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How do you keep your GM notes?

Hex08

Explorer
Since I primarily now play on Fantasy Grounds my notes are either in the "notes" feature in Fantasy Grounds or in a document using Libre Office's word processor. When I still played around a table it was in a notebook, preferably one made of leather crafted from human flesh with disturbing arcane symbols adorning the cover. The notebook was my favorite way of keeping notes and have been thinking about going back to it.
 

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Jack Daniel

Legend
Pocket binder.

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Dungeons levels 4 and 5 are in the next two pockets, and 6 and 7 in the next two after that, etc.
 

turnip_farmer

Adventurer
Bits of paper. And word documents. And in character sheets in roll20. And in a message on Discord.

Basically it's a big mess and I lose stuff all the time. And then the players will vast Identify on a magic item I forgot about months ago. In the worst case scenarios I find myself sneaking looks at my player notes when I forget names that I made up on the spot. I really should figure out some sort of system.

What with home office and all, I've also gotten into a terrible habit of using the same notepads for jotting things down during gaming sessions and during work meetings. I have pads filled with stuff like this:

No prof liability ins. - check with Risk
2 gnolls / 5 g. hyaenas
Ulrica has cursed gem
Need to review 3rd party set up process doc
 

Bits of paper. And word documents. And in character sheets in roll20. And in a message on Discord.

Basically it's a big mess and I lose stuff all the time. And then the players will vast Identify on a magic item I forgot about months ago. In the worst case scenarios I find myself sneaking looks at my player notes when I forget names that I made up on the spot. I really should figure out some sort of system.

What with home office and all, I've also gotten into a terrible habit of using the same notepads for jotting things down during gaming sessions and during work meetings. I have pads filled with stuff like this:

No prof liability ins. - check with Risk
2 gnolls / 5 g. hyaenas
Ulrica has cursed gem
Need to review 3rd party set up process doc
do you find that it affects your game? Would the game be different if you had a system?
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
When I DM, I have a small notepad to take notes, scribble and for all my output.

For my input (my prep), I have my laptop in front of me. I use a software called Notion. I already use it for work, and it's great at organizing notes in databases and formatted pages. It really complements my type of worldbuilding where I prepare a ton of stuff ahead, and then just refine it ahead of a session. When I think of something in the shower, or in the transit, I just add it to the relevant page. When I know it's likely that my player might explore that area, I go through the notes and refine them.

As for Notion, if people are curious, I can go in more details later or if there's requests. But here's a summary. The examples are from my Starfinder campaign.

I have a small dashboard in which there's multiple pages. In the following picture you can see: a list of databases under world building, pages with a copy of my player's characters background and personal notes under Players characters, a section for quick tracking in between sessions (not tracking anything in my Starfinder campaign, but I track stuff like the date in Forbidden Lands of the days of rations left in my D&D campaigns), and some system appropriate (Starfinder in this case) summaries for lore and rules under Lore and Rules. I also have pre-generated passwords for computers and other stuff.
1632160530375.png


If we dive in one of the databases (NPCs in this case), you'll see a literal database of NPCs. I have some quick informations to sort and navigate through them. Interestingly, you can see the second column (Location) that actually links towards the Locations database. So this is not just manually inputted data, it's a dynamic link to objects from that database. So I can navigate pretty quickly between databases.

1632160734456.png


If you click on one of these database entries, you can open up its page (every entry is a page). Here's a random entry. This is a pretty unimportant NPC. So I only have a few notes about their appearance, or important things to remember. This is all done with a template; each database has a template I've created. So if I create a new NPC in the NPC database and I open it, it'll already have these headers and some empty space to fill.

1632160880761.png


Now, I'm sure some will think this is over preparation. Some may also think this might be tedious to navigate and use during play.

So what I do is prepare a summary page of what I'll need before a session. So, in that first image there's a page at the top left that says Sessions, in there, there's a list of one page per session. Generally you'll find one for the upcoming session too.
1632161044954.png


Now, if we dive in one of these, you'll see the notes I actually use for my session. It's basically some freeform notes and a ton of links towards pages scattered through the databases. I can simply open them, close them and I'm always in this session page. So, the first thing in my session page is some links.
1632161136545.png

And further in the page, you'll find some sections with headers for different locations or possible events. Here's an example. I have a quick note as to what music I wanted to put on in Spotify (hierarchy of playlists). I have some notes (in french) that describe the environment, this is my description blurb. And then some raw notes about the characters.

1632161234702.png

The formatting changes a lot from page to page. This is all for quick access.

So, in the background, there's a ton of prep, databases, notes, etc. I simply refine it when it's pertinent and I organize it in a session page ahead of the next session.

And sometimes life hits and this happens... (from a different campaign)
1632161797913.png
 

When I DM, I have a small notepad to take notes, scribble and for all my output.

For my input (my prep), I have my laptop in front of me. I use a software called Notion. I already use it for work, and it's great at organizing notes in databases and formatted pages. It really complements my type of worldbuilding where I prepare a ton of stuff ahead, and then just refine it ahead of a session. When I think of something in the shower, or in the transit, I just add it to the relevant page. When I know it's likely that my player might explore that area, I go through the notes and refine them.

As for Notion, if people are curious, I can go in more details later or if there's requests. But here's a summary. The examples are from my Starfinder campaign.

I have a small dashboard in which there's multiple pages. In the following picture you can see: a list of databases under world building, pages with a copy of my player's characters background and personal notes under Players characters, a section for quick tracking in between sessions (not tracking anything in my Starfinder campaign, but I track stuff like the date in Forbidden Lands of the days of rations left in my D&D campaigns), and some system appropriate (Starfinder in this case) summaries for lore and rules under Lore and Rules. I also have pre-generated passwords for computers and other stuff.
View attachment 144118

If we dive in one of the databases (NPCs in this case), you'll see a literal database of NPCs. I have some quick informations to sort and navigate through them. Interestingly, you can see the second column (Location) that actually links towards the Locations database. So this is not just manually inputted data, it's a dynamic link to objects from that database. So I can navigate pretty quickly between databases.

