So, you’ve decided to step behind the screen and take on the role of the game master. Whether you’re a novice just starting your journey or a seasoned storyteller seeking to enhance your sessions, the tools you use can make a profound difference. In the ever-evolving realm of tabletop role-playing, both physical and digital tools have emerged, catering to every imaginable need of a GM. This guide aims to introduce you to a treasure trove of essential items and luxury gadgets that can elevate your game. From the classic clatter of dice on the table to the immersive atmosphere created by digital platforms, let’s dive into the vast world of GM tools. Ready to discover the must-haves and the ‘oh-I-want-thats’? Let’s roll!
Every game master, regardless of experience, benefits from a well-equipped toolkit. At its core, essential tools for a GM include a mix of traditional items like dice, a GM screen, and notebooks, coupled with modern digital aids like virtual tabletop platforms and ambient sound tools. Additionally, based on the game you’re playing or your budget, there are both game-specific gadgets and premium tools available. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of both must-have essentials and luxurious add-ons, ensuring every GM is prepared for their adventures.
Before the age of digitalization, tabletop gaming thrived purely on tactile experiences. The tangible connection between a game master and their tools holds an irreplaceable charm, one that continues to be cherished even in our tech-driven age. Physical essentials, from the heft of dice in your palm to the rustle of notes behind a GM screen, ground the storytelling in reality. Whether you’re a purist or simply appreciate the feel of real-world items in your hands, these physical tools form the bedrock of any game master’s arsenal. Let’s delve into the core components that every GM should consider having by their side.
Dice: Different Types and Their Uses
Every role-playing game leans heavily on the whims of chance, most commonly represented by dice. From determining the outcome of a hero’s daring leap to resolving intense combat, dice are the heartbeat of RPGs.
- Standard Set (Polyhedral Dice): Comprising the iconic d20, the set also includes d12, two d10s (00-90 and 0-9), d8, d6, and d4. Essential for games like Dungeons & Dragons, they serve varied purposes from character creation to in-game decisions.
- Specialized Dice: Games like “Star Wars: Edge of the Empire” use unique dice to introduce different narrative elements, adding layers of complexity and intrigue to gameplay.
- Dice Bags & Trays: A protective home for your prized dice collection. Not only do they safeguard your dice, but they also add a touch of personal style to your gaming table.
GM Screen: Keeping Secrets and Quick References
The GM screen is more than just a barrier hiding your nefarious (or benevolent) plans from the players. It’s a tool for quick reference, with key game rules and charts often displayed on the GM’s side.
- Customization: Modern screens often come with pockets or sleeves, allowing you to insert your own tables, maps, or artwork. This means you can tailor your screen to the specific needs of your campaign.
- Immersion: A beautifully illustrated screen can set the tone for your game, immersing players in the world even before the story begins.
Notebooks & Stationery: Organizing Thoughts and Tracking Progress
While digital tools have made strides in organization, there’s nothing quite like the tactile satisfaction of jotting down notes or sketching out a quick map.
- Campaign Journals: Dedicated notebooks with sections for NPCs, locations, and plots can be a lifeline for the GM, helping to keep track of sprawling narratives.
- Sticky Notes & Index Cards: Perfect for on-the-fly adjustments or reminders. Whether it’s an impromptu NPC name or a quick rule reference, these tools are invaluable.
Miniatures & Battle Maps: Bringing Battles to Life
Visual aids can elevate combat from abstract descriptions to tangible, tactical challenges.
- Character Miniatures: Representing players and NPCs, these figures help in spatial understanding during combat and can be collected or even custom-made.
- Terrain & Set Pieces: From dense forests to treacherous dungeons, these components add layers of depth to battles, making them more dynamic.
- Erasable Battle Mats: A godsend for spontaneous encounters. Draw out terrains, position miniatures, and erase once done, ready for the next challenge.
Digital Must-Haves: The Modern GM’s Tech Arsenal
As tabletop gaming has evolved, so too have the tools at a GM’s disposal. Digital tools offer versatility, organization, and convenience that physical tools can’t match. These electronic aids streamline gameplay, help in immersive storytelling, and reduce the GM’s manual workload significantly. From mapping software to AI-powered NPC generators, let’s venture into the realm of must-have digital resources.
