Low Tech Gadgets For Better Gaming


No matter what game you may be playing, there is a certain set of equipment regarded as universal for players of any tabletop RPG. You know what I'm talking about: warm bodies to serve as players and one slightly more fanatically devoted warm body to GM the whole show, a relatively quiet and private space with a table and enough room to seat everyone, the one or more sourcebooks needed to run the game system itself, character sheets for everyone involved, and (of course) dice of all varieties.

No matter what game you may be playing, there is a certain set of equipment regarded as universal for players of any tabletop RPG. You know what I'm talking about: warm bodies to serve as players and one slightly more fanatically devoted warm body to GM the whole show, a relatively quiet and private space with a table and enough room to seat everyone, the one or more sourcebooks needed to run the game system itself, character sheets for everyone involved, and (of course) dice of all varieties. Some would add battlemats and miniatures to this list, and most of us would say that a game just can't go on without a few pizzas, some sugary or salty snacks, and the omnipresent nectar of the gods better known as Mountain Dew. (I know I would.)

One of the truly beautiful things about RPGs is, unlike other hobbies that require a substantial investment just to get going, it's entirely possible to have a successful game with nothing more than these necessities and little or no cash upfront. If you're a GM, all you have to do is spend a few bucks on the basic books (provided you have a fertile imagination for planning future encounters). If you're a player, you can show up to a game with a pencil and a piece of paper, borrow your friends' sourcebooks, and never have to spend a dime of your own if you don't want to. (True, some gamers might come to resent such freeloaders, and most of us eventually end up sinking just as much money into newer and better sourcebooks as sports fanatics put into their equipment, but that's a topic for another time.)

But just because you can get by with the bare minimum doesn't mean you have to. Like any other hobby, gaming has tons of little knickknacks you can incorporate into your play to either enrich the experience or simplify the mechanics of running a game. These are my suggestions for cheap, simple, everyday items you might want to think about bringing to your next gaming session to make your life easier, both as a player or a GM; feel free to add your own in the lovely little comments box you'll find at the end of my article.

  • A blank notebook to serve as the dedicated "quote book." I started writing down funny or otherwise memorable quotes from gaming sessions about two years ago mostly for my own entertainment. It worked so well that whenever I run a game I always convince one of the players to serve as the volunteer "quote taker" for the evening. Though looking back through the quotes always made me laugh, I was also impressed at how much taking quotes helped me remember exactly what had happened in the previous session and in what order.
  • An egg timer or similar timepiece. Ever have that problem where your players take forever to decide anything, even in combat when they should be forced to make split-second decisions? Here's your solution. Turn the little hourglass upside down and tell them they have to make a decision before the sands run out, or you'll decide for them. (You can even start humming the "Jeopardy!" theme if you're feeling really sadistic.) And all you have to do to get one is ransack the closet full of old, unplayed board games that I know you probably have (this is a good place to get free D6's, too).
  • If you're playing a modern-day or near-future game, road maps are cheap and easy to find and will save your ass time and time again. A street map of whatever city your game is primarily based in is practically a must, to give your players that sense of space and distance that previous Gamegrene articles have established as so important in a game, and to give you ideas of interesting locales in which to set your next session. And if your PCs are as inordinately fond of taking random road trips as mine seem to be, a road atlas can help you keep track of their movements better than anything else (or even convince them their desired destination is too far away, effectively keeping them in one place until you get a chance to cast out your plot hooks).
  • A CD player and appropriate musical selections. Okay, it's not exactly as low-tech as I originally promised, but bringing your CD collection to the table to provide a soundtrack can do wonders to set the mood for your game. Of course, you probably don't want to have music playing all the time or it'll get annoying, but in certain situations it can work wonders. For example, combat - I've found it goes a lot smoother with a little background music, since it puts the players in the moment and discourages them from slowing things down with rules lawyering and extraneous chit-chat. (I've found movie soundtracks work well for D&D and other fantasy games, while techno serves nicely for modern-day or sci-fi games. Generally you'll want to avoid anything that has lyrics, though, or you run the risk of your players paying more attention to the music than the scene you're describing!)
  • Other mood-setting devices. This can range from something as simple as actual physical copies of maps or documents found by the characters (easy to produce with any computer these days), to more extensive and dramatic props ("You find this scarf/this photograph/this knife at the scene of the crime"), to full-out decoration of your playing space with candles and whatnot. I've never ventured toward the more extreme end of this spectrum, but I know plenty of gamers who swear it's done wonders for their games. However, I can tell you when I assembled "case files" on many of the important NPCs in a Mage game I ran and handed them out to the group, my players pored over them for days on end trying to pick up on every detail (thereby making it much easier to set the plot in motion).
  • A dry-erase board and markers. This is, far and away, the best $10 I ever spent on anything gaming-related since I started in the hobby. I realized the need for this when a campaign that had initially focused on intrigue and espionage began reaching its exciting conclusion and, as a consequence, became more action-oriented. Every time I tried to set up a battle, stress would ensue as I was deluged by questions: "How far away am I from Kat? How many yards to my car? Do I have a line of sight on that monster, or is Tai in my way again? Where am I in relation to that boulder you just mentioned?" Being too cheap for miniatures, I bought this instead and was not disappointed. The one I own has a writing surface of about 13 inches by 16 inches, which is the perfect size because it's big enough for all the players to see my writing and sketches clearly, but small enough to balance on my lap while I'm Gming and to be easily transported from my house to wherever gaming is taking place. It's been so useful that my fellow GMs ask to borrow it before almost every one of their games - it seems they're still too cheap to buy their own.

