4 Hours w/ RSD - Take Note

Notes for Every GM and Player

A Call to Action for GMs!

I have a couple of old 1st edition modules covered in badly obfuscated handwritten notes from my earliest days of playing. I can remember constantly having to improvise various things as we played because I couldn’t remember exactly what we had done or said in previous sessions.

In the mid-90s I ran a lengthy Dark Sun campaign. I have an extensive background document I wrote for my players explaining how the campaign would run and what changes I made to the game world because I knew that many of them were reading the source material and I wanted to avoid confusions between TSR’s Dark Sun and Ryan Dancey’s Dark Sun. Even so I still ended up improvising often because I relied on memory for things like minor NPCs and the decisions set up by various player character choices.

I played once in Peter Adkison’s home campaign. He provided two detailed books, one on the world, and one on character creation. This was a decade-old world (at least) that had dozens, maybe hundreds of people play in it. (During our session I tried to sell Luke Peterschmidt’s wife’s PC to a sorcerer we met in a bar in exchange for his Fire Imp. Mrs. Peterschmidt (who was playing in her first RPG ever) was not much amused by the offer.) Peter was a very improvisational GM and created much of our adventure on the fly from bits and pieces of things he’d used in previous games and from the long history of his world, but I doubt he remembers Lady Peterschmidt’s character or the name of the sorcerer we met in that bar.

For a hobby filled with Word Nerds, based on a business of selling thousands of pages of material a year, where one mark of distinction is the depth and complexity of the game worlds we play within, it’s weird that “note taking” isn’t something with a higher visibility. If you play poker for any length of time you’ll run into many people keeping detailed records of their play. If you become a chess enthusiast you can review game after game played by people at all skill levels to see how strategies evolve. My father kept detailed records of water temperature and the size & weight of the bass he fished for in Lake Washington for decades. But tabletop roleplaying gamers it seems have a hard time with note taking.

I’ve always kind of suspected that this is due to people following the pattern the publishers create. Publishers provide detailed campaign backstories, and that’s what DMs tend to create. Publishers don’t provide detailed descriptions of actual play, so people tend not to make those things. DMs tend to act like little publishers – they create setting material for the players to consume.

We’ve got to get with the program here people! Valuable info is being wasted!

Basic Notes on Characters

How many times have you asked a player what their AC is? Or the DC of a saving throw? Do you track how many hit points they have? What about their alignments?

Start your notetaking career by getting some basic info about your characters recorded.

You can use this information between sessions to help prepare future encounters. Knowing things like the health and maximum and minimum (with Take 10 and Take 20 figured in) skill rolls can help scope challenges.

You may want to make some of your notes “authoritative”. Your notes, not the players’ are the true record of the game. For example, you can track your character’s hitpoints instead of the players. Giving them exact totals is your option. You may just tell them they “need some healing” when they start to get low. This also solves the problem of players who “forget” to note damage inflicted on their PCs, or who “misunderstand” how many hitpoints they regain from healing spells and potions.

Notes On Play

As the session unfolds, make a running series of notes. Keep track of things like how many of each type of monster the PCs overcome. You might want to keep a running total of things like the most damage a given PC deals in a single round – the kinds of things that could shape the challenge of future encounters (there’s nothing worse than when a PC one-shots the Big Monster!)

Write down the names of anything you give a name to as you play – these can become recurring NPCs and add to the sense of immersion the players have. Even if that entity subsequently dies, something (or someone) else might reference it in the future – the “Grendel’s Mother” effect.

Pay special attention to summonings. Any time a character summons anything with a reasonably high Intelligence score, make a note. That being has a backstory, and it will certainly care about some dungeon delving, thrill seeking adventurer pulling it out of whatever life it was leading into a raging battle without notice or even a by-your-leave. The more powerful (and more intelligent) the summoned creature is, the more likely it is to have the ability to return to the summoner at a later date and “discuss” this experience.

