This entry is part 7 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.

World building is an important part of a GM’s role. You can’t play in a vacuum. In part I, we started with tools for plain geographic designs (from planets to buildings) with which to populate your campaign world.

In part II, we went into tools for large scale social structures the way down to small scale social structures (from relations between nations to guilds and other local organizations, as well as details on cities and the people within).

In this part, we follow a similar way for tools to be used for passing on the history of the world, from legends and myths to the last-spoken gossip, as well as how to create and place items and dungeons related to these tales.

Legends and Myths

You can flesh out your setting with myths and legends originally told ages ago. These stories are often obscure, metaphoric and instructive.

There are a lot more benefits from providing legends and myths than simply providing a good tale. Give every player some legends and myths to have on hand to generate small talk and opportunities for roleplaying. Such old stories can also provide a great background for campaigns and adventures.

A tool to create them is surely a powerful tool, and it should provide you with:

  • The basic story of the legend
  • How seriously the people take it
  • How it was passed on over the ages
  • The real happenings on which the myth is based

Michael: I like to use Wikipedia for getting inspiration for legends and myths. There are huge sections about the legends and mythology surrounding ancient Greek, Buddhist and other cultures of the past (I can’t use the Bible, because I have players who actually read the whole thing).

You can copy and paste the unknown ones or change the known ones to fit in your setting. I’m also planning to get a copy of One Thousand and One Nights in my mother tongue.

Da’ Vane: Any story can make the basis of a good myth or legend. Myths and legends were a primary means of education in the days before universal literacy, where oral storytellers used to share cultural values and principles, ethics and morals, as well as record historical events in a fashion that was easy to both remember, and incite the emotions of the audience.

This idea has continued through the ages, so that even the tales of King Arthur and the actions of Robin Hood, both set within the dark ages of England at various times, are also considered mythical.

Even modern Urban Legends come around through the same means. These can all be harvested by changing a few details, adding a few embellishments, and adding a seed of truth or plausibility that isn’t easy to discover, which can often be the basis of an adventure.

Johnn: D&D 1E Deities & Demigods is a good source of accessible myths.

I also highly recommend Joseph Campbell’s books where he not only talks about different myths and legends of cultures throughout history – even those of primitive cultures – but he discusses what’s in common between them all. You can use these common elements to ensure your legends strike a chord with your players.

Every GM should try to write a story about the origin of a world at least once. You might marry modern science with imagination, or go entirely magical and mystical. Start with the birth of the planet or plane. Then describe the origins of the gods. Then talk about the politics of the gods, and any subsequent new gods or pantheons. Such an exercise gets you thinking big picture when world building and even when interpreting or creating game rules for your realm.

I also highly recommend getting this free copy of George Polti’s book 36 Plots. Each plot is an archetype of human conflict. If you eventually weave each of the 36 plots into your myths and legends, you will have covered the vast majority of human conflict types, and can use your new stories as vibrant metaphors in your campaigns.

Little else adds more realism plus atmosphere when you have NPCs, locations and treasures tell or incorporate the unique myths and legends of your world.

Narratives and Anecdotes

Similar to the myths and legends, narratives and anecdotes can contribute a lot to your game. A narrative or anecdote is sharper to capture, in contrast to the myth or legend.

The narrated story or anecdote normally happens pretty much like it is told, but these are typically presented from a limited viewpoint, meaning there may be many different versions of the same event.

Don’t forget that all kind of stories can be told in very different forms, and here are just a few examples: campfire storytelling, operas, songs, plays, dances.

Since I connect narratives more to what really happened, I fill my worlds with relics and other things that back up the narrative.

Michael: Again, I rely on Wikipedia here, but search for more realistic stories and weave them into the setting, or build crucial parts of the setting around them.

Da’ Vane: The only difference between a narrative and an anecdote is the perspective from which it is told.

Anecdotes are normally told from the perspective of the person telling the anecdote, and relate directly to them, having come from their own direct experience and perceptions.

Narratives are normally from the perspective of someone else who has told the speaker.

A good source of anecdotes and narratives can come from the Internet and other forms of media, in the form of columns that invite readers to share their own stories, often about a given topic or experience.

Most cultures have a predisposition to turn any sequence of events into a story, to make it easier to memorize and pass on, whether it is exciting such as setting off on an adventure, or what a person did during the day. These can easily be used to make NPCs feel more real, are useful for providing plot hooks, and since adventurers are often the most exciting people around, they can be useful for sharing tales and bonding with other people while giving the PCs some degree of fame. Imagine how the PCs will feel when something they done and told someone about gets passed around, and becomes one of the stories of the nation, eventually coming back to the PCs in the form of a narrative that others have been sharing.

