The Productive GM: The 5 Buckets of Sanity – Part 2

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0570

A Brief Word From Johnn

Friday Gems Temporary Archive

Several readers wrote in asking for past issues of Friday Gems emails. I’ve got a temporary archive setup through my email provider with all past editions available:

Read A Couple Of Classic Over Christmas

I managed to find time to read a couple of great books over the holidays.

The first was Jhereg by Steven Brust.

“Vlad Taltos, a mobster and assassin in the magical metropolis of Adrilankha, is given the largest contract of his career, but the job is even more complicated than he expects.”

It’s my third time reading this book, and I highly recommend it.

The second book is Pathfinder Tales: Prince of Wolves by Dave Gross.

“For elven Pathfinder Varian Jeggare and his devil-blooded assistant Radovan, things are rarely as they seem. Yet not even the notorious crime-solving duo is prepared for what they find when a search for a missing Pathfinder takes them into the mist-shrouded mountains of gothic Ustalav.”

I enjoyed this book and its characters. I found the device used for the lead character, of letters to his master, a bit pedantic – but I have purchased the second in the series to see where the story goes.

Currently, I’m reading Magician by Raymond Feist. It’s my third read of this book too, and is a wonderful fantasy classic.

I’m not sure why I went back to some old school fantasy when I have a stack of new books on my bedstand to read, but I always find them inspirational!

The Productive GM: The 5 Buckets of Sanity – Part 2

A Slick & Simple Way for Sorting Your Campaign Ideas & Info

In part one last week, we looked at how to make your life easier with some info organization thinking and methods. Today we pick up where we left off with three more buckets of sanity – a way of compartmentalizing your game info for your One True Source.

“Put your game information in the place you’ll first think to look.”

We’ve got our people and places buckets of sanity. To round out our animal/vegetable/mineral buckets we need a spot for things – the items and objects in our games.

Stuff I put here:

  • Write-ups for artifacts and major magic items
  • Mundane items of note
  • Famous art and jewelry
  • New magic items I create
  • Any item the PCs find that needs detail (it might have a history or be part of the plot)
  • Notable loot (stuff the PCs won’t sell immediately)
  • Setting details like inventions and technology

Add Traps

I also put traps in this bucket. A trap is a thing, in my mind. And I enjoy reusing traps, because I learn through use how to best employ them, how to make them more effective, and how to make them ever more interesting (through more details and description of the trap and its effects).

In MyInfo, I have a document called Traps and then file all new traps under it. Ditto for hazards, special weather, special terrain, poisons and diseases.

I Put Things in My Gazetteer

I don’t have a separate bucket for Things per se. I put them in with all my location and world information.

I do this because I use tagging in MyInfo for easy search and filtering to just get lists of things. Also, my mind just wants to look for Orb of Dragonkind between Obo Island and New Drachen City instead of a separate bucket with just things in it.

Again, organize your buckets in the way that’s most natural to you. Long term, you’ll stay productive from basic curation and having a system in place up front, regardless of how you initially carve up your game information and data.

I Put Dangers in My Gazetteer Too

Technically, poisons, diseases, hazards, traps and whatnot could fall into the Rules bucket.

But I put them in the Gazetteer also, because I like to individualize them and make them part of the story.

In addition, I tag these entries as Rules in MyInfo, so I can summon them all up with a single click when needed.

For example, a guillotine trap in a doorway. I could put it in Rules along with its crunch – chance to hit, damage, saving throw. But instead I put it under Traps in my Gazetteer and try to give it a bit of personality. I might give it an NPC creator, thereby bringing a new character into the campaign and more plot fodder.

What do you want to do? I’d say go with your first inclination or strongest leaning. If traps and such feel like they belong in the Rules bucket, put them there.

The key is to put them in the place you’ll first think to look.

For me, I’m used to looking for them in the Gazetteer.

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Items Template

I use a simple template for items to keep reference consistent and inspirational:

  • Name
  • Description: What is it? What’s it made of? What’s it do?
  • Backstory: Who created it and why? Who owns it now? Has it been part of notable events? Does it have a reputation, and if so, what kind? (Create some plot and encounter hooks!)
  • Crunch: Stats, cost to create and materials needed, aura and other information relevant based on item type

We now have the core building blocks of the world, your campaign and the adventures and encounters therein: people, places and things.

But there are two more useful buckets for your One True Source that will help you be organized and effective as a GM. Let’s tackle those next.


“You need to record this stuff so you referee consistently.”

You’ve already got books full of rules, so why do we need this bucket? Let me explain.

House Rules

First, your group will develop house rules over the course of play. You will agree to interpret rules in certain ways. And you will create new decision methods for things not covered in the books. You will make up new rules.

You need to record this stuff so you referee consistently.

Social Contract

Second, you will make decisions on various social and group situations you should track for compliance and consistency. Some call this a social contract. Things like what to do with the PCs of absent players, how to handle rules arguments, and how sessions get called and organized.


Third, if you are like me then you enjoy having reference and inspirational materials on-hand for in-game aids or for help while prepping. Things like 100 NPC traits, 100 City Encounters, What’s He Got In His Pocketses?

Official Rules

Last, I copy or link to frequently used official rules I always seem to need to look up. Stuff like Detect Magic, Grappling, Diplomacy checks. This saves a lot of searching or page flipping.

Keep It Simple

Rules entries have no template or stat block. If there’s been discussion online within my play group, I’ll link to the thread or paste in the email chain so I have the context and reasoning behind a decision handy if it becomes an issue again. Otherwise, I just need a name and whatever material makes sense for the rule info.

