What to put in your Unified GM Bag

In a previous post, I described the utility of having a Unified GM Bag: all your materials in one place.

Here’s everything in my bag, with explanations:

GM Bag Detailed v2

A bag of dice. My players haven’t yet figured out that they can buy their own dice, and besides, folks sometimes lose dice and it’s handy to have spares.

At least half a dozen pencils. Players often forget to bring pencils, and even if they do, it’s useful to have spares in case one or two breaks.

Erasable battle maps, with a 1-inch grid on one side and hexes on the other. Even in games that don’t use miniatures, these are very useful for drawing out rough maps, marking down information, etc. Much as I love the theater of the mind, my players tell me that a 15-second sketch of a location can save many minutes of confusion. I keep two Pathfinder Flip-Mats in my bag.

Wet erase and dry erase markers. If I know what I’ll be running, I draw that onto the mat with wet-erase markers ahead of time, so they don’t smudge. I use dry-erase markers during the game for anything that can change positions (especially doors).

Glass beads. I use these clear red “stones” whenever I need Fate Points, tokens, or other counters. Their red color makes them very visible on a crowded table.

Paper miniatures with about 20 plastic stands. I printed several hundred minis from Paper Friends, with a wide variety of monsters, villagers, adventurers, etc. I actually 3D printed the plastic stands, but you can either make your own with binder clips, or use them as triangular, foldable minis.

A GM screen, in this case a D&D 4E screen into which I’ve pasted D&D 5E sheets. I don’t always use a GM screen, but it’s often useful.

Blank paper, 5-10 sheets. Great for impromptu handouts, as “fog of war” to cover a map, or as scribbling notes on.

Index cards, for notes that I can pass easily to players.

Name tags. This is incredibly useful for convention games, where you’re probably not going to remember every character name. Hand out name tags and ask each player to write his or her character name on the name tag, and put it on. Now you can address everyone by character name! I tried doing this with little stands on the table, but they’re never oriented so that everyone can see the stand, or they get blocked by other things on the table.

A 30-second sand timer (not pictured). I mostly use this with groups that are slow to make decisions; I give them each 30 seconds to decide what to do in combat.

One adventure (not pictured). I printed out a basic adventure that I can pull out if the PCs go completely off the reservation (an abandoned temple overrun with monsters).


In addition to all this, before each game, I place my binder of campaign notes and the core rule book into the bag. Now I’m ready for just about anything!

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Amazingly useful tools: a Unified GM Bag

GM BagI have one big travel bag in which I store all my RPG materials (except for books and physical handouts like keys, rings, and pendants, since I have different handouts for different groups). It contains, among other things:

  • Dice
  • Pencils
  • Index cards
  • Counters
  • Blank paper
  • Folded paper minis

Why would you want to do this?

  • You may run for more than one group, now or later.
  • A friend may be curious about tabletop RPGs, and want to play a solo session to see how the game is run.
  • You may have to run a game at somebody else’s house.
  • You need all this stuff for RPGs anyway, so why not keep it in one place?

With a bag that contains all the essentials, you can run any time, anywhere.

Stay tuned for a post that details everything in my GM bag, but you don’t need that to make your own. Go for it!

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Monster Monday: Lizardling Commander of Tarakona

Lizardling CommanderThe savage continent of Tarakona, where draconic races battle for supremacy!

The bureaucratic lizardling empire fights the same way it does everything else: in an orderly, regimented fashion. Its legions are divided into units, each led by a Commander.

Commanders are surprisingly active in combat. They stride into the thick of battle, the better to relay orders back to their unit (which consists of either Troopers or Archers). Enemies that scoff at this rarely do so for long, as the Commander slashes at a nearby foe with its shortsword while firing the light crossbow in its other hand at a distant enemy, yelling an order to its unit at the same time.

A Commanders who leads Troopers often surround themselves with subordinates. A Trooper with a glaive can attack anyone who closes to melee range of its Commander, even if the Trooper is behind its Commander.

Lizardling Commander stat block

Text version of stat block, suitable for use in Homebrewery:

Lizardling Commander

Small humanoid, lawful

  • Armor Class 14
  • Hit Points 25 (5d8 + 3)
  • Speed 30 ft.

|14 (+2)|13 (+1)|13 (+1)|8 (-1)|11 (+0)|9 (-1)|

  • Proficiency Bonus +2
  • Skills Athletics +4, Stealth +3
  • Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 11
  • Languages Draconic
  • Challenge 1 (250 XP)

Command of Retreat. On the Commander’s turn as a free action, the Commander can order one ally to move up to 15 feet without the ally provoking opportunity attacks.


Shortsword. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d6+4) piercing damage.

