RPG Blog Carnival: My GM’s Binder

This month Of Dice and Dragons is hosting the RPG Blog Carnival, and they want to talk about gamer’s notebooks. Most everyone who plays TTRPGs has at least one. Some get a new one for every new campaign (guilty as charged). Some folks make do with the back of their character sheet and whatever scraps of paper are at hand. However we come at it, gamers love to take notes, to create some sort of journal of their adventures.

As a GM I am no different. I love taking notes and later, collating those notes to pull out any errant plot hooks or story fodder. When I’m a player I use a simple notebook to take my notes and track things of importance to my character and the party. But when I GM my “weapon” of choice is the three-ring binder. I worked for a few decades as a stage manager so I have developed methods of organizing a binder that carry over very nicely to tabletop gaming. And I say binder, but actually I usually have two; one that holds my “every day carry” of GM resources, and the second one for taking campaign specific notes.

If you check your pockets on any given day, you probably have an “every day carry”. These are the items that make it into your pockets regardless. For instance, in the Before Times when I actually left the house, I always had my key ring with First Responder fob (gloves and a breathe barrier), a small vial of ES Tylenol, my wallet, and whatever spare change I had on hand. If I had my shoulder bag with me that list expands, but the point is that I had a collection of items that I considered indispensable.

My first GM binder is constructed the same way. It contains all the things that, over decades of running games, I have discovered to be useful at me table. This will necessarily be different for every GM. For instance, I find it difficult to come up with names of people and places on the fly, so lists of both are in my binder. Here’s a quick breakdown of my “every day GMing” binder:

  • Names: lists of names, not just of people, but of taverns, towns, and some more esoteric names for monsters (chances are the dragon’s name isn’t Frank or Jessica)
  • a page of random NPCs in case a player really wants to talk to that shopkeeper
  • the game world’s calendar, so I can track time if necessary
  • a random weather generator, just so every day isn’t sunny and clear
  • My random treasure generator and a deck of playing cards
  • A section with some specific, unique magic items I’ve created, in case I need something special as a reward, a macguffin, or both.
  • A dozen or so One-Page Dungeons, when I need an adventure on the fly
  • blank character sheets, for levelling up or recovery from horrible spills
  • blank graph paper, for taking notes, mapping, and lending paper to the players

It’s worth noting that the above lists include modern and futuristic versions of everything, so I have options no matter the TTRPG we run. Essentially I have set up my binder so I can start and entirely new campaign from scratch with just its contents. Will I use every part of it every session? Probably not. But it contains all the things I have found useful to have at hand so when I do need it I don’t have to hunt through a bunch of books to find it. And everything is tabbed for ease of searching.

My campaign specific binder is both an extension of my every day GM binder and the receptacle for all my campaign information. It’s the one I have open in front of me when I’m running a game. Its contents change as needed, but at any time it may contain:

  • the current week in the campaign world’s calendar
  • a page with a week of pre-generated weather
  • a print-off of campaign specific non-player characters the party might encounter
  • a summary page of the character’s abilities so I don’t have to keep asking the players
  • blank graph paper, for taking notes, mapping, and lending paper to the players
  • any handouts I have prepped for the session
  • images of the creatures/people the characters encounter, so players have a visual to remember
  • any adventure notes, or a print-out of the adventure if I’m using a published adventure
  • photocopies of character sheets, in case of a lost or spill stained character sheet.

The list for my second binder isn’t exhaustive and sometimes the contents depend entirely on what game I’m running. Unlike my everyday GMing binder, I try to keep the contents of my campaign binder to those things I will need over the course of a session. Anything that is a “might need” goes in the first binder.

I also maintain digital versions of both these binders with the help of Google Docs. This is handy not just for having access to all that info if you have a laptop at the table, but for unforeseen emergencies. At a Gen Con one year, for instance, someone swiped my GM binder. Luckily I had recently put 90% of its contents into my Google Drive, so after a quick visit to a Staples and my hotel’s business centre, I had reconstructed it so I could use it at my tables.

But that’s me. What about you? What’s in your GM binder? Do you even use one, or do you prefer something else? Talk to me in the comments on Facebook or on Twitter.

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