Johnn: Here’s a simple tool to help you craft narratives and anecdotes.

Most people in your game world will parse reality in the same way. They will use stories, even if it’s a short story about what happened in the bread line at the temple, to understand their world. They will use stories to find out if others agree with their world viewpoint. And they will use stories to figure out where they stand in the scheme of things. And they will use stories for influence.

Step 1: Pick a perspective. Usually a single NPC.

Step 2: Select the purpose. Decide what their story is actually about, reading between the lines:

  • Option 1: What is the purpose of life? Why am I here? Why was I born? What am I supposed to do with my life?
  • Option 2: How am I the same as other people? How am I different from other people? How are people different from me? What do I have in common with other people? Where do I fit in society?
  • How do I protect what I have? How do I get more of what I want? How do I get more reward, less punishment, more pleasure, less pain?

Step 3: Pick the person’s world viewpoint. Though viewpoints change with circumstance, most people have one consistent viewpoint. Do they perceive themselves as:

  • A hero. “I put up with all this because I can take it.”
  • A victim. “Why did this happen to me?”
  • A connector or transformer. “I make the world a better place.”
  • An embodiment of an ability score. “I am strong. I am smart. I am wise.”

Step 4: Choose a villain. It can be an NPC or PC, an entity such as the government, an event such as a flood, or something intangible like an idea or war.

All stories are based on action. The person telling the story tells others what actions they took, how they were opposed by the villain, and what came of it. The story is told within the context of their worldview and purpose.

“I went to the temple today for bread. The line was so long and it was so hot out already, even though I got there extra early. I saw Sheela there and waved hi, but we were too far apart to talk.

“Then Brutto comes along and pushes himself into line right in front of Sheela. He begins leering at her and then he grabs her! She ran back home.

“When I reached the steps I asked for an extra loaf for Sheela and placed it outside her door on the way home. Poor girl. Brutto will get his some day, make no mistake about it.”

What could the story actually be about, from the narrator’s perspective, reading between the lines? Life is unfair. I feel shame for not helping my friend. It wasn’t my fault, right? Should I have stepped in? What do you people think of me now? What did the people in line think of me? Why did this happen to me?

It’s interesting that the event happened to Sheela, but the narrator makes it about themselves. But that’s perspective for you. As such, this is a powerful storytelling tool for GMs.

Next time someone tells you a story, listen close and read between the lines. Also, pay attention to the narrative in your own head, especially after experiencing something stressful. Decode yourself.

News and Rumours

Whether you are playing a fantasy, modern or science fiction campaign, the characters will normally have some source of information to let them know what is going on in the world around them.

News and rumours help to keep the feeling of a world beyond their senses, and can work great as a means to provide plot hooks or hints for the actual adventure.

Because of their accuracy, a tool providing news and rumours differs from the above two quite a lot, and it should give you:

  • The news and how important the people think it is
  • The speed of how fast it is broadcast
  • Who knows about it and who does not
  • The correctness of the news
  • Answers to the big W: Who did what, when, where, why, and how? Sometimes this will include what they will do next.

Michael: In my Cthulhu campaign, there is a little collection of real pieces of newspapers that is quite useful in supporting the adventure. My players like to read the newspaper every morning, so I have to add imaginary news as I see fit.  Creating what happened in the cities when the PC are travelling in them is my real use for this tool here.

In the other campaigns, there are almost only rumours. Answering the big Ws is a good guideline, but I like to mess with my players by changing at least one W into false rumour.

Da’ Vane: The biggest factor in news is communication, and consideration of the means of communicating and sharing news, as well as intercepting and suppressing it, can have a significant impact upon your campaign.

Espionage is closely related to news, and will work in the same way, and many PCs will strive to get access to official channels and other exclusive means of communication as their power increases.

In eras without extensive communications technology, word of mouth was common, and spreading or suppressing information often meant contacting people who could pass on information to others or prevent others from doing so.

In the modern era, a new phenomenon has risen. The overabundance of information being shared as news means things can be hidden in plain sight, because people have to sift through a lot of data to find things they are looking for.

Finally, news as entertainment has added to the confusion because the accuracy of the information has become diluted. News is polluted with narratives and anecdotes as people scramble to keep creating new content to entertain the masses when newsworthy events ease off.

Add in the issues that divination magic brings to this situation. There may be mages and priests who regularly cast divinations and share their predictions, while scrying may be official policy and shared via the Ministry of Information.

Johnn: Also be sure to add viewpoint and bias to news, mostly at the level where control of the news and its communication takes place. Editorial control changes facts and information to agenda, and this is great fodder for adventure.

