Taking Notes

Let’s face it, that could totally be a Tabletop RPG sourcebook. You don’t know…

Prior to spending most of my time reading game material for reviews and such, I read a lot more fiction. One of my personal favorite authors (let’s face it – there were many) was always Tom Clancy. In one of his books, Executive Orders, the main character of the series, Jack Ryan, had just become President of the United States. His family was the subject of much public interest because of it. Jack’s wife Cathy, was an strong, extremely intelligent woman. A successful surgeon (specializing in laser-based optical surgery), she was his rock and absolutely a stand-up character on her own. During one portion of the book, she is being followed around a hospital dealing with a massive biological weapon outbreak. The hospital she is working at totally overloaded. In the middle of a conversation with a journalist, she pulls out a small notebook and writes something down before replacing it in her the breast pocket of her doctor’s smock. When the journalist asked what she was doing, she responded with something to the effect of (no, this isn’t the exact quote), “Oh, I just had a thought about something. I was taught that if you didn’t write it down, it never happened.”

Since I first read that book many years ago, her comment about note taking has stuck in my head. It is something that I try very hard to apply in my professional life, and it is something that I have worked to include in my gaming life as well.  It just so happens that Joann and I had someone ask us a question about note taking recently, and we thought it warranted a full treatment in a blog post, so here you go.

Player Note Taking

My philosophy on note taking in gaming depends on what perspective you are looking at it from.  If you are a player, the goal for note taking is two-fold.  First, ideally (and especially if you’ve been following our blog), you have some sort of character arc planned for your character (ie. an overarching purpose that your character wants to pursue).  The first and most important thing that I think a player needs to be focused on is keeping track of NPCs and events that directly tie into how they can advance their character arc.  Oftentimes, it is easy to lose ourselves in the flow of a campaign as presented by a GM and in doing so, we often miss some great opportunities to develop and integrate our characters into the larger campaign world by pursuing their own goals.

Second is the more obvious accounting of loose plot threads, side quests, and major plot clues/narrative hooks that the GM provides as part of the larger campaign arc that he is advancing as the advocate for the “rest of the world”.  It is only reasonable that if the person you have asked to be the GM is going to go to all the trouble of spending their time to put together the world and sandbox for your characters to run around in, that you as a player (and as players) spend some effort paying attention to the details of that world and showing interest in what is there to interact with.  In this way, additionally, the onus is not on only one person to manage the information that your characters actually know versus what is available to them to find in the world at large.

Now, I’ll not lie to you and tell you I’ve kept any of my attempts at these.  Much of the time, what I used was simple loose leaf paper in some kind of three hole punch folder (the kind with the glued-in brass brads) or a small gage three-ring binder.  There are MUCH fancier options available that I have never tried.  Monte Cook Games has a Player Notebook that offers lots of different note taking options along with space to store your character sheet (one of these days, I’ll actually use mine to give it a try…).  There are other, generic versions as well, or if you are specifically a Dungeons and Dragons (or Pathfinder) player, the options get much more broad all the way up to something like Beadle and Grimm’s Pathfinder Character Chronicles (Hint: They’re REALLY sexy and our friends at Irrgardless worked on the project). The point is that at the table, part of being an active player is spending time keeping track of things your character can/needs to do and that your party should do as well.

GM Note Taking

Here, on the other hand, I have a lot of experience and several examples that I have kept for later reference and shameless cribbing. I have tried several different things over the course of my time GMing and what I’ll share with you are the two current best and my thoughts about each of them. First, let’s talk about what I’m using now. I am currently running a Star Wars Edge of the Empire (from Fantasy Flight Games) game for Joann and another couple that we know. My note taking happens in the GM Notebook that I have from Monte Cook Games.

GM Notebook from Monte Cook Games

In this style of notebook, there are lots of pages to help organize information about Major (and Minor) NPCs, Adventure Locations, Setting details, Adventure Ideas, Player Character information, and finally, a series of pages to allow you to keep a campaign log. The latter are especially useful, detailing any important events that happened during that session (usually where I talk about the scenario set up and what the players did/encountered in addition to any rewards promised for completion), NPCs encountered (usually I have those detailed elsewhere in this book, so I will put a page number reference for ease of lookup), and Notes for next session. This last section is really important as it is where I note my thoughts regarding what needs to be resolved from a play standpoint based on the results of the session and exactly how the “world” responds to the characters’ actions. In other words, it’s my “living world” section.

