Phil already answered Tabulazero’s question about note taking, in his post A Deeper Understanding of GM Notes, but I recently found some notes and thought that a couple of concrete examples might prove useful. I’m really answering the second half of the question more, since I’ll be sharing notes from a 4e game and my recent Spirit of the Century game.
To refresh, here was the question:
I would love an article highlighting how you organize your DM notes? What do you write? In which order? On what support? Any tips you could share?
Would love to know how you approach dungeon crawls and more event driven adventures?
I’ve been running games for a while, so there are things that I no longer bother to write down. You’ll find the same– there will be things you’re confident about running without detailed notes– whether it’s because you have a handle on the NPC so you don’t need speaking notes, because you know the combat rules cold, because the means and motivations roll out of previous sessions, or whatever your particular strengths are. [See Phil’s post for much more about picking which notes you should write down.]
The D&D prep notes are from 2008, when I was first introducing 4e to friends in a one-shot. You’ll note that the DCs are all too high by five– this was written prior to the skill DC revisions. The notes assume a “standard party”– I was making notes for generic adventurers, rather than a specific party. The full notes are here: Ghosts Request. In addition to the couple of pages of notes, I also photocopied the Monster Manual pages with the specific creatures, so I wouldn’t have to flip back and forth each time a creature attacked or was attacked. That also made keeping track of hit points easy– I just wrote them right on the photocopy.
The Spirit of the Century notes are from the first session of our campaign, just last month. They are… sketchier, in part because I had specific characters I had designed the adventure around. Much of my session design was selecting which aspects I wanted to make a part of the adventure. In separate prep, I typed up the PCs’ stunts, aspects, and highest skills. The remainder was handwritten on 4×6 cards, which I’ll type up below.
You’ll notice that I steer the PCs more than most sessions– that’s because this was a one-shot, and I wanted to show off the system and keep the pace up. For a second or third session, I would probably have a lot more question marks and branching paths or optional encounters.
Some of the other “calculations” are baked in. The first fight is an easy encounter– because the players were new to their PCs and probably won’t be ready to start working on group synergies. I spent some time drawing up a map for the goblin/wolf encounter. The primary inspiration for the whole session was Roger Carbol’s “Points of Conflict”, encounter 1: The Charnel Pit. I can’t find the original, but a quick review of it is here. It included the map and creatures for encounter 5; the map carried over for encounter 6 too.
Here are my notes for the adventure start:
Scene One: Interview with a landholder
Setting: The town of Vala, in an elegantly paneled reception room hall. The decoration is rich and antique, reflecting an older era. Herne, a middle aged elf, sits in a straight backed chair behind a small table. On the wall behind him is a rich tapestry showing an ancient battle.
“Thank you for answering my request for assistance. As I mentioned, the matter is urgent. Together you look like a fine group, one I can trust with this task.”
– Herne: Heavy set for an elf, with a calm voice and demeanor… except for his rumpled appearance and bags under his eyes. (Insight DC 10: He hasn’t slept since the visit.)
– His great-grandfather’s ghost [General Caldern, vassal of the dragonborn Torath of Arkosia] appeared to him three nights ago and told him that his resting place is disturbed.
– Herne will pay 100 gold to the group for fixing the problem and allowing his great grandfather to rest peacefully.
– The tomb is about 10 miles to the east, across a stream. A trail remains where a road used to pass. He is buried under a hill marked with a pillar.
– If asked, Caldern lies there because that’s where he fell in defense of Arkosia.
– The old entry, from the top, was sealed with heavy granite blocks
Preparation: The PCs can purchase any equipment costing 5 gp or less in town. Research will reveal the following:
– Nature, DC 15: The howl of wolves has been heard in the direction of the tomb
– History, DC 15: General Caldern fell defending the [Dragonborn] Arkosian Empire against the Tiefling led assault of Barad-Dur.
– History DC 20, Religion DC 15: The general and the men who died with him are likely buried together in the tomb.
– Streetwise 10: The last group to head east, two merchants and a pair of guards, has not returned. They are 3 days overdue.