I use a grid for miniatures in my games, mainly because it's easier to use than a whiteboard and erases with water (assuming you draw on it with "overhead" markers). Oddly enough, I find the 1" square miniature grids quite annoying. They don't have enough room to allow a really BIG map. I prefer a 1/2" grid, and use the little glass "counter" beads you can buy at any comic book store for the characters. Sure, it's not as pretty as a miniature, but a whole lot cheaper. And the wizard puts his bead on top of a coin to symbolize his familiar perched on his shoulder, which helps him remember that the raven is there and has somthing to offer in certain situations.

Of course, the wizard's /familiar/ has more personality than most of the other players, but hey.. we're working on it.

I was actually lucky enough to get a hold of a HUGE 2x3 foot whiteboard that is not only magnetic, but also has a pre-printed grid of one-inch squares! Perfect for 3rd ed D&D battleboards, up above my right shoulder. I bought $2 worth of cheap colored magnets and labels at the craft store and have been good to go ever since.


What my group recently tried was having a local Kinko's run off a Large pair of sheets with a 1" grid, then have them laminated. Not too expensive, and you can set them up as you want, use dry-erase markers, and then roll them into a tube for storage.

Of course, if you have too many, you find the GM walking across the Chambers of Unspeakable Badness and leaving Deity-sized toe-prints in the lava pit...

Yup all great ideas GC.

But the mag board is hard to move around. It is a good gadget to buy for when you play at home. A battlemat is much more easy to carry around.

The NPC file is a great idea. Doing it on power point or its equivalent makes a great tool for cyberpunk/ espionnage games. But it isn't low-tech.

I've actually used alot of props in my time as a GM and they are quite useful.

A variant of your quote book is the home made GM screen. The inside belonged to me (I put all the tables I needed) the outside belonged to the players and they decided what went on there. The was the Graveyard and Famous Last Words collumn. The cartoon section and finally the Hillarious Quotes. Oh and yes the 5 fundamental rules (here they are translated).
1 - This is just a game let's have fun
2 - The GM is always right
3 - No peeking behind the screen
4 - The life expectancy of a player is in opposite proportion to the amount of complaining he/she does.
5 - When all else fails always refer to rules 1 and 2.
and (even if it was the 5 rules)
6 - If you find the monsters and items are different from the official rules, don't spend soooo much time reading the damn things. I AM THE GM for crying outloud.

Other useful items from our gaming box:

Store window little 'be back at' clock faces with plastic hands. Useful to show players what time the characters think it is, great when you have to split the party and they end up on different time cycles to keep everything coordinated.

A ring for service bell, which the GM uses to get player attention back on track (and to announce the start of the session, timeouts etc).

Lots of cheap little notepads for the players to have on hand to write notes back and forth on.

A plastic pocket folder to store the character sheets in, preferably the kind with front pockets to put photos in (so you can show off character art and tell the folders apart).... make the players leave this with the GM in most cases as their 'permanent record' to prevent lost character sheets (a constant problem).

A deck of Tarot cards.

A 'book of visual aids' created from old magazines, clippings etc to illustrate events when words are not enough to describe an NPC of importance or an ongoing scene.

We've acquired a 3' times 6' magnetic whiteboard. It rocks.

I have found that working free form with a pad of "butcher block" paper works quite well.
My PC's and I can write directly on it (moves, spell/explosion effects, buildings)
and use minis. I have them write their movements right on the paper
and it leaves me with a pretty good record of the encounter. Also any notes from the
encounter are written right on the paper. The pads are pretty cheap and I get them
at Staples.

When I play, it's usually a family thing. Me and my cousins, and my dad, and my aunts and uncles, we get together, but there's not always the same people as last time, and sometimes we can't remember who was in what campaign, and such, so I started a log, writing who was in the campaign, and assigned a # to the campaign, in the beginning, and then, when we were given our 'last round' warning, I would write down where everyone was, since I am usually the map-maker anyway, and who did what last. My dad would store it in one of those big plastic boxes that look like colossal tupperware, that you get at the dollar store for like 3-8 dollars. It helps immensely.

Bought a whiteboard as per your suggestion - talk about an ass-saving device!

After unexpectedly running out of pre-planned plot after my psychopathic players killed off one of the big baddies in record time, I herded them into a new area, then pinned them down in a cross fire situation with hostages, then amply and beautifully drew them a scenario on my board.

The players got so involved in tactics and numbers, we lost track of time and ended up playing an hour later then normal.

I came off looking like a genius, and they had a great time.


We started with a white board, but found that a giant pad of 1 inch graph paper works MUCH better.

White boards are for people who enjoy mapping more than playing. How many times have you carefully wiped the board and meticulously drawn the room to scale, complete with furniture, in preparation for a Battle Royale, only to have the group turn tale and run the way from which they came? Argh. got to wipe the board again and draw the old map again.

It doesn't work.

Instead, go to Office Depot and get a boardroom sized graph paper stack. Let the DM 'pre-map' all the major rooms and stock them with furniture. If you want, cut them into sections for placement on the table, or lay the whole map down and cover the unseen portions with books.

We keep meticulous records of experience points in an Excel spreadsheet. Experience points matter.

Character sheets are done on PC and forwarded to the DM in case anyone misplaces or forgets them (often happens).

We have a private website to flesh out the 'tween games character stories. This helps immensely in adding a huge amount of texture to the characters, story and world. This same site also has world maps, scanned dungeon map recaps with pics and all relevant information for the story. It also has a tomb for lost characters, complete with last words and death scenarios, immortalizing them.

Thanks Neph, I was wondering what to do with my free web space from Bell Sympatico...
Now if only I can trick my girlfriend into making it one of her assignments in her Web Page Design class...

Gamerchick, I saw your 'quote-taker' point, thought 'Hey, cool!' and have started doing that with my group. Good idea!