The Right Tool for the Right Job: Filling your DM Toolbox

by Mike Shea on 26 October 2015

Something about our human nature wants us to toss aside other people's good ideas and focus on our own. "Not invented here" syndrome lies deep within us, even us dungeon masters. This might be due to the creative nature of our hobby. We like to build things ourselves. Standard monsters and default campaign settings are often not good enough for us so we spend a great deal of time and energy building our own settings and our own monsters.

This is fine if it makes us happy and actually helps us run a great game. If we do it by discarding all of those other good ideas, though, we're throwing away a lot of great stuff. We're ignoring all the creative energy that others invest all around us. We can either trudge up the hill all by ourselves or we can ride the waves of the lives and imaginations of six billion other people.

Good ideas surround us. The growth of the internet over the past twenty years has pushed the art of dungeon mastering to all new hights. Before we had the net we might get some ideas from DMs we know personally or in the pages of Dungeon and Dragon magazine. Now we have more information than we can ever digest. We have access to the minds of thousands of dungeon masters. We have an ocean of great ideas we might use in our game.

The more we keep our minds open to the mechanics, atmosphere, and the story seeds we see all around us, the better our games will be.

Capturing These Ideas

Unfortunately, these ideas aren't nice heavy things we can find lying around and store in a big yellow plastic box. Some of them are like fleeting butterflies we must chase down with a net and carefully save in a jar. We might be flipping through a copy Dungeon World or watching Chris Perkins run the Acquisitions Incorporated game when one of these ideas shows up. How do we grab it and save it for later?

We can go back to the tools used at the dawn of civilization and write that shit down. Lots of people have their favorite tools. Mine is a Moleskine plain pocket notebook and a Sakura Micron pen. Others might use Evernote or another digital tool. Whatever we choose is likely fine as long as it can quickly capture the idea and store it in some sort of permanent record we can go back to.

Keeping an "RPG Ideas" text file on your computer or as a page in Evernote might be a good way to hang onto this stuff. Don't stress about the formatting, just get it down and keep it handy. Reference it before you run your game.

You might prefer a physical campaign folder to store your ideas. As ideas come to you, write them down on a 3x5 card and throw them in the folder. Dump them out on the table and go over them when you're prepping your game.

An Example Toolbox

Below are a few examples of the sorts of ideas and concepts we might capture that might be useful in our own D&D games:

Of course, there are a lot of physical tools we can use to run our game as well. We've covered a lot of this in the GM Walk Away Kit.

These ideas mostly focus on the mechanics of RPGs but we can just as easily form a list of "good story ideas" from the books, movies, and TV shows we absorb. Our toolboxes are infinite multidimentional spaces. There's nothing that can't fit within them.

Keep Things Simple

We can pack our DM toolbox with a lot of different things but that doesn't mean we need to use all of them at any game. Often the simplest tools, like easy initiative cards, end up being the most useful at the table. Big complicated sub-systems are likely to be more frustrating to teach and implement than a few different small ideas.

Keep our Mind Open and Try It At the Table

The only way we can keep filling up our toolbox is to remember that we all benefit when ideas come out, even if we're not sold on them in the beginning. Instead of immediately dismissing someone else's ideas, give them some careful thought and maybe give them a try at your table before you discount them. Obviously we can filter out ideas that we're sure we and our players won't like but even then it's worth considering why we might not like them.

Actually trying it is a much better gauge of how something will work than just reviewing it on paper. In the early days of the D&D Next playtest, there was an uproar about the "advantage" mechanic when we first saw it, including from yours truly. Once we actually started to use it, it worked out really well.

Before we start running off having an opinion about something, what if we take a good look at it first?

We can get far in this hobby if we consider the words of Roland Deschain:

"Head clear. Mouth shut. See much. Say little."

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