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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

44 Answers 44

up vote 45 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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This is a Mac and iPad-only approach.

I keep the entire campaign in a single OmniOutliner Pro document. I really enjoy OOP because I can lay out all of the notes for an upcoming game session, then as the play occurs in that session I can quickly add notes about what actually occurred. I can open and close the outline with as little or as much granularity as I like, and it's got lighting fast search, so if I'm trying to remember something that occurred a few sessions back, I can easily grab it.

One thing I really like about OOP is the fact that I can create headings for things like random NPCs, found items, and even towns and villages. Later when the players run across one or more of those things, I can drag and drop them into the appropriate spot in the session notes. This eliminates redundancy and makes it really easy to keep my narrative together.

OOP also allows for attaching of images, sound clips, and URLs. It can also export to a variety of formats including HTML.

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The tool you use depends alot on the game you are running. I've experimented alot.

These are true for me, but your milage may vary.

Keep it all in your head

Not as bad as you might think. I've run a few campaigns this way. It is particularly good for sandbox-y games.

The Human mind is a great thing, and what is the point keeping notes if you never refer to them as the players go do something else.

If your story/setting is good enough to stick in your head, then the campaign is going great. and it it is not then maybe its not so great.

But this doesn't work so great once you have alot of named NPCs. Or other very key, specific facts you need.

Note book:

Nonaweful, but it is not indexable, and you need to leave space to make additions later.

If you were neat enough then you could have a beautiful one with page numbers and cross referenced. That would be nice but I am nowhere near that neat.

I found it good for me to use when i was writing extended fiction of NPC back stories, base description etc to get a good feel for the setting i was creating. That was far more work however than I should have put into preparing for the campaign. Fun though.

I suggest this is the fastest way to get started, with jotting down campaign ideas, but not so great long term.

Tip: if you fill it only from the front then you can fill it from the back with scratch notes. Eg monster health, initiative orders during combat. Quick sketchs/maps. This is handy, saves having loose sheets of scrap paper floating round the table and is one less thing to bring to a session.

Word Processor File

When I first started out, I used a word processor file, which went though my dungion room by room, sating out monsters (using screen-caps from PDFs). This was great for linear (or near) linear things like dungeons.

Much more recently I have also used a word processor file to just dump huge piles of notes into, in prep for a Demon the Decent short campaign. Under headings. It was fine since it was a 3 session mini-campaign all run in one (very long) day. but it wouldn't have been good for a on going campaign.

In both cases I printed most out so as not to need a computer in the session.

For me, Notes in a word processor file are dead, like the paper they are printed on. The are created, used expended. Not updated. because this kinda structure is not very flexible. and finding things in a word processor is clunky.

Good though for formatting things out, having a plan.

NPC Database

I used a database to track NPCs in a game where the PCs were faction leaders. Something boardly similar but less well polished than this one i made for a friend. There would have been around 40 reoccurring NPCs. Each one important, and notable to the players. The database was amazing, since i could generate reports for them showing who had who in there faction and what there factions capabilities were.

I then tried it in another game where NPCs were not the focus. There was only a few reoccurring NPCs. Maintaining the information in it, was not worth the time, or the need to have a computer at the table.

Index Cards

Not bad. I use the largest ones I can get. has the advantage of being handwritten, so fast and on the fly. Like a notebook, but you can sort them.

Both putting them in order and putting them in a box with labelled dividers. You can archive them into another section of the box when they are not relevant any more.

You can have different colours for different things, eg pink for places, green for NPCs. White for other notes, whatever you like

I also found them useful when I wanted to run a quick oneshot, I could grab the cards for the setting elements i needed (eg some monsters) and repurpose them into a new game.

MS-OneNote

OneNote is like digital index cards. Some advantages that they can be nextested 4 layers deep, which is deeper than is reasonable to do with boxes and index card dividers. But that just doesn't feel deep enough. Once you start nesting you want to keep going. Also crossreferencing, can be done with hyperlinks, but it feels like a card should be be able to be in two bins.

It also feels like you should be be to make template cards, eg this is the base NPC card, it has name fields etc. and you can, to an extent, but it feels clunky.

on the other and the ability to insert pictures and PDFs is handy as.

Inshort it has many advantages over normal index cards, but those advantages feel clunky and highlight the lacks where it could be just a little better.

The advantages you get from the quickness of pen and paper, and not having to mouse navigate, are often underestimated.

I also have tried Evernote, and found it to but just slightly worse in all ways than Onenote. But it is free.

Stack Exchange Chat: "Spoil-lair"

There are a few "Spoil-lair" chat rooms on RPG.SE. BESW has one that he has been using for ages.