Virtual Tabletop Platforms (VTTs): For Remote and Enhanced Play
In an age where online gaming is gaining traction, VTTs are indispensable.
- Roll20, Foundry VTT, Fantasy Grounds: Among the big names in VTTs, these platforms allow for dice rolling, character sheet management, and visual maps, making remote sessions as engaging as in-person games.
- Integrated Rulesets & Modules: Some VTTs come with licensed content, which means game mechanics, modules, and even entire rulebooks can be directly integrated into your session.
Campaign Management Software: For Ultimate Organization
A dream for the GM who loves to be organized. These tools consolidate your campaign notes, maps, and story arcs.
- World Anvil & LegendKeeper: Platforms designed for world-building and campaign tracking. From timelines to interactive maps, these tools keep your lore and plot points neatly categorized.
Digital Soundboards: Amplifying Ambiance and Mood
A well-timed sound effect or background music can elevate a scene from memorable to unforgettable.
- Syrinscape & Tabletop Audio: These apps provide a range of ambient sounds, music tracks, and sound effects tailored for RPG sessions, allowing GMs to set the mood with just a click.
AI & Generators: For On-the-Spot Creativity
Ever been stuck needing an NPC name or a tavern backstory on the fly? AI and generators have you covered.
- Donjon & ChatGPT: From random loot lists to spontaneous NPC backstories, these tools can be a saving grace for GMs, ensuring the story keeps moving without a hitch.
Budget vs. Premium: Finding the Right Tools for Your Wallet
Every Game Master, regardless of experience, faces a universal dilemma: budgeting. Do you splurge on that deluxe GM screen with built-in LED lights, or settle for a DIY cardboard alternative? The good news is, there’s a vast array of tools to suit every budget. Let’s explore the contrasts between budget and premium options to help you make an informed decision.
GM Screens: Privacy and Quick References
- Budget: A DIY GM screen can be made using cardboard, binder clips, and printed reference sheets. It’s functional and customizable, serving its purpose without the frills.
- Premium: Companies like Wyrmwood and Dog Might offer artisan-crafted screens with intricate designs, magnetic mounts, and even areas to display miniatures. They’re not just screens; they’re a statement piece.
Dice Sets: From Basic to Bespoke
- Budget: Simple, acrylic dice sets are available in various colors and can be found for as little as $5-10. They get the job done and can be easily replaced if lost.
- Premium: Specialty dice made of materials like metal, gemstones, or even wood can cost upwards of $50 for a set. Brands like Level Up Dice and Artisan Dice offer unique, hand-crafted options that stand out at any gaming table.
Mapping Tools: From Paper to Interactive Displays
- Budget: Grid paper, colored pencils, and basic tokens can serve as an effective map and encounter setup. Websites offer printable dungeon tiles and tokens for free or minimal costs.
- Premium: Digital map software, such as Dungeondraft or Inkarnate, lets GMs design intricate maps that can be displayed on screens or even interactive gaming tables like the PlayTable.
Character Sheets & Notebooks: Organizing the Chaos
- Budget: Printable character sheets and basic notebooks can be sourced cheaply and offer a straightforward way to track character progress and session notes.
- Premium: Specialty journals like The Worldbuilder’s Journal or The Game Master’s Campaign Notebook offer structured pages tailored for GMs. Additionally, leather-bound or embossed options are available for those wanting aesthetics along with functionality.
Miniatures: From Tokens to Art Pieces
- Budget: Cardboard tokens or basic plastic minis can represent characters and monsters. They’re easy to source and can be customized with printable images.
- Premium: Companies like Hero Forge let GMs design custom miniatures, with various poses, equipment, and even material choices. These become personal keepsakes as much as they are gaming tools.
No matter your budget, the key is to invest in what enhances your game and provides value. Sometimes, a DIY solution might feel more personal and rewarding, while other times a premium product could be the game-changer you were looking for. Remember, the best tools are the ones that make your sessions memorable and enjoyable for everyone involved.
