One question that comes up over and over when I talk to different GMs is about how to take notes for their session. It is a topic that I take personally, as I have gone through a number of different note taking styles and used all sorts of different tools, over the years. Thanks to Stew reader Tabulazero for suggesting this article topic.

Rather than this being an article all about types of notebooks, special pens, and templates, I want to discuss the philosophy of note taking, so that through the understanding of the core issues, you will be able to find your own best way to take notes.

Let’s start with the most important question…

What Is The Purpose Of Session Notes?

The purpose of session notes is to give the GM the information necessary to run a good session. For this article, let’s say a good session is: a logical story, few pauses for looking things up, and important information conveyed to the players at the right time. The notes then become the tool to capture and organize those elements, so that they are easily accessible to the GM during the session.

When a GM does not have something in their notes, they then have to improvise that detail during the game. There are those rare  GM’s who are very comfortable with this, and are able to make up names and places, weave stories out of thin air, and divine stat blocks for the most complex monsters. The rest of us are good at a few of these activities, and for the other parts we are not as good at, there are the session notes.

Time To Ponder: What kind of GM are you?  Are you a strong improv GM, or do you require more things to be written down?

For me: As a GM, I like to write complex campaigns, which makes it harder to keep details and plot lines in my head, so I like my session notes to keep track of those for me.

What Goes Into Your Notes

As stated above, the purpose of your notes is to document the information that you need to run a “good” session. What exactly is that information? It falls into a few groups:

  • The Critical Details– these are the clues, the key dialog, room descriptions, and elements of the plot that are needed to make the session run in a logical fashion. These are the details that allow you to deliver the clue at the right time, and help you from retconing previous scenes.
  • The Nuts and Bolts– these are the stat blocks, excerpts of rules, and other parts of the mechanics of the game, which will slow the game down, if you have to look it up in the book during the game. These can be NPC stats or obscure rules that will come up because of an encounter.
  • The Stuff You Forget– there are things that as a GM you don’t remember to say or use during the session. They are not critical, but including them makes your sessions look more dynamic and vivid. These can be things like the weather, monster descriptions, name of the barmaid at the tavern, etc.

What you need to include is often a combination of your own strengths and weaknesses and the type of game you are running. If you are a GM that has trouble making up dialog for NPC’s then you want to make sure you include dialog into your notes. Likewise, if you are a running a game that has a lot of crunch, you will want to include stat blocks and some rules info into your notes as well.

Time To Ponder: Considering your own strengths and weaknesses as a GM, what elements do you need to have in your notes? Looking at the game you are running, are there rules you need to keep handy to avoid looking at the book as much?  What are the little things that you could add to your game to make things more dynamic?

For Me: As a GM, I like to have key dialog in my notes, but I am comfortable improvising other dialog.  I also include page numbers for lesser used rules, or sometimes include the rule itself.  I am also terrible about varying the weather in my scenes, so I include a section at the top of my notes to pick the weather.

How Much Do You Need To Write

One of the most frequent questions I have been asked about notes is: “How detailed do my notes need to be?” or  “How much do I need to write?” This is a loaded question, because there is no one answer. Your session notes need to be detailed to a level, where you, feel comfortable to run the session. If your notes are too sparse, then you will be moved out of your comfort area while running the session, causing you to pause, break tempo, etc. This can shake the confidence of GM’s and can disrupt the mood of the game. So your notes need to be of a sufficient length and detail, such that you are confident that with notes in hand, and rule book at your side, that you are ready to run the session.

The flip side to this, is that you write too many notes. With too many notes, the downside is not a faltering of confidence during the session, but rather that your notes take too long to prep. If prep becomes so long that you cannot get your notes written between sessions then it becomes a problem. Then without your notes complete, you cancel the game, for not being prepared, which can be its own killer of a game.

Somewhere in the middle is that nirvana where you take enough notes to be comfortable in running the session, but not so much where all you do in your spare time is prep notes.Getting to this middle ground takes a little trial and error. By focusing on what goes into your notes, keeping your writing to those necessary elements, and keeping your writing brief, you can find that balance of writing only what you need.

Time To Ponder: Do you think you take too many notes for your sessions?  Based on the section above, are you putting things into your notes you don’t need? Are there sections of your notes you never use in a session?  Of the flip side, do you find yourself making up too many things, or spending too much time looking up things in the rules?

For Me: Compared to some of the Gnomes, who are much more improv GM’s, I take more detailed notes. I am able to get my notes done between sessions without much stress, and I am very comfortable with what information I have in my notes when I am running.

Your Notes System

Up to this point we have talked about why to write, what to write, and how much to write. We have not talked about a medium to use for note taking. The most important thing about your note taking medium is: that whatever medium you use, and whatever technique you use, it must be enjoyable, and you must have confidence in it.

As a GM you will always be writing session notes. If the medium you use is difficult to use, prone to crashing, running out of paper or ink, is too small, is too large, etc, then you will not want to write your notes on it, or procrastinate from writing, which leads to being unprepared, which can lead to canceled sessions.

A good medium is one that is easy to use, can be fun to use, and is stable. There are two general categories for taking notes:

  • Hand-written– these include plain old notebook paper with Bic pens, to hand bound Italian journals and a Montblanc fountain pen. There is something personal about hand written notes, but you cannot spell check hand written notes. You can hand write notes nearly anywhere, at work, on a bus, in a park, and there are no batteries to run out, or having your notebook crash.
  • Electronic– using some kind of text, word processing, or note taking software, this can be done on a desktop computer, laptop, iPhone/Pod/Pad.  Electronic notes tend to be easier to read, spell-checked, and can include embedded pictures or other media. The downside is you have to have the device with you in order to write and need to consider battery life, and platform stability and backups.

One last point about your note system, it does not matter what your notes look like. In most cases, you are the only one reading them.  So cross things out, write notes on the margins, draw on them. Don’t waste time on them being neat.

Things To Ponder: Can you read your own handwriting? How fast can you type? Do you have backups to prevent you from losing your notes in a computer crash?

For me: I make a lot of spelling mistakes, and I type faster than I can write by hand, so I like to record my notes electronically.  I also make sure that I have my notes backed up, and that I have more than one way to access them in a crash.

Jot This Down…

The GM’s notes are the blueprint to the evening’s session. They keep the details of the session so that the GM can focus on what counts the most, creating an enjoyable experience for everyone at the table. How we take our notes will vary from GM to GM, but by understanding what you need to write, how much you need to write, and finding the most comfortable medium, the GM’s notes become a simple task and not an unbearable chore.

I have shared some insight on my own method of taking notes. Now its your turn, tell us about your GM notes, what do you write, how much, an what medium do you use?