As of writing I am running three campaigns in three different systems, planning a fourth, and playing in a fifth. I play D&D, as a DM or player, about once every three to four days. As a result, I have a lot to remember.
Three Worlds at your Fingertips
Every game I’m involved in has a different setting:
- My urban campaign (Arantal, in Talomire)
- My Sci Fi campaign (Warp Shell)
- Lost Mine/Storm King’s Thunder (Sword Coast, Forgotten Realms)
- Curse of Strahd (Ravenloft)
- Zakhara (Al-Qadim, Forgotten Realms)
This is a lot to hold in my head. Generally it’s not too bad, but trying to create an interesting meta-narrative that acts in the background can be a bit much to organise without a solid set of notes that I can access and change easily. So, here are some of the tools I’ve used to keep track, and avoid having to admit that I can’t remember an important NPC’s name, or what the hell the point of the quest is…
1 – DM Journals
These things are the reason this blog, or an following I have, even exists. Putting pen to paper in a way that shows the growth of you ideas chronologically, that can be carried easily, and that you can just add to on the fly is an amazing tool. I heartily recommend that everyone immediately go and spend real money on a notebook you are excited to write in, and just jot down, sketch, or scrawl every idea you have into it.
What I did discover, though, is that it does not suit my style of DMing. When I think of DM journals, I think of Hankerin Ferinale, of Runehammer fame. His stripped back style of gaming is beautiful to behold, and it suits a journal perfectly; planned nights of gameplay (not railroading, but certainly very scene-based), with simple design elements and the fat trimmed. By contrast, my games are hulking behemoths, with recurring NPCs galore, a complicated meta-narrative operating in the background (usually with a legit calendar to complicate things further), and story beats I’m working towards. I discovered fairly quickly that a journal was not something I could reliably DM a campaign from. Planning a single night of gameplay left me vulnerable to any number of other things, and flicking to certain pages became tedious within a few sessions. The journal became a planning tool, and an archive for ideas I wanted to keep a hold of. It also led me to my next idea…
2 – DM Folders
So I’ve talked about these before, so I won ‘t go into too much detail. Suffice to say that this is a lever arch file, consisting of everything I might need for a specific campaign. As an example, take my Forgotten Realms folder. Every time I run a campaign in a setting, I make sure it is running in the same version of that setting that any to my previous campaigns was played in. So my current Forgotten Realms game (Lost Mine of Phandelver/Storm King’s Thunder), for example, is happening alongside the game I used to run, the last session of which occurred in Undermountain (a link to the story of that game can be found here). This means my folder contains all my sessions notes, every NPC, villain, all my maps, background material, etc. It also contains spare maps, whole adventures (I usually keep Village of Homlet, Against the Giants, and a few Dungeon magazine ones in my folders), prices for shops, NPC name lists, and a few rules and other bits and bobs.
I love DMing from folders. The major problem is real estate. A folder, and the books I need to run a game can easily take up an entire table on their own, never mind players and the like. These days folders have become a prep tool; something I use to keep track of adventures, but that I rarely use at the table.
3 – Spiral Bound Notebooks
For my Arantal game, I decided to use a spiral bound notebook. This took up less space on the table, but also gave me enough information to properly track my sessions. Realistically though, it suffered from the same problems as a notebook. I was having to dodge back to old session notes and find important NPC names (which had changed at times, if the players hadn’t found out their name yet), which just led to confusion. Now, I use these for in-game notes, to keep track of what has happened, and to make sure I have access to what I think is going to happen that night. Generally my prep notes will consist of a series of Dramatic Questions (thanks @thearcanelibrary), such as “Will the party find_______?, or “How will the party deal with ________?, as well as any other pertinent information. I will always, however, have a full database of my campaign world to hand, should I need to go off script. Which brings us to…
4 – One Note and Lion’s Den Gamemaster 5e
I have used both of these products, and both of them have their pros and cons. Gamemaster 5e was my app of choice for a long time. With the ability to split a campaign into multiple adventures, the ability to have campaign wide, or adventure specific NPCs, being able to track your PC progression, to pre build encounters and have the stat blocks to hand in their initiative tracker…this app is amazing. The one thing is not good for though is tracking campaigns. Their notes section is shockingly bad, isn’t searchable, and is difficult to use. With a better way of tracking locations, NPC motivations and plans, or even somewhere to properly put maps, this app would be world beating. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
One Note, while it certainly has it’s failings, is where I keep my world databases now. With nested notebooks and pages I keep track of my NPCs, locations, plot hooks, magic items, and everything else. Not only can I do that, I can also hyperlink between pages, meaning that if I need to link two characters for some reason, I can immediately go to the page of the related character without having to search for them. It’s wonderful, and can work offline on laptops. While it takes more work to organise, since everything has to be typed out by hand, it’s worth it in the long run, as you create a series of interconnected pages that take the worry out of remembering every little detail.
Curse of Strahd is set to be the first game I ever DM from a laptop, using only One Note. I’m in the process of typing the whole book up into One Note, in a note form that I can read quickly and easily, and it’s my hope that this means I can run the game as a true sandbox, with everything I need at my fingertips.
I hope you’ve found that useful in any way. Organisation is something that will always evolve, as we find new tools to help us remember everything. For some, that’s a journal, for others it’s a series of notebooks, and for me it’s a laptop. Fire a comment or a message with your findings on the matter, and we can compare notes. Until then, though, have a good ‘un.