GM Campaign Journaling
HEADS UP! This is very much a work-in-progress. I’m iterating on my process heavily, as my enthusiasm for note taking waxes and wanes.
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).
Ginny Di’s No time to take notes while DMing? Try this! has some general advice for GMs taking notes during a game, including advice on how to abbreviate and what to actually take notes about.
How to be a Great GM’s How to Take Better Notes as a GM
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.
I want as few barriers to writing things down as possible. Color coding and complex layouts certainly look engaging, but if I have to make a complex spread for every NPC, or need a case of pens to plan the next session, I’m less likely to do it.
I try to do everything with just a black pen and a ruler. I have magnetic bookmark rulers in all of my game journals that I can pull out.
When I’m at home I usually will have access to pens with color ink that I’ll use for headings and subheadings, but if I’m not I’ll do them in black and underline them in color later.
It’s important to distinguish between what’s canon, which are things that have come up in play, and what’s just potentially canon.
I use the Bullet Journal “note” dash for facts about the world, secrets and clues, anything passive. If it comes up in play, I cross it to make a plus sign that indicates that it is true.
I use the “task” dot for actions that I might want to have happen in a scene, and X them out if they come up.
For most collections, such as a Character, NPC, or an Idea Log, 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.
For Scenes I do a 50/50 split. The left side is for things that I’ve prepped ahead of time, while the right side is for notes during the session.
Arcs, Sessions, and Scenes
Some parts of your journal will just be a worldbuilding reference, but these collections are about the mechanics of playing the RPG at the table with the other players.
This is a 2-page spread that groups a collection of game sessions together. I divide it into 4 columns (2 per page).
The leftmost column is for characters. I futher divide it into boxes for each character. Use this space to track how you can push that character specifically during the arc. Are they torn between two NPCs the way a Masks character is by hooks? Is there some character moment they’re trying to build towards? Use this space for that. My goal is to address this in some way before the end of the arc.
The 2nd column is for Things that Could Come Up. Moments or beats that I can’t yet tie down to a session or scene but might be relevant.
The 3rd column tracks what is happening in the world with the major NPCs or villains. What are they up to that the PCs might either hear about or have to deal with?
The 4th column is an index. The top 75% is for scenes, and the bottom 25% links out to “Secrets and Clues” Idea Logs that may be relevant during the current arc.
Immediately after an Arc Log goes the first Session Log for that arc. This is another two-page spread.
On the left page are sections:
- TODO for prep I want to try and put into place before the session.
- Reminders are meta-game things that I want to remind my players about at the start of the session.
- Scenes is a list of up to 5 or so scenes that might happen in the session, with page numbers of any that are prepped.
- Story Beats are narrative things that I would like to remember to use, like a menacing silhouette as they sail away from a town, or a snarky bit of dialog. In Masks, I’ll often note a label shift I want to try and hit.
- Takeaways I fill in after the session, with the handful of important events or changes that will be relevant for future prep. For example, the characters getting access to something, or a part of the story that they
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.
Following the recommendation in How to be a Great GM’s “6 Good Things To Do Before Your Game as a GM”: Create 40+ Names