I’ve always stressed the importance of taking notes as a DM. There’s a lot to keep track of between player character backstories, plot threads, NPC involvement, etc. It’s best to keep a written record so that you can refer to it when prepping for future sessions.
However, as a player, I’ve never been one to take detailed notes. I’ll keep track of important events or write down the name of a relevant NPC, but that’s the extent of my note-taking.
In my Mutants and Masterminds campaign, though, we’ve been focused on playing an RP-heavy game. So, in the spirit of encouraging that, the GM gave each of us a private journal in the form of a Roll20 handout. That way he can also read it to get any ideas based on our thoughts and feelings.
I have to say, it’s absolutely an idea I’m stealing going forward. I’ve been focusing on taking notes in character and it’s really helped me figure out how he feels and what his perspective is on the events of the campaign and his private life.
Although Roll20 isn’t the only way to take notes. There are a ton of tools out there that help organize your notes. For instance, I started using OneNote when GMing my Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign and have continued to use it since. However, good old-fashioned pen and paper are just as effective.
Let’s talk notes and why I encourage everyone at the table to keep a log of their adventures!
Why Take Notes?
While tools like a session recap help remind players what happened in the previous session or highlighting any important information you feel may become relevant again soon, it’s not the whole story.
A session recap is great at showing what the GM/DM thinks is important.
A player’s individual notes should take this same information into account. Provided that the table’s goals align and the GM has correctly emphasized what info is important to remember. However, it also takes into account anything that the player or their character thinks is important.
This includes information such as who does the character think is a trusted ally? Who do they think is untrustworthy? What clues have they picked up on during an investigation?
These ideas and motivations can spurn brand-new plot threads for a GM to take hold of if they’re made public by either the character’s actions or even out of game conversation with the GM.
Note-taking is also a great way to facilitate active listening. A player that takes notes will certainly ask clarifying questions to ensure their notes are accurate.
Notes also allow the player to revisit the campaign on their own time or during a future session to remind themselves of what happened and what they were thinking at the time. It helps keep their goals and thoughts consistent throughout the span of real-life weeks or months.
What to Keep Track of
Effective note-taking results in a summation of relevant information. It shouldn’t detail every little thing the GM says or your character does. After all, how would you find the time to actually play during the session if you were writing a full script of the events?
Think of RPG note-taking in the same light as you would taking notes during a class or lecture in school. Don’t copy word-for-word what the teacher is saying. Highlight the important bits so you can refer to them later on!
You should focus on highlighting important people, places, events, and information in your notes first and foremost.
Any world-changing event that happens during your tenure as an adventurer, space explorer, superhero, etc. is probably going to be important to you at some point in a campaign. Even if you are not directly involved in the event and are hearing about it second-hand via the news or gossip.
- A declaration of war or a border conflict with a nearby nation
- An important building being attacked
- A ruler or important person being kidnapped or assassinated
As I said, you may not witness these events first-hand, but if your GM is telling you about an event of this caliber happening, chances are you’ll be involved in the fallout of the event at some point throughout the campaign. Or at the very least, it may be something worth investigating to drive the plot forward.
However, a major event doesn’t have to be some large-scale high-impact event. It could just be something that heavily impacts the party’s day-to-day life.
A raid on the small fishing village you’re passing through isn’t a major event in the grand scheme of things. However, it’s a significant event in the lives of the locals who live in this quaint town and will ask for your help in stopping whoever did this.
There’s room to be subjective with what you determine is a major event in the campaign.
It’s considered polite to remember bits and pieces of information about important people or people you’ve met before that you have regular contact with. Key details such as a physical description of the person, what they do, and of course, their name, will go a long way in establishing a good relationship with someone.
Ergo, it’s a good idea to keep this in mind in your TTRPGs too. It’s rude to keep asking someone what their name is or not remembering what they do when you go to talk to them. While you can’t remember everyone, you can jot some notes down to help you remember the important people in your campaign.
Important NPCs come in two flavors.
The first is an NPC that holds a position of power. For instance a ruler or a high-ranking city official. These people are highly-prized contacts for any adventuring party so it’s a good idea to jot some notes down about them.
