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.