Record Keeping as a GM

One of my bugbears as a GM is my record keeping abilities.  I like to think that I can keep most of my information that I need in my head and big picture stuff that is all OK but what about when those players want to return to the blacksmith they met in the town just down the way.  What was his name again?  His race?  His/her sex?  The detail generally eludes me so today I want to talk about the layers of record keeping that you can do to help yourself out as a GM.  We will start with the more old school ways to do this and then progress up the ladder to the high tech options available to you in today’s environment.

Central place for all your planning is a
good place to start

Ground zero for this stuff is memory alone.  Now that can be a pretty good option if you do not have a terribly busy life.  If most of what you do is say work and role-play then this may be the only option you need to keep your campaign running.  When I was just a student this is pretty much all I relied on as most of the time I was thinking about the game and where it was going and where it had been.  There are a couple of techniques that you can employ here that I have used and I have found help me to remember things.  Firstly, as the game is running, make notes on scrap paper or in a notebook.  These are not to refer back on but I find if I come up with an NPC name on the spot and then I write it down with their role I am twice as likely to remember them at a later date.  If you don’t think this will help, try applying a memorable feature to eah NPC as you come up with them.  If Bobby is a beggar with a lame leg you may be able to remember him like Bobby the Bouncing Beggar Boy (thanks to +Cam Mcloughlin for teaching me this trick).

Next best options in this area is actually keeping a notebook that you record all your details in.  As you run the adventure you can use the notebook to record monster hit points, damage received, poison details, NPC names, inn names, legends the players hear, plot hooks and any other number of pieces of information that you want.  Then when you get questioned on an item you should be able to flick through a few pages and everything is at your fingertips.  There are a couple of pointers to watch out for in this regard.

  1. Keep one book per campaign that you run.  If you run several games and they are all recorded in the same notebook, or you use the notebook for school and your games finding relevant details can be a nightmare.  It is best just to keep one book solely for each campaign.
  2. Keep to a standard with your book.  Work out where you want to put details of each thing.  I use the left hand side of my pages for initiative, the centre for recording hit points, the right for recording experience and the bottom of a section for all other informative details.  If you mix things up every time you play it can be hard to find the details that you are searching for swiftly.
My notebook that I record my game details in

The next step could be a card-file system.  My first AD&D GM Phil had an index card system.  He recorded all his details on index cards.  Organisations, NPC’s encounters, you name it it was on index card.  Using index cards he was able to pull the ones he wanted from his card box for the session and flick through them easily during the game and refile them.  This system is really good for the tactile and people who love to prepare up front which counts me out.  I do not mind a bit of forward preparation but having encounters ready just in case they occur?  I prefer to wing things like that.  It is a fun experience for myself to find out where some encounters like that end up.

Technological solutions for this kind of material is a dime a dozen these days so I might stick to some more generic ideas.  The easiest to access and use up front is either a spreadsheet or a word processed piece of information.  This is pretty much the most common sort of application on devices these days and easy enough to enter information into.  You may prefer to make notes on paper and transfer them after the game to this style of program or maybe you take the device to the table.  This can be distracting though so if you do take the device to the table make sure that you pay attention to the game and not your social media sites.  Spreadsheets I find a little bit better than a word document as you can have different pages for different things and use the columns with a heading to categorise data.  You can do this with tables in a word processed document but I always find fiddling with the tables one of the most frustrating things to do.
Making it pretty always helps to motivate you to work on
the campaign too…

The next step up from this are the programs today that are mimicking a notebook set up.  I will give some more specific examples here as it will give you a clearer idea of what I mean.  For PC something like Microsoft One Note is a good set up that allows you to categorise your data in a piecemeal way and group the material into categories of information for flexible data.  For PC and Mac there is Evernote which does much the same thing but I find is a little more flexible for marking up images and other material.  These programs have the added advantage of cloud storage solutions so you can share data between a laptop, tablet and phone with different functionality on each.  This may make things a little less obtrusive at the table too.

There are web sites that are dedicated to this style of storage also.  Obsidian Portal is one of the most famous and it provides a space for you to build your campaign on.  I can’t say that I have ever used it but I do think this idea is a great way for players and GM’s to combine and create an immersive environment that can share information between games.  I believe it is handy for a GM during the game which is great.  Roll 20 and other virtual tabletops can also be useful in this way but in a little more of a limited way than Obsidian Forge which really focuses on the stuff between games.  
My wife buys me cool notebooks to use as well!

For every game that I run online I have a Google+ community for much the same reason that Obsidian Portal exists.  I give the player’s characters a discussion group and a few other categories and use it to present information in between game sessions and also watch as the players interact.  This can be a great place to record NPC’s and maybe put up an image of them so the players can identify with them a little more than they normally do.

Now, for the hardcore GM’s out there that love their IT of course you can use fully relational databases for yourself so you can interactively add and search your own data that you build for your world.  I am a dedicated IT professional but even I balk at that idea.  Still, I know it happens and it is an option if you want to lose part of your life to building the database and making it a usable place for you to collect and collate your data on your campaign.

Of course there are other options than notebooks like binders, loose leaf, back of serviettes or the palm of your hand to record information.  Whatever it is it has to work for you.  I use a combination of these. I have Evernote set up and if I find things I like or want to use I will clip it to Evernote and consider it later.  When I am playing I use a notebook and my comment above where I say use a notebook per campaign is something I have learnt recently.  trying to sort out a book that I record three campaigns in is a nightmare.  Have a play, see what works for you and go with it!  Until next time, keep rolling!

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