Game Mastery

Tabletop Organization

by on Nov.26, 2008, under GM, organization

Like most GMs out there, I have limits on how much game can live in my head at any given time so I have to keep notes and lots of them. Everyone has their own style in terms of what works for them, and everyone’s style evolves as they GM. Here’s what I’m currently using – borrow what you like, critique what you don’t.
First off, I don’t like GMing on a computer.  I only tried it for a few campaigns, but I found the laptop to be a hindrance, especially if I had to lug it elsewhere.  PDFs were too slow and my screen was too small to get enough information on screen at once.  I also felt like the laptop set up a barrier between me and my players, and that detracted from the game.  If I were to use a computer though, all my notes would be stored in a wiki.

Each campaign I write gets a notebook.  Game sessions go in the front, long term plots in the back.  Previously I kept NPCs in the back and did long term plots on the computer, but I’d rather keep the game all on paper.  Plots usually get a paragraph of description and a one line summary of updates as they happen.

It is important to note that plot updates should happen whether or not the players touch that plot. This is the key to having a dynamic, living world.  Players can’t be the only agents in your world if you want it to be realistic.  Now, you don’t have to update every single plot in the game after each session, just the ones that have been put in motion.  I like to picture my plots as snowballs at the top of a hill.  The players can start them rolling at any time, but once they start they keep going, sometimes consuming other smaller plots along the way.

Sessions get planned one at a time.  Too much planning and I’m tempted to railroad.  I’m perfectly happy to improvise a session too.  The plans I make are simply predictions of where my players will end up rather than a script of where they have to go.  Sometimes I’ll script descriptions and dialog, just because I’m prone to skipping details.  Sessions that are finished get paperclipped together so that I can easily skip to the current session.

Oh yeah, the inside cover includes a list of what happened so far in the campaign.  It’ll be something like “day 1, met Stubbs, stole beer.  Day 2, downtime,” etc.  The front few pages before the sessions start include summaries of rules that I have trouble remembering, but expect to come up.

Up next we come to characters.  I’m trying something new for my NPCs this time around.  Each NPC lives on a 3×5 notecard in a box.  The notecards are colored by group or organization.  NPCs get description on one side and stats on the other.  At least in theory.  I’m still getting used to this method and I’m still populating my NPC box.  I’ve heard of other GMs filling up the box while they aren’t GMing, and using it to pull out fully fleshed out NPCs at random.  I’m also trying to make sure that each NPC has a couple quirks listed in bold on the front of their cards.  As I mentioned previously, I suck at roleplaying NPCs.  If I see “Chesylwyck, gruff” when I pull out the Chesylwyck card, I should have an easy time just playing the gruff description.  We’ll see how that plays out.

Another thing I’m trying with the character cards is tying them to plots.  Each of the major plotlines in the story has a colored paperclip assigned to it.  Characters in that plot get a matching paperclip.  So far the game hasn’t progressed far enough for me to know if this is useful or if I’ve been reading too much Lifehacker.  I don’t think this is a bad way to sort characters into their plots, but it might be overkill.

Finally, my GM screen.  Over the years I’ve found the information printed on the screen to be much less useful than what I’ve added to it.  I have a series of improv lists to help me with those areas I usually get stuck on.  Male names, female names, surnames, and titles are a start.  I also have towns and taverns.  And for this most recent game I added nature and demeanor, which will hopefully jumpstart my random NPCs.

So yeah.  I’m sure some of this is stating the obvious and some of it is organizational overkill.   Maybe when this is done I’ll get around to reading through other GM’s notes or prewritten campaigns, just to see how other GMs keep their thoughts together.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. sagotsky

    A couple months later and I’m really liking the NPC cards. Being able to sort NPCs by group and plot is helpful. The problem is the plot paperclips.

    Paperclips were designed for holding several sheets of paper together. They don’t do so well at holding themselves to a single sheet of paper. They’re also bulky and my 3x5s don’t fit quite right in the box.

    So those are out. In their place I’m using colored labels. You know, this little dots that designate prices at yard sales. Yeah, those are my new plot markers. Each one folds in half and is placed on the left hand side of the card. So far I haven’t had any misplaced plot dots, they’re just as easy to sort as the clips, AND they have the added bonus of being visible when cards are boxed. Cool.

    They were a bit hard to find (20 something colors are produced, but not for sale in assorted packs – you have to buy a thousand red, a thousand orange, etc) but I settled on an assorted colors and assorted neons pack from OfficeMax. 8 colors ought to be enough. I don’t want to mark them up too much, but I figure a big black stripe through any color should be distinct and enable me to run 16 simultaneous plots. That’s plenty for my games.

    I still need to standardize what appears on each character card. Name on the front, stat block on the back is working pretty well. Some cards have plot, some have descriptions. I think I either need to put everything on a 5×8 card (which would allow dot sheets to fit in my character box) or else ditch the plot and keep the front for character info. After all, the dots should be indicating where in my notebook to look for plottiness.

    I know I get way too into office management solutions. I can’t explain why. Be glad this second part was a comment instead of a separate post, though I reserve the right to make a follow up with pictures.

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