How to Use Microsoft OneNote for Campaign Planning

There’s a holy grail for GMs. No, it’s not the perfect TTRPG system or anything like that. The holy grail of GMing is the ultimate campaign organizer. Strangely enough, I think I’ve found mine. Shockingly, it was OneNote.

I’ve wanted to get more organized with my campaign notes and documents lately as I’m about 2 1/2 years into a D&D 5e campaign and I swear I have lost about a campaign’s worth of notes and ideas throughout the course of it due to being so disorganized.

My current “setup” is a bunch of folders with random word documents in my Dropbox account. Oh, and a few random scribblings on notepaper. I’ve moved like twice since I started planning out this campaign so I lost most of my handwritten stuff.

That’s why I decided for my first Shadow of the Demon Lord (SotDL) campaign I was going to force myself to find and stick to a planner.

Why OneNote?

I’d mentioned a while ago about how I used World Anvil to plan out a west marches D&D campaign. It was nice, but it felt like it was way too in-depth for what I needed. If you’re looking for a planner that can keep track of complex worldbuilding then I’m sure it’s an excellent resource.

However, as I said recently, worldbuilding isn’t a crucial part of the prep for any TTRPG. In fact, if you want to get heavy into building a world and creating a ton of history and lore for it you should be doing it for your enjoyment alone. Assume that the players won’t care much about it or else you’ll be disappointed.

I needed a planner or organization tool that was much more lightweight. I’ve tried Obsidian Portal before as well, and while it was closer to what I wanted, it still felt like it was too “big” for what I need for planning a campaign.

There were other online campaign managers that I tried as well, but many of them had lag issues or had a plethora of bugs and glitches that it wasn’t worth it.

I realized that I needed to just keep it simple. I’d used OneNote a bit in college and I’ve recently been using it for work as well lately. The downside is that I can’t share all of my plans and lore easily with my players compared to any of the campaign managers I mentioned previously, but the tradeoff for this is a fairly lightweight and highly customizable organization tool.

I can link different notes and pages to other pages within my notebook. I can save it and back it up somewhere to make sure I don’t lose it. Plus I can access OneNote from my phone which lets me jot down quick ideas whenever I have them. There are a ton of other features, but those have been my favorite so far.

How I Organize My SotDL Campaign in OneNote

I’ve basically divided my typical sections of prep into separate categories in my OneNote Notebook. Over half of these sections entail worldbuilding and the rest are reserved for my more mechanical planning and personal notes.

Keep in mind I’m still really new to SotDL, plus these are ever-evolving notes. I wouldn’t be surprised if my notes change significantly once I get a better handle on the system and the campaign in general.

My sections would also change depending on the system I’m running. For example, I’d probably have a section for homebrew, but as this is my first time ever playing or running SotDL, I’m sticking strictly to the book. We’ll see how my notebook evolves as we get further into the campaign.

Overview

Campaign Overview Notes
All of the notes in here are able to be read or shown to the players without spoiling a thing.

The overview section is going to be my lightest section by far. This is where most of my large-scale lore and worldbuilding will live. For example, the historical information about the world that is shown in the screenshot above.

I purposely wrote this section with the players in mind. I wanted to have information that I could read off to them during session 0 to set the stage and the tone of the game. However, it was good for me too as a writing exercise as it helped me set the tone for the rest of the campaign prep.

Session Notes

session notes example OneNote
These notes are for my benefit. However, I’ll compile them and post a recap in our Discord before the next session!

This section hasn’t seen much use yet, but it will in time! I like to take quick notes while we play a session so that I can remember a lot of the little details that happen throughout the game.

I have a pretty good memory so I’ll remember all of the highlights of a session. But a lot of those minor details start to really add up. They tell you a lot about a character and can help you plan a more customized game based on these character-defining moments.

I particularly like how OneNote organizes the pages within its sections because it lets me easily jump to the notes for a particular session that I’m looking for. Also, they’re searchable, so if I’m looking for something and can’t remember which session it happened in, I can simply search a few keywords and find it.

The session notes of my D&D campaign are for sure the majority of the information that I’ve lost over the years. I’m excited to have organized notes that I can easily read through!

Locations

locations planner
Fun fact: everyone in Quarry is poor. Some just live in absolute squalor. On second thought, that wasn’t fun at all.

I should really change the label because “locations” makes way more sense and I just thought of it while writing this. Anyway-

I like to have a bit of description of each major location that’s in a game I run. These descriptions tend to look similar to the one above, but this is probably the most refined iteration of this yet.

There are a few variables that are important depending on what the location is and what game we’re playing. The example above is just a section in a town so I only need its average economic status and population. The town of Quarry has additional information such as the type of government.

