The Dungeon Master’s binder is a fantastic tool for organizing your campaign notes, house rules, player handouts, and general advice for running the game. There are several sites and even books that talk about these binders and what to put in them — or about running entire campaigns solely off of 3×5 index cards — but rarely do we see a live example out in the wild.
Well, here’s your chance! This DM’s binder comes straight from my latest home campaign, where I’ll be running a 5th Edition D&D conversion of Rappan Athuk Swords & Wizardry Version (available at Frog God Games, Amazon, and DriveThruRPG) for a group of new players!
I use a 1-inch thick 3-ring binder, and I have a bunch of those plastic page covers so I can protect anything I think may get referenced often. Nobody wants to touch other people’s pizza-grease stained finger marks. Gross.
Using dividers, I’ll section things off. As you can see in the images below, the page protectors tend to make the pages wider than the dividers, so I don’t worry about using those little label-tabs to mark off sections, I just do everything in the same (relative) order: player section, DM section. The DM section gets subdivided between toolbox (stuff I reference that isn’t necessarily campaign-dependent) and adventure (the campaign-specific maps, encounter notes, and so on).
Anyway, here’s the player’s section. It’s basically just campaign setting-related handouts or player-facing house rules they may need to reference (whether it’s only during character creation or throughout play). You’ll see that I use 3×5 index cards for a lot of stuff, because Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master is really the ultimate resource on campaign prep and running games once you’ve gotten a little experience under your belt, and they love 3×5 index cards…so yeah, I do that.
FYI, I use 3×5 index cards mostly for:
- Quest Cards, as you see above, which have a job name, a quick blurb about what it entails, and any stated rewards. This stuff works great as a “job posting board” at a tavern, and serves as a reminder of what the players are doing. I always keep it to just one side of the card, so that the players can write stuff on the back.
- NPC Card, which includes any hirelings or henchmen in the party, so I can quickly reference their name, AC, Hit Points, Loyalty score (using the optional rule in the DMG), and 1-3 roleplaying traits. They get full character sheets (with NPC stats, not player character-style stats) so the players can run them during combat (see below for an example), but I roleplay them. (Random note: I don’t track NPCs’ passive Perception, because only players use that trait during their adventures, while the NPCs essentially don’t count unless a unique situation requires it, such as if the party is split and the players take on the role of any NPCs to fill out the ranks.)
Lore Sheets come from Weapons of the Gods, I think. I use a much-stripped-down version of that concept as a simple, one-page reference tool for players. Basically, I think about what the players absolutely need to know about the campaign world, and I organize it such that a single page covers as much as it possibly can, whether that means one subject in depth, or a series of regions or subjects tied together by an overarching concept in a brief way.
The players may start with me handing out one or two of these sheets right away (as in: at character creation) so they get an idea of what the setting’s about. Other Lore Sheets may only come once they research stuff or do other things in the game, but the point is that if something’s really, really important, it’s getting a Lore Sheet or an entry on a Lore Sheet so that I don’t have to explain it again and again. Half (or more) of the time it’s stuff I can just copy-paste from the PDF or find online references from other people’s campaigns, so it’s not a lot of work.
Some Lore Sheet examples from Rappan Athuk:
- Zelkor’s Ferry is the little fort where the game begins, so there’s a map on one side from the book, and a Lore Sheet on the back that gives a quick list of the different shops there. That way, any time they roll into town, it’s easy for them to plan shopping trips, visits to NPCs for more lore, or whatever.
- Rappan Athuk Wilderness: this sheet has a map (mostly unkeyed) that the players can write on or whatever, plus a Lore Sheet on the back listing the few points they know are there, as well as some rumors so they can develop some goals. I won’t give this out right away, but will do so after they talk to some NPCs and come up with a course of action during Session #1.
- Orcus and the Cultists of Rappan Athuk: the intro text of Rappan Athuk provides a legend that can be provided to player characters (retold here), so I just copied it and pasted it onto it’s own Lore Sheet. I’ll give them this whenever they hear a bard tell the tale, and I’ll probably have one of the players read it aloud in an overly dramatic fashion for some roleplaying fun. No need for me to do all the heavy-lifting with the NPCs!
Other random handouts are either campaign specific info the players will refer to time and time again — stuff worth printing out so they don’t get their stinkin’ hands all over my adventure book — or things like character sheets for hirelings/henchmen, which I let the players control in combat, but I keep track of their Loyalty score and roleplay traits on the 3×5 NPC index card as mentioned above.
