Dungeons & Dragons Online

Notetaking for DM’s – DO’s and DON’T’s, from my experience, on a PC

Context

As a lifelong DM who loves running campaigns full of political intrigue, you'd think I was better at taking notes, but I'd be rich if I had a dime for every time I've started up a session and reviewed my notes from the previous game and found myself more confused than informed. I think we've all been there.

Thanks to recent unnamed global phenomenae, however, my players and I have since moved our playing sessions to Roll20, and this has had the amazing side-effect of forcing me into take decent notes. Since I'm at my computer the whole time, writing things out quickly in Notepad has become a breeze, but I still have to be careful: I still occasionally fall into the trap of writing "vampires?" somewhere on the page and providing no context as to my train of thought at the time. However, after a few months, I've finally honed my note-taking skills to the point where reviewing them is actually informative and so I thought I would share what I've learned with those who are still struggling.

This is notetaking on a PC, which is different from taking notes in an actual, physical notebook.

The Lists

These lists are habits that work for me, so these might not all work for you. I track information that's important to my campaign that you might not care about, so, obviously, tailor this to your own needs.

Also, it's important to note that this is my note-taking when playing on Roll20 where I don't need to do things like track enemy HP, as the site does that for you.

DO:

  • Include the session date in your file name. If, like me, each session is an individual notepad file, it's best to name the file starting with the date, and then followed by a one-or-two word summary of the session. Month-Day-Year works best since the files automatically order themselves chronologically, whereas Day-Month-Year would lump a few different months together. Year-Month-Day would also technically work, but I find it easier to locate the sessions I need when the month is first.
  • Track the in-game start time and end time of the session. This one is very simple but incredibly useful an effective. In the old days, I would sometimes remember to write down the in-game time and date. However, now, in my session notes, it's the first thing at the top. When a new session starts, I take the "End time" from the previous session as this session's "Start time", and boom! Timeline tracked. Now I know that it's been exactly 15 days since the PC's left the starting town and I know they only have three days before that army of orcs attacks town.
  • Take note of the weather. Now, part of me always wanted to have a complex weather-table to roll on to have dynamic changing weather in the game, and if you're into that and able to reliably keep track of it, all the power to you. However, for myself and others like myself, the weather kind of takes a back seat in my mind. As such, I've found that it's enough to have the weather change only between sessions. Choose your own criteria for changing the weather, but I usually change it depending on how dramatic I need the upcoming scenes to be, or if NPC's would hold certain events only in certain weather (for example, a festival would only really work in nice weather as opposed to torrential rain). Changing the weather like this is enough to keep it dynamic without taking up more mental computing power than it needs to.
  • Track reputations and why they change. I have a list of NPC's and organizations the players have interacted with, each with a score that is either positive or negative. For example, right now my players have a positive relationship with the Merchant's Guild at +2. During each session, if that changes, I add a line explaining why that changed and by how much. Example: Merchant's Guild +3 (+2 returned the guild leader's lost dog, -1 let the dog-napper get away). That way, when the players return to town and suddenly find that a once-friendly organization now hates them, you can go back and track all of their offenses and remind them of anything their characters would probably remember.
  • Write upcoming timed events. Actions have consequences, which is something a lot of our murder-hobos seem to forget. If you follow my note-taking, you can create timed events spawned from player actions that creates a very good sense of continuity. For example, let's say your players steal some money from a hidden vault in a mansion. The house's secretary only checks that vault every thursday to make deposits and withdrawals, so you could then create a timed event that read: 20% chance of theft being discovered on . It's also a good way to track competing NPC's by giving them a timeline that the PC's may or may not even interact with. For example: BBEG will arrive in Generic Town on the 24th of Opal. BBEG will steal Amulet of Winning from Charles the Alchemist on 27th of Opal. BBEG will escape to Shadowfell on 28th of Opal. And so on, allowing your PC's to maybe intervene if they're in the right place at the right time. Obviously, once the players meddle, the timeline would change, so it's best to keep it simple and doesn't need to project further than a couple of weeks into the future.
  • Track who possesses vital magical/quest items. Key quest items might be handed from one player to another, so it's good to know who's holding the Amulet of Winning for when the prophecy is fulfilled and turns its current possessor into a Brass Dragon. It's also useful as a reminder of what the players have left to do.
  • Keep a tally of the session's XP earned. I write this at the top of my file, before the date. A simple XP total for what they earned through the session. You can also add why they earned certain amounts if you really want to be meticulous, or if the players have questions about why they earned more during an RP-heavy session as opposed to a combat-heavy session, but my own players simply accept how much I give them without complaint.

