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The Tools Of The Game

Posted By John Arcadian On May 15, 2008 @ 5:14 am In GMing Advice | 24 Comments

The way a GM sets up their personal fortress of solitude at the gaming table is very indicative of their style. Some GMs run their games behind a stack of books and official published material, while some GMs run their games with just a pair of dice, a pencil, and a notepad. Some of us turn everything digital and call their laptop savior, while some of us make elaborate binders and organizers full of information.

If the GM plays it fast and loose without dipping into the published material or setting, then the players are going to feel less limited in what they can do, but will also have to put more work into figuring out how the GM might interpret a certain rule. If the GM runs by the book (and the setting book, and the expanded psionics rules, and the optional 3rd party magic system, etc.) then the players know where to find source material and can be fairly assured the way the book lays it out is the way it will be in game.

If the GM likes to take the rules and reorganize them in their own way (via laptop, or binder, or personal kobold assistant) then there is a fair chance that the elements of the game are going to be well thought out, but with a bit of personal interpretation of the source material and house rules applied.

So what is your personal GMing toolbox like? What do you think it says about your style as a GM? For that matter what do the tools you use as a player say about your style?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




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24 Comments To "The Tools Of The Game"

#1 Comment By Bartoneus On May 15, 2008 @ 5:25 am

I would have thought that my personal set up was very organized, but looking back at my old notes from previous games it almost makes me cry!

#2 Comment By Ishmayl On May 15, 2008 @ 5:30 am

I keep a simple stand-up chart of relevant DCs in front of me and always roll dice behind it (poor man’s dice screen). Then I have a notebook where I jot down notes. We tend to play things pretty loose…

#3 Comment By PaPeRoTTo On May 15, 2008 @ 5:34 am

4 pages self-made screen plus laptop to send music and look at some netbook, the rest is tons and tons of papers.. i like to read and to write on paper :)

#4 Comment By LordVreeg On May 15, 2008 @ 6:18 am

Ritual has been mentioned on this site already. Though beaten and bowed, I actually still bring out the first incarnation of the AD&D screen, though the charts and tables have nothing to do with what we are doing now.
I put all the weapons, armors, spells, and other rules on a PBwiki, and so the need for reference matierial is nil, since our gaming table normally has 6-8 laptops on it, everyone with a tab on the site open. Makes it easier for everyone getting rid of rulebooks.
However, I don’t like to look at the laptop while playing, so the adventure and the NPCs and the notebook are in three piles in front of me. (always three piles…).
All the players have a calculator, and so do I. We use a few extra computations, so they become invaluable.

I don’t know if it is as much part of this toolbox, but the music selection is critical, so the remote is on the hutch behind me, along with notes and historical data. But keeping seperate town, adventure, and combat musical scores seems to help set a mood.

Organized? I never feel organized. Doesn’t matter how much prethought or time is involved. I never feel organized.

There are always 2-4 botles of wine open on the table as well. :)

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 15, 2008 @ 7:26 am

Laptop, a cigar box for hidden dice rolls, Post-It notes, and the remote for music selection. A TV tray holds boxes o’ minis, and a box o’ props. The table is already laid out with Tact-Tiles, and a box of pencils and dry-erase pens.

Ideally, I’d like to have a UMPC strapped to my forearm, a handful of dice, and the ability to walk around the table at will, intimidating the hell out of the players. ;-)

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On May 15, 2008 @ 8:46 am

I keep the table in front of me open, so I can deal cards (in PTA) or draw encounter maps (in D&D).

For D&D, I have a binder with notes and 3×5 cards with critter stats [with a hole punched in the corner on a ring], the stack of books is to my right on the floor.

For PTA, I have the stack of budget (poker chips) to my left and the slim reference book either inside my travel binder or out on the table. I have old business cards with each of the PC contacts, their nemesis, personal set, and recurring NPCs.

#7 Comment By Sarlax On May 15, 2008 @ 9:02 am

The primary tool is my laptop, but I also use a The World’s Greatest Screen, a dice tray, and book holders.

My laptop is absolutely key and it’s migrated into the Mage game in which I play (and which Martin runs). I’m running our 3.5 D&D game and I’ve got both the Hypertext SRD and PDF versions of most D&D books available on my system. The Hypertext SRD allows me to review almost any of the core rules at will while the PDFs mean I have almost the full WoTC D&D product line with me all of the time.