Below, you can find an example filled out based on a “false start” to this campaign. The campaign was originally going to be a duet with myself running it and my Joann playing, but we opted to invite some others after we started to give us more variety in characters and in scenario style (based on skills and abilities). This particular scenario and event never actually happened in the current iteration, but Irizon Thano is actually an NPC and doing basically the same thing he was (except he is now a she).

Prior to this, on the other hand, I used a different solution. And I’ll be honest, I believe one I liked better, though I think on future iterations of my GM notebook, I will incorporate some of the things from MCG’s notebook as I think they are a little better organized than mine were for those regards (the campaign log). What I used to do was start with a notebook like this (that can be picked up at basically any WalMart or other department store). The first thing I do is set up a table of contents at the front so that I can find things later. I try and do 4-5 pages. The reason for this is that pages might get added (more on that later). The following images were from a notebook I prepared for an actual sandbox campaign I ran for D&D 3.5 in Forgotten Realms Waterdeep for my family several years ago.

As you can see below, there are a couple of examples of the pages inside this book. On the left, you have one of the pages detailing some of the power players in the setting that the PCs might brush shoulders with based on their actions. I do this for two reasons. First, to ensure that I have some ready antagonists with varying interests in the locations they are adventuring in. Second, it ensures that when (notice I didn’t say ‘if’) I get lost in the weeds further down the road of my campaign, I can “re-center” or refocus myself on the basis and focus of each of the influential groups I have keyed in on. To the right, there is a map I drew, with the beginnings of the key (it went onto the back of the page as well (this notebook had grid on the front and lined sheets on the back – personally, my favorite style). I also included things like scene notes, NPC “stat blocks” (or at the very least, personality/appearance notes and goals), monster references (page numbers of bestiaries or sourcebooks, whichever applied), treasure, etc… Another thing you’ll notice from the table of contents was “Plot Ideas” starting on page 3. This was a list of about 50 hooks I could use to start an adventure and I tied as many of them as I could to the “Power Players” in the setting to give plot continuity. I didn’t expect to use them all (I hoped the PC’s would go after their own agendas to be honest), but I wanted a list to choose from of “relevant” ones if I needed it in a pinch.

This page, on the other hand, was a printed one. A trick I learned a long time ago was that if you have a “bound” book, you can take a loose leaf page and, using just a common gluestick, run the gluestick down the edge of the paper you want to insert. The gluestick will get on not only the edge of the paper but up both sides a little way as well. Then, simply tuck the loose leaf paper into the binding between the pages of the book where you want to insert it. Press firmly and wait for it to dry (it shouldn’t take long). Just like that, you’ve added a page to your book. The one shown below is actually one that I created and turned into a PDF (which I thought I’d share with all of you lucky readers HERE). The idea came from one of my favorite Fantasy game supplements: Ultimate Toolbox by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) (Pages 304-307, 358). On the back is a scene flow map that is scalable to small or larger adventures.

Maybe it’s because this is my primary hobby. Maybe it’s because of the quote. Maybe it’s because my engineering brain just thinks better this way. I have absolutely no idea. What I do know is that the “flow” of both my playing and my GMing goes better when I take notes. I know that when I play, my GM (usually Joann, but not always) appreciates when I take notes because they do not have to tell me nearly as often what I should already know or what I should be doing – I can make those decisions on my own. I know that when I take notes as a GM I’m not as frantic preparing things because I can go back and look and see the logical outcomes of choice and consequence easier, both from the standpoint of the PCs and those of the NPCs, which adds to the feeling of the “living world” that I’m trying to create in my games. Anyway, I hope this has gotten you thinking. We’d love to hear about some of the tools you use in your games too (feel free to use the comments). Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

*** In case you missed it in the article, you can download the Plot Outline sheet I put together with inspiration from AEG’s Ultimate Toolbox HERE in PDF format.

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