RPT#266 – A Guide to Session Notes

A Quick Note From Scot  

Greetings to all! It’s been three months or so since I came on board to edit this wonderful publication and figured it was time to introduce myself. I won’t drag this out too long as I’m sure you’d rather be reading the rest of the e-zine.

I’ve been playing for quite a while. Some joke that their dice are old enough to vote. My first set, and yes I still have all six of them, are about to celebrate their silver anniversary. I started playing in middle school and was the first to own the boxed D&D set in the neighborhood way back then. It didn’t take long before we were all hooked and spending more than some of our paper-route money on AD&D books in addition to more than a few other role-playing games (anyone remember Top Secret? Star Frontiers?).

My primary system now is good ol’ D&D, at least when I GM. I’m currently running a campaign that’s into its fourth year of existence with more plot lines than I can count, has seen both player and character changes, and a change in rules to the 3.5 version of D&D. While this is the main campaign for my group it is not the only system we play, which gives me plenty of opportunities to take a break and recharge the batteries (d20 Modern is next on our list).

Please feel free to send along your thoughts and ideas concerning the e-zine or gaming in general as I would very much like to hear from you.

May your dice roll well,

Scot Newbury


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A Guide to Session Notes  

By Scot Newbury

Running an effective and enjoyable campaign requires a lot of organization. Many GMs have volumes of information about the campaign they’re running–maps, NPCs, histories, cultures, the list goes on. Unfortunately, all that information can be unwieldy when running a session, or even worse, you can’t remember what information you’ve already given the players, the plot line hooks you’re going to use, or even where you left off (if you’ve been on hiatus).

That’s where your session notes come into play.

Most GMs will take the time to jot down the information during a combat encounter (wounds, opponents killed, and so on) but your session notes can be much more. They can help plan future sessions, provide memory aids for important facts, and keep your sessions on track.

Before going too far, it’s important to have a method of organization for your session notes; after all, they’re no good to you if you can’t reference them in the future.

I’m currently using MyInfo put out by Milenix ( http://www.milenix.com) to keep my notes in. I have a document section entitled ‘Session Notes’ and I create a sub-document for each session. The title of each document is the session number and real world date, which makes them easy to find. You could also just as easily create a series of text files one for each session and keep them in a separate directory on your computer or just a notebook with a page or two dedicated to each session.

So now that we’re in agreement that session notes are a very good thing and have our method for organizing them, what exactly are they?

I use a simple system of three:

  1. Pre-Session Notes
  2. In-Session Notes
  3. Post-Session Notes

Each has a specific purpose, so we’ll look at each in turn.

1. Pre-Session Notes

Each time you sit down to start the process of getting ready for your group’s next session what do you do? I hope it’s more than a few sticky notes in the Monster Manual (yes I will actually admit to having done this). Think about what you want to occur in the session and write it down. I typically put a heading in my file ***Pre-Session*** and then go on to list the highlights of what I’m planning.

Things you may want to include:

  • World events. A volcano erupts in the area, war breaks out, a royal marriage. These are things that happen without the group’s interaction.
    • On the 6th day of Quiln the King and Queen announce the birth of their son Reginald, the heir apparent.
  • Plot advancement. Got a long running campaign plot? Are you going to advance it this session? Then make a note of it. Be sure to include any criteria that must be met for the event to occur.
    • When the group camps for the night, Nila will see a shooting star which she was told will precede a great battle. The battle will be….
    • In town if the party approaches the one-eyed blacksmith and show him the dagger they found while in the mountains he will tell them….
  • Potential side-plots or twists. These are items that may or may not happen, but might add flavor or act as a time filler if you need one.
    • Gerald will be accused of cheating at cards.
    • The Royal Army is in need of recruits so a press gang arrives in town.
  • Important NPCs. Who are the characters likely to run into? Have they met them before or not? Be sure to include in the description any relevant skills and abilities.
  • Encounter specifics. I usually pull the specs for the NPC or creature and add it right into my notes.
  • Rumors. Don’t be caught off-guard when the party stops for a drink at the local hangout. Write down a few rumors they may hear. Some can be related to the main plot or a sub-plot or not, they may not even be true.
    • “Did you hear? The army is losing badly and there’s talk more soldiers are needed for the war.” <press gang sub-plot>
    • “I heard that the Prince was born with six fingers on his left hand.” <Completely untrue.>
  • Handouts. These are usually separate items, but include the text in your notes so you have an easy reference after giving the original to the party.

