GM Campaign Journaling
I’ve been iterating on my strategies for how to take notes for my campaigns. I used to use Notion because it was synced between desktop and my phone, but I don’t like flipping through digital notes in the middle of a game.
Instead I take notes with a pen in a journal. It’s nice and tactile, I can draw grids and columns and use different colors for things. When it’s nice out, I can do it at a picnic table in front of my favorite coffee shop.
A lot of this is adapted from or inspired by the practice of Bullet Journaling.
Berin Kinsman’s Bullet Journaling for Gamemasters is an inexpensive ebook that covers some simple session and campaign collections, but also a lot of meta information like player contact information and scheduling details.
Ken Newquist’s Bullet Journals for RPGs adapts the above with some nice distinctions between NPC collections and major / minor character pages (fitting two minor characters on one page is nice).
I tend to MC Powered by the Apocalypse games in 90–120 minute sessions every other week, with as many as three campaigns going simultaneously.
- I need to prep to improvise, since I like to give my players a lot of freedom over where their characters go and what they’re up to.
- I over-prep slightly to make sure that I have enough content to fill the entire session. Depending on what the players do, that extra prep may or may not be useful in a future session. But I can never tell exactly how much I’ll need each night.
- I like having long-term, slow-burning background arcs that I can think about in the bath and weave into the sessions. It’s important to be able to jot down those thoughts so I don’t lose them.
It’s important to distinguish between what’s canon, which are things that have come up in play, and what’s just potentially canon.
For most collections, I put in a column to divide the page roughly 60/40. I use the righthand side to add comments or amend notes written on the left. This comes up because the left column will often contain brainstorming or other rough potential ideas, that I then refine later either because I’ve thought about it more or some interesting wrinkle has come up in play.
For the Scene Log I do a 50/50 split. The left side is for things that I’ve prepped ahead of time, while the right side is a log of what’s happening in that scene as we play it at the table.
NPCs are funny pals. Some just show up for a scene without any lines, some become adopted into your PCs’ found family, and you can never tell ahead of time which it will be.
NPCs can exist in four different forms:
In the Scene Log, as a quick prep for a particular scene.
In a 7-3-1 collection, as one of the seven setting elements.
In a Faction collection, as part of a list of related NPCs.
As their own collection. This should be used really just for the most important NPCs in the campaign.
What exactly do you need to write down for an NPC? It depends on the game and your mood. I’ve got an entire page talking about different techniques for building NPCs.
What’s important is to use the Bullet Journal technique of migration. It’s okay to start with a quick description as part of another collection. After the NPC is introduced, if it seems like they’ll stick around and you want to write down more specifics about their portrayal, backstory, or relationships should you migrate them to their own collection.
There are 4 phases that are important for campaign note taking, and my approach aims to support each one.
- Session prep
- At the table
This is about filling the notebook with ideas for what could be going on in the game.
The goal is to write things down that then can be found during session prep or, if necessary, in the middle of the game. Much of these things will be written as “non-canonical” notes, with some potential events.
I like to put these in Idea Log collections that are more specific topics than my central nouns. So, for example, rather than write about Remodel’s clone-of-her-mother origin on the Remodel Character page, I make an Idea Log collection called “Remodel’s Origin” and jot things down there. I can then add a reference to that Idea Log from the Remodel page as well as add it to the Index.
World-building is a good time to sketch out some NPCs for various factions. They may not come up, so don’t spend too much time on them, but there’s no telling when you might need someone so it’s good to be prepared.
In the days or hours before a game session you need to address any tasks from the previous session (“figure out what they’ll need to do to steal the mammoth”) and put some thought into what will happen during the game.
This is a good time to review the per-character notes in the Arc Log for inspiration or to think of ways you can bring those conflicts up.
My pre-session philosophy is very influenced by Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master: focus on prepping what will be useful. For me that’s a few scenes or an encounter and any character beats I’d want to try and work in.
At the Table
This can be the hardest time to take notes because, as the GM, you have so many responsibilities during the game that consume all of your attention.
I try not to take too many notes about “what happened” because that can be the easiest to remember. (And in two of my games I have a player who likes to basically transcribe the action, so I can always go back and refer to that if I really need to.)
It’s tempting to log tactical information (“Jasmire weaves her camoflage so she can’t be seen”), but other than bookkeeping for enemies (like damage or conditions), that stuff tends to stick in the mind when doing cinematic combat. And if not your mind, your players’ minds and they’ll remind you.
Far better is to log details that you can come back to in a later scene or future session. Keep an eye out for anything with emotional resonance: “Kamchatka sacrificed her favorite cape to tie the ship’s wheel,” “Mel thinks everyone is hiding secrets from her,” “Eos refuses to bond with the mammmoth.”
You want to be able to set up callbacks, which can lead to either treasured running gags (“Freefall really needs a burger”) or justify dramatic moments (“because Aqua’s supersuit ripped, C.H.A.S.E. thinks she’s about to die and is compelled to turn her into a cyborg.”)
This is a practice borrowed heavily from Bullet Journaling. As soon as possible after the game you should go over notes you logged during the game and add anything important you missed, complete any sentences you left half-written, and otherwise make sure that the parts of the session you might want to carry forward are recorded.
Then, you can do any migration out of your Scene Log or 7-3-1 collections. Are the PCs going to stick around in the community they found? Did an improvised NPC get roped into the adventure? Make dedicated pages for them now while you’re excited about them, so you’ll have a place to add details when they come to you.
This is also the right time to send your stars and wishes to your players. And as they send their stars and wishes around, add promising ones to the Session Log or to their character sections in the Arc Log.