Session Writing- It’s All In The Notes

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

Over the past two weeks, I have written about how I assemble my session notes. In the first segment, I talked about my writing cycle, where I mix imagination and productivity in order to produce my notes. Last week, I talked about the tools that I use in order to create my notes. This week, I want to discuss what goes into my session notes. Where the other two segments really focused on the productivity aspect of creating my notes, this segment is really about how my session notes help me to overcome my own shortcomings as a GM and to support my personal philosophy as a GM.

In the past I spent a lot of time tinkering with how I write my session notes. There are not a lot of articles about that subject. Most GMs whom I know, have evolved their own systems based on reading published modules and then applying parts of those structures to their own writing. I started by copying the structure of AD&D modules (for those of you younglings, that is D&D 1.0). Over time I experimented with different writing styles, templates, and formats, but never quite found what I was looking for. Along the way I learned some very important lessons at work in writing Business Requirements for software programs. So, I decided to put what I knew about business requirements to work for my gaming, specifically my session notes. I started to define what my real needs were from my session notes.

After some thought I came up with a short list of things that were true needs… things that I had to have in my notes to run my game effectively. That list of needs as well as how I addressed them is listed below…


Purpose- When I looked over my old session notes, I noticed that there were scenes I had written that did not really seem like they needed to be part of the session, or worse, after reading the notes, I could not figure out why I ran that scene during the session. So now the first line I put on the top of a scene, is the purpose. It is only one sentence long. If I can’t explain why I am going to run this scene in one sentence, then either the scene is not appropriate, or it’s too sweeping and would be best broken in to parts. A purpose could be something like:

“The heroes meet the old man at the tavern who has information about the dungeon.”

“Tabris is ambushed by the Ebon Blade, while opening the gate.”

The purpose serves two functions. First, before I write the scene, writing the purpose allows me to be clear about what I need to write and why I am writing it. Second, during the session I glance at the purpose as I begin the scene, and I know quickly what I need to accomplish as I GM. It has become singly the most important thing I did for my session notes. If you have not tried this technique, I highly recommend it.

Date, Time and Weather- In the past I never gave serious thought to the date and time of my encounters, so that everything by default would take place at about noon. I also used to forget about the seasons and weather, making all my encounters take place some time in late spring. By making myself specifically write down the date and time of the scene, I take things like travel times and duration of activities into consideration.

When I write the weather down in my notes, I make myself stop and think of the seasons, which increases my description of the scene, as I include a relative temperature, wind conditions, snow, rain, etc. Also, on a mechanical level, by remembering to use weather, I can enhance a combat scene by having it take place in a rainstorm where visibility is poor or the ground is slippery. This makes my combat scenes even more textured as the players now have to make spot checks to try to locate their enemies in a blinding snow storm, or fortitude checks to avoid the effects of extreme heat in the desert.

Important Dialog- When I was a younger GM, I never wrote down the dialog in a scene, and because of that two things happened. First, all my NPCs sounded the same; like some knock-off RenFair character. Second, I would always forget to tell the players some important piece of information because I would get caught up in the moment, and then later I would be forced to revisit the scene to cover my omission, telling them something like, “Oh yea, when you were talking to Red Hand, an hour ago, he told you that the lock might be poisoned. ” I hated doing that because it broke up the flow of the session and made me look flaky. In order to overcome that, I now write out the lines for any important dialog in my session notes. I do not write out everything that an NPC says, I still like to ad lib a bit, but if an NPC has to convey some important fact to the players, that gets written out clearly.

NPC Descriptions and Stats- This again, was another GMing shortcoming of mine. Often when I GM, I get caught up in the session, especially if it is a combat scene, and I often forget to fully describe the NPCs. So in my stat block for NPCs, I include a description line, where I can describe the NPC. My typical description contains: age, body type, hair color, eye color, clothing, and any important physical traits. A typical description would look something like this: Revon: 40 yrs, tall and heavy, bald, brown eyes, ritual scars on both sides of the face. With just that line I can then ad lib the description, and make it more colorful for the players.

