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I'm a player in years-long campaign. I'm also a GM in a (different) years-long campaign. I noticed that even though I tried to take extensive notes, I'd often miss important things (volume != quality I suppose), and I've noticed a similar thing happening for several of my players. Thus, I ask: what as a player can I do to take the most effective notes? (What has worked for you expert note takers?)

(Note: this is not looking for what tool/software to use - ideally this would be equally valid for OneNote users and players who etch their notes in stone tablets).

(Note 2: I'd say effective notes are those that are most likely to cover plot relevant details without having to literally write every single word the GM says. Maybe think of it as "effectivity = plot_relevant_details - plot_irrelevant_details"? Maybe this is accomplished by focusing on specific things, or organizing notes in a certain way, etc. I'm not sure, hence why I'm asking)

(Note 3: if it matters, my campaigns are specifically D&D 5e and PF2e, but I'd love to take this skills into other systems in the future)

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don’t think this is an RPG question. “How do I take notes for an RPG” seems to exactly fit the “what’s a good boat for a mathematician”. Even worse, I don’t think you can get an objective answer on note-taking practices unless you ask a much more specific question. Sorry :( \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    May 26 at 16:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, it definitely leans towards a subjective question: I tried to abide by the guidelines in this meta question/answer, but it's possible I missed the mark, or this is just "too subjective". I'm definitely willing to edit it into a better state if necessary! \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    May 26 at 17:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @fectin I think it's fine. I think it's unlikely to result in any great revelations, but "In my experience it's about the same as taking notes in this other common situation," is still a valid answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    May 26 at 17:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ YouTuber Ginni Di has a video on this topic: youtube.com/watch?v=7OCgvc7vwvo \$\endgroup\$
    – Sam Azon
    May 26 at 20:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ To add to what novak said. I think you cna have rpg specific types of notes that don't make semse otherwise. Like the diary that Groody mentions. Are they useful? That's the point of the answers. \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    May 27 at 15:36

6 Answers 6

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Note taking on campaigns

I've been the note taker for several of our campaigns, both as a DM to publish an official "campaign history" and as a player. I don't think I have any super secret tricks here , but a few things I found useful

  • Chronological log The main notes are a chronological log of what happened each session. Just jot down whatever you think is relevant as you go along. This I find is the most practical, as you do not have to allocate extra time for organizing them.

  • Date headings. Have headers with the in-game date to be able to track back what happend when and the passage of time. We've been using this repeatedly when the DM was not sure to verify.

  • Bolding/highlighting names. I find myself most often scouring through old logs to find what we know about a given person or place. Highlighting these names in the text, especially when they are introduced, really helps with this.

  • Special Notes, in additon to the main log, special pages for specific topics have been useful. For example, we have one for

    1. our hideout, traps, equipment and loot stored
    2. the dungeon with connections between levels to see how to get around
    3. monsters fought, and what their abilities were

As a player I write the main diary in character, so the notes are a bit more entertaining for others to read (my character even has a diary in his equipment list weighing him down...). We use a blog, which has been useful if someone could not make a given session, they can just read up on what happened and are up to speed the next time we play.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know how useful this is, but I can share an example of this style of note taking. Like Grody the Hobgoblin, I take copious notes, and my character does too. I have both my initial bullet point notes written in real time during each session as well as the in-character journal entries that I write up later based on those notes. (For those interested, I write in Emacs using org-mode, and my notes are auto-exported to HTML on every save and synced to a web server.) \$\endgroup\$ May 28 at 3:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for in character diary. My notes often end up as a first-person diary after I've polished them up. I know lots of other players who do that and when I GM it is extremely helpful to have that or those players summarize what happened on the previous session. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    May 28 at 4:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RyanC.Thompson thanks for the examples!! (Obligatory plug for Vim ;) ) \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    May 28 at 20:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ Our group plays on Roll20, and I also do an in-character diary (published online), then drop a link in our game chat when it's ready. It helps our casual group to remember what happened before we start trying to pick up where we left off. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gus
    Jun 1 at 21:39
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Mostly The Same As Other Note Taking Situations

Mostly.

For the most part I take notes on a session I'm playing in with the same techniques and strategies I do for taking notes during a lecture or a business meeting:

  • Lots of bullet points and sentence fragments
  • Lots of focus on the salient details and not the minutiae
  • Free use of arrows pointing back to previous points, to quickly link ideas without taking time for exposition
  • Free use of idiosyncratic abbreviations that no one else will understand
  • Recognition that these are notes and not a finished product; making them public (or comprehensible two weeks later) will require a second pass

What's different, in my experience, is that I'll feel a lot more free than in a lecture to stop someone and say, "Wait, I was writing, what was that again?" (In a business meeting I also feel more free to do that. It is, I think, the difference between a one-to-many lecture where the notes are for me, and a many-to-many collaboration where my notes may be a service to the whole group.)

