Plenty of gamemasters still use graph paper and three-ring binders to organize their role-playing campaigns, but there’s an arsenal of tools available to the tech-savvy GM. I talked to a bunch of experienced GMs to find out how they use digital tools to create and track their RPG adventures.
Aside from a twisted, devious imagination, good organizational skills are a gamemaster’s most important quality. Between world-building, adventure writing, linking multiple plot lines, and tracking the players and a horde of NPCs, a GM has a lot to keep straight.
Scrivener, Evernote, and Realm Works
While working on the campaign world for a Pathfinder RPG I'm running this summer, I realized Scrivener ($40, intended for organizing novels, research papers, and the like) was ideal for laying out parts of a world. I work mainly in the research folder, creating headings and sub-headings, filling in bits of text, place names, NPCs, and more. Scrivener makes it really easy to drag images into a folder, too. I started out grabbing photos of real-world mountains from Wikipedia, so as the players travel I can show them images of what the terrain looks like. Later, I’ll probably borrow images from fantasy art to stand in for various NPCs and monsters. I keep the Scrivener project files in my Dropbox folder so they’re accessible and up to date on all my devices.
Also worth mentioning: Scrivener has an amazing random name generator built in. You can set the ethnic origin of both first and last names, and set what letter the names begin or end with. It's easily the most robust name generator I've ever seen, and it's a perfect tool for GMs creating NPCs (I used it and this table of D100 random personality traits I devised to populate a small village in about ten minutes).
While Scrivener was the impetus for this article, none of the other GMs I talked to mentioned using it. However, there are several similar organizational tools that did come up. Manda Collis, freelance writer and editor and creator of Charisma Bonus and Roleplay Hub, told me, “I'm a huge fan of Evernote, since it syncs everything across all platforms and I can access it wherever and whenever. I have separate notebooks set up for different aspects of games, the various creatures I'll use, and so on, so it's always available no matter what device I choose to use.”
Wolfgang Baur, publisher at Kobold Press and designer for the Deep Magic Kickstarter, told me he keeps Evernote open during game sessions, “to track new NPCs in case they show up again later.”
Evernote (free with a $5/month premium upgrade) is a bit more open and flexible than Scrivener, which might be just what you’re looking for, or you might find yourself overwhelmed with options. I experimented with Evernote to organize my notes for this article, and it was simple to use, and has tons of features I haven’t even explored yet..
If you want an organizational tool that’s intended specifically for use with RPGs, you might want to look at Realm Works (price to be determined). It’s made by the same company that produces Hero Lab (which I’ll discuss in a moment), and it basically looks like a Scrivener-type organization program that’s been supercharged with features suited for gamers, like creating interactive maps and controlling which information is revealed to players. I haven’t tried it yet because it’s still in beta, but Karen McDonald, a digital converter for several game companies, said, “Realm Works is a very powerful tool for both campaign tracking and revealing information in-game.”
Google Stuff and Obsidian Portal
The stereotypical image of the dungeon master sitting alone, surrounded by a dozen moldering tomes from editions past, creating adventures by candlelight and the soft glow of Mountain Dew isn’t totally accurate. For most gaming groups, creating the campaign world and even writing the adventures is a collaborative process.
A lot of what Google does these days revolves around collaborative work. Google Drive is a great example that I’ve used myself. The Pathfinder campaign I’m working on includes some rules hacks from other games, and I put the rules document on Google Drive, then shared it with all the players. The ability to comment and edit created a long, winding discussion of potential changes and subsystems that could have been a confusing mess. Instead, it’s very clear who suggested what and how everyone responded, and it’s all there for reference when I write the final rules document.
The social networking of Google+ combines with Google Drive to create a pretty robust set of features useful to GMs and their gaming groups. Manda Collis: “Right at this moment, I think Google+ is actually my favorite tool for organizing for games! I am a player in one game currently that uses a Google+ community to coordinate our game days, and I really love the way that it's been working for us. We are able to share important documents like PDFs, character sheets, and so on through Google Drive (connected to our community) and can separate out planning sessions from in-character stuff using the different categories of posts. It's really changed how I think about game planning, and gives us constant connectivity throughout the week even while we aren't playing.”
You can then extend Google’s social capabilities into actually running your game sessions. Wolfgang Baur told me how he used it to playtest an adventure with far-flung players: “The big one for me was when I wanted to playtest an adventure I was writing — but playtest with people all over the US. I ran it using Google Hangouts. I kept the group down to 4 players, and it worked remarkably well. The resulting adventure is called To the Edge of the World, and it has been quite a hit.”
The ubiquity and flexibility (not to mention zero cost) of Google’s products is a major draw, but Obsidian Portal (free, $40 annual cost for upgrade) offers gamers a way to collaborate and organize their gaming worlds that’s devoted strictly to gaming. It’s essentially a personal wiki platform customized for gaming. Your wiki can include maps, images and other information about your world, and you can set certain “GM-only” info to be off-limits to players.
Ryk Perry, a longtime GM and member of my own gaming group, discussed his use of Obsidian Portal for our Shadowrun campaign at length at Robot Viking: “The adventure log allows you to track your sessions chronologically, and I’ve found the ability to link between the pages very handy. For instance, does your party ever forget the name of the NPC that gave them their quest? In the adventure log, you can link the NPC (or the PC) page straight in the text. This is clearly quite useful for players to just take a look back and refresh their recollection about what the hell they are actually doing – probably with a greater level of detail than a rehash from the GM might provide.”
