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D&D General How to use OneNote for RPG Adventures

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
Introduction: This is an informal look at how I set up my OneNote to create adventure modules and campaigns. It is not a complete tutorial on how to use OneNote or any other programs that I use to set things up for my personal use. But it should give readers ideas if they want to do something similar for themselves, or maybe learn some new tricks and methods that I've picked up on my own. If anyone has additional advice, knows a better way to do things, or just wants to share some different ideas about their own personal setups, please feel free to share them in this thread.

Note: Even though I use it primarily for 4th Edition, the use and setup of OneNote can be useful for any edition. The purpose of this post is to illustrate some of the ways one can use OneNote (or a similar program) for their personal games with any game they like.

Setup: For this tutorial, I am using a 4e published module from Dungeon Magazine (issue 198), "The Warrens of the Stone Giant Thane". This was only available in pdf format when the magazines were exclusively online. Of course, I saved all of the files that I had access to while I had a subscription. But I believe most of the issues are available on DriveThruRPG.

So this is what my setup looks like across two monitors:
A1-N-Tutorial-01.png

  • I use the download version of OneNote. It has greater functionality and gives me more control over the formatting than the online version.
  • Next is Excel 2021, which is included with the personal version of Office 2021 (one-time purchase) or Office 365 (subscription). I use it to create a template for statblocks, which I shared in another post.
  • And finally, Adobe Acrobat Reader DC, which is free and does everything I need to do with pdf; copy text or image, and past them. (And I guess read pdfs but that's a given.)
  • Fonts: The fonts I use here are Trojan Pro (for titles and some of the headers) and Source Serif Pro for all the body text outside of the statblocks. Statblocks use Asul and Game Icons, which was created by a Mad Irishman (you can get that from his site).
Before I started getting into the details, I created a template page so that most of the formatting is already in set up. Then I went through the module and created copies of the template page with the appropriate titles for each section. So when I begin actually putting in the details, it was easy for me to just copy and paste, or type whatever I want without worrying about losing consistency in the formatting.

Now let's take a look at some of the techniques involved with one of the areas I'm currently working on.

A1-N-Tutorial-02.png

As you can see, the page is set up with a title for the area (8. Elemental Cavern) and the generic template in place. The format follows closely to how it is presented in this particular module, making it easy for me to copy and paste those sections in order. I begin by highlighting the section I want to copy from the pdf using Ctrl+C, then highlighting the appropriate space where I want to paste it in OneNote. However, I don't want to use Ctrl+V because it will reformat any bold, italics, or anything else to the default settings. It's not a big deal if I do, but it kinda defeats the purpose of having a template in the first place if I need to make the changes manually.

Instead, I'll right-click on the highlighted area of my OneNote so the window menu pops up (see screenshot above), and I'm going to select the paste option that allows me to merge the text with whatever format I have already in place.

A1-N-Tutorial-03.png

The next section of text is a paragraph. Nothing fancy about it, except that when you copy from the narrow columns of the pdf and paste it into OneNote, it doesn't automatically recognize it as one paragraph. Instead, it sees it as separate lines. I'll explain how to fix that, and then I'll explain why its kinda important.

The method I use is to go to the end of each line and hit the DELETE key. This will remove the line break and bring the next line up to become part of the current line to make it a paragraph. If you prefer, there are online tools that can do this for you. I prefer to do it manually.

Once you have the full paragraph set, you'll want to format the spacing of the paragraph itself by selecting the Paragraph Spacing Options at the bottom of the paragraph alignment menu (see screenshot above). This will bring up a small window with three options for Paragraph Spacing. I put a value of 6 in After (see thumbnails below). This will leave a space of 6 pixels between the bottom of your paragraph and the next one. Its not necessary, but it helps create a very clean, and easy to read format. This is extremely helpful if you're running games from notes and/or published materials. (Seriously, try finding that one particular paragraph or detail on the pdf, which could be on multiple pages or broken by statblocks, versus a single page in OneNote in the middle of a combat encounter while trying to keep your players focused.)



Now aside from the aesthetics and functionality of a well-spaced document, here's the other important thing you should know about OneNote. When you tab one section underneath another section, it becomes a sub-section that can a) be selected altogether with a single click, and b) collapsed like a folder, so that it is hidden from view (see thumbnails below).



This is about half of what I do when I create an adventure document. The other half is creating statblocks with Excel, then copying and pasting them into their own pages and providing links throughout the document. But there's a couple more points of interest before I move on to that. First, is using tabs.