Make a note whenever the characters find a body. Many scenarios assume that the PCs are not the first adventurers to explore the area. If word spreads of their deeds, family members of the deceased may seek out the PCs to inquire about the fate of their loved ones. This can lead to interesting roleplaying, or even to side quests or major plot developments. And in a world where powerful magic is real, getting that body back may mean the family can bring the dead back to life. Its gruesome to think about, but dead adventurer bodies are a form of “treasure” and it might be worthwhile to carry them out to civilization on a regular basis…

Make a note if a creature encounters the PCs and flees. Many challenges that characters face are not stupid and if unprepared, surprised, or overwhelmed, they should run away. That creature will be more ready to face the PCs next time – it may have seen some of their spells & abilities in the first encounter and be ready to cope on a rematch. Since fireball is such a common tactic, have intelligent monsters subjected to one get some fire resistance for Round 2!

Make a note about encounters the PCs bypassed. They may not have time to explore every passage leading from a given area, or miss a secret door, or not be able to bypass a lock or an illusion. Knowing what they missed is as important as knowing what they encountered.

Make a note about the path not taken. The PCs may be surprised at what comes out of the hallway or door they didn’t explore. You can have the PCs get “trapped” in between two opponents – even a small force coming on the party from behind can become a major scare especially if they aren’t paying attention or are resource depleted from combat.

Consolidating These Notes

Between sessions take some time to work your notes into a coherent report on what happened in the session. These records of “Actual Play” can become invaluable especially if the campaign has to take a hiatus. Absent players will also appreciate being able to get briefed on (suitably redacted) information on the sessions they missed.

You can also use these notes in conjunction with your quest to figure out Who is Sitting At Your Table. Look for trends – are the player psychographics emerging, or remaining opaque?

If you are playing a smaller game system, the publisher would probably love to have access to your records of Actual Play. One of the hardest things about being a roleplaying game publisher is knowing how your product is used for its intended purpose (gaming) as opposed to as literature to be read and debated by those who may never have actually used it.

I highly recommend using a wiki to keep your notes organized. There are several services available that will set you up with a wiki and administer it for you if you don’t want to do the setup and maintenance yourself.

A Clarion Call for Players!

You outnumber the GM many to one. The GM has to deal with managing lots of characters. You have to deal with just one. The GM has to deal with skills and abilities that change constantly as new creatures and NPCs are introduced. You only have to pay attention to one character that changes relatively slowly over time.

You players have a tremendous opportunity to engage in a little parallel processing to your own benefit.

When I was a young gamer, my character sheet consisted of ability scores, an AC, hit points, a handful of permanent bonuses and a character name. The whole thing could have fit on a 3x5 index card. Today, players come to the table with complex and detailed character sheets filled with trivia. As characters become more complex so do their character sheets until eventually they comprise volumes of information, much of which is rarely (if ever) actually used in play.

Simplification is called for.

The Combat Card

The first thing you should do is make a Combat Card for your character. This is a simple list of things you will need to know in every combat your character experiences:
  • Ability Scores and bonuses
  • Hit point maximum and hit point current total
  • Attack bonuses
  • Full AC
  • Touch AC
  • Saving Throw typed bonuses
  • The full calculation for your weapon damage with all die types and typed bonuses
  • Your movement rate
  • Persistent typed bonuses and penalties that arise from race or class features or supernatural effects

You want to note the types of bonuses and penalties because the GM is likely to need to know them – often.

Many characters can play session after session with no more information than this. Keep it simple. Keep it fast. Keep it easy!

The Ability Card

Second, make an Ability Card. This is a simple list of things your character can do that are likely to arise in any gaming session:
  • Skills and their bonuses and ranks
  • Race and class features you can choose to activate
  • Extraordinary, supernatural or spell-like features provided by the gear your character is wearing that you can choose to activate
  • Healing potions (include the full calculation for the healing provided)
  • Wands (include the full calculation for the effect produced) and charges remaining
  • Feats which you can choose to use, and the full calculation for their effects

These are things you’re often likely to use when not in combat. They tend to be the part of the game involving puzzles, interaction with other characters, exploration, and recovery.

The Spell Card

If you’re playing a spellcasting character you have a special obligation to your group to be organized. Prepare a Spell Card:

  • The number of spells per day per level you can cast/prepare
  • The spells per level that you are likely to cast, and the source and page number where that spell can be referenced!
  • If you intend to use metamagic, copy out the adjusted spell details with all changes from the metamagic noted
  • If you have spell-like features from some item or other source that you are likely to use, note them

The emphasis here is on “likely to use”. Most spell casters have a lengthy list of spells they could cast, but rarely do. Leave that stuff on your full character sheet. Keep your spell card focused on the stuff you do repeatedly.

