Thursday, 26 June 2014

GM Tutorial: Tools of the Trade

GM Tutorial: Tools of the Trade

Over the years that I've been GM, I have sometimes had to teach players in my group, how to become a GM, which most often happens when I have to leave the location im usually running physical games. Two quick examples is that I lived in a town in Norway for 2 years and when I left, one of my players wanted to take over, so I taught him how to GM a system, then I lived in Wales for a year, and when I left that place I was asked for suggestions in how to be a good GM. This made me think that I might collect the ideas I have about the subject and make a few posts about it here on my blog.

The first post is about tools of the trade, because when you are starting to prepare to be a GM, this is one of the very first things you encounter, if you have not already done so. But I'll cover various tools, why they are useful and what they can be used for.

Writing kit

You need pencils for RPs, there are things that needs to be written, sketches needed to be drawn and charactersheets to fill out. Pens will make things permanent and is not a good thing for character sheets, so having a good pencil, maybe more for players or as backup, is going to make things easier, it is also important to have an eraser to get rid of misstakes that is written or when trying to keep health or equivalent updated.

You also need some paper to write on, graph paper is good for drawing maps, lines are good for writing handouts, completely white papers are good for maps or printing things on (like character sheets). However, my favourite paper is thick stiff drawing paper, this is due to it is easier to transport whole, often is more relaxing to draw on for some reason and easier to search through when stored in a binder.

About binders, it is a good idea to have all papers and character sheets stored in binders for easier transport and knowing where everything is, if you have a binder with a clearly indicated colour, it is easier to be reminded of what it contains when you are using it often. I myself have colourcoded my binders in terms of work, RPs and videogames... I should consider changing icons on my digital storage folders too. 

Binders can easily be replaced by smaller folders if it takes up much space and if you only need a few sheets to transport rather than the whole binder.

Handouts & Dice

Handouts are just something you can give to the players to keep them occupied or pique their interesst. These handouts can be maps, a puzzle piece, a letter, maybe just a post-it note with some information that only 1 player can know. I do reccomend using secret information during physical games, because in my experience, there is nothing that makes the players more attentative than when someone gets something that the others do not know what is, and often, it might be too much to put on a post-it, so take the player aside and tell them in a different room or a secluded corner, when the player gets back, he then can choose what to do with the information, if he shares it, its fine... he is shearing his version of the story.

quick example: a player climbed a tree, saw mountains in all directions, he climbed back down and told the group this. Now, because the climber had not paid attention earlier that session, there was only 1 mountain in the area, the rest was flat or by the coast, 1 player remembered this and found it odd, so he pushed the climber for more information, but he had already forgotten the minor details I had told him, so it ended with a non-climber having to get up into the tree to figure out what was going on because something was not right.

so quick rundown on what handouts are: post-it, written letters, maps, pictures, information, knowledge (aka: character knows but not player). there are a few other things that could be handouts but I've covered most I think.

Now, dice, have 1 set for yourself so you can do your part of the rolling, but having backup sets for players is a good idea, or share the dice, so everyone gets to roll some dice when needed. Another suggestion is to have various sets, I will not cover superstition but having a dice set for enemies, one for friendles and one for neutral lets the player justify a gut-feeling their characters have relating to something or someone.


Newsletters on around 3-5 pages (include pictured to take up room so its not a lot of text) is a good way to keep the players updated on what happened, what is likely to happen, some meta-information and maybe a sidestory or information that the players will learn but was not able to during the course of the game. The information in these newsletters could be things like bounties, lore about a spesific place, news from ingame sources, information about next campaign, plans or promotions for other games, it could even contain the background story of a NPC or player character if they would be willing to make it public.
Two things that is important to remember with this, should be made between session and not take up much time, make a template and fill it out over a few days after the session, it is something that should last so don't get burned out by trying to keep it updated.


I can keep this very simple, look at this blog, this is what I mean, read the posts and try to see if you figure out why im doing this in relation to my games and being a GM.


Now we get to the first software, there are plenty of mindmaps out there but Xmind is my mindmap of choice. It is a good program to sort ideas and try to build concepts, I even used it to make this post and it helps me to keep my thoughts structured. Xmind has a lot of useful features also but start simple, then discover the features while using it. I believe that I do not plan any games without having a xmind map planned out, because the structure helps me spot contradictions, remember important things and can easily be added or altered.


