It has long been known that index cards are the duct tape in any GM’s kit. Cheap, plentiful, and versatile, index cards are great for everything from taking notes to improvising terrain for miniatures. So start using index cards if you do not already.
Now that I have tackled the obvious choice for any GM’s kit, let me share with you three items that I think should be just as common a tool for GMs as the index card. The first I have used for years, and the other two I have recently added to my GM’s kit because they have proven useful with my personal style of GMing.
#1 – The mini poker chip.
Lots of RPGs have various forms of game currency, like determination points in Icons and bennies in Savage Worlds. Or maybe there are special options that players can use at their discretion like action points in D&D 4e. Mini poker chips are perfect to help represent and keep track of such things when running a game. Available in many different colors these plastic counters are a little larger than a penny and sold in large quantities for cheap (I bought a bag of 200 chips in 4 colors for $3 once).
Here are just a few examples of how you can use mini poker chips at the table:
- use the chips as counters for ammo and item charges
- use different colors to represent various denominations of coins/money
- place them on miniatures and use different colors to represent various conditions (held, bloodied, etc.)
- you can use the chips themselves as minis for large battles with many opponents
You can find mini poker chips sold in a single color in tubes of 50, and I usually carry a couple of these in my pocket while at conventions even when I’m playing games and not running them. Many a time a convention GM has thanked me when I handed them a tube of mini poker chips to help them with some part of the game.
You can also use glass counter stones for everything that I suggested above, but I prefer the mini poker chips because they stack nicely and you can carry more in the same amount of space.
#2 The dowel rod.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” – West African proverb used fondly by Theodore Roosevelt.
Dowel rods are cheap and readily available at most hardware and home improvement stores. For about $1 you can buy a 3′ dowel rod with a diameter of 3/8″. Cut that rod in half and you have an excellent pointer for games with miniatures, especially if you add inch marks to the side using a pen or permanent marker. Just having a simple straight edge on hand is great for determining things like the line of sight for games where such things matter.
Another great use of the dowel rod is that it can be instantly improvised into a GM’s prop for role playing NPCs or scenes with. It is not hard to imagine how a dowel rod can represent a sword, wand, or rifle by just holding it appropriately. With a little bit more effort you can also portray a janitor mopping floors, a robotic rover collecting soil samples, a musician playing a flute, or a dwarf using a hammer and chisel to craft fine stonework with. A creative GM will find ways to bring NPCs to life with such a simple prop.
Plus the dowel rod can also help a GM to manage the group. Much like a conductor using a baton to conduct an orchestra, a GM can use the rod to point at the player’s character sheets (a much better alternative than to point the rod directly at the players) to indicate whose turn it is, and gently tapping the table with the rod is a great way to get the group’s attention. Just be sure to be respectful of the players when using the rod in such a way.
My only gripe with the dowel rod is that it does not fit into your pocket. Which is why I am looking into getting a telescoping pointer .
#3 The bandanna.
A bandanna is also a wonderful item to have on hand for use as an improvised prop when you are GMing. Wear it as a mask when you are portraying a bandit who just stole some little old lady’s purse, then pull it over your head to portray that little old lady as she thanks the PCs for returning her purse to her. Hold it in front of your face and then peer out from behind the side of it as you describe the terrified townspeople peeping out from behind their curtains as the PCs ride into town. Combine it with the dowel rod and hold the combo above your head as you describe the approach of an orc army waving its war banners high in the air. Again, a creative GM will find it easy to use a bandanna as a prop for various items in the game.
Bandannas are also useful for hiding items as well. Want to keep a dice roll secret? Keep the roll covered with a bandanna until it is time to reveal the result. Have a few miniatures that you do not want the players to see before the big moment when you place them on the table? Wrap them in a bandanna. Want to hide some text on a page that has a picture you want to show the group? Cover it with a bandanna.
Just like the mini poker chips you can keep a bandanna folded in your pocket so that you have it when you need it. Plus it seconds as a handkerchief which is always a good thing to have on hand (although you shouldn’t use it for anything else once that line has been crossed).
Those are my favorites, but what are yours?
You can tell a lot about a GM’s style based upon the tools that a GM prefers to use. I put a heavy emphasis on making my games entertaining events with lots of immersion into the game world, thus my preference for items that I can use as props while running the game. I also like for the items that I use to be flexible and easily adapted to unexpected needs, because I improvise a lot as a GM. That is why I do not use many GMing tools that are built for a particular purpose. My GM’s kit has to include items that work for my style of GMing.
This is why it is important for us GMs to honestly assess what kind of games we run and how we run them before selecting an item for our GM’s kit. What works for me may not work for you, and if that is the case you should not use that item when you GM. Find the tools that help you to run the game that you want to run. With the possible exception of index cards (seriously, those things are the universal tool for GMs) your GM’s kit should be as unique as your style of GMing is. That is the secret to building an effective GM’s kit.
Can you think of additional ways that a GM may use the three items highlighted in this article for running a game session with? What items are in your GM’s kit, and how do you use them? Share your opinions, ideas, and personal tips with the rest of us by leaving a comment below!