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How do you keep your GM notes?

I'm always curious as to how people write and organize (or not) their GM notes. What do yours look like? Digital, or Paper, or both? Comprehensive, cross-referenced onenote file or similar, a gigantic binder, a stack of index cards, or a notebook? Or are you minimalistic and keep most things in your head?

Personally, I've found that I'm obsessive about organizing things, but not able to really look up notes while in the middle of play, just because I stay in the moment and I forget. It's helpful for me to have everything I might reference in front of me, usually in the form of one or two typed pages or a single notebook spread. I've tried bringing my ipad to the table but I found the mediation of the screen means that I can't switch modes to actually reference my notes there in a quick way. Similarly, when I started dming online during the pandemic I set up roll 20 and had a million tabs opened, but found that I couldn't look at all that and still engage my players. I love one page adventures for this reason (and can't deal with long modules for the same reason).

Pictures welcome!
 

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kenada

Legend
Supporter
I keep my notes in an accordion file. During a session, I have a sheet for session notes and another for tracking exploration. I keep all of those in the file in their own section. I keep soft copies in a folder on iCloud Drive.

For campaign material (keys, etc), I lay them out in Affinity Publisher. I first started off lying them out as full sheets in a binder, but that took up too much space. I tried switching to PDF, but I also found it too slow to use in practice. I’m currently experimenting with laying them out as booklets (first half-letter now A5).

When I ran on roll20 and Foundry, I had everything set up there, but I switched back to paper notes. The screen just got way too cluttered, which made GMing feel too chaotic. I’m a spatial person, so I like having things in their spot. I can do that more easily with a desk in front of me than with a computer screen (or even two).
 

I'm always curious as to how people write and organize (or not) their GM notes. What do yours look like? Digital, or Paper, or both? Comprehensive, cross-referenced onenote file or similar, a gigantic binder, a stack of index cards, or a notebook? Or are you minimalistic and keep most things in your head?
I tend to do cheat sheets covering the entire mechanicals needed in play. They're typed/laid-out in either Pages or LibreOffice.
For Dune, including some setting reference materials (list of canonical house names, list of canonical words), and character gen (2p), house gen (1.5p), it's a total of 12, and I'm likely to add another 2...
Twilight 2000 4e is 24p, half of which is vehicles and weapons, no setting material nor char gen (I managed to cram full char gen onto 5 pp; 3 for basic, and 2 for lifepath)
D&D 5e, no class data, no race data, was 7p, 2 of which were equipment and weapons lists. Core classes and races added another 6p. None of the spells, either, nor even spell lists.
 
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Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I tend to make notes in the margins of the adventure I'm running. Of course, since I went to run one module each session, this approach makes tracking down older notes kind of tricky. But since I have all the modules from a given campaign in the same binder, it's not TOO bad.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Composition notebook, yellow legal pad for at the table, or by computer, word/libreoffice or .txt a lot of the time; I can format them up, and make a pdf to use as a handout if needed. I take a lot of notes as well. Forum software for online games also is the easiest way for me to organize things too.
 


Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
My organization is pretty straightforward, with some divergence between in-person and online-only games. I only do homebrew, so

Everything is kept in electronic format, most recently moved to google docs because my gremlins made fun of my old-fashioned ways at the urging of my loving, D&D-playing children.

I do a lot of longer term and big-picture planning, so that I have material for when I'm improving. So I have a several documents with different parts of that. Usually a geography one (homebrew worlds) that is likely better labelled with something else as I will also have common inhabitants, points of interest, and such. Or even things like "random things to stumble across exploring the jungle" charts.

I have a one on character arcs. For me I try to weave in bits of different character's arcs throughout the whole campaign, so this this not just plans but also reminders to me what has actually hit the table so I can make sure it stays consistent over time. Plus I do "Schrodinger's Plots" - nothing is true until it hits the table, even if I had it planned long ago.

But my most important is my Session planning doc. I do a new one for each session, but I start with the last one. First page of it is my character run-down - skills/abilities they have, allegiances, rivals, hatreds, etc. - basically a quick summary of the connections for a character and what they do so that when I'm planning sessions I can look through and say "oh, I should throw in some traps so the rogue who took expertise in finding and removing them gets some spotlight on that" or "hmm, can I tie this into one of these organizations?".

Next is a "things to remember" for me. Like "2 days left before the deadline" or "tell Brandor about the dream he has", "thunderstorming", or "they are still under the effects of the curse". (All names silly in this post, not in actual play.)

After that in my session doc is a recap that I read at the start of the session - while it's usually a capsule of the previous session, it may also contain information the characters know and should be top-of-mind for the players. "Baron Bahd Guie, the one who kidnapped Brandor's mother, is leading the delegation you are trying to infiltrate."

I'll have a short bullet point of various challenges I'm expecting, more of an overview that I can jump to to keep my eye on stuff - oh, I use the various Headings to create a heirarchy, and use the navigation bar to jump back and forth.

Then I'll have details on the various scenes/locations/however I need to organize what's next.

I'll have various cheat-sheets embedded in this, oft times from other documents. For example for a city I might have the quick overview, a racial breakdown, and lists of names for the common races so I can pull out NPCs quickly. For things I give a reasonable chance of turning into combat encounters I will have a stat block right there.

For online games I'll likely have less overview since I can pull up any of the documents quickly. For in-person games I print it out and run from that, trying not to bury my nose in technology while running unless I really need to.

For both I'll have images of people, places and things ready, and for in-person I'll have printouts of magic items they find to hand to them, also with images. Online-only I've recently started doing a shared party treasure google doc that I can copy things into and they can split up and everything as they want.

