A GM binder is one of the most useful tools a Dungeon Master (or any Game Master) can have for running tabletop RPGs. Each DM binder is personalized to the needs of its DM and should contain all the references and inspiration you need to better run and prep games. That means it’s both a table and a planning resource.
What I think is the most difficult part of wrapping our heads around the concept is that because it’s a highly customized tool, it’s not something you can buy, you have to make it. And, over the years I’ve looked at many videos and blogs where DMs go through their binders and found them only mildly helpful. First, they are customized for that particular Dungeon Master, second, because most do a poor job of explaining WHY they include certain resources but not others. Which leads me to a very important confession.
In the many years I’ve been running games I’ve never used a GM Binder.
Let me explain.
My History with DM Binders
Longtime readers know that I dabbled with tabletop RPGs in my youth but didn’t really start playing in earnest until I was an adult. I’ve been playing and running RPGs on a consistent basis since 2008. New Dungeon Masters seeking to improve their craft will come across the concept of a GM binder quickly. I did, and I loved the idea, always have.
However, creating a 100% personalized reference for dungeon mastering is a daunting project to start from scratch. How do you know what to include, what will be useful, and what will be chaff? The last thing you want in a valuable aide is a bunch of edge cases you have to sift through to find what you’re looking for at the moment.
So, the closest I ever came to making a DM binder was making one for a friend as a Christmas gift. He had run a few one-shot games and wanted to get more into GMing but always felt unprepared (a feeling common to every new DM). I put together some basic resources. Those common tips, tricks, and best practices for running games that he could use.
I also created a DM quick reference sheet for D&D 5e, it’s PWYW on DriveThruRPG. And that’s the closest I’ve come to creating a DM binder style resource for myself. While creating and testing the GM Quick Reference I found I didn’t need much else to run most RPG sessions. My needs for running D&D games came down to needing three specific resources:
- GM Quick Reference
- Session Sheet
- Adventure Skeleton
The first is a nice resource for adjudicating actions and coming up with the little bits of improvisation and flavor I need in a game session. The second is the outline of the current session focused on the most likely things I think will happen. And the third is the rough outline of the current adventure along with its important locations, NPCs, treasure, etc. That’s all I need to run most games, especially online games, where a rules clarification or monster stat block is a few clicks away.
The Goals for Creating a GM Binder
Yet, as I returned to regular in-person play and not running with a computer (my preferred method) I found I could benefit from a little extra support. For example, the quick reference is nice, but I feel I could benefit from some more robust resources to improve my DM flexibility and improvisation.
Ideally, the new resources would increase the amount of improvisation I can perform before needing to grab and sight-read a parachute file adventure (backup encounters/one-page adventures for when the party goes off the rails).
My final goal for a new DM binder resource would be something that would allow me to better manage different styles of D&D games. Something that will help me do character-driven adventures, hex-crawl sandboxes, mysteries, etc. I (and I think most D&D players) enjoy location-based adventures and dungeon crawls, but variety is important for both continued enjoyment and to keep the DM muscle from growing stale by doing the same thing over and over again.
With those thoughts in mind I decided it was time to revisit the idea of a personal GM binder and this time see it through to the end.
Organizing Your GM Binder
I’m always on the hunt for new resources, tips, and tricks to improve my DM-craft. As noted above, I’ve looked at a lot of examples of DM binders over the years. And, one of the biggest hurdles I noticed when referencing these in my own pursuit to create a personal GM binder was a goldilocks dilemma.
Sometimes the binder is too small. For example, I use my GM Quick Reference document every time I run a game. That eight-page document is the distillation of the most common situations a DM might need to look up or improvise. The problem with it, for me, is that it’s too tight. I’ve used it for years now and because of that I’ve memorized large chunks of the document making it less useful as a resource. By design, it also doesn’t help me with things outside my GM “Sweet Spot.”
