Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ode to a Three-Ring Binder

Let me take a moment and share a little bit about my favorite organizational tool for GMing: the three-ring binder. With a few simple items I'll show you how I stay organized for my various gaming sessions.

To begin, I use the following supplies:
  • 1.5 inch three-ring view binder
  • 4 tabbed dividers
  • Paper & sharpened pencils
  • Binder pouch (optional)
  • Adventure calendar sheets (optional)
  • Adventure log sheets (optional)
Three-Ring View Binder

This is the main component. Most folks know what I mean when I say a three-ring binder, but what you may not understand is what I mean by a three-ring view binder. The view binder has a clear plastic cover on front, back and spine. This creates pockets into which paper can be placed to provide for a custom cover. I prefer a white binder so that the pages I place in the covers stand out, but feel free to select your favorite color or even a different color for each campaign.

Now, as far as what to slide into the covers you have several options. If you have an artistically inclined member in your play group you can commission a piece of art suitable for your campaign (be sure to award bonus XP for such an endeavor). This art can go a long way to set the tone for the campaign. As an added bonus, if you run adventures for more than one group, different artwork will make it easy to tell which binder to bring to a session.

Alternatively, you can place game related materials - such as combat charts, weapon damage or spell lists - in each clear pocket for easy reference. In this way the binder does double duty as organizer and GM screen. Plus, with the clear plastic cover, the sheets are protected from the inevitable spilled beverage.

Some view binders also have a vinyl pocket on the inside covers. These are excellent for storing items that you need quick access to frequently: character sheets or the aforementioned combat/weapon/spell charts if you are not using those on the covers.

Tabbed Dividers

The dividers form the main organizational aspect of the binder. I picked four for ease of use; you can have as many as you need, but I would err on the side of simplicity. The dividers are used to define four sections of the binder: player notes, player maps, adventures, and GM notes.

The player notes are anything that the players feel is important to record during a session. I like to put the most recent notes at the front of the tabbed section so they are readily available. Going through the section will take you back further in time toward the beginning of the campaign. I like having access to this information because it helps me understand what events the players found noteworthy.

Player maps are another item that can be collected and stored for later reference. These hand-drawn maps often have encounter notes and other related information that may be of use. Here again I store the most recent map at the beginning of the section.

I like to keep the notes for the current adventure in the binder as well. This section is obviously GM eyes only. For this reason some may prefer to have a separate binder for players and GM (more on this below). While playing I like to have out the map for the adventure and often use this for a bookmark in the adventure section to easily find my place if I must close the binder. At the end of a session I insert the map (securely clipping it within the three-rings) into adventure section to mark where the party left off.

The last section is another GM only area: GM notes. These notes are anything that the GM needs to record about the on-going adventures of the party - from monsters defeated and treasure gained to important NPC names. As already mentioned, I place the most recent notes at the beginning of the section.

Paper & Pencils

Be certain you have plenty of paper in the relevant sections - lined loose-leaf notebook paper (wide or narrow lined to suit your writing preference) for the player and GM notes and the appropriate graph paper for the player maps. In this way you can always 'Be Prepared', as the Boy Scouts say, for any eventuality.

I also like to have plenty of sharpened pencils. I prefer pencil because information that is recorded may need to be changed, especially on character sheets. I keep lots of them sharpened so that I don't have to stop play to sharpen a dull point. Some may prefer mechanical pencils in this regard, and that is fine; I prefer the weight and feel of a classic #2 wood pencil.

Invest in an inexpensive binder pouch and keep all your pencils in your binder. If everything is in your binder that's fewer things you have to remember to grab if you're running late to your gaming session. If you have plenty of sharpened pencils to spare you'll be ready for those players who routinely forget to bring a writing utensil.

Calendars & Logs

I listed two other optional items that I feel help me stay on top of the game: pre-printed calendars and logs. I find these useful from both an organizational and setting standpoint.

The adventure calendar is a sheet of paper with a 12-month view at the top (typically three rows of four months). Below this is a lined section with two columns. The first (narrow) column if for recording the in-game date of the event while the second (wide) column if for the notes regarding the event. The upper-right corner of the page has a spot for the current year of the campaign.

This calendar helps reinforce the setting through the use of setting-specific month names. Other information that can be present are any holidays, festivals or celebrations commonly held, names for the seasons and days of the week, and phases of the moon(s). When players record their notes on this sheet they have all this setting information before their eyes; this helps to bring the game world to life. The calendar also assists in planning for travel and use of PC down-time.

I use the adventure log to record my notes for each session. At the top of the sheet is a section to record all the relevant information about each PC in the session. I make a new sheet each session for two reasons. The first is that not every player will make it from session to session so this acts as my attendance sheet for calculating XP. Secondly, PC stats often change due to numerous effects - injury, magic items, wishes, and advancement to name just a few.

Below the PC roster is a lined section for recording my session notes. I use this sheet a lot: recording outcomes of encounters, notes on players earning bonus XP, tracking treasure, memorable quotes, NPC names that I was forced to make up on the spot and must later flesh out, etc. I recommend recording the actual date of the session on this sheet as well as on the adventure calendar/player notes so that the two sheets link up for cross referencing.


The system of organization outlined above is just one possible way to approach storing of game-related information. It works well for me, but may not work as well for you. Here are some variations you can play with to better suit your needs.

Multiple binders - For some it may not make a lot of sense to store player and GM information in the same binder; you may prefer to keep the two separate. The player binder would have the character sheets, notes and maps. It can also contain a section for campaign specific background information. After time you will outgrow the 1.5" binder. At this point you can separate out the player and GM sections into separate archive binders. While this is more binders to keep track of, it may not be an issue if players are responsible for their binders or sessions are played at the GM's home where all the binders can be stored.

Notebooks - Notebooks can be used instead of loose-leaf paper. This will create more a chronicle feel, especially to the player notes. Maps can be attached (glued, taped, etc.) to pages in the notebook if desired. If the notebook includes a pocket in the covers, character sheets can be stored here as well. Both player's and GM's notes can be stored in separate notebooks and with a large enough binder (2" - 3" minimum, D-ring ideally) everything can still be carried together. This has the added bonus of creating a series of volumes as time goes on, adding more to the epic feel of the campaign.

I'd love to hear what methods you use to store all your campaign related information. Share your methods in the comments of this post.

Follow Your Bliss,


PS. As noted in the previous post, I am now part of RPG Podcasters. To bring my posts in line with their organizational scheme I will be going back and changing/adding to the labels on previous posts. This may affect the way you view this blog in your blog reader. I apologize for any confusion this may cause.

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