Tabs can be used to categorize a particular section and place a little icon on to the left. This helps me to quickly identify what kind of information is in a paragraph, such as the read aloud text (see thumbnails below). It also creates a directory that can be opened up and configured to find something quickly. This may not be useful for everything, but like quests which are scattered all over. Certain types of tabs, like checkboxes, can be ticked on and off, which can be useful if you're tracking progress for your group over several sessions or a campaign.


Bonus Trick (Windows): Press Windows key + . to open the Emoji options for Windows. You'll find a number of interesting and colorful emojis you can use instead of tabs to make your document more attractive and eye-catching. For example, I found crossed-swords to place with my Tactics header (see thumbnails below).


This is just one half of the tutorial. The other half, which I will post below, will focus on creating statblocks using the template I created in Excel, and creating links within the document itself.
 

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Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
One of the things I miss the most about 4th Edition as a DM is how all the important information for an encounter was collected in one place. I didn't need to go to the back of the book to find out the full stats for a monster during a battle, or a completely different book to see how a power or spell worked, etc. And while this alone might not have been a selling point on 4e for me, it has made me less enthusiastic about running published titles for other editions (or games) that didn't do something similar.

In my workbooks for OneNote, I could place all the statblocks on the same page as the encounters. But that ruins the clean presentation, forcing me to scroll around to find what I need in the heat of the moment. More importantly, some monsters might be used repeatedly in the same adventure. In my current example, Stone Giants appear in more than a few places. But instead of pasting the same statblock on multiple pages, which takes up room and increases the file size, I can create one page with one statblock and create a link to it as many times as I need to.

In this part of the tutorial, I will briefly show you how I create the statblocks using a template I created in Excel, and how I place them into my OneNote document. Let's get started!

SB1-N-Tutorial-01.png


Continuing from where we left off on Encounter 8 above, I'm going to need a statblock for a new creature called the Stormstone Fury. Now, I could grab an image from the pdf file and copy it as shown. That could work because the pdf is very clean and easy to read. But let's say you have a poor-quality file, or you want to use something out of your physical copies, or you want to make your own personal adjustments. It's up to you how you want to do that, but you don't really need a tutorial for that.

The first thing I need to do is create a new page in OneNote. Since I have several already made, I can just copy and paste one that has the format I need. Be aware, however, that you can't use the Ctrl+C option to copy a page. You'll need to left-click and select copy manually from the popup menu. This lets the program know that you don't want to copy any of the content contained on the page, like pictures or text, but the page itself. Once you paste it into the tab, you can move it up or down on the list as you like, or even indent it to make it a sub-page (see screenshots below).



With your new page in place, you can begin working on the statblock. I'm not going to go into great detail on how to copy and paste text, or input your data manually. If you use a template, like the one I have shared in this thread, then it should be an easy process to figure out. However, there are a couple tips I want to share.

Row Height:
If you're familiar with statblocks in 4e at all, then you should know that one size does not fit all. Some powers will fit on a single line, while others can be much, much longer. Now, again, I'm not an Excel expert and I may be missing a solution that could be obvious to someone else. But it has been my ongoing experience that I need to adjust the row height manually for cells with more than one line of text. You might think it would be an easy process (i.e. just multiply the number of lines by the size of the first row (15)). But that actually increases the gap between the top and bottom of the cell. Probably a fraction or something. So I had to figure out an algorithm for which size to use with multiple lines of text.

SB1-N-Tutorial-09.png


On a semi-related note, you should build up a collection of statblocks as an Excel file. Why? First, you never know when you may need to go back and fix a mistake, or just want to make a slight change to an existing monster. It's a lot easier to change a few things than having to make one all over again. Second, the more examples you have, the easier is to find something similar to copy and do less work. In the example above, I copied a Stone Giant Advisor for a completely different monster. But since they are the same level, and have several standard and triggered actions that appear similar, that means I'll have less work to modify.

Keep in mind while you're building groups of monsters in your file, you'll want to copy and paste each new statblock below the others. As mentioned before, row heights will vary and will effect everything on that line across the page. Work down, not across.

Hanging Paragraphs:
Alright. I had to do some serious research to figure this one out. What's a hanging paragraph, you ask? It's like a regular paragraph but every line under the first is indented from the left. You see it in every official 4e statblock in every official 4e sourcebook. The question is how do you do that in Excel. It's actually quite easy.

Go to the end of the first line and hit Alt+Enter, then space bar until you get the next line where you want it. I've been going four spaces with mine, but you can do whatever looks right for you. Do this again for each line. Be consistent so everything lines up correctly on the left side, and it should look like perfect.


