This entry is part 2 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 maybe the most important tools at the GM’s disposal. In part I of prep-tools, we cover campaign and adventure planning, which enable the GM to define the stories being told in the game.

Campaign Planning (Long Story Arcs)

With this tool, you are able to create long story arcs that span over many sessions, or may even be open-ended. It provides you with an underlying story, often with a big stake that is normally sharp enough for your players to see the overall story, but flexible enough to allow side-adventures to be easily added and avoid railroading.

Following this tool will make it easy for you to plan the next adventure.

Michael: I currently run a Cthulhu campaign called Horror in the Orient Express. This is a published campaign, coming in four nice volumes. So for this campaign, the books are obviously my campaign planning tool.

For a previous campaign, I adopted the dramatic structure of theatre. Just by defining how many adventures you want to put in each act, I set up how long the campaign will last.

Having such a plan at hand helped ensure each session propelled the campaign towards its end.

One word to open-ended campaigns: It may seem tempting, but in my opinion there is a huge disadvantage: it’s open-ended. It’s hard, if not impossible, to achieve a structure like above. There is no big battle at the end.

In short, it will never end, and if it is not ending in a planned way, it will end in another usually less satisfying way: GM burnout, group-splitting, or change of system.

Da’ Vane: The structure of the campaign itself can have a significant impact upon a game, much like different formats in film and TV.

A campaign can be planned with a large over-arching plot or back-story, giving the PCs a series long-term goal to fulfil as they discover what is going on, what they have to do about it, and then race towards the inevitable climax.

Alternatively, a campaign might adopt a more episodic format, where every adventure is self-contained and there are few ties between each adventure and episode, other than sharing the same cast of characters.

This might be more suitable for a game that features the PCs moving around a lot and exploring new things, rather than taking place in a few locations that the PCs can become familiar with.

Both types can be mixed together as well. A few one-off adventures mixed in with a longer-term plot. The one-off adventures are great for enabling PC goals that may not be critical to the larger plot, but still add to the story.

If you want a shorter dramatic structure for your larger plots, you might want to consider a revised Three Act Structure. Traditionally, the revised version has the second act include a plot twist, often as the antagonists react towards to protagonists’ efforts in the first act. It’s simple, but it works.

Johnn: Another great tool for story planning is the Goal Reversal & The 9-Act Format. For sandbox adventures, I agree with Michael’s advice in some cases. But if you do want an open-ended campaign, here is a great series on fantasy and Traveller sandbox structure.

Adventure Planning (Medium Story Arcs)

It is hard to imagine a GM who is not using a tool to plan adventures. This tool provides you with an adventure you can played in one or more sessions.

You may have different tools for different types of adventures: puzzle based (investigations), event based, location based (dungeons). This tool should provide you a hook and the adventure structure at minimum.

Further good extras are:

  • Possibilities for side-adventures to avoid railroading
  • Can be centred around the PC
  • Being open in the sense that you can easily place it in your world
  • Provide you hooks for new adventures or a natural way for a sequel
  • Possibilities for twists
  • Being open in the sense you can easily alter the adventure if necessary

Michael: Currently, I run three different groups and use three different tools. I’ve already told you about the Cthulhu campaign. The mixed location and event-based adventures are given by the book that the campaign is being run from.

The second group is a D&D group in a self-invented world. Here the adventures rely strongly on exploration of that world, and the basic tool is the world itself with its aspects.

For every aspect of that world I have a list of a few one-sentence adventure seeds, and I couple that with the big list of RPG plots.

The third group is a Savage Worlds – Sundered Skies group (if the D&D can’t take place). As this group is only for replacing D&D-sessions, I need short one-shot adventures here. The sourcebook gives some nice adventure creation-tables, which provides me with short but still different adventure structures. Watching the Firefly television series also helped here a lot.

Da’ Vane: I would be a fool if I didn’t mention the D-Jumpers series that I publish over at DVOID Systems, which is the epitome of an adventure planning tool. Being system agnostic, they focus on the ideas and structures to provide adventures of any length, in the multi-genre trans-dimensional design ethos that is D-Jumpers.

When it comes to adventure planning, I find the key details comes down to choices, and therefore you can always take the plot of anything you experience and enjoy, and think about the choices being made and how things could have been done differently.

Changing even just a few choices, along with some window dressing to fit your current campaign, can turn even the most well known and overdone storylines into unique plots that provide a great adventure.
Even if you don’t change anything, chances are your players and their PCs will do things differently, even when given the same conditions, just by virtue of being different characters.

Johnn: Over the years I have used a few different medium arc adventure planning tools. Unfortunately, these books are out of print, but you should be able to get them through used book channels.

A book you can still buy in PDF is Robin’s Law of Good Game Mastering. That offers a great chapter on adventure design.

Preparing Sessions (Short Story Arcs)

Every story can be split into smaller pieces, which are the individual sessions you are preparing as a GM.

The tool needed here sorts out the stuff you need to prepare right now from the stuff that can be left alone for at least one session.

Time is often a crucial thing here, as you don’t always want to read your entire set of adventure notes to see what you should bring to the gaming table this night.

