Adventure Organization Basics: Note Taking
When it comes to adventure organization, you likely thought of note taking as the first concept in that process. Note taking is actually the fourth step in the process. Preceded by three steps: ideation, reconciliation and idea synthesis. By the time you have conceptualized your idea, you are ready to start filling out your notes. The value and the content of your session/adventure notes is a personal one. You need to document anything in your notes that will make you comfortable and successful in running your coming game session(s). That is your goal. In the rest of the article I will share what that might include.
The Unknown Art of Note Taking
If you are a new DM, you might ask yourself how does one do note taking for a D&D adventure? It can be a daunting task. You will find no help from the Dungeon Master’s Guide; a perfect place for such advice. Sadly, many DMs are left to fend for themselves when it comes to note taking. DM’s have to figure out their preparation through a trial and error process. The problem with trial and error is twofold.
Problems with Trial & Error
- If DMs feel unsuccessful in their initial games, they may become casualties. This sucks. I read anecdotes all the time about D&D fans that try their hand at DMing. But they quickly feel overwhelmed and give up shortly into it. One of my goals here at Earthmote is to make sure your games are as great as they can be. To do that, I want to make the structuring, and organization of your games as easy and fun as possible. Yes, it can be fun! A reason why people enjoy dungeon mastering is that they have greater control over the game. Control over the world building, and the narrative structure that the PCs encounter. You should have an awesome organizational structure that supports your creative work.
- Trial and Error puts extra responsibility on the DM. Not only do you have to figure out the creative design of your game. You also have to figure out how you are going to stay organized and on top of everything that is happening. Being a dungeon master is a lot of responsibility. You should be aware of that getting into it. But that doesn’t mean you should be left to hang high and dry about everything. Giving DMs the tools to succeed should be a bare minimum standard. It is one I hope to elevate here and in future articles.
There has to be a better way. Thankfully, we can think about what items will be valuable to write in our notes. I’ve done a fair bit of adventure preparation myself, and I’ve researched how others take notes as well. We can use those past experiences and the basic structure of an adventure to build out great notes. Notes that will make you feel confident in running your adventures.
What Should Be In Your Notes?
When it comes to your notes, your baseline is to include whatever you need to make yourself feel confident in running your adventure. That might be two pages of notes, it may be twenty. There is no right or wrong answer here. In my own preparation and research of how others, I’ve found common elements of note taking. Here are the elements you’ll want to consider including in your notes:
Scenes, Events, & Encounters.
This is the bones of your adventure. What are they key events driving the adventure forward? You’ll want to write those down, and the key points that make each scene important to the adventure. Refer to the questions from the “Designing Your Scenes” section from the Idea Synthesis part of this series (LINK). Remember the three key elements: information, choices, and consequences.
Monster Stat Blocks.
If you have an encounter planned in your adventure, make sure you have your stat blocks ready to go. That might be book marking your Monster Manual, drafting short hand stats or snapping a quick picture and adding it to OneNote.
Maps are valuable when your players go into an area that they will be investigating section by section. You don’t need a map for the guild house if the players are there to meet with a person in their office. You will want a map for the Vault of the Jade Hydra if the players must navigate the perils of each room. A map can be as simple or elegant as you’d like. You can hand draw maps with lots of detail. You can find created maps online. Or you could create a simple process flow chart that connects each area together based on the doorways, and hallways that link them. Finally, if you use battle maps, you might need to prepare those ahead of time as well.
When you come up with a great adventure, you might include events that use special rules. Do you know the rules for chase scenes, or naval combat off the top of your head? You will want to avoid interrupting your session to look up detailed rules if you can. Nothing kills your flow and momentum more that flipping through an index. When your scenes call for special rules, write them down in your notes. They will be right were you need them and the act of writing them down will help you remember them.
Pictures and handouts.
Pictures can help you set the tone you wish to convey. Sharing pictures helps you further portray your descriptions. Handouts work the same way. Handouts prove their worth when you have a complex concept that is hard to visualize. This can include information like a blood spattered message found on a herald or an intricate puzzle lock that opens the guardian’s vault. I recommend using these sparingly if yo intend to share with the players. It increases the emphasis and importance when they come into play. Handouts are time intensive to make. You need to manage the time you have available for game prep and decide if crafting handout #3 is worth it or not. Borrowing from a third party is the exception here.
Structuring Your Notes
The structure and readability of your notes is as important as the content that you put in them. If you are fumbling through your notes to find that key piece of information, it is time to rethink your notes’ structure. Your goal with your notes should be all about maximum clarity and readability. You need to have enough to understand the points you are trying to convey and remember with your notes. But not so much that you get bogged down in an unnecessary word count. When it comes to readability, here are a few methods to keep your notes accessible and usable at the table:
Make sure your sections use headers and sub-headers. Headers preview and summarize the content that follows. Headers allow you to identify when a new section of information begins. This makes your notes clearer and easier to scan. Because adventures are non-linear by nature (the party went to the Caves of Doom before the Floating Keep). You will probably have to jump back and forth in your notes. Headers reduce the burden of the wandering adventure.