On the other end of the spectrum are DM binder examples I see that are way too large. Essentially becoming a cumbersome tome whose size makes it difficult to use quickly as a reference. These are the GM binders that cover every possible edge case and include a lot of those quirky DM’s Guild materials like “101 Taverns with Themes and Full Menus.” That’s neat, but how often am I really going to need that when I’m running a game? Does it really deserve a permanent place in my go-to resource?
At some point these binders are in such a bloated state that it would probably just be easier and more useful to bring along a secondary DMG, like Pathfinder’s “pocket-sized” GameMastery Guide. Which, you know, you could do worse than bring that to your D&D 5e games. It’s chock full of great Gamemaster information that’s either system neutral or math that’s easily converted to your system of choice.
An Example: Halfing Hobbies’ DM Binder
Halfling Hobbies is a YouTube channel about running D&D, and Halfling Hannah has a couple of videos about her DM binder on the channel. An original video showing her binder and a follow-up showing its evolution. I had seen these videos before, but I also rewatched them as part of my concerted research for developing my DM binder.
This video is such a great example of what I DON’T want in my DM binder. Not that Halfing Hannah’s binder is somehow objectively bad, it’s a fantastic example of why every DM’s binder is their own personal resource. Going through the video I saw very little in her binder that I would include in my own resource. Even down to the design of the pages and layout of the binder’s content is vastly different from how I imagine my own binder taking shape.
In my opinion, these resources are just as good if not better than ones that provide helpful things you want to include in your binder. That humans are better at identifying what we don’t like than what we do like. We can use that to create the content of our binders by chipping away the parts we don’t want to include.
In Halfling Hobbies second binder video I did get some good reinforcement of an idea I was already leaning towards.
Here Halfing Hannah separates her binder into two binders. One is her go-to binder for running the game and the second is full of extra resources she can swap in and out of the binder she uses to run as needed per game session. That’s a much better idea than carrying everything all together and gels with my ideas on binder organization.
GM Binder Structure
I know my goal for the binder is to provide me with resources to do more than I can already do. But, I also want to make sure the resources I include have high usefulness. And, I think the Halfling Hobbies video brings up a major issue that’s not addressed in any other GM binder review I’ve come across.
First, organization is key. A resource is only as useful as your ability to find the information you need, when you need it. Time is a GM’s most previous resources, both at the table and when preparing for a game session. Having the right resources at the right time organized in an easy-to-use fashion is going to dramatically increase your success rate as a DM.
And as Halfling Hannah’s second video points out (if somewhat unintentionally) is that you don’t need to bring your session prep resources to the table. I don’t want to be thumbing through adventure ideation pages or encounter building guidelines while I’m looking for my list of random NPC names.
All to say, after consideration I don’t think I’m looking to create a DM binder, I’m going to create DM binders. Three binders, or “books”, to be exact.
- Book I: The Table Aid
- Book II: The Prep Guide
- Book III: The Campaign Guide
Three separate compiled resources organized by the part of the DM process I’m involved with at the time. The Table Aid is filled with the rules references, price lists, condition descriptions, and other resources that are focused on making a session at the table run smoothly.
The Prep Guide is focused on creating and altering adventures. It should help me prepare adventures for the campaign and help prep for the next session with things like encounter guidelines, NPC and location generation, dungeon crafting, making traps, etc.
And Book III, The Campaign Guide, focuses on resources to help build and improve a D&D campaign and includes the resources I need to create and flesh out a campaign setting. Notes on information like what’s included in our World Building Process would be included in this section along with additional information like creating factions.
It’s clear that I will use Book I the most. Book II is something I’ll need to pull out when preparing an adventure. My experience is that groups generally play slower than I prep, so sometimes I won’t need to pull this binder off the shelf between sessions because I’ll still have plenty planned for an existing adventure.
And following the same logic, I should use Book III the least because it’s only necessary at specific points of a campaign, such as when the group moves to a different area. Or, when I need to answer a question like “what is the home port of the merchant galleon in this adventure?”
Well, with a handle on the organization and structure of the DM binder (or binders), I just need to fill in what to include, the meat. Should be easy, right?
