Putting Together The Ultimate DM Binder
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #069
- GM Binder Tips for the Organized Gamemaster
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
GM Binder Tips for the Organized Gamemaster
From Johnn Four
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
- Campaign region(s), locations and locales
- Misc. game world info
- In-game aids and idea generators
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)
A Brief Word From Johnn
Easter Break: Issue #70 Will Be April 17th
Due to the upcoming Easter holiday, I’ll be sending off Issue #70 the Tuesday night after the long weekend.
Character Questionnaire Ready
The Character Questionnaire supplemental is now ready. It contains 384 questions for you to build or modify your own questionnaire with. Thank you again for all the great submissions that made this GM tool possible!
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Tips Request For Issue #71: “Making Travel Interesting”
Issue #70 is about dealing with absentee players. What do you do when a player doesn’t show up? Go ahead with the session? Kidnap his PC, or rename him “pit finder”? Feedback and tips on this important issue are still welcome.
Issue #71 is all about making travel interesting, whether it’s a band of adventurers heading to and fro, or a spaceship crew killing time between star systems. What tricks and techniques do you have to make this time in the game interesting?
Send your tips and advice to: [email protected]
Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
Use Index Cards To Create Random Spell Books
From Travis W.
An interesting thing to do is place common spells and monster stats on cards (like 3×5 cards) and keep them in a box. This is extremely helpful as you don’t have to keep writing them on your adventure notes or keep looking in the monster manual as long as you have the card.
Also you can organize them by color, and use them for random encounters. You just have to pick from the same level as your PCs are. For example, orcs could be in the blue pile, ogres in the red and a blue dragon in the white. When you need an encounter for the lower levels pick from the blue pile.
Spells are great too. Place them in color coded piles and create a completely random spell book.
Neat Index Card Holder Idea
From Garry S.
One thing I find of great value is something I made years back and carefully preserve. The reusable character list. I built this multi-pocket thing from cardboard 5.25 inch disk protectors. Within are 3 x 5 card for each character with the top half inch exposed. This has name, race, gender, class, level, AC, HP. The rest of the card is a mini character sheet, hidden by the pocket, but easily accessible. I change out the cards as the characters or game changes (cards stored in the pocket of the binder). I have a quick reference of each character at hand.
Run Your Whole Campaign With Index Cards
From Jon F.
I’ve been enjoying the Tips for a while now, and I finally have something to contribute! As for GM Binders, I really don’t use a “binder”. Instead, I run my entire game from 4″x6″ index cards. I have a couple of plastic cardholder boxes and organizer tabs.
We’re playing AD&D 2nd Ed, and my players use the Core Rules software to store their characters. It’s become very easy to print out all of the relevant stats and information for each character on a card and put it in the box. This way I never have to ask the thief, “What’s your detect noise, again?”
Now that TSR/WoTC has been re-releasing many of their classic titles in electronic format, it has become extremely easy for me to print out adventure information to be used in the course of the game on these cards. Most of the time, though, we’re not playing through modules, so I’ll transfer all of my notes to cards: encounters, important place descriptions, treasure (more on this below), NPC interactions (more on this below), and combat results (more on this below, too).
I have a divider for every town or region the party visits for any length of time. Every NPC that could possibly have an impact or appearance in the future gets his/her own card in the file, and it includes his/her name, physical traits, what information the NPC gave to the party and what the party gave to him/her.
I record what PCs were nice or rude to merchants, beggars, and other folks, for example, so next time the group comes to the store, walks down the street, or tries to buy a horse from a ranch, the person will remember exactly how the PCs treated him/her. It really makes quite a difference to the effect of role-playing when the group returns to some dusty little farm town and all of the NPCs remember how the characters impacted their lives.
I also have a section for the current adventure. In this section, I have cards for the monster/encounter statistics, including hit points or hit dice for each creature. For creatures that aren’t run-of-the-mill I’ll print out a color copy of the creature and show it to the players as they encounter it.
