How Can You Take Fast Notes During Sessions?
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1185
* Tips on keeping better campaign notes without slowing down the pace of sessions
I’ve been in the same boat.
For me, I never want to cause a pause in gameplay.
So it feels like I’m always too busy to take notes.
However, there are a few things we can do.
While I produced with my business partner, Jochen Linnemann, an app called Campaign Logger to solve this exact problem, the following tips are universal.
They’ll help you get better notes whether you use Campaign Logger, Google Docs, index cards, or another tool.
Here’s Our Strategy
We begin with the end in mind.
What is our goal?
What are our most wanted outcomes?
My goal is to have a useful record of gameplay details that feeds seamlessly into my world, campaign, adventure, and session notes.
The session logs, as I call them, become our memory as sessions fade into time.
We use these details to keep our games consistent. We can also mine them for new adventures and 5 Room Dungeons.
But we don’t want a record of every word spoken or deed performed. We could just record sessions with audio or video in that case.
Instead, we need a version trimmed to the essential bits.
For me, that’s:
- Names we’ve made up during sessions
- Player/character stated long-term intentions, plans
- Opened and closed loops, and next actions
- Changes in party resources and costs paid
- New Laws, Legends, and Lore made up during sessions
- Maps and drawings
With these outcomes in mind, we muse on obstacles:
- Not enough time to take detailed notes
- Notes must be legible and have enough detail to trigger memory
- Notes must have enough context to make sense
- Faster pace = more gameplay = more notes needed
- Players who take notes miss details and write from their POV (which is often amusing, however)
- Physical space might be limited for notebooks or computers
- Electronics might not be close to power
- All notes must be collected into a single Source of Truth
That could stack up to a lot of notes and several reasons why you can’t keep up with taking them.
Armed with desired outcomes and obstacles, let’s talk about solutions.
Add More Intra-Party Roleplay
When players roleplay amongst themselves, you suddenly have free time.
First priority is to think about what might happen next.
After that, use your bonus time to catch up on notes.
To get players roleplaying more often:
- Ask players to speak in-character, even while planning
- Create dilemmas (puzzles are ok but you often get pelted with questions, whereas dilemmas are mostly discussed between players)
- Have players run and roleplay NPCs such as animal companions, hirelings, intelligent items, and familiars
- Reward roleplaying with boons
- Create situations that require planning (offer enough information, maps, and details so players have lots to think about)
- Run downtime activities and let players control or own pieces of your setting like their own business
- Set the bar by roleplaying as much as possible yourself
Picture Things As You Go
If you can follow along with gameplay by imagining what’s happening in full colour, sound, and video, with as much detail as you can muster, you’ll remember more.
This also helps with your descriptions and storytelling.
Then, after the session, you can then catch up on your notes with better recollection.
I find envisioning things before the session helps. You can prep effectively by running encounters and situations over in your imagination. Imaginary playtesting.
This gives me a great base of starting detail come game day.
And playing things out in your mind ahead of time is kind of like reinforcing your long-term memory for something that hasn’t happen yet. #InTheMatrix
If you improve your descriptions, you’ll feed not just your sessions with wonderful details and evocative storytelling.
You’ll also have better recall of details when curating session logs afterwards.
Another visual tip: they say a picture is worth a thousand words.
I’ve found using images of people, places, and things saves you even more note-taking time because of all the information packed within those pictures.
Imagery saves you documenting as much about the who, what, and where so you have more time for logging what happened or what will happen.
Draw More Maps
On-theme with getting more visual is to use more maps.
You don’t need fancy or pretty maps.
I draw most of mine during sessions on a big roll of paper.
The key tip here is to annotate your maps.
Then you get a living record that’s detailed and visual.
For example, on region maps you can draw routes the party takes in their travels.
You can also draw symbols or label sites where encounters took place.
For town maps, you can label the who, what, where as you make things up.
For encounter maps, you can note results like treasure and escaped foes.
