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GM Binder Tips for the Organized Gamemaster

by Johnn Four

1. First Figure Out The Purpose For Your GM Binder

Before you start photocopying, typing, cutting, folding and hole-punching, first think about your GMing style and how you want your GM binder to aid you during games.

For example, I'm left-handed and I twist books around to write in them rather than curl my wrist. I didn't think about this years ago when I spent hours creating and printing a series of template sheets for NPCs, game logs and encounters. At the next game I brought out my binder and realized too late that I couldn't possibly write in it, use my GM screen and provide enough table space for the players because I had to twist it all around to accommodate my crazy left-handed style. In fact, I have come to learn that a spiral-bound notebook best suits my note-taking style and ability.

Here are some example GM binder purposes that could affect how you plan and build yours:

  1. In-game reference

    You just want some brief rules and campaign information handy for quick reference. You don't intend to change the content of your binder much to reflect your current campaign because it's mostly a reference tool.
  2. Out of game reference

    You want an aid to help you plan and organize between game sessions. You have things like photocopied treasure tables, plot ideas and copies of the players' character sheets for inspiration and quick reference.
  3. Campaign reference

    You have all your current campaign information in your binder to help maintain campaign consistency, remind you about things and for fast quotation during play. You also have places for writing notes and ideas during the game to help keep all of your campaign details straight.
  4. Idea generator

    You might do a little or a lot of pre-session planning, but you also like to rely on lists, tables and articles during the game for ideas and inspiration.

Take a moment and think about what information you always need or wish you had handy during sessions. Also ask yourself "what information could I bring to the table that would improve my GMing?"

For example, when I added a names list to my binder the quality of my NPC names (and the ability to provide them without fumbling around during play) improved a hundred per cent.

2. Determine The Best Binder Style For Your Use

This tip is very similar to tip #1. Stop for a moment and think about how you would like to use, or interact with, your binder during play.

Here are some examples:

  1. On the game table

    You place your binder on the table. This might affect your binder size so that you can use it comfortably.

    It might also determine how you organize your binder information. For example, when I've put my binder on the table I've found that it quickly gets covered with dice, pens and other gaming stuff. So, I put my normal "resting" or default page at the back (usually a PC summary page). That allows me to access the rest of my binder info from the front without having to move anything.

  2. At a side table

    You place your binder in a clear spot, nearby, where it rests for most of the game. This lets you create an encyclopedic type of GM tool because flipping through it is easy. And adding temporary bookmarks and loose pages is not a problem because the binder is stationary and stable.

  3. In your hand or lap

    This is my favorite because it lets me take my information with me when I move around or pace. A portable binder needs to be easy to carry and flip through so I often find it's great to use while sitting at the game table as well.

  4. Pure reference or make notes in it too?

    Does your binder need to accommodate note-taking, or is it for reference only? A note-taking binder needs blank pages and the ability to add and remove pages as well. It should also have a solid cover for when you need to write while carrying it, if it's in an unstable spot, or if you're writing on an uneven or rough surface.

    In addition, you may need to organize your information in a special way, like a table binder, so that you can reference items and not lose your notes-page's place.

    Looking at tips #1 and #2, a little forethought can definitely save you some trouble, time and expense when constructing your binder.

3. Choose Your Type Of Binder

Thanks to subscribers' submissions, we have a great list of GM binders types that you can use or experiment with:

  • Standard binder: (1" - 3", hard cover or bendable, round rings or D-rings).
  • Zip-up binder (so you don't spill contents and to keep small children out).
  • Portfolio or personal organizer (options include calculator, pencil holder, loose paper pouch, binder and plush cover :).
  • File folder, 2 hole punch and 2 hole fastener at the top (a great method for storing loose sheets and fast reference).
  • Duo-tang (flexible, portable and especially versatile when used with plastic sheet covers).
  • Notebook or journal (small, large, undivided, 3 subject, spiral bound, hardbound, 3 hole punched, lined, graph, or blank paper).
  • Clipboard (another favorite: sturdy cover, fast paper organization and side pocket).
  • Accordion file (great for organizing loose sheets, pamphlets and cards for fast access).
  • Index cards (grouped and sorted in plastic boxes, multiple boxes for categories, see Readers' Tip #3 for more ideas).
  • Large, labelled envelopes (great for grouping similar types of loose papers such as maps, NPCs and character sheets).
  • Palm handheld computer (does anybody use these and have some tips to share?).
  • Campaign web site with computer at table.

