Evernote for GMs

From Scot Newbury

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0605

A Brief Word From Johnn

Faster Combat Gets Reviewed

I’m a little behind posting this link, but thanks to the Points of Light blog for taking time to review my book, The Game Master’s Guide to Faster Combat.

“Even better is that [the book] is not just about combat efficiency; there are sections on how to design more exciting encounters, run “cannon fodder” and boss monsters, 50 monster quirks, numerous linked resources relating to whatever it is you are learning about, and more.

“It is, in a word, extensive, which is good because even if a DM is not willing to invest much time in an attempt to resolve any of the issues mentioned (which not every group suffers from, or even identifies as such), there are still other things that he or she might find useful, like the aforementioned random encounter and quirks, and encounter building advice.”

Faster Combat Review Here’s the review.

Faster Combat And here’s more info on the book.

I Struggled A Lot With Evernote

It took me four tries over two years to get used to Evernote. I’d install it, say WTF, and uninstall it.

A co-worker finally showed me a few things and the light bulb went on. And once “I figured it out” I never looked back. The app is now on all my computers and devices.

Scot Newbury, past RPT Editor and owner of the Of Dice & Dragons blog, is a pro Evernote user. So I asked him to write some tips for GMs thinking of using it to manage their games.

I hope you find his tips valuable. If you have any Evernote tips yourself, please hit the reply button and I’ll share them out!

Evernote for GMs

The Evernote app (Windows, iOS, Android, more….) allows you to take notes, add attachments, and synch with their cloud service as well as all your devices. It is available free. And it has a subscription option ($5/month or $45/year) with more advanced features such as 1 GB of uploads, group note editing, offline notebooks and presentation mode.

The biggest challenge with Evernote is its flexibility. If you ask 100 henchmen how to use it you’ll get 500 different answers.

What I’m going to try to do here is provide you with a few tips to make your use of Evernote easier for gaming and help you avoid some of the pitfalls I fell into.

Pick a Campaign/Adventure Abbreviation or Code

Evernote uses just a single file setup for all your notes (my account has nearly 5,000 active notes in it) which means you can’t reuse notebook and tag names.

To get around this, select an abbreviation or code for anything related to what you are working on.

For example, all my tagging and notebooks related to my Realms of Rylon campaign have ‘rylon’ at the beginning.

This did two things:

  • All my campaign’s tags and notebooks are now unique
  • The tags and notebooks are now grouped together in drop-down menus and searches for easier use

Use a Notebook Stack as your GM Notebook

Remember that 3-ring binder we all used to carry? I carried one for five years that I ran my Realms of Rylon campaign from. I had sections for session notes, maps, character sheets, campaign notes, and so on.

You can recreate that notebook in Evernote.

Create the individual notebooks first (don’t forget your campaign code label). Then create a stack by right-clicking on one notebook and selecting ‘add to stack.’ The notebook you selected will be placed in a stack you can now rename with the campaign or adventure name. Then just add more campaign “binder sections” as notebooks in the stack.

As you add notes you can place them in the appropriate notebook, but without the need to get out that three hole punch.

Share a Campaign Notebook with your Players

One of the nice things you can do with a notebook is share it with your group.

Create a notebook and add the notes and materials you want to share with your players. Things like world notes, histories, rumors, etc.

Once you’ve created the notebook right click on it and select share.

Then invite your players to the notebook or make a public link to the notebook.

You can also make your notebook public so anyone can login and view it. Here’s one with my collection of Roleplaying Tips archives.

In addition, you can determine the level of access: view only or give them the ability to modify the contents. Premium members can do this with all of their notebooks, but free members appear to be limited to just one (it wasn’t announced but you can make your first notebook available for modification).

This is a great way to share information. And if you give your players the ability, it’s a great way for them to add to the body of knowledge for the campaign.

(For desktop client only.)

Note links are one of the great ‘special sauces’ of Evernote. Use them to link to that NPC note or a room description or the information about that creature the party just bumped into.

While that’s nice, you can create an index note for the whole notebook using note links as well, which makes it easier to jump to what you are looking for (rather than scrolling forever).

First, create the index note. Use a title such as ‘!Index for .’ The exclamation point forces the note to the top of the list if you sort them in alphabetical order, making it easier to find.

Next, select all the other notes in the notebook. Then, from the note menu choose the copy note link option.

Go back to your index note and paste.

You’ll now have a list of all the notes in the notebook complete with a hotlink to each note (the system will use the title of the note).

Hide Your Gaming Tags

Having all your gaming tags mixed in with your personal life notes or work notes might be a pain. It’s a deal breaker for some.

To get around this, stack tags just like you stack notebooks.

Create a new tag called something such as RPG or GM Tags.

Then drag and drop all of your other gaming tags on it and create a neat little stack you can expand or collapse.

