GM Tools: What We Use

Whether you play online or face-to-face, game prep is something all GMs have to do. There's a quite a bit of variance even among our own writers planning the same type of games, and so we thought we'd take a look at what tools they use to make planning easier.

Before we get to the tools, any rituals you have when planning? Like a certain music you put on, a particular toy that’s always next to your notebook, or even a special set of planning dice.

Sarah: I always put on either themed music or a movie while doing my planning. I actually made a playlist for the Dungeon World game I’ve been writing about, and it included everything from Grinderman to the Handsome Family to SQÜRL.

Ariana: I make personal playlists for the kind of ‘feel’ I want to offer during the game. I re-read the rules to try and freshen up my role as the GM along with a basic storyline. I keep it pretty vague and like to see what the players come off from the start.

Stephanie: Aside from procrastinating to the last minute and then hastily scribbling down a bunch of notes two hours before the game? No, not really. I do seem to brainstorm better with paper and pencil and then transfer to the computer. I don’t use music in my planning stages. I probably should-- maybe I could do a 30-minute playlist for “speed-writing an adventure.”

Stacy: I spend anywhere from a few days to a few weeks just kind of daydreaming to a playlist reminiscent of the game I want to run, and letting a lot of ideas and possibilities flow through me before I start to settle on something. That’s kind of why I secretly like to have a bit of a commute to work. I put on the game’s playlist, strap in, chill out, and try to come up with some good ideas. It’s also a great place to practice speaking as NPCs.

Let’s start analog for now. What’s your favorite hands-on tool for planning games?

Sarah: I use sheets of printer paper, folded in half and hand written with notes. I’ll draw any pre-made maps on a flat sheet, but I rely on these little pamphlets. The front cover is blank to start with. Inside I write all the player characters’ names, relevant stats, and make notes specifically about them. The facing page has notes on enemies and any major plot points I’ve already worked out.

Ariana: Analog? This is the digital age.

Stephanie: I use a top-bound spiral notebook with graph paper, and a Pentel .7 or .9 mechanical pencil. I also have a small (4x6) spiral notebook (lined) for game design notes and playtest feedback. A stack of index cards serves for my second draft (they are perfect for writing down the scenes in a Gumshoe adventure or a 5-room adventure). I know a lot of people swear by sticky notes-- I only really use those for to-do lists. I also brought a posterboard for making the map we used in my Epyllion campaign, and I have a 1” grid flip-chart for other analog maps, when appropriate.

Stacy: I have two Leuchtturm medium sized (8”x5”-ish) notebooks. One with lines for general planning and note-taking, and one blank for doodling and drawing out things. I also have a Rhodia notebook in the same size in a dot grid for making maps. I’m a big fan of Pentel Energel pens, so I got refillable sturdy metal ones in silver and blue with black and blue ink in them. I also have a makeup bag that I’ve turned into a pencil case that has a pencil sharpener, some black Ticonderoga pencils, foldable scissors, a couple of different kinds of erasers, a small ruler that can also clip onto my notebooks, and a handful of Copic markers.

I love the Leuchtturm notebooks because they’re a perfect size for taking anywhere, have a table of contents in the front so I can write all over in different sections and still know where stuff is, has an elastic band holding it shut so no pages get munged when they’re in my backpack, and they have pockets in the back. In my blank Leuchtturm, I have a number of stencil templates stashed away to make map making easier. They also have ruler edges.

I have a bit of a system when I write. I’m a pretty messy prepper. I get ideas while i’m writing about other things, and I never want to lose those ideas, so I write my main notes on the right, then save the left for additional things that I think of while I’m writing so I don’t forget them. I do a lot of flipping back and forth between pages, as well. I frequently have lists on the left side of NPCs I need to create, or notes of things I need to put together, or just general ideas about what’s going on.

Here’s a picture:

This was me rewriting Precious Dark's base mechanics about two hours prior to running the gaming session with the new mechanics. On the right, I’ve written down the basic idea, what the conversion is from the old sheet, and started working on some ideas of what the target numbers should be. On the left, I made a bunch of rolls manually (while also using, and put notes about my results there.

