Saturday, April 17, 2021

How I Roll - My Traveling GM Bag

Another blog had a post asking what people kept in a traveling GM bag. Rather than comment there (burying the answer and giving that blog traffic instead of mine) I decided to do a post on the contents of my traveling GM bag.

I used it when the game went virtual as well because we were going with a camera on the battle mat so it was still a physical game and I needed all the same things. There was no point in having things scattered about more than they were so it stayed as-is.

My Traveling GM Bag

Here's my oh-so-glamorous GM bag

Old fashioned, rather beat up rolling suitcase that probably would qualify for carry-on luggage depending which airline you pick

This is a rolling suitcase I bought at the thrift store on half price day. It probably cost me about $5 or less. I know there's all kinds of fancy cases out there but honestly I'm frugal and needed some way to transport all my stuff. A suitcase works just fine if you don't mind that it's not all fancy and things can get messy.

An overview of the contents of my traveling GM case, showing how it's a mess

As I said, things can get messy. Everything moves to the bottom of the suitcase as it gets moved around. I don't mind that and pack with the idea that it's going to happen. Heavy stuff near the bottom, more fragile/lighter stuff near the top. Even then contents can shift during travel.

A Rocket book reusable notebook, a 3 ring paper folder, and a spiral notebook

One of the most important things a GM needs - a way to take notes. At least that's what I consider most important. I've written on my feelings about taking notes before so this should be nothing new. I did try the Rocketbook and while it works for some people it didn't work for me. Printouts of the transcribed notes are in the green folder. I went back to my trusty spiral bound notebook for the last couple of sessions and found myself much happier. I never decided if I was going to put the pages from the spiral bound notebook into the folder or not before the game ended. Since I will be using written notes in future games it's not a consideration. But notes and the way to take them are extremely high on my list of things to have.

Small photo album designed for 5 x 8 photos, closed

Small photo album for 5 x 8 photos, open

This is my GM screen. Isn't it fantastic? Isn't it perfectly in keeping with the theme of the game? Another thrift store buy it's wonderfully horrible. I thought about covering it with something more appropriate but decided to leave it in all its tacky glory. However this thing is perfect as a screen for me.

It's short enough I can see over it when I'm sitting down. It lets me put sticky notes for things like player-character names, special abilities, PC ability scores, etc. The center lets me put in notecards with more detailed information and I can add as many sleeves as I want. Hint - put some tape around the bottom of the sleeves or the cards fall out.

Even better if you run more than one game you can start from the other end and have a separate screen for the second game. It's pretty cool that way.

I use a screen to hide my dice rolls and keep my notes less visible. I don't need a lot of room for that and having a custom setup for my 'in my face' notes is perfect.

Pencil bag, pencil case, and water based markers in a baggie

Pencils, pens, and the markers I use on the battle mat. Of course I'm going to have a pouch of pencils, pens, erasers, sticky notes, and other writing related materials. I'm a GM. The center box holds the special pens for the Rocketbook. That's a leftover I never bothered to remove. The markers are self explanatory and I don't know why I even keep the yellow marker since that color never shows up anyway. But they're all there, ready to be used.

A container of mixed dice

Dice. Of course there's dice. What kind of GM doesn't have dice? I swear even in a fully virtual game I'll have dice on hand just for the tactile click clack they give. I tend to keep three full sets of poly dice and swap them out when I want a different look or I think they're not performing up to snuff. I also have:

  • D24 (hours of the day)
  • D30 (Forgotten Realms has a 30 day per month calendar)
  • Weather dice (the set of 2 - one for current, one for forecast)
  • Place value dice into the millions (because I bought them and would maybe have a use for them some day)
  • Pink D20 (the D20 of Shame)
  • Random dice (because dice)
  • Red glass blob (makeshift campfire marker)
  • Black cat eraser (something I've had with my dice for a very long time)
  • Orange tricorder accessory from a ST:TNG Data figure (so I don't lose it)

The triangle you see with a note and a value is from a treasure notecard. I'll get into notecards next.

3 x 5 notecard organizer filled with notecards and a fine tip black Sharpie

I love this. I keep this handy. I love 3 x 5 notecards. I absolutely love 3 x 5 notecards.

I use notecards to have item information I can hand off to players. I make trinket, treasure, and magic item cards as the need or inclination hits, then keep them here for when I give out loot. The top card is a low value magic item with the name, the information on what it does, how it works, and in the corner the actual value. When I hand out these I rip off the corner so they don't know what it's worth. I take a picture before I do so I have it available to me - I don't have second copies and if the player can't keep track of their own inventory (game and physical) I can get it back if I feel like it.

Up at the top is a fine tip black Sharpie. That's my writing instrument of choice for notecards since it's permanent and dark. It also means I throw out a lot of notecards when I make mistakes in writing them up.

The trinket and treasure cards are from various item generators. I have a big thing for item generators. All the links are affiliate links so if you buy them I'll get a few pennies, so I can buy more item generators. Inkwell Ideas  has my favorite ones in their Infinite Choices products. Rusted Iron Games has some smaller, more focused generators in their Roll With It! series. Dicegeeks has a great selection of random item generators along with other types of random lists.

Folders of non-campaign specific paperwork

These folders have non-campaign specific paperwork. The red one has blank characters sheets and other things that are useful when people need them or I'm working on something. The bigger one has the 'working' paperwork. Let's get into that.