Game-Specific Tools: Tailored Enhancements for Your Sessions
Every tabletop RPG has its flavor, lore, and mechanics, and many games have tools and resources developed specifically to enhance the gameplay experience. Whether you’re traversing the vast worlds of “Dungeons & Dragons” or unraveling eldritch mysteries in “Call of Cthulhu”, there are unique tools designed for your adventure. Here’s a look into some game-specific tools for popular tabletop RPGs:
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D 5e)
Dungeons & Dragons, as the archetype of tabletop RPGs, has a storied history and a vast array of tools that have been developed over the years to enhance and streamline gameplay. Whether you’re a new Dungeon Master or an old hand, these tools can significantly enrich your campaigns and sessions:
- D&D Beyond: The most comprehensive digital toolset for D&D 5e. Apart from character sheets, D&D Beyond provides an exhaustive compendium of monsters, spells, items, and more. Its integrated campaign manager and encounter builder are invaluable for DMs planning their adventures.
- Adventure Modules: D&D offers a range of published adventures like Curse of Strahd, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and Tomb of Annihilation. These modules come with narrative arcs, detailed maps, NPC profiles, and sometimes even soundtrack recommendations to intensify the ambiance.
- Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds: Both are virtual tabletop platforms that have integrated D&D 5e rulesets, making online play seamless. They come equipped with map builders, token sets, and dynamic lighting to recreate the tabletop experience digitally.
- Gale Force 9’s DM Screen: This is a custom GM screen with D&D 5e-specific tables, charts, and quick references, making it a handy tool during gameplay for those who prefer the tactile experience.
- D&D Miniatures and Battle Mats: Physical representation always enhances immersion. D&D has a broad line of miniatures representing monsters, NPCs, and player characters. Pairing these with grid mats or modular dungeon tiles can turn combats into deeply engaging tactical challenges.
With its rich lore, diverse settings, and intricate mechanics, D&D offers an unparalleled RPG experience. The right set of tools ensures not only smoother gameplay but also helps DMs and players to dive deep into the realms of fantasy, making every session memorable.
Call of Cthulhu
Drenched in Lovecraftian horror and set against the backdrop of the 1920s (among other eras), Call of Cthulhu is an investigative RPG that centers on eldritch mysteries and the human psyche’s fragility. Given its distinct flavor and game mechanics, here are the tools tailored specifically for the Keepers (Game Masters) and Investigators (Players) of this game:
- Chaosium’s Official Website: Home to a wealth of downloadable resources, including character sheets for different eras, handouts for various scenarios, and a wide array of reference materials for Keepers.
- Scenario Supplements: Call of Cthulhu thrives on deep and intricate storylines. Modules like The Masks of Nyarlathotep or The Haunting come with a series of narrative arcs, clues, NPC backgrounds, and atmospheric elements to immerse players into the world of Lovecraft.
- Cthulhu Dark Ages and Pulp Cthulhu: These are not just rule supplements but whole new settings for the game, requiring slightly varied tools and resources to bring the respective eras to life.
- Byakhee: An all-in-one program for creating and managing Call of Cthulhu character sheets. It supports multiple editions and has a user-friendly interface.
- The Lovecraftian Name & Book Generator: Perfect for Keepers in need of on-the-fly cultist names or eerie book titles that characters might come across in their investigations.
- Horror Soundscapes: Since atmosphere is vital in Call of Cthulhu, having access to thematic soundscapes can elevate the suspense. Sites like Tabletop Audio or the app Syrinscape have tracks explicitly crafted for horror RPGs.
Call of Cthulhu is a unique blend of investigative deduction and chilling horror. As a Keeper, ensuring you have the right tools on hand not only helps in weaving intricate narratives but also in delivering the tense, suspenseful atmosphere that sets this RPG apart.
In the dystopian future where cybernetics meld with arcane magic, and megacorporations rule the urban sprawl, the world of Shadowrun presents a unique cyberpunk-fantasy hybrid universe. Being a Shadowrunner means living on the edge, undertaking illegal contracts, and navigating the treacherous landscapes of both the Matrix and the Awakened world. Here are tools and resources to enhance the Shadowrun experience for Game Masters (or Johnsons) and players:
- Catalyst Game Labs’ Resources: The official publisher’s website offers an array of valuable tools. From specialized character sheets to quick-start rules and additional lore, the resources here are indispensable for anyone delving into the world of Shadowrun.
