As much as we’ve talked about gaming on the fly and gaming on the go, we’ve been remarkably mum when it comes to the simple, vital toolkit for the campaign GM.
The GM Notebook is its own special utility belt of go-to, universal needs. For one-shots or con games, most of the tools and tricks you use come out at the table with everyone there. For a campaign GM, most of the tools are for the between-times: the pre-session prep and the post-session maintenance and record-keeping. First let’s talk prep…
The Need for Speed
Once you get to the table is too late to look up a rule, a setting detail or some important note about your NPCs. Whether it’s a module you’re running or something home grown, make sure you’ve given yourself the ability to reference the necessary details quickly so that searching for them doesn’t grind the session to a halt.
If you’re running in a system where NPCs have numbers you need to reference, make yourself as compact a format as you can for statblocks so that you can cram as many NPCs as possible onto a single page or a stack of index cards. Even if the background, personality and goals of those NPCs are elsewhere, the actual numbers piece can be stripped out and kept to the side so you can grab it at a glance when the PCs interact with that NPC and numbers come into play. That may mean combat mooks, it may mean the guard they interrogate about last night’s strange happenings, or the crime lord they now need a favor from. Anywhere there are relevant numbers, pull them out and put them in a quick-glance format.
Clustered Statblocks don’t need to follow any format from the book – they should be something you can read quickly, so that you’re not scanning a whole page going “I can’t find my hit points” while your players twiddle their thumbs. Only copy the stats that are relevant to that NPC’s involvement in the session, you don’t have to create a whole sheet. Keep it as tight as you can while still being readable.
Example Stat Blocks
Much like the long-form description of NPCs you just whittled down to statblocks, books and modules tend to describe areas, people or rules in long form, making them clearly understood but a bit hard to fit on an index card. Reference Cards help you navigate these on the fly. If someone wants a description of the town, have the name of the town and the source and page number on a quick reference card so you don’t have to search when you open the book/module. Once you’re there, you can read aloud from the description, or just hand the book to the player and tell them where to find it in a hurry so neither of you wastes time browsing.
The same goes for Rules Cards – specialized Reference Cards that point to important rules that often have to be looked up (D&D grappling, anyone?). Again, include source and page number so you can jump right to Ye Olde Scatter Chart or whatever rules you might need but don’t use frequently enough to have memorized. Look ahead at the session and try to predict if this is a night you’ll need to know things like vehicle combat rules or the like to update your Rules Cards accordingly. Do the same with your PCs, making a note of their common tactics or weird abilities so that you can be prepared when a player with a hankerin’ for weird builds starts gaming falling damage for fun and profit.
It likely goes without saying, but it also helps to have a quick and easy Initiative Tracker and Combat Record for things like damage or other effects. Make sure it’s in a format that can be easily kept between sessions for when combat runs long and you need to remind yourself who had what aura up and for how many more rounds. Crowdsource this to your players as much as possible, but if you create a standard format for tracking things like damage and effects, you can have them log it during the session and turn it into you at the end so you can make sure everyone has their combat record when the next session starts.
Example Combat Trackers
It also likely goes without saying that you should have a brief Session Outline with the major events of the session highlighted. Again, even if you’re using a module or you have long-form notes of your own homegrown session, a quick one-page outline will help you manage your time and pace things well. It can also help to include a Clue Outline for any relevant pieces the PCs need to collect from this particular area so that you don’t risk losing them when you get into the session and things naturally go off-course.
Mapping the Aftermath
Now comes the part unique to campaign play: tracking what comes after.
After any session, as close to the session as possible so that your memory is fresh, jot down how what the PCs did (and what you did) deviated from the expected outline. That way when you plan next session, you’ll know what changed from the module or your original design and can adjust as needed. These notes can be quick, and again can be outsourced to a player. If you do decide to delegate scribe duties, it’s often good to both rotate it and pair it with small in-game rewards like an additional XP or some minor benefit toward the next session, like a free reroll they can cash in for that session only.
If you plan to track things yourself, it’s often helpful to wrap it up into the form of a recap or debriefing that you can then send out the players. It reminds you of what happened and keeps them fresh between sessions, especially for groups that don’t meet very frequently, or for when you’re straddling the summer or holiday break.
Also be sure to have a Reward Tracker, both for the big end-of-quest rewards as well as the little things the PCs pick up for themselves along the way (because they will). Keep a record of it for each player and make sure that you’re keeping things at least someone balanced in terms of rewards all around.
Lastly, have a PC Moments Tracker for any of the independent side stuff the PCs choose to do, or scenes and NPCs they seem to take special interest in. Those will be the seeds for future adventures, trouble, or rich RP opportunities down the road and can save you loads of time in the planning in the future, as well as making it a much more meaningful game experience for your players.
With your utility belt now fully loaded (minus perhaps a ten-foot pole or two), you should have everything you need to get the details out of the way and just have fun running the game.
For more tips and links to good examples for your toolblelt, see SlyFlourish’s article: Filling Your DM Toolbox