GM Organization – 5 Tips
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #359
- GM Organization – 5 Tips
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
GM Organization – 5 Tips
From Johnn Four
Layer Transparencies Over Maps
From your school days, do you remember the human body transparencies in the encyclopedia that showed the layers of bones, organs, and muscles? Each transparency was a plastic sheet that had opaque, translucent, and clear parts so that they layered over each other and told quite a story.
You can do this with maps as well, and the result is faster, more confident GMing. Layer plastic pages over maps and write on them with wet-erase or permanent fine-tip markers. This gives you the ability to put lots of info on the maps without marking the maps themselves. More importantly, it puts more information in front of you so it’s accessible and easy to scan while you GM.
Here’s what to do:
1) Scoop up a package of overhead projector transparencies (I use Staples product #SL5260).
2) Make a copy of your maps, if possible. That’ll keep your originals safe from tape and in-game use.
3a) Method 1. Tape 3 or 4 transparency sheets onto your map. Clear tape works best. Tape along one edge only so you can flip through the transparencies. Don’t forget to keep the map as the bottom layer.
3b) Method 2. My preference: hole punch the transparencies and map copies and put them all in a binder. Punch everything at the same time with edges all lined up so you can roughly calibrate all the sheets to the map.
4) Decide what information to put on what layer. If you use a binder, re-ordering sheets is easy. If you’ve taped everything together, plan things out well so you get your layers the way you want because changing the order of the sheets is a huge pain.
What information you draw on each layer is a matter of GM taste and style. Here’s how I do it:
Layer 0: Source Map – bottom layer
The map goes on the bottom layer so it can show through all the transparency layers.
Layer 1: Custom Mapping
Next to the map layer I draw my customization. If I need to modify the map to suit my campaign, I draw and squiggle the revisions here. I use black ink or ink colored closest to the map lines.
I find it best to use darker ink colors for the lower layers so that things don’t look as bright and crazy, and don’t compete for your eye so much. This makes information on each layer easier to see and scan. Map lines should be clear through all the layers, though.
Layer 2: Secret Doors, Traps, Hazards, Doors
On the layer next to the map I note secret doors, traps, and hazards if they are missing or poorly labeled on the source map. Green ink.
In addition, if there are game rules involved, I’ll note those as well. For example, doors in D&D have difficulty ratings for opening, secrets doors have ratings for searching, traps have ratings for detection. All are great to see on the map versus fishing around in notes.
One thing that gets me all the time are characters with passive, always-on abilities. For example, elves in D&D can detect a secret door just by walking near it. Having secret doors and their detection ratings on the map helps me remember to let elf characters know if they’ve discovered these things or not.
Layer 3: Monsters, NPCs, Factions
I like to know who lairs where. Drawing monster types and NPC names where they dwell on the map lets me see at a glance the population type and density of an area.
It speeds up my GMing because I anticipate in advance who the PCs are approaching. I find my mental picture has more time to form, and so my understanding and descriptions of the situation are better.
In addition, population labels help me determine realistic wandering monsters, and who can hear and see what as the PCs fight and crash their way through an area.
You can also draw borders around any groupings to quickly determine territory, factions, alliances, and resource access. This is mostly useful during the design stage, but it helps with descriptions and dynamic location reactions to the PCs’ intrusion.
Layer 4: Notes And Miscellaneous Items
Ahhh, the good, old miscellaneous bucket. The bane of organization systems everywhere. Notes about terrain, lighting, mood, and other descriptive or important elements go on this layer.
At this point, depending on the size of the areas I’m drawing over, there’s usually not much room. So, I’ll use arrows and callouts and put notes mostly in the margins.
Yellow or green ink.
Layer 5: Pre-Rolled Skill Checks
Depending on the campaign, I’ll pre-roll some things for the PCs to speed up gameplay if the PCs’ abilities aren’t likely to change before their visit. Search, Spot, and Listen type checks are prime candidates.
Layer 6: PC Detection And Senses
If it starts getting tricky managing all the methods the party can detect things through magical means, equipment, or abilities, I’ll add a new top layer with zones and detectable objects marked.