I started off with a pretty traditional “meet in a room and NPC with an exclamation point over their head gives you a quest”. In play it was a little more lively– they interacted well with Herne and found their characters in conversation. They only tried out a few things under “prep”, and those were mostly at my prompting (to provide a safe explanation of the skill system).
Scene Two: A warning
A few miles east of town, as the road approaches a low hill, a band of goblins steps out and orders them to halt. “Go back to your town; we don’t want to carry your big corpses around.” (The other goblins laugh.)
Opposition: A goblin warrior [L1 skirmisher], four goblin cutters [L1 minions], and two gray wolves [L2 skirmishers].
Tactics: Warrior charges down flank of hill while goblin harries from hilltop. Once the minions engage, the wolves try and flank the lightest armored person and the warrior closes.
Loot: They have several bolts of cloth [20#, worth 12 gp], 4 SP, 34 GP, 2 human made long swords, 2 human leather armor (damaged and bloody), 1 week rations each.
The second scene was a pretty simple fight, but I spent some time on setting up a tactically rich battlefield. It was a bend in the road, with a hill to the left and trees/rough terrain to the right. The fight started with the cutters blockading the road, supported by the wolves and warrior who raced down the hill from the side. The fight was exciting– with a lot of running around and getting too separated for the PCs the help each other out effectively. From their struggle with this easy fight, they refined their tactics.
I wanted to show off the new skill challenge mechanics, so I setup the following scene:
Scene Four: A ghostly warrior
The ghost of Epona, a lieutenant of General Caldern appears to the PCs. She will forgive any attacks until she starts speaking. She explains that if the PCs are worthy, she would like to assist them… but if they’re young puppies, unready for the threat ahead, she’d hate to encourage them.
– This is a skill challenge; primary skills (DC 15) are History, Diplomacy, and Bluff. Five successes before 3 failures is a total victory, see below.
– Epona was a Paladin; anyone identifying themselves as a Paladin of a good god gets a +5 circumstance bonus to their first check. (Paladins of unaligned gods get +2; evil automatically fail and she departs.)
– She served dragonborn; a dragonborn referencing their fallen empire gains +2 on the check. A tiefling has a —2 circumstance bonus to all checks, since she fell to their army.
– Insight or Religion DC 15 indicates that she is probably here because this is where she died. (If this inspires a search, it also grants +2 to perception checks to find the sword.)
– If the PCs succeed, she will describe the upcoming impediments this way, “No foe stands between you and the hill. The foul kobolds have burrowed into the side of the hill; you will see the gout of their excavation on the north slope. They lair in the hill, not the chamber below. They are led by a dark priest who rouses our noble dead to his service.”
– On even partial success (3+ successes (she’ll tell them) or successful DC 20 perception), they find her skeletal remains and blade. She urges them to use it for good.
– The sword is a +1 Vicious Longsword. [It adds +1 attack & damage does +1d12 on a crit.]
– She disappears after they pick up the sword or 3 failures.
I liked this scene for the non-combat but structured nature– it didn’t feel as wandering as most roleplaying conversations. There was some fumbling as players tried to improvise history and diplomacy to back their checks, but we made it through and it was a good scene.
I hope that those samples give you a good idea about the D&D notes. They’re short, choppy– a lot of “hey, remember this rule” and prompts for specific skill checks. At this point, after playing the game for a couple of years, I’d probably wing a lot of the skill DCs (using the revised DMG page 43 chart), and would spend more attention on good descriptions and specific tactical notes for the combats and maps.
Spirit of the Century Notes
I’m currently running a Spirit of the Century game. After making up characters it is now time to kick them into a fun adventure. Here are the notes I used for our first play session (after one session of group PC generation). The following notes are on 4×6 cards.
Blackjack Pershing contacts Jack Hex.
– “Since you’ve got that Mexican Experience” (compel) “I can’t imagine anyone better suited to straightening out a situation we’ve got down there.”
– Take your team with you; the agent reports there’s been a lot of disappearances lately.
– The agent is in Campeche- meet him Friday at the Red Banana Cafe.
– Our army’s laying low due to public disgust with the armaments payola scandal.