Also invite your players to draw and write on your maps. Get everyone involved for an even more comprehensive and colourful record of gameplay.
Ask them to write rumours heard, transactions made, conditions or flaws acquired, loops opened or closed, and so on.
Mind maps are fantastic memory enhancers and reference tools. Turn your adventure maps into living mind maps by getting your whole group involved.
Consider migrating important details captured on maps and player handouts after sessions into your Source of Truth.
Mine Character Sheets
Along the same lines as raiding player notes: capture photos or copies of character sheets.
You might do this at the end of every session, or after milestones like adventure turning points or leveling up if your game system has that mechanic.
Look at what players have written since last review and update your logs.
I tend to forget what character has what special equipment or items.
So in Campaign Logger I tag items quickly with character names for easy dynamic inventories and reports on who owns/carries what.
You should also check the roleplaying, background, and comments sections of character sheets for any additional details.
And on that note (pun intended!), if players make sessions logs, request access to those as well and mine the heck out of them.
You might also create an official Scribe role within the party and have a player dedicated to logging sessions for you.
We want to be clear with ourselves what notes and details would help us most to run awesome campaigns and have more fun at every game.
We want consistency, good reference, and ideas.
Guided by that, take the fewest notes needed to get the outcomes you want.
And to help make note-taking easier during sessions:
- Get players roleplaying with each other more to buy you time to catch up on logging
- Visualize as much as you can, and exercise that muscle and skill so you leverage your brain’s powerful visual memory system
- Use maps, pictures, and player handouts for quick annotations and for ways to become more visual
- Review character sheets and session logs ongoing for any details players might’ve added during sessions
In exciting Campaign Logger news, we are currently testing player logs and accounts!
You will be able to invite your players to contribute to your session logs.
And it will be free for your players. Your account will cover them.
Right now it’s read-only. Meaning, you can deploy Log Entries to players for them to read.
But in future phase we’ll be adding Write rights, so players can log sessions alongside you, to help take the load off.
Anywho, I hope these tips help, Keith. Please let me know how it goes. Johnn, discuss these tips and ask me questions here.
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Monster Hunts As Skill Challenges
From RPT GM Derek Baert
I usually run my hunts as a two phase deal.
First, they do a skill challenge to track the monster.
They go in an initiative order, and they need a certain amount of successes to locate the monster.
However, if they reach a certain amount of failures, the monster becomes aware of them and either runs, or readies an ambush if it’s more of a predator.
To make it more exciting and risky, I let them pick the DC.
DC 10 is 1 success or failure, DC 15 is worth 2, and DC 20 is worth 3.
Once they’ve reached the set amount of Successes without failing, they get a fun boss battle with the monster. Then I use Lair actions, legendary actions/resistances, and mythic traits to make the boss battle more engaging.
How to Make the Nu-Edge System Sing (Shadowrun)
From RPT GM Rudy Concepcion
I just wanted to drop a line and let you know that your tips have totally inspired me and made a huge difference in my Shadowrun game.
I’ll be honest, at first I struggled because like I already mentioned in a previous email, Shadowrun doesn’t really have a resource-management aspect like D&D does, and I had a little difficulty adapting your tips to my Shadowrun 6E campaign.
A few weeks ago, the proverbial lightbulb went off in my head and I figured out how to make it work for my campaign.
I can unequivocally say that it’s been a total success, my players are having so much more fun, and as the GM I am too.I wrote a post about it on Reddit here.
Spruce Encounters Up This Way
From RPT GM Razor Chuckles
Excellent tips, Johnn!
One thing I do sometimes if I want to encourage exploration is to add a scavenger hunt element to an encounter.
I may have a cleric request specific religious artifacts that could be found at the location in order to craft a magical item for the party.
Or I may have someone hire the PCs to find rare magical components that are believed to be in the location.
Having the players check off each item and have a purpose for searching every crate, drawer, etc. adds a sense of excitement whenever they get closer to completing the objective.
Discuss these game master tips in this thread at the official Roleplaying Tips community forum.