Over the past sixteen years of being a game master, I’ve lost more material on my campaigns than I’ve been able to save. Charts, maps, NPC characters, and plots all lost to the void called time. One piece of advice I’ve heard over and over again is to build a game master’s notebook. A repository for all your devious plans and also a resource to call upon when you’ve hit a creative block.
I’m going to be building a new game master notebook from scratch for my Dungeon and Dragons 5th edition campaign.
Step One: pick a notebook
This decision seems to be really simple; just go grab any old three ring binder and start filling it with paper. That is exactly what I did when I built my very first GM notebook in 2000. Later, I moved digitally with piles of word documents saved on a flash drive. Now I have all my files for every game saved on cloud storage site. I’ve known other game master’s with GM notebooks to use dairies, sketchbooks, composition notebooks, computer problems, or phone apps. The options are endless and some work better for a particular game masters than for others.
All that being said I’m picking up a three ring binder. Going with the classic. Why? Its easy to transport, easy to organize, and the digital options I have been using are too cumbersome. With a bit of nostalgia thrown in there.
Step Two: getting organize
At this point add anything you’ll need to run a game: note paper, reference charts, maps, etc. These should be all the things you want on hand quickly during a game. Player using a custom class? Add it. Favorite random encounter table? Add it. Current adventure outline? Add it. Try not to add anything that you might need only things you will need.
I added blank lined paper, gird paper, and a few dividers to make notes and organize them into categories (NPC, locations, items). Then I added all my custom stuff for my current campaign. My reference sheet for the house rules. A list of weapons, armor, equipment, and services with average prices. A list of common monsters and generic enemies with stats. The map of the campaign area and, finally, a quick reference sheet for each PC’s stats. That covers most of the stuff I’d need to run the campaign.
Step Three: covering your weaknesses
No one is a prefect game master. Everyone has got something they don’t handle well during a game session. My biggest weakness as a game master is coming up with names on the spot. I really suck at it and all the Jeffery NPCs in my older campaigns will attest to that. To cover for my inability to improvise names, during my planning for a session, I make up names for all major and minor non-player characters the players might talk to and all locations that the players might go. I still keep a list of random names appropriate to the campaign in my notebook just in case my players talk to a random shopkeeper, go in a direction I wasn’t expecting, or – more likely – I got lazy with my planning.
It isn’t necessary to do try and cover your bases into your notebook but it isn’t bad idea to think about what you have a hard time doing as game master. If adding something (chart or reference) will help alleviate the problem then I recommend adding it to the notebook.
Step Four: start using the notebook during sessions
If you have never run with a game master’s notebook before, this might be the hardest part. Figuring out how it fits into your setup and game session routine. Even just remembering to use the notebook when it would be helpful. Heck you might find that it is sometimes hinders more than it helps in the beginning. After a few sessions you’ll get into a groove of referencing the notebook or taking your notes.
For me the notebook is front and center on the table. The screen wraps around the binder. Pens, pencils, and dice scattered between the screen and the binders edge. I take notes on a blank sheet per session and review my campaign outline. Comfortably flipping through monster and NPC stats. Checking maps.
Step Five: maintenance and upkeep
After a story arc or a short campaign I try to take time and review what has been added to the notebook. I clean out old notes. Check to see if a chart, table, NPC sheet, or map needs to be updated or if it is even necessary anymore. I do maintenance so when I sit down at the head of the table next time I don’t get confused with all the notes I made in the corner of sheets.
With my notebook completed, I’m ready to run my games and deal with most things the players throw at me.
Do you use a different kind of note taking strategy? How do you use it during and in between sessions?