This entry is part 9 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 and Johnn Four.

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 part I, we covered creating and establishing the right mood, for both the player and the GM, since being in the right frame of mind significantly improves the experience of the game.

In today’s part, 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 that a GM has to deal with during the game, and often at the heart of running a game.

Making Notes

During the session, you will want to take notes for remembering what happened and to jot down ideas as they come along. This can be strongly related to the way you organize your GM notes.

You want your notes to be easily and quickly done, and you want to find and understand them, when the session is over and some days have passed by. This sounds easier as it actually is.

You may write something down during session using shorthand, because you think, “This is clear, I will remember.” Then time goes by, maybe the next session-date gets cancelled, and one day before the next session you look to your notes and have completely forgotten what the circumstances have been, when you took your notes.

Michael: In my D&D campaign, I try to put new ideas directly into OneNote, since this is the main reason for the category: “Reminders”. I force myself to not only to write down the crucial information, but also the circumstances. This takes a little bit more time, but it helps a lot.

In my Cthulhu campaign, I use a totally different method: I record the sessions and listen to them afterwards, taking notes as needed in all the time I need (this helps also a lot in judging your own game from a different perspective).

In my Savage Worlds group, I stick to old-fashioned pen and paper. Nevertheless, currently I’m learning to write in shorthand (not especially for GMing though), and this will hopefully improve my notes here.

Da’ Vane: If you use a campaign wiki, such as Obsidian Portal, then you can often find this a useful tool for note-taking during the game, as well as recording information afterwards.

Formatting and polishing of the information can be done afterwards, and it’s got the added advantage that if you are in practice of using a wiki anyway, you will already be creating the topics you need to write about to share with the players.

I find this an incredible boon for online games if the players don’t mind a slightly slower pace, since you can write up descriptions and details and copy-paste them to various programs as needed.

Also, encourage players to take their own notes at the table as well, since this not only eases the burden on you as a GM, it gives you an indication about what they feel is important in the game, as well as their own perspective on events, including their own theories and ideas of what is going on.

Johnn: I too have used all the methods: PC at the table, iPad, players, index cards, Post-Its. I’ve also tried a ton of software, including journaling software, OneNote, Word, My Info, Access Database, Hero Lab, WeatherMaster, Masterplan, and more.

Use what works for you, because as Michael says, the only gotcha is your note capture solution renders your notes useless in the end.

Here is the ultimate combo that works for me. During sessions I just use a lined note book and pen. The note book is spiral bound so I can flip the book in half to take up less table space.

Here’s the key: I write a fusion of point form notes and mind maps. Mind maps might feel awkward at first, but GMs you need to try these out and master them.

Mind maps make note-taking a little easier and faster sometimes, but their true value lie in reference and recall. Our brains work with the word pictures better than lines of text. Our brains are wired for image recall in a big way, and mind maps breach that gap to turn your notes into something akin to a graphic. And you brain loves that.

Between sessions, I mine my session notes for details and update my My Info campaign file. If I have time, I also write a campaign log for Roleplaying Tips. Re-counting a session’s events helps me remember a campaign’s details better, and it often inspires ideas as I write.

Organizing GM Notes

Normally you will need some tool for organizing your GM notes. If you think about how many sections we already talked about in this series, most of them come along with some notes.

Having a practical system to organize these notes will make your life as GM a lot easier. Lots of GMs start out having only a minimal system for organizing GM notes for a relatively long time as they learn to be a good GM.

By getting their notes in order, they take one of the biggest steps forward in GMing they will ever manage.

Michael: My best organized GMing notes are in my D&D campaign. I use Microsoft’s OneNote here and I love it.

Having categories like “NPC”, “Locations”, “Adventure”, links between pages and easy copy and paste methods is just awesome.

A similar approach would be using some kind of wiki. These solutions require a PC at your gaming table.

In my Cthulhu campaign, I use a non-electronic method. I have a binder using a similar structure as in my OneNote for D&D here.