Idea is you enter your notes into chat. kind of like you were explaining them. Someone else may or may not enter the room. and may or may not comment or provide suggestions.

I think it is a good technique, like talking to a soft toy, but with records of your words. I think Chatting uses a different part of your brain to writing notes, so things flow different.

I tried it out. Found it quiet good. I would recommend it for brainstorming your first few ideas.

Computer Mindmaps

I've now done this twice, on my two most recent campaigns. I am now using Mindjets. It is the commercial product Freemind/Freeplane is imitating. It is alot smoother, but probably isn't worth the price difference.

Its good, you get all the nesting you want. When there is too much information on the map it can get hard, but shrinking the lists help.

I am using 3 maps, one main map for all the factions, NPCs, Places etc. One for a special system Demon has called the cipher where each player has a list of abilities they can unlock in sequence that the GM (me) creates for them at the start of the game, and one for the Deep overarching plot idea that is at the heart of the game.

Useful features include:

  • forever nesting,

    • factions
      • members
        • key stats
        • and goals
        • and secrets
      • and bases
        • with rooms
  • full text notes linked to the nodes -- very good for writing out how the abilities I mentioned earlier work.

  • Hyperlinks, which can be used to link to wikipedia pages on say the real world place
  • Cross referencing

Obsidian portal

I tried it for about 4 hours before i decided it was too much work. it is just a wiki, unless you pay for it to be more, and it doesn't look like it gets to be much more.

It doesn't feel custom designed for purpose enough.

I would say it might be better than your average wiki, but i don't think a wiki is a great too for it in the first place.

The constant waving of the paywall in your face gets annoying.

For it to be great you need player buy in. My players aren't going to start checking another website, just for my one game. I suspect you can link it to make it send people emails but facebook is better than emails (see below). It would be cool if it was integrated with facebook, link a group and have an app crosspoiting information.

Facebook Groups:

Facebook fills a different niche, it is less information management (that it is that), and more player managment. But some campaign notes go on it. Ones you want to distribute to all the players.

  • player can discuss plans
  • You can have a doc for XP, and one for houserules/clarifications
  • Events can remind people when it will be on
  • people can tell you they will be late
  • all the information
    • it is also timestamped
    • is permanent (no more losing emailsted),
    • it is all together
    • it naturally sorts more recently updated things to the top
  • most people check facebook more often than they do email

I have a facebook group for every campaign i run these days. and normally an event or at least a group chat for oneshots

Biggest downside is some people don't do it. and if 1 person doesn't do it, it is barely worth doing at all. Since now you have to communicate everything twice.

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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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I've used blogs and googledocs to keep track of game history/world building more, but Roll20 has some great map support if geography plays a big role in your campaigns.

The privacy settings for notes, etc let the GM leave some events and characters public, while notes on future events stay private until needed.

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I have tried a number of systems over the years, including:

  • Paper Notes in folders
  • Text Files
  • Evernote
  • Personal Mediawiki
  • Microsoft OneNote
  • Obsidian Portal

All of them had one or more things wrong with them (for what I wanted). I have just recently gotten onto using ConnectedText.

So far this is the best solution I have found. Easy to use, cross-linking between notes is easy, powerful search options.

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On a Mac, I've found Growly Notes to be incredibly useful. It's apparently somewhat equivalent to Microsoft's OneNote, though I've never used the latter.

It lets you organize notes in groups of tabs. Each tab can have several free floating text boxes, and you can also drag/paste images and html snippets into the tab. All super useful for keeping track of campaign stuff.

It's freeware, though not open source. The UI isn't the prettiest, and it's not cross platform, but definitely the best utility of its ilk I've found on the Mac.

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I have been using Wikidpad to keep various kinds of notes, including ones related to roleplaying.

It's a local wiki, most likely similar to Zim mentioned by another answer (haven't tried Zim yet), which allows you to create multiple pages/articles and link them together easily. It provides various search features and ways to "tag" pages to group them in the sidebar tree or make them first in the list. In a sense, it's the equivalent of having a bunch of notepad text files, except the program gives you the tools to keep them organized and find the one you need very quickly.
I am currently using it to keep a log of the sessions but you could have a page per NPC, town, plot point, etc...

Todolist (see the Executable and all plugins link) is initially meant for task lists but its greatest feature is complete freedom in how you regroup the various "nodes" (there's no depth limit).

For example I'll have a "NPCs" node with a node for each character and further sub-nodes for things like backgrounds, relationships and other "bits" I need to remember. All nodes can be collapsed to keep only what's relevant visible, assigned priorities, categories for filtering, etc... And inherently being "tasks", you can mark them completed, which I'm using for the "plot" nodes, ticking them off whenever a fact has been learned by the PCs or they have accomplished an important step of the adventure. It is also entirely searchable. In a sense it works like a vertically-displayed Freemind, which I find works better for me.