This program is simply put just several text files that can be synced to an account and used on your phone, tablet or computer, images can also be synced so if you really need some notes but cannot bring them to a game, upload them to evernote and use your phone during the session. I myself used this a lot before, but not anymore due to reasons I will cover under dropbox, but I still reccomend Evernote if you think its good enough for what you need.


This is a program that takes a screenshot of a area or your screen and immediatly uploads it to the web for quick sharing with a link. It is not very useful for physical games, but extremly useful for web-based RPs. You can only have like 400 imaged on an account so remember to delete imaged once in awhile, storing the links you need in a account folder or equivalent.

Snipping tool

This is like puush but it does not upload it, it allows for pasting into image editors, some minor drawing abilities in the program itself and used in text files like word. It is a built-in program in windows so everyone with a windows PC already have this, so there is no reason to not to use it. combining snipping tool's limited drawing with puush might be useful when you encounter some of the limitations of both programs.


It is pretty much notepad, but much better, without going into technicalities, I can say that it's faster due to operating differently, have possible extentions and using the TAB button makes it easier to read sorted sections of a lot of text. If i cannot access my main program (covered later), I'll use notepad++.
Also, if you plan to do programming, this notepad is the best, simple program to use for that.


Syncing files lets you work on multiple computers without worrying about transfering files, this makes it useful to save files like Xmind, notepad++, imaged and equivalent. Because of this combination of uses, it easily replace Evernote. But dropbox's limit might be storage space for new users, I have used it awhile and have 75GB of storage space on dropbox, but I only use like 10 GB for my RP stuff. Dropbox can also share folders with other people, so having digital character sheets, you can share a folder with a player and you both can update that as you see fit, or you can link it to them so they can get a copy, a very useful feature to make sure noone forgets their character sheet.


I cannot talk about this a lot because I'm no expert, but I have used it to edit and refine maps and its good. My procedure with photoshop is to draw a map by hand, scan it, import into photoshop, draw new clear lines over what I've drawn, enlarge the map by a lot and redraw the lines. I keep increasing the size untill im happy and then starting to add details to everything. I ended up with having a 50 MB map at one point and printed it out on a A2 paper... or 4x A4 papers.

Flockdraw / Whiteboard

Like puush, Flockdraw (aka: imaginary penis drawing simulator) is a online program, where people can join a session without having to log in with more than a name and updated flash. It is a good online whiteboard for quickly representing something you have not prepared with images, so you can draw it there. The very same reason flockdraw is useful is why a whiteboard is useful. Whiteboards is the only one that cost money and should not be too hard to find a small enough one to easily transport around and use for physical sessions. I used whiteboards to draw maps on, sometimes we layed it flat and put figurines on it to represent combat and movement, but most times it was just to illustrate things for the players so they did not missunderstand.

Articy Draft

I should first start with saying that this program cost a LOT, it is very expensive. Then secondly I should say that the program is very very useful and I've gotten my worth out of it. To put it in comparison, I have 700 hours on skyrim and I paid a little under €50 for it when it first came out and i got all the expansions, so i got my moneys worth for that game, but that is NOTHING compared to articy draft.
However, if you consider getting this program, you need to have GMing as a hobby like I have instead of some casual fun, because the program cost too much to not be dedicated to the cause.

As you might have guessed, this is my main program of choice, it was originally made for videogame design, and even if it does have some limitations when it comes to planning RPs, nothing is perfect, and it does what i need it to do.

I could go on and on about this program but there are many youtube videos out there that can do it better than me, so check it out, if you have the money and the dedication, I strongly reccomend the program.

Roll20 / Fantasy Ground

I'm not the right person to talk about these but it seems like something you have to plan everything in these programs, if you don't, there will be a lot of double work by planning outside of it, and then typing everything into it. Many people do reccomend it nad im sure its good, but my program of choice is articy draft and I would like to stick to that because I love it. I also find that its easier to adapt the game when not using roll20 or fantasy ground, because it seems to encourage a static type of game.

So have a look at articy draft, fantasy ground and roll20, if they seem too complicated, use notes and dropbox, or use one of the programs.

No matter which ones of these you choose, none of them is designed for physical games anyway (except maybe articy draft).

That is all I had for tools of the trade, there are plenty of other options out there and they might be better than the ones I have shared, but at least what I covered is enough to get a GM started when it comes to tools.

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