I have what I call the dramatis persona, but really it's just lists fo the various NPCs, broken out in a heirarchy. For example movers and shakers for a nation will be listed for that nation, which local folks are listed in whatever settlement or organization they are. But really this is a place I can take NPCs that I worked up in the session document (below) and cut-n-paste them to to have them findable later. They include RP and relationship info as well so that stays consistant when they meet NPCs sessions later. Mind you, an NPC dragon might have the map for the lair that they snuck through - the idea isnt' to spread information around, it's to make it manageable.

I also have the generally labelled "archives" which is everything else I want to keep from session documents but isn't around a NPC, or is around too many of them. Though some things might get added to the other documents - a quarter of a city, expanded out in feel, inhabitants, and a couple of shops during play will have that tossed in the geography book.

These various books start mostly empty - at the start of play I'm looking at high level details only to introduce it to the players, do a sessions 0, build characters and connect them to the world, and figure out the start of play. So character connections and starting areas and plots are the first details I'll have in there.

Oh, I have worlds that move on even if the PCs are not paying attention to sosmehting. This goes hand-in-hand with having more hooks then the PCs can follow, and being willing to improv when they (regularly) make up their own directions. So having this much surrounding information helps me keep everything feeling like one world and having what I need to improv - because I know what's around, who's keeping an eye on whom, and what can happen.
 

I keep everything in binders, frequently using folders as well. I have a Google Drive document to keep track of our progress, but none of us are good at keeping up with it.
 

MS word. Back in the FtF days, since I did not host the game, I read them on a iPad. Now, online-gaming from home, I just pull the doc on one monitor.

Combat sheets are displayed on my iPad, with combat notes on a boogie board.
 

John Dallman

Adventurer
Word-processor documents, Libre Office these days. For face-to-face play, I'd print out my notes (one page at most) for each session in advance, scribble on them, and sometimes transcribe them back into the document. For online, there's no need for printing. Most of the context stays in my head, and my notes are about things that are likely to turn up, especially names, which I don't improvise well.

I often keep more notes as a player than I do as GM.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
Mostly square grid paper and binders. My players use a public googledoc during play to take notes. I stopped using the computers for notes to get away from the screen.

Currently have 4 binders. D&D 5e, Fantasy AGE, Modern AGE and Corilios. I have a 5th binder for all my solitary adventures. My The Expanse AGE campaign is in a folder, not enough notes to warrant a binder yet.

 

For me it depends on the game and the format.

I tend to use handwritten notes in a notebook that I keep handy. I’ll then sometimes take those notes and type them into a word doc to make them more legible and organized. I try not to have more than 2 such pages so that I can easily reference them during play.

If I’m playing a game that requires enemy statblocks like D&D, then I usually copy them from electronic formats, minimize the entries, and paste as many as possible onto one page. If I don’t have an electronic version then I’ll just type up a minimal statblock and use that.

For less prep-heavy games, I usually just “refresh” and organize notes I’ve taken in play, and use those in the next session. I also use other resources when available. I have a google doc version of the Crews and Playbooks for Blades in the Dark. There’s a tab for the Crew and then one for each PC, and also one for Faction Statuses and Clocks that are in play. The beautiful thing about this is that the players update it as we play, and we can all view and edit live as needed.

Another example is when we’re playing remotely via Discord, I have a GM only channel that I can type notes into as needed. So I’ll do that during play, and then update and organize in between sessions.

For the face to face campaign of Spire that I just started, I mostly use handwritten notes. It’s a very player led game, so after the first session, I don’t expect to need a whole lot in the way of adventure prep. What I’ll need is NPC and Faction lists and descriptions and that kind of thing. I made a one page mind-map of the relevant factions and their relationships. I’ll mark notes on that during play, and then update it after play. All the possible NPC stats you need for Spire fit on about three printed pages, so I have them handy.

I just ordered a Campaign Planner Notebook from The Rook & The Raven, which I customized to be very suited to running Spire; it has lots of entries for factions and NPCs and the like. I’m looking forward to getting that.
 

Everything I do is digital these day; permanent material is prepared in WordPerfect and usually stored both as such files and output as PDFs (so when using them I don't accidentally change something by accident). More transitory material and general notes I store in Scrivener files for the individual campaign.
 

Jay Murphy1

Meterion, Mastermind of Time !
I record all my game sessions so this is my ultimate notebook of what actually occurred. By the time I've edited the audio into a listenable format I've got the whole session pretty much memorized so I spend less time on prep and more time daydreaming what the villains are plotting/doing. I use small hardcover notebooks to draw up relationship maps and bullet point NPC powers and stats. I rough up sketches of anticipated site locations and create any random tables I want before hand, but they also go into durable small notebooks, unlined if I can get them. The rulebook is at the table to handle actual in game questions on any procedure.
 

aco175

Legend
I' m not good at notes and keep most things in my head or take only a handful of pen and pencil notes at the table to keep for later. I might make some story arcs for each PC and then see which the party takes. There is not a lot of that in my games though as most of the players don't have big backstory and tend to go with the published story or something I make. I would like to see more of it though.
 


Tun Kai Poh

Adventurer
In BitD, which I run over Discord voice sessions, I have a Google Doc with all of the NPCs and factions. I have a couple of other notes on my phone and computer but this one is the most important.

I used to write everything on paper, but online cloud docs are so useful to me.

And since I learned about character keeper sheets (on Google Sheets), I'm looking into those for future games.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Mostly I use little spiral bound notebooks for GM notes. Well, actually player notes too. I have a tendency to get lost in too much detail, especially as a player, so writing it down helps. Same goes for GMing and especially for recording the player side of what's going on.
 

pogre

Legend
I use google docs for everything. I print stuff off and run it out of a binder at the table. I prefer not to have my computer on the table in face-to-face games.
 

payn

Hero
A collection of PDFs and MS office files. Though, since pandemic getting into discord more and its ability for chat channels and file sharing.
 

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