As you can see in the picture below, the NPC sheets get a full character sheet and portrait that I pull from the web, so the players get a visual and have all the stats they need for running the NPC in combat. The players also get the appendix from Rappan Athuk detailing the gods of the setting. There are more complete lists of Frog God Games’ patron deities here and here, but I’m not huge on making gods relatable or consistently present in the affairs of the world, so just printing out that (rather short) chapter is enough for them.
The one and only truly player-facing house rule I plan to use is Sly Flourish’s D&D 5e Bonds Based On Fiasco-Style Relationships, which presents both Fiasco-style and Dungeon World-style character Bonds to tie the players to each other and the campaign setting. I’ve developed a few Rappan Athuk-specific ideas.
Player Character Bonds for Rappan Athuk
- __ and I lost a mutual ally who went to explore Rappan Athuk. The ally was a (1d4): 1 friend, 2 mentor, 3 relative, 4 love interest.
- __ and I have been tasked by the priests with finding an artifact lost in Rappan Athuk. They are the priests of (1d8): 1Mitra, 2 Thyr, 3 Muir, 4 Freya, 5 Arden, 6 Kel, 7 Bowbe, 8 Vanitthu. The artifact is (1d6): …I haven’t come up with a list of potential items yet, but we’ll get there. I’d simply choose 6 items I know will be in later levels of the dungeon, and write down the item and a page & location reference.
- __ and I dreamed of exploring Rappan Athuk as children.
- __ and I were members of the militia, until our unit was annihilated by evil priests of (1d4): 1 Orcus, 2 Tsathogga, 3 Hel, 4 Snuurge.
- __ and I swore an oath to an aging Druid to find and destroy the temple of Orcus in Rappan Athuk. (This assumes that most people only know of 1 out of the multiple temples in Rappan Athuk.)
- __ and I have been magically compelled by a mysterious fey princess to save the Forest of Hope by consecrating Rappan Athuk.
Dungeon Master’s Section
The DM’s section is split into a toolbox and then the adventure/campaign info.
The toolbox is generic info that I can probably use in every D&D campaign. Theoretically, it doesn’t change much, but as I’ve moved from edition to edition of D&D, it’s honestly changed quite a bit. That said, 5E has been pretty good to me, with additions only coming from new product at Dungeon Masters Guild, while the rest has remained as-is.
I have the following articles printed out, as they will form the basis for any advice and potential house rules I might end up implementing that are much more DM-facing:
- Top 10 mistakes DMs and Players make in 5th Edition (check the comments section and errata to make sure you update any potential mistakes in the rulings noted in this article).
- DM David’s examination of typical treasure rewards.
- Blog of Holding’s analysis of treasure acquisition rates, in case I want to do award XP for treasures secured, which is a very old school thing to do in a dungeon like Rappan Athuk.
These particular tools aren’t something I’m constantly using/referencing, but I felt like having them printed out would get me perusing them often enough to consider the ramifications, keep my rules knowledge in check, and trigger red flags if a session felt wonky rules-wise or rewards-wise.
There are several other “tools” that I reference often during the game. One of them is Patrick E. Pullen’s Improved Dungeon Master’s Screen, which I stuff into my Savage World’s Customizable GM Screen, giving me the ability to change out pages as needed when I might use something more campaign-specific (such as my own Curse of Strahd DM Screen). I normally roll out in the open and only hide maps and minis behind the screen; it’s mostly just a rules quick-reference for me so I don’t bust up the bindings of my books.
The stuff I print out for my binder includes:
- Names for Tendays, so I have a gigantic list of character and location names to pull from, simply crossing them off lightly in pencil as I use them (and so I can erase the scratch-offs once a new campaign starts).
- Adversaries & Allies, a fantastic compilation of NPC stats in 5E to add variety to my NPCs.
- Monster conversions, as needed. My current ones include Newbie DM’s 5e conversion of the Froghemoth and a few monsters from Inkwell Ideas’ 5E Fiendopedia series that just so happen to appear in Rappan Athuk. As the players delve deeper, I’m going to need a lot more of this kind of thing, but for now, those will do.
Campaign & Adventure Info
I made some hex maps out of the existing Rappan Athuk wilderness maps for easier movement tracking: check ’em out in my Free Stuff! section. I (somewhat inconsistently) try to have a facing map and cheat sheet or conversion sheet so referencing things is as easy as possible, but sometimes I get a little carried away with printing out multiple copies of maps and such so I can draw on them, outlining areas of faction-based territory, or tracks of wandering monsters to corresponding fixed encounter locations, and all sorts of madness. Depends on how much free time I end up with.