Exit Notes- Along with Purpose, this is a key element for each scene. I found this to be important, because I have noticed in my own games and in my friends’ games in which I play, that there are times when you are not sure why you are still playing in a scene. Scene transition is something for which I think the GM is mostly responsible. So a GM has to be clear when it’s time to move from one scene to the next. However, if you are unsure about the purpose of the scene, it may be hard to know when it is time to end it.

At the bottom of my scene, I write what has to occur for this scene to be over. This is often tied to my Purpose. For example: If the purpose of a scene was for the heroes to be ambushed on their way to visit the Wizard, then my Exit Notes will have two sections. One if the heroes win: The heroes find that the assassin has tattoo of the Iron Star. And one if the heroes lose: the assassin will rifle through the belongings of anyone who has fallen, and will then leave by horse to the east.

In a non-combat scene, where scene endings are more ambiguous, I will put in my Exit Notes how the scene eventually will end. For instance, if the purpose of the scene was for the heroes to talk to the retired adventurer about the Dungeon of Arzogh, then my Exit Notes will cover what happens after the important dialog has passed. Something like: The heroes continue to talk to the retired adventurer for the next hour, when he gets up and says that he has to head home to his wife. He wishes the heroes luck and then staggers out of the inn.

The Exit Notes allow me to draw the line separating one scene from another and to prepare the players for the next scene. I have found that this keeps my sessions tighter and allows me to get through more material.

What not to include.

In determining my needs, I also found a few things that I did not need to include in my notes. I found that I tend to over prepare my notes, and while it was nice that I tried to cover all my bases, I made more work for myself by not being as productive as I could be. So after some review of my old notes, I came up with some things that I do not need to include in my session notes:

Pointless Skill Checks- I think it was Robin Laws who said, “Unless something cool happens by failing a skill check, just give it to them.” I took this to heart. I used to make my players roll for everything under the sun, for no reason other than it was in the rules. So now, before I write down the difficulty for a skill check in my notes, I ask myself what cool thing could happen if they fail the check. If I cannot come up with something, then I don’t have them make a check; I just write in what happens.

As I used this technique more and more, I have developed better ways to use skill checks in my games. Rather then just using it to determine if a player was successful or not, I now use the skill check to determine if the the players gain an advantage in an upcoming event. If the event itself is going to happen no matter what, then the skill check now determines if the players will have some advantage in the event. For instance, the heroes are going to speak to the Baron of the area they have entered to set up a trade agreement. I ask for a “Gather Info” check. If the players pass the check, they find out that the Baron loves to hear stories from adventurers. If the players regale him with stories they gain a bonus for the “Diplomacy” check they have to make to set up the agreement. If the players fail the check, they will have to work through the trade agreement without an advantage.

Stat Blocks for Minor NPCs- Another unnecessary component of my old session notes was the section where I would stat out minor NPCs. In most cases these NPCs are just a vehicle in the story to some more important event. The fact that the guard watching the outer gate has 25 or 30 hit points does not matter. The heroes are going to kill him in one swing anyway, so why take 20 minutes and pull a stat block together? Instead, I just put down one or two important stats and keep going. For the guard, I would say he has 25 hit points and a +4 to hit with his short sword. If I need more than that, I can just wing it.

Solutions For Challenges- There is a quote from D. Vincent Baker, the author of Dogs In The Vineyard, that says something to the effect of, “I only set the stage for the players, then I get the hell out of their way.” I love that quote. When I was younger, I found myself writing the solutions to my scenes and then subconsciously steering the players through it. My great skill back then was steering the players in a way that made them think it was all their idea. Today, I have abandoned that idea, and I have adopted Vincent’s idea as a GM. I no long am concerned how my players will get out of a situation I created. They are creative and smart, and given enough information and a little time, they are bound to come up with something, and in many cases it’s something cooler than my own solution. So in my session notes I make sure to set each scene and stock it with information, clues, and interesting NPCs. I then set up the scene for the players and sit back to see what they come up with. I play off their ideas, and we reach the end of the scene together as a group. That may sound like it would be in conflict with my Exit Notes, but I am careful in my Exit Notes not to assume a specific solution was used. I only focus on the outcomes possible in the scene.