For example, detect magic, detect evil, heat scanners, FLIR systems, and so on. I put this as the top layer so I can flip the page over easily and remove the visual noise these notes tend to make.
Red or yellow ink.
Store Tiles In Binders
I recently found an optimal storage system for all my D&D tiles. I purchased a few different plastic page holder sizes and a pair of 2″ binders.
Now I can store my tiles so each is accessible and I don’t need to flip through a jumble to find the right one. In addition, the page holders are transparent, so I can see both sides of every tile. The binder format makes it easy to group tiles.
I keep a few empty page holders at the front of the binders so I can pull tiles out in advance for maps I’ll be using next session, saving even more time and hassle while GMing.
Here’s a short list of the page holders that I’ve found work for the D&D terrain tiles:
- Trading Card Pages. Pages have baseball card-sized pockets. (Avery 76016)
- Business Card Holders. (Avery 75355)
- Photo Pages for 4×6 photos. (Avery 78628)
- Disk Organizer Pages. (Avery 78601) These pages are designed to hold disks and CDs. They’re not transparent though, so I’m looking for a better product.
A Place For Everything, And Everything In Its Place
This is a more abstract tip, but it’s key for organizing anything. Half the battle for staying organized for GMing is knowing where to find things when you need them. Fumbling for charts or stats or tiles slows the game down and might frustrate you. Shuffling through papers, Post-Its, or computer files questing for notes as you try to plan a session is a de-motivator. Looking for a reference book mid- idea amongst a large collection or in several book piles spread throughout the house is an inspiration killer.
If everything has a place and everything is in its place, you always know where to look. You have peace of mind from lack of clutter as well. When inspiration strikes, you don’t falter by not knowing where to put things or where to find them when needed.
I’ve been in both situations: organized and disorganized, and for me being organized helps me be a much better GM.
If everything is in its place, that means you need a place for everything. The book Getting Things Done by David Allen is a great guide to getting organized. The author advises putting all your pending and disorganized stuff in a giant pile and then sorting through it over a weekend.
For my RPG stuff, I took a staged approach last year instead and organized in phases, over a period of months, with great success:
First, I made a list of categories of RPG stuff I had to organize. After the list was done, I went back and broke down certain categories into sub-categories. Books, for example. I have modules, rules systems, game worlds, general reference, and other types of books, and it didn’t make sense to lump all these into one stack of books.
Next, looking over my inventory list, I realized I had different types of media that I couldn’t file together into the same system:
- Loose papers (years of mad musings)
- Computer notes (session plans, NPCs, writing, etc.)
- Computer files (software, maps, books, art, etc.)
Just figuring this out made my task much easier because I realized I didn’t have to create a grand unified organization bucket for everything.
This was a tricky one, and I’m still refining it today. Before I started sorting and filing and shuffling, I took a step back and tried to envision my ideal GMing set- up. How would I want to use all this stuff? Where would I want it? How would I want to access it?
I tried picturing me doing planning, GMing at the game table, reading, doing session prep, and at work or on the road when an inspiring idea hits.
After mulling this over, I crafted a rough framework of how I’d work as GM between and during sessions. This gave me enough to go on to start organizing my stuff.
For example, I used to organize my books by game system and edition. I realized I’d rather have all the monster and NPC stuff in one section, all the game worlds in another, all the magic items information in another, modules in their own space, and so on. Fortunately, this division works on the computer for notes and files, as well as for books and papers.
I created another list of gaming stuff I had to sort out and noted the final location for each. Game notes, past campaign binders, miniatures, books, comics, sound files, computer programs, props, and so on.
For any organization task, I’ve found it’s easiest to pile similar things together, do a sweep of everything, and then work out final position.
In the past, for example, I’d find a sheet of paper and immediately start to look for a spot for it. Binder, folder, or box? Sorted with other pieces of paper?
Doing this slows down organization so much because you get lost in the details and nothing gets done. You lose momentum and motivation. Slotting a piece of paper might take a couple of minutes. Multiply by a whole bunch of papers that have been spread around the house, into numerous binders, and shuffled haphazardly in boxes, and hours can pass before you even get to the other things, such as books and computer files.