Other games I’d probably list the religion(s) that are predominantly followed and any special rules about the city or locale.

I was tempted to add a section and pages for each individual shop, tavern, or building listed in a page in the locations section. However, that’s a lot of time to spend prepping for something that I don’t have much of an issue thinking up on the fly.

NPCs

My NPCs section is sort of separated into two different categories. Major and Minor NPCs. These NPCs coexist in the same sections, but their page layouts are very different.

Major NPCs are people or creatures that have a potentially large impact on the game. They may have work for the party or they could be big players in the world. They could also just be an NPC that I thought would be fun to flesh out.

Minor NPCs are ones that I don’t believe will have a large impact on the game world. Now, there’s always a chance that I’m wrong, but in that case, I’ll just go back and bump them up to be a Major NPC the next time I prep the game.

(Potentially) Major

Major NPC notes
I have to keep some stuff safe from the wandering eyes if you know what I’m saying.

Owners of shops that make it onto the map of the city are one example of NPCs that I consider to be Major NPCs. They get a bit more screen time because in most cases, they have wares that the party wants. The party will probably keep going back to them to interact with them.

Business owners also have problems. This means that they’re an excellent source of work for adventurers for hire.

Many of these problems are self-inflicted. That’s why in the GM Notes in a Major NPC’s page I write down their flaws, secrets, and problems. The party can interact with them to learn these or deduce these.

Minor

Random generators are your friend!

I have a ton of small bars and taverns in the city of Quarry. There’s no way of knowing which bar my players will opt to visit, and there’s no way I’m going to make a single bar and just plant it wherever they choose.

Instead, I opted to make bar staff Minor NPCs. Another example of Minor NPCs is Miscellaneous NPCs which is just a list of NPCs that I have generated and will fill out their duties and jobs as they’re used in the game unless they have a specific one already.

Minor NPCs get a physical description, a summary of their behavior, and the name of their job. I can always fill these in later as new information arises in the game, or bump them up to a Major NPC if the party takes a liking to them.

Adventures

adventure notes
SotDL’s leveling system revolves around completing adventures. Finish an adventure? You level up! Simple as that.

I like to split my adventure/quest/dungeon prep into sections. The first section outlines the background information such as where this takes place, how the party got the job, and what this job entails.

Another section lists the NPCs of note and talks about their direct relation to the adventure. OneNote’s hyperlinking is super useful for this because I can just jot down a few notes and then link to their NPC page.

My next section contains the creatures, traps, and rewards in the adventure. I like to also list their difficulty/CR and how much EXP their worth as well as what page of what book they’re located in. This gives me an easy way to reference creatures if I need to look something up that isn’t on their Roll20 sheet.

The final section is the real meat of the adventure. I like to separate my adventures into scenes. Chunks of time or locations that contain parts of the adventure. In this case, it was a caravan guarding mission so I sectioned the adventure into driving to the location, working at the location, and returning home.

I just listed any major events that could happen as well as a few possible choices that the NPCs or creatures would be inclined to make if given the opportunity. Obviously, if my players did something completely different, these events may not even happen or they may happen entirely differently (they did).

As I’ve run more TTRPGs I’ve gotten more confident in my abilities to improvise and not rely on fully-written notes. So if you have more written down than me about your adventure, don’t fret!

This was also a level 0 adventure, and super, super basic because I had no idea what I was doing. It was fun though!

Conclusions

This was a good example of finding that the best solution to a problem was the simplest. I didn’t need an RPG-focused planning tool, and I didn’t need something super in-depth and complex. OneNote was easy to learn and basic enough to give me everything I needed without overloading or bloating my prep.

One downside to using OneNote as opposed to any of the online campaign managers I’ve tried is that it’s not nearly as easy to share parts of my planner with the players. I can’t just make a handout of the town and link it to my players. I’d need to make a spoiler-free document and share it with them separately.

Personally, this is a downside I’m absolutely willing to live with. Who knows if my players would’ve gone through most of the lore and handouts anyway?

I’m not too far into my SotDL campaign, but I already feel much more organized and have found myself sporadically planning frequently thanks to how accessible my planner is now. We’ll see if this holds up when I’m closer to the end of the campaign, but I’ve got my hopes up.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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2 Comments

  1. Your article is timely, as I was looking at World Anvil. I really like what they’ve done, and I’m sure all of those details would be cool. But, to your point, the information would ‘live’ for my enjoyment only; my players would interact with about 10% of it. I’m going to fire up OneNote and give it a shot tonight!

    • Good to hear, hope it helped!

      The best part about doing it this way is that if you do find you want World Anvil’s extra features, it’s easy enough to transfer your notes into it. In my opinion, it’s more work to go from World Anvil to OneNote.

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