My Favorite GM Tools

The question of organization came up in yesterday’s rpgchat and I brought up one particular gimmick which I figured I’d flesh out a bit. What it comes to is this: if I can only have a single tool as a GM, it’ll be a stack of index cards (supplemented with a double ended sharpie which is fantastically all purpose).

There are a lot of reasons for this – the card is a a fantastically all purpose tool – and I’m going to talk through a few of them.

First, I’m pretty terrible about keeping any kind of organized records as I play. I’ll write up ideas in notebooks or in software, but I’m very haphazard about it, and while it’s useful creatively, it’s not too useful from an organizational perspective. Index cards end up filling that gap.

My method’s pretty simple: 1 card, 1 idea. Write the name of the person, place or thing on top of the card, and any notes in the body of it. If I’m feeling super clever, I may add some icon language to reflect connections, but really that’s more work than it’s worth most of the time.
Mister White

Now, despite the simplicity of this, it has a number of very concrete benefits.

First, by forcing myself to keep to a single card, I force myself to keep the ideas brief enough to be easily expressed, which means I’m not expecting the players to track a lot of information.

Second, by keeping the ideas to a single card, I can take advantage of the physical properties of the cards in a number of ways. This means that:

  • If needed, I can set aside only the cards I need for a given night/adventure (though in practice I’m inclined to just tote them all around)
  • If I need an idea on the fly, I can pull a few cards from the stack at random and see if they suggest anything.
  • Between sessions, I can spread the cards out on the table and see what kind of patterns emerge.

Third, If I’m doing a game where elements of play go on the table (like Leverage or some styles of Fate) then I can use the blank cards to track such things, then gather them up at the end of the session as a record of what transpired).

Lastly, this ends up being pretty easy to store and transport. An index card box costs maybe two bucks, and if I ever get really pressed for space, I’ll spend five bucks on a fancy box, and be just fine. And it’s easy to make it part of my whole gaming kit.

Now, there are a few specific habits that help make this doable. Most importantly, my preference in games leans towards those where the mechanical information I need for an NPC can fit very easily on an index card. In a pinch, I can put notes on one side and mechanics on the back, but in practice I don’t really need to do that very often.

Ultimately, there are more sophisticated ways to do this. All of this information could be kept in a wiki or evernote or three ring binder[1] and if that works for you, then that’s great, but for me there’s a part of this which is basically just enough system to address my laziness. It would be cool if I was disciplined enough to do something like that, but the reality is that throwing a bunch of cards into a box is just about all I have energy for at the end of a session.

  1. Ok, on the topic of 3 ring binders – there are times when you’re going to want to have a bound paper copy of your material, such as a convention. The binder is a standby, but I have long since discarded them in favor of a disc binding system. You can find these as the arc system from staples, as Circa from Levengers or Rollabind – they’re all interchangeable, but I would suggest that Arc is the thing to start with. It has the same respositionability of a 3 ring binder, but the disks make the form factor more notebook-like. (Clairfontaine has a similar product, but they’re not interchangeable).  ↩

3 thoughts on “My Favorite GM Tools

  1. Declan

    Whilst I agree with most of what you’ve said I would always go for the Post-It in preference to the Index card if I had to select a single tool.

    Post-its can be attached to things to create trains of thought. You can quickly jot something on a post it, and then attach it to a character sheet, a map or a page from your rule book.

    Index cards and Post-its are both standards at my table, and both get heavy use, but in the one tool contest I think the Post-it wins out.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Post its are definitely my #2, and you’re right, they’re even better on the table. the ability to attach them to things like character sheets, or even each other, is huge. But I run into problems with storing and sorting them afterwards and for general reference use, so I lean towards cards for the all-in-one-ness.

      1. brindy

        “I run into problems with storing and sorting them afterwards and for general reference use” – easy, just attach them to an index card! 😉


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