How Do You Organise Long-haul Campaigns?

Ondath

Hero
I got the urge to start this thread due to a specific concern I'm having, but feel free to have a more general discussion!

I'm having a bit of a conundrum in my D&D 5E first-homebrew-world-now-multiverse campaign, which has been going on for more than two years now. This is a campaign that spanned several different media (first face-to-face, then fully online when the pandemic started, then back to fully face to face when things settled down and now a hybrid form because some players moved cities), and my own DMing style has shifted slightly over time: At first, I felt the need to custom design every monster from scratch because I was dissatisfied with WotC's monster design, then I got A5E's Monstrous Menagerie, I added and removed a ton of house rules, things like that. One side effect of going through so many forms and DMing styles in the duration of this one campaign has been that my campaign notes have been... to say the least, completely disorganised.

I first wrote everything by hand and kept a file, since that was an option when going face to face. Then I moved the game first to Roll20 and then to D&D Beyond when we started playing online, and while those platforms had some advantages (automation or at least ease of reference for NPC and PC sheets, nice maps on VTTs, that sort of stuff), my notes started spreading to different platforms over time. I tried starting a campaign bible on OneNote so that everything could be easily cross-referenced, but the sheer legwork needed to transcribe every NPC, game summary and piece of lore anew to OneNote meant that I never got around to finishing the campaign bible. Instead, these days some of my notes are on an unsaved file on Notepad++, some are on OneNote, and some are on the VTT du jour that I use for that specific game. For 10+ games it's been Foundry, which is also a contender to house my new campaign bible but once again I cannot bring myself to do the - by now astronomical - legwork needed to transfer everything there.

I don't mean to say that my campaign is inconsistent or that my games aren't fun. I regularly manage to set up huge callbacks to earlier games, and the players really do have fun with the massive scope of a game that's been going on for 87 sessions and by now covers multiple worlds. For most weeks, I manage to get just barely the necessary amount of prep and prepare notes for the upcoming game. But then the next week rolls in before I can get to organise my earlier notes, and the pile of disorganised campaign notes keeps growing. Sometimes I want to start a new campaign just so I can stick to one medium, one document and keep everything organised, but obviously this is no reason to drop a campaign.

With that in mind, I wanted to ask the residents of EN World how you organise your DM/GM/ST/Referee notes when you're running a campaign that's been going on for a while (let's say more than 10 games). Did you pick an organisation format and stick to it all the way? Did you get fed up with your random notes and manage to bring them all together midway? Is your campaign still a collection of barely intelligible notes? How do you do it?
 

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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I'm running two campaigns at the moment; one has been going for 100 sessions, the other for 66, both every-other-week. I have two sets or types of notes I can (and do) fall back on. I have my prep notes, which are pen-on-paper, in a loose-leaf binder. I can look back at them to keep things consistent with my prior thinking or intentions or whatever--though stuff the PCs didn't actually find or encounter is open to change. And I have in-session notes, taken by a player at the table, sitting in a shared GDrive folder. I can use these to stay consistent with prior events and what not, and these do not change (barring GM idiocy).
 

payn

Legend
For awhile I was running Paizo Adventure paths so they kind of organized for me. I'd take a few notes on things that players had to remember, but mostly the APs run from one module to the next.

Since moving away from those, and turning to VTT, I find myself forcing my notes and prep into two areas. The first is discord, which also is used as a communication tool. The second is journals in Foundry to pass to players as necessary. I can often copy paste right from my discord notes and module text into the journals. Its all pretty cut and dry. YMMV.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
When my games were primarily face-to-face I'd keep handwritten notes during my sessions. They'd go into a folder to be stored with my campaign documents so I'd be able to remember what we'd done from session to session (my campaign documents would be printed out so I could refer to them in game and also so I could hand them to players if necessary).

