RPGs: Do You Take Notes?

I tend to prefer being a gamemaster versus a player in a role playing game. Thus I read a lot of role playing books. This weekend I finally started a new activity while reading that I’ve been thinking about for a while: I’m taking notes.

That sounds like work, right? Probably even school work. Yet I think it will help me to be more prepared and more spontaneous when running a game.

Let’s face it, for many of us GMing already requires work and preparation. But preparing everything up front can lead to railroading your players through a pre-planned plot and leave your game feeling static and forced. My last Shadowrun game was a lot like that.


Rather than write an entire plot down to the details of what the players should do, I’m going for something more loose. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to keep the players interested and involved with one or more plot threads, which will be planned ahead of time, but also have room for improvisation and the ability to adapt to the players’ actions.

Being good at improvising takes a lot of familiarity with the game and the world it’s set in. What if, like me, you don’t role play all the time and these things don’t come easy to you? Then it may be time to prepare to be spontaneous.

Instead of writing each part of the adventure in detail and pretending I know up front how the players will progress through it, I’m writing cues, interactions, encounters, and ideas. On 3″x5″ note cards.

Taking Notes

Right now I’m still reading through the Shadowrun book Unwired. Along the way I’m picking out sections that detail programs, options, matrix use, and other aspects of the game that seem like fun things I may want to use. For each of these I’m writing down a brief summary, or a related idea, along with a descriptive heading and a reference to the page in the book so I can look up stats or game mechanics later.

Here’s an example:
Scenario: Technomancer sleazing past security
(Unwired p. 135)

Technomancers are always in the equivalent of hidden mode. But they can shut off all radio emissions and disconnect completely from the matrix - this could come in handy when infiltrating a secure area. A technomancer could display or surrender a dummy commlink (carried around to cover for their secret identity as a runner and technomancer), shut down signal, and pass security scans for wireless.

I fully intend to have more notes than I’ll actually use, so I can flip through them during the game and employ an idea here, another there, whenever I wish, but not put any kind of cap on my creativity while writing down the notes. It’s more of a brainstorming process to capture ideas ahead of time and take the pressure off of idea generation while playing. Instead I’ll just need to figure out when to use them.

This is my first time using this technique, it won’t be proven until I’m ready to start the next game… which is planned as a fantasy adventure with Rolemaster, so I intend to give Character Law & Campaign Law another spin and take notes. Perhaps Spell Law, Arms Law, and one or two of the supplemental books as well.

Do you take notes? How do you prepare to run your role playing games? Let me know in the comments below!


    Just realized I never commented on this.

    I take a lot of notes, and tend to prep some small insertable scenes that I can pull out if the story runs slow or the players dive off into uncharted territory.

    I really like GMing with a computer nearby. That way I can have all my notes in a format with hyperlinks or a search function, and just dive straight to the thing I wanted.

    I have done notecards before, though, and do something similar if I’m GMing somewhere other than my own home.

    My wife did something awesome in a Cyberpunk game she ran a few years ago. She made a deck of notecards that had the stats on a lot of the cooler equipment and cybergear. Then, if she needed an NPC on the fly, she could just deal them out. Similarly, she made a deck of buildings/locations, so she could deal out a random neighborhood if the players wandered someplace unexpected. It was pretty cool, but a fair amount of work to set it up.


    Thanks for the comment RB!

    I haven’t done it myself yet but I fully expect that having a laptop on hand while running a game is a fantastic boon. Particularly with hyperlinked/searchable notes and rules. The gaming wikis of Obsidian Portal come to mind.

    While I’m quick to use a computer in pretty much every other context, I am enjoying the note-taking process of writing on actual notecards. Perhaps a holdover from my information architect days. Shuffling the cards around and laying them out sometimes makes it easier for me to make connections, as I’m rather spatially-oriented. But I may still type up some of these notes later, if I can decide on a format and means of retrieval I’m happy with.

    Oh, and congratulations on being married to a woman who is also a gamer 🙂

    Gabriel Says:

    I try to take at least a few notes all the time. I find it’s easier for me to get a scene right for the group if I have some pre-planning done. Fortunately though, my group is very into freeform Roleplaying, so if I don’t have the notes I need, I can ad lib without any real problems. Of course, then I need to take notes on the adlib so I can remember what was done in the future.


    I agree there’s much to be said for the ability to ad-lib, any GM not running into situations where that’s a necessity is probably running a game on rails. 🙂

    I think having some notes prepared can help when the time comes to invent (situations, characters, dialogue, etc.); without having everything mapped out explicitly you can still put various ideas, NPCs, and plot hooks at your fingertips for easy access, and grab whichever seems best suited at the time.