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These are just a few quick tips to get you started. You could spend a lifetime finding ways to bend Evernote to your GM and organizational style.

For instance, you could use just a single notebook with tags for everything and use saved searches to locate what you want. The possibilities are extensive, and there is no wrong way to go about it.

RPT Mail Bag

How to Get Instant Emotional Engagement?

From Jacob

I’m so glad I found your site. I’m an aspiring GM with some experience. I consider myself to be good in what I do, but there’s still many things to improve, especially if I want to compete with the best.

The biggest issue I have now is involving players emotionally in the first minutes of the session. Because of lack of time and different circumstances, I usually run one-offs, therefore I really need to be quick and efficient in getting players emotional.

And how do I get people care about stuff, if they didn’t have enough time to get attached to it? I mean, if I kill their relative in the first minutes of the session, they won’t care, because they didn’t get attached to that character.

Do you have any ideas how to involve players emotionally, even though I don’t know the players (I often run RPGs at conventions) and don’t have much time (my sessions are usually 3-4 hours long)?


Hi Jacob. Great question.

First, focus on story. We humans get engaged right away when a good story starts.

Learn how to introduce session with a compelling short story, and leave the ending for gameplay to sort out.

Remember as a child those ghost stories told around the campfire?

“….And the escaped insane asylum murderer was never seen again….Hey, do you hear that? What’s that in those bushes!”

Those kind of stories work well. Not the scary part, but the format, length, hook and dangling end.

Prepare a two minute story that introduces the adventure. Practice it a few times. Then start your session with it.

Appeal to your players first (through story), then characters. Get your players engaged as people with the game right away. Work in character hooks as you go.

For inspiration on how to develop great intro stories, watch movie trailers.

Second, start in medias res, which means jump the group into the start of an encounter right away. Put them in the face of danger and then ask what they do.

Work in character details and backgrounds and whatnot as you play.

Third, boil each PC down into a cool concept. Give this to each player after your story and the in media res start.

This gives players instant guidance and inspiration so they can roleplay. It also helps you make PCs more appealing to players, so you increase chances of player-character bonding.

Let me plug my book 200 Story-Exploding Character Hooks here. Grab a hook and put it on an index card. Read it out loud to the group then hand it to the player to make more notes on during the session. The hooks are open-ended, letting players expand, explain or tweak, so you get even more player-PC bonding.

Here’s an example from the Fighter Hooks chapter:

Brought up in the caravan life, she preferred to hang around the guards and learn how to fight. Now she’s a capable guard, but her last caravan was torched and nearly everyone slain. Jobless and ashamed she could not save her friends and clients, she looks for new work.

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How To Portray Intelligent Races

From Bram van Loon

I enjoy your newsletters. They have really increased my GM skills.

I have a question about portraying intelligent races and cultures.

I am designing a dark elves campaign with ancient families plotting against each other for ages. Like an elaborate web of intrigue and assassination spanning millennia.

How could I make this accessible to the players and on the other hand make it feel sophisticated?

I find it hard in games in general to find a balance between the intelligence of the PCs and the intelligence of the players (-5 after beer and snacks).


Hey Bram,

For your cultures:

Start with a timeline brimming with conflict. Create a history and build a relationship map as you go.

On a sheet of paper write the names of factions as you create them.

Draw a circle around each name.

Connect the circles with lines as you develop your timeline, and label the lines with the nature of the relationship.

In the world of the drow or other evil cultures, all factions will hate each other. Alliances and friendliness will be temporary at best. So instead of writing “hates” on every relationship line 🙂 assume that’s true everywhere and use different descriptions to add more dimension.

For example:

House Na’Re’Meth House Bin’Di’Xeneth

Next, give each faction a terrible secret. In evil country, all factions will have done things they’ll want kept secret.

Third, and here’s the kicker, give each faction a personality trait or attribute that triggers under a specific condition.

“If leader of X gets humiliated in public, X will cast several earthquake spells as diversion.”

“If faction A gets robbed, they announce an inquisition and use it as justification to search by force.”

The relationships, secrets and triggers will give you ample material to portray complexity. If your players like this kind of game, they’ll spend hours trying to figure all these things out. Meantime, it’s all straightforward on your end with a history, relationship map, and a couple details for each faction.

If you have many factions, work with just 7-10 and then create random tables or idea lists to detail others as they become important in play. No need to build 50 factions and get lost in information overload.

Ok, that’s our baseline. To make factions seem smart:

  • Read Art of War by Sun Tzu
  • Read The Prince by Machiavelli
  • Listen to your players and use their ideas
  • Leave things open-ended and make decisions based on PC actions but keep a poker face

Finally, create an adventure or encounter situations like you normally would, and run all your faction stuff in the background.

You might be tempted to run the culture as the game, but get more subtle than that. Run your game on top of the culture and let the factions get involved as obstacles, opportunities and mysteries. Don’t explain their motives. That’s up to the PCs to figure out.