- Chummer: This is a character creator and management tool tailored for various Shadowrun editions. It offers a streamlined process for character generation, tracking skills, gear, spells, and more.
- Shadowrun Missions: Published scenarios designed for conventions and casual play. Each mission is crafted to offer a balanced mix of combat, investigation, and negotiation, making them perfect for one-shot sessions or integrating into larger campaigns.
- SINner: An online tool for designing and managing Shadowrun characters. It also facilitates sharing with other players or GMs, making character approval and overview easier for online games.
- Run Faster’s Life Modules: For those who prefer a more narrative-driven character creation, the Life Modules from the Run Faster supplement provide a background-building approach, detailing the experiences and challenges the character faced before becoming a Shadowrunner.
- Soundtracks and Atmosphere: Given the high-tech, low-life theme of Shadowrun, having appropriate music and soundscapes can significantly boost immersion. Sites like Sirenscape or even curated Spotify playlists can set the right tone for the neon streets and shadowy alleys of the Sixth World.
Shadowrun’s blend of magic and machinery offers a complex yet thrilling setting. With a mix of technology, mysticism, politics, and crime, having the right tools on hand ensures that the GM can weave stories that truly capture the essence of this multifaceted universe.
Exploring the vastness of space, battling alien creatures, and uncovering galactic mysteries is the core of Starfinder, the science fantasy RPG set in the far future of the world of Pathfinder. As you venture forth into the stars, these specialized tools and resources can be instrumental for Starship Captains (Game Masters) and their crews:
- Paizo’s Starfinder Resources: The official Paizo website is a treasure trove for Starfinder GMs and players alike. Here, you’ll find essential character sheets, Starship combat reference sheets, printable pawn collections, and a multitude of other invaluable resources.
- SFRPG Tools: This suite of online tools offers Starfinder-compatible generators for everything from random NPCs and starships to entire solar systems, ensuring GMs can create on the fly while maintaining game integrity.
- Starship Builder: Designing and customizing starships can be one of Starfinder’s highlights. This tool helps streamline the process, providing an intuitive interface to design starships compliant with Starfinder rules.
- Archives of Nethys – Starfinder SRD: This comprehensive online reference document provides a detailed database of Starfinder’s rules, classes, feats, equipment, and more, making it an essential reference for both new and seasoned players.
- Cosmic Crit’s Starfinder Tools: A collection of tools, including a podcast for inspiration, creature creation guidelines, and house rules, among others.
- Space-Themed Soundscapes: Just as with any RPG, the atmosphere is crucial. Platforms like Syrinscape or BattleBards have space and sci-fi themed tracks that can immerse players in the world of interstellar exploration, space battles, and alien encounters.
Starfinder offers a captivating blend of magic, technology, and cosmic exploration. With galaxies to explore and endless adventures awaiting, equipping yourself with the right tools will ensure every session feels like a leap into the vast unknown.
Vampire: The Masquerade
In the dark and twisted world of Vampire: The Masquerade, players take on the roles of vampires, navigating the treacherous politics of the undead and their own insatiable thirst. The gothic-punk setting lends itself to stories of intrigue, betrayal, and the eternal struggle of humanity against the beast within. Here are tools and resources tailored for the Kindred and their eternal nights:
- World of Darkness Official Resources: White Wolf’s/Onyx Path’s official website is the prime location for official Vampire: The Masquerade resources. From character sheets for various clans to lore expansions and city guides, it’s a haven for Storytellers and neonates alike.
- MrGone’s Character Sheets: A well-known resource in the World of Darkness community, MrGone offers interactive PDF character sheets for nearly every edition and spin-off of Vampire: The Masquerade.
- Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition Tools: This is a comprehensive toolkit tailored for V5, including a character creator, blood potency calculator, and a discipline list. It’s an indispensable tool for Storytellers and players of the latest edition.
- WoD Codex: An in-depth wiki that dives deep into the lore of Vampire: The Masquerade and the greater World of Darkness. A great resource for Storytellers looking to expand on the canon lore or understand the intricacies of the setting.
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: An online community and resource center dedicated to Vampire: The Masquerade. It includes storytelling advice, pre-made characters, and plot hooks tailored for the game.
