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Three-Part Series on Writing RPG Session Notes

Over on Encoded Designs [1], Phil Vecchione (longtime GM and TT reader (DNAphil), GM-Fu panelist [2] and author of the kickass guest post Great Campaigns: One Out of Three Ain’t Bad [3]) recently wrapped up an epic three-part series detailing his method for writing session notes.

This is one of those areas where you can never hear too many different ideas and approaches. Even if you’re completely comfortable with your own method, there’s always more to learn — and if you don’t have a standard approach of your own, reading a veteran GM’s outline can be invaluable.

Phil dissected his session-writing needs and constraints as a GM, and built his system around these three principles:

• The system needs to as simple as possible.
• It needs to be flexible. (I need to be able to speed it up or slow it down, depending on what is going on in my life at the time.)
• It needs to have some slack. (That is, it needs to be able to be delayed and postponed for a day or two in the cycle without things falling apart.)

In Taking It One Step At A Time [4], Phil outlines what he does each week, covering the whole prep cycle from start to finish. Part two, Tools of the Trade [5], discusses Phil’s favorite tools, including Moleskine notebooks and TiddlyWiki.

With It’s All In The Notes [6], Phil brings the series home with a detailed breakdown of each element that he includes in his session notes, from giving each scene a short, explicit purpose to jotting down key dialogue and deciding which skill checks are important enough to merit rolls.

The bit about statements of purpose is a great illustration of what makes Phil’s approach accessible, adaptable and versatile:

When I looked over my old session notes, I noticed that there were scenes I had written that did not really seem like they needed to be part of the session, or worse, after reading the notes, I could not figure out why I ran that scene during the session. So now the first line I put on the top of a scene, is the purpose. It is only one sentence long. If I canโ€™t explain why I am going to run this scene in one sentence, then either the scene is not appropriate, or itโ€™s too sweeping and would be best broken in to parts.

Phil’s series is a must-read, and I encourage you to check it out (and let him know what you think about his approach in the comments over on Encoded Designs [1]). Thanks for sharing these, Phil!

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#1 Comment By darelf On October 29, 2007 @ 6:22 am

Your 3 bullet points (or rather, Phil’s) seem to work well for what makes a good RPG…..


#2 Comment By Amaril On October 29, 2007 @ 7:32 am

darelf, when I first read the bulleted list, I actually thought that’s what it was talking about, but then I realized it was referring to GM session writing. Although, I’m not sure how the third bullet point can be associated with an RPG game. Can you explain?

#3 Comment By darelf On October 29, 2007 @ 1:53 pm

Hmm.. good point. I think I internalize the word “slack” differently.

His point is one about timing. Postponing something without causing undue stress. I would say, perhaps, this would be the attribute of the “perfect” rpg system, rather than simply a “good” one.

I’m uncertain how one would build such a thing into an RPG. How many times do we talk about “retconning” or “oops, I did it again” syndrome? What if an RPG could somehow “fix” that?

It’s a nice thought, but I have no idea what such a system would look like. Adventures are generally built along the lines of “choose your own adventure”. That is, even if they aren’t linear, they have an outline and some different possible outcomes. Most games play out as if they were a novel or tv show ( I prefer the latter ). I think that’s on purpose, and I’m unsure how one would “fix” it rules-wise ( without the game being based on reality-changing, in which the entire game is an exercise in player-directed retconning )

Or, if you skipped all the above paragraphs… “I don’t know, exactly”.. ๐Ÿ™‚

#4 Comment By Martin On October 29, 2007 @ 2:02 pm

The first two bullet points definitely work as “traits for most good RPGs” (light systems aren’t everyone’s cup of tea), but I agree that the third one doesn’t quite fit.

As Phil intended them, though, I think they’re nearly universal. I’ve seen at least one detailed prep system that was self-described (by its author, not by me) as “work intensive,” but I don’t think that’s as common as lighter approaches. ๐Ÿ˜‰