4. Content Ideas For An Adventure-Style GM Binder

Again, thanks to great subscriber response, we have several ideas in tips #4-6 about just what, exactly, you could put into your binder:

  • Campaign synopsis, journal, log or notes.
  • Adventure or story outline.
  • Villains and important NPCs in their own section.
  • Minor NPCs, their roles and current or last-known locations.
  • Pre-generated NPC stat blocks.
  • Blank NPC sheets or forms.
  • Pre-made characters.
  • Copies of current player character sheets.
  • Maps of current campaign area.
  • Maps of game world and important areas.
  • Random plot ideas and outlines.
  • Plot hook ideas.
  • Random encounter ideas or brief descriptions.
  • Trap ideas.
  • Treasure ideas (grouped by mundane, valuable, low-magic/tech, high magic/tech).
  • Extra paper (graph, lined, blank).
  • Short adventure printouts you've created yourself or downloaded from the Internet.
  • Collectible card game cards for props.
  • Maps, character sheets and NPCs from past games.
  • Master list of current group treasure (especially unknown or unused magic/tech items).
  • Handouts and drawings.
  • Printouts of Roleplaying Tips Weekly :).
  • Pre-generated NPC personalities.
  • Campaign calendar.
  • Random puzzles.
  • History, legends, myths (random or campaign specific).
  • Rumours, gossip and tavern tales.
  • Recent, current and upcoming campaign news or events.
  • Character questionnaires and PC answers.

5. Content Ideas For A Reference-Style Binder

  • Game rules & tables.
  • House rules.
  • Fumble and critical hit charts.
  • Photocopies or printouts of spells, magic items, or weapons.
  • Details of favourite monsters, aliens or foes.
  • Map templates for fast map creation.
  • Blank character sheets.
  • Prices for goods and services.
  • Adventurer equipment kits for fast start-up.
  • Static campaign world info (such as gods, details on specific and important locations, economics).

6. Content Ideas For A Reference-Style Binder

  • "Dead Sheets" (dead characters and NPCs for re-use).
  • Hall of Fame (special PCs, NPCs, magic items and custom monsters).
  • Pencil bag (with holes for 3-ring binders to store pencils, dice, post-it notes).
  • Plastic sheet covers.

7. Organizing Binders

Putting a lot of information in your binder is one thing, but finding it is another. Here are some ideas for keeping all your facts, papers and notes straight:

  • Post-It notes and flags.
  • Dividers or tab sheets.
  • Write page numbers in top right corner and create a brief index.
  • Colour coded sheets (red for campaign info, yellow for rules, and so on).
  • Colour coded Post-It notes, bookmarks or flags.
  • Highlight important entries or headers for fast scanning.
  • Plastic sheet covers for rapid reorganization (slip new or updated pages in and out easily).
  • Hockey card holders for CC cards and props.
  • Use separate binders and books for different purposes (such as campaign info, reference, PC info, combat info).
  • Use a comb-bound binding machine to make neat, specific-purpose books.
  • Colour coded binders, envelopes, duo-tangs and folders.

And here are some section category ideas for dividers or colour coding:

  • PCs
  • NPCs
  • Campaign region(s), locations and locales
  • Misc. game world info
  • Rules
  • In-game aids and idea generators

8. Name Lists

On a special note about name lists, you have some great options for creating a handy gaming reference. You can create a master list of names from A-Z, or make several categorized lists. You can also make long lists for use while planning, and short lists for fast picking while gaming.

And for in-game lists, be sure to leave a wide margin for notes and cross-referencing. Go to the archives for a similar, previous tip on names lists.

Here are some example name categories to make lists for:

  • by NPC class type
  • by NPC race type
  • by region
  • by monster type
  • Cities, towns and villages
  • Inn, taverns
  • Street names
  • Geographical regions (rivers, mountains, swamps)