By including things into my session notes that are important for me as GM to help improve the playing of my scenes and by eliminating elements that were time killers or things that were not fun for the players, my session notes have become not only easier to write, but I have vastly improved the quality of the notes, thus helping me craft the story I want to tell.

So now that you have some insight of what goes into my session notes for each game, what items do you need in your session notes, or what things should you eliminate?

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  1. It is amazing to see how far you’ve grown and flourished as a game master, Phil. Your attention to detail, and methodology is simply astounding. It truly makes me jealous of your current rpg group. I definitely wish I could play.
    This was a great insight into how you do what you do.

  2. This looks very good– I followed the link here from Treasure Tables just today. I’ve developed a similar system for session-writing, starting with a “title” time, terrain & weather, plus I often throw in a quickie map.
    However, I also have the “Didn’t I say that?” problem you cite, so I will adopt your idea of writing out important conversation. And yes, my NPC characterization is very weak, too.

  3. Great posts. I also tend to like to include room descriptions in my notes to add some texture to each scene. I follow the following tips by Rich Burlew to achieve that effect:

    I also tend to add a sidebar next to NPC encounters to include a couple of talking points or mannerisms to help distinguish one NPC from another. For instance, I might have a line about how the NPC likes the phrase “if you ask me.” Then, during play, I’ll pepper the conversation with that phrase, thus making that NPC different, albeit superficially, from the umpteen other NPCs the characters are likely to meet on the adventure.

  4. njharman |

    I put everything on notecards. The only full-size(8.5×11) papers are in my DM-Book. *Thin* tabbed binder with campaign level stuff. Such as random names, random quirks/personalities, rumors, maps of region, some rules, calendar of pre-generated events/holidays/notes/weather, session notes. I keep this in front of me during session and use it to, among other things, create stuff on the fly when players go off some tangent not thought of/prepped for.

    The note cards are in stacks around this and include:

    A card for each “terrain” with bulleted list; descriptions using 5 senses (and sometimes more like detect evil/good)

    A card for each scene/encounter with bulleted list; 1-2 specific 5 sense description(heavy animal musk)/moods(serene). What the challenge/purpose of scene is. Maybe some dialog. Hi-lighted DC checks for traps, finding stuff, knowledge. Any treasure on back along with how plot progresses if characters fail and how plot progresses if characters succeed. Maybe a little map.

    A card for each NPC/Monster (mooks/minions share a single card) with stat block on front. On back, equipment, physical description(5 senses). *One* quirk/mannerism/feature to make them memorable. Goals/relations/history(if major NPC) and a “signature” quote that paraphrases their personality. Sometimes I read quote to players, other times it’s just to jog my memory about all the stuff I was thinking when imagining this npc.

    For important hi-level npcs esp casters I’m finding one card is not enough but I am loath to go to something larger. Perhaps I’ll try putting spells and equipment on separate card.

    Before session I grab the terrains/scenes/mobs I expect to be used. Others are close by. I use a card holder behind my screen for the most critical. I spend few seconds scanning the bullet points and visualizing the terrain/scene/npc then describe it to players. The bulleted lists of 5 senses and pause to visualize has helped me tremendously to quickly express memorable, unique scenes/mobs and immerse my players.

    Oh, I also have card for each player character that i use in initiative stack. But also with key skills/abilities for secret DC checks and brief descriptions to bring them into the world. PC’s like it when NPC’s notice what they are wearing :)

    btw None of this did I figure out myself. It is pieced together from articles and various GM blogs.