Deciding What to Put in the GM Binder
As we’ve established, about the only consistent thing about DM binders is that everyone’s is wildly different and curated to their specific needs. For example, Halfing Hannah’s binder includes a roll table for familiar type and personality and visual job board handouts.
I would never think to include those in my binder. The former because it’s a resource that’s dependent on having a player character with a familiar (not very common in my experience). And the latter because I don’t want to include a lot of one-and-done resources that need swapping out. Every settlement would need different job board postings so that would be something I would make in session prep and in a list format rather than spending time making visual postings and swapping them in and out of my binder.
Now, the venn diagram of Halfling Hannah’s and my DM binders are not two separate circles. She has a really great NPC section. It has only one niggle and it’s really one that’s consistent throughout her entire binder. The resources are pretty and easy to identify, but there is very little information on each page and she only uses single-sided page resources so the binder ends up really big in size compared to the amount of information contained.
For example, if I was compiling the information in her NPC section I would condense it to probably one page front and back and cut out the NPC portraits. But, a lot of this is personal preference. If using different colors and lots of whitespace helps you quickly find and use information, that’s what you should do. For me, strong organization of information and typographical hierarchy makes finding information in a condensed volume with no pictures much easier than flipping through a dozen pages.
Still, I highly recommend watching these types of videos, reading blog posts like this, and scouring Reddit threads to broaden your exposure on what would and would not be good things to include in your GM binder. And from there we can start to identify patterns of what makes for a “useful” resource for each of us as a DM.
Going back to Halfing Hannah’s job board postings. It’s clear that I want most of my binder resources to be evergreen. I don’t want to constantly be swapping things in and out of my binder because it takes away valuable prep time. Also, the more I need to noodle with the binder on a per session basis the higher the likelihood that I’m going to forget to include something important.
A similar example is Halfling Hannah’s very cool 1d6 non-combat encounters per biome. Each is very cool and evocative, but there aren’t very many of them per biome and they’re specific rather than general. She has a fun one where a fairy dragon turns a PC into a chicken. Very fun, very gonzo, but you can only use that encounter once in an entire campaign. It’s another one-and-done resource.
Piggybacking off that for inspiration I created 1d20 tables of biome “dressings.” Basically, it’s a generic list of non-combat stuff an adventuring party could run across in each biome. And it’s likely they could run across it multiple times. For example, one of my forest results is a beaver damming up a stream to create a wetland the party now needs to deal with.
Well, there are a lot of beavers in the world and wherever they are they build dams so it stands to reason this would be a common people who travel through the biome would have to deal with. So it’s generic, but there are also 19 more entries on the table so it’s less likely that the same result will come up again. It could be many, many sessions down the road before that result comes up again, IF it ever does.
Design Considerations for DM Binder Contents
The more resources you review through the critical lens of why you would or would not include them in your binder should give you enough information to create a list of design considerations for materials that will help you to achieve the overall goals of your GM binder. Here is my bullet point list of considerations:
- Lots of crunch in a small amount of space
- Common info/rule references to avoid opening books and slowing the game
- This is extra important because I don’t use a DM screen that includes some of that info
- Evergreen content, avoid content that needs regular replacement/update
- Tonally consistent improv tools to keep the game pace going without breaking immersion/cohesion
- Avoid gonzo stuff like what’s included in the Dungeon Alphabet
- Play history/recap notes to use as reference while prepping
- Adventure generation and scene development resources
- “Where to Look” prep like: Dungeon Chamber Contents (DMG 296)
- Helps quickly leverage my full suite of DM resources (books, blogs, online generators, etc.)
- Guidelines for wealth and treasure distribution
- Campaign setting notes/reference and tools for generation campaign and setting details
- Adventure Sandbox assistance (mapmaking, stocking hexes, settlement creations, factions)
Helpful content that abides by these considerations are on their way to being included in the GM binder. They have only one final test, and that’s that I have to consider each piece carefully through the lens of “will I use this?” Because if it’s not something you use it isn’t a resource, no matter how cool it is.