Agent Felix Ramos, 22, Yale educated, from Campeche.
So, you’ll probably notice that I started with a talk/quest scene again. I guess that’s something I should keep an eye on– I don’t want it to become too big a habit. I wrote this scene around a compel of Jack Hex’s “Hero of the Mexican War” aspect. The first line was basically box-text to get me started, while the following lines were points that could come up in the conversation. The scene played out quickly as intended.
A- Bustling, thriving market
A- Oppressively warm
A- Jungle crowds close
– Streets are narrow, few cars and trucks beyond the docks.
– Cafe is being watched; going to cafe as Americans makes you a target
> Exotic gambling game in back room. (Jack’s invited back by name.)
– Ambushed [p.112] by corrupt militia (20 Avg. mooks)
— A few riffles, won’t shoot first
— Lots of clubs, knives in alley
> Thomas gets Danger Sense (p.121)
– Everyone: Alertness v. Avg, fail = first defense is mediocre 0. (Except Thomas per Danger Sense.)
> Kids nearby as targets, bystanders (Shamrock)
Militia: > Ill Equipped > Hates Yankees
This card is a lot busier– I just about filled the 4×6 card. The first three lines are Aspects for Campeche– usable by anyone who can figure out how they work to their advantage in a conflict. (We really didn’t draw on them, but they did a good job of helping to set the scene.)
Because this was our first session, I had several rules prompts noted on the card– the details of stunts can be tricky to remember on the fly. One of Jack’s best skills is Gambling, so I made sure that there was a game to catch his interest. Similarly, The Shamrock has an aspect “Soft spot for kids” that I thought I’d hit to draw him into the scene a little deeper. The final line are the militia– the 20 average mooks with “Ill Equipped” and “Hates Yankees” aspects, ready for the PCs to take advantage of.
In play, the PCs checked the place out a day ahead of time, then returned quite early for their appointment. Jack gambled and won a big pot– he was just scooping up his winnings when he heard Thomas start firing at the approaching militia out on the porch. I didn’t wind up using the kids; the Shamrock was drawn in just fine without it. (If I was doing it again, I’d probably make sure they were present and notable early, instead of trying to shoehorn them in after the action started.)
How about you?
So those are two examples of my session notes for a couple of different games. I was very confident in my ability to wing things in Spirit– so much so that on my drive to the game I realized I didn’t have a good scene to draw in the Sea Dog captain, Thomas Kretschmann. So I added a scene between cards one and two, a hurricane barreling down on them as they steamed south to Campeche, to give his expertise a chance to shine. He fought the storm while the other players hammed up their seasickness and drank his stash of liquor.
If I was running off a laptop– say, using a wiki or Obsidian Portal, I’d go with a different organizational scheme heavy on the hyperlinks– each scene or critter getting its own page, destined to be its own tab. The other quirk is that I have other, additional prep that isn’t a part of the adventure notes– for D&D I designed a map for the second encounter, while for Spirit I studied and kept the PC Aspects close at hand for an opportune compel.
What do your adventure notes look like? Do you have a scene you can cut and paste into comments? I know there are a dozen other things that good notes can emphasize– what makes the cut for you?
One of the things I know I’m slow at is math, even simple math (it takes me more than a couple of seconds to figure out what 47 + 38 is, for example). Because of this, when I prepare for my games (4e), I make and print out what I call “battle sheets” for every encounter. At the top of the sheet, I have enemies’ AC, Init, and all their hit points in either boxes or circles, so I don’t have to do too much math in the heat of the battle when figuring out how many hit points a beast has left — I just cross out the circles or boxes and that’s that; when I run out of boxes to cross out, the thing is dead. It also means I can tell at a glance if something is bloodied, barely scratched, or on its last legs.
At the bottom of the sheets, if I have room, I also include the creatures’ defenses and attacks so I have them all at my fingertips at a glance. This has really sped up combat for me. No flipping through books, no sitting there calculating numbers in my head, etc.
