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

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0046

A Brief Word From Johnn

Terrific news: Roleplaying Tips Weekly is now being translated into Hungarian! Break out your Hungarian dictionaries and drop by http://rpg.rulez.org for a read.

On a similar note, for trivia buffs, September saw visitors to the RoleplayingTips.com web site from 85 countries. That means your tips and feedback, as published in this e-zine and the site, are reaching game masters over the entire globe!

Have a great week


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Review Your Notes Within 2 Days After Each Session

Not only does reviewing or rewriting your session notes help put more of your campaign into your long-term memory, but it also gives you excellent feedback about your note-taking. And you can use this feedback to improve your skills over time.

For example, in one D&D campaign, I waited until several sessions of notes had accumulated before reviewing and re-typing them. Unfortunately, I soon discovered during the re-writing that I didn’t need to keep writing out long names of NPCs, magic items, monsters & places. After writing an item a couple of times I could have used abbreviations or unique symbols thereafter because I knew what I was referring to.

If I had reviewed my notes after each session, I would have learned this early on and saved myself a lot of writing.

Group Your Notes By Drawing In The Margins

Sometimes I have notes that can be grouped together, either on a single page or over several pages. I can easily group these notes together by drawing “[” or “{” lines in the margins to connect or group lines together. And I can label these groups with numbers, letters or names in the margins as well, so that I can relate things across multiple pages.

Another way of grouping lines and sections is to actually circle the information. I sometimes make several circles on a page and link them together with pen lines. And, in the past, I have used multiple coloured pens to circle different information on a page to make things easier on the eyes. What a rebel eh? 😉

The purpose behind all of this grouping, in the end, is to reduce the time it takes to make notes while GMing. Grouping info eliminates the need to write headers, additional comments about groups or “this refers to” type of notes.

Use Standardized Index Cards

Index cards are an easy and portable way to take notes while game mastering. See Issue #44 for more information about using index cards.

I mention them here because they can greatly assist you in your note-taking. Create several standard layouts, or templates, for subjects like NPCs, monsters, towns/cities, villains, etc. Then, taking notes simply becomes filling in short forms as you GM the session.

Underline Names

If you underline names of things like aliens, NPCs, monsters, places, magic items, etc as you go, you make your notes very scannable for in-game and post-game research.

I’d avoid using hi-lighters though. It’s a pain taking care of them during play.

Focus On Actions

When I take notes, I have two goals:

  1. Record all the important facts (i.e. dates, distances, names).
  2. Record all the important actions of the session.

If you record the game’s actions then you can review and think of reactions, effects & consequences afterwards–your notes will help give you ideas and keep events straight.

There’s two types of actions you should look out for:

  1. PC actions
  2. NPC actions that the PCs would know of

For #2, if the PCs don’t know about it, you can save game time by not recording it–you can always make something up in the future if you forget. If they do know about it, then do record it for campaign consistency and future reference–it’ll help.

Clearly Label Your Pages

After a few sessions your notes can easily get mixed-up. Write the campaign name and real world date for that session at the top of each page. I also number all pages in the top right corner to make gathering them in their proper sequence easy.

As your campaign progresses, write game calender references in your notes too, preferably as a header.

Record What Is Important To Your Players

Look for clues from the players that indicate what they consider to be important (vocal, postural, and visual cues) during the game and write that information down.

If you use your notes for reporting (i.e. you write a campaign journal, or do a verbal, pre-game recap) then adding what is of interest and of importance to the players will give your game a real boost. By mentioning, for example, a great insult a PC made last session, or perhaps a good deed done, you will really please your players and encourage them to roleplay even more.

That’s it for this week’s issue

Have more fun at every game!

Johnn Four
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

More Winging-It Tips

From Darren Pendleton

I’ve found that using notecards is especially useful to keeping notes in-game. I’m not sure if it’s been mentioned before or not, but after reading some great advice about note taking (issue 45), I can’t help but offer up my own ideas.Using notecards is especially useful in D&D Third Edition, and I’m sure it could easily apply to other systems. For my group, I have a notecard for each player. On it I have the character’s name and the players name (so that I can use the character’s name when an NPC talks to that player).

Also, I have the list of that character’s stat bonuses; in 3E, all stats are based off the same bonus system and all that’s really important is the bonus number. This saves a little space and points you to the important information quicker.I also have a list of that character’s detection abilities -like an innate sense magic, or infravision, etc – so that if a situation comes up where something is hidden, I don’t have to ask, “Ok, can any of you see the invisible?” Also on the card I have their HPs, their Armor level, and a list of their skills and bonuses.

This helps me, so that I can make a skill check for a character and the player doesn’t know he’s using the skill (like Spot or Search, or Listen). All of this is on the *front* of the notecard. On the back, I have a list of their important items, and also a list of their enemies, allies, and favors earned/owed.Most of this is common sense, but the real usefulness of the notecards comes in combat. 3E uses cyclic initiative, where once the order is determined, it stays the same until combat is over (or until someone does something to change their order).

So, once the players roll initiative, I figure out the order, and simply stack the cards in that order. I add in a card for the enemies they’re fighting, and all I have to do is flip through the cards to see who’s next. I also try and leave a corner of the card front blank for noting special states – like being KO’d, staggered, blinded, or whatever, so that each time that card comes up I’m reminded of their special condition.

I’ve found that this speeds combat tremendously, and lets the players describe the action about as much as I do, since they don’t have to keep up with as many details about what their character is doing.Well, that’s my two cents.


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From Kate Manchester

I really enjoyed your article on Winging it for Left Brained People and look forward to the next installment, since I am a very creative person and tend to like to make things up as I go along. Not only that, but my first experience playing Vampire was in a LARP setting, where improv is everything!In my experiences as a Storyteller, I have often found that players love to stray from your pre-planned storylines.

While you can certainly force your players back to the storyline, if you do that too often they’ll resent it.So here’s a few tips I’ve been known to put in use during game sessions:

  1. Create first, flesh out later. That is to say, make up the character/scenario on the fly, keep a few notes and flesh it out later. For example, I created the Tremere Regent on the fly, and created the stats later.
  2. Keep some very general stats at hand (example: a table of wandering monsters, stats for human retainers/ghouls, etc.) Work with these and make any notes you may need later.
  3. If you’re really, really stuck, call a short break and consult your source material
  4. Create a few very small, distracting, or tension building scenarios; for example, in a modern setting, you could have the characters get followed by a cop. In a fantasy setting, you could have an NPC pick a fight with the players.
  5. Use tabs to mark source material relevant to the current scenario.
  6. If it looks like you’ll finish early, stretch the scenario out by lengthening descriptions, engaging characters in conversation, or just call an end to it (that’s assuming that ending on time is important to you.)