I find it easiest and quickest to create a pile of papers, a pile of books, and a directory of computer files and worry about sorting later. If I come across an interesting piece of paper while rooting through old campaign binders, I just stack it on the paper pile and move on.
I’m not one for throwing stuff out, especially gaming stuff. However, based on good advice I received, I tried to find a reason to discard everything I was forced to organize. Some stuff went to recycling, some went to the used book store. By the end of the process I was still left with a ton of stuff, but at least I knew it was stuff I wanted.
It took several weeks of brief energy spurts to pile things up. Once completed though, I was able to take a step back and look at the volume of items I had to store, per category. This told me what kind of storing solution was required, and this approach saved me money because I didn’t go out and buy boxes or totes at the beginning, only to realize the sizes were wrong or the style was incorrect for what I had to store.
Once I had containers I started filing. This took a lot of time, but that’s what watching TV is for – multitasking. 🙂 I was in no rush and tackled one pile at a time. I often divided piles into smaller piles for easier sorting. This worked well.
For example, I cleared out my filing cabinet and recycled/shredded a whole bunch of useless papers. This gave me room to file my gaming papers. I went through my stack of paper notes and divided it into smaller category piles, such as world ideas, Roleplaying Tips ideas, past campaigns/memorabilia, campaign and adventure ideas, and so on. Once I had a pile for each best-use category, it was easier to sort within each pile.
As I filed, I found more stuff I was able to part with, as well. It’s never too late to toss something away. 🙂
Distinct Edges But Large Categories
David Allen advises keeping things strictly in their own place or category. If the edges between categories blurs, then chaos ensues because your stuff could now be in two or more possible places.
To avert nuclear meltdown, I’ve found it effective to not drill down too far into sub-categories.
For example, I have numerous modules and adventures from several D&D editions. I could sort modules by character level, game setting, or rules edition. For the value I get though, I’m happy just having a central spot for all modules. If I need a specific title, I’ll flip through the pile. The important thing is, I know exactly where to go to find all my modules, and I know all modules are in one place, so searching is stress-free and usually quick.
File As You Go
the beauty of doing a bunch of grunt work up front in figuring out what you’ve got, where you’re gonna put it, and then putting it there is you have a clean system for filing new stuff that comes across your desk.
It’s at this point most GM organization breaks down. You spend a shiny Saturday afternoon organizing all your stuff, but it’s not a system that scales or is easy to maintain, so one year later you have to do it all over again.
If you find a place for everything (i.e., good planning, good storage solutions), and everything is in its place, it’s easy to take that piece of paper you wrote notes on while standing in line at the bank and filing it when you get home. There’s less resistance to put it away because you don’t have to stress out over where it goes. You’ve got a specific, accessible, handy spot for it – and there’s a bunch of similar stuff there already to keep it company. 🙂
Use Internet Bookmarks For Session Planning
If you use a computer at the table, you’ll benefit from using bookmarks to track the stuff you need for each session.
Delicious is a good site for organizing links to online locations, images, and files. You can assign each bookmark one or more category keywords to keep things grouped and easy to find.
For each bookmark you need next session, assign the session name, date, or number as a new category keyword (tag). For example, ForgeOfFury, 26APR2007, Session026.
In your browser, make a folder for each session and put in copies of bookmarks to needed web resources and computer files.
- Images. For use as show and tell in-game, or for inspiration when planning.
- NPCs. There might be lots of community generated NPCs for your game system posted online.
- Tools. Random generators and such.
- Reference. For D&D, I link to specific rules I’ll likely need next session. In addition, creating spellbooks for referencing spells an NPC has is a good use of bookmarks.
- Blog, wiki, group. If you use a website for group notes or planning, link to it so you aren’t fumbling for the address each time. Ditto for specific pages, like the NPC registry.
Record Character Stats
A classic tip is to record the important bits of character information so you can secretly reference it and to prevent constantly asking for it in-game.
For example, if you need to slow the pace down or catch player attention, call for a group dice roll, such as a perception check. Otherwise, the game often goes better and smoother by rolling certain character checks yourself and describing the results. You could even do this in advance and record successes somewhere (such as on a map transparency ;).