After moving online I now keep a Google doc with my session notes in it and my campaign documents rarely get printed out since everyone has a screen. Even when we play at the table I'll now have my laptop next to me for notetaking rather than my pad and paper - I've just gotten too used to having it online and I'm never going to take my pencil-and-paper notes and transcribe them later (I know myself too well). My session notes are now interspersed with my combat bookkeeping notes as well (which actually helps me to remember the combats and I can put relevant notes about things that happen during an encounter right there as well - I used to keep those as separate things and throw out the combat bookkeeping after a session). My session notes are basically a living document

I also have reduced prep for my games to the minimum needed. We play on roll20 but I've gotten my players used to whiteboard combats with proxy tokens there - I don't have time to create all of the tokens we'd need (nor do I always know what we're going to need anyway - my players will surprise me and I'll need to improvise).
 

Ondath

Hero
For awhile I was running Paizo Adventure paths so they kind of organized for me. I'd take a few notes on things that players had to remember, but mostly the APs run from one module to the next.

Since moving away from those, and turning to VTT, I find myself forcing my notes and prep into two areas. The first is discord, which also is used as a communication tool. The second is journals in Foundry to pass to players as necessary. I can often copy paste right from my discord notes and module text into the journals. Its all pretty cut and dry. YMMV.
Organising around APs is one angle I didn't consider, I have to admit. Do you think having the AP's own organisation helps or hinders your note taking?

And using Discord for notes is an interesting option! Does that mean your notes there are player-facing? Or is there a GM-only channel where you keep them?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
And using Discord for notes is an interesting option! Does that mean your notes there are player-facing? Or is there a GM-only channel where you keep them?
I can't speak for @payn but the sequence for me tends to go something like: GM creates text; GM copy-pastes it in Discord text channel; note-taking player copy-pastes text from Discord channel into session notes.
 

payn

Legend
Organising around APs is one angle I didn't consider, I have to admit. Do you think having the AP's own organisation helps or hinders your note taking?

And using Discord for notes is an interesting option! Does that mean your notes there are player-facing? Or is there a GM-only channel where you keep them?
It helps in that the APs are large outline. I dont have to note about important things its already in the text. All I have to do is note how the players engaged the material.

I have many channels in our discord. One is a general chat channel that is used to plan sessions, let each other know if we cant make it, and just talk general RPG+ stuff. Then, I have a session note section that is player facing but only I the GM write in it. They have a channel for in game stuff like tracking loot and discussing in character stuff. I have a private channel that I keep stuff to myself until its time to reveal. The last channel has largely shifted to Foundry VTT journals.
 

Gilladian

Adventurer
I play in person but with my iPad at hand. I have a PBwiki that is about 15 years old at this point. I keep all my notes there, or in an online calendar with a link back to the wiki. I compose most of my adventures in textedit and then copy-paste to the wiki. This makes editing and adding notes a breeze. The PCs take paper notes and if my notes and theirs vary, well, that’s their problem! They can always check the wiki if they want…
 

Ondath

Hero
I play in person but with my iPad at hand. I have a PBwiki that is about 15 years old at this point. I keep all my notes there, or in an online calendar with a link back to the wiki. I compose most of my adventures in textedit and then copy-paste to the wiki. This makes editing and adding notes a breeze. The PCs take paper notes and if my notes and theirs vary, well, that’s their problem! They can always check the wiki if they want…
Wikis are an option I briefly considered, and I've got some questions for you!

In that case, are the majority of your notes player-facing in the wiki? And I guess you were able to build the wiki to that size one day at a time and that made transferring everything less of a hassle?

I thought about starting an Obsidian Portal/Kanka.io/Wiki page for my setting, but I was dissuaded for a few reasons. I feel like I'd be the only one who would read everything there, since my players don't really read game-related stuff much except when they need to prep for levelling up, so the wiki probably wouldn't interest them. And if that's the case, I feel like I was designing something public-facing for nobody, and I might as well keep my notes private.

That said, I have a lot of admiration for people who keep an up-to-date wiki for their campaigns. Even as someone who is not in the game, it's pretty cool seeing something that was created on their table immortalised in the web!
 

