Behind the Screen – Chapter 3: Tools of the Trade

While my two previous chapters have been largely aimed at newer players, both PCs and GMs, I think this one leans towards the more experienced players. By no means is it limited to such folk, but the people who have been playing a long time are more likely to have their favourite items to use, where as a new player might not.

Let us look first at what the average person would need to play any given game.

The Basics:


While cool, these are not useful for role playing.

A form of writing implement, most normally a pencil, makes the changing of stats easy. A pen can suffice for a one shot game, or if one plans to regularly get new character sheets.

If using a pencil, then an eraser is a standard accompaniment, as well as some form of sharpener, whether that be something of the conventional kind, or a knife or blade.

A blank book or collection of paper is usually useful, often called a scratch pad. Used for taking notes and, for me, tracking variables like hit points, ammo and so on. Keeps the character sheet tidier.

Dice. The game decides the dice needed. Something like Pathfinder typically will require an ‘Adventure Set’ consisting of 7 dice of varying geometric shapes, whereas Shadowrun needs D6s and World of Darkness needs D10s.


Beyond all the books and other preparations needed, that is all one would require to play a table top RPG. It is likely that new players will only have these things. People like myself however, who have been playing for many years, will have assembled a whole range of items to improve the gaming experience. I shall expand on the previous categories and add some more.

Just to remind you, these are not pencils, these are rubbish for children.

Just to remind you, these are not pencils, these are rubbish for children.

Writing implements: While a basic pencil will do the job, for me they are too inconsistent. The pencil tip broadens and loses its sharp tip the more it gets used. Since I tend to scribble a bunch of things down while gaming, this annoys me as my writing grows sloppier. I use a mechanical pencil. I am guaranteed to have a sharp point all the time. Plus I never need a pencil sharpener, just one or two clicks and I am good to go. I have a couple of pens, but I never use them. I use what is essentially a mechanical eraser too, a pen shaped device with a small cylinder of eraser in it that I can push out incrementally. The benefit of this eraser is accuracy. It is most useful when drawing maps on my small graph paper.

725703pScratch pad: There is little more to say here, a pad is a pad. I have a couple of different books I use, one is an old day planner/diary, because it is just blank lined paper. The other is a spiral bound blank book. The spiral bound books are good because you can fold the front cover back under the book and thus take up less space on the table. However, new technology has brought us something that can replace the standard scratch pad. I only know of one brand of this type of device, and that is the Boogie Board, and no I’m not referring to the swimming board. It is an electrical device designed to be drawn on. It has an e-ink screen and stylus, and you write on it just as you would paper. The writing remains until you clear the screen. There are several different versions of it, ranging from a basic version to the fancy version that can save the screen contents to your phone or computer. I’ve used one of these semi-frequently as my partner owns one. She uses it for her role playing and lots of other things too.

Dice: I love dice. I have a good collection of dice, but I still need more. Everyone needs more dice forever. You don’t need fancy dice, but it is nice to have them. I have too many different varieties of dice to go on about here, but suffice to say, I have something for any situation, and a fair few novelty ones as well. I mentioned some in my previous chapter, the Dungeon Building dice, used to randomly create dungeon layouts on the fly. I am also getting a fancy set next year (from Kickstarter) that are shaped like things from a fantasy setting such as gauntlets, a sword, helmet, shield and so on. They look really cool, and even though the Kickstarter has finished, check it out here anyway. To complement dice, one can also have a dice rolling tray. You can buy them pre-made or come up with one yourself, but they are just a tray in which to roll dice, good if you have a cluttered table or are playing while scattered around the lounge room. Typically consisting of wood with a felt lining, it need not be an extravagant affair. There are also dice towers that you drop the die in and they bounce down and come to rest in a small catchment area, just in case shaking your hand around a bit is too complex a maneuver.


RP kit: This will differ per person, obviously, if people even have them at all. Typically, a person’s kit will be whatever they carry in their pencil case. Mine is a hard sided bi-fold case. In it, I have my mechanical pencil and eraser, a pen, full graphite pencil (for shading on maps), highlighter, normal eraser, ruler, spare pencil lead and eraser cylinders, 3 white board markers (of different colours) and a small cloth. These are my personal items that I don’t lend out. I have another pencil case with spare pencils, erasers and sharpeners that other people can borrow.

Carry bag: For those that always host the games, this is irrelevant, but not everyone can be that lucky, so we need something with which to carry all our gear. I use a briefcase. Several years ago I used to play Magic: the Gathering and I bought the case for that, but I gave up M:tG and started using the case for role playing. It is not a fancy case, and I did not pay much for it, I got it from a charity shop, Lifeline I think. I can carry all I need for a given game, and it is robust so everything inside is protected, where a normal bag would not offer that. A few friends of mine use re-purposed component cases with the foam removed, but they are smaller and more curved, so the internal space is significantly reduced.

Accessories: There are many things that can improve a game. I have a double sided grid sheet that is normally used in conjunction with miniatures for combat purpose. One friend has hundreds of plastic miniatures. Another friend has a whole bunch of cardboard miniatures. There can also be music played from a laptop or tablet to add to the atmosphere of the situation.


Electronic device inclusion into role playing:

Each GM will have their own views on this topic. For the most part, I ban things such as phones and tablets while playing the game. The PCs are there to play the game, not check Facebook or whatever, their attention should be on the game. The exception I have is if they have digital versions of the books and need to look something up, or if their character sheet is a digital version (which I am in the process of doing for my various characters now). Some GMs want to keep this classic, paper only. I think the inclusion of certain electronic devices can definitely improve a game.

I enjoy having the books for the various games, but sometimes those books are too expensive or are very hard to find, so the PDF versions are good substitutes. And sometimes you want to have a look at a game and see what it is like before you buy, so money is not wasted on some rubbish. I’ve had that before; I bought the main book for CthulhuTech, a game that blended Cthulhu Mythos and Anime style  massive mech robots. The premise seemed all right at the start, but revealed itself to be a very unbalanced system that focused on more uninteresting parts of the Mythos and didn’t mesh well with itself. I never would have bought it had I known.

I had an idea once of embedding a screen into a table top and covering it with glass or perspex so maps and so on could be displayed on it. A friend of mine suggested a projector instead, being an easier system to set up to achieve the same results. Obviously these would need something hooked up to them, such as a computer or tablet. I have not pursued any of this as I do not have the funds, but it sounds intriguing.

I see someone else had the same idea.

I see someone else had the same idea.

As I mentioned earlier, I am in the process of converting my many character sheets into digital versions which I can then edit on my tablet. I am converting existing sheets into editable PDFs and transferring all the info over. The reasons I am doing this are threefold. 1) They will always remain neat and tidy, 2) I will never forget one, I will always have them all and 3) I have to come up with more uses for my tablet than just reading comics on it.

What I don’t like is using random number generators to replace dice. I like dice too much to do that. I never have a reason to use a random number generator instead of dice, and I don’t think anyone should do that, if it can be avoided.


I’ve only scratched the surface of what people use in their role playing games. Those with too much time, money or both have turned entire rooms into gaming havens. I remember once reading some forum posts (and seeing the pictures) of a guy who had turned an attic room into the best example of a gaming room I’ve ever seen. The table was outfitted with a castle wall (as the GM screen), switches to control lighting, music and even a fog machine. There were shelves filled with role playing books and board games. There were even two racks filled with weapons. If I owned a house with sufficient room, I would probably strive to achieve something like this.


So what do you use? Anything different from me? Let me know in the comments. You have all been too quiet so far, STOP THAT. Get to the typing, I want to hear from you.

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  1. January 12, 2016 | Reply
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