The second are NPCs that have something of value concerning the party. This could be a seedy contact that hears all of the rumors that flow through the city’s underground crime ring. It also could be a super-skilled craftsman that knows how to make high-quality or magical items for adventurers.
These people aren’t “important” to the average Joe, but to the party, they’re highly-valued contacts.
Key Setting Info
Out of the four key note-taking categories, this is the most subjective of the bunch. Key setting info is a board stroke, but I think it’s an important one to consider taking some notes of.
This can include information on the climate or visuals of the location of course, but the key details you should jot down is any unique information about the setting and any places of importance within it.
For example, your character visits a major city and comes to find out that magic is banned within the city walls. Anyone who is caught performing magic will be arrested and brought to trial.
This is good information to have. Firstly to remind yourself for future visits that you should avoid using magic in broad daylight, but also to highlight what is a clear plot thread. Why was magic banned? Who banned magic? Is someone trying to round up all the magic-users for nefarious purposes mayhaps?
Basic notes outlining the setting are also great for helping you distinguish the various locations in the game world for when the GM brings them up. Some settings have a ton of places to keep track of so knowing the difference between them will make your sessions run much smoother.
Clues and Theories
Many TTRPG campaigns include an element of mystery in them. For example, conspiracy theories, a murder mystery arc, secret cults and organizations, you name it.
These types of interweaving plot threads or complex adventures make for a fun game, but the more involved the mystery is, the more the party needs to keep track of. Clues, theories, suspicions, rumors, and other bits and pieces of information that help the party put the puzzle together are difficult to keep track of just in your head.
Ergo, it’s a great idea to write all of these down! Make a section in your notebook or journal specifically for clues and information regarding a specific mystery you’re trying to solve.
Player theories are fantastic pieces of info to jot down in your notes too. While you can share these with the DM, and maybe something fun will come out of it. Writing down your personal theories about an ongoing mystery or curiosity is a great way to help you both generate ideas and keep yourself on track between sessions.
I’m trying in-character note-taking for the first time in our Mutants & Masterminds campaign. It was a bit awkward at first, but by 4 sessions in it feels way more natural now and I feel much more intertwined with my character.
Basically, all this is, is that I take notes in the first-person perspective concerning my character. My notes revolve around what he sees or how he perceives certain events. I’ll also add motivations for his actions and how major events have impacted him.
Here’s my character’s journal as an example:
Last session, my character’s super-speed flaw triggered which happens at the GM’s discretion. When this happens he bursts into a ball of flame, torching everything near him. Unfortunately, this happened as he was ferrying a bystander out of harm’s way.
I made sure to focus on that in my notes because I wanted to capture how he felt at that moment. It’s going to be a pivotal story element for him as he grows into being a superhero. Perhaps he won’t be so reckless with his powers. Maybe he’ll train to overcome this spontaneous combustion property. Hell, he may hang up his cape if he keeps hurting people! Who knows?
Regardless of what happens in the future, I now have concrete info to reflect upon whenever he makes a decision going forward. I can go back to see how he felt or what happened to him in previous sessions so that I can base his decisions going forward on his feelings from past sessions.
Keep in mind, your primary goal with in-character note-taking is to jot down the important information you learn about the campaign. The in-character flair you add to these notes merely supplements them to help you role-play your character better.
While in-character note-taking is by no means necessary for taking great notes, I do find that it’s a fun exercise and a great way to help you understand/realize your character’s motivations.
A journal or notebook is a powerful tool for a player. It’s a quick and accessible way to keep track of the tomes of information that’s spewed out to you by the GM in any given TTRPG campaign.
As with any form of note-taking, you don’t need to write a novel to generate effective notes. A few sentences a session will go a long way months down the road when you’re trying to remember an NPC’s name or an obscure clue that you found.
I’ve found that in-character note-taking has been a fantastic way for me to get into character better. Something I’ve struggled with in the past when on the player side of the table. The change in perspective when writing notes is such a small difference when writing the notes, but it makes a huge impact when reading them later.
The key takeaway of this article is… take notes! You won’t regret it, and your GM will surely thank you for doing so. It’s always a treat when someone remembers an obscure bit of info months down the road or when the whole party knows exactly who the NPC you’re talking about is because they wrote everything down.
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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