Friend of the Show, Eugene, asks, “hat GM-Specific equipment should I bring to run games at a convention?”
Awesome question, Eugene.
I think a lot of GMs try to bring everything they own, and that is a mistake. If you are a travelling GM your goal should be to travel light. I think a lot of people consider the ThinkGeek Bag of Holding an excellent bag for GMs. It’s the bag I use, and I know several of my fellow GMs who use it, so I’m going to describe what I think is the best way to pack that specific bag. You should be able to adapt most of the advice here for your own game bag. The key is to pack only what you know you will need first, then fill in any left-over space with goodies.
First, let’s look at our bag. The Bag of Holding contains three external pockets and four internal pockets. One of the internal pockets is sealed by magnetic button and subdivided with internal pockets for pens, calculators, cell phones, and the like. All of the other pockets are sealed by zipper. One of the external pockets is padded for a laptop, or other sensitive equipment. There is an adjustable shoulder strap, and a flap cover sealed by two magnetic buttons.
Next, lets look at the list of gear we’re thinking about taking. I’m going to list every single item I own that I’ve ever used as a GM, organize it, and pare it down.
Books, Printed Maps, Grid Mats, Miniatures (or other positioning tokens), Status Markers, Dice, Writing Utensils (pencils, pens, sharpener, eraser, dry erase markers, etc), Scissors, Printed Adventure Modules, Handwritten Adventure Modules, Laptop, Tablet and other small electronics, Calculator, Playing Cards and other Specialty Card Decks (e.g. Deck of Many Things), Player Handouts, 3D terrain features, Index Cards, Tape Measure and area effect templates, Laser Pointer, Projector, Laser Level, Elevation Markers, MP3 player (or other source for sound effects), Character sheets (blank and pre-gens), Initiative Tracker, batteries, post-it notes, Pipe Cleaners, GM Screen, Miscellaneous Props.
So, lets start with the basics. Books, Maps, and Miniatures. Surprisingly, all three of these things should be very low on your priority list. Books are bulky, and you never know which ones you will need. At worst, you should have your Player’s Handbook, Rules Compendium, and Monster Manual. At your best, you are bringing a Tablet with PDFs of all of your books pre-loaded on it. Miniatures are big and bulky, and require lots of space to store. Instead, use a sheet of cardboard tokens, like the ones that come in the Monster Vault. These are easily transportable, and a lot more versatile. Maps that are rolled up in tubes are a nightmare, because they don’t fit anywhere usually, and you have to carry them by hand to keep them from getting damaged. If you have a folding printed map, you are better off, but your best bet is a foldable grid mat, so you can draw all of the maps you need.
Dice are important. You can’t play without them. Additionally, if you are running a lot of games for new players, you may want to bring extra sets, as new players often don’t have a set of their own. However, if you are rolling with an experienced crew, only bring your own set. And only bring a single set. Not the gallon bucket of dice that you paid $5 for at Gen Con. I know some of you have superstitions about the need to switch out dice that are misbehaving. Suck it up and roll the same die again. If you are bringing a tablet, or a smart phone, load it up with a dice app and leave your dice at home. You are much less likely to lose them at the convention that way, but see the tablet section below before going down this road.
Writing utensils are important. But avoid bringing #2 pencils and a sharpener. Pencils break easily, and make a mess when you sharpen them. Bring a couple of cheap mechanical pencils. Make sure each one is loaded with lead, rather than bringing an extra case of lead for them. Don’t bring a sharpener. Do bring an extra eraser. You don’t want to use the erasers on the mechanical pencils, because they get lost easily, and they are usually what is holding the lead in. If you are going with a foldable grid mat, bring 2 black dry erase markers as well. Do not bring wet-erase, unless you need to. They are more hassle than they are worth.
Bring a printed copy of your adventure. Don’t expect to print one out on site at the hotel. Don’t expect to borrow one from the convention organizers. If your organizers are giving you hand-outs for your adventures (typical at Gen Con and Origins for LFR) don’t bring your own. Otherwise, bring enough to last you for all of your games.
Pre-Gen Character sheets are important, and don’t take up a lot of space. Don’t bring more than 6. Blank sheets are not important. You might think that a blank sheet is more versatile. You’re right, but it also takes a long time to generate a character. If a player shows up who hasn’t prepared, or you are running with new players, just hand them a pre-gen and go. Don’t waste time building characters from scratch in a convention setting where time is limited.
There are a few things on the list that should not be taken at all. Topping my list of excluded items are Laptops, Projectors, and MP3 players(or other sound effect devices). The Sound Effects are great at home, but in a convention center, you are likely fighting against other noise already. Don’t make that situation any worse. Leave the projector at home too. You won’t have room for it, let alone a power supply. Similarly, most laptops won’t last for a full 4-hour game without being plugged in, and very few convention centers provide power for laptops at a table. See the section about Tablets below instead. Don’t bring a stand-alone calculator. At this point in our society, someone at your table will have a smart-phone. You probably have one yourself. It will have a calculator on it, so use that if you must, but try to do most of the calculations in your head. Most calculations should be basic addition and subtraction. If something comes up that you need a calculator for, and you don’t have your own smart-phone, ask your players to do the calculation for you. Don’t bring your tape measure, or laser level. These are sometimes used to accurately judge distance, or determine line of sight. In a convention setting, this wastes time. Unless you are participating in Tournament Level play, just eye-ball it and go. If it’s too close to call, rule in favor of the players. Just keep the game moving. This goes for anything else that you may use to try to determine accuracy. Unless your adventure is specifically focused on elevation and aerial combat, leave the elevation markers, or other specialized position tracking tools at home. Leave your 3D terrain at home as well. This stuff normally doesn’t travel well, it is bulky, and it tends to be too expensive to allow to get broken or lost. At worst, bring a single piece of 3D terrain for the major battle of your adventure, to add a little coolness factor. Don’t bring a DM Screen. Don’t worry about rolling your dice in front of the players for 95% of your rolls. For that one roll that absolutely needs to be secret, just cup your hand and roll behind it, then pick up the die when you see the result. The only reason I would bring a DM screen is for the quick-reference tables printed on the back. If you can get by without them, don’t bring it. Leave behind any miscellaneous props. For example, one guy I know had a stylized dagger to show us how a cultist’s ceremonial dagger of sacrifice would look. This is especially bad because it’s also a weapon. Do not bring any weapons to a convention. Ever.