I like combat tracking sheets. You can see one there. I don't require players use them but I offer them every time there's combat. It has places for the round, initiative (I reroll every round), character action, result. I find these help a lot in the combat details - like how many rounds an effect lasts, what damage was done, overall what the character did at the time. I have them in various sizes so they're not wasted. Short combat? Short sheet. I also have bits of scrap paper for notes, maps, blank treasure and XP tracking sheets, etc. There's nothing in these folders that is essential to the specific game. I just keep it together.

Folders with the nemesis party sheets and the campaign materials

These folders, on the other hand, do contain campaign specific materials. Notice how much less there is in them than the non-specific materials. I try to keep these thinned out so I'm not hauling around maps from months previous that will never be used again or I have online and can look up if needed. I also try to build a nemesis party for every game I run and rarely get to use it. It's so fun to have when it works and is always a subplot to have handy.

The campaign paperwork generally has notes and printouts for the next session or two and what was done in the previous session. I thin it out when I'm reviewing my notes before the next game so it's an ongoing process. I keep some of it if I can use it in other games, like maps printed to scale or canned encounters I found useful. Others get tossed during the winnowing.

Plastic folders with player character sheets

The characters! I ask the players to send me copies of their character sheets so I have them on hand. Whatever version I have is the one that will be used when that player isn't available so it's in their best interest to make sure I have the most current version. I also have their backstories and any other information I've given them or they don't know yet in their folder. If you're going to do this you'll find very quickly you can't write directly on the folders. Put down a piece of tape, write on it with a Sharpie, and put another piece of tape over that so it doesn't rub off. I put both player and character names on the folders.

I keep each version of the character sheet. Their entire character history is in their folder. I can look up numbers or abilities at the table and I find it even more useful when doing game prep when I can reference whatever I need. I can also put things I want to give the player into their folder and know where it is when I need it.

Old version Stratego pieces with colored, numbered paper sleeves that I use as monster tokens

As much as I'd like to have a fully immersive game with appropriate minis for every encounter I just can't do it in a traveling game. Instead I found this workaround. Those are old Stratego game pieces with colored, numbered paper sleeves. Note I said they're the old version of the game. The old version has a smooth top edge. The newer versions have crenellations. Another thrift store find and if you can find them here's the sleeves you can print out for yourself. Print at full size and 1/2" tape fits perfectly around the bottom. You get 10 each of 6 colors.

They're not as sexy as the minis but it makes it so much easier to keep track of things in combat when someone says they're attacking Red 6. You can also make the different colors different monsters. They fit into the 1 inch squares and I didn't get around to making something that would fit more squares for bigger monsters. But these are a good start.

I could have bagged each color individually but that's a waste of bags and I generally needed 2 colors for each encounter so having them together helped. Kind of since they were all mixed up.

Hint - don't stress about having them in any kind of order. There's no need to pick through so you have 1, 2, and 3 unless you feel that need. 2, 5, 9 work just as well.

The position of the token also can be useful. My standard is upright is active, on their side is prone/unconscious, flat is dead/down. They still fit in the square and help the players determine their actions. They also continue to take up space on the mat if you leave them there, which makes for obstacles and other fun issues.

Three gaming books - the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, and the Players Handbook

Books. Where would we be without books? These are the only ones I carry since they're the ones needed pretty much all the time. The DMG is pretty self explanatory and I don't use it as much as you might think. If I didn't bring it I would need it, of course. The setting book is a must. And the player's handbook as well. If there were other setting or game specific 'required' books I'd have them in the bunch. But books are heavy and I also don't like the abuse they take from being hauled around. So I keep them to a minimum.

Samsung tablet

My final tool - my tablet. I have the SRD apps for my games and use those for things like monsters so I'm not hauling around those books. I can also keep copies of splat books (or pages of splat books) on there so I've got them as needed. I have the PDF copies of most of the books in my Dropbox (no, I won't link that) so I can look them up in a pinch. I use this as a tool but it's not a central tool overall. It's an accessory. 

There's a lot of debate about electronics at the table. This isn't me being a hypocrite since I ban electronics at the table and I haven't gotten anyone saying anything to my face. Unless I need it for the game I don't play with it.

Not shown is my battle mat. I don't put it in the suitcase so it kind of doesn't fit in this post but it's something I always bring. I still have the plastic sleeve for it and I think the packing tape patches add character. I just added a wrapping paper core support so it won't sag when I stand it in the corner. Even if the game doesn't use squares it's a way to draw out the scenery at least.


I can carry a lot of stuff in a rolling carry on sized suitcase. I try to carry as little as I can since it makes the stupid thing heavy. Finding a place to put it during the game can also be a problem since space is always at a premium. Keeping the bag handy is much better than having the contents strewn about the table is my opinion. My preference is to have a chair within reach and have the suitcase across the arms so I can dig through it as needed.

I use a lot of different kinds of folders. I like thinking I know where things are when I need them. That doesn't always hold true. I put things in the wrong folders at times. But in general I prefer to have them as organized and protected as I can.

Hopefully this will spark ideas on how to make a traveling GM bag. We always have to carry the most stuff so finding a way to do it efficiently and effectively is a task. My way still needs that space to hold the bag where I can get at it quickly. I carry a lot of stuff now that I look at it. But I also use a lot of paper in my game so that adds up. I'm more old school in that I like pencil and paper at the table so I lead by example. Lay out what you always use, what you like to have, and what you keep around because of habit. Out of that you should be able to assemble a good set for games away from home.

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