Light crossbow. Ranged Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, range 80/320, loading, one target. Hit: 8 (1d8+3) piercing damage.


The Commander charges into battle, shouting orders back to units of troopers or archers, and using two-weapon fighting to attack with both its weapons each turn.

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Faction Friday: The Crow Bandits

Ta Prohm by Staffan Scherz on Flickr

The Crow Bandits can be used either as a friendly faction that sends the PCs out on a mission, or as a foe that the PCs must overcome. This group of outlaws wears crow-feather cloaks and uses trained wolves. They live in an abandoned temple, where their leader, Lathir Featherfall, found an old store of reagants and a spell book, and is teaching himself magic.

Lathir is an old elven man who’s seen much of the world and wants to do something exciting. He met his lieutenant, Darroc, several years ago; Darroc is a keen trainer of wolves and fell deeply into debt. Lathir suggested banditry, primarily as something interesting to do.

As a friendly faction, the Crow Bandits are Robin Hood-like crusaders for justice, stealing only from those who are both wealthy and guilty of unpunished crimes.

Plot hook: As if banditry wasn’t interesting enough, Lathir’s slowly teaching himself magic. He hires the PCs to find unusual ritual components, like harvesting giant caterpillar eggs or the eyes of gibbering mouthers. He needs these to build a wand of suggestion, which he’ll use to make future targets stand down.

As a foe faction, the Crow Bandits are an unusually successful gang, thanks to Lathir’s intelligence and wisdom. Just the sight of the cloaks is now enough to cause some to drop their weapons.

Plot hook: A nearby city’s merchant guild, the Crossed Arms, has lost three caravans in the last month to the Crow Bandits. The Crossed Arms hire the PCs to find the bandits and stop them.

Abandoned Temple
The temple must be entered through a corridor at the far east of the complex, then the party must turn left or right and follow long corridors to the various internal rooms. Lathir likes this because the bandits can hear intruders approach.
Room 1 Room 2 Room 3 Room 4
This 15×15 foot square room, reached from the left of the entrance, holds nothing of value except a magical trap of Lathir’s creation.

Anyone who enters the room takes 1d10 thunder damage (and the bandits are now alerted to the PCs’ presence, even if they were being stealthy). A DC 12 Wisdom (Arcana) check will detect the spell, and a DC 15 Wisdom (Arcana) check will dismiss it.


Further along the right-and corridor, one passage opens to this complex of four 10×10 foot rooms. Once private cells for the priests who lived here, the Crow Bandits now keep their wolves here.

This area normally contains Darroc and 4-6 wolves.


At the end of the right-hand corridor sits three adjoining circular rooms, each about 15×15 feet. The bandits store their spoils in these rooms and sleep here.

The bandits will defend this room, but they will give up if overwhelmed. Lathir will retreat to room 4.

This secret room, reachable only from room 3, is Lathir’s inner sanctum. Once a library, most of its bookshelves and papers have crumbled to dust, but a few books remain, as well as about a dozen jars of reagants and spell components.

Friendly: The PCs will likely never enter this room, unless Lathir wants to discuss something with them privately.

Foe: Lathir will fight alone in here as his last stand.

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Lizardlings, the Civilized Kobolds

Kobold by V Shane

Kobold by V Shane

The savage continent of Tarakona, where draconic races battle for supremacy!

Created to serve dragons directly as their day-to-day servants, lizardlings are intelligent, highly regimented, and focused on honor and recognition.

The lizardlings developed by far the most established civilization on the wild continent of Tarakona, with large, terraced wooden cities and palaces that stretch for miles. They are ruled by the Golden Emperor who lives in the Eternal Palace in the Valley of the Seven Sunsets. It is a massive complex twenty miles square, employing over a thousand servants (not to mention the harem, accountants, and so forth).

Officially, the Emperor is wise and fair to his subjects. In reality, the current Emperor, Suhesho XVII, indulges in fits of spite and has a significant gambling problem. He’s far from the worst emperor, though, and he at least treads relatively lightly on the backs of his people.

The lizardlings control most of the land in the southern end of the continent, favoring fertile valleys, hills, and forests. Their land is divided into the Seven Hundred Provinces (there are actually 756), each of which is divided into its Districts, then into towns and villages. Each Province, District, town, and even neighborhood has its own set of bureaucrats serving as magistrates and tax collectors. According to the law, they are absolutely fair and serve only the good of the Emperor and his people. In reality, bribes often fall into their pockets.

In fairness, the bureaucrats have tough jobs, as they’re expected to keep the peace in their assigned area, enforce the law, and carry out any edicts sent from the Eternal Palace, many of which conflict with each other. They are often pulled in many directions at once.

