tiles, which are sadly no longer in production. I like that they’re dry-erase, and that I can extend the battlefield with little warning.
Music. Ambiance cannot be overlooked.
Index cards, especially ones with common conditions, such as the much feared and hated “Narrow and Low” card when I ran 3.5.
My favorite GMing tools right now are:
Sagasheet – Bless the developer of this fine tool, which helps me create stat blocks and characters for Star Wars Saga Edition. I just need to organize my statblocks better once they are printed. Perhaps keeping one to a sheet would be best, or folding the sheet in half might work better with Bold Headings. They could be sorted by category.
Wookiepedia – It is the go-to resource for Star Wars games. Don’t have an official write-up on a planet seen in the Expanded Universe? No problem. It is probably found there. Need an idea or two about what era you want to set your game in? See the wookie…
I like the idea of initiative cards. Perhaps a card for new round or end of round could be mixed in to help remember who goes first or last. I think I will give these a try in two weeks.
@zencorners – I do run and prep on the same computer. I don’t use it to send notes back and forth to players – Obsidian Portal is good for that and my players are somewhat technophobic.
For my 4ed game I’ve been creating cards with monster stats on them. I use Monster Maker (http://www.asmor.com/programs/monstermaker/index.php) to spit out a nice, formatted stat block and I have some Photoshop macros to do a screen capture and re-size each stat block to fit on to a 3.5″ x 2.5″ card. I make a full page of the things, print them out on thick card stock, and use my chopping block to cut them out. It is nice to have a deck of stats at my fingertips
Another of my favorite things is my initiative tracker. I purchased a small dry-erase board with magnets on the back. I glued two strips of metal on to the front-center panel of my DM screen. Now I have a board that I can pick up, write initiative order on, and then place right where everyone can see. (Except me, of course–I have to write the init order down.) I’ve also made it a habit to write intimidating things in the unused space before game sessions. Things like, “Doom!” or “TPK, oh noz!” I think it stems from my old-school philosophy that the DM’s screen should be a representation of the sort of pain and chaose (read: challenges) a DM can inflict upon the group. I believe this is the reason that all of the best DM screens have pictures of dragons, demons, or other such frightening subjects. (Another favorite of mine would be the All Flesh screen, which displays people hopelessly fighting against a horde of zombies.)
I can’t take full credit for this one – it’s been repeated in other contexts a lot – but one other useful ‘tool’ for a GM: A set of generic stats for an NPC of the same level as the party. When your players do something unexpected, you’ll have a ready skeleton of stats to throw at your players, easily adjusted for whatever monsters the players think they’re fighting. Players suddenly find themselves fighting the orcs they were supposed to trade with? Take that ‘skeleton’, give it a bit more strength and hit points, dumb them down, and you’ve got orcs. Need skeletons instead? Adjust the stats accordingly. Want a leader? Do what 4E D&D does for elites – give them across-the-board bonuses and something neat.
4E made this a lot easier – monsters of all sorts of levels all over the place, and good rules for adjusting them on the fly – but it works for any system, and with this in your pocket you’ll awe your players with your preparedness and ability to ‘improvise’.
You know one “tool” I have been dying to use would be Google Earth… I have yet to run a “modern” game, but I would love to run a Vampire, Spy or Cthulhu game with a tool like that and some “mashed up” points of interests.
@zencorners – That’s a great idea. Remember too that you can import Google Sketchup models into Google Earth and have them display as 3D objects ‘on’ the globe; that allows for models that mirror the tone of the game or of that location (e.g. a supermodern tower for a Technocracy stronghold, a castle for a medieval-era game, etc.).
@Saragon – Most definitely, and with the Google Community you can always hack up something from the submissons there.
Other than software, any supplies (post-it tabs, post-its, battle mats) that see recurring use by the folks here?
Most of my tricks have been covered already. My favorite game tool discovery is the collapsible ruler. It folds up to fit in your dice bag(about the size of 2 d20s side by side), measure around corners(great for the 3.5 counting rules) and sits up great when you need an instant, oddly shaped wall effect to appear on the map.
The tools I like the most are index cards for the reasons stated.
A whiteboard – I’m a visual person and like to draw a lot of diagrams and maps.
Glass beads – as tokens, markers, bennies, Fate points, boulders, numerous other uses.
scrap paper and pencils – overlooked but everybody has them.
One tool that I have enjoyed using immensely in the past is sound and music. I use my laptop attached to the surround-sound system in the living room to play various sounds and even background music (quietly) for mood setting. Movie soundtracks are great, because they are usually without words and were crafted to evoke a particular mood or emotion.
I’ve also used Terragen for making basic topo maps. It is a nice tool that helps plot logical river locations, lakes, etc. Gives a really good idea of how different cultures and societies might evolve in a homebrew world.
We use a whiteboard as a tabletop, laid over the pool table (the host has a nice, big place).
We tried a LINUX network that everyone could plug into for private messages (send to:elf languages) or (send to:thieves), but it ended up being more of a distraction than a help.
We use M&M’s for individual members of hordes of enemies. “Dead? Eat him!”
A cheap home design program can be great for designing places to go. I cut out the individual rooms and place them within the outline I draw on the table (see above) so they know where’s where and there are fewer arguments. These also allow you to do a perspective shot of designed rooms, so a shot from the door, properly furnished and photoshopped can end the immediate “what do I see?” questions. And while they’re passing it around it gives you time (and cover) to be preparing for the encounter to come.
3×5 cards, prepared ahead of time to describe items to be found are useful. Whoever has the card, paper-clipped to his character sheet, has the item. Ends a lot of arguments.