Now, lets talk about things that should be included. Surprisingly, I’ve always found that I need to bring a pair of scissors to a convention. There are usually handouts that need to be cut before they can be handed out, or things are printed 3 to a page, so I need to separate them. You should bring Index Cards, or Post-It Notes, but not both. I prefer Index Cards. They are useful for handling initiative, passing table notes, jotting down hit points, or any number of other things. They can even be folded into table tents to help you remember player/character names. If you choose to have your players make table tents, I always find it useful to bring a template to show them exactly how you want it done. If you are running Savage Worlds, bring a deck of playing cards. Pipe Cleaners are flexible little pieces of colored wire that works wonderful as a status marker, or as a way to mark off areas that are under an effect that lasts more than one round. I try to bring a small selection in a variety of colors, unless I’m strapped for space.
Finally, lets talk about things you should bring if you have space.
Status Markers and Area Blast templates should be made obsolete by pipe-cleaners. However, if you have an abundance of room left, these can add a level of visual appeal to your game that may make them worthwhile. Specialty Decks, like random treasure cards, injury cards, or tarot cards are cool to have. They usually travel well. Specialty Initiative Trackers are usually made obsolete by Index Cards. However, if you are the type who doesn’t like the card system for initiative, this can be a nice thing to have. It doesn’t take up a lot of space either. Finally, the biggest space hog in my bag is the actual Miniatures. These add a great visual effect to the game, but they are bulky. It’s always a difficult decision to decide whether or not you should make space for these. I tend to bring my box of player minis if I know I’m dealing with new players, or a small set matching up with Pre-Gen characters. On the monster side, I bring 5 orcs with various weapons that I use to distinguish between generic humanoid/medium enemies, a pair of large creatures, a pair of small creatures, and whatever mini I have that matches best with the big-boss of my adventure. From that base, I customize as needed to meet the demands of my adventure.
Tablets (and to an extent, smart phones) are always a tricky decision. They have a better battery life than a laptop, as long as you turn off their wifi and other radio connections. Bonus! If you do have a tablet, you can pre-load it with a dice-rolling application and save yourself that space in your bag. The downside of a Tablet is that if you are doing back-to-back games, it may die on you in the middle of your second game. If you have a portable power supply, like a spare battery or solar charger, you may be able to work around this. If not, don’t expect to be able to charge your tablet between games. Only bring your tablet if you have time to charge it between games, or a portable battery to go with it. Never rely on it as your source of adventure material. Always bring a printed copy of the adventure. If you don’t bring anything else, you can still get by with borrowing dice and other material from players, but they won’t have a copy of the adventure for you. I usually bring my smart phone no matter what.
So, lets start fitting things into the bag.
First, I start with my specialized pockets.
I’ve got the padded laptop pocket, where I keep my tablet, and my pre-gen character sheets. I rarely use my tablet, except when I need to look up something in a book on the PDFs stored on it. I keep my pre-gens here in the external pocket because if I get to the table and I’m running late, these are the first things I want to pull out, so I can give my players something to start looking at while I set up.
In the small pocket on the outside of the bag, I keep my scissors. I don’t like them getting mixed up with anything else because of the possibility of cutting myself if I’m digging around in the bag for something.
In the inner Button Up Pocket, I keep my writing utensils, my Specialty Card Deck, and a charger for my tablet.
In the largest inside pocket, I keep my miniatures inside a plastic box that you can get at any craft store. This helps keep them well-organized and sorted. Next to the box is my folded Grid Mat, and any folded maps I am using. Next to that, I keep my printed adventure and my index cards wrapped in a rubber band.
The smaller inside pocket holds my dice. I keep extra dice packs because of the new players I often deal with. I also keep my Pipe Cleaners in here in a plastic baggie.
My cell phone goes into my personal clothing pockets, rather than into the game bag, but I may set it down at the table if I’m using it to track time, roll dice, or do calculations.
Finally, bring a snack. A granola bar, or something similar, will keep you going if you find yourself fading in the middle of a session. There is a small secret pouch in the Bag of Holding inside the largest pocket. This is where I keep a granola bar wrapped up. Try to remember to put a fresh one in every convention, rather than being stuck with a stale one. They won’t go bad, but as a rule, I try to avoid eating very old food. Bring a bottle of water as well. I keep mine clipped to the side of the bag, so I can get to it, even if I’m walking around the convention center with my bag slung over my shoulder. And if you are going to be doing a lot of talking, bring some cough drops. Your throat will be raw by the time you are done running 5 marathon GM sessions, and these little babies can help keep your voice from giving out.
I still have a lot of room left in this bag for any extras that I may need, such as my rule book, or even another box of miniatures. When I go to a large convention, I usually end up getting free stuff, or buying more materials which I end up carrying in my bag. Having the extra space available comes in handy when this happens.
There you have it. That’s my guide to packing for a travelling DM. What do you think? do you have advice of your own?