The Screen is a two-sized four-panel beast that can be completely customized. Although the outward facing side is usually empty, the interior has the stats for NPCs I’m using constantly, quick notes, and similar details.

Behind the screen are both my dice tray and at least one book holder; the holder’s just a cheap folding wire item I picked up at Barnes & Noble, but it’s been very helpful. I use it to prop open one of the two or three books I bring with me to the games that I know I’ll be referencing constantly.

What does this say about me as a GM? I think it shows that I have an almost pathological need to be as informed as possible about the game I’m playing. In my role as storyteller I don’t want to get bogged down figuring out how the rules work, but as a referee, I owe it to the group to apply the rules fairly and consistently so the players have the structure they expect.

#8 Comment By Knight of Roses On May 15, 2008 @ 9:20 am

Dice, scratch paper, occasionally a printout of notes (rarely more than a page) and tea/coffee and I am good to go.

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 15, 2008 @ 9:22 am

Ooooooo, I gotta get a personal kobold assistant. That would be cool.

Telas: A cigar box. Brilliant idea. That’s worth looking into as an alternative to a screen.

#10 Comment By Wallwalker On May 15, 2008 @ 9:46 am

My setup is not very organized at the moment.

If I had a laptop I’d definitely use it. I’d love to be able to pull up any one of the many, many, many tables that I’d like to have handy at will, especially since I don’t have a GM screen at the present moment (well, not in actual screen form.) Besides, it would be much easier to take notes on a laptop.

Right now? Steno notebook for notes, clipboard/binder for tables and important rules. We try to have all of the rulebooks handy, because I’m trying to learn them well enough to not need the rulebooks but I’m not quite there yet. I have a whiteboard I’d like to use for maps, but I really can’t, because it’s too big for our current setup.

#11 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 15, 2008 @ 9:51 am

I have a nice felt lined dice tray now and a dice cup as well (no more wild dice rolls leaving the table). I’ve ditched the GM’s screen and try to have nothing in front of me other than my notes and the battlemat. I do have my laptop, but that is off to the side so that it isn’t blocking the player’s view of myself.

#12 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On May 15, 2008 @ 10:38 am

My former mise en place (thank you, Anthony Bourdain) involved sitting on the floor, even if my players were at the table, with my giant homemade screen and everything spread out around me. Now I run an online chat-based game, and things are different.

I bought a second monitor for my PC, so I can have my chat window and IM screens on one side, and the campaign’s Obsidian Portal (and the hypertext d20 SRD and Excel initiative track, when necessary) on the left. I also have a binder crammed with printouts from the campaign website in case I can’t access it during the game.

My desk is too small for much more than one open rulebook, a small box for die-rolling, a pad of scratch paper for tracking HP, and my snacks.

I keep a small stack of rulebooks on the floor, propped against the computer for quick reference. Everything else is on a shelf just one chair-slide away…

The personal kobold assistant sounds good, but why not a gnome? ; )

I agree with lordvreeg, though; I always feel unprepared, no matter how much prep I do.

And I still have my 1st Edition screen for the same reason; I might make a 4E screen with that art on the front…

#13 Comment By John Arcadian On May 15, 2008 @ 11:00 am

It seems like laptops have gained a lot of popularity at the gaming table. I know I’m almost lost without mine anymore, but I do keep a back up of the important always use information in a binder. I’ve straight improved a few sessions without the laptop thanks to that binder.

#14 Comment By John Arcadian On May 15, 2008 @ 11:19 am

@DarthKrzysztof:
I wouldn’t want to put a gnome through that! A kobold though, meh. :)

#15 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 15, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

Laptops are great for GMing; I’m mixed on them for playing.

Rule-heavy games like D&D can definitely use one (especially with Excel character sheets), but light systems like Savage Worlds don’t really need a laptop.

#16 Comment By rhev On May 15, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

My hand is my DM screen (not that the numbers that come up on the dice mean a god damn thing) and all the rules I need are either in my head, or can be found by flipping through one of the core books that sit on the floor next to my chair.

I DONT like it when books / charts / tables / sheets / etc take away from a game.

#17 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 15, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

Fun question!