What’s Going Into My DM Binder
I want to start by saying this is my first whack at making a DM binder for myself and I expect through experience it will change quite a bit as I learn what parts I use, what I don’t, and what things would also be useful to include going forward.
Because this is such a large project I only want to take a look at what’s included in Book I. I’m going to list out what’s included and talk about what I included, what I didn’t and why.
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The Table Aid (GM Binder Book I)
I’ve broken Book One down into sections that I think will make the information easy to find depending on what’s happening in the game. First, I have my session resources. This is the information that is most likely to change between sessions and includes the specific prep info for each session.
Section Two is the quick reference section. It includes some of the most common things I would need to look up or improvise, and include rules notes that players might ask me about in a session.
Section Three is the combat section. I envision when initiative is rolled that I will flip to this section and it will provide me with all the little considerations I would want to use or reference during combat.
The next three sections are based on the different “environments” of D&D play. Each contains information that I think would be useful references and improv resources for running that particular aspect of the game.
Section Seven includes resources for the current campaign and setting. The idea is that this section will grow organically as a particular campaign proceeds. VIP NPCs and important locations will be added to the section and provide a simple, glossary-style reference for the important aspects of the ongoing campaign and adventures past.
Section Eight, includes resources to help me improvise looted treasure. It includes things like pocket contents and guidelines for things like appropriate magic items per party level.
And finally, Section Nine, the parachute file. This includes a few simple adventures that are adventure tier appropriate for the party that I can throw down if the group goes far afield. I switch these out so the adventures contained are roughly level appropriate and make sense with the party’s current locale (swapping out a shipwreck adventure when the party moves inland).
Table Aid Table of Contents
- Session Resources (Front Pocket)
- Current Session Sheet
- Current Adventure Skeleton
- Current Adventure Crib + Map(s)
- In-game Calendar
- Drop-In NPCs + Names List
- Quick References
- 2d6 Oracle
- Improvised Numbers
- What are the Monsters Doing?
- Exhaustion & Conditions (Cards)
- Chase/Flight Notes (Wilderness/Settlement Obstacles)
- Skill & Tool Proficiency List
- House Rules List
- Combat Actions
- Concentration Check
- Battlefield Shapes/Features
- Hit Effects Summary
- Wandering Monsters Check
- Dungeon Chambers, Room Characteristics, Dressing
- Door Types & Status
- Chamber Contents (Monster, Obstacle, Treasure)
- Improvised Traps/Hazards
- Treasure Location & Status
- Random Encounter Tables
- 5-Room Dungeon Design
- Breathing, Visibility, Special Movement
- Weather Hex Flower (Can use for settlements, but Exposure is prime concern outdoors)
- Wilderness Dressing
- Random Encounter Tables
- Exploration, Overland Travel, Pace Notes
- What’s Happening in Town
- What’s in Town
- Market Stalls & Shops
- Seasonal Agricultural Chores
- Urban Dressing
- Urban Random Encounter
- Buying Power & Buying/Selling Magic Items
- Buying Power + Shopping Lists
- Cost of Living/Room & Board, Passage
- Weapons, Armor, Adventuring Gear
- Animals & Services
- Buying/Selling Magic Items
- Crafting Items
- Campaign Reference
- Adventure Session Logs (Bold People, Places, Things)
- Party Info
- Pocket Contents
- Appropriate Magic Items Rarity per Level
- Minor Loot Table
- Parachute File (Back Pocket)
- Three level-appropriate(ish) one-page style adventures/dungeons
The GM Binder Continued Next Time
This entry is already pretty long and I think this is a good place to stop. We will pick this up next time and discuss the specifics on why I’ve included these resources in my GM Binder Book I and what I decided to leave on the cutting room floor. Again, thanks for taking the time to read the blog, don’t forget to check out the PWYW resources on DriveThruRPG and we’ll be back next time to finish off our discussion on Book I of my DM binder.