This entry is part 3 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.

Preparation tools are perhaps the most important tools at your disposal. In this category, we have the tools you can use to get ready for your game sessions.

In part I, we covered campaign and adventure planning, which enable the GM to define the stories being told. In this part, we cover encounter planning and what the GM needs to prepare for actual play.

Going one step deeper, we land at single encounters. The tools used here should provide the details you need for playing out a certain scene or an encounter.

Monster Planning

Most systems and settings have monsters. A monster planning tool will provide you with the appearance of the monster as seen, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted by the PCs, along with the relevant statistics for that monster.

Additional material such as combat strategies and non-combat behaviour may also be provided by your tool.

Michael: I’m in the comfortable position of not having any setting veterans in my groups. This means I don’t have to invent monsters myself to surprise my players. Therefore, my monster planning tools are just the rulebooks themselves.

Da’ Vane: Monsters and other combat enemies can be some of the most time consuming elements of a scene to prepare, so you should be looking to find ways to do as little work here as possible, to get maximum use from your encounters.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to reskin your monsters, by replacing the descriptions and details, but preserving some or all of the statistics of the opponents at hand. This way, you can use the same set of numbers numerous times, rather than having to completely rebuild you encounters time and time again.

As you get more experience with your chosen rules, you will be more comfortable changing minor details of these encounters that affect how they play out, such as providing them with different weapons, stronger armour, or changing how some of their abilities work.

Also, if you vary the tactics and strategies of the creatures, then while they may be virtually identical in terms of their statistics, the encounters will become more varied as a result, especially if combined with various other factors.

Johnn: I also recommend monster theming. Choose a monster and make them a race, with various derivations. This helps you become an expert with the monster, allowing you to improve your monster variant construction, encounter stocking, and combat tactics with that family of critters. It also gives you a great recurring foe for players to get a good hate on for.

For example, evil unicorns. The one with the black horn and sneer is the leader. The brown horned ones are cunning lieutenants with leadership skills who undermine each other as they compete for the leader’s respect. The few red horned ones have tricky magic powers. The green horns are flunkies. Legend of gem-horned unicorns exist, which is perhaps what the villain quests for.

Terrain and Combat Hazards Planning

Combat hazards and terrain can be a crucial point of an encounter. Almost every encounter can benefit from cool scenery, which is basically the reason why we are still watching action movies.

A tool in this category should provide you with interesting scenery to spice up important encounters and battles. It should also give you some rulings on how the scenery affects the PCs and the encounter.

Michael: For basic stuff, the rulebooks do a good job for me. But for important battles, I need better tools. Getting inspiration from movies or books is a good source for me. Also the combat hazard series on the Campaign Mastery website helped me a lot.

One little tip here: Use time-constraints. Killing the giant evil robot is much more fun if you have to do it before the nuclear bomb triggers.

Da’ Vane: Terrain and combat hazards are good for getting more out of your encounters, and turning otherwise dull encounters into exciting action scenes. Bear in mind that even simple furniture can had a new dimension to encounters, especially when combined with improvisational weapon use. An otherwise dull tavern brawl can become exciting as characters throw chairs, tip over tables for cover, swing off chandeliers, and leap off balconies.

Johnn: Terrain impacts encounter setup and options. Offensive terrain that adds to damage done each round, or weakens defenses, increases the pace of combat. Defensive terrain that makes combatants harder to hit and damage slows the pace of combat.

Further, terrain affects character senses. Use terrain to improve chances of ambushes, disguise the objective, or mislead the PCs. A classic example is a terrain feature in shadow that looks like a foe.

Combat rules can serve as another tool for your GM toolbox here. Take each combat rule and reverse engineer it into an interesting terrain element. PCs will experience the terrain during the encounter and trigger the game rule in a natural way, making encounters exciting for them.

For example, bull rush: pits, crevasses, spiked walls, slippery downhill sections. What about bull rushing terrain, such as aggressive plants, wind gusts, swinging construction equipment?

Trap Placing

Traps are meant to hinder, damage, or kill the characters. They can come in any form. A trap can work as an encounter, a combat hazard, or a puzzle.

It is a good idea to have some traps in your box, since they are a tool themselves. A tool for creating traps provides you with a trigger, an effect, some possible placements, and maybe a hidden or emergency off switch or bypass option.

Michael: If I construct a trap myself, I skim through the core rules, especially the chapter about Magic and Spells. It may need some fantasy, but almost every spell can be twisted to work into a trap.

If I need a quick and dirty trap, I just use the example traps given in the rulebooks. Also, thinking about the Home Alone movies results in some (sometimes diabolic) traps.