I generally do not take extensive notes when I am GMing-- I have no time for it beyond a really quick, vital note here and there. Also, I have players to offload that duty onto.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You may want to expand on that last point - I've found that valuable campaign notes are the ones I expand after the session, while my memories are still fresh. In the session a name is a useful note, but a month or two later that random name has no context and is mostly useless; not so if I spend a few minutes after the session to add that context to my notes. \$\endgroup\$
    – ValhallaGH
    May 29 at 18:08
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I'm largely in agreement with the sentiment that TTRPG notes ideally work the same way as any other notes, but I will go into some detail on how my notetaking process works-- notetaking is a skill like any other, so your mileage may vary depending on how your brain stores information, but here is my strategy.

When I take notes as a player, I try to keep them looking the same as my prep when I am GMing, because I know that that style of organization makes sense to my brain when trying to think about a campaign. For me, this looks like the following:

  • Organizing mostly by people and places. I will jot down a bit about who a person is, who they're related to, and vaguely how they seem to feel about me, as well as how I felt about them. I try to leave a few extra lines for new information as it arises, which requires a bit of guesstimating how important a given NPC will be.

  • Color coding and using formatting to draw attention to important things. For me, I like to take notes by hand, so I use colored pens as well as sticky tabs to help keep track of things. It's easier to find useful information on a page if I've underlined the names of people and places.

  • Be productive with your metagaming! I don't think metagaming is a bad thing, if applied correctly, and notetaking is a great place to make use of it. Put on your GM hat and think about the things that you would use as relevant clues. A nametag inside a garment? An incidental detail of a spooky temple? Write that down!

Additionally, I find it tremendously helpful to go over my notes a few days after playing-- not immediately afterwards, but once the events of the session have had time to percolate-- and jot down any additional thoughts I have, as well as to clarify any details for myself that need detailing. Synthesizing the information like this does a lot to get it wedged in your mind more permanently, which also makes it easier to find later. Even if you don't 100% remember the details of a situation you took notes on, remembering even 20% makes it easier to track down your notes!

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My note-taking is based on Apocalypse World and could be summarized as:

Notes are aids in improvisation. They're suggestions (not prescriptions) about what to say so that you create interesting situations in play. Play is pretend, and pretending that the play-world is true is boring to me. Instead, awareness of play as pretend makes games fun (to me and my friends). This approach requires the GM to root for the players while also creating challenging situations. It also helps us resolve play-world consistency problems without notes. These problems are solved in real time creatively. The implication is that notes are sparse enough so that they're actually useful in improvisation (a dozen bullet points helps; an encyclopedia doesn't) but enough to be meaningfully prompted when wondering about what to say next (a blank page is frightening; a dozen bullet points give me direction).

This approach may not work in games where world consistency is required. If you're a player of such a game, what follows may disrupt your game. If you're not, then either a GM or a player could benefit from it.

A fun game doesn't require consistency in the imagined world

The other answers made me think of game approaches that require a world that is consistent. This premise of consistency, as absurd as it may sound in the context of role-playing games, is not at all a requirement for fun.

Different games are fun for different reasons. Some people have fun spending hours crafting dungeons that the players will later interact with. This approach requires players to be keenly aware of the rules that the play-world follows (e.g. travel-time from location to location is irrelevant and sidestepped, or important and played-through; falling off a cliff is routine and feasible, or a grave mistake and a death sentence; NPCs are charitable and forgiving, or distrustful and brutal). Often, a step in the wrong direction could mean death. In a way, this approach assumes the GM is ruthlessly enforcing the game's 'physics engine'. I personally see it as the GM being out to get you. It's not fun for me.

I prefer improvisation, an approach described in the Play Unsafe book. It's more interesting, as it takes wild turns in a world that even I, as a GM, am learning about. There is no physics engine I'm ruthlessly enforcing. Instead, I'm constantly creating interesting situations when wondering what's next. These situations don't need to follow a physics engine. I seek to strike a balance between players getting what they want and creating threatening situations. Sometimes PCs die, but it's not because of a trap-door they weren't able to detect and therefore (physics engine) killed them before they knew it. Instead, players die because of a series of conscious decisions (and potentially bad dice-rolls) that lead them there. Other times, I root for the players and give them exactly what they worked towards.