The Pet Card

If you have a familiar, animal companion, eidolon, or other creature that you regularly put into harms’ way, you should make a Pet Card for that creature:
  • The pet’s type and subtype
  • Full AC
  • Touch AC
  • Hit Point total and current hit points
  • Saving throw typed bonuses
  • Attack typed bonuses
  • The full calculation for the Pet’s attack damage with all die types and typed bonuses
  • Abilities that the Pet can activate
  • Tricks the Pet knows
  • Movement rate
  • Persistent typed bonuses and penalties that arise from race or class features or supernatural effects

If you choose to play a character with a pet, it is your responsibility to reduce the overhead incurred to the minimum possible. Help move the game along by keeping track of your pet’s information and being ready to answer questions about it quickly.

Be Kind to your GM

Make 2 copies of each card. Give one to your GM. You just made the GM’s job easier and you likely sped up the game a considerable amount. Everyone at the table benefits. Also, in the event that you lose/forget/vaporize your character sheet, you can still play by using the GM’s copy of your cards.


As a group, the players need to get on the same page. You should exchange your cards and study them. Figure out how your character can help the others. There are tremendous opportunities in the game system, and in regular play, to magnify your combined party effectiveness through this kind of pre-planning.

Melee combatants should be planning on how to flank. Spellcasters should know how to buff their friends, and how to extract them from overwhelming danger. Think about how to control the battle space with terrain changing effects (web, entanglements, etc.) Think about how to confuse your opponents with invisibility, short-range teleportation, using walls and ceilings for travel, playing with light & shadow, etc.

You may, as a group, want to create a series of Tactics Cards to help you all remember what you can do together. This pre-planning can massively speed up the game as well as give you an advantage in tough encounters.

The End of the Beginning And The Next Series of Columns

I’d like to thank everyone who has been following along with these initial essays. Now that some groundwork has been laid, I am going to turn my attention to changing the way the game itself is played in the upcoming columns. We’ll be building on the ideas we’ve explored and finding ways to start amping up the fun!

--RSD / Atlanta, April 2011
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Ryan S. Dancey

Ryan S. Dancey

OGL Architect

Jeff Wilder

First Post
I wish I were better at taking notes. I am, instead, exactly in the mold of the examples you give.

I have tried, but taking notes at the table simply doesn't work for me. The best I manage -- and if I do manage it, it works well -- is writing down a few paragraphs immediately following a game, while everything is fresh in my mind. (Also, a player who takes good notes and synthesizes them for the entire group is worth his weight in gold. Seriously, I have no problem with giving significant XP awards for this.)

My theory is that GMing uses right-brain, and note-taking is left-brain. Although I am primarily a left-brain person -- or maybe because I am primarily a left-brain person -- once I get into "right-brain creative mode" it is extremely difficult to engage the left-brain and actively jarring and disruptive to right-brain mode when I manage to do it.


First Post
The way Ryan DMs

I have run the same campaign world for 15 yrs now and my lead player always keeps all the notes for the campaign, he has about 2 dozen of them now.

I love running my game with him as the table scribe as we call him, when I forget something or change something that I said before he goes and looks it up to make sure its right.

I only keep track of the hit points and levels of the characters.

When I start a new campaign I write up my character creation rules in about 5 to 20 pages depending on the system.

Currently running a blended 3.5 D&D transforming into Swords & Wizardry Complete in one month.


For my online campaign (Maptools & Skype) I save the chat history and then as soon as the game has finished write up a diary version of events, detailing every encounter, all NPCs and locations visited- with notes as to where the PCs are at, also lists with magic items found, and gp liberated- I've done this seemingly forever, or at least since PCs (computers) have been about. I send the updated notes to the players after the session- several ex-players also keep up with the game this way and chip in.

For my face-to-face game I employ a hanger-on (usually a significant other or son or daughter of one of the players) to keep notes on everything- we detail every moment in combat (and for RP). See the stat based SH in my sig- I'm an anally retentive so-and-so.

Both of my campaigns are based in the Nentir Vale, I have written a nice 15-or-so page intro.

My problem is, seemingly, the more I do the less the PCs do- the less the PCs do the more I have to do...