As you can see, Pre-Session Notes can be quite extensive. Keep them limited to just the upcoming session to make them manageable. Remember, when writing these up you are not scripting, you are planning. Even though you write it down at this stage, it does not mean you have to use it.

Be sure to hang onto these so you can reference them in the future, especially if you don’t use all the material you planned. The players won’t know you didn’t use a particular item in your Pre-Session Notes, and if you can use it in a later session you’ve cut down on your prep time.

2. In-Session Notes

These are the notes most GMs are familiar with, at least to the extent of taking notes during combat. Things like initiative sequence, health, spells, and so on are the staple of most In-Session Notes, but they are not the whole story.

In-Session Notes let you know what the group did during the session. If you publish a group newsletter (like I do) these notes are a great source for material. If you don’t send out a newsletter, they’re great for doing a quick recap at the beginning of the next session.

When starting your notes for the session be sure to include the game date and real world date at the top, because you’re creating a historical record. I also include a header like I do in Pre-Session Notes: *** In-Session ***.

Other items you may want to include:

  • Combat Results. Creatures encountered, kills, health remaining, spells/ammo used.
    • Tirus killed 10 orcs this session without a scratch. (An item like this is great for the player that always wants to know “how many did I take down last session?”)
    • Gem’s quiver is empty. (Now you know that when she reaches for that arrow next session there aren’t any.)
  • Items acquired. Are they magical or not? Belong to someone else?
    • Found, +2 Longsword, no markings or inscriptions. (Now it’s easy to tell the players what was found when they stop to identify what it is.)
    • Found, amulet with inscription. When the script is analyzed it will be determined it belongs to the cursed mage Amaron.
  • NPCs. These may be repeats from prior sessions or new ones you’ve inserted for this session. Be sure to include a summary of any conversations.
  • Player comments. Keep your ears open at the table as your players will give you all kinds of information and ideas. Names, places, and concerns all can be used to come up with campaign additions.
  • GM notes. Be sure to add in your own notes during the session as well. Where did that were-wolf that ran off go? Will the party encounter it around the next corner or is it sneaking around behind them?

In addition to providing you with a historical record of what went on during the session, you’ve also created a very fruitful ground from which to pull material.

  • Can a rumor be created surrounding an item found?
  • Does a long-standing enemy change tactics now?
  • Did the players drop a hint about what they’d like to do?
  • Could the party use a particular item or piece of information?

When you start to plan your next session, read through the last couple of In-Session notes; you’re bound to find some interesting material to include. As you determine what you may want to include, add it to your Pre-Session Notes for the session you’re planning.

3. Post-Session Notes

The session is over. You’ve packed up all the gaming materials and are off to bed satisfied that you GMed another great session.

Hold on, you’re not done yet. You should spend a few minutes jotting down some Post-Session Notes. While the session is still fresh in your mind, write down your observations. Don’t wait as the details get fuzzy with time and often your first reaction to something is the best one.

  • What worked? Did you use some new technique to speed up the last encounter? I introduced the use of a three-minute timer to my group after the excellent tip by Dr. Nik in issue #259. Its use was noted during the session and I refer to the tip and my notes to see if I can apply it to other situations.
  • What didn’t work? If something wasn’t optimal, what could be done to “fix” it? For example:
    • Lower the encounter level of future combats.
    • Don’t roll a check just pass a note to the logical player.
    • Simplify the next puzzle as too much game time was lost on the last one.
    • Rule out the use of a particular puzzle type, monster, or encounter. For my group it’s mazes. I’ll be lynched if I include another.
  • What was the players’ reaction? I make it a habit to ask my players what they liked or disliked about the session after we’re done at the game table but before they’ve left. Be sure to note what you saw during the session as well as any comments afterwards. Things such as “too much combat,” “not enough interaction with NPCs,” or “just didn’t feel like we accomplished anything,” may be indicators of issues on the horizon. Take some time to review these to see where you might be able to make things more enjoyable.

A final comment on Post-Session Notes. Do not be too hard on yourself. The number one rule at the gaming table is for everyone to have fun, so if your group is _and_ you are happy with the way things are progressing, then it isn’t broke, so don’t fix it. If, when reviewing your Post-Session Notes, you begin to see a trend that you feel may be an issue, talk to your players and don’t just assume it’s an issue; they’ll thank you for it.


