Session Writing– Tools of the Trade

This post was originally published a year ago, but at the behest of some of my fellow bloggers, This is the second in a series of three articles, that will run this week.  Enjoy.

Last week I discussed my writing cycle, detailing how I organize my time and imagination to produce my session notes for an upcoming game. The cycle is an important aspect of how implementing the ideas of productivity can be used to create session notes. This week I wanted to discuss another area of productivity: the tools used to create the session notes. In this article I am going to outline the tools that I use when I am working on my session notes. Each tool has a specific use and an optimal way to be used. Through trial and error I have refined my list of tools down to this set. I find they are, for me, the most efficient tools to get the job done, and they fit seamlessly into my writing cycle.

Here are the tools….


Moleskine Notebook– When it comes to brainstorming, there is nothing I like more to put my thoughts into than a Moleskine notebook. I should disclose at this time, that I am a Moleskine snob. I not only use these notebooks for role playing, but I use them at work and in my everyday use. For gaming, I like the larger Moleskine (5.25 x 8.25 inches), square ruled. The square ruled works best because I can do both writing and map drawing in my notebook. As notebooks go they are very sturdy with a strong binding and paper that is easy to write on.

When I do my brainstorming, I use this notebook exclusively. I do not brainstorm on the computer. I find that I am more free with my thoughts on paper, plus I can sketch maps or other drawings as I write. Also, the notebook is portable; I can take it anywhere. I have brainstormed for sessions between meetings at work, in the doctor’s office, or on a business trip. When I brainstorm, I am not careful in my writing. I often make numerous spelling mistakes; I cross out things, draw arrows to things, etc. The books I have are really a mess inside, and are less about documenting what is going to happen in the session, but more about organizing my thoughts and helping me clarify in my head how the session is going to go. Ultimately, in the course of my writing cycle, the outline for my session winds up being the one of the last things I write into the book. Typically when I get the outline down, I quit writing in the book and move on to witting the actual session notes.

Good Pen– If you are going to do any amount of writing, you need a pen that is going to make writing enjoyable. For me, my favorite pen is a Cross Morph pen. I think that pens are a very personal thing, so I won’t try to sell you on the Morph, but I will say that for me it fits nicely in my hand, and it is very comfortable to write with. If you are going to be doing a lot of writing, it is worth getting a pen that you enjoy writing with. Some of the things to take into account when picking out a pen include:

  • Overall feel of it in your hand
  • Smoothness of flow of ink
  • How the ink reacts to your favorite type of paper

TiddlyWiki– I like to write out my session notes electronically and run my games from my laptop. I tinkered with all sorts of ways to enter my notes electronically, and have found TiddlyWiki to be my favorite. TiddlyWiki (TW) is a self-contained wiki. The name comes from two parts. Tiddler, which is a block of text, and Wiki which is a self-editable web-based application. The program is a single HTML file (packed with with a bunch of javascript and CSS) that contains all the content as well as editing functions for the input and editing of the content. TW runs in most browsers and works cross-platform. It is self-contained, so there is nothing to install, and it is open source, meaning its free.

TW also has an active community of developers who create various plugins to expand the functionality of the program. Some of my favorites are the wikibar (an editing toolbar), templates (allowing me to have templates for different scene types), and import tiddler (which allows me to yank a tiddler from one file and import it into another, cutting down how much duplicate writing I have to do).

What I like about TW the most is that it allows for Tiddlers, chunks of text, to be hyperlinked in different Tiddlers. For instance, in one Tiddler I can put the stat block for an NPC. Then in a second tiddler, I can have a room description and have the name of an NPC listed. I can then make that NPC’s name a hyperlink to the stat block. So that during the game, should the players engage the NPC, I am one click away from the stat block. I also use that same hyperlinking to link Tiddlers of rules into my notes, so that I can avoid looking things up in a rule book during the game. During the game, I only have to open a single HTML file in a browser and then click from link to link, instead of flipping from page to page in more traditional word processed notes.

PDF Rule Books– I am a big fan of the PDF market for RPGs. I make it a rule to buy the PDF version of any games I am going to run, as well as the print copies, when they are available. When I am creating my notes electronically, I like to have the PDF version available for reference. There are a number of advantages to this. The first is that while I am working on my notes electronically, I can access the rules right from my computer. I don’t have to get up and find a book or run downstairs to my game room to get something from my shelf. The files, for the most part, are small. I keep an entire bookshelf of the PDFs I am currently using on my pen drive, so that I can access them from anywhere. That makes it convenient if I am prepping my notes in a hotel room on a business trip. The better prepared PDFs have a full table of contents, making finding material very easy. Also the “Find” function in all PDF readers allows me to look up specific text quickly. Finally, I can cut and paste the text from the book into my TiddlyWiki notes, so that I don’t have to refer back to the book for some specific rule, like Drowning.

So these are the tools I use to get my session notes written. The system is a little expensive, in that the Moleskine notebooks are somewhat expensive, a good pen is going to cost $20 or more, and PDF rule books, while cheaper than their paper counterparts, are an added expense since you are buying the paper and the PDF rules. I have found though that the added expense is worth it, and has made the creation of my session notes easier. To paraphrase David Allen, founder of the “Getting Things Done” system, “..unless you like your system, you will never use it.” In David’s case, he is talking about productivity systems, but the sentiment is the same. You have to have a system for creating your session notes that is going to be exciting for you and something you look forward to doing. If your system is cumbersome or time consuming, you will dread working on your notes, and you will either be in a mad scramble the night before your session to get your notes done, or you won’t do them, causing you to wing your games or put your session off. So if you are not excited about getting your notes written, or you are thinking that session prep is too hard, consider the tools you are using, and think about if there is something that would be more appealing.

Next week, in the third part to this series, I am going to talk about what I put in my notes, and more importantly what I do not include.

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