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Three of My Favorite Items for GMing

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.

Mini poker chips. [1]

The smaller and more aggressive cousin of the 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:

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.

Dowel rods. [2]

Fun fact: Did you know that a few well placed strikes with a dowel rod can be used to protect the GM’s food from ravenous players? It’s true!

“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].

#3 The bandanna.

Assorted bandannas. [4]

Bandannas! The perfect fashion accessory for gang bangers, train robbers, pirates, and now GMs!

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!

31 Comments (Open | Close)

31 Comments To "Three of My Favorite Items for GMing"

#1 Comment By Volcarthe On June 27, 2011 @ 8:58 am

The Dice Bucket.

Specifically, mine is an old metal style lunchbox with fasteners, but anything that holds a ton of dice will do. Invariably people forget dice, or find extra dice, or whatever. Extras go in the bucket, the bucket stays at the table for anyone who forgot theirs.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 27, 2011 @ 10:48 am

How could you forget the two best system-neutral tools that a GM could own?

Of course, I’m talking about Eureka and the forthcoming Masks. 😉

Kurt the Marketing Whore

#3 Comment By Zig On June 27, 2011 @ 11:17 am

I never would have thought of a dowel! Very interesting idea. Though I have to admit that in my last D&D campaign I would have been sorely tempted to whack the cell phones out of the hands of the two players who always sat to my direct right at the gaming table. Anyone have much luck banning these devices? I’ve never minded “side bar” discussions between players when the focus is not on them. Preferably when they are doing so in character planning, plotting, brain storming…But the constant need to text or to show videos to one another is a completely different thing. The only success I had was when I would txt them myself from behind my screen: “Save vs. Breath Weapon.”

As mentioned, index cards! Love those things. Love having stats and notes on each PC on hand during the game of when planning a session. A card for the campaign’s primary NPCs including notations of past history between each and the PCs. Used as plot outlines (though I swear, it seems I wind up putting those aside as things turn in a direction I had not conceived of, but that is one of the things I love most about GMing).

For combat I’ve used small hexagonal wall/floor tile. Can get sheets of those cheap at home improvement stores. Ones that are white or cream colored take pencil marks very nicely. Instant mini’s! And, if you have a coffee can full of them to use, you can often prep most of those needed ahead of time. If something comes up and you need them it’s pretty quick to prep them. A bit of rubbing with an eraser and they are good to be reused.

@Kurt: True market whoring would be if you Gnomes put a huge, blinking timer on the front page counting down until pre-ordering begins for Masks 🙂

#4 Comment By Bravemaximus On June 27, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

My two favorites are: a white board (not to put mini’s on) and an extendable fork.

The white board is fairly obvious. It’s a great place to put notes and keep track of stuff, and you can draw whatever you are thinking of. Sometimes, it’s just easier to draw the symbol that’s on the floor than describe it.

The extendable fork is similar to the dowel. Look at it here: [5] The fork can be used as a pointer, to tell people its their turn, and (surprisingly) move minis around the board, because the tongs and flat front make it a good device for gripping a unit. It makes me feel a bit like Napoleon, pushing miniatures across the battle mat.

#5 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On June 27, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

I use poker chips to represent moving above or below the “default” plane in combat. For example, if a spacefighter moved 4 hexes up, then I’d stack four white chips beneath it. If it moved 3 hexes below the plane, then I’d stack 3 white chips and a red chip (to represent down instead of up) beneath it. It works pretty well.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On June 27, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

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).

Available from where?

The last time I saw these things for sale was in a small toy shoppe in Grande Prairie, Alberta, a 12 hour journey by plane and four invasive body searches from here. I wanted these things for Savage Worlds and a number of other uses but couldn’t find anyone selling them for luvner money.

#7 Comment By Roxysteve On June 27, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

1) Chessex vinyl mat (Hugh Jass version)

2) Colored wet-erase pens for same (bright eight color set from office supply store, with boring four color set in reserve in car trunk in case brain malfunctions (again).

