As part of the “interview” by Tracey Snow back in Campaign Mastery’s 750th-post celebration (actually constructed from a series of emails back-and-forth), I was ‘asked’ the question,
Is there an article where you discuss how you run a session and track information while you’re at the table? Do you use a computer at the table or do you make notes and incorporate them into your electronic system later?
…to which I replied, “I’m terribly disorganized in that respect, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t hold what I do up as an example of “Best Practice” to anyone! I never stop to take notes, and consequently often forget what’s actually happened after a campaign/adventure has departed from “the script” – to which I never adhere, and I’m often the most guilty party at letting plots “evolve” in the course of play. Sometimes that works to my benefit, sometimes it’s a train-wreck. Worse still, I’m usually too physically exhausted after a game session to make any notes while things are fresh in my mind. I’m going to try to line up an article for 2016 on what some of my fellow GMs do to solve these problems and will be as interested as anyone in the results.”
Well, the time has come to provide the promised article. And, as I’ve been drafting it, I’ve come to realize that my current practices and techniques aren’t quite as dire as the above reply indicate. In fact, they are a sophisticated set of techniques that have been refined over time to solve my personal needs with respect to past events in the campaigns that I run.
The likelihood that those techniques will benefit anyone else therefore rests on the question of how closely their requirements mirror my own, which have also evolved over time.
Every GM needs their own unique foundation
The chances that my particular requirements will be exactly the same as anyone else’s is vanishingly small, and the more I refine my solutions to suit my own needs, the more remote that possibility becomes. The odds of offering something worthwhile are greatly enhanced if I describe not only the way I do things now, but what I have done in the past, when my needs were slightly different. By presenting the solutions to the problem as a series of answers, eventually any GM reading this article would reach the point at which our needs begin to differ; in this way, they would be able to select the answer that best suits them, and to begin evolving their own techniques from that point forward.
Along the way, I will also discuss a few methods that other GMs and groups have evolved.
It’s also possible that there is a form of convergent evolution at work; one of my current techniques might be exactly what someone else needs, even though the reasons for that suitability may differ from my own. So read the whole article, and the many different solutions it contains, and then pick the one that seems most suitable for your situation – if it seems like it might be an improvement on whatever you are doing already, of course.
And, if I don’t mention your solution to the problem, please fire in a comment – you never know who it might benefit!
In The Beginning: early practices (or the lack thereof)
When I started out, I was running the same campaign virtually every week. This made it relatively easy to simply rely on memory, for two reasons: first, the gap between sessions was relatively short, and second, planning the next weekend’s play in the course of the intervening week served as a constant reminder. On top of that, there was a lot of social chatter between GMs about what was happening in their respective campaigns at other times, so there were constant reminders.
As my sophistication of campaign design and planning increased, and I began inserting pre-planned plot twists and other easter eggs, I started making notes about these things.
An “easter egg” in this context is anything that is planned to pay off somewhere down the track, for example the giant gemstone liberated from the cult that had somehow grown it and placed in party treasury because no-one could afford to buy it and because it was too flawlessly perfect to cut without drastically reducing its value, turning out to be the “egg” for a new and deadly dragon variant that the cult was creating, a Diamond Dragon).
I was still able to rely on memory and continuity to give me the details of what happened last time, and what had happened in the past to bring matters to that point, and the key turning points in how the PCs had come to be where they were now, and what they were doing. It was only things that were intended to lurk around for a while before becoming prominent that I needed a reminder as a safeguard. In reality, though, I never inserted an Easter Egg without thinking about how and when the big reveal would take place, so I rarely needed them.
The Adventure Log
When I created my Champions campaign (named for the group, who in turn drew their name from the game system), I started thinking about things in a slightly more episodic way, creating distinct and separate adventures connected by strong continuity. At this point, in fact, I had three simultaneous campaigns occurring at different time periods within the same game universe, all with different incarnations of the same master villain; what happened in one of those became game history within the other two, and what happened in the second also became game history in the third.
To keep things straight, and to add a bit of appropriate flavor, I started (retroactively) an Adventure Log. This simply gave each adventure a name (and an “issue number” as though it were on ongoing comic-book) and the sort of summary blurb that you might read on the back of a paperback, or in a sales catalog of “this week’s new releases”. These simply served to index my campaign notes, which were in bundles by adventure.
The Early Days: GM Binder Of Doom
After a couple of years of using the Adventure Log, I discovered that my memories of the early sessions were beginning to fade. I still remembered the key details, the important bits, but context and less important parts were starting to fade – and then a roof leak wiped out a lot of those early adventure bundles, which were mostly written in longhand.
More recent adventures survived, mostly because I had started collecting them into what other GMs have described as a Player Campaign Book. The best description of one, and how it should be used, that I’ve seen was in Roleplaying Tips #517 – “For Awesome Campaigns Build A Player Campaign Book” by Kit Reshawn (which had me scratching my head in bewilderment until about 2/3rds of the way through the article, when I realized this was a reference for Players that was being maintained by the GM.
But my version was a little bit different to that described.
Early Evolution: The Modular “Binder”
It had slightly different contents, and was far more modular in nature, permitting me to leave at home anything that I didn’t need to carry. You see, at the time, gaming took place some 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) away from where I lived, and while I could afford to take the bus to gaming, I either didn’t eat or I walked home afterwards – with the full load of everything that I had taken with me – about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of books and references and notes. The trip took me between 3 and 4.5 hours. Every scrap of paper that I didn’t need represented a LOT of wasted effort.
Over time, this modular “binder” evolved; in 2011, more than 5 years ago, I described it rather more extensively in The failure of …urmmmm… Memory.
I developed the “modular binder” over time, and then abandoned the concept when my circumstances changed, only to resume it when normal conditions were restored – with a bit of evolution as a consequence of new work practices.
In Days Gone By (pt 1): Of Margins and Hardcopy
There came a time when I moved out of the city in an attempt to start my own graphic design business. For the next few years, I lived 565 km (352 miles) away from gaming. I would still write an adventure each week, and every 3 or 4 months would travel that long and wearying distance – a 9.5 hr trip each way – and for a week or so, we would binge on the campaign, playing all those adventures back-to-back. This permitted a broader narrative tapestry and greater interconnection between adventures, and in many ways, was a very formative experience.
Prior to this point, a lot of the gaming was spontaneous; now everything had to be pre-planned, all without railroading the players. My toolkit evolved. Specifically, I bought a portable typewriter, on which I would write the adventures, leaving liberal amounts of space between paragraphs, and left margins about an inch-and-a-half wide (and virtually no margins on the right). This left room for me to make notes – something that I only did when events diverged significantly from what I had anticipated.
It was also at this point that I began developing one of my biggest weapons when it comes to campaign documentation: layers of campaign planning.
When I need to look back at past adventures, these (in order of decreasing detail) could also be described as “What happened, Explanations for what happened, and Why it happened.” And that means that even if the “what happened” layer is incomplete or incorrect, because the players wrote their own script (as usual), the other two layers give you what you need in order to make sense of the past.
In Days Gone By (pt 2): The Campaign Bible & The Nebula Tapes
Seven years or so after the campaign started (and two years after its’ spin-off campaign began paralleling it), I needed to revisit the campaign bible concept. For a couple of years prior, I had been running the campaigns almost completely improv, as I explained in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly and its follow-up, By The Seat Of Your Pants: Six Foundations Of Adventure, but over time the lack of documentation was becoming a problem.
The Campaign Bible
I decided that the right approach was to begin working on a campaign bible. It took all of my notes, and added to them all of Stephen’s notes (which I talked about in the “Failure of memory” article), and began to organize them. This was essentially an adventure log that was being constructed retroactively, using only one golden rule: to be consistent with the way things were now. The past was reinvented as necessary, and the results became the new “bible” for the campaign’s history.
I had some of the jigsaw pieces – most of the adventures from the period living in Nyngan that were written with the typewriter were pretty much complete; parts of the old adventure log, which seemed to have the darnedest omissions; big-picture discussions in correspondence with one of the players, but which were deliberately vague and coy; and lots of isolated bits and pieces – a page of notes here, a couple of notes there.
I was able to fill in a lot of the blanks myself, but not all of them. So I bought a couple of lapel mics and created The Nebula Tapes.
The Nebula Tapes
Nebula was one of the original characters in the campaign, who, after a while, spun off into a solo campaign. The character always had more going on than met the eye. Having organized my notes as much as possible, I proceeded to conduct an in-depth tell-all interview with the PC by getting the player to respond to my questions in character. The resulting interview was about 250 minutes long – just over 4 hours – and at the level of detail that you would expect to find in a serious autobiography.
This filled in many of the remaining blank spaces in the campaign bible and provided additional detail and context even for content that was already listed. What’s more it provided – and continues to provide – a resource for briefing players on what was going on behind the scenes and showing them just how malleable the adventures were going to be. The campaign, and it’s successor, Zenith-3, are built on giving players more latitude to be creative and demanding that they make use of it. I’ve found in the past that some players thrive on the resulting atmosphere while others wilt or simply have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea, and the Nebula Tapes are a great indoctrination tool.
In Days Gone By (pt 3): The Zenith-3 Newsletter
Once the Zenith-3 incarnation of the campaign got underway, play was taking place only once a month, a practice that continues to this day. The gap between game sessions began to work against recollection of past events. To counter that, I started writing up a Newsletter. The primary function was to synopsize the previous game session. But I also provided character backgrounds, discussed rules issues, and provided the campaign background for the next phase of the campaign (within which we are now deeply entrenched).
The biggest problem that we had with the newsletter was that these were viewed as regular columns and the newsletter as an electronic magazine. That meant that I often ran out of time, even with the players making contributions like first drafts of the synopsis. I should have made the decision that the synopsis had priority and anything else was included only if there was time enough to create it.
It was Campaign Mastery that finally killed the Zenith-3 newsletter; even writing one article a week, there simply wasn’t enough time left to do both. If CM had been better-established, I might have presented material that would once have gone into the Newsletter as an ongoing masterclass/example, exactly as I did do in later years; but I felt it was wrong to do so while it was still getting established.
Once again, of necessity, my techniques had to evolve, and they did. But, before I actually detail how I am handling this requirement these days:
I knew from past discussions that the other group in which Saxon plays & GMs used a rather different solution to any of those that I have used, and so I got he and his group to pen a brief description of their processes for inclusion. Now that I’m at the point of discussing contemporary solutions to the problem, I am giving that description the lead-off position. So, over to you, Saxon:
The following is a summary of the recording history and setup that we use for my fortnightly weekday group, which I emailed to the others and discussed with them last night (Dave S. complained that for a ‘quick summary’ it sure took up a lot of text, and while reading it on his iPhone he almost skipped over it).
This group has been meeting for just over two decades now. In the very early days there were so few people in that particular group that if one person could not make it on a particular day because of family, work or other commitments, then we would be under a nebulous ‘critical threshold’ of participants. In such cases we would simply reschedule for the next convenient week afterwards. However, even then there were times when somebody would not be present, and for a very long time our standard method of keeping players up to date with was the crude and not all-that-reliable method of memory-occasionally-supplemented-with-a-few-sketchy-notes. As more people slowly joined the group, the chances of someone not being able to play on any particular date increased.
But, as the joke goes, now that we live in the future, we have the Internet. About half a decade ago, the group began experimenting with audio recordings which we would make available as downloadable podcasts for absent members to catch up with. I have also sometimes found them useful to refresh my memory on events that have happened during adventures that I have gamesmastered.
Our gaming sessions usually run for two to two-and-a-half hours every second week, so providing that someone has the time and inclination, it’s not too difficult to catch up. That said, there have been a number of times when players who have been away have not had the inclination. So, no method is perfect.
There are some gaming podcasts that are heavily edited, including the post-production use of sound effects, to make for an entertaining experience. Ours is not one of them. Our recordings are made for catch up purposes only, have no editing, and the casual style means that there’s a lot of chatter in the background, especially between players who are waiting their turn to interact with the gamesmaster. Sometimes, therefore, it has been the case that the player who has been away was straight out not feeling up to listening to two hours of gameplay interspersed with random discussion.
Running parallel with the audio recording, one of our newer players also keeps his laptop on hand during gameplay that he’s participating in, using it to take notes so that he has a brief plot summary and relevant information such as NPC names. The two in combination make a more powerful tool than either alone, but his documentation is strictly from the perspective of his character’s experiences, so it is at best a supplement to the podcast from anyone else’s point of view.
Over time, our technical expertise has improved a bit, although we did not need it to improve very much to meet our very minimal standards. Basically, as long as recording can be done quickly and simply, and the resulting audio file is comprehensible, then we’re happy to call it good enough.
Our first efforts at recording involved setting up a single laptop and having everyone at the table use plug-in microphone headsets. This proved unwieldy, both in terms of the technical setting-up, and also having dangling cords get in the way of miniatures arranged on the gaming table.
After only a few sessions the headsets were eliminated and replaced with an omnidirectional snowball microphone set up on the table. In the early days the recording was being done on the laptop of one group member who was a music aficionado, using a software package that required the audio recording to be converted to .mp3 format (as well as compressed down in file size) after recording had been finished, then handed (or emailed the next day) to the member who handled the uploading of the recording to our podcasting website.
That process was eventually simplified when the member who did uploading brought in his own microphone setup, which records directly to .mp3. However, he’s made the observation that if he had unlimited money to throw at the problem, individual stand microphones for each person, or better yet individual cordless headsets, would greatly improve recording.
Hope this helps someone out there.
Personally, I was hoping for more technical detail like what software they used and whether or not it was free, and what the brand of microphone was (having seen several that weren’t effective more than a foot or two away from the sound being recorded if that), but this certainly gives a ground-floor introduction to their technique and how it has evolved.
Saxon and I also discussed the shortcomings of their technique, specifically that you either knew what you were looking for and where it was located within the recording or you had to listen to the whole thing. That conversation pointed up the use of the other participant’s laptop records as an approximate, incomplete, and completely relativistic index to what would be found on the audio recording in what order, which at least permitted you to “zoom in” on the relevant area of the recording.
This was not entirely a new problem to me, I had encountered the same issue with The Nebula Tapes. We then speculated on the difficulty of employing audio-to-text software when there were multiple voices to be recognized, concluding that such transcripts might one day be possible, but the technology wasn’t there, yet.
I have no doubts that recording your sessions is a viable solution if you have the right equipment, but it’s a solution with inherent problems. These can be overcome, but doing so makes this far from a trouble-free low-effort operation. You either live with the difficulties, or you have to find a different answer.
My Current Solutions
I employ different solutions for each of my different campaigns for a number of reasons, all of which boil down to efficiency, and the fact that each of the campaigns comes with different circumstances.
My Adventurer’s Club practices
The adventurer’s club is co-GM’d and that fact impacts virtually every aspect of the game. It means that there are two separate people involved in running the game, making decisions, designing adventures and characters, and so on. That could be a recipe for confusion and disaster if we were to run off in different directions – with, for example, me having some of the adventure and my co-GM having the rest of it, or characters that are half-documented in one place and half in another. Keeping the foundations of the campaign consistent has been a priority from day 1.
In play, a copy of the adventure is placed on a USB stick. One laptop is used to display images and maps and so on, while the other keeps a copy of the adventure open. If notes are necessary, they are made on a pad so that we both have access to them – and at the end of the day’s play, any that are still relevant are written into one master copy of the adventure and all other copies are deleted.
This effectively double-filters any notes – they have to be important enough at the time to write down, and then have to be important enough to the next period of play to get written into the adventure itself, which is generally kept in a fairly basic (and hence fairly universal) file format. Of necessity, they are the bare minimum. Most frequently, they document player decisions or variations on expected events and game prep to-do’s for next time. They are always inserted with some form of either color coding or other indication, like “TO DO FOR NEXT TIME” in big capital letters as a mnemonic.
In fact, though, the most common notation is “UP TO HERE”, which indicates how far into the adventure we have come; and that’s possible because (regardless of the complexities of whatever generation method we have employed), we always describe the adventure sequentially and from the PCs point of view.
Ultimately, what this approach means is that we’re betting that our game prep has been largely adequate or better – and we work hard on making sure that the game prep lives up to that standard. If we win the bet, little or no notes need to be taken, and the parts of the adventure that have already been played serve as a mnemonic device to any minor variations. We’re far more concerned with the current conditions and what is to happen in the future than we are with how the PCs got to wherever they are at the end of the day’s play.
My Lovecraft’s Legacies (Dr Who) practices
A substantial variation on that technique gets employed for the occasionally-played Lovecraft’s Legacies campaign. Internally, within an adventure, the same technique is employed; at the same time, Saxon, as the sole player involved, takes notes. At the end of each adventure, and having made sure that I have nothing left to hide, I email a copy of the adventure to Saxon, which he then uses to annotate and expand the notes that he has made. By making sure during the game prep that there is nothing in an adventure that I might wish to hide from him, I can use the adventure itself as a mnemonic to him, while I remain concerned only with the next adventure to come. I keep the continuity between the adventures strong at a character level and an overarching plot level – a consistent “big picture” – while firewalling individual “episodes” from each other. As a result, an individual adventure may have things happen without explanation, simply because the explanation is in a different planning document. How the PC interprets those events, and reconciles them, is up to the player.
This approach would not work well with more than one player, because each would have a different interpretation of events; but, because there are only the two of us, there is no duplication of labor, and consistency is maintained.
That also means that if there are significant variations, I can rewrite the rest of the adventure to take them into account in between game sessions – but, for the most part, I don’t have to bother.
My Zenith-3 practices
Zenith-3 is the largest campaign that I run alone. Unlike most of my campaigns, I deliberately took the step of breaking the big ideas down into smaller stages for the entire campaign in advance. This enables me to interweave one plot arc with another in quite complex ways. Take the most recent adventure (which lacks only its’ denouement for when next we play) – it advanced a political plot arc, a social plot arc, a religious plot arc, a technological plot arc, a character’s addiction plot arc, another character’s social-integration-into-the-team plot arc, drew upon revelations that brought a new level of complexity to the players’ understanding of the metaphysical structure of the universe, advanced a public-relations plot arc, advanced a who-am-I plot arc for the team’s psionic character, touched on another character’s creative-self-expression plot arc, added color and background detail to two more of the PCs, showed off the PCs’ parent team’s new headquarters and how it worked, and brought a former PC back from the dead while introducing two new villains and a mastermind lurking in the shadows in back of them. In some cases, these developments consumed only minutes of game time, and appeared trivial, but the cumulative effect is that the world around the characters evolved considerably.
I’ve written before about how I make sure that the outcome of a particular encounter doesn’t matter in the long run, and especially how it is resolved; whatever big-picture work that encounter is there to do happens as a byproduct of the encounter taking place in the first place. That means that so long as I keep the Big Picture(s) straight, all I need to do is tick off the watershed developments as they occur and keep my focus on what is going to happen next, not what has happened in the past.
Notes and annotations therefore fall into three categories:
- NPC developments (where that NPC will reappear at some future point) which can be noted in the documentation of that NPC;
- Immediate plot developments and variations that will make a difference to the next game session, of the “UP TO HERE” variety, which are made directly into the adventure in question; and,
- Big-picture changes that may occur as a result of unexpected events during the adventure, which get noted in an ongoing list of things to take into account when developing subsequent adventures.
There aren’t very many of the latter, because one of the priorities in running each adventure is to insulate the grand plan from such effects. I showed how that works when I presented Mortus at the start of the year, and discussed it further in the more recent article, Who Owns Your Campaign?.
In other words, campaign planning is my weapon against needing to remember the details of past adventures, which either don’t matter, or were documented before play even started.
What’s the right answer?
There isn’t one – only an answer that is right for you, now. Or close to it. There are a lot of alternatives discussed in this article; if any of them suit your needs and circumstances better than what you are doing already, try it. If not, don’t change – unless whatever you are doing at the moment is inadequate, in which case you will need to invest time and effort into changing those needs and circumstances into something that does match the solutions on offer.
Evolution will occur naturally
Once you have a foundation, it will evolve naturally. Unnecessary elements will get discarded and refinements to the parts that are useful will take their place, and ultimately a unique solution will be achieved for your campaign – which will last until circumstances within that campaign change, as they are wont to do without notice.
As sophisticated as your tools permit
As a general rule of thumb, I plan an approach to this problem as part of my campaign development cycle; it’s part of making the campaign something that’s practical to run. That plan is as sophisticated an approach as my tools permit, and is built on whatever I’m taking to the game each and every time. I try NOT to add a substantial piece of kit for just this one purpose.
That means that if I have a laptop at the table, I’ll use it to take notes – in a way that is non-intrusive with respect to play. If I don’t, I’ll use something else. One approach that I planned but that was superseded by laptop use before ever being put into effect, for example, was to employ the very small post-it notes, which would be attached to hardcopies of the adventure as necessary. Anything that I had to say had to be succinct enough to fit on that post-it note. Three different colors – yellow, orange, and green – would be used for local, big-picture, and NPC notes, respectively. At the end of each day’s play, these would then be integrated or archived as necessary; the primary objective was to restrict the impact on ongoing play.
Time spent Looking back is dead prep-time
While a certain amount of it is necessary, in general, I feel that every minute spent looking back on what has already happened is a minute that could have been spent on game prep for the future. It’s a necessary evil, a mandatory waste of valuable time. The trick is to minimize losses of this sort, and that means minimizing the impact of the past on the future except within the channels that you can implement into future planning. In other words, maximizing the efficiency of those retrospective activities to getting the most developmental “bang” for your “buck”.
It’s a question of communication
If you don’t have a clear purpose in mind, expect to get into a muddle. If you can articulate to yourself exactly what objectives your solution has to achieve, you can assess the effectiveness of that solution and look for ways to improve it. Ultimately, it’s all about communication – from yourself to your future self, from you to absent players, or from yourself to posterity. Each of these imposes different standards and restrictions, and they aren’t fully mutually compatible. If you know why you need to worry about the past, you can limit your time losses to those that are relevant to that purpose – which achieves the objective while giving you the maximum scope for working on the next session of play, and the one after that, and so on.
My techniques – past or present – won’t work for everyone. In fact, they will probably only be useful to a minority. But they can provide a foundation upon which to build an effective solution to meet your own particular needs; so, unless they score a bullseye for you, do as I say, and not as I do, and we can both be right.