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Game master tips for Excel: How to speed up your gameplay

By Sean S.

Use Microsoft Excel for note taking, map-making, and making combat tables with formulas for dice rolls.

After many years of GMing I finally came one day to Excel. Previously, I had only ever used this tool for bookkeeping and doing my bills. It had never occurred to me to use it as a GM tool. Now that I have, I can't seem to live without it. From what I've found, this is a huge benefit to numbers based games. My personal preference is D20 based systems, but I can see benefits to a lot of other systems (even White Wolf with the bubble filled character sheets).

1. Note Taking and Reference

One thing I find makes my game run smoother is a short paragraph of pre-game notes, followed by a paragraph of post-game summary.

I have a separate section in my Excel file for each. This comes in handy for organizing loot for specific encounters and assigning XP post game. The biggest drawback I find is the manner that Excel truncates lines of text.

Solve this by formatting the cells for word-wrap, auto-fit the size of the cell, and you have a nicely packed paragraph. It's also easier to remember things when you look at that box for XP and it's still blank from the night before.

Blah Blah Blah. PCs did something cool. Gained Phat Lewtz and many XPs

I also keep a shorthand form of each character sheet in my game workbook. This is handy when a player forgets their sheet or for quick reference when rolling secret checks. Since I know all of their stats I can make my true rolls without their knowledge, and then occasionally ask them for their stats to throw them off.

Another aspect of knowing the PCs' stats comes in effect when a horror or suspense game is involved. Players find a certain safety in knowing they have X hit points left. Take the HP away from them and describe how they feel when they get hit. You might find the fighter is a lot less likely to jump into the fray with 1 hit die left when he knows how bad that knife wound feels.

2. Map-Making and Gridding

At first I didn't think of using Excel for making maps. I searched and searched like many other GMs before me for a set of map making tools that I liked when I had the answer there before me all along.

After a little creative width and height adjustments, Excel becomes a nice and nearly endless sheet of graph paper. With all the symbols and letter sets available, it's easy to find small icons to represent pieces of furniture and the surrounding area.

Making walls and doors is as simple as using cell coloring and borders.

Throw in a small legend so you know what all those symbols stand for and you have yourself a dungeon.

I have found this to be exceptionally useful for plotting out combat sequences and difficult maneuvers. All of my players are visual, and I use my little netbook to zoom in on small sections of the map so the players can see their locations.

For those of you who enjoy a physical copy, enable grid lines and send it to your printer.

I still draw my terrain maps by hand or use a layered paint software, but this is a quick and easy way to integrate your battle maps into your GM tool.

Here is a small section of a ship-wrecked freighter I created for my post-apocalyptic D20 game:

A warning to all those who love miniatures; map-making in Excel has significantly reduced the number of whiteboard maps I have drawn out, and I haven't used my minis much since I started using it.

3. Combat Tables and Dice Rolling

Another great feature of Excel, though this one takes a lot more effort than the previous two, is the ability to make auto-calculating combat tables and arrays of dice.

It might be a little bit of work, but most of these can be based off of 1 simple function: =RANDBETWEEN(1,20). This one displays a common D20 random number.

Add in conditional formatting to highlight critical hits and fails and you have a quick way to perform combat and not even touch your dice.

I have simplified the table I use and you can download it to get you started (Excel 2007).

Here is what it looks like:

The full table I use has 3 blocks for different attacks and up to 10 monsters on the same table, all of their attacks and damage rolled simultaneously!

Conclusion

After awhile I started finding myself adding all sorts of reference tables into this same workbook.

I now have many different grid maps, a full scale world map, and a lot of Johnn's reference charts made it in there (urban encounters and wilderness encounters).

All this information in the same place makes it all too easy to switch between sheets if you quickly need to add a splash of flavor text and a name to a simple NPC or to quickly and stealthily check your PC's fortitude saves as they walk into a trap.

Number crunching aside, it's the best tool in my arsenal and there is a ton of excel based character sheets and reference material out there.

Good luck and have fun.