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If you play 4E I would go with Masterplan as another suggested. EpicWords.com and soon the makers of HeroLab will have a program similar to MasterPlan that will be system agnostic.

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Before sessions I write down my ideas on Evernote.

Between sessions I use Trello to keep notes on what has happened.

During the sessions I also employ a little home-grown tool I am developing, D&D on Rails. Right now the installation process is not easy if you are not on Linux/OSX and/or a developer but if anyone wants to give it a try I would be happy to help setting up an instance.

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I built my own online character sheets (never forget your character at home is the talking point). You don't have to go that far, there's a lot of existing ones out there, and PDFs work great as well. I like D&D Character Folio. Auto-fill, and even auto-rollers, plus massive databases of existing spells make these resources great for players and DMs.

Hosting your own stuff has it's benefits, but it can be overwhelming at first. You'd be surprised how cheaply you can find webhosting even preconfigured sites with Wordpress or PHPBB

Because I host my own site, my GMs are provided with sections of the forums where only they can post to give lots more details about the world. Face it, not all players are going to want to know everything about your world, but some players enjoy that part of the game. They like to base backstories on major events in your world and hold close to the existing story. These resources make everyone's life a little easier.

If you're the only DM, and you just want to post about your world, you can get a free site from Google.

The biggest pitfall to always watch out for: Be careful with online resources. Security is always going to be an issue.

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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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Ok, I am late and I am cheating. I am literally copying and pasting from a similar question. Hate my laziness if you wish.

It's another wiki answer, but it includes the importance of not just linking (as any wiki does), but making it searchable, because after a while, this gets big enough to make it harder to find stuff. Like, over a thousand pages, and you don't remember where things were written when... OK, pasting away...


I'm playing the "Very Late Answer" game again. But I run a very, very detailed old game. So this issue is one I am familiar with. And I am a believer in trying to create as immersed a game as possible, and this means having players be able to think 'in-character'...which they CANNOT do without having some level of in-game knowledge. A lot of these are good answers. I also give out of roleplay experience, and tailor it around using 'in-game, immersed' knowledge. It is a good reinforcer. But one of the most useful things I did is create a searchable wiki for the game and for pertinent data. It also includes the rules and such we use. And this is pretty easy these days. All my players have tablets or laptops, and this way, when a player or the Gm mentions the Dockside Area of Igbar or Chorm, the other players can look it up online quickly. Wiki's also accumulate nicely over time, so if a GM puts in a little bit at a time, before you know it, you start to get a nice database for the players to use. Wiki's can also be set up so that players can elaborate or make their own pages, which means they spend even more time on the game wiki. Here is one from an online group I run.
Finally, Wikis are not just searchable, but linkable. So players can keep handy links of their spells or skills or important maps, etc. I often set up player-specific links based on skills or requests of better players so that the more inqisitive players actually have more knowledge.

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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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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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Corkboard.me is a freeform virtual corkboard that you can put sticky notes on. It has the advantage of being able to place information organized in a visual way. We used a corkboard to keep campaign information for our Alternity game. It was especially useful in that we had a remote player Skyping in and we could all enter info on the board and view it in realtime, making it both a play aid and a note keeper.

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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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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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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 use an online mindmapper called MindMeister, especially when I am brainstorming. I've always liked mindmappers, and this one is:

  1. Free
  2. Online

So, I can get to it from wherever I am thinking about it. For free you get a limited number of maps.

I also use the XMind mind mapper, which runs on your local PC and is much more featureful than MindMeister, and is also free. The big disadvantage is that it's not available online.

My players keep in-character game blogs for most campaigns, which frees me from having to keep detailed records of what happened, allowing me to concentrate on what's going on.

EDIT: As my game has grown, it has shown me the limits of Mindmeister. I will be using XMind and Scrivener until something better comes along. Because I can't export other mindmapper formats from MM without a paid membership, I won't be starting other projects in it.

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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 use Google Notebook, which I really shouldn't do, since it's no longer supported. I should transfer everything over to Google Docs or Evernote, but Notebook's format is really nice.

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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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I started with lots of notebooks like the ones I used in school.

I graduated to using file cards in a box with pretty specific formatting -- consider it to be like a hand-maintained relational database. (Yes, it was as horrific as it sounds.)

I then hacked together a database on Access along with a whole bunch of forms and queries.

I switched over to a personal wiki running on my notebook computer.

Now I use mind mappers like Freeplane. This is likely to be how I continue to do things for the foreseeable future.

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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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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 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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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 (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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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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