Because I think this to be quite important I will give you the complete list of my categories:

  • Reminders (small bits of information I want to use in next sessions)
  • NPCs
  • Lists (including a timeline, where to find the name generators for different cultures, a list of buildings which can be found in cities, and so on)
  • Locations
  • Metaphors (as said I’m using the newspaper-method for world building)
  • Maps
  • Monsters
  • Items
  • Prestige-Classes
  • GMing Tips
  • Players
  • House-Rules
  • Tales and Myths
  • Log

Da’ Vane: If you use the same system for organizing notes as you do taking notes, you will have saved yourself a lot of trouble, but this is not always the case.

The best system to use will always be the one which is most effective for each person, and that means organizing it for the purposes that you use it for. There’s a lot of things to consider when you design an organizational system for yourself – and this shares a lot of traits with creating an effective work or studying environment where you can deal with information.

The top priority should be your ability to get to information quickly and easily. A GM only has a limited amount of time for various things, such as world building, and if you spend all your time trying to find the notes on a certain place brought up in last week’s session, that link on your laptop regarding tribal customs, or that reference book on castle layouts, then your system isn’t efficient.

Another top priority should include how you intend to use that information. Storing it is one thing, but if you never go back to it, it’s a waste of time. So, your organization system should make it useful to bring that information to bear to generate lists of ideas for plot hooks, encounters, world building, and everything else you need.

If you can put all this in one place, so much the better. For example, if you can use an information organization program to create bullet points of plot hooks, then being able to print out the plot hooks for use as rumours that you can literally provide as handouts is great.

But failing this, even if you have to rewrite sections by hand, being able to create a list of bullet points for rumours to include in future sessions is still a very handy outcome for your organization system.

Johnn: Good point Da’Vane. Michael, I used OneNote for a campaign as an experiment, and I agree that it’s great GM software.

I prefer MyInfo. I find it more flexible than OneNote. I started with a plain text file. That worked awesome, and was cheap. J

But as Da’Vane predicts, my text file soon disintegrated into sections and little hacks to make reference easier. Eventually, my plain text file collapsed under the weight of what it was trying to do for me.

However, My Info has never let me down and I use it for every campaign, world, NPC, adventure and session.

Check out a separate article I wrote about how to use My Info for becoming an organized GM.

Recap Previous Session

Recapping the last session is a basic method to get the players focused on the game. There is hardly a group that comes together that sits down at the gaming table and starts playing without doing at least a few minutes of chatting and catching up.

By having a recap, you bring the players into the game from this relaxed social mood, and refresh important details of the last session, along with whatever plans that were forged at the end of the last session. This is useful so that the players don’t have to rediscover the events from the previous session once again.

Michael: In my different campaigns I use different recapping tools. The classic way I use in my Savage Worlds campaign: I let a voluntary player tell the others what happened last time and watch out that he or she is not forgetting anything important (or unimportant, just to make sure my players don’t get to know the difference that easily).

Of course, this requires some notes from my side. In my Cthulhu campaign, there is one player who likes to make detailed notes about the sessions. So she is the logbook of the group. I start the season by playing the same mysterious song and she reads out her notes to the others. I can lean back here and prepare in my mind evil plans to scare my players.

Da’ Vane: I often use the recapping of the past session as a means to give me a little extra time to finalise the last decisions about what is going to happen in this week’s session, and try my best to get my players engaged in recapping via a question and answering process.

That way, I can see if there’s anything the players misunderstood and that needs clarification, what they considered important and not important, and so forth. I quite often like to close sessions with a recap of the session in a similar manner, since this is an ideal time for taking notes and getting a handle on what the players thought of things, while handing out session experience and rewards.

Johnn: We do session recap the classic way, as well, with one or more players describing what happened last session and the current state of the group.

In addition, players update their campaign wiki and I often publish a recap at Roleplaying Tips.

My Riddleport campaign started with the introduction of a large number of NPCs and hooks. So my players created a special section on the wiki called Loose Ends, which is a to do list of people to talk with and places to go. They recap what’s on that list during sessions, as well, if the group needs focus.

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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