Take Note, or Be Damned! Notes from a Small Campaign

17 March 2023
Words by Richard Jansen-Parkes

Decent notes are the lifeblood of any long-running campaign. They’re the information-grease that lets the story-wheels flow. They’re the thin thread of sense stretching across a river of nonsense. Honestly, they’re all that allows us to enjoy sessions separated by mere moments in-game but several weeks in real life, without everything falling to pieces the moment one of our players asks “wait, who the hell is that guy?

However, taking and maintaining a decent set of GMing notes isn’t as easy as it might first appear. After all, compared to rolling dice and yelling about fireballs, carefully maintaining what are essentially really, really nerdy minutes is… kind of dull.

It’s so easy to get distracted during the game and forget to write down important details at the turning point of the entire story, or to scrawl down something that makes perfect sense at the time but utterly inscrutable when you return to it two weeks later. I’m certainly guilty of confidently writing down a reminder that I’m absolutely sure will jog my memory of an important event, only to be completely baffled when I later read “BROTHER RED HAIR - NINJA BLOOD?”

For this reason, it’s good to try and work out a system for taking, maintaining, and filing your notes. This doesn’t have to be particularly complicated or time-consuming – gods know that GMs aren’t looking for more drains on their time – but even something as simple as spending five minutes with your notebook on the way home from your game can have real benefits.



Okay, this is obvious advice, but you’d be amazed at how often we dramatically over-estimate our ability to remember things.

“Of COURSE I’m not going to forget the fact that the ranger’s beloved wolf just got toasted,” we think. “Why on EARTH would I need to write that down?”

And then we completely space out and, hey, the wolf is alive and kicking next week, until the party cleric awkwardly points out that they actually buried Wolfy a few hours ago… It’s not an ideal situation, really.

No matter how confident you are, just make some notes. If you’re not very good at multi-tasking while playing, this might just mean a few words on a sheet of paper you keep in your rulebook. “WOLF DEAD – RANGER SAD” is often enough to avoid the major mistakes.

If you can spare the attention, however, putting in the work to try and get something a bit more substantial recorded can pay dividends. When you’re improvising NPCs it can be useful to make sure their names are actually recorded somewhere, or your players are going to end up working with a lot of folks called ‘McSomething’ and ‘Orc Guy’. If you can make space to jot down a word or two about character traits, accents, and speech patterns it can work wonders in keeping the NPC feeling consistent.


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The only thing worse than having no notes at all is being certain that you wrote notes, but being unable to find them. Sadly, I cannot count the amount of important and (obviously) highly creative observations that have ended up in the bin, down the back of my desk, or simply lost to the ether over the years.

Now, every new campaign I run gets its own shiny new notebook. Sometimes this ends up being a bit of a waste – yes, even we fancy TTG columnists are not immune to the spectre of dead campaigns – but it’s preferable to the alternative.

If nothing else, the notebook allows me to look back through the weeks and months of gaming and pick out information that could easily be lost if I simply scrawled it down on the back of a hand-out or in the margins of a map. It’s a record of dates and of sessions numbers, packed with NPC names and hundreds upon hundreds of crossed-out hit point values.

The format of a notebook is going to vary from GM to GM. Personally, I like to keep my note-taking physical, and write up everything in a nice book using the fancy pens people buy me for Christmas. However, if you primarily play online or always have a laptop open at the table, using a digital notebook can work just as well.

There are plenty of specialised apps and programs that are built around quick and easy note-taking, with Microsoft OneNote being maybe the most famous. However, there’s also nothing wrong with just having a pile of Google Docs or the like. All you really need is the ability to write things down and look at them later – though only the brave are likely to commit to writing up a full campaign worth of notes in NotePad.


It’s easy to understand our notes when we’re in the heat of the moment, but when we flick the book open a week later they can often be rather opaque. The aide-mémoire we were so confident in can suddenly become utterly worthless as seven days of work, kids, and Bake Off take their toll on our recollections.

If you have the time, you can really make sure that your notes perform by giving them a once-over after the session is complete. This allows you to run a quick sanity check and fill in any obvious gaps before the memory has faded. You can tidy up scrawled handwriting and cross out ideas that – while they seemed awesome at the time – don’t stand up to the cold light of day.

The only issue with this is that we’re often rather knackered after a few hours of solid roleplaying. Often, we’re much more concerned about getting to bed (or the Xbox) than messing around with fantastical paperwork. However, if you can spare the time to grab just a couple of minutes the benefits can be significant.

Those who host games at their own house can try to work note-checking into their tidy-up routine, while anybody taking a bus or train can make full use of their return journey. If you’re in a car, you can just try to ensure that you grab a couple minutes when you get back home.



Of course, RPGs are rarely a solo activity. While there are a few areas where GMs have to work on their own, note-taking does not have to be one of them.

Many GMs delegate the bulk of the recording to a dedicated scrivener, whose task it is to note down important NPCs, plot developments, and dead pets. In particularly technologically advanced groups, they might even be adding all this information to a shared document that the entire group can access – very useful when you need to pronounce Nalfeshnee for the first time in
a while.

Even if they can’t include everything that you would like to include in your notes, such as sudden ideas for future developments or a reminder of which NPCs are secretly evil, allocating this task to one of your players can help to significantly reduce the load. If nothing else, having a dedicated scrivener allows you to see what the players themselves seem to think is important in their game, which allows you to tailor your content to match. 

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