I’m kind of old school with my setup, but it works well for me. Behind my 4-panel Mage screen I have:

– Dice tray
– Dice
– My watch (for tracking our progress)
– The session we’re playing
– Blank notebook for (wait for it…) notes

To one side of me is my iPod, plugged into a set of speakers, with playlists for the chronicle theme, ambient BG, sinister scenes and combat. I usually weight down the cord with a couple of books I expect to use during the game.

To the other side I keep the core nWoD book and core Mage book.

On the floor sits my master binder for the chronicle (NPCs, locations, backstory, PCs with backgrounds, etc.), the huge binder that holds all our past sessions with notes plus whatever other books I think I’ll need (at a minimum, the travel guide for Las Vegas, where the game is set, and a pocket map).

I’ve got a couple of pictures online of my setup, actually (NERD LEVEL ORANGE! AWHOOGAH!):

Part of my GMing setup
A wider view

#18 Comment By Grogtard On May 15, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

Hm. Part of the set depends on the game. Currently, I’m running the Dawn of Defiance campaign for Star Wars Saga Edition. For that I usually have dice, the adventure already printed out with my own hand written notes in the margins and a legal pad. If I need to do a hidden roll, then I can just hide the dice behind some notes.
Of course for some other games I have used my lap top but sometimes I feel like it gets in the way too much. I usually ended up putting it on an empty chair next to me.
Every game needs an ample and steady supply of caffeine and munchies.

#19 Comment By robosnake On May 15, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

I’d say that I generally roll fast and loose. I often roll dice on the table, and I do things like let players use Action Points to make me re-roll dice at dramatic junctures. This means that the effect is the same as when I used to fudge the dice behind a screen, but its more fun, I think, to hand more control over to the players.

I tend to have my books out in front of me, and sometimes (when I do run D&D) I have the minis I’ll be using out in front of me as well as foreshadowing – other times I have them in my bag as a surprise to bring out later.

I used to buy into the fortress of solitude deal, but not really anymore. I haven’t even had a screen in years at this point. Occasionally I’ll roll behind my hand or a book for something, but if its a system where the dice can actually add drama to a situation, I let them do their job.

#20 Comment By zacharythefirst On May 16, 2008 @ 4:13 am

Our current setup is nice, but I have a little less room than I normally would. I’m a fast-n’-loose GM, but I have a fortress going on. :)

There are books on either side of my Rolemaster screen. Behind my screen, aside from my notes is my Campaign Coins treasury. My GameMastery Combat Tracker is on top of one of the book stacks until call into action. My cell phone is right there, for tracking the time (its on vibrate or silent).

At a small side table at elbow’s length, I have my box of minis, unused Tact-Tiles, and box o’ props.

In our next campaign, I’d like to start using my laptop more and incorporate a project for the art and maps I have on there, and we’ll see how that changes the layout.

Martin: Your group is tidier than mine. :)

#21 Comment By jasales On May 16, 2008 @ 9:08 am

Sarlax – where did you get that 4 pannel screen? I have been looking for one for the past few years. There used to be one called Master Screen but it isn’t made anymore. Does anyone know where one can be had?

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#23 Comment By age On May 22, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

I’m also in the Fortress category (a la ZacaharyTheFirst). I even have a separate table for my setup…kinda like my pulpit. Don’t like to mix with the peasants! And c’mon, how can you possibly call yourself a GM/DM without the quintessential Game Master Trademark = the GM SCREEN! If it’s not up, it’s not on!

#24 Comment By PlanetNiles On May 25, 2008 @ 2:57 am

Once upon a time I had a decent set up with a folding dining table opened up for the game and covered with a hex or grid mat for mapping. Book shelves were within reach on one side and my desk and computer on the other. The computer’s media player for music and internet connection for “emergency research”. I’d use two folders for the campaign; one for setting notes and the other for characters.

Now I’m married with 2.4 and although we now have more square-footage we actually have less clear floor. So the table remains folded away, the mapping mats in storeage, and we all sit around on chairs, rolling dice on our laps or small folding tray tables. The book shelves groan above my desk, which sits in the corner of the living room.

However we still game twice weekly; typically two separate campaigns, one run by myself and the other by my wife.

We don’t actually own a set of the 3.5 d20 rules so we’re somewhat dependent upon the SRD. For Traveller we often turn to travellermap.com which we’ve discovered we can get through our phones, turning them into convincing props.


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