D&D Note Taking - How Much Should I Write Down?
It might seem odd to take notes for a game that you play for fun but it can be an important part of the game, especially for long-term campaigns. Places you have visited and people that you have met might come in useful to you later in the campaign when you need allies. The type of game you are playing and the way your DM runs their game will dictate how important your notes are, but it is generally a good idea for at least one person in the party to keep track of your travels. That being said, it can be very overwhelming as a new player to know what to write down. Many players will feel the need to spend their entire session writing out what happens narratively, slowing or even stopping gameplay so they can keep up. That is probably not the greatest way to enjoy your game sessions, so I have put together a few tips and a template to help you out.
Picture this scenario:
DM: "You enter the town and the familiar sights and scents welcome you back with the promise of good food and a well-deserved rest if you can find it."
The Party: "We head to the Tavern!!"
DM: "You make your way to the Silk Dragon Inn, and as you enter the dwarf behind the bar says 'oh, not you again! Out, or I'll call the guards!"
The Party: "We've been here before? What did we do to that guy last time we were here? What's that guy's name again?"
DM: "As you exit, shooed out by the dwarf, a hooded figure follows, grabbing you from behind and holding a dagger to your back. 'Where's my money?' he says to you in a gruff, familiar voice."
The Party: "Uhh... Do we know this guy?!?"
DM: <...> "I don't know, do you know this guy? Did you make any trades or promises last time you were here? Did he lend you something important in return for something??" <heavy hinting> <knowing glances>
The Party: "We don't remember... We attack!!!"
DM: <sigh> "Ok, roll initiative..."
A large part of the game is the social aspect, and things that your character would remember easily are often forgotten, especially since we don't play every day (unless you do, and in that case, I envy you!). You can think of your notebook as your character's brain, containing all the memories and experiences that they have had along the way. If you want to make good use of your note-taking time, you need to have a tidy, easy to use, and easy reference brain-document!!
There is a ton of advice out there on the Internet, and I'm going to add my voice to the din! I've put together a template to help you out with this note-taking system. You can absolutely achieve the same results with your existing notebook (using the template as a guide or adapting it to make it your own), but I've made this so you can easily try it out and get up and running quickly. It is available on the DMs Guild here for free. It's a 'pay what you want', but please just download it for free. If you would rather use your existing notebook, you can use the template as a guide or as inspiration to create your own system. The most important thing is for your note-taking process to be easy and seamless, so you can focus on playing the game (and having fun!!).
The entire goal of note-taking is to have something that is referenceable later. If you write out 10 beautiful pages of notes every time you play, but it takes you 10 minutes to find the name of that guild master who has the key to the tomb of wonders when you return from the quest he sent you on 4 sessions ago, then are those notes really helping you? You need something that helps you quickly capture and categorize the events of the session (as they happen), and also allows you to quickly and easily retrieve and recall that information later on when you need it.
Goal 1: Quick Capture
The main part of the system is a two-page spread that is designed to be used during gameplay. It works best if you have it in a lay-flat style notebook, but a binder will also work. My recommendation is the ARC Notebook System from Staples.
On the left-hand page, you can enter the details about this particular session, including the Campaign name, character name, the date (in-game and out-of-game), and the players that were present. There's extra space up there for you to customize this as you see fit as well.
On the right-hand page at the top, you have a place to enter your character's goals for the session. This could be role-playing related, quest related or things that you need to buy. It is never a good time when you leave the big town on your adventure, only to realize, during your first overnight owlbear encounter, that you forgot to re-stock your healing potions. Whoops, too late now! Keep the things you don't want to forget to do up here.
The majority of the remaining space on the right-hand page is for free-form notes. Use this however you like, but I would discourage you from writing out long paragraphs or descriptions. Point-form notes, doodles, and whatever short-hand you feel comfortable using are going to be your best bet here. You can summarize and synthesize these rough notes onto the left-hand page later on.