Hero Lab ($30 per game system) is the one tool that almost everyone mentioned. It does one thing — create characters — but it does that one thing very well, and for a variety of the most popular game systems. Pathfinder, D&D 3.5, Shadowrun, Mutants & Masterminds, Savage Worlds and other games are currently supported. “Right now I'm very fond of Hero Lab for designing end-stage villains,” said Wolfgang Baur. “It takes the gruntwork out of compiling complicated stat blocks. I prepare most of my regular monsters and minions by putting a bookmark in a bestiary, but for the special blackguard eldritch knight lich with complete wardrobe of magical gear...I like to surprise players. Even at lower levels, it's useful to throw a few levels of aristocrat or barbarian onto a kobold and see what happens when the party can't quite defeat the little squeaker. It encourages me to experiment, without burning hours doing it.”
“Hero Lab cuts down much of the time necessary for NPC prep,” added Karen McDonald.
Even though it won’t let you create a map or organize the guilds in your capital city, Hero Lab is invaluable for games with somewhat complex mechanical systems. Character creation can be a slog of thumbing through books, while Hero Lab puts all the options in front of you and performs all the calculations to ensure you’ve done everything correctly.
Tablets and PDFs
Sometimes the most useful tools are the most simple. An iPad, Android tablet, or a laptop loaded with PDFs of all your gaming books is a huge time saver. Plenty of gaming companies offer free PDFs of their releases when you buy the print book, so it’s not difficult to build a great digital gaming bookshelf. I asked Ben McFarland, freelance contributor to several gaming companies, what his favorite digital tool is. “Nexus 7 tablet with PDF search function. I know that's probably not very sexy, but not needing to comb through a pile of books, and being able to carry the references for more than one system in my hand has been absolutely fantastic. With the PDFs loaded, I can show up and be ready for any system we want to play that night. I don't have to haul all my books with me, and I can focus on the game.”
Brandon Sweet, a GM with more than two decades’ experience, is also an advocate of PDF game books. “I was a late adopter on this, but a laptop has proven to be a great asset. PDF copies of all the rulebooks open to the important sections, digital photos of places and people the PCs will visit, etc.”
Manda Collis told me about a particularly innovative way to use a tablet while playing. "I love keeping track of initiative on my tablet — by writing on the screen protector with dry erase markers! This works really great for maps and things as well, I can keep all my files ready to access on my tablet, mark on them as I need to, and then erase it when I move on to the next thing. Since I run a lot of convention games, this is super helpful when jumping from game to game too."
iTunes and Other Media Players
Another simple, yet effective GM’s tool? Music. Playing appropriate sound effects or atmospheric music is a shortcut to creating the “theater of the mind” all GMs strive for. Ben McFarland: “I created several quick iTunes playlists of sound effects for a series of encounters that I described to the players as they sat blindfolded. Being able to augment my descriptions with actual appropriate sound effects was fantastic. Then I transitioned to low-key music, and it really worked.”
GM Rollin Bishop told me about a particular moment that was accentuated by having the right song at the right time: “Probably my favorite digital moment from one of my campaign's is also the simplest incorporation of digital tools: I played the Jurassic Park theme during a moment when the party took control of an airship and flew to the primary antagonist's base. The slightest nuance, especially when it comes to sound, goes a long way.”
System Specific Tools
Some tools are only useful if you’re running a particular system. Still, especially for popular games like D&D and Pathfinder, those tools can be invaluable. The first is the amazing Pathfinder Reference Document (PRD). Every rule created for the Pathfinder RPG is freely available in a fully hyperlinked online repository.
Amanda Hamon, freelance designer for Pathfinder, is a huge advocate for the usefulness of online reference documents. “My favorite digital tool for game organization and prep is a combination of d20PFSRD.com, the Pathfinder SRD Wiki, and the Pathfinder Reference Document on the Paizo website. Between those three resources, finding exactly the spell, archetype, or whatever other mechanic I need for a game is incredibly easy. If I want to pick through all the spells that deal acid damage, the SRD Wiki has those listed. If I need to know what bard archetypes exist, including from the third-party publishers, d20PFSRD has me covered. Both of those resources also do a great job listing their sources, so it's easy to find the original mechanic in its source once I've picked something I think I want to use. The PRD on the Paizo site is also really helpful in that it lists, word-for-word and in the same organizational format, exactly what's in most of the core rulebooks, so if I don't have a particular book handy I can skim through the PRD and know that what I'm reading is exactly from Paizo itself.”
Mike Mearls, senior manager of research and design for Dungeons & Dragons (in other words, the guy in charge of the next edition of D&D) still gets a lot of mileage out of the D&D Insider Tools ($10/month). “As a DM, I collect stat blocks for monsters ahead of time and print them out in packets. For maps, I use our tile mapping tool to create set piece encounters. By sticking to one tile set at a time, it’s much easier to organize and set up tactical maps at the table. I can work from one set, rather than juggle multiple sets at once. Here’s a little trick I figured out: You can pop tiles back into their sheets. They actually remain in place pretty well, making it much easier to store and transport them.”
GM tools can also let you whip up needed game info on the fly. “I also sometimes use the random choice option in the DDI character builder to create NPCs,” Mearls said. “I’ll create a 1st level character using random choices for name, race, background, theme, class, and so on to give me a rough outline of an NPC. It’s a handy way to jog the imagination.”
Of course, no one tool fits every GM’s needs. Some of these options should help you keep the Caliphate of Arkha’Lor separate from the Sovereignty of Winter Elves while organizing your monster herds and treasure troves. If you have a favorite digital tool for RPG organization and adventure creation, let us know in the comments.