10 Tips On Passing Notes During Games

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0077

  1. Be Careful When Passing Notes & How They Affect Your Game
  2. Notes & Suspicion
  3. Notes & Paranoia
  4. Use Notes For Non-Essential Things
  5. Use Notes To Keep The Game Flowing
  6. Prepare & Organize For Note Passing Beforehand
  7. Let Notes Be Intercepted
  8. Use Post-it Notes
  9. Note Passing Methods
  10. Evil Tips (For Mature Groups Only)

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Simple, Small Map Organizer
  2. Absentee Players & Alternate High-Level Campaigns
  3. Write Down Your Ideas!
  4. Cool Web Site: The Sedlec Ossuary

A Brief Word From Johnn

D&D Modules Online

Thanks to Jason “Bobbit the Hobbit” for pointing out that the D&D modules I mentioned in last week’s issue for alternate reality ideas are available free online, from Wizards of the Coast’s archives at: http://www.wizards.com/dnd/DND_EX.asp

Meta-Game Information Request

I was looking for a good definition of “meta-game” for new GMs this week, as I felt that this issue deals with a lot of that kind of content. I had no luck though, so if you know of any links or articles, or have your own personal definition of what meta-game and meta-gaming are, please let me know. Thanks.

Have a great week.

Johnn Four
[email protected]

10 Tips On Passing Notes During Games

Be Careful When Passing Notes & How They Affect Your Game

Passing notes can be a good thing for your game, but I encourage you to empathize with your group’s needs because not everyone likes the concept of using secret notes during a roleplaying session.If you’re a player reading this, check first with your GM to see if she’d mind you giving her written notes. Some GMs enjoy getting into a storytelling flow during the game and might resent the interruption, or, they might accept the note and put it aside for future reading–which could defeat the note’s purpose if it was urgent.

If you don’t have a pre-session chat and you need to pass a note during the game, try it out and see how your GM reacts, then take your cue for future note passing from there.

Above all, try to be empathetic, and if your GM doesn’t like note passing, don’t take it personally.

If you’re a GM reading this, then the same caveat applies to you. Many players don’t like notes, especially deep roleplayers: “What’s this? Did this note, like, just fall out of the sky or something?”

Also, notes can lend a different mood to a game (secrets, mystery, paranoia, breaks in game-flow) from a player’s point of view, so please keep an open mind about how notes can affect your group and its members.

Note passing might even be worthy of a House Rule or two to keep the peace.

Notes & Suspicion

Passing notes while playing instantly changes the meta-game scene, especially if a player initiates it. A note signifies a secret that the others at the game table are not to know, and that means exclusion.The first questions an excluded player asks himself is “what’s in the note, why can’t I know, does it concern me or my character?” And the suspicion begins.In some circumstances, this can be a lot of fun.

I’ve GMed many games where notes were being passed GM-to-player, player-to-GM, and player-to-player, and everyone was enjoying the intrigue.Sometimes, notes can also lend a realistic atmosphere to the game because not every group of workers, adventurers, or travellers will share their knowledge and secrets with each other. With some groups of characters, players feel that trust has to be earned first.

I’ve also GMed games where notes offended one or more players who felt the shared spirit of the game had been tarnished. Fortunately, these situations were worked out by discussing things after the game, but I’ll never know about the players who never mentioned anything and just silently suffered.

So, here’s a couple of tips on notes and player suspicion:

  • Discuss note passing before the campaign starts and come to an agreement on whether and how they should be used.
  • Consider using one-on-ones with players away from the game table to discuss secrets instead. They are much less controversial than notes and less upsetting to many players/GMs.
  • As a GM, if you want notes in your campaign, be the first to pass them out. If a player starts the ball rolling, the other players might suspect the other player is a sneak or worse.
  • Consider your poker face. If you receive notes from players, either reveal nothing by not reacting (keep a poker face), or react in such a way as to put the other players at ease.

For example, when I’ve received a note and believed it could upset the players or change the mood of the game in a negative way, I would read it and then give a verbal reply that gave the other players a hint about what the note was about, which then eased their anxiety. “OK Bob, that’s a character background thing and I’ll get back to you on that in a few minutes.”

Notes & Paranoia

Another good–or bad–feeling notes might create in your players is paranoia. The same kind of paranoia you get when your mom calls you in the house using “that tone”, or when your boss asks to see you in his office and then asks you to close the door and have a seat.I don’t think this kind of feeling is good because the game is supposed to be fun and entertaining, not stressful. You could argue though that you’re trying to craft a special experience during the session that covers a wide range of emotions, and stress can be one of them.

