This entry is part 8 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.

In this category I want to talk about tools you use during the game.

A GM has to do a lot of things when running a session. In this part, we will cover creating and establishing the right mood, for both the player and the GM, since being in the right frame of mind will significantly improve the experience of the game.

In part II, we will cover how to handle notes and note taking, which every GM should get into the habit of doing.

In part III, we will explore rules and combat resolution, which is one of the main tasks a GM must deal with during the game, and often at the heart of running a game.

Getting Into the GMing Mood

An enthusiastic GM brings the game to a much higher level than a tired, distracted or even bored GM. Hence having tools, which get you into the GMing mood, can increase the fun of your games, for all involved.

Michael: Here are a random collection of tools I use for getting into the GMing/PCing mood: Being fit (GMing while ill sucks…); Don’t be hungry, but also don’t eat too much.

Drink a beer, but don’t get drunk; Caffeine may help. Watch some cool/funny action scenes or movie trailers. Remember game-sessions that went great and awesome (as player or GM).

Da’ Vane: Remember that being a GM is supposed to be fun, not a chore. Therefore, you should only do what you need, concentrate on the parts you enjoy.

If necessary, find someone to co-GM with so you can focus on what you enjoy doing. For example, if you like creating worlds, but don’t enjoy running so much, team up with someone who prefers running over world building and adventure preparation

Failing that, try to find way to make it fun, and limit the things you don’t enjoy doing as much as possible. The GM also needs to be having fun at the gaming table, and beyond it, otherwise they are more likely to suffer GM burnout and cause the game to break up.

Johnn: Images offer great mood food. Hit Deviant Art, find your genre, get inspired.

Another mood trick is Tarot. Give yourself a reading. It can open your mind to new possibilities.

Creating Moods Like Horror and Tension

This is somewhat a setting-related tool, but even in settings which do not go explicitly for horror can benefit from a horror scene now and then for a change of pace.

Creating an atmosphere of horror or tension is much harder than it seems, and it’s hard to grasp sufficient conditions for creating that atmosphere, in which every player becomes very quiet, leaning forward and almost falling from their chairs, occasionally cold with fear.

Sometimes it just works and sometimes it doesn’t, no matter how hard you try. It’s like being too relaxed and happy to get scared by a horror movie.

For tension, it is a little simpler, but here there are no works-for-sure tools either (at least not known to me. If you know, please share!).

Michael: For building up a horror scene, I loosely follow a three stage plan.

Foreshadow the bad thing by some stories. This could be spooky stories told, an entry in a diary or an article in a newspaper. It should roughly describe something terrifying without actually naming it.

The information gathered from this should be vague.

In stage two, I go for a mild encounter or a witness of the bad thing, again giving only vague information. This is for excluding rational explanations and poking the fantasy to come up with bad imaginations of the bad thing.

In a third step, the actual confrontation takes place.

This three step process works for me quite well.

For creating tension, I follow just some rule of thumbs: Put players on the clock, go for big stakes (more than just the life of the characters), and foreshadow the dangers (similar to creating a horror atmosphere).

Da’ Vane: Creating horror and tension comes from instilling a sense of fear into the characters, and often the players. This can be hard to do, because there is always the idea that this is just a game, the GM is invested in the game and doesn’t want to wipe out the party, and if all else fails, the players can always create new characters.

Plus, most systems have a sense of transparency between the GM and the players, with players knowing the rules as well as the GM, and therefore able to call the GM out on abuses, such as creating enemies the PCs cannot handle.

Most of these are crutches for players, and horror games simply do away with them – bringing back that sense of fear.

Therefore, the easiest method for creating horror and tension is to do the same thing – without telling the players beforehand.

A GM can smite players for no apparent reason, but it’s the threat that creates the fear, not carrying it out.

Think back to some of the more devious, lethal tricks of “old school” roleplaying games to learn how to create fear. A room that instantly kills without warning upon entry doesn’t create fear, because there’s nothing to be afraid of, and no survivors around remain scared.

However, legends of a dungeon with such rooms beyond which lies ancient treasures – now that creates fear. The PCs know about the rooms beforehand, but they’ll never know exactly which rooms are safe and which aren’t….

Handling Music and Sound

Music is key for creating a certain mood at the table. It is the soundtrack for your game.

Imagine a movie without a score and you see (or rather hear) what your game is missing. Music isn’t the only thing that can be used. Sound effects can also produce atmosphere, for example in a tavern.

You actually need two tools here: One for handling the music during the session, one for getting the music/sound effects.

Michael: My favourite source is, especially for sound effects.

For handling the music, I successfully use my cell phone, which helps a lot since I don’t use a PC in every group, nor do we play always at my home. In my cell phone I have folders for the different moods, like confrontation, creepy, and so on.

Da’ Vane: I rarely use music or sound effects when I run my games, because the majority of my games take place either online or in public places, at a roleplaying games club where there is normally more than one game going on.

But this doesn’t mean that I never use them. Even simple sound effects generated at the table by the GM can be effective when used properly. For example, tapping a glass or slamming a book can put a dramatic touch to an otherwise bland encounter.

The key is to use what you can to enhance your game, rather than feel that you must use everything or you are losing out. Be aware of the simple sounds you can easily make already at the gaming table; it helps immensely.

You can always hum a soundtrack, snap your fingers to a beat, drum on the table with your fingertips, or stamp your feet to make appropriate sound effects and music.

Johnn: I ask my players to make soundtracks. I have an MP3 dock from a couple Christmases ago, and players plug their MP3 players into it and queue up their playlists.

I would love to do sound effects some day. I purchased a CD set of effects ages ago, but have yet to use them during a game.

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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