Some Trivia

Looking back at my Riddleport campaign notes, the weirdest thing in my Rules bucket is Blood Gas. I do not recall if I scooped that idea or dreamt it up, but dwarves mined and sold it to evil wizards for magic item creation. Items made with Blood Gas earn the Evil type. This helped me give local NPCs decent magic items the PCs could not use and to balance encounter challenges with PC power levels.

The Rules bucket helps me keep all my GM reference stuff in a separate area I can sort through fast. It also lets me track our ad hoc decisions to prevent future group arguments and repeat discussions.


“Stuff has happened, is happening or will happen in your games and stories. The common thread between all these states is time.”

This is my second favourite bucket, with NPCs being #1. Events is where I do all my plotting!

I call this bucket Plots because it helps me make a clear distinction about what fits in here:

  • Big Plot summary and details
  • Minor plot, sub-plot and PC side plot details
  • History
  • Planned encounters
  • Encounter ideas and seeds
  • Session logs

As you can see, there’s a variety of different and important stuff in this bucket.

Here’s my rationale. Stuff has happened, is happening or will happen in your games and stories. The common thread between all these states is time.

Every event is simply a situation with a time (and a location). Doesn’t matter if it’s the creation of the gods, an encounter with kobolds, or an upcoming religious holiday, these events all have timestamps.

And it’s the timestamp that gives you a manageable and valuable structure to your events. Understand this structure and you unlock a way of thinking about your game that gives you more flexibility. Use this flexibility to not only manage your One True Source easier, but to tell better stories with less prep time.

Here’s how.

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Events with timestamps before the current in-game date are called History.

These situations have already happened. Focus on historical events that shape plotting, context and gameplay. Leave other details for your novel. 🙂

History is your source of:

  • Grudges and conflicts (plot hooks!)
  • Important locations now ripe with adventure
  • Failed or strong relationships
  • Deposits of loot
  • Basis of culture

Just as the type of gun or weapon determines the potential amount of damage, your historical events determine the scale and drama of current and future plots. History is awesome.


Plots are events that have not happened yet. Plots are ideas and potentials.

There’s no specific timestamp here, just “future”. Until future events are gamed, they are unofficial and flexible.

Plots give you ideas and direction of where you want gameplay to head. George R.R. Martin says he starts with an idea of how he wants the story and his characters and his character’s stories to end. Then he starts writing and makes the rest up as he goes along, as he gets to know his characters and world better.

So too as GM can you plot the future to help guide present decisions and storytelling. Without constraining players too much, you can use your knowledge of potential futures to nudge gameplay along closer to these ideal end states.

And if your campaign evolves in an unexpected way, you can change your plot because it hasn’t happened yet.

Therefore, I call future events Plot, even though it’s not an accurate definition by literary standards. Thinking this way helps you avoid brittle campaigns and railroading frustrated players.

Encounters Are Where’s It’s Happening

If an event is happening right now, it’s an encounter!

We don’t game plots or history. If something has already happened, it’s in the past and already defined. If something has not happened yet, it’s in the future and changeable. But if it’s happening right now, it’s got PCs, dice and maybe minis involved and it’s an encounter.

For a situation occurring right now in-game, encounter design techniques and methods come into effect. So too do GMing techniques, NPC portrayals, battle tactics, refereeing and storytelling. Now is where the game is happening.

Always optimize the now. That sounds a bit woo woo, so let me explain.

Be in the moment, be present and be the best GM you can right this minute in the game. Because it’s the only thing in your control.

Focus only on what you can control to be the best person and GM you can be. The stuff outside of your control is going to take care of itself, by definition, without your influence. So don’t waste time on what you can’t control.

Don’t worry about the past – it’s already happened and you can’t do anything about it. The best you can do is aim for consistency right now so you’re getting the campaign details right. You can also learn to use reframing to put new spins on past Events if you must revisit the past.

Don’t worry about the future, except for using the game pieces and GM techniques you have at your disposal right now to nudge things toward an ideal outcome. Ideal to me means awesome cliffhangers, surprise situations and powerful endings.

The Campaign Timeline

Tying this together, we have one simple new tool in our toolbox: the campaign timeline.

In it, record:

  • Notable past events (History)
  • Session logs (History)
  • Gameplay notes (Present, these become session logs and then History)
  • Plots and ideas (Future)

During gameplay I increment the in-game clock and calendar (figuratively speaking). Current situations (encounters) become logs and past events, and future events (plots) are triggers, ideas and inspiration.

If you stay in the present and aim to give the best experience possible as each second of the session ticks by, the past and future take care of themselves.

Fix things between sessions as needed:

  • Flesh out session logs
  • Change One True Source details or send out errata to players
  • Recalibrate plots
  • Generate new ideas for future Events
  • Curate your One True Source

Five Buckets To Fun

These five buckets handle every game detail I need. I’ve switched from binders to cards to mindmaps to MyInfo, but the buckets have all worked.

The buckets are just a tool, though. If you do not sharpen and maintain your tool, your information will soon get into disarray. This will make you carry extra weight as you try to GM.

The goal is to have more fun at every game. By being on top of things you gain confidence, speed and proficiency. These all translate for me into a better GMing experience and, therefore, having more fun. It will for you too.

Do you have a game mastering tip to share? E-mail [email protected] – thanks!

That’s it for this week’s issue.

Have more fun at every game!