As you can see, those little scratches you make on a sheet of paper or type into that laptop can be a lot more than just a list of combat stats and kill ratios. Taking a few minutes before, during, and after a session can give you a wealth of information to work with in future sessions, help to keep your main plots on track, and even give you some insight into your group’s dynamics.

(For more information about the use of a timer in your sessions please refer to: Roleplaying Tips #259 )

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Readers’ Tips Of The Week: 

1. Marker Tip – Use a Grease Pen
From: Brian Gragg

I have a useful method of marking my WotC miniatures. You know, the ones with black plastic bases. I use a yellow grease pencil. It can be seen on the black base, and wipes right off with a simple swipe of my finger. I can use it for marking the creature number as well as marking special status (like stunned or whatever).

2. Description Tip
From: Casey Dare

[In response to Roleplaying Tips #261: 6 More DescriptionTips ]

Johnn, I’ve got a comment about descriptions. I think the art of DMing is in interactive descriptions. I think players will get bored if a DM simply reads a prepared description to them. The DM description of an encounter should be tailored to the players. I’ve had groups that dug statistics, and I had them roll dice to see if they were perceptive enough to gain the description. Other groups were into “novel” type descriptions, while others loved to be able to refer to their notes from previous sessions.

Also, I think descriptions allow the DM to control the pacing of a game. Descriptions also allow a DM to control the players’ focus. Sometimes, I would go into a detailed description of an important item or person, indirectly informing the players of its importance. I would also at times describe unimportant items or NPCs, misdirecting the players (and sometimes even allowing for a good gaming session to turn what I thought was “unimportant” into a new direction for the game).

So, in my opinion, a DM can create a great game on paper but, paper becomes reality by descriptions.

3. Campaign Handouts
From: Soylent Green

Handouts are great but should be used sparingly. Your group of gamers may vary, but I work on the assumption that players will not read more than 1 page of material, and even then they will do it under protest.

To introduce the setting in a new campaign, I’ve often used a list of bullet points normally called “10 Things You Really Need to Know About the Campaign.” This will be just a quick overview of the key aspects of the setting, not a history lesson.

Once the campaign is started, I’ve sometimes produced a “The Story So Far” document in which each week I add a synopsis of the event of the previous session. This is handy to have for when you get new players, players miss a few sessions, or even after an extend break, like over the holidays.

However, maintaining a “Story So Far” document can be a bit tricky. For one thing, it’s really tempting to get carried away with your writing initially, which can become a major time sink in the long run. For what it’s worth, I find writing the synopsis in the present tense really helps keeping the text focused and to the point.

The other thing to be careful about is the editorial slant you give the synopsis. Basically, your notes will reflect what you ‘the GM who knows the overall plot’ considers important, which isn’t always what the players figured was important. Now that isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s just something to be aware of.

4. How to Make Random Maps in Photoshop 
From: Joel Fox

Make a new document, preferably 1000 x 700 or so. Make a new layer, select the layer, and fill it with white. Set the foreground and background colors to black and white, respectively. Hit Filter > Render > Clouds, and you should have some clouds. Now do Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast, and turn the Contrast all the way up to 100. You should have a nice map generated.

If you want to also randomly generate territories, state borders, terrain features, topography, and so on, just create a new layer and repeat the process. Cut the black out on this new layer, then hit Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation, and make this part distinctive.

Then, hide the secondary layer, hit Select > Color Range, and select white at 200 Fuzziness. With this selection, hit delete on the secondary layer. This will cut out the water segments, leaving only this layer on land. Now you’ve got the geographical distinction of your choice. Repeat ad infinitum.

Hope this helps out.

You can view samples of this using the following URLs:

Sample Map 1: Step 1
Sample Map 2: Step 2
Sample Map 3: Step 3 – Final

5. Tips For Running Modern Games
From: Gatac

I really love your newsletter, always very informative. However, there’s a catch that makes it less useful for me: the focus on fantasy / medieval games. Granted, most people think D&D when they hear roleplaying, but my favourite genre has always been semi-realistic, modern times roleplaying with the occasional near-future element. That said, here’s a few bits from my experience:

1) Decide on the level of realism
This one is usually a big hurdle. I’ll break it down into two components: Realism in Objects, and Realism in Actions. The first one can be both your best friend and worst enemy; we live in modern times, so we can convincingly portray most of the day-to-day life, but when you’re playing in an “action” campaign, you will need to use advanced technology with a clear focus on firearms. Firearms (and other high- tech covert operations/superspy gear) can be a nightmare if you’re not already interested in it. (I am, but a few of my players won’t touch it with a pole.)