My for-instance is it was not uncommon in the early days for the PCs to turn up for the on-line game, memories wiped, and with little or no idea what they accomplished last time- only one of the players always made notes, and then sometimes things got missed.

I always recap the previous sessions play but took to doing more comprehensive notes when the delicately crafted sub-plots, turning points et al were just being ignored/forgotten about- not the action but the meaning.

Or, the opposite was happening- example, the PCs found a much used (and worn) knife in a abandoned catacomb in Fallcrest (with terribly difficult to read initials on it) along with a hastily abandoned campsite. The PCs had also learned previously that one of the PCs friends had arrived in Fallcrest (looking for the PC) and penniless had been sleeping rough. The PCs spent a fair amount of time trying to find the owner of the knife/campsite. The next session the PCs friend turns up- in jail and charged with murder, they don't ask him about the knife- because they've not connected it, they do however continue to investigate the knife and campsite elsewhere- more or less every session for the next five sessions- in the end spending money to get the local Thieves Guild to look in to the matter- the guild connect the two and one of the PCs 'big' clues disappears.

The problem being the PCs were following my notes, anything that gets written down by me they figure is important, the lesson too many notes and... It's difficult to get it just right, just enough for the PCs to see the bigger picture eventually, without making the plot obvious- otherwise we would have to spend an hour at the start every session with the PCs going through the notes trying to work out where next- what's important.

Cheers Goonalan


First Post
For my online campaign (Maptools & Skype) I save the chat history and then as soon as the game has finished write up a diary version of events, detailing every encounter, all NPCs and locations visited- with notes as to where the PCs are at, also lists with magic items found, and gp liberated- I've done this seemingly forever, or at least since PCs (computers) have been about. I send the updated notes to the players after the session- several ex-players also keep up with the game this way and chip in.

I also play with Maptool and Skype as my old RPG friends are in different states now, and I have to say that it has opened us up to using our computers more fully as RPG tools. Our character sheets and notes are all on google docs shared between us all. Our treasure is on a spread sheet with gp values, and we can quickly see how close we are to the suggested WBL. With Maptool our GM has a record of all the rolls we made, etc. Now one of my other GMs who runs Vampire has gotten a handle on switching us from Skype to Vent so he can use a channel to pipe in background music.

All in all, the hobbie has gotten some advanced tools in the last decade (few decades, I am sure for those who played MUDs and MUSHs). Its interesting to see the evolution, and how it turns us into more sophisticated players and GMs.


First Post
Thanks for the thoughts and keep them coming. :)

The article gave me an idea or two I missed in my preparations (I was hoping it would help sharpen my notes). So all is good. I've worked long and hard to make my life as a DM easier and faster for better gaming. Any help like this is always appreciated.


I've kinda got a mixed reaction here...

On the one hand, yeah GMs _need_ to have notes or something about the game as they go. Being an improvisational sort of GM, I've made it a habit to make notes as I go along, just so as to avoid some of the problems laid out.

And I make it a habit of having a PC cheat-sheet as well. As a player, I make sure I pre-figure a bunch of different bonuses (power attack, weapon whatevers, etc) so that I don't slow down the game for others.


On the other hand, this is jacking up the GMs workload by quite a bit. Especially given how disdainful people seem to be about houserules, insisting instead on RAW (Rules as Written). 3.x is a _heavy_ system in terms of GM load. It's not the heaviest, but it's not uncommon to me to see people talking about spending 4-10 hours prepping their games.

At a minimum.

I think 4 hours of prep work for a 4 hour game is nuts. Folks love doing that, more power to them. It's a barrier though. It's one of the reasons why more people don't GM and aren't interested in GMing. 8 hours for game prep? You've gotta be kidding me. That's a whole other day of work, spent just working on the _prep_ side of my hobby.

So now, on top of the half to full day worth of work that a GM is supposed to spend prepping their game (because the implication is that if you're not prepping very much you're going to be running a crap game), and trying to manage everything else that's actually going on at the table (because people are obsessed with miniature-based play and playing the "full" game with RAW), the GM is also supposed to take time out and start making detailed notes?

Actually be responsible for keeping track of hit points of characters and keeping these away from players?