Like this one, lists can help you break out ideas or subtopics of a topic in a nice clean format. Pretty much everyone is familiar with lists. But they are great for your D&D notes to break up the key points of each event, scene, encounter, and so on. Use numeric based lists when you want to describe ideas in sequential order.
Like lists, use tables to represent numerical or text information in a segmented format. When you have a set of data that is segmental and that is important in your notes, a table format can be useful. I use tables when I create my combat tracking sheets for monsters in planned encounters. I can include things like monster type/name, hit points, AC, attack bonus, and attack damage in a clean table that is quick to reference when I’m in combat.
Tags became popular within the information technology world in the 2000’s. They let you categorize information quickly by “tagging” it. Blogs will also tag their posts to categorize them. As a dungeon master, tags are a nice way to describe characters, places or things without writing out “read aloud” text or descriptions. With tags, you can look at them and then weave those tags into your description. This eliminates taking the time to draft out meticulous descriptions in your notes. If you are new, tags may feel a bit “advanced”, and you might find comfort in drafting your read aloud text. I can’t argue about the comfort aspect. But I do think tags will help improve your improvisation skills. Tags require you to think on your feet, but in a guided fashion. Here’s an example of written text vs. Tags:
- Written Text: “The rolling hills covered in knee length grass stretch on for miles. Atop a large hill rests a series of seven rune-carved onyx standing stones.”
- Tags: Grassy, Rolling Hills, Run-Carved Onyx Standing Stones
They say a picture can be worth a thousand words. If you can make a simple flow chart, equation, or diagram that helps convey whatever you are trying to say within your notes it will be effective. Graphics stand out. So they are immediately easier to find than any other text you may have within your notes. They draw your eye and are immediately accessible. Graphics also force you to think about the concept and reduce it to its essential elements. This improves your proficiency over the concept your conveying. It also keeps your notes short. Those are all wins in my book.
Save Time with Templates
When it comes to making clear notes, nothing beats consistency. A consistent structure to your notes will let you know where to look for key pieces of information. If your scenes all have the same structure, you can find information within each section. You can also glance through the sections by recognizing where one section ends and another begins.
I have found templates to be the easiest way to keep my notes structure consistent. For a template to be useful, you need to identify the critical information to every single instance in your notes. Then, make sure your template includes placeholders for that information so you can fill it out. For example, I have found that a title is crucial for each of my scenes. It lets me delineate the start of the section and describe it briefly. I also need to know what brings the close of the scene. This lets me transition to the next set of possible scenes.
If you plan to use templates, I’d make the following:
- Scene Template
- Encounter Template (could be stand alone or a sub-template of your scene template)
- Location Template
- Room/Area Template (sub-template of your location template)
- NPC Template
Some programs will let you create templates that are easy to call up and fill in as you need them. I am using Notion and enjoy it for its database and template capabilities. Others are a bit more cumbersome, but you can save your “templates” and copy and paste from them as you need. Before, I used OneNote which does not have custom creatable templates. I got around this by making template pages and duplicating them as I needed.
Evaluating Your Notes
When you have expended your notes, I recommend doing an evaluation of your preparation for the game session(s) you used them for. The only way to make your preparation more focused and efficient is to understand what was successful and what was not. You need to examine how your game went. How did your notes assist you in running the game? Here are some questions to think about when reviewing your notes:
- How much of your prepared notes did you use?
- What from your notes was excess?
- Is there a common theme among the excess (too much description text, etc.)?
- What was missing from your notes?
- What caused interruptions during your session (rules look ups, finding stat blocks, etc.)?
- Could you incorporate any of that information into your notes next time to reduce the interruption time?
- Anything that can be further streamlined? Or reformatted?
- Do you need to modify your templates?
- Have you consistently left a field(s) in your template blank?
- Have you consistently added new fields into your template?
- Is there any template you wish you had to make your preparation go faster?
Improve your Note Taking Skills
You don’t need to do this review every time you complete an adventure. You can wait until you have done a couple of adventures. Then see if there is common patterns across your adventure notes. Spotting the problems across the set of notes will become obvious. And you’ll have the confidence to make changes rather than asking yourself: what if I need this next time?
If you want to improve your organizational skills as a DM, you need to make sure that you are identifying and correcting mistakes or inefficiencies. Otherwise, you’ll repeat the same process over and over without any improvement. When I go the gym and lift weights, I need to make progress (add weight, reps or sets). If I go and do the same number of sets, reps and weight day-in and day-out, then I will never get any stronger. It won’t happen. You’ll stagnate. The same principles apply to improving your DM craft. Remember, we all start somewhere but we can all improve. For me, that’s one of my favorite things about any hobby or activity I undertake. I love seeing that progress and improvement. It drives me to do better and keep growing. Hopefully, you feel the same way and will take the evaluation to heart.
Note taking is an important skill to master as a Dungeon Master. The good news is, you’ll get better if you practice and learn what works best for you. Once you have written up your notes, you may think you are ready to run your adventure. And you certainly could. But it won’t be the best version of your adventure. For that, you’ll need to conduct a review of your adventure. We’ll talk about the review in the final installment of adventure organization basics.
Feature Art Credit: Ede László