Da’ Vane: Traps are often meant as a delaying tactic, but too many can slow down the game to a crawl. They should be reserved for areas of danger that are meant to be protected, so the players can have some idea when to expect traps and when they are reasonably safe. Sometimes, even the threat of a trap is enough to keep the players on their toes.

Johnn: I love Grimtooth’s series of books. You can convert many of the traps into something workable for your system. Kobold Quarterly regularly blogs about traps. There were several third edition trap books you can find used for cheap.

Giving Out Treasure

Handing out treasure is more complicated than just creating some items. You want treasure to be balanced in two ways – the players should not gain two coppers for slaying the red dragon, but nor should they receive the Sceptre of Infinite Power for killing some goblin raiders.

The treasure should fit the difficulty of the encounter and the level of power of the characters.

Also, the treasure should be nicely distributed over the different players. This is a tricky one, since the in-game value of treasure is not the same as its out-of-game value.

A power gamer will be much more grateful for a bigger weapon, compared to the player who seeks for a nice story.

The tool you use here should generate your treasures in a fast, uncomplicated way, which can be optimized to your players’ needs easily. Remember, you can also use created items as treasure.

Michael: In my D&D campaign, I have an easy game on this battlefield. My players love magic and powerful stuff. Basically, I go through the tables of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and mix in some more story related stuff for the few story-needs of my group.

In the Savage Worlds group, I also have it quite easy. The group is constantly broke, so giving them money causes spontaneous dancing.

In the Cthulhu group, however, it is quite different (often they are happy NOT finding something). Here hints, relics, and books trump items. For preparing this, I skim through the only-for-GM sections of my notes or the books, and choose some interesting piece of information they receive by investigating the treasure.

Da’ Vane: I am a big fan of randomly generated treasure, although I will tend to determine the treasure for a given area, and then arrange it as suited rather than relying completely on the tables for generation.

In this way, I can create treasure caches and other little rewards, as well as themed group treasure, such as dishing out some coins to minions, and having the leader horde all the items for themselves if they are particularly greedy.

I will also allow smart enemies to use the treasure they might possess, giving them an extra edge and making for a more interesting encounter, as well as giving the PCs an extra incentive to adopt reckless and heroic stunts to improve play so they can end combats quicker and get more rewards.

Johnn: TableSmith software has downloadable random treasure generators. Third Edition D&D was rife with treasure books, and you can steal the fluff from those en masse. You can also ask players for their wishlists, or better yet, understand the PCs’ strengths and weaknesses and offer rewards tuned to each character.

Granting Rewards

By reward, I mean things which are not treasure, such as experience points. This can be a great method to show your players what style of play you encourage. Your tool here should specify:

  • What kind of rewards you grant.
  • When to give out which reward (instantly, end of session, beginning of next session)
  • What the reward encourages (playing out character, making a witty joke)
  • How it keeps things balanced, i.e. avoiding one or two players getting a lot of rewards and the others none.

Michael: For giving out instant rewards, I have prepared reward cards of three types in my D&D campaign.

  • Interactive – for playing out character
  • Fun – for making a witty comment or doing something funny in-game
  • Action Cards – for doing cool stunts or describing the own action nicely

For creating the cards, I used the Magic Set Editor, printed them out in high quality, cut them out (all hundreds of them, this was work!) and put them together with an unused Magic the Gathering card in a card sleeve (with different backgrounds, to distinguish the three kinds). Here is a sample of the cards (in German language).

Da’ Vane: Various systems define different ways of handling rewards, which I try to understand, and if possible share across systems in ways to make games more fun, without breaking the game.

I also provide an instant stunt bonus to characters whose players go to that extra length of describing their actions in a cool way, or come up with something unique, clever, or funny that I feel should help the game and deserves a little bit of extra help to work.

In a d20-based system, this is as simple as a +2 bonus, which is an additional 10% chance in absence of any other modifiers, so isn’t too overpowered during play, and helps out a lot at lower levels or when the PCs start exhausting all their other abilities and need the boost.

Johnn: My group uses pocket points. It lets players reward each other.

I also give out compliments and positive feedback. “That was a great idea, Bob. Well done.” That goes a long way and does not affect game balance.

Spotlight time is another effective reward. The player who acts things out, roleplays their PC’s actions instead of just calling for a dice roll, or describes things in detail gets the floor and my attention.

Characters with backstories can get rewarded with personalized game play (hooks, NPCs, and side plots derived from the background).

Part III is All About NPCs

In part III, we will explore preparing and running NPCs in your games, to make your games feel more alive and realistic.

About the Authors

Michael Beck considers himself a novice GM, but is encouraged in sharing his tips at (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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