Make a Note of It

As game masters, we focus a lot on preparing for our games. When playing, we are responsible for guiding our players through the scenarios we set up. By the nature of tabletop role playing games, you will pose questions (choices) to your players. And they will respond with their selections.
Its easy to get immersed in the moments at the table. And then after the fact, forget to take notes on what were the key decisions that happened during the game. Note taking is an important skill as a game master albeit a non-exciting one. Taking notes can feel burdensome or “extra work” that the GM has to perform. But, I’m here to tell you that your notes need not be complex. Or extensive. But the value in taking notes is worth its weight to any game master want to run cohesive games.

Why Take notes?

I myself and a light note taker. When I’m running the game, I am focused on my outlines I have pre-established. But, when something critical comes up, I make sure to note it down. Why? There are several reasons:
  • Remember the critical choices of the session. As a GM, you will pose dramatic questions to your players. Will they chose to save the princess from the rabid beast? Or will they go after villains that let the beast out of the cage as an escape plan? Choices have consequences. Sometimes those consequences are immediate. Other times, they’ll crop up in future sessions. Your notes make sure they crop up in future sessions.
  • Sharpen the focus of your preparation work. Remember when we talked about getting the players to commit to plans at the end of a game session? Well you should make notes on their choice. Even better if you ask them questions to generate discussion around that choice. Then take notes on that discussion. You gain insight into their goals and motivations. This is great fuel for focusing your preparation for the next game session.
  • Maintain world consistency. When you run your game, chances are you’ll have to make up material on the spot. Usually for nouns (people, places, or things). If the party wants to know the name of a goblin #1 now a prisoner? Well, now he has a name. And you’ll want to note it in case he shows up later. This maintains consistency in the world. It shows that you are paying attention and giving care to your own games. Your inaccuracies may not be a big deal at first. But if you are consistently inconsistent you risk breaking your players immersion.
  • Capturing our improvisation choices. This is an expansion of the previous bullet point. Sometimes, the players go outside the boundaries of your prepared notes. That’s completely fine. But it relies on your improvisation skills. Those improv skills might be great in the moment. But can you remember everything you designed up on the spot for your review? Probably not, so make notes as you go.

What Should you Note?

When it comes to note taking, everyone has their own style. I myself, am a light note taker. But as a game master, there are a few key pieces that I make sure to note down.
  • Improvisations. I note down people, places or things that I make up on the spot. This keeps consistency and lets me reference them in future games. If I am generating adventure content wholesale at the table, I note that too. Because I’ll need it to hash out next steps after the session is over.
  • Key player decisions. The major actions of PCs drive the fiction of your game. The player’s actions always have consequences. They may be immediate, which you can also note. Or delayed consequences will crop up later.
  • End of session choices. As mentioned above, take notes on what your players choices are for the next part in your game. This is the foundation of your new adventure preparation work.
  • Time-based elements. It can be useful to note down any time based elements that transpired in the game. It could be a macro issue such as an in-game calendar to know the time of year your players are at. Or it could be micro issue like knowing how long until the dark ritual is complete and the sun goes black.
  • Spent monster resources. Monsters or NPCs will have expendable resources at their disposal. Spell slots (if they haven’t had time to recover them), potions, alchemical fire are all examples. If they use up those resources make a note. That way your players get a fair and accurate representation of what the monster has left.
  • Bookkeeping for mid-adventure issues. Sometimes I end game sessions mid-adventuring day. We play based on a real-life clock, not an in-game one. When this happens, I make notes of whatever is dynamic within the adventure. That way I have accurate records for when we pick back up. This captures previous bullet point, but encompasses much more than it.

Refine Your Notes

When it comes time to start preparing for your next adventure or gaming session, I start by reviewing my notes. This reminds me of what happened, and where we are going. But in my review process, I refine my notes. I clean anything up any vagueness or notes that turned out to be more trivial than I first anticipated.
The refinement process helps me narrow my focus on what I need to create for the next session. Through the act of deletion and expansion where necessary I am forming the picture in my mind. That picture becomes the outline for the session. And from there I begin my preparation work.
Art Credit: Ede László