Each approach's note-taking strategies are different, so my approach is not system-agnostic in that some games stop being those games if 'systematic remembering' (by note-taking) isn't done. But it is system agnostic in that it's a set of principles that could inform your decisions, even if you're playing a more structured game.

TTRPGs are conversations: notes as prescription vs. inspiration

A different approach to 'systematically remembering worlds' is informed by Apocalypse World.

In this approach, you start by clarifying your goals as a player. In the case of my Apocalypse World games, I want to have a conversation that describes cool and dramatic situations (note that all tabletop role-playing games are a conversation, even if it's guided differently in each game). The stuff we, as players (including the GM), say in this conversation are the things that we think are the most interesting to do. Apocalypse World helps us finding those through the Moves the game provides, as well as the GM Agenda, and other tools that could be considered note-taking.

All my notes are limited to the Apocalypse World Threat Map that shows how close or far a threat is from the players (in my case, usually a dozen at a time), and a description of each threat. These less-than-a-sentence descriptions include the threat type, its impulse, its summary and cast, its stake questions, its connections to other threats, and custom Moves or countdowns (again, all of this is specific to this game).

Some of this I fill out while the game is happening (a bit stressful but sometimes necessary). Most is done in between game sessions.

These notes (two or four sheets of paper) are what I have in front of me when playing. I look at them when trying to figure out what to say next. They help me improvise.

And that's it. No need for copious chronologies keeping track of locations, items, NPCs, or whatever. In effect, those four sheets, the character sheets, and the game book are everything I ever need to run the game.

Forgetting isn't a problem when you're aware that you're pretending

What happens if I forget something another player said two sessions ago? What if I forget something I said a session ago? It's not really a problem.

I think notes can have purposes that are different enough to notice. They can remind players as to what the world 'is', or they can give the players things to say to play. What purpose notes serve depends on the game you play (which, again, depends on what you consider fun). My notes rarely describe what the world 'is' beyond the dozen-or-so threats.

In my games, if a player forgets what the world 'is' and says it out loud, the other (remembering) players will usually correct them immediately. If it so happens that everyone forgets a detail, no harm is done. If it isn't a game-changing or logic-breaking detail, nobody cares. If it matters, we make it up again!

It's hard to come up with game-breaking details because the only world that matters is the one we're 'conjuring' right then and there (so details can change) and complexity can be abstracted (so details don't matter). Forgetting an important detail is a puzzle we can solve in seconds through conversation (e.g. "So, wait, is the secret door at your house or at your lab?").

We're not pretending that the world actually exists and therefore demands a systematic physics engine. We're aware that it's a game and so we can play with it (e.g. "Alright, alright, so both your house and the lab are connected by this underground network." I then proceed to think about the threats that loom in those tunnels, and write the notes in the way I previously described).

This improvisational and yet note-guided approach is how my notes are not prescriptive; they suggest interesting things to say that become part of the consensus-built and potentially inconsistent world.

Clarification: my games are consistent and copiousness is compatible with AW

I'd like to clarify two things.

First, this may suggest my games are wacky, with plenty of internal inconsistency. This is not at all the case. In fact they've never been so; we either forget (which I wouldn't be able to tell you about) or find ways of solving consistency problems so that the world effectively has always been consistent (e.g. "Oh, so you didn't use the tunnels until now because you knew a colony of shadows lived there. That makes sense"). The reason I wrote about abstracting complexity is because I think that would be a good solution in case I ever find myself not being able to solve a consistency problem.

Second, I'd like to clarify that it's perfectly possible to play Apocalypse World with copious note-taking (as long as you don't plan scenes, as the rulebook demands). I just happen to play with few notes because I prefer improvisation. Reading Vincent Baker's reflections on the game could be helpful.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This was a very interesting answer, thanks for sharing! \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    May 27 at 17:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ It seems like this is an answer about taking notes from the MC's perspective, mentioning things like the threat map which is an MC-facing artifact that the other players don't really have access to. I don't know how well it suits the question, which is about taking notes as, to translate to AW terminology, a non-MC player. \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    May 28 at 0:45
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Split the information out

I agree with Groody the Hobgoblin's answer but have some additional points to make. Organising the information into separate records/sheets for each of the following is what has worked for me:

  1. As per Groody, keep a chronological record of events. For a lot of situations it matters how long it has been since X occurred. (In the PF1 campaign I am playing in, we need to keep track of when we last cast Speak With Dead on our "knowledgeable" enemy corpses so we know when to do the next interrogation, plus when we can use Restoration to eliminate the last negative level from an unfortunate death.) It also allows keeping track of seasons, phases of the moon and other cyclical events as relevant to the individual campaign.
  2. Keep separate indexes of key people, places and things, adding more detail as you learn it. That way you can look up who is the head cleric of the temple of Ego in Bigcity or King Oleg's weakness for strong reds (both wine and women) when the information is needed.
  3. Keep track of loot and/or party assets, including when these are sold and distribution of money occurs. In some games this requires minimal record-keeping, if everything is distributed after each encounter, but in most campaigns I have played there has been a party slush fund to pay for group expenses. In campaigns where the party is in command of a ship / mercenary company / merchant caravan with both material assets and hirelings, enormous amounts of record-keeping are needed.
  4. Maps, pictures and other player handouts.

Maintaining these as separate entries makes it easier to hand over or find the relevant information for any given situation. The GM wants to know how long it's been since your party annoyed the Count of Annoyedsville - send them the chronology. Someone else wants to work out the watches on your pirate ship - send them the party assets list and/or key NPC list so they can put the crew members with darkvision on watch at night.

Which different records are needed will vary by campaign, for example most campaigns there will be no need to record the buy/sell prices of different commodities in different locations, but this will be essential in a merchant campaign. The broad categories listed above are generally applicable.

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There are various different types of notes for RPGs, depending on what type of game you play.

  • Inventory. As a player, I usually keep a spreadsheet with an entry for each item the party has bought, sold, found, etc., where and when. Who is carrying it, etc. Estimated value of items we intend to sell. Total value of coins/gems, but broken down into columns. Even if you divvy them up, some players are bad at keeping track of this stuff, so it helps to have a master list. And also, some things can't be divvied up until you get back to down to sell the thing. (I don't update every time consumables are used. That is up to the player whose character actually has the thing.)

  • List of current quests, clues, current leads, questions you need answers to, people who owe you money, & other open loops. Some types of games, you've only got one or two open loops at a time, and it is clear what the next step is, so you don't need to make a list. But other types of games, you need to find 6 different items, get information from 12 people, find a certain location, etc in order to DO THE THING. So you need a list. Especially if you can do them in any order, and they don't naturally lead one to the next to the next. Sometimes it is obvious that something goes on the list, like there is a lock that you need to find the key. There is a machine you need to activate, and it is missing a hose and a battery pack. Other times, you find something that seems like it might be a key, but you haven't found the lock yet. Some GMs really like to put a neon sign like THIS IS A CLUE, so you definitely make a note of those. Mostly these are things that once you close the loop, it gets scratched off the list.

  • Field notes. For some styles of play, it is very beneficial to make brief notes of the people, places, creatures, etc you encounter, for future reference. List of NPCs in various locations, with short descriptions. Types of creatures or hazards found in certain areas. Various types of sketched maps. List of known teleportation sigils, or items you have picked up to teleport to different locations and when you got them. Again, some types of play, this is irrelevant, or mostly irrelevant, but in some types of games it is extremely handy or even essential to have.

  • Campaign Journal, mostly a storytelling souvenir. Some people are super into doing this. I'm more inclined towards brief activity logs, in the field notes category ("Day 16, return to Dungeon of the Hark. Vrocks/etc in obsidian mine. Report to Capt Ellis in evening." "Day 18, back to Daggerford for supplies."), and personally I am inclined to keep the brief log even if someone is doing lengthy campaign journals, because I don't want to sift through pages of text to find out when was the last time we talked to Capt Ellis. But there isn't a really hard line between the two. Some types of games, you get a ton of narrative info that maybe 5% will be useful later but you can't know which 5%, so a Campaign Journal can be extremely handy. In a current game, maybe once every month or two there is something that sends me searching through our Campaign Journal, to refresh our memory on some situation.

There is also the RPG-specific issue of what you know versus what your character knows. It doesn't have to be an exact match. There is a lot of stuff the character would just know, or be able to easily check, but you as the player need to write it down. In a current game, I take fairly detailed notes of party inventory, and in the game world, one character is known to take meticulous records of party finances, carefully accounted in a little notebook. But I keep roughly the same sort of notes if the party just chucks everything into the Portable Hole, and says "We sell all the stuff when we get back to town."

Another one of the characters is a bit scatterbrained, and so unless there is a reason not to, she habitually makes chalk marks on walls to show where we've been when exploring complex areas. Also notes to ourselves or to future travelers. "DANGER! MIND FLAYERS DOWN THIS PIT!" This we draw right on the map. (We use Roll20.)

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