Sample Towns

Tibet (public domain)A good example of this can be seen in the small coastal district of Rotook in Meleenoo Province. Its office consists of three bureaucrats, Ruhesoh the magistrate, Tokuhey the accountant, Nelea the tax collector, and Kasuhemee the garrison commander. Magistrate Ruhesoh has never set foot outside Rotook district, knows practically everyone within the district, judges with brisk efficiency, and knows almost nothing of the official law, favoring his friends and preferred sides in any conflict. The accountant, Tokuhey acts as combination banker and census-taker. Any financial transactions over fifty gold must be recorded with him, as well as any goods worth over five hundred gold passing through the border either way. He also records births, deaths, major weather events, and construction projects. Nelea collects taxes in the informal manner preferred through the empire: she walks the streets and talks to people, estimates their worth, records it, and at the end of the year, goes around asking for the appropriate amount given the current tax law. As a result, everyone lies to her during her rounds, her requests are wildly inaccurate, and commoners constantly ask for “a bit more time.”

Kasuhemee commands the garrison, which employs only himself. He’s hand-picked five locals as militia, who come by the garrison once per week to practice listlessly with rusty swords for about an hour. Non-attendance is technically treason, which would earn them a beheading. Kasuhemee keeps the small garrison locked up and relatively clean. He takes his job very seriously, making his rounds like clockwork. He’s the strong arm of the law, but nothing ever happens in this district.

The court of the city of Nuheki provides a helpful example of lizardling culture. The stone palace stands on a hill overlooking the city, designed with six towers forming a hexagon. I entered through the massive entrance, the steel portcullis conspicuously visible above, and down an entrance hall fit with murder holes. As usual in this region, the entrance is large but stark and strictly defensive, reminding the visitor of the owner’s martial resources.

Within, after crossing a courtyard and into another hallway, I was presented in the central chamber. This hexagonal room contains six round pillars supporting a complex buttressed ceiling. The back half of the chamber contained several raised daises, each a step taller than the previous and strewn with brightly-colored cushions. On the top dais lounged the ruler, surrounded by a handful of lizardlings on the same dais and the one below. Official advisers wore ornate but drably-colored clothes, while courtiers and entertainers wore brightly-colored, loose clothing. Other cultures whisper in shock about the courtiers’ delicate attire, hinting that they prance around practically naked in diaphanous harem outfits, but in reality their clothing is more comfortable than flimsy.

Lizardling Culture

Lizardlings take great pride in lineage and status. Every lizardling can trace its bloodline back at least 5 generations. As such, if you asked for a lizardling’s full name, you’d hear something like Kih sa Kihsoh sa Niguhey sa Mituhey sa Kosala (Kih, child of Kihsoh, child of Niguhey, etc.). However, outside adventurers are likely to never hear more than any lizardling’s first name.

They are also a superstitious race. Papers inscribed with spells (some truly effective and some just superstition) are tacked up in every home and at many public places. Since many objects possess souls—particularly objects used often—the souls within them must be appeased.

While omnivorous, lizardlings eat primarily fungi, grains, and fruits, with small amounts of stewed or roasted meat once per day. They maintain large farming operations for these purposes, including vast underground caverns full of fungi. It is said that the first lizardlings constantly stole pieces of meat intended for the dragons, so the dragons cast a spell causing them to turn vegetarian. This seems unlikely, as meat is eaten at all levels of lizardling society, especially the upper levels (though far less often than in other regions of Tarakona).

Lizardling Religion

Two major, more-or-less competing religions operate within the lizardling empire.

Tara is a religion focusing on personal self-improvement, and has both spiritual and practical aspects. Tara teaches that every soul is reincarnated; evil souls into a lower animal, and good souls back into a lizardling. Practically, tara advises physical training in martial arts as a focus for the mind and body, as well as a quiet, contemplative attitude.

Tara is taught from the Thirteen Tablets handed down from the great dragon Vorron Kosh. While msot of the races of Tarakona feel little love for their former masters, tara was too deeply ingrained to let go. It is now accepted as a valid belief system despite its origin.

Tara has a well-established priesthood, with temples (for worship) and shrines (honoring ancestors) in every lizardling city.

Soshinma establishes a concept of the universe for lizardlings, teaching that many objects have souls. These potential souls are treated more with fear than respect, since they will curse you if you don’t treat them right. The soul within a rock face must be appeased and satisfied before quarrying it, for example.

Some lizardlings practice both these religions, and some follow cults and splinter sects of each.