Sort of like a roller coaster ride or house of horrors–it’s good to get the blood pumping sometimes.If you feel that paranoia of this kind is not appropriate for your current group or campaign, then here’s a couple of tips to help you reduce that uncomfortable feeling in your players caused by note passing:

  • Frequency. If you never hand out notes and then one game you suddenly hand out a note to a player, the players could get worried because of the unusualness of the situation. “She never hands out notes. Uh-oh, something bad’s happened to Roghan…” The solution is to hand out notes often enough so that the event doesn’t create alarm or unease.
  • Body language. If you hand out a note with tears streaming down your cheeks and you’re unable to meet your player’s eyes, I suppose that would send an ill feeling through your group. You can also send out uncomfortable vibes by being angry or irritated during the note passing (either when passing or receiving), by looking evil and mischievous, etc. So, watch your body language and set your players’ minds at ease by being relaxed and calm.
  • Content. When your notes only contain bad news, then players are going to soon learn to fear them. Mix-up the content of your notes to include good news and bad, fluff, and/or useful information.

Use Notes For Non-Essential Things

Though the previous tips have discussed certain types of notes, notes don’t necessarily need to be about backstabbing and secrets. They can serve a very useful and mundane service by helping with the administration and organization of your game during play.For example:

  • Shopping lists
  • Loot discovered that’s not critical at the moment
  • Character updates and info
  • Plans of action for background events (i.e. “what I do in town”)

When you GM next session, keep an eye out for administration type information that could be better dealt with by notes.

Use Notes To Keep The Game Flowing

I find notes often help keep the game flowing by having non- busy players write me with their actions, thoughts, and plans. I can keep GMing some of the characters while the others are moving forward in game time through a sequence of notes.It sometimes works out well if players write me notes and I can quickly respond back to them out loud or with a hand signal. For example, a player writes “I’m following behind them, keeping to the shadows and treading silently”.

I can hold up a d20 to the player and they know to roll. Then they let me know the results with another note. All the while, I am focused on GMing the players whose characters the other player is following.Here’s another situation that has worked well for me in practice. Let’s say the players are busy roleplaying amongst themselves and you don’t interrupt because the RPing is good and the players are having fun. However, this isn’t getting the story told any faster and you have a lot of ground left that you’d like to cover before the end of the session.

What I’ve done in this scenario is to use my free time, while the players are busy conversing in-character, to write out important questions, facts, and information on notes, and then I’ll hand them out at opportune moments during the RPing. The notes are silent, and therefore do not interrupt the roleplaying. When a player is done talking for a moment, he’ll read the note and jot down a quick reply if one is needed. This lets me move the game forward, albeit slowly, and lets the players continue their RPing.

Prepare & Organize For Note Passing Beforehand

You can slice notes into two different camps for this tip:

  • Throw away notes
  • Notes for future reference

Each type requires a different kind of preparation. For example, a throw away note can be written in the top corner of a page and then torn off to hand out. However, if you wanted to keep that note for future reference it could be painful filing that note away and finding it again.

So, here’s a couple of ideas on how you can prepare for using notes in your games.

Throw Away:

Buy a cheap and small 25 cent notepad for each player and for yourself and hand them out at the beginning of each game, and collect them again at the end for use next session.

The pads will keep your note size consistent for short term organization, and the small size of the paper will help eliminate player urges to start a paper fight with the discarded notes.

A pad for each player will also help prevent players from interrupting and asking “where’s the note paper?” and it will help them write notes in secret, “hey Bob, can you hand me the notepad, I want to write the GM a secret note.”

Notes For Future Reference:

Get a letter-sized notepad or use looseleaf papers. Put the character’s name at the top of every page and number the pages relative to the characters (i.e. Bob 1, Bob 2…Bob 13).

The full sized paper will fit in your binder better, and it allows your players room to append their notes below their previous ones so that you will have less paper to track in the long run.

You might also consider marking the session number or date on each player’s note sheet on the next available line to help put the session’s notes in better context for you for future reference–notes tend to get cryptic as time goes on and you’ll forget what they were for. “50gps +1, what the heck was that for?”

Let Notes Be Intercepted

A couple of sessions ago I was about to take a pair of players in another room for a private, in-character conversation. Another player asked if his PC was in the area of the discussion so he could hear what was being said. I asked him to make three rolls (hide, move silently to get within hearing range, and listen), and I asked the other two players to make two rolls (spot and listen to detect the spying character).The spying character succeeded in remaining undetected and listening in on things.