Unless agreements are made to reduce details, chances are that you will have to deal with the whole spectrum from gunbunny (“I want an M4 5.56mm NATO carbine, SOPMOD configuration with an M203PI underbarrel grenade launcher, 200 rounds of semi-jacketed exposed core ammunition…”) to the casual action movie fan (“That big pistol Schwarzenegger uses…”).

This can be frustrating for both players and GMs; detailed weaponry is often hard to model (unless you luck out in finding pre-made stats everyone agrees with), and those with less detailed knowledge will be quickly overwhelmed by all the choices, probably suspecting that the gunbunnies get better guns just because they can actually name what they want. And as if that wasn’t worse enough, all the less modern weapons will also need to be covered for the martial arts enthusiasts who wish to play the archetypical “modern ninja”. In general, this ends up being a huge mess, but there’s some ways to counteract it.

Here’s a few examples from modern RPGs:

  • Use a very detailed system with lots of premade modern firearms; with each weapon having a good set of statistics, they are more easily comparable, and a non-expert can pick one by its merits, not a name and picture that tells him basically nothing. The disadvantage, of course, is that the GM needs to track all of that, which can significantly delay combat. (Which is in itself a Bad Thing, as firearms combat depicted in movies is usually quick and stylish, favoring vastly simplified “movie physics”.) Spycraft uses this approach.
  • Use a system that has individual weapons statted up, but with less variables (or variables that have less possible states). This can speed up combat resolution quite a bit. For example, D20 Modern with its 2dX firearms damage greatly simplifies damage calculations, but loses granularity between calibres, which tends to upset the gunbunnies. On the upside, it’s easier to stat up new guns, but on the downside, there might not actually be any tangible difference.
  • Determine damage by calibre, range penalties, and reliability by eye, and only track easily looked-up things like ammunition capacity. As seen in Unknown Armies, this is generally acceptable for fast & loose gunplay, but invites more GM fudging.

The other big gear-related topics of contention are, typically, vehicles and computers, but these tend to be less fought over. Unless car chases or computer hacking are the big focus, it’s usually alright to keep it simple or fudge it altogether.

I specifically mention firearms because most games tend to gravitate towards playing out like action movies. Which brings us to the next point…Realism in Actions is a slightly different topic and mostly deals with the capabilities of the characters. While this is, of course, also indicated by their general level of competence, there are still laws that need to be consistent in themselves, and which bring with themselves various subgenres, which I’ll broadly characterize here:

  • Tactical Simulation. This is generally gritty and quite realistic; even the mightiest characters can fall to single gunshots. Combat typically involves a lot of real-world feel – people take cover, give fire support, and wear ballistic vests. Supertech is rare and at least plausible, if not already proven to work in a laboratory or even gearing up for production in the real world.
  • James Bond. Action is broadly realistic, with firearm combat still quite deadly, but the heroes (and villains) are often able to survive ludicrous odds or make implausible escapes. Supertech is featured somewhat prominently and usually somewhat plausible, but always a bit over the top. If supernatural forces are involved, they are usually hidden or subtle when used.
  • Anime. Anything goes. People wielding ancient Japanese swords regularly outfight hordes of faceless mooks, run up walls, and dodge bullets. This, of course, also applies to campaigns where supernatural powers are overt, or where the very nature of the world allows the characters to perform superhuman feats (as in The Matrix). Supertech can do almost anything, but has somehow not filtered into the mainstream. (Widespread supertech usually leads to Sci-Fi campaigns.)

Which variant you use, of course, depends on the group’s taste. This short overview is not intended to cover every possible permutation or possibility, but it should give you and your players a rough idea of what to expect.

2) Adjust for modern technology and culture
This point can pose problems when you’re not specifically thinking about it. It’s often tempting to use the standard tried & true adventure ideas, but many of those don’t work without adjustment.

