Being a Better GM: My Six Dollar Overhaul!

The tools I use to run The End of Time and Other Bothers

Running a live play audio drama that is improv-first brings about some interesting challenges. Any time spent distracted or fumbling for information creates a noticeable drag on the scene in question and can derail offers because people aren’t paying attention.

So I thought I would lay out the tools I’ve found most helpful in running The End of Time and Other Bothers, our improvised roleplaying audio drama using the Dungeon World system.

In Episode 1 and 2, I was attempting to do most everything on my laptop. In preparing for the show, Eli and I had dozens of documents filled with endless descriptions, notes and characters. But try as I might, this was very ungainly to use in-game. I could never find the things I needed, and so I spent a lot of time umm-ing and ahh-ing as I tried to find which part of which forsaken file something was written in. Not to mention, there is nothing more distracting than hearing someone type while characters are doing something.

I needed a simpler way.

So I spent $6 on a pack of index cards. It was the best $6 ever spent. That’s right, in the history of the world, this was the holy grail of online spending.

By the very next episode, I had a series of simple and powerful tools that increased my focus and ability to be present with my players. And I can group the cards ahead of each session with a $.01 paper clip, creating little packages for each encounter and location. As I finish a scene, I just bind everything back up and then undo the next packet.

Using the legend in the photo above, I’ll go through each of the tools I’m using.

1) Episode Beat Sheet

I have a bulleted list of the proposed beats for each episode (a tool we stole from screenwriting.) These are the turning points in the story I expect to tell, but in just a few quick bullets. If a bullet requires more explanation or detail, then it gets its own packet of cards, neatly clipped together and labeled with a blank card on top.

The bullets must be short and easy to scan. As a GM of an improv game, my job is to STAY FOCUSED with the players and to always be listening. So I have to be able to use the beat sheet with the briefest of glances.

Further, it’s just not worth spending too much time on your idealized plan for the plot. As just about every GM will tell you, every plan comes off the rails. Those moments of late-night cackling as you gleefully plan the perfect trap or scene are almost always derailed within ten minutes of introducing the players into the mix. So just get the rough beats down and leave yourself room to improvise.

Here are my original beats for episode two. WARNING: Potential spoilers.

Episode 2 left this path pretty quickly. And we certainly didn’t get as far as I had hoped.

But the beats are super helpful as they give me a sense of comfort and a starting point. And when I feel things plateauing, I can use the beat sheet to move the story forward. I might jump to a later event or raise the stakes by taking away an opportunity.

The beat sheet is also a great tool for planning your packets for a particular game session. I can see what locations and NPC cards I will need to have on hand and prepared as packets. More on these below.

2) Our Players: A Recap Card

There’s nothing more embarrassing than forgetting the names of the characters my three friends are playing — I should know, because I do it constantly. So I have a single 4x6" index card that has each of their names, along with their race and class and any key notes about their character. And after asking for it seven times, I also wrote down the name of the goddess our cleric Darcy is in service to.

3) NPCs and Descriptions for the current scenario

I turn the index cards vertically if they are NPC cards at a glance. A 4x6 card is the perfect amount of room to record just enough detail for each Non-Player Character (NPC). (An NPC is simply a character that I play in the world as the Game Master.)

My favourite right now is definitely Snegal. Here’s what’s on his card:

Snegal, Imp
Job: Cafeteria Worker
Wants: To be respected
Must Have: A hero to idolize
Quirk: Obstinate and Worships Blat (“his Evilship”)
Description: Just over three feet tall (on his tiptoes) with red skin that glistens as if he is always sweating. His wings beat fruitlessly at the air as he scrambles around. A prehensile tail ends in a barb and his black orbs blink up at you almost innocently.

4) Stackable World Information Cards

I needed a way to quickly reference key information about the world, such as what’s on each floor of the Academy of the Fallen, or the exact time of The Event at the End of Time. So I decided to fold the index cards in half the long way into little triangular tents. This way, I can lean forward and read all of them without having to shuffle papers around.

Whenever I need to reference an important piece of world information that I don’t have on hand, I either add it to one of the stackable cards, or I create a new one.