One way a D&D combat could start is to call for Listen checks to determine if the PCs hear a nearby threat. You tabulate results as they come in and describe a strange sound to successful PCs. Then you do the same thing for a Spot check and describe a shadowy lump high up in a tree, clinging to the trunk.
Next, players ask to make certain Knowledge skill checks, as they always do. Finally, you ask for initiative rolls.
Whew. That requires a lot of communication, coordination, rolling, player calculations, and tallying.
Another option is to have all this character information in a spreadsheet or written out on a paper form. You know their Spot, Listen, Knowledge, and Initiative scores. While the previous encounter is wrapping up, you make rolls for the PCs and privately note successes.
When everybody is ready, you simply start to narrate how the characters are traveling down a narrow forest path in the cool shade on a Spring day when Broghan and Lucien hear a strange noise. At the same time, Lucien, Marco, and Brottor see a strange shape high up in a nearby tree. Lucien thinks it might be a giant insect pod, while Brottor has heard of a creature named thusks who are known to make pods of that colour and texture, and that thusks are flying bloodsuckers.
You tell the group that Marco is the first to react. What do you do Marco?
That was smooth, fast, and set up a nice scene where PC skills and abilities were taken in to account, along with good description.
Staging information is sometimes important for pacing and effect. You might not want to rush over everything in one description. The choice is up to you, but recording stats and rolling for the PCs can still save a lot of game time and increase roleplaying, storytelling, and drama.
In the above example, you might just deal with Broghan and Lucien hearing something, first. They’ll likely look around or tell the others they’ve heard something, in which case likely every PC will look around.
So, next stage is spotting, and you’ve got this covered. If Lucien, Marco and Brottor ask if they recognize or know anything about the pod, you smoothly roll into this stage as well (pun intended!). As soon as someone wants to take an action, you look to Marco and tell him he’s first. Quick and easy.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Finally Got My Post-It Index Cards
I had heard rumour of mythical index cards that stick to surfaces like Post-It Notes do, but they don’t stick to each other, which makes for easy storing, shuffling, and sorting. A perfect GM tool. However, here in Iglooville, I was unable to turn up any, no matter how far and wide I drove my huskies.
I now have my grubby little hands on some though (thanks Chris J.), and they are great. I can’t wait to start using them to plot world domination.
On a similar note, today’s article theme is GM organization, and includes some tips revisited and some new. If you have any game master organization tips, I’d love to hear them.
Storm Front (The Dresden Files, Book 1) Pretty Good
Storm Front, by Jim Butcher, is the first book in a series modelled after the good, old-fashioned Raymond Chandler detective stories. It’s about a modern day wizard trying to pay the rent who gets in over his head with demons, the police, and the Mafia. Hit the Amazon link below for more info.
It was a quick read and my expectations were low, but I ended up liking it quite a it, and am now questing for book #2. It is great source material for GMs of modern-day games who like a little magic thrown in.
Have a great week,
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have some GMing advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Customizable Poker Chips
From Dave Emswiler
I know that at one time there was talk of using items for monster counters, I don’t know if poker chips were suggested. I have seen the different coins and counters that are printable on the computer or are cardboard punch outs.
I was reading a newsfeed and it pointed to a poker chip customizer. You print out round stickers that can be placed in the middle of a poker chip. I was thinking of using the chips with pictures of various monsters, NPCs, and items you would use regularly, such as chests, chairs, cauldrons, etc. http://www.chipcustomizer.com
I got a set of poker chips at a dollar store, and have bought sturdier ones for a cheap price. Use different color chips for creatures of different levels and abilities. Or put a code on the sticker and just make the players paranoid with a group of blue creatures, two red, and one white. They will be wondering.
When the creature dies flip it over until they search it or clear it out of the way.
A Kewl New Dice Bowl
From Lord Skudley
I found this “Chip and Dip” bowl at Target. Like the salad bowl it makes a great “Rollin’ the Bones” sound and keeps my dice from scattering when I toss them. It also offers a place to keep my dice readily available for their next use.
