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There are plenty of tools available to organize campaign notes. I've tried 4x6 cards, files on my computer, notebooks, and more. I have thought of trying mind mapping software such as FreeMind, note taking applications like Evernote, or even setting up a wiki somewhere.

What tools (electronic or not) have you used that let you keep track of what has already happened in your campaign, including settings, events, NPCs, and PCs, as well as what you are planning for future sessions?

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I tried out a couple of mind-mapping tools, but I found that they were more of a hurdle than a help. They seem to be hierarchical in nature, in a way that's too rigid for my taste, and it isn't really a convenient format for keeping any kind of detailed notes beyond simple, connected phrases. Google Wave was fantastic for my Shadowrun game, but it's being taken down (www.savegooglewave.com). I primarily use pencil and paper for lack of a satisfactory computer-based tool. –  RMorrisey Aug 21 '10 at 4:18
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@RMorrisey: Apache now owns Google Wave and have a version out that you can run on an Apache Web Server. Also, SuSE's parent company (I forget their name, but they were a big networking company out of Utah back in the 90's) has a version but it costs money last time I checked. –  NeoFax Oct 2 '12 at 20:23

43 Answers 43

up vote 42 down vote accepted

First, some failures:

I found Obsidian Portal incredibly frustrating. Navigating between PCs, NPCs, wiki pages, and so on, was so obnoxious that I finally gave up. I hope it gets better, but it just wasn't worth the frustration it caused me.

After that, I set up a Wagn wiki, which was a great success right until I asked players to start contributing and nobody did. The Wagn system let me define all kinds of custom page types for places, NPCs, and so on -- but without anyone else using it, I'd have been better off with a little pile of my own notes -- and that's what I do now.

I did a lot of planning in a TiddlyWiki, and that was a really great environment for keeping notes. I eventually stopped, but for stupid reasons unrelated to anything interesting. I highly recommend it as a campaign planning tool.

Now I use Scrivener, a book-writing tool. I create note cards in Scrivener for each planned adventure and/or encounter, and documents about the setting, races, future plot ideas, and so on. It lets me combine my notes about the campaign setting and the ongoing adventure into one document. I'm not sure whether I like Scrivener more than TiddlyWiki, but both have been really helpful.

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Obsidian Portal is a very useful site for tracking various aspects of your campaign. It has wiki-like format and you can make information hidden or not as you see fit. A map of some place you're not ready to show the characters yet? Make it hidden, then when the time comes just edit it to not hidden. There is also a section for the players' characters.

There is a learning curve for the formatting used to make entries, but it's a great resource that can become the central database for you campaign.

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So far I've had the most success simply by using Google docs. I create a 'folder' for the campaign and then sub-folders for each adventure within the campaign.

At the campaign level I have a 'Campaign Journal' which I've made available to my players and I keep this updated with relevant information for the group. This folder also contains 'campaign level' handouts such as notes, etc.

For each adventure I have a master document which contains all the details of the adventure based on a document template that I use which has background, encounters, npcs, etc. Also in the adventure folder I put adventure specific hand outs like mini-maps, notes, npc bios, pictures, etc.

This works for me, but I could totally see that a wiki would be useful to get the players to interact. However, my inner control freak wants to keep control of it all and I'd rather send emails to my players and update the information myself. That way no one has to learn WIKI markup and I know it'll look the same.

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Kind of surprised it hasn't been mentioned, but Masterplan is a pretty nice free tool. It's built to be specific to D&D 4E, but it a pretty useful tool that can be used for general plot points, encyclopedia like entries, campaign notes, etc.

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That is really neat! The same guy has a program called Labyrinth for plot threads that might find a place in my campaign managment. –  Aaron Mar 18 '11 at 15:23

Evernote is definitely my preferred method of organizing. I can write up encounters, link to d20pfsrd.com pages for encounters, and tag information. I will also lay out dungeon tile maps while planning, put photographs of them into Evernote, and then use the maps from Evernote to make sure I lay them out the same way again.

Since Evernote runs from multiple machines, I can add notes wherever the mood strikes me. I'll even take voice notes into Evernote with my iPhone when I'm on the road since typing is obviously too dangerous to try to do.

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I use a large hard backed notebook and I note by scribbling pictures, diagrams and ideas rather than long text. A pictorial reference I find easier to track what happened. I also use spider diagrams (aka Mind Maps) to track relationships. I do drawings on the right hand side of the open book and important information (such as NPCs invented on the fly) on the left.

