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A Deeper Understanding of GM Notes

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 [1].

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?

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "A Deeper Understanding of GM Notes"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On July 19, 2010 @ 6:28 am

Do you use index cards for NPCs? How do you locate your notes pertaining to a specific NPC?

#2 Comment By DNAphil On July 19, 2010 @ 6:34 am

@Noumenon: With OneNote, I typically paste the stat block right into my notes as a sidebar to the main notes. I have never done Index Cards before, but as I am preparing for a new Blood & Honor, campaign, it might be interesting to use Index cards for the NPC’s.

As for finding specific NPC’s, again using OneNote, I can create a page for each NPC, and I can link them in my notes, or I can use the search feature.

In the past, when I was using more paper, I had a Campaign Binder, where I would print my NPC’s and keep them in the binder, next to me at the table while I was running.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On July 19, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

[2] – For the last several campaigns I’ve used 3×5 cards on a ring for my NPCs. White Wolf, Spirit of the Century, Primetime Adventures and 3.5D&D NPCs all work pretty well on 3×5 cards– though at higher levels, you start leaving out their lower level spells and unimportant equipment to keep it all on one card.

In 4e, I use the photocopier or hit the print button, since I hand build the critters much less frequently.

#4 Comment By taxboy4 On July 19, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

Hi, I have all my notes and planning on PBWiki – which works great as long as I have access t owireless on my laptop.

For session prep, I re read all the notes and info from last few games and simply write up 7-10 bullets points in the rough order (sort of like a run sheet) I think things will happen.

I then activate these points during the game unless the players actions take us in a different direction. I am a high improv DM.

I also have another Wiki page open that i bullet point main things that happen during the current session so i can refer to it later or form part of a future run sheet.

I put links in my pages so i can quickly jump to this session, last session etc.

One thing I need to do (reading the article and other posts) is spend a chunk of time setting up NPC’s in my Wiki.

We play Runequest Two so normally i get monsters out of the books or print off the pdf page I need for that session.

My main challenge is simply prep time and with our first little Gnome on the way…

#5 Comment By BishopOfBattle On July 19, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

I like to do a little combining of both types for my notes. I am much more comfortable and quick on the computer, and with Photoshop or other programs I can quickly draw up clean diagrams of rooms either to show the player or for personal use.

That said, when it comes to game time, I prefer to have a hard copy of my notes so I print them out. I take notes in the margins by hand of anything important that I made up in during the game or on the outcome of any specific events.

My notes tend to be pretty heavy, though I suspect that comes out of most of my experience originating from running pre-written adventures. I try to clump my notes such that they can be read through in a linear fashion as I expect scenes to play out.

#6 Comment By E-l337 On July 19, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

Hm. Notes are usually something I don’t bother with. I run pretty damn good sessions when I don’t write any notes down. However, I’ve noticed that when I do have notes, the quality of my sessions increases, and one week’s worth of notes can usually be stretched across multiple sessions.

When I do write notes I tend to try to write for an entire adventure arc, with some minor notes on other hooks that are opened up or related to the adventure.

Generally, I’ll spend about a couple pages worth of a notebook writing out stuff for the adventure: what the hook is, the important person(s) involved, location names, all that. On occasion, I’ll go further and do more prep, creating encounter charts for an area or statting out boss encounters, which can sometimes take a couple of weeks or less. It’s easier for me to plan a lot of material ahead of time, so that once I reach the next checkpoint, I can continue on ahead. I usually don’t like running out of usable material – nothing is worse to me than my players going “Awwwww!”

I also am recently in the habit of taking other notes that are relevant on a campaign-level – NPCs the players have met, a ‘base’ cost for a lot of items in the world, so that way if they go to a new city or something, I can adjust prices as needed. It is a lot of work, but it’s something to do in my spare time, and once I do need the material, I know exactly where to find it, and in maybe less than an hour I can have almost an entire city ready to go, complete with market and starship components for sale.

Notes not only depend on the GM, but also the game the GM is running. If it’s just a light, pulpy thing, maybe a few sentences suffices. In my case? It’s quite a bit more, but that’s the price you pay for immersion.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 19, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

Thanks for writing this, Phil. Note-taking is a topic near and dear for me right now. I’m currently in a state of transition for note-taking, and leaning towards a TiddlyWiki for my campaign. Or maybe not…

Things I’ve discovered:

Writing by hand somehow promotes creativity. I don’t know how it works, but when I step away from the PC and sit down with pencil and paper, my productivity (for gaming) increases.

Structures are important. I am about to go to a template for encounters, so I don’t forget the little-but-important details like the weather, the NPCs goals, etc.

Take notes during the session. This is a habit I’m learning slooowly, but it’s already paying off. I’ll often have ideas during a session, and if I can scrawl it down, that’s far better than having to remember it.

#8 Comment By shadowacid On July 20, 2010 @ 8:41 am

I’ve never really taken game notes before and didn’t really know how I’d go about it.

But in my last shadowrun campaign I decided that I would do post game story write-ups and post them on an RPG.net Actual Play thread.

I found this more narrative way of writing really helped me remember details and keep importatnt things in mind, as well as having a play record of each game. Putting my write-ups on a forum thread also let me get some feedback from others not involved in the game and really helped in a lot of places.

#9 Comment By Virgil Vansant On July 20, 2010 @ 9:32 am

I always keep a memo pad nearby when running a game. I prefer writing down notes on pen and paper for some reason, even if I have my laptop nearby (or running a game online). It seems more natural, and allows me to do things like draw little arrows and stars and even doodle. A lot of the hand-written notes get typed up later, either as personal documentation for me to remember or a web page or Wiki for the players as well. I have another document that keeps track of the long-term story arc that continually gets changed.

I usually have a Word document up and running with a brief outline for the current adventure, some needed stats on enemies and a general description of some NPCs and their motivations. Most of the non-crunch stuff is all ad-libbed from these notes. I think my players are too good at going off any rails I may try to set anyway, so working on the fly tends to work out better.

Mind you, I haven’t run a game in a few years now. This may sound crazy, but for whatever reason it’s an article on GM notes of all things that seems to have whetted my appetite to do run a new game. 🙂

#10 Comment By Katana_Geldar On July 22, 2010 @ 6:44 am

When I do my game notes well, they’re in a word document that I print out before the game. These have the various stat blocks I’ll need (grabbed from PDFs) as well as SOME of the dialogue and read aloud text that I know is important. There’s also notes I write for myself to bear in mind during encounters, such as if I am waiting for a certain condition or the NPCs need to behave in a certain way.

I have found I need to find a safe middle between having enough content where I know what I am doing as well as allowing it to be flexible.