Ignoring the issue of GMing styles in terms of what information is available to players regarding metagame stuff (whether it's their character's hit points, or what monster they're facing, or whatever) I don't see how this sort of thing is actually going to make a GMs life _easier_ in the long run.

It'll work for a very particular sort of GM, sure. But just like the style of D&D that gets playtested and then sold as "D&D" isn't actually representative of the way everyone (or even a majority of people) play/run their game, this kind of advice won't work for everyone.

Or even a majority.

Simply put, D&D and 3.x cater to a "hardcore" gamer mentality. There's a series of barriers erected in terms of being both a player and a GM. And honestly, the hardcore GMs are already covered with lots of advice, suggestions from designers, all the other hardcore GMs, etc.

You know who _doesn't_ get much screen time?

The casual player. The casual GM.

People for whom D&D is fun enough and they might even be willing to play it as a regular deal, but they're fundamentally unwilling and/or unable to invest in the game the way that everyone is telling them they _must_. GMing doesn't automatically mean the person behind the screen is the hardcore type; making that assumption is a critical error on both the part of gamers as well as the producers of rpgs.

Simply put, D&D might be a fun past-time for some of these folks, but it's not their primary hobby and they're not interested in making it their primary hobby either.

This article is fine enough, for those GMs that are of the hardcore inclination but aren't as organised as they could/need to be.

For the casual GM though, it's simply another thing they need to add to the list of how they fail to be a "real" GM compared to everyone else, another reason why they should just stay as a player, another reason why rpgs are 20 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours.

My own meager contribution to the general idea of notetaking, is to leverage the technology that's often at the game table in the first place.

GMs are frequently relying on laptops to run their games (which I won't bother addressing right now), they're iPhones/iPads... all kinds of stuff that has built-in recording gear.

Screw note-taking. Note-taking during the game should only be for critical things; instead, just record the session and make notes from that recording when you're doing your prep for the _next_ game.

Essentially the notes that you take from the recording become a part of the session building, helping the GM to zero in and emphasize things that are important to the story or the style of game. They become the considered hooks for plot developments, addtional background material, and so forth.

You don't have to worry about the quality of the recording, you don't have to worry about optimal placement so you can hear every single person at the table; really you only need to be able to hear yourself as the GM clear enough. Everyone else is just icing on the cake.

If you're motivated enough, you can keep the recordings, or you can simply toss them after you're done with your session prep. Keeping them has an advantage of being a record in case there's ever need of one, as well as being able to go back and carefully mine them for ideas if need be, beyond simply acting as your scribe and session prep.

For the casual GM and player, a session recording can be helpful for reminding them of everything that took place. You're not going to bother listening to the entire 4 hours, heck no. You listen, skip ahead and go "Oh yeah, that's right..." A sentence summary here and there and you'll have the reminder notes needed as either a player or a GM.

For the hardcore GM, a recording is even better than trying to rely on notes scribbled in the heat of the game. You can go back and actually sit down and think through decisions that were made, figure out better approaches to the rules, note if you're missing critical details when it comes to running combats, etc.
Last edited:


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I have run the same campaign world for 15 yrs now and my lead player always keeps all the notes for the campaign, he has about 2 dozen of them now.

I love running my game with him as the table scribe as we call him, when I forget something or change something that I said before he goes and looks it up to make sure its right.

I run a game with one player who takes copious notes, and pulls out stuff from them left and right. The campaign has been running for years, and in character he'll reference things that happened with a much better remembrance of small details than I have. *IF* I have a minor NPC from a town half a continent away written down, I don't have it in my sit-down-and-run notes for this session. He's a blessing and a curse. More blessing, definitely.

On the other hand I'm in a game with a scribe like you mention, and she's fantastic. All the little bits of detail she has are inspiring. Especially since if it happened a while ago in character and we ask the DM, he just smiles and asks for intelligence checks.

Both of these games have a lot of improv and on-the-spot details made up by the DM.


First Post
Simply put, D&D and 3.x cater to a "hardcore" gamer mentality. There's a series of barriers erected in terms of being both a player and a GM. And honestly, the hardcore GMs are already covered with lots of advice, suggestions from designers, all the other hardcore GMs, etc.

You know who _doesn't_ get much screen time?

The casual player. The casual GM.

I think you'll really like my upcoming columns!


Related Articles

Visit Our Sponsor

An Advertisement