3) Spritzer.

4) Paper towel.

5) Box o’ Zombies

The mat goes down in any game of mine to protect lfgs tables from player mishaps. Everything wipes off – food spills, soda spills etc. so no harm no foul.

With pens I now have universal tactical/strategic map. We can use it with the grid, D20-style or without for Call of Cthulhu-esque house layouts etc.

Spritzer and paper towel for cleanup, food or wet erase pen.

Box o’ zombies used for figures (write identifiers on bases with pens). Mine has the contents of several different Bag o’ Zombies!!! in it. I like to use Zombie Clowns for The Enemy (whimsical, that’s me). If I were starting today I might use a Bag o’ Skeletons instead. You can’t beat the price.

#8 Comment By Zig On June 27, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

[6] – White board! Excellent idea.

Forgot all about it. A friend was running a weeknight game at my apartment (the other friend’s place we could have used wasn’t the best option as his wife headed for bed early). I had a white board hanging by the dining room table that I had used on and off for things like project flow and database schema. The GM used it to list all kinds of things and to diagram things in his Serenity game.

Also neglected to mention that I’ve used a large piece of Lucite. Lay it on the table over a large piece of two of white poster board with grids/hexes/whatever. White dry erase boards you can quickly make a large map the group can all see. Very useful for combat when you have a large group at a large table.

#9 Comment By Zig On June 27, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

[6] – Oh, and extendable fork == awesome!

#10 Comment By Zig On June 27, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

Oh, and forgot: from the player side I learned when playing in D&D 4th edition RPGA events from some veteran players to put my character sheets in slip on plastic overlays so I could mark it up each combat with a dry erase marker and then clear it as needed for the next encounter. Very handy and you can then put them all in a binder without worrying about the paper ripping at the holes.

#11 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 27, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

[7] – I actually prefer to buy the sets of miniature dice in tubes and keep a few in my pocket (my goal is to one day have a complete GM’s kit that fits into a pocket), but a community bucket of dice is great way to ensure that everybody is ready to game.

[8] – Those are not merely tools, they are GMing essentials. 😉

[9] – My approach is that you may use your phone as much as you want, but you have to leave the table in order to do it. I am also the kind of guy who will demand that you leave the movie theater if you have a long phone call in the middle of the film. Just because you have a phone does not mean the rest of us have to make accommodations for your use of it. Bit of a pet peeve of mine.

[6] – Along the lines of the fork idea I was looking at one of those extendable back scratchers while in line at the hardware store one day (what don’t they sell at hardware stores nowadays?), and I think that would work well too without the risk of accidentally sticking someone with a fork.

[10] – I like that idea. I could see it working for a variety of situations (space combat, underwater settings, etc.), and I will have to try it one day.

[11] [12]


I don’t know what to tell you. If it is that difficult for you to find mini poker chips then it sounds like you probably live in an area where it would be difficult to acquire other stuff as well. You will have to order online and pay a premium for them. I just got them from my FLGS, and if you have one then you can always ask if they can order some for you.

I’ve used Bag o’ Zombies to represent plenty of different things during combat. I also like to use the minis that came with my old Blood Bowl game as well.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 27, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

[11] – And now to be serious:


I hope that helps you out. If you do go to any gaming conventions I often see the Koplow Games tubes of mini poker chips being sold by vendors next to things like dice. You might also find the game LCR for cheap at some stores which includes the mini poker chips as well.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 27, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

[14] [15]

Scroll down to the stackable poker chips; the 1″ size is perfect for most gaming.

#14 Comment By Roxysteve On June 27, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

[16] – A bunch of aggregators pointing nowhere productive, sites blocked by my firewall as known threats, a “meeple” site and a place that sports the same graphic you used which will sell me them – at a minimum of 1000 per color at a time.