For example, a man named Brutto is murdered. The chief suspect is a young girl named Sheela. The murder weapon was found in her room. Her father is an advisor to the King. He pulls some strings. The guard are told not to investigate. The public is told a beggar crew jumped Brutto for a loaf of bread and for everyone to be wary of beggars and not travel alone. This suits the King, because the Beggarmaster has been getting more powerful lately.

News in the next ward over is that a man was killed for bread because people are going hungry over there. News two wards over is that violence is on the rise and to not travel to the Temple Ward without armed escort.

Dungeon Building

The dungeon is the mother of roleplaying game adventure sites, and is still quite important.

From a dungeon building tool, you expect a map of the dungeon, with a key for the foes and encounters in there. You may want to spice up your dungeon, by including puzzles, terrains, traps and other hazards.

Michael: As already suggested, a lot of different tools can work together here, and they do when I usually build a dungeon. I start with the location and function of the dungeon, and then draw some of the map.

Then I use my other tools for monsters, traps, and so on, to fill the dungeon. In this process, I try to follow the 5-Room-Dungeon-concept, except when I need a larger one.

If I need a quick dungeon (which can happen quite easily in my Savage Worlds campaign), I choose from the 5-Room-Dungeons pdf.

Da’ Vane: The best place to start when designing a dungeon is normally with the background and hook, as this pretty much defines everything you need to know about the dungeon, allowing you to use whatever tools you have to fill in the blanks as needed.

If you have a legend or myth about the dungeon, then all the better. But even if it’s just a news or rumour about a cave in the wilderness that’s home to a dragon or some fabulous treasure, or a tower build by a mad wizard that has been left to ruins after some curse, you have both the means to get the PCs interested in general and something to build it around.

Later on, you can provide more sophisticated hooks if necessary.

As for dungeons themselves, as well as random generation tools, there are some very good dungeoneering board games, card games, and computer games which can easily provide maps and other details you can use in your games.

I am a big fan of the likes of Heroquest, Advanced Heroquest, and Warhammer Quest provided by Games Workshop in the 80’s and 90’s which you can turn to such use.

No doubt there are others, but even a map from Diablo can serve when you are low on inspiration and need a layout on the quick to fill out with the things that you already know.

Johnn: Any map from old modules and adventures can be repurposed quick. So can blueprints of real places you find online. Dave’s mapper is sweet too.

Designing Items

Roleplaying is about fantasy and imagining things, which are not possible in our daily life. It doesn’t matter if it is magic, alien technology or weird science, as a GM you are encouraged to design items that add to the flavour of the setting, and are interesting in themselves.

You may want to give the item a drawback or a trade-off when using it. The item may have a deep history appearing at crucial points in history every now and then.

There may same legends and myths wrapped around this item.

You could spend as much time with item creation as with NPC creation or dungeon creation, if you desire. It is useful if you have tools for speeding up this process.

Michael: For my groups, I use different techniques to create items, because they have to fulfil different tasks.

In my Cthulhu campaign, each item comes with sometimes huge drawbacks, as this fits into the spirit of the Cthulhu Setting. There is no “good” in Cthulhu, only occasionally a slowdown in the maelstrom of madness.

When I have to design an item here, I first think about what it should be, then I start think of the usage, and finally the drawback. After that, I like giving it some history and previous possessors.

An important thing not to forget is how the players can find more information about the item. In my D&D campaign, my players are seeking for powerful items. Giving each of these strong drawbacks would be just annoying and disappointing for my players. My Item creation parallels that for the Cthulhu campaign, but without the drawbacks.

On the other hand, giving these items some twists or maybe a slightly funny or goofy character can contribute very nicely to the game.

Da’ Vane: It was Arthur C. Clarke who said “sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic,” and I often use this approach as a guide to remind me that magic itself is just another form of technology in any setting. Anything we can do with science and technology now can also be applied to magic and magical items.

Thus, overall, I tend to take a more effects-based approach unless I am using any system or setting that specifically creates a difference between various things like technology and magic, in which case this is pretty much an arbitrary divide like divine and arcane magic, or magic and psionics.

I don’t put much thought into creating items unless they are plot devices. One thing I do a lot is rank all items, regardless of type, according to power and rarity, and then create an equipment list and an artefact list.

The former are the things so common you can buy them, or have them made from any general craftsman, and so on. They include a lot of general adventuring supplies and services, plus low-level magic.

The latter is items simply unbuyable. The PCs are going to have to work hard to find these things, and no amount of cajoling and whining is going to get me to change my mind.

The actual divide itself is based on technology. In low tech campaigns, finding a suit of full plate can take a full adventure to a far of realm or an abandoned horde, while in high tech campaigns, they can buy manuals and tomes off the street if they wanted to pay the price.

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