Get Inspired By Personal Campaign Websites
From Scott Thorpe
After having the nearly unheard of luxury of playing in our last three campaigns, I find myself preparing to slide back into the DM seat for our group’s next go ’round. One of our group’s primary DMs moved awhile back and doesn’t have the time to spare for a new group, so for the two of us to collaborate on the campaign I have set up a wiki site for us to use as an online planning journal/think tank. If the site is as convenient as it seems we will set one up later for the players to access with campaign specific information and resources.
Here’s the current wiki: http://campaignthinktank.wetpaint.com/
We are still in the brainstorming stage while waiting for our players to finish the pre-campaign surveys, but I thought it might be fun for other DMs to watch the process of a campaign taking shape. I still find myself returning to the Falconmoor group’s new campaign site just to read the DM recaps and behind the-scenes insight into how the adventures he plans and runs turn out.
Superstitions In Gaming
From Michael Erb
While working on a Halloween article for RPG.net a few years back, I touched briefly on the topic of superstition. Many of the strange little quirks of the Halloween holiday were once considered to be precautions against supernatural forces. Many were taken quite seriously too.
Throughout the ages and even in modern times superstitions have held a valuable place in society and culture. Superstitions were and are a means of controlling the uncontrollable, an explanation for the unexplainable. Many superstitions are derived from tradition, mythology and to a lesser degree, science. In a way, superstition could be considered the earliest form of the scientific theory. When A happens, I do B … when I do B, A goes away … therefore B counteracts A.
Superstitions also are a form of religion. Many deal with appeasing spirits or creating a spiritual contract with the afterlife. Many superstitions were considered ways of avoiding death or affliction. For some, superstitions simply became habit. Why we did them in the first place became less important than the comfort derived from the action itself.
Below are a few superstitions that I find particularly interesting. I leave the application of them in a gaming context to the reader, though I would be interested in hearing how individual GMs use superstition in their games.
I am not claiming any of these ideas as my own. They are derived from a variety of sources and are presented here as a basic list, not a definitive library.
Nail A Tree To End A Toothache
This superstition is a combination of several ideas. In early days, toothaches were considered by many to be afflictions originating from outside the body and often caused by harmful or mischievous spirits. Belief also held that trees housed such spirits, as the woods were often rife with fairies and other elf-kin.
Cold iron was a weakness of these spirits, and driving an iron into a tree was a sure way to imprison a spirit and keep it from causing further harm. Within a few days the toothache would end…or the tooth would fall out. Either way, it worked.
Knock On Wood
Similar to the above, knocking on wood sought to ward off bad luck by confusing the wood spirits. Often this was done after having said something unlucky (“I hope the wagon wheel doesn’t break”) or having done something unlucky to draw the attention of such spirits.
The exact reason this worked was somewhat of a debate. Some said it placated the spirits, the way a heartbeat might soothe a newborn. Others said it was an offensive noise, driving the spirits away with the discordant banging of a human hand on wood. Others said the wood spirits, for some unknown reason, found it amusing and seldom harmed those who amused them. Regardless, it worked.
Never Cross A Black Cat
A really simple one, black cats were the familiars of witches. Sometimes they were witches. Either way, you wanted to avoid drawing their attention, lest you gain the attention of the witches themselves.
Friday the 13th
A little more complex, this superstition is a combination of Christianity and ancient mythology. Witches’ covens were believed to meet in groups of 12, with the 13th participant being the Devil himself. Definitely unlucky. Friday was named after the Norse goddess Freya who fell from Odin’s grace. Thus Friday, her day, became unlucky. Slap the two together and you have a doubly unlucky day.
Spilled Salt And Throwing A Pinch Over The Shoulder
Salt was not always as common as it is now. In fact, its rarity made it valuable, and sometimes even holy. The spilling of salt was not only the equivalent of throwing away gold, but also a minor desecration.
Now, the Devil, being the wily guy he is, always resides just behind the left shoulder of every man, woman, and child, waiting for the opportunity to do a little evil in the world. And what better time to work his evil than when a holy object is desecrated and wasted?
People who spilled salt would fling a pinch over their left shoulder and into the eyes of the Devil, blinding him for a moment. And since the Devil could only work his evil within the heartbeat of that moment, his devilishness would be prevented.
