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I am still quite new to GMing and I've come across a problem running an Investigation-based Sci-Fi RPG.

My players are taking notes on lots of things that were meant to be innocuous little bits of setting and treating them like important clues. The problems arise when they act on these notes and start treading down paths with NPCs I hadn't characterised at all.

I want to tailor my setting to what the players find most interesting so they can have a good time and feel like they're making the right decisions even when they're not my right decisions, but I can't predict what they're going to do.

I want to ask my players to give me their notes at the end of the session, but I don't know if that would be wrong. I feel like if a GM did that to me, I'd stop writing things that could encourage him to meta-game against my secret strategies so it might hinder the player's creativity by inhibiting their ability to plan.

My intention would be to try to use the information written down to prepare more fluff for things they've taken an interest in, rather than giving the super-villains OOC knowledge though, and I think I have the self control to do that. Besides, I want my players to succeed and wouldn't do permanently lethal damage to a player with anything I've laid into the plot. I'd only permanently kill a character if they entirely got themselves into it, and I think that attitude would transfer to reading the notes.

So should I ask my players for their notes? What dangers would I be getting into I haven't considered?

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Yes, but... try asking for a verbal player summary at the end each session and a recap at the beginning of the next.

I've used this technique with my players in several campaigns, ever since it became apparent to me that players will find things interesting that you as the GM did not expect and they will sometimes interpret or recall material differently than you as the GM intended or thought you conveyed. My suggestion is that this is a better solution than asking for their notes.

At the end of each session, ask your players to verbally summarize what occurred during the session. They might find this a little strange at first, but if you just explain to them one time what the purpose is (so that you can audit what information got across from the GM to the players to help improve the player experience) they will, in my experience, buy into it. This helps you prepare for the upcoming session by focusing on what they like.

Then at the start of the next session, ask your players for a verbal recap from last time. They will tend to forget about things that they didn't consider especially interesting or important. Whatever they do recall, it stuck with them enough that you should probably focus on those topics during the current session. Also, if there are important things they fail to recap, you can easily use some simple exposition to remind them of what they may have forgotten. This helps you keep the current session on track and maximize player comprehension.

If they mention things that you already intended for them to pay careful attention to or things that you considered important, then don't bother writing those things down, because you already know them. If they review something that you had not considered important or if they interpreted information or events differently than you did, write down just enough for you to be able to incorporate those ideas into the remainder of the session or into the next session. (And if some players are paranoid and think they've got everything all wrong whenever they see you write something down... take notes no matter what they say, or make it clear that you're not writing down gotchas to try to trip them up later.)

With this technique, you don't need to ask players to show you their notes. In my experience, this makes them feel less like they are being judged or graded on accuracy. It also clearly identifies for you what they thought was important in the grand scheme, not what they might have thought was important when they were jotting it down. In other words, the information they will tell you is a more accurate representation of their intrigue than what their notes include.

To avoid stressing players who don't like this sort of thing, don't make it compulsory to participate in the summary or recap. Make it an optional thing for those sorts of players who enjoy it and want to participate voluntarily.

Depending on the kind of game you're playing, it's easy to incentivize these activities, too, by giving the player who provides the most informative recap some sort of one-use perk or boon for the session, depending on the rules for the system you are playing. For example, in D&D 5e I give Inspiration, in 13th Age I give a free icon relationship re-roll, and in Freeform/Universal or Fate I give hero points. Most games have something equivalent you can provide as a reward to give attentive players a motivation for participating in the summary or recap.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a really nice idea. It could be done in-character if the PCs are at a suitable point: "Let's discuss our findings from today's investigation and decide what leads we want to follow next". You might find that even amongst the players there are differing ideas on what the important clues are and it could help focus their ideas as well as yours. \$\endgroup\$ – DaveMongoose Jan 8 '18 at 11:51
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You can have it both ways: you can both avoid making the players think you'll use their notes “against them”, as well as use their interest to expand out your setting details.

Instead of asking them for their notes, make you own notes on what they find interesting.

Clearly you can already tell that they're paying attention to NPCs and details that are out of proportion to how much importance you had planned on those things having. So during play, make your own notes about what they pay attention to.

I tend to run games with some preparation and extensive in-play improvisation, so I run into this phenomenon a lot, and that's what I do. It gives me the flexibility to follow the player characters where they will go, while also letting the players engage with the game without casting my shadow over their characters. It also really helps when players don't take notes!

By taking your own notes, you get both a set of notes (that are legible to you, as a bonus!) that indicate what you want to prepare more about, but you also leave the players' notes alone and don't discourage them from continuing to enthusiastically engage with your game in this way.

Of course, this does mean that you don't have notes on previous sessions, since you weren't taking any then. You don't need perfection though: sit down and make your own notes now based on your memories of those game sessions. It'll help a bit, and notes you take from future sessions will either fill in what you forgot when the players show interest in that thing again, or they won't, and it won't matter if you forgot about it. The notes from memory will give you a bit of a place to start with now, but the new notes will soon become more important, due to being based on more current interests.


That said, you can ask your players for copies of their notes. There's no rule — game or social — against that. They may say no (in which case best to not make a bit deal about it!), or they may be happy to.