All right you digital nerds. What’s your favorite digital tools for planning games?

Sarah: I really don’t do much for my games digitally. If it’s something I need to share for an online game, I’ll put it on Google Drive or make a shared Google doc.

Ariana: Honestly Google Docs, Dropbox and Google Hangouts are the best tools. Create an event, send out reminders and allows everyone to be on the same page. Google docs allows you to create a file for you to write what you need, drawing tools to make maps. It’s easier to use and doesn’t lag as much as some other services.

Stephanie: Dropbox. All my gaming stuff-- actually, all of my data-- is on Dropbox. I paid for the extra storage space, so now I have as much space in the cloud as on my hard drive. Second to that, I use Facebook for organizing in-person games, and Roll20 for running online games. I’ve also used to recruit players, and to get advanced sign-ups (for when your Summon Player spell is too powerful and you have 15 people for a 6-person game). When I ran an all-female Inverse World game last year, I used Evernote to compile location notes and keep a library of scene pictures (culled from the Contessa Google+ feed last year) to display on the Kindle during the game.

Stacy: Microsoft OneNote is by far the most indispensable and most amazing tool that I have digitally. I’ve tried Google Docs, I’ve tried Evernote, I’ve tried a number of other note-taking programs, and I always come back to OneNote. Mostly, because it caters to my messy design patterns. You can click anywhere on the screen and put in anything. Pictures, notes, tables… and you can pick things up and move them around the screen with no fuss.

It has notebooks, and inside those notebooks are tabs, and inside those tabs there are pages, so the organizational level is fantastic. I wrote much of Precious Dark’s first two rounds solely in OneNote. It also does a nice job of sourcing things you pull in from the web automatically, so you don’t forget where you got that image.

Much of the time I start in my journal, then transfer my journal notes to OneNote, improving upon them and making changes as I go. Plus, I keep a lot of the research I do in OneNote for super easy reference.

I also use Pinterest a great deal. I’ll make a board for a game and spend some time on DeviantArt and other parts of the web pinning everything that feels like the game to me, and sometimes looking for very specific things. I have quick, easy access to everything that I’m using, the attribution stays with the image on Pinterest, and because I spend a lot of time collecting pictures in the beginning, I have a stable of NPCs to quickly pick from on the fly.

Google Docs stores some of my handouts, and many of my character sheets. For online games, I like using Google Sheets to make character sheets with so I can keep them all open during the game, and can see changes the players make as they’re making them (as well as make my own changes - I’m known for not telling my players what experience they’re getting, but instead just adding it to their sheet). My Changeling sheet even has an experience log, where I can add the XP with a note as to what it’s for, and they can add their expenditures with a note.

For online games involving exploration and heavy map usage, I use Roll20 to keep everyone on the same page, and I’ve gotten into doing a lot more than just using fog of war lately. It’s got some really nice features that work out well for games like Precious Dark where everything is about where you’re exploring next.

What do you take to the table with you? Just your notes or are you hauling books, figures, and a laptop in your gaming bag?

Sarah: I always bring my sketchbook despite knowing I can’t draw if I’m GMing. Of course that bad boy goes everywhere with me (security blanket). Otherwise I’ll bring my notes, dice, index cards, counters (I use these little skull beads to track stuff like +1 ongoing, luck, etc) plain printer paper to draw maps on, sharpies in various colors, pens, extra pencils, erasers, and rule books/tablet (if I have the books electronically).

Ariana: Tablet, dice, paper and mechanical pencils. Spare printed versions of character sheets just in case.

Stephanie: Kindle Fire, with Dropbox app. Game book if I have it in print copy. Index cards and sharpies. Mechanical pencils, including some spares. My dry erase notebook and dry erase pens. Sometimes a DM screen. A spare set of dice. My copy of Short Order Heroes. Sometimes, a dry erase whiteboard, though I’ve needed that less and less with the dry erase notebook. The printed notes or playtesting notebook. At the game store, I keep a stack of spare adventure logs, pre-gens, sign-in sheets, and pencils for the organized games.

