The Productive GM: The 5 Buckets of Sanity – Part 1

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0569

A Brief Word From Johnn

Getting Organized In Two Parts

A productive GM is a happy GM. And this week’s feature is all about organizing yourself and your campaign information. Whether you use software, index cards, GM binder or another system, these tips will help you stay fast and efficient as you GM.

The article is long, clocking in at over 3000 words. So I’ve split it up into two parts. This week covers the overview of how to get organized and the first two pieces of that puzzle.

Next week, we’ll finish up with the last three buckets of information you need to efficiently store and retrieve your info.

A Thank You From F.

Before Christmas, RPT Reader F. asked for help. Her husband suffered a brain injury and now has trouble thinking on his feet during sessions. Reacting to a rabble-rousing party’s surprises is difficult for him.

I put a tip request out to you and you sent in some awesome advice which became a PDF on how to think faster on your feet. I sent the PDF to F. and she replied with this thank you:


I want to thank you and everyone in the community for making this little holiday treat possible. It's honestly more than I had hoped for.

When I opened up the newsletter, I read through the tips and was getting ready to copy them into a word document (I do that with all the tips I like so I can find them easier) when I noticed the link to the e-book.

I saved that instead and then gave the link to my husband telling him that it was made for him. He was genuinely touched at the thought.

I've already found some stuff in it that helps me, so I know when he gives it a good hard look, my husband will find something that will help him. Thank you so much!

So there you have it. Proof you are awesome! Thanks again for all the tips you sent in.

If you missed the PDF on how to think faster on your feet, you can get it here.

The Productive GM: The 5 Buckets of Sanity – Part 1

A Slick & Simple Way for Sorting Your Campaign Ideas & Info [Quick note: Check out the video I made that goes along with this article. Watch over my shoulder as I share my computer screen with you about how I set up my One True Source system using MyInfo.] Begin as you would end. That’s the philosophy of the productive GM and what we will be talking about today.

If you start disorganized, getting organized mid-campaign is major labour. But if you start organized, it’s easy to stay that way and you stay sane your whole campaign.

Last article we delved into picking your One True Source tool (OTS) for organizing and curating your campaign notes. Software, index cards, GM binder…. Pick what works best for you and stick with it.

(If you did not get last week’s tips, email me back and I’ll send them to you.)

Start With Your Big Buckets

“Sort things as you would naturally think and GM.”

We need to divide our OTS into simple categories to make life easier. I call these categories buckets. And I carve my OTS into specific buckets that help me sort, find and file my campaign info without drama.

Have you ever cleaned your place and then forgotten where you put things? You misfiled them or picked a weird spot. And now you can’t figure out how to retrace your steps!

We don’t want this to happen with our OTS. We don’t want information to go into a black hole.

Using software for your OTS helps – you might have search or a change log to refer back to.

But the best solution is to sort things as you would naturally think and GM. And that’s what I’ll present to you today. A simple system for organizing the buckets of your OTS so you stay sane, don’t lose stuff, and can find what you’re looking for pretty easily.

What Big Buckets Should You Fill?

Ever play 20 Questions? You start with animal, mineral, vegetable. That not only helps you carve the world up into understandable chunks, but it puts you on an immediate vector for figuring out the answer. It’s efficient because now you know the realm of the answer, and you can tailor the rest of your quest with focused questions.

We’re going to do the same with our OTS. First, we need buckets that divide all your GMing, campaign and world information in a nice and tidy way. We do not want messy overlap because you will get paralyzed trying to figure out the best bucket.

When it’s clear what bucket is best for each piece of information, we not only file faster but we retrieve faster too! Double win.

We also need buckets that don’t leak. We can’t have grey areas where information starts getting spread out and mixed up. If this happens, we can’t find stuff fast anymore.

I use 5 GM InfoBuckets that should suit your needs as well. Here they are:

The 5 GM InfoBuckets

  • People
  • Places
  • Things
  • Events
  • Rules

If you divide your OTS into five sections like these, you will have a place for everything with minimal overlap but still have your information organized in an intuitive way for fast reference.

Let’s cover what’s in each section. At least one section has a twist that’ll surprise you.

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“Track who’s important in your story and why for better planning and roleplaying.

I call this bucket my Cast of Characters. It contains information on all foes, allies and neutrals in my campaign and setting:

  • Villains and their flunkies
  • Allies and their friends
  • PCs and their friends and relations
  • Recurring NPCs, such as shopkeepers
  • Rivals to the PCs
  • The gods
  • Kings, lords and powerful NPCs
  • Faction leaders and influencers

If they have a name, they get their own entry in my OTS. Else, they go in a casting call section, waiting to be important enough to have a name and their own entry!