Some went a little further with this way of thinking, saying that if the Devil always resided upon the left, then certainly God resides upon the right. Therefore, the salt must always be thrown with the right hand, the righteousness of God punishing the evil of the Devil. Woe be to the poor fool who, upon wasting the holy salt, made the mistake of using his corruptible left hand to fling salt over the right shoulder and into the eyes of God Himself.
Many fairy mythologies also used salt, with a common belief that salt could chase away the fey folk, similar to how garlic would work on a vampire. Some superstitious rituals required circles or lines of salt that could not be crossed by supernatural creatures, and a surefire way to “out” a fairy changeling was to salt their food. If they grew suddenly ill, you knew they weren’t what they appeared to be.
Saying “Bless You” When Someone Sneezes
There are several reasons for this, some fanciful, some morbid. Some, even today, say the heart stops when you sneeze, and for an instant you die. Blessing the person ensures their continued health and, in a way, congratulates them on their survival.
Others felt it was the soul trying to escape and a blessing helped hold it in place.
Now, back in the olden days, demons were everywhere, and the trick was you couldn’t see them. People got possessed all the time and invisible demons and devils often hovered around, just waiting for an opportunity to spring into a body. A sneeze could prove to be such an opportunity, but a quick “Bless you” bestowed just enough of God’s grace on a person to prevent the possession and preserve their soul.
And you thought they were just being polite.
On an interesting side-note, I’ve also found references to a superstition where a person who sneezed three times in rapid succession was believed to be marked for possession. Apparently the demons got a little pickier.
If A Cock Crows As You Pass You’re Marked For Possession Or Have Already Been Possessed
Pretty self-explanatory, just hope you weren’t unfortunate enough to be passing by the roost around dawn.
Now tell me, what happens if the rooster sneezes three times before it crows?
Flip A Fish, Sink The Boat
This is an odd one. On Chinese fishing boats, a common superstition had to do with the evening meal. While out to sea, the most plentiful food source, especially for a fishing boat, would be fish, so many a meal was spent dining on the catch of the day. Sailors were taught to eat one side of the fish, remove the bones, and then eat the other side, believing if they turned their meal over, the ship would capsize and sink.
Yeah, that makes sense. What I love about this superstition is the way a simple, everyday act can have such dire consequences. Not every superstition has to be complex. Some just can focus on the perils of eating lunch at sea.
And where did this originate? At what point did the survivor of a fishing-boat accident say, “Everything was going well until Chan turned his meal over. Then the boat sank”? It’s questions like these that keep me up at night.
Sleeping Beneath Moonlight Can Harm Your Soul
I can’t recall exactly where I first heard of this superstition, but I do remember reading an article about a mother sneaking into her child’s room at night and covering the windows with blankets to keep the moonlight from falling across the child’s bed. The article said she had picked up the habit from an old housekeeper who dabbled in voodoo – the religion, not the kind you see on television and in movies. The most interesting part of the article was how the housekeeper managed to subconsciously convince the author to take-up the unusual superstition, even though the author was, by her own account, a sensible Christian and well- educated woman.
There are dozens of superstitions and supernatural stories surrounding the moon, from madness to lycanthropy, so this tradition quite possibly could simply be seen as a precaution against all such things.
These are just a few superstitions I’ve found interesting over the years. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, more exist. Breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, a lucky rabbit’s foot, horseshoes, all are part of the rich tapestry of superstitions.
There are dozens of easy-to-find sites on the Internet dealing with superstitions, and many countries have their own traditions and myths that are passed down from generation to generation, with many people still practicing some unusual customs to this day.
One interesting source and quite a fun read is Raymond Feist’s book, Faerie Tale, which is a horror/fantasy book about a modern-day family plagued by fairies. One of the main characters, the groundskeeper of an ancient estate, becomes the town drunk to avoid the faeries’ wrath because superstition says faeries won’t harm drunkards. A young boy has his eyelids painted green with a mixture of water and crushed clovers, allowing him to see into the faerie realm. As the story progresses, superstition becomes the only defense Feist’s characters can muster against their supernatural foes. A cool book.
Michael Erb is a journalist and game reviewer in Parkersburg, W.Va. His game reviews and articles can be found at http://merb101.livejournal.com. Other examples of his writing can be found at News, Sport, Job – News and Sentinel.