But given that you're happy they're taking notes and don't want to do anything to discourage them, not needing to ask is probably more in line with your goals.

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  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ As far as GM notes go, I had a GM who had a in-universe character that recorded our adventures into a story recap that they (GM) shared with us between sessions. And then we actually met the character. That was an interesting session. [We tended to have spotty attendance and shorter sessions, so it helped everyone keep track.] \$\endgroup\$ – CAD97 Jan 7 '18 at 7:08
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In both my current games (one as player, one as GM) players are encouraged to write up game summaries on-line and share them. It's useful to have a log, especially for games that are subject to long breaks, and having players do it takes a bit of the load off the GM.

We use Obsidian Portal for managing our games, and this includes a section for adventure logs, but if you don't want to use OP pretty much any blogging service should work for this purpose.

I think it's absolutely fine to ask players to do something like this, both for the purpose you mention and as a general aid to memory. It's also been useful sometimes when logs revealed that the players had misunderstood the GM's description of something, allowing us to correct that misunderstanding.

It can be a bit of work, so it doesn't hurt to provide a small incentive for doing so; depending on your gaming philosophy that could be in- or out-of-character. Unless you have some specific reason to think your players would be unhappy with the idea, I'd recommend it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The correction of misunderstanding is another important one. I've had the occasional problem with players thinking that I meant to insinuate that "Hans Jurgen" who is at this moment a "Person of Intrest" in the investigation was stuck in a wall. I actually didn't mean to insinuate anything of the like but they wrote down in their notes, "Hans was in a wall" and, by next session, they'll have forgotten that I never actually said it was Hans. \$\endgroup\$ – Douglas Jan 7 '18 at 14:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Douglas DM, I'm confused... Why are my Hands in a Narwhal? \$\endgroup\$ – Luke Jan 8 '18 at 6:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Luke Scene description unclear. PCs mutilated by ceiling fan. \$\endgroup\$ – Douglas Jan 8 '18 at 16:53
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You can always ask, but they can always say no. Your best strategy is to make this arrangement mutually beneficial, and in my experience (both as player and as GM) that's not actually difficult.

If you and your players are already comfortable with each other (i.e., especially if you are friends aside from the gaming table) it might be enough just to ask and to say why you're asking: "Hey, guys, I see you take all these notes during the game, and it would be really useful if I had a version of those-- it helps me understand what you guys are interested in, it helps me remember small details that I might otherwise forget, and it helps me understand if I'm describing things to you correctly."

I cannot honestly remember a game under those circumstances where at least one player was not willing to help out, often in the form of a fictionalized in-character narrative. All it really takes is one player, and if the notes are published (probably privately) on-line, others may comment. They will probably also (eventually) find it useful to job their own memories.

If you're not comfortable with each other, or your players are exceptionally mercenary, you can always promise a small bonus of some sort appropriate to the game system you're using, as long as they uphold their part of the bargain.

I cannot ever think of a situation where log-keeping or notes-sharing like this ended up as a negative. I really can't. I suppose theoretically a GM might get sucked into an overly adversarial role ("Oh no, they figured that X Y'd Z too early! But they won't foil me! Quick! To the Retcon-Mobile!") but I've never actually seen it happen.

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Yes, but there may be better approaches.

I play in one group where we sometimes leave character sheets and materials with the GM, and sometimes keep them ourselves. It varies from game to game. In general, it's fair for the GM to ask to retain everything, unless you expect players to do a lot of prep work during downtime (which actually happens only very occasionally). Usually, you would do so either because you want to make sure all the character sheets and such actually show up next game (which comes up much more for games you play as infrequent one-shots), or because you need the character sheets to do your own prep work. In either case, ask nicely and don't hide what you're doing.

(and a quick aside: some players may find it extremely frustrating to play an investigation-based game in a reality that keeps changing. Are you sure that you will be tailoring your setting on the fly in a way which they will appreciate? You might chat with them in a non-game setting to figure out their preferences.)

One better approach is to formalize note-taking. Get someone to keep notes in a slightly more official capacity. That can help you a lot, and may help you feel better about e.g. giving them information like specific page references (e.g. for the random potions the party found four months ago, and now want to identify. That can be a real pain in the butt otherwise). I've seen this situation arrive organically in about a third of the campaigns which I have played in, and I feel confident enough in that experience to suggest trying it.

However, my preferred approach takes that a step further, but does require some technology: wikis. It is fairly easy to set up a wiki, and use that to document a game. The structure makes it easy to add a link from an NPC/location/item to a new page to fill in details, which makes it easier to be consistent. I tend to use them even just taking notes for new campaigns, but they are also amazing collaborative tools. That gives you the best of all worlds, because it is great for group note-taking, and lets everyone work from the same information during downtime.

That's not to say your players will buy into wikis. One of the best games I've played in (and the one which sold me on wikis) had everyone writing microfiction and describing relationships with new characters during downtime. It is hard to bottle that lightning though, and using a wiki only enables that, it doesn't help make it happen. However, since I find it useful as a GM even when my players ignore it (and an incredible game aid when they engage), I can wholeheartedly recommend it as a solution to your problem. Here's a middle-of-the-road example which I ran a few years ago.

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