I tried using online tools but my weekly group aren't very interested in checking web pages between games so I found that I was the only person using it. Players would use it a little at first but then lose interest in putting the between-game effort in.

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I currently use TiddlyWiki. It's a wiki in a single file, which saves edits to itself using Javascript. It's quick and very flexible.

Using TiddlyWiki, you can create a short article on each thing in the game that you want to track: every magic item, game session, player, character, adventure, dungeon room, and so forth. By categorizing articles using tags, you can make it very easy to find obscure information even years later: an NPC name and statblock, the date of a certain game session, or which character took a certain magic item.

Some useful things to store in a TiddlyWiki:

  • Tables of important in-game attributes, such as the player characters' saves and initiative
  • Monster and NPC statblocks for reference in play
  • Adventure text, room descriptions, encounters, background information and other planning
  • A brief synopsis of each session, including XP awards, treasure found, and major events
  • A journal of thoughts after or between sessions, including lessons learned, player feedback and new ideas
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I use the loose-leaf folder as well, as well as:

  • my player's memories / notes!

If none of my players have memories of it, none of them have notes on it, and I don't remember it myself or have it in my notes - I can make up whatever is needed right at the moment.

Don't know this method: it'll save you lots of work. Be honest about it with your players though.

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Mainly, my own memory and a large notebook. It's the content of the notebook that makes the game.

In label marked pages are:

  • a table of premade names to give to NPCs or cities, if needed
  • a collection of monsters, with their brief stats
  • a collection of small random encounter tables.
  • any other quick useful information

On the remaining pages, I write the story. I tend to be detailed on that, but I never develop the story completely. Players tend to screw things up, so it makes sense you don't stay too ahead of them. I have a general plan in my head, but adapt it as weeks pass by. I don't write the full page, but I leave an empty border to increase visibility of story milestones with a quick note, and also for remarks and quick in-play notes. I use a yellow marker to put into evidence DCs so I am quickly pointed at the trial they have to endure and what is the difficulty level.

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I use a combination of physical, "dead-tree" documents (primarily for maps, lists, tables and PC stats) and electronic files (for dungeon keys, rules, and other things I want to be able to search quickly). As often as possible, I create the electronic files as simple .txt files, since they load quickly and with little fuss, though searchable .pdf documents are great if you need to search through them quickly.

And yeah, files in files in files to keep everything straight and easily found.

Finally, I have a handful of post-its for stuff that comes up a lot: names of major cities or NPCs, or things the PCs interact frequently with, like exchange rates or how long a flask of oil burns when tossed on a monster.

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I use a tool called Zim Desktop Wiki. I guess it is similar to the already mentioned Tiddly Wiki, but I like it because it is damn fast even with a large database, flexible, linkable, and it saves it's data in .txt files which can be read and editet easily while still being able to attach pictures, maps, and other files there.

If I have pdfs I can attach them to one document in the wiki and open it from there, I also entered most data for the systems I am using (Labyrinth Lord and Traveller) and now can pull up any info I need (hmm... Stirges have what stats?) with a few mouseclicks.

I can edit all the documents on a fly and it saves automatically whenever I move away from the field. Hmm, I actually do most of my writing in this tool by now.

Finally one of the neatest things about it is the possible use of hyperlinks. When I write a scenario I do not have to copy all the info that might or might not come up into it, I can just drop a link to another document in there and if it comes up during play I can navigate there. http://zim-wiki.org/

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I had some luck with yWriter, which is actually a tool for writers but I found useful for GMs as well. It lets you break up stories into chunks like chapters and scenes, and to keep linked notes on characters, items, locations, and other things. With a little creative reinterpretation, it works great for tracking campaign notes.

I typically used one "chapter" per session, and since you can move scenes around I would plan out the adventure as scenes then move any unused ones into a "holding" chapter to be used later or bumped into the next session.

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Google Sites (their Wiki app) works great. Accessible from anywhere, mobile and desktop, plus it allows for collaboration among the players. I usually maintain one site for GM notes and another for player notes and adventure journals, the latter being open to everyone. It's fun sometimes to read the notes and see how what players remember differs from my notes.

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Try Scabard http://www.scabard.com

It's a campaign website that allows you to add Characters, Items, Groups, and Places for your Campaign and then connect them together with relationships like "Father of", "Friend of", "Birthplace of", etc.

Full disclosure: I'm the developer.

