What are your essential tools for good gaming?
No surprise, at the top of the list – dice. Not just any dice but any easy-to-read dice. I like to be able to quickly see what my dice rolls are, without squinting and peering for a fanciful number that is obscured by runes or marbling. That’s true whether I’m a player or a GM. It helps speed up play, and it avoids ambiguity. As a preference, I don’t like really small or very large dice.
I’ve been cutting down on my coffee intake a lot in the last couple of years, but for those morning convention slots, a hot beverage is usually inevitable. Later in the day, a stout beer is equally well-enjoyed. The thing is, either tend to dehydrate me as much as they serve as a pick-me-up. So my next essential is plain old water. I like it chilled, so some rocks of ice are great to keep it refreshingly cool in a sweaty gaming cell. A slice of lemon, lime or orange adds some natural zingy flavour to keep it interesting. The citrus can interfere with the taste of a good coffee, but good coffee isn’t usually a concern at most convention venues.
I don’t always write things down, but I probably should. I have been using a spiral notebook over the last year or so for essential game info at conventions. It has a hard cover so is supported for writing even when not leaning on the table. It folds flat, and even back on itself, so can take up less precious gaming space. The book I’m using at the moment has a fun Thunderbirds cover, and inside has alternating lined and plain paper, which can be handy. Neither of those properties are essential.
Related to that, a couple of fluid pens and a click-matic style of pencil work better for me than writing instruments that can easily get scratchy, dried out or blunted. One of those pens is regular black or blue ink, but the other is something that contrasts well enough for important stuff to stand out when quickly scanning through the reams of notes that can accumulate, especially in complex investigative scenarios.
For running a one-shot game, well-designed characters on clearly presented character sheets are essential to get the game off the ground quickly. I don’t want to present so much information that players spend the first half hour gripped by indecision, too much choice or with half a novella to read, with every chance that they miss the essential scenario-relevant aspects that are buried in the backstory.
At ShaCon recently, I was impressed with the character cards that j0rdi produced for his games. They sit in front of players, so everyone can see who has which character. That’s the essential bit for me. The bonus stuff is that you can use that space for key character stats and abilities, which can avoid the GM having to keep asking “what’s your Perception / Initiative / poison resistance?” or whatever.
As a GM, a one-page characters summary is essential too. It has all the key stats and personality info for all the PCs in a single view. I can quickly refer back to it to recall who has what fear or obsession (taking an Unknown Armies example) when I am improvising challenges.
Finally, a cheatsheet of the key mechanics or moves. One per player is handy. Main things it should cover is the generic resolution method, social conflict options, and the combat sequence and options. Anything more than two sides using a decent-sized font is already way too much information.
They’re just simple essentials really. Anything else is a bonus, a luxury or an indulgence. Dice trays and carrying gear like the award-winning All Rolled Up fall into the non-essential for me, but I can certainly see how useful they could be. Wipeable cards, post-its, GM screens, miniatures and the rest are all accessories at best, distractions at worst.