The thing that I hate most about being a regular blog writer is that your best ideas come to you when you have absolutely no chance to write them down and no hope of remembering them. In my head yesterday – the only medium available to me – I wrote no less than three absolutely brilliant and insightful articles for Campaign Mastery.
Of course, I could remember none of them by the time I actually got to my computer, or even when I reached a point where I could pause to take notes the old-fashioned way, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I can’t even remember what the sodding articles were about!
Of course, my memory has been failing progressively for some time. The wonder isn’t that I forget some things, it’s that I remember as much as I do. I’m always aware of the big picture (both in my campaigns and in real life), as Johnn has commented on more than one occasion when we’ve been planning together. I always remember the scenario that I’m running at the time, even if I don’t remember exactly what happened in the last session. I remember what the characters personalities are, both PCs and NPCs, and (in general) what they can do, even if the specifics escape me from time to time. So by no means is all hope lost for me.
All this exposition is actually quite relevant to today’s article, the subject of which – wonder of wonders – I had not forgotten. It was actually inspired by an item in Roleplaying Tips #517, which hit my inbox this week. The article in question is “For Awesome Campaigns Build A Player Campaign Book” by Kit Reshawn.
I have to admit that when I first read this article, I found it confusing until I was about 2/3 of the way through it. Only then did I realise that even though this was an article about a binder for Player information, it was maintained by the GM of the campaign. Suddenly, all the things that had not made sense before fell into place.
Whenever you come across a problem that has a familiar ring to it, and someone else’s solution to that problem, it’s only natural to spend a few minutes reviewing how you solve the same problem. Is your solution better? is it worse? Are those questions over-simplistic? On the basis that what works for one GM can work for another, that is the subject of this particular article.
The Player Binder, as described, has developed to solve multiple problems (all thematically related), so let’s look at each, and the solutions I employ…
What happened last session? What happened in the session before that? Sometimes I remember, sometimes not. In most of my games, a player by the name of Stephen Tunnicliff keeps a log of the events that affect his character which is often useful as a jog to the old memory. While this often excludes details that apply to other characters, it’s a starting point. Of perhaps equal value is the organisation: he writes his notes on the right-hand page of a lecture-style book and places tags next to important things on the right-hand-side of the left-hand page. This includes things like:
- NPC: for the names of characters encountered and summaries of their descriptions etc.
- Item: used for notes concerning any items that come to his attention – magic in fantasy, high-tech in sci-fi, and so on. With one book for each campaign, context makes the meaning of the term clear most of the time.
- asterisk: denotes information of critical significance.
- Place: Names and general descriptions of locations that are significant.
- [Player-name's] PC: used as a reminder of the names of important PCs and which player controls them.
There may be others – for example, I’d use a $ sign for loot received.
What makes this especially useful is that Stephen has a particularly scrappy handwriting style that is very fast but sometimes difficult to read, meaning that he uses a lot of space per plot development. (Sometimes he himself can’t read it – and sometimes I can read it and he can’t!) A given page might have no tags, but would rarely have more than 2. This means that there is a lot of space on the left-hand page for clarifying notes, revelations, suspicions, and so on. In effect, the spacial relationship of items on the page becomes another tool for the organisation of information.
He also records XP on the left-hand page.
It’s important to note that what Stephen records is his understanding of events, which may or may not be correct. By using his notes as the unofficial “log” of campaign lore at the start of each session, he not only reminds himself and myself of what has just happened, he gives me the opportunity to clarify things that he AS A PLAYER may have misunderstood – and by extension, what the other players may also have wrong.
The real value of these notes comes after the campaign has had an extended break for some reason. I’ve written in the past about my gaming timetable – most campaigns get played just once a month; and it only takes a minor disruption – ill-health or family commitments or real life – for that to balloon out to a two or three or even four-plus month interval between sessions.
The Campaign Binder of Doom
This is my GMs equivalent of Stephen’s stack of Campaign Books. I use loose-leaf binders and plastic pockets. These contain maps, handouts, reference printouts, house rules, campaign plans – anything and everything that I might need to run the campaign outside of a rulebook set. When the binder gets too big, I archive everything that is no longer immediately relevant. I rarely write anything during the day’s play to go into the folder, and frequently print half-size, so its information density is extremely high.
This is used as a scratch-pad to record factoids that are relevant only to the immediate play, at least that’s the theory. In practice, I may produce rough-drawn maps, sketches, tactical displays, jot down ideas for future scenarios or rules changes… but its all intended to be short-lived. If there is any chance at all that I might need it next time, it tends to get extracted and filed in the Campaign Binder.
I use this for the occasional map, but most of the time it permits me to draw illustrations to clarify what the PCs are seeing. I often won’t take it unless I know that it will be needed; and I have several in different sizes for when that becomes important. I still remember one session in which I doodled a sketch while GMing the whole day until the end of the day approached, at which point I held up the sketch – A3 in size – and announced “This is what you see” to the table. They had seen this taking shape all afternoon with no idea of the significance (if any)!
USB Memory Stick
I don’t have a laptop (yet), but some of my players do, and sometimes I will take advantage of that to display clip art to the players as an illustration of the scenario (something I’ll write about in more detail some other time). Nothing goes onto this drive that is not for either eventual or immediate consumption by the players.
Sometimes it’s just eye candy to set the mood, sometimes it’s illustrative or specific. Often I will have manipulated the image in some way using my art software – transplanting a figure from one environment to another, for example. Sometimes it might be a diagram. It’s whatever I need to correctly orient the players.
On the day that I get a laptop, the memory stick will become a transportation medium and the laptop will replace everything except Stephen’s notes – and, since I type almost half as fast as I can speak, even they may also vanish (or at least, my reliance on them). And maybe the Sketch Books.
When you put all these together, you have my equivalent to the Player Binder. Because it’s a more modular approach, I can leave behind anything that I’m not going to need, or add in extras. The only way in which this is inferior to the Player Binder described by Kit Reshawn is that I have to remember where something is located. Which brings me back to the door I came in by…
Oh, and PS: I have since remembered what two of the three forgotten articles were. As they say, all things come to those who wait!