For example, take the role of wizards. As a basic fantasy character, they are not only important because they have supernatural powers, but they are also educated people and wise men. This role is much harder to set aside in a modern game, because modern people – in general – have a much better academical education and better communication devices, which means that they are less dependant on having a source of knowledge right in the party.

Many topics a fantasy adventurer would not know about are easily researchable today, given Internet access (or barring that, a nearby library). On the other hand, some fields of expertise have become much more narrow, while others are quite broad in scope. Then there’s the things a modern character *doesn’t* know about unless he has a specific interest, like wilderness survival. The whole urban population is something that is just not there in most fantasy worlds.

If a group of modern characters encounters a fantasy-style artifact, they may well be able to easily decipher the inscriptions (maybe the gunslinger took a Latin class in high school), or quickly get a translation from the ‘Net, but there’s a very finite supply of people in a modern world who know how to spot a mechanical trap in an underground dungeon.

These are not really specific tips, but in general, you will need to keep in mind the following differences:

  • Different common skills and knowledge, as described above.
  • Rapid transport and communication. It is much easier to coordinate a split party in a modern game, at least for the characters themselves.
  • Ready availability of some goods, but much restricted access to others. Imagine a fantasy character with a bow and short sword appearing in a city and wondering why nobody else is carrying weapons. On the other hand, hungry modern characters rarely go hunting for food – they look for the next fast food restaurant.
  • Greater dependence upon the outside world. If your characters live in a city, they depend upon literally millions of other people to do their jobs in order for them to have a comfortable life. Contrast with the archetypical fantasy adventurer who is almost completely self-dependant for most things.
  • The world at large is mostly explored and civilized. It’s much harder to just wander around and happen upon a “dungeon” that’s basically a series of combat encounters and looting opportunities.

Of course, all of these points can be rendered somewhat moot (Gilligan’s Island campaign, or something in that vein), but keep in mind that these are what the characters expect and are used to.

3) Be larger than life
Like no other, a modern setting can quickly seem boring. We live in a modern world – that’s the point. This is why modern games often feel like action movies or thrillers – taking the players into a part of the modern world they do not normally deal with is what makes it exciting. A lot of care must be taken on how far away from typical experience you wish to wander. This is one of THE most essential dilemmas in a modern setting: it has to be familiar, but not _too_ familiar.

As a result, you may have to find a balance between mundane and over-the-top. On one hand, our characters are people like us, so they go shopping, watch TV, or sit down with a good book. On the other hand, they get in car chases, hack the Pentagon mainframe, or participate in gunfights. This also interacts with the general campaign style.

If, for example, you’re playing an ultra-realistic campaign where the PCs are firefighters, it is quite easy to get bogged down in the waiting and paperwork, but driving from one burning skyscraper to another is a quick way to destroy any attempt at realism. Although other campaigns run the same risks, it can be more damaging to a modern campaign where the players have a clear frame of reference. Sure, it may be somewhat tedious in a fantasy campaign to wander from city to city, but imagine trying to do combat encounters on a two-hour highway drive – it can be done, but it’s much harder to have it mesh with suspension of disbelief, because people don’t generally encounter bandits in fast cars screaming down a deserted motorway. (Unless you’re doing a post-apocalyptic game, that is.)

Depending on your players, you may want to lean more towards one direction or strive to strike a balance, but it’s usually better to err slightly on the side of the more exciting and introduce both more “normal” and more “out there” elements later when the players signal that they would like to see their characters in different situations. For example, in a superspy game, it is usually a good idea to start with a job that, while clearly superspy-ish, is relatively mundane as far as such things go, just barely into action movie territory, and then work your way up to a broader spectrum of both mundane things (to flesh out characters) and more larger than life missions.

Also note that a there are different ways to make the game larger than life depending on your campaign style. As an example, I offer a comparison between the Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid videogame franchises. Both focus on a lone, well-trained hero in the near future using advanced technology to infiltrate well-guarded places and carry out missions with some (but not much) outside support. However, where Sam Fisher of Splinter Cell is merely an acrobatic career operative using (mostly) plausible prototype military equipment, Solid Snake of Metal Gear Solid is a genetically engineered legend, able to overcome vast odds and face-off against a whole gallery of people with weird supernatural powers and abilities. The moral is that the characters need to stand out, but in a way consistent with how realistic the campaign is.

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