7 Tips For Fast & Effective Note-Taking, While Game Mastering – Part I

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0045

A Brief Word From Johnn

This week we address another piece of the winging- it/freestyle puzzle: taking good notes during games. Notes are an excellent tool for keeping track of your campaign — probably the best tool because memory can be fickle over time.

Taking notes while GMing at the same time has been a huge challenge for me. During my last campaign, using Rolemaster, I actually did a fairly decent job of keeping up with note taking in-game. This week and next I’m passing on a few of the tricks I learned.


[email protected]

Don’t Record Everything — Just The Important Stuff

The goal of note-taking is to record whatever important information that occurs in the game session that isn’t already documented.

Don’t try to write down everything, just the important stuff:

  • Names, dates, distances, other similar facts
  • Good ideas you or the players come up with, for
    future use
  • Great character/player quotes
  • The course of events that take place during the
  • Heroic or important PC deeds and actions
  • Results of scenes, encounters, parleys & battles

Use Abbreviations

Use abbreviations while writing because they will let you take notes faster–especially for the game system stuff, statistics and common words that you use.

Here’s are few of my shorthand abbreviations:

  • w/ = with
  • att = attack, attacker
  • def = defend, defender
  • tw/ = talk with, speak to, parley
  • dif = difficult, difficulty level
  • s/a = smart ass 🙂
  • KO = knockout, to win a contest of some kind

I also use different pen scribbles to represent “the”, “at” and words that end in “ing” and “tion”.

When GMing Rolemaster recently, for game system info, I used “DB” for defensive bonus and “OB” for offensive bonus. For my upcoming D&D campaign I’ll be using “HP” for hit points, “TH” for to hit rolls and results, and “DAM” for damage, among others. Look at your own game rules and make abbreviations for the common terms you use.

Use Character Initials

A great time saver is using initials for character names. That trick came in really handy when I was recording combat. Every round I’d write each character’s initials on a separate line. I’d put their initiative scores in the left margin, their intended actions to the right of their initials and the actual results after that:

"9... D.H. ...sneak attack thief #2; hit for 23DAM & thief
TKO'd 2 rnds"

Record All Combat Details

I found recording all the combat details round by round to be more than worth the effort. I was able to handle combat a lot faster, believe it or not, because I had all the important information right in front of me to reference.

It made a huge difference, for example, writing down all the characters’ names (just their initials actually, see Tip #3 above), their initiative scores and their intended actions for the round.

When each player’s turn came along (which I determined by quickly glancing at my notes), I got their attention and either explained how their action turned out in detail (because I already had their intended actions written down and had time to think about it) or I had them make some dice rolls, then did some calculations and then gave a detailed explanation of results.

That sure beats the way I used to do it, which was to ask the whole group “who’s turn is it?”, then wait until that got sorted out, and then ask each player “ok, what are you doing now?” when their turn came up and then wait for them to decide. Whew!

Also, the day after each session, I was able to go back and write a very detailed campaign log with specific references and details of all the combat highlights.

Write Down Your Thoughts as Soon as You Get Them

You’re doing so many things at once when game mastering that, when you get a good idea, if you don’t write it down it will probably get forgotten.

However, writing ideas down in-game as I thought of them used to be a hassle because I wanted to keep them separate from my session notes and combat logs, but didn’t want to use page margins or separate pages.

The solution, I found quite by accident, is to use brackets: “[ ]”. As soon as I get an idea now, I write it down right in the middle of my notes and put brackets around it to make it different than the surrounding notes. After the session, I can do an fast scan of the session & combat logs and I can easily spot the ideas.

I’ve also started using “[ ]” to write DM-only information in my notes. The brackets let me know not to tell the players that info by accident (i.e. [goblin flees successfully to tribe] ), and to not include that info in the campaign journal which I send to my players.

Use the Style That Suits You

I write my game notes in a very linear fashion with lots of indents:

1. Main idea 1
– detail 1
– detail 2
– further detail 2.1

2. Main idea 2
– etc.

You might prefer spider style or mind-map style in which you write down a point in the middle of the page and write related notes nearby with circles and lines joining threads together. Here’s a couple of links for more information about these styles:

Or, you might prefer the Speed Writing Style

Pick a style which doesn’t cause you to hesitate while taking game notes and which you can read and understand afterwards.

Use Lots of White Space & Neatness Doesn’t Count

Paper is cheap. I’d rather have 3 pages of spread-out notes than 2 pages of tightly-packed notes. Leave lots of space in the left and right margins. And, if you like to write out your notes versus mind-mapping them, double space each note.

Not only does the extra white space on your page help you scan your notes faster, but it also allows you a lot of room to add comments, note additions, and forgotten items later on.

Yet another tip on note-taking is that you don’t have to be neat. Just be legible enough so you can read your notes

Graphic of section divider

That’s it for this week’s issue. Stay tuned for part II, with more note-taking tips, next week…

Have more fun at every game!
Johnn Four
[email protected]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Winging-it & Body Language

From Sylvain Robert

Hi Johnn,

I usually throw a lot of unrelated information/hints/tips to the players during play. And every once in a while, when my players examine the various data, they end up creating new imaginary links between that information. I cannot say how much this proves helpful for me to expand the story in directions where the players think they (cleverly) understood, while at the same time they don’t even know that they are creating some important part of the campaign themselves.

The simple fact that they have “discovered” important secrets in the past has pushed them forward to try to understand the hidden secrets of my campaign by investigating seemingly “new, unrelated” information. And since players have a fertile imagination, my jobs becomes easier as time goes on.

From Richard

This is just a brief word on Body Language. I know it sounds like a seventies advertising phrase but I find that a DM can create effects through the subtle use of basic body language, especially when he starts to get excited.For example, if an NPC is supposed to be shifting control from the PCs to himself in a relaxed environment (eg. pub negotiations) leaning back slightly or putting one foot onto his knee conveys this easily.Avoiding eye contact or hiding his hands or part of his mouth is a great way to simulate lying or nerves.

A finger at the side of the face can be scepticism. There are many really simple tricks such as these.The best part is playing other races. Who says that they have the same body language as us. This is a great way to bring out the almost natural enmity and such between strange creatures. For example, a creature tells the truth but uses the body language for lying. The PCs outwardly or inwardly assume he is lying and it costs them when they discover they have been tricked by the race.

If they go back for revenge the damage to their reputation could be enormous… After
all, the creature didn’t lie.