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On my computer I have a folder called MyWritings and have a series of subfolders labeled by Game system or Campaign Setting. Under various game system I have more subfolders that I use to organize material I buy or download for the game. The exact makeup depends on the game. For example in my Traveller folder I have a PDF folder, a vehicle folder, and a starship folder. Under GURPS I have a Fantasy Folder, a Space folder and so on.

My various settings folders are more standardized. I have Lands, Cultures, Religion, History, Adventure, Campaigns, each with further Sub Folders. One thing about Windows Vista and Windows 7 is the search function in Windows Explorer is really good know which makes finding stuff a piece of cake.

I also own the Keep by nBos to take and organize Notes for my online campaign using Fantasy Grounds. However the best tool I found is make sure after the game is done, either that night or the next day I write a complete blog entry reporting on the session. I run a Monthly game it is been real helpful to do that.

You can use a word file or a tiddly Wiki if you don't want to post something publically the important thing is to get into the habit of doing it.

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Right now I've settled on my basic pen and paper for brainstorming and outlining ideas, and a blogger to give those ideas form. Blogger can work just like a wiki, hell it works just like obsidian portal really now that they have the pages function. The trick is to work entirely in html, the auto formatting sucks and will only lead to frustration.

Tags are incredibly simple to utilize, you can alter tabs of multiple posts at once, so say you're planning on using only certain posts for an upcoming game. Go to edit posts, and tag those as session 42 or whatevers, go back to the blog, click on the tag, boom. all on one page. I usually end up printing whatever I'm using and writing notes on the print outs during the game, these print outs usually become my scratch paper for brainstorming/outlining and the cycle continues.

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I use a collection of physical folders, with dividers in them and paper notes. I find paper much easier to use as i can include diagrams and doodles in amongst the written notes.

I have folders for Campaign History, PCs, NPCs, Monsters, Campaign plan and The World. These folders all have dividers in them to seperate different sections of the notes. This means that when the players visit a city they've been to before I can very quickly pull out all the notes I made from the relevant sections in the world folder, then the section in NPCs relevant to all those living in the city.

So far I have found this my favourite method, although I haven't tried any computer based because I use diagrams heavily in my notes.

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What I've used:

  • 3x5 card sets
  • 5x8 card sets
  • Notebooks (looseleaf and bound)
  • Data files on computer - Word Perfect, Pages, Appleworks...
  • Forms specific for a campaign
  • audio recordings (once, for one session. Didn't mic well enough to be worthwhile.)
  • A wiki
  • AP reports on BBSs
  • Players writing their character's log entries (especially in Trek games)
  • one player's particularly obsessive-compulsive note-taking.

What I recommend:

  • Forms tailored for the campaign if relevant (as with Burning Empires, Mouse Guard, Pendragon, Traveller, Ars Magica)
  • player character logs
  • GM notes in a notebook
    • NPC's on sheets within
    • Maps filed within
    • Session notes within.
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I have my campaign folder (I mean physical one) will all the stuff I use in my campaign - characters, maps, ideas, etc. Since I play rather freeform campaigns that are character focused, I use it as a reference, inspiration and for quick access to a certain information (for example moster stats). Everything is in one place, including older ideas, to inspire my imagination.

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If I were to run a game again, I would setup a wiki for the public parts of the game. The collaborative nature of a wiki is the best fit sharing the storytelling with the PCs. For the private notes I would use a product like OneNote or TidlyWiki.

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I think wikis are hard for most campaigns because, as rjbs said in his answer, most players just aren't motivated enough to put content into it. I can totally see it on the private side though. –  digitaljoel Aug 20 '10 at 1:02
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Wikis work great if there's at least one player who wants to help out -- that seems to be the critical mass. Maintaining 'em alone as a GM is hard. –  Bryant Aug 21 '10 at 21:58
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I find that a wikimcan work if he players find their XP in the (very short) session reports. If the players don't put in more effort, then that's the only kind of age they'll find on the wiki. –  Alex Schröder Aug 27 '10 at 8:40

I usually build a Wiki for any new campaign, I can put backstory up there, lists of places, NPCs, famous quotes from sessions, maps etc.

I give players access so they can fill out and edit pages as well, make notes on NPCs they've met, flesh out locations and NPCs from their backgrounds and the like.

Players often keep session jornals on the wiki as well.

Here's a couple of examples:

http://luquin.teknohippy.net

http://scap.teknohippy.com

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Everything ultimately ends up on my laptop. I have tiddleywiki's, which I'll eventually set up for my new campaign. For now, everything's in WP files. A lot of people seem to like Obsidian Portal, but if I wanted a site dedicated to a specific campaign, I would just set up another blog.