Dominoes are wonderful. Set them on edge and you have a wall. Set them on face and you have a higher level.
Poker chips likewise. If someone’s invisible, set his miniature on a poker chip so the DM and player know where he he (which lessens cheating as to movement) and such. red chips go under characters who are down and maybe alive, maybe not.
I love the idea of using small poker chips under minis for status effects. I’m going to use that idea as soon as I can get my hands on some. I’ve also been contemplating getting a dice cup and tray. Reading this has made me really want to get a set.
I have a bag of pawns that I got from a teacher supply store for use as enemies. If they’re fighting 6 orcs, I’ll throw out 5 pawns, and a regular mini for the big tough one. I like it better than throwing out a bunch of random minis and saying they’re all orcs. The ones I have came from teachersparadise.com and were under 5 bucks for 48 pawns of varying colors.
I also use notecards for initiative. I have one card for each PC, one that says end of turn, and one that says “Them”. I always just have all the mobs run on the same initiative, cause it’s easier for me.
I’m also using monster maker for quick and dirty NPCs.
@steve – The best dice tray EVAR comes from DwarvenSweatshoppe.com. Martin glowingly reviewed a dice tray from them here.
I ordered mine at Gen Con last year, and it was scratched in shipping. They’re such an awesome company that they refinished it for free (although I did drop a few greenbacks in the box for their troubles). Mine is a beautiful oil-rubbed walnut with a leather floor. It’s about nine by six inches, and is simply beautiful.
While I just started to get back into gaming and I’m now making a concerted effort to be a GM, I planned my first game using mywebspiration.com
Mywebspiration is from the same people that created the Inspiration software which allows you to graphically plan papers and create flowcharts and it will help you create an outline. You can then add notes to the outline. Mywebspiration takes it to the internet, much like adobe buzzword, so that if you have the net, you will always have access to your stuff.
I was able to use mywebspiration to plot out all the scenes of the Ctech scenario that I ran with lines connecting the scenes to show how they may possibly be reached. The outline format allowed me to detail the general gist of each scene and note any important stuff that was going on there.
Currently, mywebspiration is in open beta so anyone can use it for free. If you have a copy of Inspiration (which is likely available in an academic setting) you can do the same thing.
You know… Reading through this, there is one thing that I’ve used on and off again. For those using laptops, try the combination of
1. XAMPP (Personal Web Server Package), and then
2. Wiki software (for GM secrets, background material, etc).
I had used this in previous games, especially those with loads of background material necessary (Blue Planet, Vampire and some of my Star Wars games in the past).
I’ve used those with varying degrees of success. They are certainly helpful, and if you have a “public” wiki for the game, it makes it even faster to publish information for general consumption.
I swear by Dundjini, this tool is too good to be true. Basically, I map out all my dungeons floorplans, print them in color, stick them on cardboard, laminate them and add magnetic dot.
As my PCs progress, I gradually reveal the dungeon. This has made encounter a brease and removed the need for mapping. If there is one tool I would recommend it is this one.
Not only is it easy and fun to use but the community support is incredible, with lot’s of texture being added on a regular basis.
I strongly recommend this product.
Two of my absolute favourites have to be:
Index cards with monster pictures on one half, and their stats on the other half, so that when they’re folded and hung over the screen the players can see what they’re fighting, and I can see what it does.
Clear plastic dice boxes for flying/elevated characters on the battle-map.
I have to second MS Excel. I use Ubuntu linux, and installed XP to run at the same time JUST for MS Excel. I can track every aspect of my PC’s and use complex custom tables. The PCs walk into an antimagic field and its time to recalculate all the numbers? No problem! Automatically start initiative & track battle order. Weather, moon phase, crazy custom items, status effects, treasure generation, what ever you need can be made on excel!
My number two tool would have to be ZIM desktop wiki, not sure if you can get it for windows but I love having a wiki to track all of my DM ramblings. You all know what is like being a DM, getting inspiration at strange times, a nice wiki helps me keep all the things in the PC’s world organized.
I have to agree with several of you that music is really important. I play soft piano jazz in towns, and hard hitting guitar riffs for battles. Video game music is a great source too!
Fourth would have to be all the PDF versions of the books I have, I find it tremendously helpful to have all the books I need open, without the PC’s getting uptight from seeing the Monster Manual come out.
Lastly it is the faithful 3×5 index card, savior of the pen & paper rpg. Everyone knows how much they love these!
Thanks for the cool thread!!!
Excel is good, but any decent spreadsheet program will do the same thing, and many are less expensive and easier to use.
Favorite tools of all time:
Campaign Cartographer program
printing on transparencies can create all kinds of neat spell templates, gates or other cool visual props.
I recently started using index cards for initiative and I love it. I have a card for each PC and 3 Me cards. Players roll and I sort the cards accordingly. If a player delays, resorting the stack is much easier than drawing lines and arrows. I have yet to skip a turn using the stack. Oh and the stack remembers its own state. Whomever is on top is going next.
I also use index cards for NPCs, but I do it a little differently than how the article mentioned. Each major organization or group gets a color. Members of that group go on that color. One side is the stat block, the other side is the character’s description. I try to include quirks on the description to help me roleplay (since I’m not very good at toggling between characters). They’re also supposed to keep NPCs feelings towards each other and the PCs, but I’ve been lazy about that. Cards also get plot markers, which are little colored circle stickers. Each active plot in my notebook gets a color for a sticker. Characters in that plot get that sticker folded along the edge of the card. Any time I need to look up the red plot I can very easily pull out all associated characters.