So, I took the other players into the kitchen and then excused myself briefly “to go get something”. Then I went back into the game room and told the other player he could come into the hallway and listen us chat due to his successful spying attempt.The point of this story is that we were able to let real life represent in-game life, and in-game life reflected the rules we were using. The characters made skill checks that let the character spy, which then let the player spy on us.

Why not do the same thing with notes? When notes are passed during in-game situations that could be detected by the other characters, give the PCs a chance to do that and let the player(s) intercept the note as it’s being passed. That would be quite entertaining for the players.You might need to start things off by asking if a character is around and able to “intercept the note”, thus giving him the idea and permission from you that it can be done.

If you do this, try to arrange it so that you are the one passing the note to a player, and make the note fairly inconsequential, so that if the note is successfully intercepted the recipient player won’t feel like a victim or feel you’re being unfair. “Why did you ask him if he was in the area to intercept my note? What’s the big idea?”Establish a harmless precedent and let the players go on their own from there. You might soon be getting notes written in code!

Use Post-it Notes

I have just started using Post-its for the throw away type of notes. I haven’t fully tested this yet, so I can’t say whether this tip is great or not, but I’ll let you know in the future if things don’t work well with it.What I’ve done is buy each player their own Post-it note pad, 3? x 5?, and each in a different colour. The notes are the same width as the index cards I use, and the colour coding will help me keep the notes organized. I’m betting the Post-its will work better because I can stick them to my copy of the PCs’ sheets, my screen, and so on. We’ll see.

Note Passing Methods

I’ve only passed notes, GM-to-player, in a few ways, and I’ve added in a reader tip as well to flesh out the list. If you have used any different methods for note passing, please drop me a note: [email protected]

  • One note, one player, in public. Hand a player a note over the table, in plain view.
  • One note, one player, in secret. Hand a player a note secretly under the table, while walking around, or while pointing out the window and yelling “what’s that!”
  • One real note, several players. Hand each player a note, but only make one note a real one and make the rest decoys.
  • Several real notes, several players. Give multiple real notes to several players, optionally with decoy notes.
  • “Can I see your character sheet?” Ask for the player’s sheet, and write a secret note on the back or in a corner and hand it back. Only do this if the player won’t mind you writing on his sheet.
  • “Can I see your Player’s Handbook?” Slip a secret note in the player’s book and hand it back.
  • Have a on-on-one. Ask the player into another room and then pass her your note.
  • Have another player relay the note. Hand your note to a player and ask him to pass it on to the other player. This often reduces tension because “The GM wouldn’t put an overly important note in another player’s hands.”
  • Here’s the tip that started this whole note passing nonsense. RPT#68 – Character Questionnaires Tips & Techniques, Part II Thanks again Mark for the great topic idea!

Evil Tips (For Mature Groups Only)

Here’s some tricks I’ve pulled in the past to have some fun *with

  • the players (and not at their expense). I added For Mature Groups Only because these tips might be taken in the wrong way by your players, and that would ruin everyone’s fun and enjoyment of the game. So, only use these carefully, with a good humoured bunch of players.
    • Pass every player but one a note. Talk about paranoia!
    • Put evil instructions on decoy notes like “look at the player beside you, grin evilly, and then say to me ‘ok, with pleasure!’”
    • “Accidentally” let another player see the note.
    • “Accidentally” get all the notes mixed up and deliver several notes all to the wrong players.
    • Read a player’s note, look at another player, and nod conspiratorially at the note-passer.
    • Make controversial and false comments when you read a player’s note. “Bob’s character is near you right now, you’ll have to wait before you can go through his things.”
    • Give out fake notes to everyone, then say “ok, the player whose note is marked with an asterisk should just play his character normally for now and wait for my cue.”
    • “Accidentally” return a note inside out, for all to see.My group of 10 years or so are all friends outside of the game, and we frequently goof around during sessions, so none of these tricks backfired and upset anyone. Please be careful if you are considering trying one out with your group.

Tips Request: “Making NPCs Individuals”

A very common request in the recent Topics Contest was for help in creating and playing three dimensional NPCs. How do you make NPCs that are realistic and interesting? And, what tips do you have for playing them well during the session?”

I also had a request for help with holding conversations between multiple NPCs so that “the GM doesn’t come off looking insane.” Any thoughts on this?