Gilladian

Adventurer
Wikis are an option I briefly considered, and I've got some questions for you!

In that case, are the majority of your notes player-facing in the wiki? And I guess you were able to build the wiki to that size one day at a time and that made transferring everything less of a hassle?

I thought about starting an Obsidian Portal/Kanka.io/Wiki page for my setting, but I was dissuaded for a few reasons. I feel like I'd be the only one who would read everything there, since my players don't really read game-related stuff much except when they need to prep for levelling up, so the wiki probably wouldn't interest them. And if that's the case, I feel like I was designing something public-facing for nobody, and I might as well keep my notes private.

That said, I have a lot of admiration for people who keep an up-to-date wiki for their campaigns. Even as someone who is not in the game, it's pretty cool seeing something that was created on their table immortalised in the web!
I started my wiki a long time ago, and yet I still have areas that are bare-bones! Anyway, yes, I would say 90% is player-facing, including my campaign writeups. And no, they rarely read it. But it IS an excellent historical document, and I often use it to refresh my memory on things that happened “way back then”. Essentially, it is a history of most of my dnd campaigns. Here is the homepage: Vishteer Campaign / FrontPage
and the current campaign: Vishteer Campaign / FrontPage
 

aco175

Legend
I started a campaign recently with taking the Forge of Fury module from the Yawning Portal book and inserting it into the Phandalin region. I have a page of notes and a bubble map showing ties with NPCs and various organizations that mostly get the PCs from levels 1-3. The intent was to start a new campaign and play the module sparing me the work. I have not planned much beyond the FoF module since the PCs will be around 7th level and not sure if they want to continue playing the same PCs. I just have a few sentences about the cult of the dragon and another bigger threat to the region once the PCs complete the module. I will plan something in depth if the players want to continue and lead that way.
 

aramis erak

Legend
With that in mind, I wanted to ask the residents of EN World how you organise your DM/GM/ST/Referee notes when you're running a campaign that's been going on for a while (let's say more than 10 games). Did you pick an organisation format and stick to it all the way? Did you get fed up with your random notes and manage to bring them all together midway? Is your campaign still a collection of barely intelligible notes? How do you do it?
I generally keep notes in a notebook and/or type them.
Mostly, NPCs I put on abridged character sheets, with notes on goals, location, and plans. Places, I make note when events should affect them.

Occasionally, especially in Star Wars or Traveller, hooks players left fallow get done in the background by a different group at that point in the timeline... and that's mostly from memory, not any particular notation.

Of late, I just write session reports on RPG Geek...
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
With that in mind, I wanted to ask the residents of EN World how you organise your DM/GM/ST/Referee notes when you're running a campaign that's been going on for a while (let's say more than 10 games). Did you pick an organisation format and stick to it all the way? Did you get fed up with your random notes and manage to bring them all together midway? Is your campaign still a collection of barely intelligible notes? How do you do it?
There's different types of notes and records, and each works best with a different kind of organization.

For setting info, maps, game logs, records, etc.: The Internet Is Your Friend. Set up a website dedicated to the campaign; make player-side info public and hide the DM-side stuff, and update it every week with the latest session log (point form will do!). You can use the same site to make up individual character pages if the players give you info for such.

For at-the-table DM info e.g. various tables, houserules, etc., binders work fine.

For on-the-fly game notes e.g. events, xp awards, magic item details, etc., I use old 8.5x14" fanfold computer printer paper flipped sideways ("landscape" style) and have developed a consistent format over time for what goes where on the page: xp track goes along the top with a horizontal row for each character and a vertical row for each encounter; item list goes down the right-hand side of the page; session notes start below the xp matrix, and the bottom edge is left for scrap notes and-or monster h.p. tracking.