DON'T:

  • Name your Lore dump files vaguely. I include this seemingly-obvious piece of advice because I'm still guilty of this one. Before each session, I create a file with all the relevant lore and background information players might need or come across in their adventure, just to make sure I have it. The files should be given appropriate names with dates so that they can be found easily (for example: "History of the Conqueror King Acandor" versus what I originally wrote: "Dungeon Statue Room"). If you are guilty of giving files random names like me, always take a moment after a session to re-organize the file names and maybe even centralize all the information in a wiki somewhere.
  • Write names without context. We've all been there. We need to name a random NPC the players are talking to, so we jot down a name and away we go! The PC's then move on, perhaps even without murdering said NPC, and the campaign moves along. Next session, you're reviewing your notes and you see a name written there. Was he… was he the tavern-keeper? Or was he the shady fence they were dealing with? No wait, it was the thief they caught in the market trying to pickpocket them, but who gave up information after being interrogated… I think? You can save yourself a headache by adding a very simply line of text anchoring the name to something meaningful, whether it be a place or an in-game event. This is bad: Sidarian — city guard. This is better: Sidarian — city guard in the employ of House Ferrod, took a bribe from the players to let them by, just wants to be able to feed his family. Now we have his in-game anchor, how the players interacted with him, and his motivation for doing what he did and how he might act in the future.
  • Track PC stats. This one is debatable and depends entirely on your DMing style, but for me tracking PC stats has never been worth the trouble. Yes, I do like the idea of secretly removing X amount of gold from a PC's purse without them knowing, but I don't actually need to know how much money they have on them at all times. I would only recommend tracking PC stats for players who are notoriously bad at tracking that information themselves, but even then it would be better to delegate this task to another player. Half the time, you end up with different numbers than the players anyway. They might have mentioned in passing that they drank a potion of healing, but you were too busy describing the night sky to have noticed. Whenever you do need to know how much gold or health a PC has, there's no harm in straight-up asking the player. In fact, it's fun to just ask randomly every now-and-then to put them on edge. "You read the door? Okay. Uh, real quick, how much HP do you have left?" "Okay, cool. No, no, don't worry, the door opens fine."
  • Keep all your session notes in a single file. This might be a style preference and you may take pleasure in creating a single document with its own table of contents and appendix, but for the rest of us, a single file eventually turns into a nightmare. There's definitely appeal to having all your notes in one place, but what happens over time is that the file gets bloated. Problems will start to crop up, like the file taking a while to load, or information becoming difficult to find once you have a year's worth of information in there. If you certain lore or event info remains pertinent from one session to the next, it's best to just copy-and-paste it between session files rather than have to go dig for it. Whenever I create a new file for a session, I actually just open the previous session's file, save it under a new name and delete all the old information I won't need for the upcoming session.

Example

Here are the notes I took from our last session playing:

Exp 1000

Start: 7PM, 25th of Malachite

End: 8AM, 26th of Malachite

Standings

Wayfarer peasants +2

House Ferrod +2

Wayfarer alchemist +1

Merchant's Guild +2

Road Bandits -3

House Harrow +5

Black Hoods +1

Red Bank -1

Evelynn +3

Church of Merilith +5 (+5 told church of the necropolis' location)

Loraqwyn has a potion of Mind Reading

Loraqwyn has the wand of Blinking

Timed Events:

– Einrich asked the church for 100gp and failed on the 21st of Malachite

The party owes the Black Hoods a favor

Einrich owes the Merchant's Guild 500 gold on behalf of the Red Bank

The Merchant's Guild believes the PC's to be acting on the Red Bank's behalf

– Lie will be exposed at the end of the month (30th of Malachite)

Amahalpu'ara is the name of Evelyn's horse

Edmure is a guard of Lord Harrow that teamed up with Evelynn

City of T'rannah is where the Watchers of the Gate operate

It's quick and simple, and a brief review gives me an idea of what should happen this session. As you can see, in four days one of the PC's failed Deception checks will produce consequences, even if, at the time, it seemed like they got away with it.

Is there anything you disagree with? I'd love to hear better ways to do these as I'm sure most of you have developed your own techniques.

Source

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