This entry is part 10 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 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 will significantly improve the experience of the game.

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

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

Character Information and Quick Rules

In a lot of systems you want to do rolls for your players. To do this, it is practical to have character information of the PCs at hand. Also, quick rule cheat sheets often help a lot for the GM and players.

If there are rules which you can’t remember or frequently refer to, or which include rather large tables, sometimes having them at hand outside from the rule books is much more practicable than skimming through the books again and again.

Typical tools here are the laptop or the traditional inside of the GM-Screen.

Michael: In my Cthulhu campaign I use the GM Screen. I like it, because it is in landscape format which does not so strongly separate you from your players.

In my D&D campaign, I use a laptop, hence I have a PDF file of short rules. One can find these on the net, or you can write these up yourself.

For the Savage World campaign, I don’t have a short rule system yet, but I provide my players one of these free test-savage-world-right-now-booklet, and am thinking of marking the most important rules with post-its in the books.

For keeping track of the PC information I need, I just create a table and let it get filled in by the players.

Da’ Vane: At the start of each session, I normally collate relevant PC information so I have it on hand during the game. Depending upon the system I am running, I will normally use whatever quick rules sheets are provided.

Besides that, I try to make my notes as complete as possible, by including short rules for my encounters directly in the encounter information. A common trick here is to make sure all the relevant abilities for a character have details for how they are used. For the encounter, I expand this for terrain and other rules as well.

I also like to maintain the character sheets for my players, and as part of this I will include quick rules for their abilities as relevant, so they have little need to go near the rulebooks at all.

The only time we’ll normally have the rulebook open during play is when we’re learning a new system, which we normally do together, so everyone can see what’s going on. Otherwise, I’ll translate what the PCs want to do to the rules as best I can, and when in doubt, I’ll simply make it up to keep the game moving.

Running Combats

Running combat is somewhat like a game inside the game. Depending on the rule system, you will have to crunch numbers, keep track of hit points and initiative, use ammo and spell slots, keep track of distances, and record a dozen or so different possible modifiers and conditions for your PCs.

As GM, you may be responsible for a lot of different factions with totally different abilities, which make this even more complicated.

There are many tools out there for helping you run combats.

Michael: I trust in my players here and outsource as much as possible. In the D&D campaign, they have to keep track of their hit points, who is coming next, ammo, spell slots, how to resolve their magic attacks and so on.

This lets me focus on using the feats of my foes to their best and give players a tough time (and a fair battle).

In addition, a combat matrix is helping a lot. It’s a table with the combat rounds as columns, and Effects/PC/NPC/monsters in the lines. Everything that has a start or an end can be put in here, like durations of spells.This gives me a nice overview what is happening in each round.

Da’ Vane: Since I am dyslexic, I find running combats difficult, as I am slow at processing all the information and keeping track of everything that needs to be maintained.

I try to find a way around this, and the best tool for this is actually a custom built spreadsheet. In this way, I can record information and update it, while taking notes about statuses and other things.

One of the advantages of using a spreadsheet is that I can sort the characters into initiative order, making the information a lot easier to process. It also allows me to use a number of initiative variants that I have, which I feel improves play for various styles.


Using minis with a whiteboard or a battlemat brings many advantages to your gaming table. One can use minis not only for showing relative distances, but also absolute distances, effects on the terrain, and conditions of the characters.

A whiteboard or a battlemat not only gives you a place to position your characters in a combat, but can also provide rough and quick maps, can be used as a spreadsheet, or to jot down some other relevant information, like initiative or hit points.

Michael: In my D&D campaign, I use a self-crafted battlemat. For my Savage-Worlds group, I also use this, but besides that I also use a big three-dimensional model of the ship the PC own built by LEGO-blocks.

It’s a cool model, and every time I bring it to the table, I can see the expression in the eyes of my players when they realize their characters have something really cool: Their own ship!

My Shadowrun group has a big classroom-size whiteboard on the wall, which is awesome. We used it to build a huge diagram resulting from a complicated adventure with a lot of factions. I just love this diagram. Every time we look at it we laugh about the crazy names we gave certain persons and places, and about the wild complexity of it.

Da’ Vane: Space has always been a premium in our games, so we’ve never played using minis or battlemats. We’ve only ever managed to get the room to play board games a few times before running out of space.

So, we normally have to make do with mapping via paper, and using dots to mark our positions on the map. This way, we get to use it at a scale related to the size of the space we have available.

These makeshift maps can get messy at times, but they are fun, and they are better than nothing.

Most of the time we play games where maps and minis are optional anyway, which reduces the tactical options but also the tactical complexity of encounters. It makes for quicker encounters in a playing style that we tend to prefer.


Like pictures, a map can say a thousand words. You may give out large, nice looking detailed maps of countries or continents to give an overview of the setting.

Other times you want to hand out a scribbled goblin map, showing not much more than a few lines. There might be mysterious treasure maps, full of puzzles, leading from one danger to the next.

Sometimes you just need an overview of the combat location. For different levels of detail, you may need different mapping tools.

Michael: Cthulhu is a great product. It provided me with all maps I need, so no work for me here.

Where I actually use a tool for creating maps is in my D&D-campaign. I got a tablet notebook and drawing maps on this thing is just enjoyable, even with the ordinary paint of windows 7.

The thought of using a real drawing program on a tablet notebook blows my mind, so I haven’t tried it yet.

For spontaneous in-game maps, I use a small piece of my battlemat. I seldom use maps not drawn by myself, when I do, I find them here.

Da’ Vane: I suck at drawing maps, so I generally avoid them at all costs. If I can’t get around them, I will normally use one of two approaches – I will either hand draw them on squared paper, and scan them if necessary, or I will use a simple bitmap editing program to create simple maps.

However, I have recently picked up both Dungeonographer and Hexographer – two great mapping programs I have already had much enjoyment playing with, although I can’t say I’ve actually used them in a campaign properly just yet. But from what I have seen, it is only a matter of time before I do.

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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