Stacy: When I’m running games online, I keep my notebook handy to take quick notes about what’s going on in game, make sure I remember NPC names, and the likes (I find it’s easier to write than type during session). I open up hangouts on the screen to the left, open up Roll20 on my laptop screen so I can broadcast it, open up OneNote, and the game rules, and open up all the character sheets.

When I’m running games face-to-face, I bring my notebook, any books that I’m going to be using (often with the areas I know I’ll need tagged), pens, pencils, iPad, and iPhone as well as any props I’ll be using.

Do you bring anything to hand out to your players in face-to-face games?

Sarah: Other than pre-gens, I’ve made little props for the game like a greeting card with a clue in it or brought keys or rings for Bluebeard's Bride or the comic book for Rat Queens. I usually draw maps on the fly.

Ariana: Digital age.

Stephanie: Usually, yes. For a new game or group, I will bring pre-gens and “cheat sheets” explaining how to play the game, and give them all index cards to make name tags. For an existing group, I might bring player handouts for the adventure (“you find a note! Here it is!”) or nicely printed color maps, or goodies, or whatever. This week, we ended my Epyllion campaign and I handed out tiny plastic dragon toys in the PCs’ dragon colors to the players to thank them for playing and inject a bit of tactical positioning to the game. One of the players is an 8 year old, so toys have been an important component in the campaign.

Stacy: I like to be able to hand players physical things they can look at, pass around, come back to, and generally keep around in face-to-face games. So, if I’m handing out a dossier, I like to actually hand over a file folder with pictures clipped to it and ‘TOP SECRET’ stamped on it and everything. I’ve even been known to do things like soak paper in tea, then dry it out in the oven so I can create a properly weathered document. Office supply stores love me. I think I’m going to steal Stephanie’s index cards as name tags idea for Gen Con, too.

Do you plan differently for online games? How do you handle handouts, if you use them?

Sarah: I usually share handouts through Google Drive unless I’m using Roll20. You can upload docs to it and control who sees it, which is pretty cool. I’ve made custom backgrounds when I’m running Fiasco, along with themed cards for each player & such. I don’t draw maps when I’m playing online. While I could share my screen and draw using my tablet, that seems like a lot of effort for something I’m describing anyway, and then the players have to ask to see it, and it’s just a pain. Drawing maps in a face to face game is kinda short hand, right? Otherwise, I don’t plan anything differently. I’ve run the same Dungeon World scenario for groups online and off, and the only difference is the online gamers don’t get the fumes from all the sharpies I use.

Ariana: Online it’s easier for us to get into world building, but this is my experience. A lot of time people are timid to take over a piece paper and draw out their ideas. People online are fine to share their digital sheets, have blankets set up and allow whoever knows how to fill out their character sheets to go first and go by it one by one with the novice players. Some new players it’s easier because on screen because you can see what everyone else is doing and go from there.

Stephanie: Roll20 has a “Handouts” tab, which I use when I’m running my game for what would normally be that “found note” in the adventure. My weekly online game has a shared Dropbox folder we use for sharing setting notes and character sheets. I make sure all players have access to whatever SRD is available for the game, so they know how to play and can look it up if they want to. If I’m running a game on Google Hangouts, I use DiceStream, Roll20, and whatever whiteboard app is popular that day.

Stacy: For online games, I’ll set up my monitor and OneNote so the most important things I want to see are spread right before me. I’ll also use some form of Google Docs character sheet so I can see what everyone is doing. This is super helpful especially during character generation, as I can get an idea of where everyone is creating their characters, and offer help before anyone gets too far off track.

For handouts, I use Roll20’s handout system, Google Docs, or a screenshare of a web page or image. I try to put the same kind of craftiness into the digital items that I do into the physical items, especially because I like to hide clues in that way. For Zombies of Walmart, I used Photoshop to take a Walmart map, apply a bunch of grungy textures and marks, and then scrawl on it the ravings of some madman. It’s fun!