Send your tips to: [email protected]


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Check out my other Roleplaying Games web site: http://www.roleplaygames.about.com

This week’s article: “RPGs vs. CRPGs Revisited” A guest article from Lewis Pollak, Head Miscreant, Misguided Games, Inc., rekindles the debate on whether playing computer roleplaying games is roleplaying or something entirely different…

In the Forums: (These links bring you in as an anon. guest) “GM Pushovers”

“Resurrection in RPGs”

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Simple, Small Map Organizer

From Brandon E.

Great issues lately! I hate dreaming up detours when my players can’t make it. Anyway, I have another tip to share – this one about a simple small map organizer.

Since my players often start their games in a relatively small geographic area, I make up 5-10 reasonably detailed town maps in advance. I try to limit the sizes of the towns to that which can be printed on regular computer paper.

Then, I print out a detailed information sheet about each town: population, racial balance, industries, types of shops, and miscellaneous info. I take a regular 3-ring binder, and some plastic sleeves that fit 8.5×11 paper, and place all of my maps and info sheets so that when I need to quickly reference a particular town, I have a nice plastic covered map on one side of the binder and the map’s info sheet on the other side.

If you place two sheets back-to-back, you can save money on plastic sleeves and it makes things more convenient. Personally, I alphabetize my towns or place dividers in to separate towns in adjacent regions.

The best part is that this is cheap, easy, and adaptable. You can use terrain maps or dungeon maps in the same way…

Or, something I have recently tried: the pages can hold maps of the decks of a ship in a game like Star Trek or Star Wars. I’ve found that this is a great way to keep all of my smaller-scale maps together and separate from the larger continental or world maps that people usually use when travelling. One last hint – try finding plastic sleeves for your papers that can be written on with overhead projector pens…You can quickly mark player locations and move them as they move.

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Absentee Players & Alternate High-Level Campaigns

From Kristian L.

About dealing with absentee players: I came up with a concept of having 10 or so players, but I play with only about 5 at a time. Obviously, this requires some designing of the setting. Mine was a small computer firm in a close future (Gibson meets the Danish ‘Fusion’ system). This is a solution if you have a lot of people you want to play with, who want to play a lot, and you have friends who CANNOT keep track of their time.

One great thing about this is that you can get together whenever YOU have time. And you can plan adventures which are specific to some characters, but not others. Moreover, you can have the players re-tell the last session in-character…

And another thing I felt like commenting on from Issue #76, tip 11, Host An Alternate Campaign: Firstly, I love this idea. Perhaps because I have recently come up with it myself. I am shortly starting up a game in which all the players have two characters. One is only meant to be used at one time.

The additional characters are “high-level” persons doing great things and the players’ “main characters” are then in some way related to these. My idea is that the players will feel that there is a “goal” to their characters, and it gives me opportunities to familiarize them with the campaign world’s background.

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Write Down Your Ideas!

From GRiM

I think people underestimate the potential in writing down ideas as you get them on a piece of scrap paper. How many times have you had a cool idea but forgotten most of the detail by the time you decided to actually work it all out? I have been writing down all the ideas I have had about AD&D (none of this 3E for me :P) for around 2 days and already I have 4 pieces of A4 paper covered in some really cool and interesting ideas.

I lay in bed at night and just think about D&D, then when I get an idea, I (grudgingly) get out of bed, turn the light on and start writing. It is really amazing. Some of the things that come to you in the middle of the night after you have been reading for too long are cool.

Anyway, what I?m getting at is:

  • Always have a piece of paper and a pen ready.
  • Never say it?s too cold to get out of bed when you have an idea.
  • Get a light which doesn?t require you to be on the other side of the room to turn on.
  • Don’t be afraid that what you are going to write down sounds stupid. If it is stupid (which I have found is hardly ever the case) then you have already learnt a lesson in discerning what you don’t want in your campaign. (Unless your one of them 3E DM’s :P)
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Cool Web Site: The Sedlec Ossuary

The Sedlec Ossuary (a.k.a. Kostnice) is a small Christian chapel decorated with human bones. It’s located in Sedlec which is a suburb in the outskirts of the Czech town Kutna Hora. It’s also the places where the Dungeons & Dragons movie was partially shot.

There’s a web site about it, full of great photograph galleries (not just of the bones stuff either) for inspiration, ideas, and player handouts. Check it out at: http://www.ludd.luth.se/users/silver_p/kutna-1.html

Thanks to A.M. on the Greyhawk Mail List for the link idea.