Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Agile Gamemaster: The Stat/Initiative/Combat Tool

Welcome to the Agile Gamemaster series. In this series, I will talk about some tools and concepts that gamemasters can use at the gaming table to respond quickly to whatever comes along.

As a gamemaster, you are the single most important element at the gaming table. You are responsible for a large part of the creative energy that happens during each session. You must be ready with plots, adventures and information about the world in which the characters exist. Being an agile gamemaster, then, means that you are prepared, quick with information and able to adjust to whatever is happening at the gaming table. You should not be a hindrance to what is happening, but rather be a driving force at all times. Being agile also means that you are not content with where you are as a gamemaster but are constantly trying to improve your gamemastering skills and the tools you use.

When you sit down in the gamemaster’s chair you assume a number of gaming responsibilities that are easily identified, things like designing in-game locations and events, portraying non-player characters and running combat. There are also a number of things that are not immediately obvious that are just as important and in a few cases more so.

One of those hidden items is in the area of combat management, specifically the tracking of combatant stats, initiative and effects. Without a solid, manageable way to control this area of the game, you will quickly find yourself spending too much time juggling notes and scrambling for room on the table. You will miss some of the things that are the very reason you game in the first place: the action that is happening right in front of you. What you need is a tool that can give you quick access to character and NPC stats; easily display initiative; track the effects that are applied to each combatant as they happen; and not take up a lot of extra space at the gaming table.

As a weathered gamemaster, I have tried over a dozen tools with mixed results. Sticky notes, 3x5 cards, custom-made tracking sheets, notebook paper and even digital devices. Each has great points but is lacking in others or has major drawbacks. Some give volumes of information but take up too much room. Others are small and compact but lack flexibility. The digital tools distract me with their multiple layers of functionality and too often take my eyes and attention away from the table. Some of the things I tried were just plain bad ideas.

Recently I hit on a tool that has minimal drawbacks and outstanding results. Have you ever noticed those little sales displays that sit on your table at restaurants? The ones that stand tall and in the way while you eat so that you will notice the desert selections and maybe spend extra money on your meal. What if, instead of deserts, they held all those important stats about your characters and NPCs right where you could see them easily? I call it the Stat-Initiative-Combat Tool or SInC for short (pronounced sync). SInC has high visibility but allows me to keep my eyes and attention on the game. It is easy to use, stays in place and takes up very little surface area on the table. I can quickly adjust the amount of information displayed. Effects and status markers can easily be added or removed. And they allow the initiative order to be displayed to everyone at a glance.

 




[caption id="attachment_1695" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Stat-Initiative-Combat (SInC) Tool"]Stat-Initiative-Combat close up[/caption]

In this single tool, I have finally found something that is game system neutral and has a permanent place in my gamemastering tool box.  This close up of the tool in action is from one of my groups gaming sessions.

What follows is a set of instructions that will help you to create your own version of the SInC tool.

To make your own, you will need the following items:

  • Table top menu stands. The shorter ones work well because they have a heavier and more stable base. You will need to get these from a restaurant supply store, which you can find online by searching for “tabletop menu card holders.” They range from $.50 to $2.00 each. Get as many as you think you will need. I used the 2¼” clip-type stand with 3” base.

  • Large craft sticks, tongue depressors or long Popsicle sticks. One for each base you are going to make. Available at any craft store in packs of 50 for about $3.00.

  • Miniature clothes pins. Also available at craft stores. A bag of 50 for about $5.00.

  • Rubber bands. You will need one for each stand.

  • Black magic marker or black model paint.


Steps to create your SInC tools:

  1. Paint or color your craft sticks black. This will help them to visually disappear when you use them.

  2. When they are dry, slide them into the holder portion of the stand in an upright position.

  3. Wrap a rubber band around the base of the clip. This will firmly hold the sticks upright and add a little more weight to each base. You can also disassemble them easily for storage and transport.

  4. Now take printouts of your preferred method of displaying character and NPCs stats and clip them to the stand. I used Wizards of the Coast DDI monster tool to print out creature stats and a custom Excel worksheet that formats all of the character information for the party and mounted them as you see in the pictures below.

  5. I painted one of the miniature clothes pins green to indicate which combatant is currently active in initiative.


You are now ready to game, and hopefully you are a just a little more agile.

Here are a few shots of the SInC tool in action.

[caption id="attachment_1696" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="SInC tool gamemaster view"]SInC Tool GM View[/caption]

You can see in the picture above the green clothes pin indicating the character whose turn it is and a small stack of monster and trap print outs waiting for their encounter. You can very easily create your own stat sheets or use what is available from whatever game system you group uses.

[caption id="attachment_1697" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="The Throne Room battle "]SInC Tool in action The Throne Room battle[/caption]

This was the battle of the throne room. There were 5 characters and 6 different types of monsters in this encounter. It was easy for me to manage the almost 60 combatants shown with no confusion or missed information. You can see many of the different game aids from Wizards of the Coast and Dark Platypus that we use here.

2 comments:

  1. I like the idea a lot, although for my application it would be difficult to execute: table space is very constrained for me due to having six players and still needing room for my notes and map. Spreading out horizontally like that just isn't practical. :) This is why I use index cards as my SInC tool, where each card is a single monster type (with 1), 2), 3), etc for multiples of the one type) where I track their rolled initiative, initiative bonus, health and status effects with end conditions.

    That's a great use of materials though, and I like that you have everything visible all at once. Nice work on this concept.

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  2. Agile GamemasterJuly 6, 2011 at 7:34 AM

    Thanks. One of the things I will be addressing in the future is table space. Regardless of the system being used it is a never ending battle.

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