Eli created a world with a deliberately ridiculous money system. So one of the first cards I created contains the following insanity:

1/2 sovereign = 1 GP = 1 Crown = 6 Shillings = 54 Pennies/Pence = GAH!

Packets of maps and note cards all bound up and labeled

Packages (not shown in opening photo)

This was the coolest thing about using the Index Cards. I can bind up all the cards I expect to need for each scenario or encounter. They then form tidy packets in my campaign box.

Does the party jump ahead and bypass what I had planned for? I just bind up the current cards and then grab an appropriate pack and fan it out.

On my laptop, I don’t have to flip between documents or sections anymore. I simply pull up the one document with the environmental descriptors I may need. The Beat Sheet doesn’t change. The stackable world information cards rarely change. The Outstanding Offers also stay.

In a major move, a lot more can change, but it’s still pretty straightforward. Let’s look at what happened at the end of episode one. We were transitioning from Steadfast in the far future back to “present day” in Farloria. In this case, I collected my Steadfast NPC cards together with all of the Steadfast stackable world information cards. I put a clip on them with a card at the top that simply reads, “Steadfast!”.

Then I pulled out my episode two Farloria pack and placed the cards out in front of me. I opened one location descriptor document on my laptop and I was ready to go. It took less than 90 seconds to completely transition between two worlds and now I could focus on my players. And the best part, if we ever jump back to Steadfast, I just reverse the process.

5) Outstanding Offers — Pink Index Cards

These are the latest addition behind my GM Screen of Doom!

I needed a way to remember offers that have been made but not resolved in each session. I call them Outstanding Offers. (I’m super good at naming things, eh?)

In an improv-first game, players can introduce ideas, props, story lines, problems and more. And because of the nature of what we are doing, not all offers are resolved in a single session. Some of these offers make for GREAT callbacks which can be quite enjoyable for listeners, but only if I don’t lose track of them in the weeks between sessions.

In episode 3, I wrote down a few outstanding offers, one of which was:

  • Blat suggests that Snegal should try wearing shirts

I’m seriously going to enjoy delivering on this offer in a later session.

6) Reused DM Screen

This is actually a D&D 5e screen with four panels. I bought it because it was on sale and it looked like it was a perfect match for standard printer paper. And it was! So I downloaded a lovely screen from Robert J. Finamore that I printed out, and then taped the sheets I liked best to the inside of the D&D screen.

Have an old GM screen laying around? Find one in a garage sale? You may be able to save $50. It’s crazy what some of these screens go for!

It’s super helpful to have the Dungeon World rules at my fingertips in case there is a question. Trying to find a rule in the book or even in the PDF on my computer was a drag and took too much energy out of the moment.

7) The Laptop

I still use my laptop, but now only for two very specific purposes. First and foremost, I will have a Google Document open with the descriptions for the current scenario or episode. It could be a list of rooms in a building the players are exploring or just descriptors of what they might come across in the town of Paradox.

The second use of the laptop is to check a fact or rule, but only if absolutely necessary.

We have a series of Google Docs containing the months of insane worldbuilding that Eli and I have done. But accessing any of this entails pausing the game to type in search terms and frankly this is not ideal for a podcast. If I do pause the game to do this, I will transfer the information we needed onto my DM screen or one of my stackable world information cards for future (and silent) reference.

*) The Hidden Bits!

I know. I’m totally holding out on you! So here is a list of all the remaining items often found behind my screen:

  • My favourite dice (even though I don’t get to roll much in Dungeon World)
  • Pens, pens and more pens!
  • One pencil. Not sure why; I never use it
  • Coffee and two glasses of sparkling water
  • An eraser, again not sure why. See pencil
  • Tiny pink stickies because I like pink and sticking things to other things
  • A coaster so our housemate who owns the table doesn’t kill me

That’s It!

What tools do you use to help be nimble on your feet as a GM? The more we all share, the more we all grow and improve!

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Sean Howard is the co-creator of Alba Salix, Royal Physician and the GM behind The End of Time and Other Bothers. He can be reached via Twitter or email.