Encountering the Lizardlings

Of the three dominant races on Tarakona, the lizardlings are most likely to hire outside adventurers directly. While they maintain a standing army, their love of order and bureaucracy makes them poor adventurers. A regional magistrate or garrison commander might send a runner to the adventurers and ask them to deal with a delicate matter.

Here are a few problems lizardlings might ask adventurers to solve:

  • A cavern used to grow mushrooms has been overrun by giant snakes.
  • A komodo raiding party intruded onto lizardling land in search of an old temple. While aggressive if approached, they have avoided direct contact.
  • A tara priest discovered a map leading to a sunken storehouse that contains the Mirror of Vorron Kosh, a famous ancient artifact. Lizardlings sent to retrieve it never returned.
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Semi-Monthly Map: Porphyria’s Pit

Long ago, a natural pit in the earth was enlarged by the worshippers of Porphyria, a goddess of light and shadow. Deep in the center of the pit stood several crystal altars that shone and reflected the light in beautiful patterns as the sun moved through the sky.

Porphyria’s worshippers–always an odd lot–created a large complex where they lived, prayed, and worshipped.

Entrance was made through a circular stairway next to the pit, which led to a large receiving room. From there, you went down one level to another room, from which a secret passage led to north to the mushroom farms and dining room, and a staircase led down to the third level. The third level contained sleeping quarters in the northwest and storage rooms in the southeast, while the lowest level contained spaces for worship and contemplation.

Now, the complex is home to two competing factions. A tribe of goblinoids found the old entrance and secured the upper two levels, then encountered duergar who had tunneled in from below a few months before and set up camp in the lower two levels.

The door to the pit itself is magically sealed, and the duergar haven’t been able to open it yet. Looking from above, it’s clear that time has built up a layer of silt in the pit floor, possibly obscuring any treasure that still lays unclaimed there….

Porphyria's Pit

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Stone Age 5E

I’ve adapted and simplified D&D 5E’s rules for play in a gritty, no-magic, no-technology, Stone Age setting. There are no races, classes, skills, feats, or spells, so the game is much simpler. You can still drop in a monster from standard 5E and the same mechanics will work.

Read it here or download a PDF.

Please let me know what you think!

Gritty 5E, page 1

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Monster Monday: Elite Kala Warrior of Tarakona

"Kroxigor x Saurus" by Walsidar on DeviantArt

“Kroxigor x Saurus” by Walsidar on DeviantArt

The savage continent of Tarakona, where draconic races battle for supremacy!

The fearsome, combative, plains-dwelling Kala people (think lizardfolk) send powerful, elite warriors into battle to direct their forces.

As mentioned in other entries for kala fighters, they prefer to focus their attention on one powerful enemy and take him or her down, mostly ignoring other enemies. The elite warrior chooses this target, and directs the other fighters with cunning. For example, if one spellcaster is doing serious damage, the elite warrior might call on its archers to focus fire on that spellcaster. Also, if an enemy seems near death, the elite warrior will often order the bulk of the warriors to move on to another powerful enemy while a few remain to mop up.

It also has a nasty ranged feature: two bags of explosive powder. It can throw these as a ranged attack, but that’s just the half of it. When the elite warrior dies, the force of its big, scaly body hitting the ground causes the bags to explode, dealing damage to all enemies nearby.

Text version of stat block:

Kala Elite Warrior

Medium humanoid, lawful

  • Armor Class 14
  • Hit Points 50 (8d10 + 10)
  • Speed 35 ft.

|18 (+4)|14 (+2)|13 (+1)|8 (-1)|11 (+0)|9 (-1)|

  • Proficiency Bonus +2
  • Skills Athletics +4, Acrobatics +2, Survival +2, Stealth +3
  • Senses passive Perception 10
  • Languages Draconic
  • Challenge 2 (450 XP)

Pack Tactics. The archer has advantage on attack rolls against a target if at least one of the archer’s allies is within 5 feet of the target and the ally isn’t incapacitated.

Bloodied Frenzy. The elite warrior deals an extra 1d6 damage on attacks when reduced to half its Hit Points or fewer.

Explosive Death. (Optional) When an elite warrior is reduced to 0 or fewer Hit Points, it detonates its remaining blast powder, dealing 1d8 force damage to each creature within 5 feet per remaining blast powder bag.


Greatsword. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 10 (2d6+4) slashing damage, or 13 (3d6+4) if at half HP or fewer.

Blast Powder Bag. Ranged Weapon Wattack: +4 to hit, range 30/120, one target. Hit: 6 (1d8+2) force damage, and the target must succeed on a DC 12 Constitution save or be knocked prone. The warrior carries only 2 of these bags.

Sling. Ranged Weapon Wattack: +4 to hit, range 30/120, one target. Hit: 4 (1d4+2) bludgeoning damage.


