Word processing and web technology is great. It allows ANYONE to produce produce professional looking manuscripts and pages. However, they may not be the best tools for the early stages of session preparation. Sometimes all the bells and whistles, not to mention the potential distraction of the internet, can hinder the creative process.

This article will be a love letter to the old school physical notebook, my preference for starting the planning process. I will look at the general advantages of a physical notebook (I like the marble kind with the stiff back), and how it fits into my method of session prep. In the spirit of fairness, we’ll look at some of the limitations of a physical notebook as well.

General Advantages

Notebooks are cheap and portable (except for those 18 dollar hoity-toity kind). You can write in them anywhere and at anytime. You’d be surprised how many off moments there are in a given day when you can write. Waiting for Junior to finish the piano lesson? Jot down a quick encounter or create an NPC. You can even use it during times when it would seem bad to have your cellphone out. Make it look like you are so interested that you are taking notes. (Seriously, though, don’t do this when you are supposed to be doing your work or paying attention in class. You need to eat too.) You can add a quick sketch of a map in a physical notebook much easier than you could on a phone or tablet.

And it never needs recharging.

The Method

Here’s one suggested method for session prep using a notebook.

Brainstorm – These pages look horrible, but are absolutely essential to the process. Jot down any idea that comes to mind. Consider loose plot threads for the last session, under-utilized NPC’s, character backgrounds, classes and goals. And don’t forget to include a few things that you’d really enjoy including as well. Cross out, draw arrows, make a big mess.

Rough Outline – Once an idea has presented itself, try to wrangle it into a rough outline of probably encounters/scenes.

Refined Outline – This second outline is critical. Try to put things in better order, develop the ideas a little more. In fact, in a pinch, one could even run a session from the Refined Outline.(Truth time: I’ve had to do this more than once. Real life and all that.)

First Draft – Writing it out long-hand may seem like a slow process. After all, most of us can type faster than we can write. However, the slower process is a feature, not a bug. It slows us down so we can think about the ideas in more depth.

Second Draft – Consider handwriting a second draft if you have time. (I did that for this article.) That way when you finally sit down at the computer, you can simply transcribe your notes and clean everything up. It actually reduces my time at the keyboard in the long run.


A physical notebook won’t work for everyone, and that’s fine. Some folks may have unclear handwriting which makes it impractical. Others may have physical concerns which require adaptive technology. And sometimes even people who love their notebooks just don’t have the time to use them. Deadlines loom and sometimes you just have to bang it out at the keyboard and hope for the best.

And you might lose a notebook. Keep your eye on those 18 dollar ones, already.

Concluding Thoughts

A recent study showed that taking notes by hand is much more effective than typing them into a laptop. I suspect the same may be true for session prep. Using a notebook may help you slow down and turn things over in your mind a bit more. Even if you use only digital technology the process of writing several outlines and drafts can only improve your sessions.

How about you? Do you use a physical notebook? Is there a piece of technology that mimics this for you? Am I the only dinosaur still roaming the earth? Tell us below. (But be gentle, we dinosaurs are sensitive.)