This entry is part 11 in the series GM Toolbox
GM Toolbox

What tools go into your GM toolbox?

Written by Michael Beck, with contributions and editing by Da’Vane.

GM’s Toolbox, looks at tools, tips, and techniques you can use to improve your games. Toolbox offers you a skeleton for running a campaign, rather than fleshed out tips. This series is presented in a discussion style, and we ask you to contribute with comments about your own tools, tips, and techniques at the end of this post.

There are plenty of things you can do beyond the core game as GM to improve everyone’s experience. There are points where roleplaying interacts with real life, sometimes with negative impacts on the game itself.

Some of the following are not just a GM-only job. However, your players often expect you to be responsible for these things, simply because you are the GM, and that’s reason enough.

In this part, we will go over ways to improve your game experience outside the game using handouts and props, as well as a campaign newsletter.

In part II, we will cover some of the issues around organising the game itself, including finding players.

In part III, we will cover the ways in which you can improve your abilities as GM.

Creating Handouts

Handouts are a great way to give your players a large chunk of information, which they don’t have to remember. Of course, this large chunk of information can be hidden in less important information.

The style of the handout will often reflect the in-game character who has written it, and can add a lot of flavour to the game. A tool can help you here not only to come around the problem of bad handwriting, but how to create and organize your handouts quickly and easily.

Michael: I use the standard office programs and connect them with fonts I find on the net. For getting the style of how a handout is written, it’s a nice tool to have a similar real world text.

If I want to write something prophetic, I search for some nice bible verses, which I can alter to fit. When I want to write a riddle, I search for poems and alter them.

It’s a bit harder to write in the perspective of an NPC, but here my NPC creation tools help out.

Da’ Vane: Handouts are great for providing large chunks of information, while also giving your players something tangible to hold and sift through. Often a handout can feel like a reward, even though it’s really just a clue to more of the story.

If you like espionage games, dossiers are a good target for handouts, and help reinforce the mood of the genre. The players can receive a bundle of papers to sort through at their leisure, and work out what is important and what is fluff. You might include photos, evidence reports, and other files using this show, don’t tell method.

Lots of adventure games improved their worth by including extras to read through to provide additional information that you didn’t automatically know when to use. The Infocom adventure games were particularly famous for it.

It’s also a good way of handling lengthy monologues the PCs would otherwise have to sit through – often at the start of the game. A pile of news cuttings beats having to sit through a lengthy one-sided briefing where they are told what to do.

Props

Props are a great way to increase the mood at the table. Players will be quite surprised when you actually put the mysterious, rusty dagger right into their hands.

Besides that, it can is a great reminder as to which PC actually has which items.

You may want to create props, buy them or improvise them. Sometimes you might have some prop and build the adventure around it, so you can get this prop into use.

Michael: Tools for props can be actual real life tools, depending on your crafting abilities. Mine are just awful, so that’s nothing for me.

To be honest, I’m not working much with props. For a Cthulhu campaign, I once scribbled mysterious symbols on my mirror (there was something about mirrors in the adventure).

The props that come to the most use in my games are item cards for my Fun-One-Shots. In these adventures, I made cards similar to my reward cards for items. The player who holds the card actually has the item.

Da’ Vane: I don’t use props either, and it’s not something that’s covered by a lot of games. However, the Fighting Fantasy and Advanced Fighting Fantasy Roleplaying Game series did advocate the use of props, and every scene they included had ideas for props for the scene to make it more enjoyable.

Whether it was having a stick to wave around to pretend to be a wand (or to poke the players with, in some cases) or an odd-tasting concoction for the players to drink when they were required to use a potion, there were a ton of ideas how to get more from your games using props.

This may have been because Fighting Fantasy and Advanced Fighting Fantasy were extremely simple systems, so featured a lot more roleplaying than engaging with the system, and anything to encourage this roleplaying was emphasized, from acting to handouts to minis.

Johnn: Props have featured several times in the Roleplaying Tips Newsletter. For more props and handout ideas, check out Props Contest Entries One, Two, Three and Four.

You should also check out Tips On Making Creative And Informative Player Handouts and How To Use Props In Your Games – 8 Tips.

The Newsletter

A newsletter about your game is a lot of work, so don’t underestimate it. However, there are also great benefits from it.

The newsletter can be packed with all kinds of information, such as the world and its history, deeper descriptions of NPCs, house rules, and whatever else you think is reasonable to tell the players in a written form.

It’s great if you have tools here to decrease the amount of work by at least a bit.

Michael: I’m stunned by the easy handling of Microsoft Office Publisher, especially by its templates. There may be other publishing software out there, but I’ve never noticed them.

When I got my tablet notebook for work there had been the office stuff installed, so I just checked them out. This actually convinced me into doing a newsletter.

But a nice program is not everything – you still have to fill it with content. Here is the structure of my newsletter: Maybe it helps you to fill yours with content.

  • Page 1: There is a small box on the left side, below the session number and its date, in which is a short summary of that session. Below this is an index. The main articles on first page are a longer summary of last session, with introductory flavour text, describing a key action of the session (for example, a heroic description of how a PC died). Below these is a small section about house rules, unusual usage of skills, new feats or spells, and other rule related stuff.
  • Page 2: Here I have plenty of space for going into more details of certain aspects of last session. If they met a new NPC, he could be described in more detail here. Did they find some hints? I gather them here. Did they enter a new town? I write down what the PC heard about it beforehand and so on. Also, other big chunks appear here like new prestige classes.
  • Page 3: This page is for history, tales, holidays and that kind of thing. One PC in my group is from another world, so he should know much less about the actual setting than the others. This is why only the others get this page. In compensation for that off-world PC, he gets a page only he receives. He’s playing a ranger, so he knows some tales and campfire stories. They appear here on the last page for him. I also add pictures and funny roleplaying quotes you can find easily on the net, which all players receive.

Da’ Vane: I have used a newsletter in just one game, and I found it was more effort than it was worth for my group. However, you can create a similar experience with a website or wiki, if you have one, and this often serves multiple purposes.

It’s easy to add out-of-game content to a website or wiki, much as you would with a newsletter, and then collate this information making it easy to access. Bear in mind copyright laws though. For many systems, including non-house rules on a website or wiki is a breach of copyright. And even though you are likely to remain undetected if it’s just for personal use, especially if it’s behind a login area, you can still get in trouble for doing this.

Overall, a newsletter or website/wiki with out-of-game content is probably only really beneficial if you have a long-term game or a long-term gaming group.

Johnn: Roleplaying Tips has some tips on campaign newsletters, a reader’s tip on campaign newsletters and a couple of newsletter examples.

About the Authors

Michael Beck considers himself a novice GM, but is encouraged in sharing his tips at www.spielleiten.wordpress.com (German language). Having played RPGs for roughly 10 years now, he accepts the challenge of living with his girl-friend, two cats, a non-finished PhD-thesis and two running roleplaying campaigns.

Da’ Vane, or Christina Freeman in the real world, is the owner of DVOID Systems, and the primary writer of their D-Jumpers series of products. With an academic background in science, especially socio-psychology, she is what many would regard as a “know-it-all.” However, the truth is that she doesn’t know everything about everything, but she knows a lot about a lot, especially about her passions which are games, stories, learning, and people. She is a consummate geek goddess, and yes, she is single if you feel like tracking her down and hitting on her some time….

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