As you come across important people, learn about important places and geography, and are given important jobs to complete, take note of these on the left-hand page. There is a box for each category of thing you might encounter on your adventures. Be as descriptive as possible here, while still trying to keep the notes in point form. Focus on making these notes understandable by future you. You don't want to come back to these in two months, only to find "Shopkeep - magic bread. Mean? Only by the river". What does it mean?!? It may have made perfect sense at the time but is actually nonsense when you go back to read it later. Try to put yourself into your future self's shoes, trying to decipher your scribblings, when you write entries here.
For each person you meet, write down their name, race, a general description, and the circumstances that you met them. It might also be helpful to link them to other items on this grid, and you can do that by drawing lines, arrows, or by naming them directly. If it's important, include any relationships, and if you've taken detailed notes on the right-hand page, free-form notes section you can make a link to that as well.
Places and Shops
This is an area for parts of a city, like important buildings or features, as well as shops. Include the city they are in, and what they sell or are known for. Cross-reference to the other grids as required. Don't put anything larger than a neighborhood or quarter here, there is another grid area for those further down the page.
This area is for the various factions, guilds, and other political/social groups you run into. You can include information like who their rivals are, other places you will find members of this group, what symbols or signals they use, or their disposition toward the party. As with the other entries here, cross-reference these as required.
Cities, Towns, and Geography
Any new towns that you learn about, need to visit, or meet someone from, list them here. You can also include other larger geography like rivers, mountain ranges, islands, or political boundaries. List any details you know about the entry and cross-reference as needed.
Quests and Tasks
When you are given a task or a quest, write the details down here. Who gave it to you (make sure they're mentioned in the 'people' grid as well), details of what you have to do, where it is (again, noting the details in the appropriate grid areas), and finally the reward. You want to make sure you get what you were promised! When you come back with that basilisk venom and ask the NPC how much he was giving you, don't be surprised when he tries to undercut what he initially offered!
Use this grid area to list major events that take place. These could be things important to the character (I died!! -4 Misuthar 1492), things important to the party or things that are happening elsewhere in the realm. This could be events that the character experienced or found out about during the session, ancient historical events or even scheduled events that will happen in the future. Make sure to include the relevant details (who, what, when, where, why) and cross-reference as required.
As you collect and buy items throughout the session, make note of them here. Make note of the price or value as well. This will give you in-game bartering ammo. "500gp for a healing potion!! Zekera was selling them for half that last month!". At the end of the session, you can copy the items here into your character sheet's inventory, or if you decide later to give the item to someone else, mark that down as well. You want to avoid the situation where multiple characters write down the same item and your DM says "Hey, why are all 5 of you using the Holy Avenger? You only found 1!".
Finally, as the session concludes, write down any unanswered questions. Who was it that actually stole those paintings? Could that helpful NPC actually be a spy? Things in this grid are often carried over into the "Goals for this session" area for your next game.
Goal 2: Quick Recall
Now that your session is concluded, read over the notes and fill in any details that you might have missed. Cross-reference items that are related and make sure to put some page numbers at the bottom of each page.
Now, copy the basic info from each grid square into the matching square in the index. For most entries, this will just be the name. Be sure to include the page number as well. If you reference something on multiple pages, add the page numbers to the same index entry, rather than creating a new entry.
There is a grid on the index for each grid in the session notes, but I've also included a blank index page for you to track other things that might be important. This could be overflow from the "people" column (you're probably going to meet a lot of people...), shared party funds, large character arc goals (of your character, or other characters), or the contents of your bag of holding. Use this space for anything that you want to have quick access to when you need to reference it.
Now when the DM says "You notice a small goblin with a bright pink bow in their hair, walking through the crowd across the town square" and you remember meeting a similar goblin, you can quickly flip to the index, scan to find the name and page number and be at the page in seconds, rather than flipping through months of scratch notes hoping something jumps out at you.
This is just a starting place to get you on the right track. Feel free to adapt this and make it fit your particular note-taking style and the way you play. If there was something I forgot about, let me know! You can find me on Twitter (@trepidventuring) or one of the other contact details I list in the template. If there is enough interest I might release multiple versions of these for you to mix and match. I'm also working on some DM Prep templates as well as an 'Important NPC' tracker.
Well, that's all for this week! I hope you all enjoyed it and find this useful in your games, but don't forget: There are 20 sides to every story!
-The Intrepid Adventurer