The elite warrior is the most flexible, filling in wherever it can do most damage, whether that’s ranged attacks against lone spellcasters, assisting warriors in taking down a powerful melee enemy, or sneaking behind enemy lines to threaten an important non-combattant.

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Faction Friday: The Frost Trolls

troll clipartThe Frost Trolls can be used either as a friendly faction that sends the PCs out on a mission, or as a foe that the PCs must overcome. It is led by Dolom, an unusually intelligent male troll. The group bases itself in a small, magical cave complex.

As a friendly faction, the Frost Trolls are magical, neutral beings of nature that hibernate most of the year in their caves and appear every autumn as a harbinger of winter. All the local farming communities place small portions of the harvest in small shrines nearby, and the trolls visit each one. The trolls take these sacrifices and leave behind carefully-arranged stones that the villages interpret as signal of the upcoming winters’ fortunes. The Frost Trolls spend about one month doing this, then return to their caves where they perform secret auguries through the winter, then sleep until the next autumn.

Plot hook: The Frost Trolls cross the PCs’ paths and explain that a local village did not leave out their sacrifice. Further investigation showed the village abandoned. If the PCs learn the truth and return to the Frost Trolls’ cave with proof, the Frost Trolls will perform the commune spell on any deity the PCs desire.

Caves Background 5As a foe faction, the Frost Trolls appear every autumn to raid nearby villages through the winter. Though trolls are notoriously difficult to control, Dolom has managed to convince this group (so far) that working together is in their best interests. They hate warm weather, so during spring and summer they normally stay in their caves and eat through their food stores, performing only occasional raids.

Plot hook: The Frost Trolls have appeared and begun raiding nearby villages. The PCs enter a village that hasn’t been raided yet, and are hired by the town’s elders to attack and kill the trolls. The village can’t pay much, but insists that the Frost Trolls would have a good amount of loot.

Frostbite Caves
Room 1: Entrance Room 2: The Pool of Radiance Room 3: The Inner Sanctum
A roughly circular opening about ten feet wide opens onto a forty-foot-wide chamber.

Friendly: One troll sits here meditating, and will engage anyone who enters in a friendly manner. Half a dozen runes on the walls glow blue, bathing the chamber in a ghostly blue light.

Foe: Two trolls guard this entrance and attack anyone who enters. If the first is killed, the second disengages and runs to the inner sanctum.

This circular room contains a deep blue pool of freezing water, within which rests a water elemental (undetectable except with a DC 17 Intelligence (Arcana) check). The room contains no illumination.

If a non-troll passes by the pool, the water elemental rises out of it and attacks. As soon as the intruders retreat from this position, the elemental stops attacking and returns to the pool.


Most of the frost trolls live in this large chamber.

Friendly: Dozens of runes cover the wall, giving the chamber dim illumination at all times. A circle of runes at the center of the room serves as a meditation spot.

Foe: Crates and barrels sit in haphazard piles all around; the trolls break into them and eat at their leisure. The place has no organization. A clear space in the center of the chamber is used for impromptu contests of strength and simple games.



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How to Prep a Spellcaster for Combat in D&D 5E

MageIf you’re running D&D 5E combat that includes an enemy spellcaster, you may look at its stat block and secretly despair.

Spellcaster enemies often have a dozen or more spells available to them. How on Urth do you decide which ones to use in combat? Do you go over the list every round and decide which one is the best to use?

The secret lies in realizing this: most fights in D&D end in about 5 rounds.

Will your caster use all, or even most of its spells in combat? No.

As such, choose a few spells the caster will actually use.

Assuming an offensive spellcaster:

  • Select 2 high-level, single-use offensive spells
  • Select 1 combat cantrip or lower-level offensive spell with several slots
  • Select 1 utility spell

Assuming a defensive spellcaster:

  • Select 2 high-level, single-use defensive spells
  • Select 1 combat cantrip or lower-level offensive spell with several slots
  • Select 1 utility spell

Assuming a utility spellcaster:

  • Select 3 utility spells
  • Select 1 combat cantrip or lower-level offensive spell with several slots

Then, build a plan of attack, something like this for the offensive mage on page 347 of the Monster Manual:

  • Round 1: Cone of Cold
  • Round 2: Ice storm
  • Rounds 3+: Ice Storm (2x), Fireball (3x), or Counterspell

Of course, the mage may need to a round or two to get within range of the PCs, so it might cast cone of cold on round 3 of combat. This is an ordering of when the caster will use the spells, not which round it will use them on.

Then use a site like D&D-Spells to make one sheet (digital or paper) listing just these spells. Boom!

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