Nice one Patrick. You got me.

8oD 8oD 8oD

#15 Comment By Randalthor On June 27, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

[8] – Capitalist 😛

#16 Comment By Volcarthe On June 27, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

Oh, and for everyone using whiteboards and dry-erase (like the Tact-tiles or chessex maps): Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.

There has been nothing that keeps my dry/wet erase boards/mats cleaner.

While Cell Phone/Laptop use is generally discouraged at my table, there is one major exception: Paranoia. Cell Phone snapshots sent to The Computer are always accepted as undeniable evidence against all commie mutant traitors.

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On June 27, 2011 @ 7:27 pm

Thanks Patrick, Kurt. Those links were great resources. When I started playing Savage Worlds and Dresden Files RPG, believe it or not I spent hours searching for 1″ poker chips with no success. Using Google & Amazon. In fact, it took me quite a while to track down a local source for the full size Bicycle chips. Seems there was a shortage of them.

#18 Comment By Razjah On June 27, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

1) My voice. I can do a decent enough number of different voices and sounds that my players can remeber different characters by voice. I have been called out for changing a major NPC’s voice on accident from session to session. Using poor accents, decent accents, old lady voices, squeaky voices, adn a variety of sounds both animal and made up works wonders. The sizzle of an electric attack. The growl of the beast as it stalks the party. Adding these little sounds entertains my players and helps them imagine the same thing that I imagine.

2) My players. My most energetic players will often give me enough information to come up with a side quest or buy me enough time as they talk amongst themselves that I can sketch out the next scene becuase something radically changed. Waiting to talk a few seconds often buys me a few minutes to emergency plan.

#19 Comment By Necrognomicon On June 27, 2011 @ 11:08 pm

A three-minute egg timer, the kind you get with Boggle.

In games with combat systems that encourage players to spend too long analyzing every possibility each and every 6 sec round, a three minute egg timer is great way of keeping combat moving at a decent pace:

When your initiative comes up, you have three minutes to decide what to do on your turn, if you can’t commit to an action in those three minutes, you are delayed and the next initiative gets to go. Note that this doesn’t mean you have to resolve all your actions and rolls in those three minutes, just commit to them.

A group of 3 or more players in 3.5e combat will find they still have more than enough time to over-think everything provided they actually pay attention to what’s happening (instead of texting for instance).

#20 Comment By drow On June 28, 2011 @ 12:28 am

1) macbook
2) [17]
3) one-inch squares cut from various colors of craft foam

#21 Comment By Zig On June 28, 2011 @ 9:15 am

[18] – Love the egg timer idea! Thanks for that. Definitely going to use it.

#22 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 28, 2011 @ 9:28 am

[19] – Developing your voice is definitely a good thing for any GM to pursue, and energetic players are sure to increase the awesome with any game, but those are not items that you can keep in a GM’s kit. Are there any particular tools that you use while GMing?

[18] – I picked up 3 small plastic hourglasses at a convention once that I keep in my GM’s kit. Each depletes at a different rate (1, 2, and 3 minutes). I use them for adding tension to the game, and they work great! Nothing better than describing a desperate situation to the player and then putting down one of those puppies and saying “You need to act before the sand runs out.” The look on the player’s face is usually one of “Oh shit…”. 🙂

[20] – How do you use those craft foam squares?

#23 Comment By drow On June 28, 2011 @ 10:37 am

just like poker chips. the paladin uses white squares for his divine challenge mark, red squares are supposed to be used when an enemy is bloodied (but i usually forget to place them), etc. we used to use them to indicate elevation, but now we use pizza box support stands for that.

#24 Comment By Zig On June 28, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

[21] – Hour glasses! That is also awesome. Letting the players watch as their alloted time sinks away like that is great for making the tension their characters would be feeling visceral. Another great idea I’m going to have to make use of in my own games.

Big thanks to everyone in this thread for giving me so many great tools to add to my game.