Copying Statblocks into OneNote:
Now to get copy the statblock into OneNote, you'll want to copy as an image. Select the statblock, then go up to the tool bar and right-click Copy in the Clipboard tab (pic below). You'll get two options: Copy and Copy as Picture. Select the last one and it'll give you another popup menu. Just hit OK if the default options are shown. Then go to your OneNote page where you want the statblock and Ctrl+V to paste. Everything appears exactly as it should, and you can't accidentally mess with it.


SB1-N-Tutorial-17.png


Creating Links:
So here comes the best part. You got your encounter page all set. You got all the statblocks you need collected and organized. Now you're going to make it interactive by creating direct links on your encounter page to all the important stats (and other pages, if needed).

Start by selecting the text you want to use for your link. For monsters, just go to their monster name. They're all near the top on one line. Hit Ctrl+C to copy the name first, then hit Ctrl+K to go to the link menu. Skip the address line and go to the next one that says "Pick a location..." (see below). Hit Ctrl+V to paste the name you copied and it should come right up as an option. Select it and hit OK. You just created a direct link on that page to the statblock you will need later during the encounter. Rinse and repeat for everything else on that page. You're done.


SB1-N-Tutorial-20.png


This is all I have at the moment, and how I've set up my workbooks. I hope it was helpful to someone, and at least inspirational to a few. If you have any tips, advice, questions, or feedback, please feel free to share them in this thread.
 
Last edited:




pogre

Legend
I always appreciate reading and hearing about how other DM's prep for their games. I believe for veteran DMs, this is much more valuable than the 100s of how to DM videos and their ilk on youtube and other places. My methods are different, but I can always grab an idea or two from others.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
It is cool to see other people's prep method (mine is a little more all over the place - and I just use Word and Photoshop (to edit screenshotted or scanned maps/stat blocks)) but I am curious how long this takes you. It seems like a lot of work. Do you prep adventure by adventure? Location by Location? Or session by session? Some combination or other way?
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
I always appreciate reading and hearing about how other DM's prep for their games. I believe for veteran DMs, this is much more valuable than the 100s of how to DM videos and their ilk on youtube and other places. My methods are different, but I can always grab an idea or two from others.
Thank you! I considered doing videos for half-a-second until I realized what kind of pressure that would put on me (self-inflicted, of course). Plus, there seems to be a plethora of people out there already giving unoriginal and less-than-helpful advice just to provide content and improve viewership on a regular basis (with exceptions, of course).

But, like you, I enjoy seeing how others do things, looking for ideas and inspiration for what I might not have thought on my own. This idea, in fact, was inspired by another person who's website I found (and can't seem to recall atm). So I hope to see something I did inspired someone else in turn. Maybe they'll come up with something different, or even better. :)
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
It is cool to see other people's prep method (mine is a little more all over the place - and I just use Word and Photoshop (to edit screenshotted or scanned maps/stat blocks)) but I am curious how long this takes you. It seems like a lot of work. Do you prep adventure by adventure? Location by Location? Or session by session? Some combination or other way?
I tend to jump around when I'm working at my desk, so I couldn't really say how long anything takes. But I spent some time getting my templates and processes set up, so now I can put things together fairly quickly. This module series I'm doing right now has a consistent format, so it's very easy to get several encounters done in an hour. That includes statblocks, depending on their complexity. To be fair, I am using 4th Edition D&D, which was very easy on DMs, and the pdfs are good, clean quality, which makes it easy for me to cut and paste. Typing this by hand would have caused me some grief.

To answer your other questions, 4e is very easy to run and prep for. If I'm not using a published adventure, I would typically plan out all of the expected encounters for the party's current level (and a few backups in case they swerve). Using the treasure parcels, I would also plot out the treasures and items I expect them to accumulate for the next few levels. Aside from a few plot points and NPCs to nudge the players where they want to go, that's all there is to it.

It seems like a lot of work (and maybe to some, it really is), but it is part of what I enjoy about being a DM. And 4th Edition made it the most enjoyable for me. Realizing that, I made the decision to go back to it and begin building my workbooks, because a) I'm done waiting around for someone else to decide if there is ever going to be reasonable and legal support for it, b) the limited resources available out there are never up to my personal standards (and I am not qualified or talented enough to do anything with those), and c) I just want everything in one place, cleaned up and up to date without having to look all over in different books, files, and weird places on the internet.

Frankly, I am just tired of doing what everyone expects me to do. I'm doing this for me, but I hope it inspires others to do the same. Everyone should feel entitled to play what they want, the way they want, because they want, and having fun doing it.
 

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