(This week’s Behind the Screen is showing up on a special day because by the time Friday rolls around, it’ll be too late for this advice to do much good for my fellow GenCon GMs!)
Conventions are their own particular brand of chaos, triply so when you’re GMing. Whether it’s official games on the schedule, pick-up games, or some combination thereof, a GM needs to be prepared, and that requires a decent amount of gear to get the job done.
Problem: encumbrance is a very real thing.
When you’re hoofing it or rolling it from event to event, from game to game, and especially from floor to floor all day, the importance of a light load cannot be overstated. But how little is too little? What is the bare minimum GM kit that will still let you run while also letting you run, when you need to?
The Lightweight GM Essentials Kit
Items are listed in rough priority, with the later entries being the easiest to leave behind or the least universal.
- Index Cards (100) Nothing, NOTHING is more useful. Index cards in your GM bag can be used for:
- Character Sheets
- Initiative and damage trackers
- Clue cards
- Name tents for players who don’t already know each other
- The Nope card1
- Maps and battle maps
- Aspect cards (Fate / FAE)
- Permanent marker Very visible for name cards, maps, etc.
- Mechanical pencils (3) Naturally essential for data tracking, and better for updating & reusing cards/sheets
- Dice Not needed for every game, but quite a few of them. Again, there are several free dice-roller apps for nearly every kind of mobile device, if you’re not worried about battery power. Otherwise, your best “universal dice kit” is:
- 2d20 – Handles D&D 5E’s Advantage/Disadvantage system, and useful if one d20 betrays you
- 4d10 – One of these should either be a 10’s digit die or a different color so you can handle d100 systems
- 6d6 – One of these should be a different color for AGE games. Can also be used as Fudge dice
- 1d12, 1d8, 1d4 – Only needed for D&D, PFRPG, Savage World or PbtA games
- Hand sanitizer Con crud is the worst, and as the GM, you’re both the most susceptible to catching it and the most likely to spread it when you hand out or pick up materials. Keep hand sanitizer with you and at least remember to use it before snacking or dining after.
- Water bottle Pretty much essential – you’ll be doing a lot of talking, likely after a lot of walking. Stay hydrated! If you can, pick up a roll-up water bottle, it’ll save essential space in your packing when it’s empty.
- PDF reader OR “Quick Start” rules for your favorite systems Practically every phone now has an app for a free PDF reader if you can get PDF copies of your favorite systems. Alternatively, and often better for convention-style gaming, look for a free Quick Start Rules version of the system that you can keep electronically or print out and carry with you.
- Module notes (Optional) If you prefer having some pre-planning to your pick-up RP (or you’re on the schedule for an official game), have a print-out of your module notes. A 1″ 3-ring binder with dividers can typically hold up to 5 different modules comfortably, and binder tabs can be a life-saver in terms of darting back and forth during the game.
- GM Screen A GM screen for privacy is almost certainly not essential, especially at a con game, but if you expect to run the same system often, a GM screen for that system usually comes with lots of quick reference tables that may save you needing a copy of the book/PDF to refer to during play.If you have or can get your hands on a customizable GM screen with pockets, you can print out copies of the Quick Start Rules (or your own hand-made reference pages) for several systems and slot whichever is appropriate for that particular game.
- Card Sets Several systems have done the wonderful thing of creating card sets that match up with important facets of the system, typically items and monsters. These can often serve to replace an entire book and even a module by letting you randomly dial up treasure, creatures or challenges on the fly without any more weighty materials in tow. Examples are listed below2
Estimated total weight: 4.8 lbs (2.2 kg)
That covers your minimum essentials to handle practically any available tabletop game on the fly without weighing yourself down too much. Drop the GM screen and the binder full of notes (if you run truly on the fly or rely on your PDF reader) and that total weight quickly falls to 2.8 lbs (1.3 kg) and becomes instantly more compact, if you can’t count on a backpack to lug around with you.
Stay nimble, stay hydrated, stay on top of initiative, and your con GMing experience will be the
glorious TPK safe happy fun-time you always hoped for.
1 – The “Nope” card is a single index card with a large X drawn on it in sharpie that sits in the middle of the table. It can be used by anyone at any time to signal that they’re uncomfortable with whatever is going on in the game or at the table at that moment (it could be a triggering topic or just generally unwelcome behavior or RP).
The person who touches or raises the Nope card doesn’t have to explain or defend the Nope, though they may have to say what it was that made them uncomfortable so that you and the other players know to avoid the same topic for the rest of the session.
The Nope card is essential to creating a safe gaming environment at your table, especially if you’re sitting across from complete strangers and don’t know what topics to avoid.
- Numenera’s Cypher Deck and Creature Deck
- Fate’s Deck of Fate
- Pathfinder’s Rules Reference Flash Cards, Buff Deck and Condition Cards
- Eclipse Phase’s Morph Recognition Cards
- Shadowrun 5’s Gear Cards