Also, some idea of the overall structure can be beneficial to your session:

  • An opener to start the session and get the players right into gaming mode
  • Sequence of events (encounters, NPC Interactions, and other actions and tasks)
  • Cliff-hanger or resolution of a bigger chunk of the story at the end of the session

Michael: I like to use the “loopy session planning” described by Johnn in RPT#488 and add the above mentioned structures. For the Savage Worlds campaign, I also like the Adventure Ideas from the rule book and challenge my improvisational skills.

Da’ Vane: I prefer a more structured format to my sessions, largely because I like to include my session planning as part of my adventure planning. This way, all I have to do to plan a session is define exactly how much of an adventure I intend to run, and prepare the material that I don’t already have on hand.

If I can, I will try and get players to make decisions at the end of the session, rather than during it, since the outcome of the PCs reaction is often a rather potent cliff-hanger. This gives me time between sessions to prepare for decisions that may have caught me off-guard, and allows for the next session to start with the PCs discovering the outcome of their decisions, often with any relevant action to kick the session off to a good start.

Johnn: Published adventures, if you use those, often come with a structure and you just need to read the background, overview or summary, and part one or first few encounters.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention my ebook, 650 Fantasy City Encounter Seeds. Not so much about structure as ideas for your session’s encounters. To get the ebook, subscribe to the Roleplaying Tips newsletter, or download for free at RPGNow.

Investigation Planning

There is a scene where something happened. The PCs arrive some time afterwards and have to find hints and clues to investigate what happened here. As GM, you have to provide these hints to your players. An investigation planning tool gives you the hints to pass to the players.

These hints may be discovered by gathering evidence, having occurred long before the players entered the scene. The hints might also be acquired through improvisation and experimentation.

In addition, the tool gives you a nice overview, so you don’t forget hints or confuse whether the players already found a hint or not.

Michael: For creating hints beforehand, I try to imagine the scene as detailed as possible. If there is something happening, you almost always have some detail on something.

I also keep track of what moves there and where it stops. There was probably some kind of increasing entropy. These thoughts can lead to hints and clues.

The improvisational tool I use (and kind of rely on) are my players – when they start to investigate the scene, I just have to say “yes” at the right moment. Often, they have some ideas I never would have thought of.

I also need the advanced preparation tool, because sometimes all I get from my players is: “I got a 28 in Search. What have I found?” For keeping track of the clues, I’m quite satisfied with the one-sheet-mystery.

Da’ Vane: The key for a good investigation is logical information. In most cases, the PCs have a reason to investigate what happened at a scene, and these reasons will determine the sort of information and clues the PCs are hoping to find.

In most cases, this information should be useful, and thus should lead the PCs somewhere, even if it is to another location with more clues to uncover so they can find out more about what is going on.

If the PCs are investigating a murder, they will most likely be interested in the motivation and identity of the murderer to track them down. They may learn this from the nature of the attack, the murder weapon, or other clues such as who the victim was.

On the other hand, if the PCs are looking to find out other information, such as where and how a secret entrance might be located and operated, they will be looking for different information – signs of furniture being rearranged, strange breezes, or an space unaccounted for between this room and the next.

As a big fan of the espionage genre, this is something I am quite familiar with, and espionage games often provide a great deal of tools for this type of play which can easily be adopted.

Investigations are generally split into two, with the first half being the doing side of the investigation that involves gathering the information, in which case the GM should provide as much information as possible.

Johnn: A couple of articles from the RPT archives you will find useful:

Puzzle Planning

Puzzles can be a great benefit to your adventures. Getting puzzles can be a puzzle in itself. Your puzzle tool provides you with a puzzle that has to be solved in-game or out, and it defines the rules and the solution. It may also give you hints on solving the puzzle that you can give out to your players if they get stuck.

Michael: I personally don’t like much the idea of solving puzzles out of game as a metaphor for solving puzzles in-game, but you may disagree. So real-world puzzles can be a tool.

I like to use riddles and poems. There are a lot of pages on the net where you can find poems and search for poems with certain key words.

For example, if there is a poem about fire, there are certainly some lines in that poem describing fire without saying the word “fire”. I can then use fire for the solution and take these lines of the poem as a hint. However, overall I’m not the big puzzle-fan.

Da’ Vane: It is worth mentioning that puzzles come in many forms, and are not necessarily limited to riddles and word problems the PCs need to solve.

One of the most common types of puzzle encountered in roleplaying games is the murder mystery, or investigative adventure. It works by having the PCs follow a trail of clues through a series of locations to the end.

By obscuring the clues, and making the players think outside the box, these become actual puzzles rather than simple skill challenges.

Another trick that riddles and puzzles provide is using limited information or misrepresentation, combined with player preconceptions and assumptions, to hide what is otherwise an obvious fact.

This makes most puzzles a case of finding out the missing information – and it is the form of the puzzle that normally defines how the information is hidden and where the solver should look.

Often, puzzles are the second half of investigations, representing the thinking side of the investigation that involves finding and using the information, in which the GM should provide as little information as possible.

Johnn: Some great RPT resources for puzzling GMs:

Prep-Tools II and III

We hope you found this week’s toolbox a handy guide for helping you plan and build your game.
Next, In part II, we will cover encounter planning, which covers what the GM needs to prepare for actual play.

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

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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