You know how a book will have a cast of characters section at the back? Each character gets a few words or a line telling us their role in the story or setting. That’s what we have as minimum here.

Each entry in our Cast of Characters gets a line or two at the start to help remind me who this character is and why they matter.

I also file special non-intelligent foes here. Normally, I leave monsters in the monster manual. But even individual beasts can show up in the story, such as a bull that appears to deliver omens or a hydra that is named.

Special builds and unique stat blocks also live in the Cast of Characters section.

At minimum, give each entry a name and a short description of who they are and why they matter. If known, list their location of residence, how they make money or survive, and how they can contribute to your story in the future (hooks).

My Cast of Characters entries have a basic stat block. I use a template in MyInfo to copy the stat block into a new entry fast so I can start typing.

As the campaign matures, I go back often to update characters with new stuff I’ve created or learned about them. My goal is to reuse as many characters in my cast as often as possible. This way I get to know my NPCs well and I can create tighter plots built upon deepening relationships.

Here’s my simple stat block:

  • Name
  • Reminders: Stuff I don’t want to forget during encounters with them, such as powers, magic, tactics, strong intentions, social skills.
  • Appearance & Behaviour: Instructions to myself on how to portray them during encounters. Very important!
  • Background: Backstory, history, relationships, context.
  • Motivation & Goals: What do they want? Guide my GMing of them as independent, living beings and not just revolving around the PCs.
  • Schemes & Plots: What are they up to? Bring on the plot hooks!
  • Development: Scripts or plans for actions they’ll take during encounters or as campaign time passes.
  • Crunch: A full spread if combat is likely, else I record facts as they become known, such as race, class, skills and talents.

So how do you fill this bucket? My simple rule is:

If it’s a Who? then they should live in the Cast of Characters.

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“Reuse locations as much as possible. As you learn a location’s features from visiting the place again, you gain more tactical and theatrical options.”

Next up we have locations. Think about this: every encounter has a location. Encounters do not happen in a void (unless the PCs are in The Void, but then that’s a location now, heh). That’s a big deal.

Encounters, historical events and future events all have a location. Why not give them the most interesting locations as possible?

My goal here is to reuse locations as much as possible. By giving each place with potential reuse its own entry in the Places section, we can flesh it out over time. The PCs become more familiar with it, details become richer and the game becomes richer.

Also, your games start to become more challenging over time with location reuse. A nice benefit! As you and your players learn a location’s features, you have more tactical and theatrical options.

We’ll save my ramblings on tips for reusing locations for another day if there’s interest, but for now let’s move on.

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Dungeons and One-Offs

I have one exception to the One True Source method of organizing locations in your Places bucket, and that’s throwaway dungeons and one-off locations.

In these cases, I leave location details to the adventure book, module or encounter writeup. If a dungeon location is going to be used only once in the campaign, don’t waste time adding it to your OTS. Use adventure details and session logs to make any notes you need.

We know every encounter has a location. Also, every setting has settlements, bordered areas, named geographical areas, and special features. So now it’s time to create our next bucket – the Gazetteer.

Create Your Gazetteer Bucket

Locations go into the Places bucket, which I call the Gazetteer.

I also have a simple stat block for locations:

  • Name
  • Coordinates: Either from the world map or settlement map
  • Map: Floorplan or battlemap, usually a link to a map file or a reference to a print map
  • Description: The environment – air, lighting, footing, contents, original or recent use-purpose
  • Key Features: The good stuff! Hazards, secret spots or cover, special terrain, special effects, stuff that affects movement or action
  • Development: Notes to self about how foes might engage with location for advantage or interesting scene events
  • Crunch: Rule references to keep handy (links or book and page numbers)

I think of the Gazetteer as what you’d find in the table of contents of a setting book. So, I also include notes on races, areas of historical importance, culture bios, country and kingdom bios and so on.

In fact, that’s the easiest and fastest way I know of to organize and create your campaign locations and setting. Grab your favourite world book and copy the table of contents into your OTS. Then start filling in each item with a stat block or prose or details about the place.

Part 2 Next Week

We have three more buckets to go to keep our sanity. In part two we delve into Things, Events and Rules. Watch your inbox for RPT#570.

Did You Watch The Video Yet?

I’m creating GM training that shows you how I use my software of choice – MyInfo – for campaign management.

The first video is up now. I start from scratch and set things up for my new Chalice campaign.

You’ll receive a combination of short tutorials, tips and video screencasts of me using the software to create my One True Source for Chalice, and how I use it to prep and run my games.

This is free for you now for a limited time. I’ll be turning this into a paid product in the near future.

Sign up for the course here while it’s still free.