(As per your accessibility comment, if things get too obscure for your players, use rival factions to explain what’s happening from time to time. Rivals would be happy to use the party as pawns against their enemies. “You want to know why the high priestess of Bin’Di’Xeneth has invited you to meet? Know that they fear House Na’Re’Meth! Now, here’s how you can take advantage of this….”)

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How To GM Back-Stabbing Selfish Mercenaries

From J. N.

Hey Johnn, I’ve been subscribed to your site for a while and I really enjoy the benefits of it.

I’m fairly new to gm-ing, and I’ve come up with a problem. My players are interesting both as players and characters, but they all play the kind of characters who are very interested in loot, but not if they have to get past scary guards or complex puzzles to get it.

Sense of honor, compassion, or duty won’t get them to do it either. They have a good range of skills between them all, but everyone of them are back-stabbing selfish mercenaries, only interested in easy pickings.

What can I do to make a fun game for them while still challenging myself creatively?


This is a great situation. You have players with simple motivations. This makes planning easy.

Here’s what I’d do.

Clean Up The Easy Pickings

Do this over time in the campaign.

The PCs will grab a bunch of the easy stuff (and have buckets ‘o fun).

But also have rivals and enemies scoop up the easy stuff too.

This will put pressure on your group to act fast, perhaps even recklessly.

I see this as a fun and simple plot arc you can run that your players would enjoy. It’s like that oil you put into your car that lubricates and cleans at the same time. A plot arc about “What happens when the easy loot is gone?” not only gets your players engaged but it cleans the world of the easy pickings through gameplay => double win.

Add More Story

Why is there so much easy treasure around right now?

Turn your simple plot into an interesting story. Add background details and figure out why a gold rush on loot is possible right now and note why it hasn’t happened before.

For example, in the Chaos Keep module I’m writing, one idea I’m batting around is a great glacier receded a decade ago.

The glacier was a massive barrier that created a natural border for the keep. But for reasons I’ll keep secret right now, the glacier disappeared in just a few years, leaving a whole new territory open for exploration, plundering and surprise revelations.

Create a story around your “Easy loot goes quick” campaign.

Ply Those NPCs

I mentioned rivals and enemies. Create lots of those. These are more dynamic game elements than stationary guards blocking treasure, which you mentioned turn off your players.

Let your players pursue the easy loot, and then have them clash with NPCs on the same hunt. It’s like a GM pincer move. Getting the loot is easy, but getting back alive?…..

Another reason to introduce interesting NPCs is to see how your players react. Experiment and see if you can get your group roleplaying. This will add a fun new dimension to your games and take the pressure off loot being the main fun provider.

You can go deep into NPC use to stretch your creative muscles. I wrote a whole book on it. 🙂 But for now just try to add more NPCs to your games and see what kinds get your players engaged.

Is It The Loot Or The Escape?

I’m curious about why your players look for the easy pickings. There are lots of reasons, so try to find out what exactly makes your group tick.

For example, do they just want to escape for a few hours by playing a game in easy mode? Nothing wrong with that. It means they like easy treasure. But it might also mean they’d like more dimensions to your games as long as gameplay doesn’t feel like stress or work.

In other words, easy treasure is what you’ve noticed, and your group might accept more in your games if it’s good, fun, easy escape. Experiment.

Alternatively, maybe your group has terrible communication. Easy is just a place everyone agrees on with minimal conflicts. If you improve player confidence and communication, maybe gameplay such as group planning, taking risks and defying danger are possible.

Have a chat with your players. I do, often. We have coffee and shoot the breeze about our games all the time. I get great feedback this way. I also appreciate it as a player when I can give feedback away from the game table, too. It’s good to pause, reflect and muse.

So ask your players about what they like about RPG, what they like about your games, and why they seem to prefer easy loot. Their answers might surprise.

Add Character Depth

I’m also curious if your group would respond well to PCs with a bit more depth.

For example, ask each player to explain how their PC became a (back-stabbing selfish) mercenary. Take notes. And get players thinking about their PCs as interesting characters in an interesting milieu.

Try adding more details to each PC, such as family, contacts and quirks.

Bring these details into play over time in such a way they expand gameplay in fun directions.

Avoid situations that put characters at disadvantage because of the details players have offered. I don’t think players who only play selfish PCs looking for easy loot would respond well to getting pinned to the battlemat by the GM over details you asked for or supplied.

So keep it fun and rewarding, and see how your group responds to PCs with more dimensions than living day by day just kicking in the door and grabbing the loot.

As GM, you have a lot of input in the campaign. You supply the world, plots, NPCs. I feel you can expend a lot of creativity in these areas while still serving up a game in easy mode.

As you run the campaign, study your players. Get to know them and their preferences. See if they’d be ok with different gameplay once in awhile by helping them slowly expand their comfort zones. Communication here is key.