- Gothic-Punk Soundtracks: The atmosphere is everything in Vampire. Platforms like Spotify or YouTube have curated playlists that can help set the mood for a night of political intrigue or a descent into the vampiric underworld.
Vampire: The Masquerade thrives on the blend of personal horror, political drama, and the eternal question of morality in the face of immortality. Having the right tools ensures that every game session is dripping with the requisite atmosphere and tension that defines this iconic RPG.
Navigating the rich, detailed world of Golarion in Pathfinder requires a blend of story-driven elements and combat tactics. Here are tools tailored for both the GM and the players of Pathfinder:
- Pathfinder Reference Document (PRD): The PRD is an online resource that provides a consolidated view of all the official Pathfinder rules. It’s a one-stop-shop for spells, classes, monsters, and more.
- Hero Lab: A character creation and management tool designed for several RPGs, including Pathfinder. Its intuitive interface and extensive options make character creation a breeze.
- Combat Manager: This tool streamlines the often intricate combat scenarios in Pathfinder. It tracks initiative, hit points, and statuses for both PCs and NPCs, making large combats much more manageable.
- Adventure Path Supplements: Just like D&D’s modules, Pathfinder boasts a series of Adventure Paths like Rise of the Runelords and Kingmaker. These not only offer detailed narratives but also maps, character options, and world lore.
- Pawns and Battle Mats: Given Pathfinder’s tactical combat system, having visual aids is essential. Official pawn sets represent various creatures and NPCs, while the modular battle mats allow for dynamic combat scenarios.
Enhancing the Experience: Nice-to-Have Tools
So, you have the basics down. Your GM toolkit is filled with the essential pieces, but you’re yearning to elevate your game to an even more immersive and memorable experience. Let’s dive into the luxuries, the embellishments, and those delightful extras that can truly make your sessions unforgettable:
- Ambient Soundscapes: Platforms like Syrinscape or Tabletop Audio offer ambiance and soundtracks tailored for various RPG scenarios. Whether you want the eerie echoes of a haunted forest, the bustling noises of a city market, or the eerie stillness of a vampire’s lair, these platforms have you covered.
- Virtual Tabletop Platforms (VTT): Beyond Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, there are tools like Foundry VTT or Astral TableTop which allow for more customized experiences, with dynamic lighting, music integration, and interactive maps.
- Physical Props: Investing in some tangible items can elevate the immersion. Think wax-sealed letters, old-looking scrolls, and even costume jewelry that represents in-game artifacts.
- Miniatures & Terrain: While not essential for all RPGs, having a collection of miniatures and terrains can help visualize complex battle scenarios or set pieces. Companies like Hero Forge allow you to custom-make miniatures tailored to your characters.
- Digital Art Commissions: To bring characters or pivotal NPCs to life, consider hiring an artist to create character portraits or scenes from your campaign. This not only supports artists in the RPG community but provides a lasting memory of game highlights.
- Interactive World-Building Platforms: Tools like World Anvil or LegendKeeper help GMs craft intricate worlds with interactive maps, timelines, and lore databases. They can also be shared with players, allowing them to dive deeper into the setting.
- GM Screen: A more decorative, game-specific GM screen can help keep your notes hidden while also providing a thematic backdrop to the game. Some even come with pockets or clips to keep important information readily available.
- Custom Dice Sets: Sure, any dice will do the job, but there’s something magical about having a dice set that resonates with the theme of your campaign, be it ethereal translucent sets for high-fantasy games or dark, blood-red dice for horror campaigns.
Diving into the role of a Game Master can seem daunting, especially when you’re surrounded by a plethora of tools, both essential and luxurious. However, always remember that the heart of role-playing is the story you weave and the adventures you share with your players. While the tools discussed in this article can undoubtedly enhance the experience, the most potent tool you possess is your creativity and passion.
As you continue your journey into the world of GMing, let this guide serve as a roadmap to curate your ideal toolkit. Whether you’re on a budget or looking to invest in the finest RPG luxuries, there’s a combination of tools out there to match your vision and style. So, equip yourself, dive into the narratives, and create countless memories. The world of tabletop RPGs awaits your unique touch!