I've used DM Secretary: http://barncatsoftware.org/dmsec.htm It's a handy little tool. The new version is set up for 4e, but most of the program's features are system neutral. You can do things like set up a calendar for your campaign world and have it connected to Almanac and Moon Phase features.

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I use (campaign.)wikidot.com to set up a wiki that is shared between players- it tracks things like adventures, characters, quests, and the like. I have two of these currently. I do an email "newsletter" for one of my campaigns. For my DM work that is specifically not going to be shared I use zoho.com's online word processor.

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Campaign notes:

  1. Maybe a small map
  2. A relationship-map of important guys

The R-map is created on the computer, but I usually print it out. The map is done on a piece of scrap paper. Fold it and have it ready in your dice bag. Job done.

Needless to say, this only works with low-prep games.

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I use my computer to do most of my prep. Tools include:

  • Microsoft Word to put together my pre-session adventure notes
  • GIMP, IMageMagick, and SomePDF Image Extractor to pull/manipulate/make handouts from art
  • Hero Lab for NPC generation
  • Online SRDs for rules reference, when playing an open source game
  • PDFs of rulebooks for easy searching (I still go dead tree to read and at the game, but it's easier to find something I kinda recall from within 10 books with search).

I end up with a Word doc for each game session, plus some art and peripheral files for handouts, and a separate file for each NPC. I keep two separate compilation word docs as well - a campaign roadmap doc and a NPC roster doc.

Then for campaign tracking, I use Wordpress. You can make pages in Wordpress and it's even easier than doing a wiki IMO. Here's an example campaign page. Our group has a routine where one person writes a session summary for each session, and those get posted as PDFs for past reference (I bring a printout to the next game so people can recap easily). I make pages in Wordpress to hold character sheets and any campaign specific rules or whatnot.

When I go to the game, I don't have my laptop - books and printouts. One player has a laptop to do the session summary but that's it.

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I generally use paper (I know, so last century!). Electronically, I find wiki (ikiwiki for me) are good for notes. The great thing with wiki is that linking to other wiki pages is easy and not not break the flow of the writing. Ikiwiki can work off a normal text editor (gvim for me) and a quick version control commit.

I tend to use dot (from graphviz) to get diagrams of plots, relations, and plot threads relations. The language is easy to learn, the documentation is good, and the output always looks good.

http://ikiwiki.info/

http://www.graphviz.org/

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For my old school sandbox I have a folder on my computer. It has subfolders for regions, which have subfolders for adventure locations. Each folder has one (regular text) file for notes, all but the first have a file for random encounters, and all adventure locations have a file for changes (as compared to the original module). If I have the adventure as a .pdf, it lives in the relevant folder.

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Slyflourish had a great post a few weeks ago called The Campaign Folio. He uses Smead campus folders to store all his campaign information. It's a completely analogue solution to record keeping, but it seems like a great way to keep campaign related stuff like props, tiles, and other stuff together.

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I've also found Power2ool.com to be an excellent, well, tool for organizing 4E (and Gamma World) encounters. It's really bare bones, but sometimes that's all you need :)

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I tend to write things in a Ubuntu program called Tomboy Notes. It's pretty useful, since it lets you either look at your unorganized notes or in "Notebooks" that you can fling your notes around in. It's like having separate folders with little files in them.

When I'm not on my computer, I tend to write on notecards, since I hate wasting space in an actual notebook. If you get some binder clips, you can stick them together and have different ones for different purposes. Notecards are great. They're idea-sized!

Tiddlywiki is a great program, and one I can't recommend enough. It can have trouble going from OS to OS, so make sure to back up your data if you plan on writing on more than one OS.

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The original poster wasn't clear if this was designing a campaign or running live sessions with this tool...

Assuming it was designing/planning, I'm co-authoring a campaign with my illustrator/daughter and we're using a hosted wiki (DokuWiki, to be exact). I like the ability to work asynchronously in parallel and I can write simple PHP plugins to add new tag-types for formatting - for example, I made a tag that translates phonetically-spelled text into a graphical font she created, including the ability to scale it. Was also working on an XSLT translator for the D&D Insider tool file formats...

We haven't had our first play-test session yet, so I'll report back here after attempting to use it - though I'm expecting that the ability to create a page of links on demand will definitely help. We'll see...

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