Tracking treasury items is a key element. For this we devised an item numbering system, where everything found gets a unique number such that it can be tracked down later if we need to know what it is and-or does, or what it's worth. I-as-DM take complete notes, the players write down what they know as they learn it through field-testing or ID spells or whatever. A hypothetical sample starting at item number C-54 might look like:

Player notes:

C-54 nice longsword, shiny, jewelled hilt, strong magic, detects something? (Raven is carrying)
C-55 two small gems (in BoH)
C-66 shield, magic, plain wooden medium (Korgi is using)
C-67 fancy book in strange script - arcane formulae? (in BoH)
C-68 wand? moderate magic, iron stick 1' long, carvings at one end (Mavis has in pack)

DM notes (I'd use shorthand and abbreviations, here it's shown longhand):

C-54 Longsword +1, Detects Traps 10' radius if wielder concentrates for 1 minute (3850 g.p.) (Raven)
C-55 2 gems (24 g.p. total)
C-66 Shield +0 except +2 if used by a Druid (2100 g.p.) (Korgi)
C-67 book of recipes, written in Sumerian, looks imposing but is worthless
C-68 Wand of Magic Missiles, 23 charges, rechargeable, "Firework" command word carved into it (7400 g.p.)

All I have to do later is sum up somewhere which item number ranges came from which adventure, as party treasuries are usually evaluated and divided evenly by value after each adventure.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
I’ve tried a few things over the years (RPG-specific sites like Obsidian Portal, Scrivener, paper notes, VTT notes, etc). What I use for my current campaign and have settled as my preferred style are paper notes. Even when I run online, I have my notes spread out in front of me on my desk. I find the spatial organization (being able to put something in a particular spot and have it be there) much more useful than trying to organize a bunch of random windows in a VTT or trying to navigate around a document or site.

I use two major organizational artifacts for my notes: an accordion file and a binder. For free-standing stuff (maps, blank sheets, character sheets, etc), I use the accordion file. For player-oriented notes in particular, I keep them in folders that I can hand to the players, so they can organize their things how they want. The other types of notes are put in pockets for that type of notes. I used to have more of my own notes in there, but I’ve moved them over to the binder. The non-player stuff is now mostly blank sheets (exploration trackers, character sheets, etc).

My binder is the main part of my notes. It opens with a page reminding me of my agenda and principles (PbtA-style) and is then broken down into sections by function. There are sections for factions, my hex key, monsters, NPCs, and settlements. I keep past notes in the front pocket. My current session notes go in a blank space at the bottom of the exploration tracker. After the session, I update my reference documents and print out new versions as necessary. These are laid out in Affinity Publisher. If I need to brainstorm ideas, I use Scrivener and Scapple, but the final product is always something physical.

When we first went online, I tried using the VTTs’ functionality, but it just ended up splitting up my notes into different locations, and it was clumsy to use. Once I get my homebrew system into a state where I can have it printed out, I generally don’t like having a computer or digital device at the table because I find them clumsy and cumbersome to use. They’re just not good enough for multitasking unless you have multiple displays, preferably large; and there’s just no space for that at the table. That’s why (as mentioned above), I use physical notes when running online.

Note that as a player, I use a moleskin (or similar) notebook for my notes. I segment it by date and use the bookmarks to mark the end of the last session. I tried maintaining a table of contents for topics when I first started doing that in a Call of Cthulhu campaign, but I lost that habit pretty quickly.
 

Yora

Legend
I think the most useful thing to do for a long running campaign is to not make the campaign dependent on any single PC. Every PC should be able to drop out of the campaign without it disrupting anything, and new PCs join in with the same amount of motivation as the existing characters.

On the other end, the campaign should not be set up to head towards one planned final outcome long into the future. The campaign should be possible to wrap up with some kind of decent conclusion at any time, without leaving lots of things hanging in a void. Players should continue to play because they enjoy playing, not because they want to make it to the resolution, that might never come.
 

My organization is scattershot.