@Clawfoot – Simple arithmetic trick for harried GMs: With any two awkward numbers to be added, grab the most ugly to your way of thinking and round it *up* to the nearest ten, mentally recording what you added in a visualized box. For example, under stress with yammering Players wanting results now I would probably round that 47 to 50 (three in the box) so I could as 38 to 50 for 88. Then I subtract the three. I work faster with two digits than three or four so I have similar tricks to temporarily hide them, developed over the years I’ve needed them.
I find this seemingly pointless rounding technique to be thunderously useful in real life.
My kid is astounded I can “do” complex multiplication in my head but I’m cheating, using a variant of the same technique to make life easy. I learned my tables by rote up to 12 times, each up to 12, when I was a kid. I can’t tell you how much easier this made my life than some of my peers who had the benefit of “enlightened” education in which this rote learning was discredited. 14×13? A doddle, done by rote-learned response and a variant on the rounding trick (hint: ten times anything is an easy number to file away and to add to things).
I can do this stuff longhand in Mr Head, but that is no good when figuring how much MDF you’ll need for a bunch of gaming tables at the store that is running a blue-light sale, and it’s no good in the heat of an RPG when you need to twist numbers fast.
I think that the type of notes you take as a GM towards constructing a session or multi-session adventure varies very much depending on what style of game you run (NOT talking about the underlying system here) and the way your players “break”.
For instance, I’ve recently run both Conan and Call of Cthulh under D20 for different groups. I expected that they would be fairly similar other than the obvious milieu differences because the plot involved a mystery to be pieced together and an object retrieved based on what was figured out.
I found that the Conan group needed more structure “up front” and so I had to have notes on any and every possible encounter (of course I didn’t, but I long ago learned how to let the players fill in details from their own imaginations when necessary while persuading them they’ve cleverly uncovered such-and-such a plot point), while the backstory effort could be almost zilch.
The Call of Cthulhu group (in a modern Delta Green setting) required that I go totally nuts on backstory, making sure that the past events the players were looking at were meticulously recorded. A few notes on key characters was necessary along with a few interchangeable stats for “extras” meant I could sandbox the actual story to a much greater extent and save myself lots of trouble plotting encounters the players would finesse anyway.
Neither of these games was predictable, and both were highly enjoyable for me as the GM. Each had its cliched D20 moments (Roll Initiative!) but you know, that is part of the experience. Each had moments that left me, or the players, or on rare occasions all of us looking bewildered and muttering “What the frock just happened”? But the flavour and requirements of each group demanded different styles of prep (aka notes).
I also ran some games a a recent convention on Long Island (RetCon, in Plainview, and a good time was had by all), including a Savage Worlds/Realms of Cthulhu highly railroaded adventure (four hours is a bit cramped for players to sandbox in) for which I had a two-page general guideline of the Key scenes that would have to be played and some penciled annotations on timings for them to allow for an hour or so on the grid at the end for the frantic battle to *Save The President from the Deep Ones!* This also worked well, but was a solution to a problem defined very narrowly. I’m not sure I’d use the same notes if I was running the adventure in an open-ended time slot.
It’s an interesting question, but ultimately I think it’s one that GMs must work out for themselves from experience due to the large number of variables.
@Clawfoot – Your battle sheet sounds like a great tool– definitely a response to making sure that you have the information you need right there. It sounds ideal for you– but it’d be handy for me too. Nice trick!
@Roxysteve – I had a similar division for my games. For my D&D one-shot, I planned on a series of specific scenes, while for Spirit, I worked up a story and some locations where stuff could happen. I “planned” for one schedule, but when the PCs came to the cafe early, I was able to use the bar and gambling room I’d prepared for the next day’s conflict. Lots of the transition and followup scenes were improvised based on colorful research before the session (lots of wikipedia).
I’m a believer in the all powerful note cards. One thing I hadn’t considered before was to notate key rule references or brief rules snippets on the cards. That could really come in handy when you are trying to remember exactly what special talent, feat, or whatever other special ability you were thinking of emphasizing with a particular NPC for the encounter.
For the past four years I’ve moved my campaign notes to the computer pretty much in their entirety, and after some fiddling, came up with an effective format for keeping things organized.
Rather than retype it, here’s a link to the article I wrote about it a few years back: