Last month, we talked about how to pull campaign information together for your players, creating a player handout and keeping a player notebook. This month, we look at the same issue from your side of the screen: how to keep your own notes and ideas about your campaign organized.
The DM’s Notebook
In talking about the player notebook last time, I pointed out that a physical notebook works great for that purpose, because it’s easy for the players to access at the game table. The same is true of your DM’s notebook. It’s probably the case that more DMs use computers at the game table than players do, and the ease of keeping a DM’s notebook in an electronic format is one good reason to have a computer at the table. But if you’re one of those DMs (like me) who prefers that the only screen between you and the players is a cardboard DM screen, you’re probably looking at a hybrid format—a notebook you maintain on a computer but print out for reference at the table.
Here’s a simple example. You’ve already created a campaign handout for your players. Print an extra copy for yourself, and that’s the first page of your DM’s notebook. Whatever other notes you have about your campaign, type them up, print them out, and stick them in the notebook. Organize those notes in whatever way works best for you—you might have a section for NPCs, or sections for each distinct geographical area that include NPCs, maps, and other notes about the area. You’ll want a page or two for your campaign arc, and then sections (you might want to use dividers) for each adventure, whether you create those adventures yourself, buy them as physical product, or download them from this magazine. It’s a great idea to create the section for an adventure as soon as you have any idea of what the adventure will be (perhaps because it appears in your campaign arc). That way, you can make notes in that section as ideas occur to you, and they’ll be all in one place when you get around to fleshing out that adventure idea. Be sure to keep a section of your notebook for your idea file, those random thoughts that occur to you that might or might not have anything to do with this campaign. When you come up short on ideas for a new adventure or a new campaign, that idea file is the first place to look.
Depending on how you work, some or all of the pages in your DM’s notebook will be documents on a computer that you print out. Try organizing those files on your computer in a structure that mirrors the organization of the physical notebook. In a “DM’s Notebook” directory, for example, I might create sub-directories for “Campaign Handout,” “Greenbrier Village,” “Greenbrier Chasm Part 1,” “Gates of Firestorm Peak,” “Idea File,” and so on. Anything I type up, download, or sketch in a graphics program can then go in the appropriate directory.
It might actually be helpful to extend the metaphor of a computer directory back to your physical DM’s notebook as well. Dave Noonan uses a portable file box as his “notebook,” with folders for his campaign information and folders for each PC. A nice thing about that kind of container is that it can hold things that won’t easily fit in a notebook, such as props, cards (for PC powers or for magic items), or poker chips you use for action point markers. It’s also a great way to bring miniatures and Dungeon Tiles to the game.
Looking at the files for old campaigns on my computer now, I wish I had been that organized. Instead, both my physical and my electronic notebooks are jumbled collections of files—some named according to date, some hole-punched, and some scattered haphazardly around the physical or virtual space. Here’s the computer directory for my old Eberron campaign, as an example of how not to keep organized:
This, my first stab at organizing files and folders for my Greenbrier campaign, is already looking a lot better:
There is a certain appeal to using a word processing program to lay out beautiful pages and create a DM’s notebook that resembles the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, maybe even including beautiful art (whether you create it yourself or scour the Internet for it). Believe me, I understand that appeal—I’ve been doing that since I was in middle school, and now I get to do it for a living. However, it’s not necessarily the best way to organize information for an ongoing campaign.
First of all, that approach encourages you to do more work than you need to do, to overprepare your campaign. You don’t need finely crafted pages of text detailing every region of your campaign world; you need the minimum of notes you need to guide your players through the regions they’re actually going to enter. It’s also all too easy to get bogged down in the big picture of designing your world and forget to give thought to the adventures your players will have there, starting with an outline of your campaign arc.
Beyond that, though, the emphasis of your DM’s notebook should be on managing information for yourself, making it easy for you to keep track of the details you create for your campaign, both as you prepare and as you run games. A printed book is okay for that purpose, but it shifts the emphasis to presentation—to creating a pretty product you can show your players, share with others, or even sell as a PDF on the internet. Fundamentally, a DM’s notebook is a quantity of freeform text—everything from notes about the races in your campaign to lists of NPC names—that you want to be able to type in, organize however you want, and then search. That’s where the power of digital tools really shine.
A word processing program can work just fine for managing this information. Of course you can search in such a program. But would you rather click through every occurrence of the word “dragonborn” in your masterwork campaign guide, or see a list of search results in context, like you get when you search the internet, and click directly to the one you want?
If you are going to use a word processing program, you might be better off using something like an outline or notebook view (like those in Microsoft Word) rather than a page layout view. Instead of thinking about your document as a book you’re preparing for publication, think of it as a repository for your notes. An outline or notebook view can more easily give you a place to jot your notes, letting you collapse and expand sections to get quickly to the right section for the note you want to add. Here’s an example of how I might use Microsoft Word to maintain a campaign notebook:
Notice that I used a hyperlink to the campaign handout file I created last month.
There are also programs dedicated to outlining and notetaking that can do the job better. I use a Macintosh at home and work, so I’m not familiar with the world of Windows software, but an example from my world is OmniOutliner, shown here:
The little icon at the far left of some lines in the outline shows that I’ve entered text for those items, which appears in the window below when I click on an item. In this example, I’ve just searched for “dragonborn,” so that word is highlighted in the text about Kharavas down below.
When I get my Greenbrier campaign off the ground for real (Real Soon Now), either of these approaches is going to mean taking all the information that I’ve created for these columns so far and organizing it, copying chunks of text and pasting them in a different sequence to keep them organized. Here’s a different approach, suitable for the lazy or overworked. I created a Google Group for my Greenbrier campaign. I created a bunch of pages and just dumped the text from my first four Dungeoncraft columns into those pages. Now I can search across all of those files, say, for every mention of dragonborn:
Eventually I will want that information to be more organized, but the Google Groups approach leads nicely to the next topic.
Sharing and Collaboration
Keeping your campaign information on the Internet has two solid advantages over storing it just on your own computer or in a physical notebook. One, you can access it wherever you are—during a slow minute at work or a study period at school. Two, depending on how you set it up, your players can access it as well.
Note that I’m using Google Groups as an example, but I’m not necessarily endorsing Google, here—there are plenty of similar tools freely available on the Internet.
When you create a web page in Google Groups, you can set it so that only you can see the page, so that any member of your group can see it, or so that anyone can see it. For the pages I created with all my campaign notes (in the form of these articles), I set them so only I can see them. But I also put the information from the campaign handout I created last month on its own page, and set that so any group member can view it. I could set editing privileges in the same way—for example, if I created pages for the player characters in the campaign, I could set them up so the players could edit those pages.
But an Internet group comes with a selection of other tools to help facilitate communication and collaboration between me and my players. There’s a single email address we can use to send email to everyone in the campaign. There’s a file download section where I can store the fancy PDF version of the campaign handout, as well as images and other resources for my players. And there’s a discussion section that I could use for a session or adventure log. I (or a designated player) can type up a summary of the session, and then other players can add comments or additional information. In Google Groups, I find the discussion section less than ideal for that purpose, because it also sends email to the group members. But any form of blog, really, is ideal for an adventure log, especially if it allows the players to comment—to add their own notes to the ones you or your designated note-taker write down, or to share funny observations or quotes from the session. (An adventure log that’s kept in character by one of the players can be both effective and amusing, particularly when the character in question has a quirky personality or strong opinions about the other player characters. If the other players add comments in character, that can help keep the blog lively!)
Two words of warning on this subject: First, if you’re like many DMs, you’ll find that it’s a challenge to get your players to spare more than a passing thought for your campaign between sessions. That’s not a reflection on you as a DM, but most likely an indication that your players have busy lives and other things to think about when they’re not at your game table. That can mean a pretty quiet Google Group.
Second, remember that the primary purpose of a tool like this group is to help you keep your information organized. Whatever tool you choose, make sure the end result is something you can access easily at the table, whether that’s because you have a computer with you behind the DM screen or because you make hard copies of everything on your computer and file them in a physical notebook. Ideally, it should be just as easy for you to add information to your (physical or virtual) notebook in the middle of a game session as it is for you to find information you need. Again, though, that can mean scribbling a note on a page in a physical book in mid-session and then transferring that note to an electronic file after the session, or it can mean typing the note directly into a file or a Web page you have open during the game.
Keeping track of time in a D&D campaign can be a bother, it can be something you pretty much ignore, or it can be a fun and rewarding way to make your campaign world seem more real. It’s not essential that you keep any kind of careful track of the passage of time. I say that because it’s not my favorite part of running a game, and it’s something I easily lose track of. But there are some easy things you can do to keep the passage of time in your game rooted in the simulation of reality.
Incidentally, keeping track of time in your campaign is much easier if your world happens to have twelve months of irregular length, totaling 365 days each year. Change the names of the months and the days of the week if you want to, to give your world an otherworldly feeling, but tracking time on an earth-like calendar, as irrational as it might seem, is easier for you and for your players than working on a calendar you’ve created for your own world.
The easiest is to note the start date of an adventure, make a hatch mark beneath it every time the characters stop for an extended rest, and at the end of the adventure tally up the number of days that have passed and note the end date. When you start the next adventure, make sure its start date is later than the end date of the last adventure. That’s all you really need to ensure that you can describe the changing seasons to your players.
You can also print out a calendar sheet—either a page from a real-world calendar, or something you create to match the calendar of your world. On that page, you can note what characters do with each day that passes—“travel to Harrows Pass” might cover three or four days on the calendar one week, while the next day might say, “HP encounters 1, 2, 6, 5.”
You can do the same sort of thing in just a running text format, either on paper or in an electronic document. I use this approach for my novels, as in this example from my working files for Storm Dragon:
Eyre 12, 999 YK:
(morning) teleport to Darguun, stock up on supplies
Rienne leaves Stormhome on airship.
(afternoon) teleport to Paluur Draal and explore. Big fight between Haldren and Gaven. Haldren teleports away, while Gaven and Senya remain. They start moving toward Korranberg. They need to make about 75 miles on foot: that’s about 3 or 4 days.
Eyre 13, 999 YK:
(morning) Gaven and Senya on the streambank; Haldren’s rendezvous with Vaskar
(late morning) Rienne on the airship looking over the Mournland
(night) Gaven and Senya talk about the Prophecy
Eyre 14, 999 YK:
(morning) Rienne arrives in Vathirond
Eyre 17, 999 YK:
(noon) Gaven and Senya reach Korranberg and board the lightning rail
Korranberg => Zolanberg is 300 miles @ 30 mph; 10 hours.
(11 pm) G&S reach Zolanberg, avoid authorities again
Zolanberg => Sterngate is 386 miles = 13 hours
Eyre 18, 999 YK:
(noon) reach Sterngate
lightning rail reaches Starilaskur around midnight (12 hours)
The main reason I needed to keep track of time like this is because I had different characters in different parts of the world doing things at the same time, and I needed to bring them together eventually. That’s the best reason for tracking time in your D&D game as well, whether your group of player characters splits up at some point or you need to coordinate their activities with those of one or more NPCs. When I was one DM in a shared-world campaign, keeping track of time was particularly important. Each player had multiple characters, partly because of situations where one character went on an adventure that consumed long stretches of game time, leaving those characters unavailable for other adventures that took place in the same timeframe!
Whatever approach you choose for tracking time, keep your chronological record in your DM’s notebook where you can make easy reference to it.
And that’s what I have to offer on the subject of managing your campaign information. How about you? Have anything to add? How do you keep your notebook organized?