View attachment 144119

If you click on one of these database entries, you can open up its page (every entry is a page). Here's a random entry. This is a pretty unimportant NPC. So I only have a few notes about their appearance, or important things to remember. This is all done with a template; each database has a template I've created. So if I create a new NPC in the NPC database and I open it, it'll already have these headers and some empty space to fill.

View attachment 144120

Now, I'm sure some will think this is over preparation. Some may also think this might be tedious to navigate and use during play.

So what I do is prepare a summary page of what I'll need before a session. So, in that first image there's a page at the top left that says Sessions, in there, there's a list of one page per session. Generally you'll find one for the upcoming session too.
View attachment 144121

Now, if we dive in one of these, you'll see the notes I actually use for my session. It's basically some freeform notes and a ton of links towards pages scattered through the databases. I can simply open them, close them and I'm always in this session page. So, the first thing in my session page is some links.
View attachment 144122
And further in the page, you'll find some sections with headers for different locations or possible events. Here's an example. I have a quick note as to what music I wanted to put on in Spotify (hierarchy of playlists). I have some notes (in french) that describe the environment, this is my description blurb. And then some raw notes about the characters.

View attachment 144123
The formatting changes a lot from page to page. This is all for quick access.

So, in the background, there's a ton of prep, databases, notes, etc. I simply refine it when it's pertinent and I organize it in a session page ahead of the next session.

And sometimes life hits and this happens... (from a different campaign)
View attachment 144125
I tried to set up notion to see how it might work for a campaign (following Sly Flourish's advice). I think I have the same issues with it as I have for one note, which is that it makes perfect sense for building a cross-linked database for a campaign, but in session the fact of having to navigate links to take you to the relevant page means that I would probably ignore my notes. For example, if the players encountered an NPC and were chatting with them, if I had to click on an NPC link to get that character's info, I probably just wouldn't, preferring to keep eye contact with my players.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
For example, if the players encountered an NPC and were chatting with them, if I had to click on an NPC link to get that character's info, I probably just wouldn't, preferring to keep eye contact with my players.
Entirely true. To be entirely honest, the act of preparation itself and writing up my summary is more important the result. I end up skimming large portions of my notes for sessions because I wrote them not even twenty four hours before, and I have a really good memory. It's more useful when my players pull a fast one on me: hey remember that restaurant you invented on the fly three months ago, we want to go back there, what was the menu again? In that case, I'd take the ten seconds to quick find it and give them the menu.

The only part I use verbatim and systematically are my description blurbs for when they enter key locations.
 


turnip_farmer

Adventurer
do you find that it affects your game? Would the game be different if you had a system?
Probably. But it's hard to compare to something I haven't experienced.

I think things would be better if I kept better notes, but I don't honestly know how much better. Sometimes characters change names because I forgot the name I made up previously, but I don't really think my players notice. They often forget the names of characters I'm very clear on, after all. And can they really tell the difference between a magic power I made up four months ago and one I made up on the spot because I don't remember where my original notes are? Maybe the original one was more thematically appropriate, but do players remember enough detail to spot that? When they describe the magic item as 'did we find this in the cave with the zombie fish? or, wait, didn't we steal it from the drunken ogre?'

I'd probably feel more comfortable if I had a better system. But would I stick to it?

I do have a pretty good memory for this sort of stuff though. I forget stuff, but I remember more than they do (because it's stuff that I wrote in the first place). I do think the whole illusionism would be shattered if I was forgetting more than them. I am in no sense recommending crap note taking as a good idea.
 


Even before going virtual, if I felt a need to keep eye contact with players I wouldn't be able to run at all; I always have too much material to keep track of for that.
 


Google Docs for me. I usually keep my notes for a single campaign in an ongoing document with internal links to each session. My notes tend to range from hyper-detailed to nonexistent, depending on how much prep time I have and how concerned I am about upcoming scenes and conflicts. I frequently add images or sidebars with additional information.

Here's an example of some notes, including a sidebar with some details on how long a journey might take depending which route the party chose:

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Another example with a screenshot from Roll20. I'm using a published adventure here so my notes are relatively brief.

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And, when life gets really busy, my notes dwindle further:

1632249022894.png
 

I tend to do cheat sheets covering the entire mechanicals needed in play. They're typed/laid-out in either Pages or LibreOffice.
[snip]
That's prep notes.
Notes in play? disposables on 3×5 cards
Stables on either College Rule or Narrow Rule paper. Finding Narrow Rule is bloody hard... but recently, digest sized notebooks and filler paper have become available, and I am happy. I wish I could get page protectors in that size, tho'...and, due to hole placement, cutting down letter size isn't a good option.
 

Randomthoughts

Adventurer
Since I primarily now play on Fantasy Grounds my notes are either in the "notes" feature in Fantasy Grounds or in a document using Libre Office's word processor.
Yeah, I found FG to be ideal not only for writing my home brews but taking notes as well. It’s handy with links to images, maps, encounters and such. For face-to-face stuff, I use OneNote.
 

cmad1977

Hero
My biggest issue is that I’m so used to keeping notes in a journal for tabletop games. But the games I play are VTT style. So my notes wind up mixed between the digital and the physical. Things still work out but…. CHAOS!
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
Lately, all of mine are digital (Google Docs, if you want specifics). But back in the day, I was a big fan of using composition notebooks.
 


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