I also keep a master list of the treasure that the group keeps. I don’t keep this on cards because it’s too big with all of the notes for each of their items. But whenever the group finds something of note, I’ll either have it written or printed on a note card and I give it to the players. That way, once it’s been claimed or used or sold, the card gets traded or returned to me.
The players can write all of their findings about an item on the card itself. All of the item cards are numbered according to my master list, so when a brave character finally decides to put on this ring they found in the dungeon, they say, “I’m putting on Ring number 62.” And I give an evil grin and say, “Really? I’ve been waiting for someone to put on number 62,” and I have a record as to what it does and who put it on first.
I also keep track of combat on cards. Usually, combat doesn’t last more than 10 rounds in my games. On the combat card, I have a line for each character and some extra lines I use for enemies. I record initiative, a word or two for each character’s action, and a target number and effect of each action.
At the end of each session, I give the players their character experience point rewards on note cards and I record them on a tally card. Each experience card is broken down into awards by category: Role playing, combat, ingenuity, rules knowledge bonus, survival bonus, meeting the primary objective, meeting the secondary objective (if any) and other adjustments. I got this idea from structured, non-combat tournament adventures and I’ve adapted it for campaign play.
It sounds like a lot of work, and I guess it is. We game one night a week, and I usually spend 5 or 6 hours throughout the rest of the week preparing for the next game, which is more than enough to come up with some of these. It’s especially easy because I wing it, and it’s easy to come up with a quick list of items for them to find, regardless of what the group actually does.
The players are really impressed because they feel like I’m always prepared for whatever they do, so they really start second-guessing themselves. I have a card of fantasy names written up (I got 20 names from a box of Crayola crayons, just taking words off the box and spelling them backwards) so I’m never at a lack for a quick name.
Best of all, though, they’re really easy to store and carry, and they’re cheap. Walmart has packs of 100 index cards for under $1 (so you CAN get something other than a 20-minute long distance call for under $1).
How To Twist Plots
From Max B.
I have some “tricks of the trade”, and I want to share these.
My style of GMing isn’t creating plots/stories from scratch, but taking existing ones and twisting and turning them ad nauseum.
There are (in my experience) six methods of plot tweaking. Let’s take a simple adventure outline (“evil wizard kidnaps a princess”) and see what the application of those methods will give us.
- “As is”
It’s just a basic plot with cosmetic changes (e.g. names of the wizard and princess, method of kidnapping, place where the captive is held). Okay, it isn’t a tweaking per se, but creative changing of details can make interesting adventures. Must be done with caution though — it can become boring after several repetitions.
- “Upside down”
One of the major plot elements is changed to its direct opposite. Maybe the evil princess somehow locked the wizard in his tower (and must be in the same tower to keep him locked); maybe the wizard didn’t kidnap the princess, but instead rescued her from a terrible death, and so on.
- “HOW MANY of them are here, you said?”
Too many, actually. For example, ten or so evil wizards compete with each other in an attempt to capture one princess; the evil wizard captured not one, but many princesses; last month there were multiple captures of princesses by evil wizards, but only one is Really Significant ™.
- “Bait & switch”
Imagine the wonder of the PCs when they discover that something is absent in the story: the wizard didn’t kidnap the princess, he’s just deluded that he did. Or the kidnapped girl isn’t a princess, but her female bodyguard is (16th level fighter capable to escape on her own, by the way, and very bored and angry because she has orders not to); or (for a really complicated twist) both wizard and princess are impostors –she is a cleaning maid and he’s a wizard’s would-be pupil (and where on earth are REAL princess and wizard?).
- “Amateurs, damn amateurs!”
Something’s gone terribly wrong. The wizard’s servants were so lame that they lost the princess soon after kidnapping. Now she’s somewhere in the wilderness/city slums/Astral Plane, and nobody knows that!
- “For King, Country and sheer fun of it”
Humourous story twists are good, if done properly. Probably this tweaking method isn’t so great when used alone, but it is when used in conjunction with other ways… For example: what if the wizard kidnapped many girls and ancient custom dictates that the savior must marry one of those he saved, and only one PC is noble enough to be considered eligible for royal marriage?