Back when I played in person, I used a Laboratory Notebook, like this. I could draw maps in it since it had the grid and then I would keep all my notes for the next session in there. This was also back when I had time to design everything myself. Dungeons, encounters, etc. Any hand outs for the table I would keep in a regular old folder.

For the last several years, I've been playing on roll20. Now I organize everything in roll20 by chapters with their own subfolders. Usually it's something like this:

Characters

Ch 1. Hollow's Last Hope
Artwork/Handouts
Monsters
Treasure
>B2 Destroyed Fountain

Ch 2. Crown of the Kobold King

Roll20 also allows GM notes for all of the handouts. So while I can give them descriptions of what they find, and allude that some things are magical, I can keep what that item is secret and only visible to myself.

Any notes that I need for myself I have written in a notebook. I've also switched to doing more Adventure Paths and Modules since using roll20. My time to prepare adventures has diminished greatly because of Real Life™. (0 stars, would not recommend) But I've also found that you can take many pre-canned adventures and quickly and easily customize them to your party. The damsel in distress is now the missing uncle of the priest; instead of skeletons we can have zombies to work with the fighter's backstory.

Is it a perfect system? No, probably not. But it works for me at least. :)
 

Hand of Evil

Hero
Epic
For the longest time I have kept a notebook at the table then placed most of my stuff in ONENOTES (loved the 2010 version) and saved to flash drive. It allows me to Categized and add as I see fit. Have Campaign as Notebook, the Sections of notes like, NPC, House Rules, Characters, Cities, Magical Items, etc. Just keep adding pages as I go. Using 'FLAG' I can look up and build tables of content.
 


I am testing out google sheets on an iPad. My issue with notes is that I find it difficult to remember to use them at the table. Basically, I can have one sheet that is directly in front of me, and I’ll remember to look at, but otherwise I don’t really look through my notes.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
At the urging of my children, who think files stuck on a computer is "quaint", for both campaigns I currently run I've moved to Google Docs.

One of them had started but not gone particularly far. I had started with a Session prep document (you need to start somewhere) and that became my focus. Each session I would make a copy of last session's prep document. Things I needed to remember but were no longer relevant I'd move to the bottom under a heading "Archive this!". Everything still relevant (plus my character ability notes and loose threads list) I'd then update and add as needed. I would far to infrequently take the stuff in the archive section and move it out to a set of reference documents, like a Dramatis Personae, a Geography document, etc. Oh, and I have some player facing documents, like Party Treasure.

That works-ish. But the quality of that works can be poor at times.

For the most recent campaign I am running, a Masks: A New Generation teen superhero game, I started organized and have been keeping to it.

I have a subfolder for GM notes and a player facing folder, the latter of which is shared with full edit rights to the players and they can add in documents as well as make their own notes. That one includes a Dramatis Personae of everyone they have encountered, big names they would have heard about, and anyone from backstories, organized in a meaningful way not just an A-Z encyclopedia. A breakdown of Halcyon City that they are playing in. A "Story So Far" recap. Any handouts, like What's in the News when we have downtime between episodes, and some general player documents like a copy of the basic moves and the playbooks.

All of those they are encouraged to enhance. They've come up with new villains, put up an interview with one of the heroes, detailed the architecture and such of the city, and have done all sorts of fun stuff.

The GM section is a lot sparser. Mask is PbtA, which is "Play to find out". So I have a document on the team, including individual notes on how to torment and reward them and specific NPC to include. I've got a "Arcs, Hooks, Plots and Ideas" which is for longer term planning, such as it is in PbtA. It's got some broad stroke organization but otherwise is pretty free-form. And then docs on sopme specific fronts, arcs, or whatever that I detailed to the point it needs to be broken out such as "Xmas Issue: Ho-Ho-Horrors!".

Because this PbtA is very much around "who am I and where do I fit in this world" aspect of playing teen supers, the team roster and the dramtis personae actually gets a heck of a lot of attention and updates as the most important parts. Much less than any sort of adventure or session plotting like a game like D&D would want.
 

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