#25 Comment By Lee Hanna On June 28, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

Way back when I ran at college, the student union’s rooms had chalkboards. {For all I know, they now have whiteboards?} I would chalk in PC and NPC positions during firefights, and write in the ranges between them. If someone moved or went down, I could change things easy & quick. I do have a board in my house, but not set up anywhere (yet).

TV-dinner tray: set it up at the DM’s end of the table, for more space for notes, books or minis yet to be seen. You can set up the GM screen there, and not have it blocking your view of the table while still be able to read it.

#26 Comment By shadowacid On June 28, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

My basics are:

1) Something to write on. Just some scratch paper is fine, but I want to be able to keep track of my bad guys and draw combat areas if I need to.

2) Space to move. I’m very animated as a GM and want to be able to walk and move a bit. I like setting my GM space a little away from the play area, it keeps me moving back and forth between the two and I don’t need to use a screen or anything, which I don’t like anyway. At our home, where we usually play, our dinning room table is close to the island in the middle of the kitchen. My players set up at the table and I put my stuff on the island and I stand between the two where I can have both my stuff and my players accessible on either side of me.

#27 Comment By SavageTheDM On June 29, 2011 @ 12:00 am

WOW I love this I have read some really cool ideas here and somethings that I think I need to pick up. I have tried to use and do keep alot of different things in my GM’s kit but I tend to forget to use some of them in the middle of game.

things I use commonly.
1. index cards: I discovered these by accident when I was just buying some simple supplies one day. I have fallen in love ever since and these made me remember whose turn it was.

2. Silly Putty: works awesomely for holding tiles in place, making fun monsters and Terrain and all kinds of other reasons even to mark status changes or effects on monsters. WARNING: don’t leave in reach of players. one of them will start playing with it.

3. a Cell phone: only for GM to use but comes in handy. I mostly use it for the calculator but I know that there is a whole lot of other things to use it for. Just don’t let your players use them and don’t call anyone with it during a game.

I recently purchased a bag o zombies for my necromancer campaign so I hope to see it become popular in my group. I am also bringing the 1 minute long hourglass back to the table I have two of them somewhere…and something that should not be under estimated is Pencils. The GM should always have some extra pencils with him and/or a pencil sharpener.

#28 Comment By Donogh On June 29, 2011 @ 5:43 am

I didn’t really think I used props as such, til I thought about how I treat my chair. Nowadays I’m on a swivel/adjustible office-style chair when GMing. So how I sit is a definite signal when roleplaying an NPC.
Also, if I stop just looking at a player and rotate to face them directly, it’s a pretty clear signal (I think) that they’re getting some spotlight action.
(The one thing I can’t do which I would be able to do if I was on an old-fashioned kitchen chair is actually turn the chair around and sit with the back in front)

#29 Comment By tman On June 29, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

[16] – Patrick, you need to move to Austin with Telas and I so you can watch movies at Alamo Drafthouse. Why? Here’s why…


#30 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 29, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

[23] – If the housing market ever gets back to a state where a person may sell their home without losing money on it a move to Austin is definitely an option for me. I’m a little tired of the cost of living here in the Chicago area plus the winters.

#31 Comment By Techieninja On July 3, 2011 @ 10:38 am

The second game that I played in my life was a Pathfinder game with a GM who used clay/play-dough to portray enemies in combat. I decided then to utilize that in games where such things matter. You can sculpt different shapes with different colors to portray different enemies on the battlefield, you can vary the size of the enemy to be proportional to the players, and the players that defeat an enemy get the honor to squish it.
And I can tell you that as a player, squishing is very, very satisfying.

#32 Pingback By My GM’s Kit for Gen Con 2011 On July 21, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

[…] that I removed the scratcher head from. The idea came from a reader at Gnome Stew in response to this article that I wrote. Not only can I use it as a pointer, but it makes for a great improvised prop. It is so versatile […]