I try to do a minimum of work; sometimes I even succeed. I’ve been extremely lucky with Rappan Athuk because the PDF let’s me cut and paste text, and so much of the conversion work is a simple 1:1 swap of monster or NPC stats.
The levels of Rappan Athuk were a bigger deal, but more by my own design than because they are hard to convert: since I’m only going 1-2 connected levels at a time based on the PCs’ location (which I’ve already established is Zelkor’s Ferry, so it makes sense to start with the Mouth of Doom, Level 1C), I figured I’d use a method tucked away into my article on Prepping and Running Published Adventures — which originated in Hack & Slash’s On Set Design article — that boils down the entire room entry into as little text as possible. You then parse the info in a visually “systematic” manner so it’s sort of like a flowchart of what the PCs see or interact with. For example:
12. The Chapel of Green Flame: 30 foot high ceiling > 3 rows of pillars adorned with gargoyle carvings > 2 deep bronze fire pits each with a bowl 10 feet across producing eerie green flames and adorned with gargoyle carvings > 1d4 fire snakes!
Treasure: The snake’s skin is worth 250 gp apiece.
The first page of each level of Rappan Athuk has its general features listed and a random encounter table, so the cheat sheet just covers a room-by-room list of what’s there and/or unique to the room, any monsters or traps (always bold and with an exclamation point! to make them standout). Any treasure or further developments are on their own line(s).
All of this keeps things tight, and if I really want more detail, I can just refer to the book, but I try not to: I’d rather improv a little and not feel constrained. If I know something requires a ton of info, I’ll either copy-paste it in (yay PDFs!) or I’ll just say “complicated trap! (p. 130)” and leave it at that.
Here’s a more complex room for reference:
7. Gnoll Den: Uncured hides as beds (filthy and stinky) > 5 gnolls, 1 gnoll fang of Yeenoghu!
Secret door is the metal grate on the opposite side of the vent grille in 2B-4.
Development: Any noise here can be heard in 2B-4 and 6.
Treasure: Each gnoll = 1d10 gp. One bedroll = 300 gp sewn into it (easily found on a detailed search).
That shows that there’s more info about the room after the monster encounter info, because that stuff is a hidden thing, not likely to be discovered until the more obvious stuff (like monsters) are dealt with. Then there’s the Development section that explains an interaction with another room(s), and the Treasure section that presents the location and value of any loot.
Simple Cheat Sheets
Rappan Athuk’s a big deal, so I’m starting with a bit more detail and prep up front. But it’s not usually this way; effectively re-writing a dungeon isn’t exactly the best use of anyone’s time unless you’re really changing things up, which is not what I’m doing. I make a few 5E-style tweaks here and there (way less use of save-or-die traps, for example), but overall I’m keeping things as close to as-is as the edition change allows.
Normally, I’d have the maps — I like having a photocopy or print-out so I can write shorthand notes directly on it as the party makes their way through it — and no cheat sheet at all, instead relying on a page or two of notes for the entire dungeon/campaign. I’m good at improv, but even if I wasn’t, I find being slavishly devoted to running a thing difficult and time-consuming, so I’d much rather just read it, take a couple notes, and then refer back as needed (which in fairness could be often, but I paid for the book, so the book should be my guide, right?). Using Dungeon World’s Fronts gives you enough stuff to populate a dungeon for many levels or cover different factions that might control parts of a dungeon or that have political battles in a city.
Other times, I use a cheat sheet that is WAY more brief even when covering a dungeon room-by-room. As my article on prepping and running adventures notes, it’d be something way closer to this (these are versions of the same two rooms noted above):
7. Gnoll Den: 5 gnolls, 1 gnoll fang of Yeenoghu! Secret door DC 15 to 2B-4. T: 1d10 gp (per gnoll); 300 gp in bedroll (auto-succeed on Int/Investigation).
12. The Chapel of Green Flame: 1d4 fire snakes! T: snake’s skin (250 gp apiece).
I use these types of shorthand cheat sheets often, because it allows me to quickly go through and do encounter math (Are these balanced for the party, and if not, how badly? What minis do I need handy?) and also check rewards (Is this too much? Does this make sense given the typical treasure rewards article I have in my DM’s binder?). It cuts out all of the other stuff, but that does mean I may have to keep the adventure book open most or all of the time. Usually that’s fine, but with Rappan Athuk I just feel like it’s a hefty enough tome and I’ll be flipping around to reference backstory and other lore enough that I want to be able to keep the current location of the players “called up” at all times, plus the added detail helps with balancing the conversion.
Breeze through all of these images in the gallery below:
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