A common practice in teaching today is for the teacher of a class to make notes on important things and then provide them to the students. Studies show that this helps students retain information that they would normally gloss over in lectures. I remember many teachers in college doing this and I remember it definitely helped. Having an outline of the topics to be covered, or a more detailed set of notes to highlight and add to can really help codify information in the brain.

So, what does this have to do with GMing? Game masters have a lot of similarity to teachers. They have slightly more power in the context of the game than the players do, they spend a lot of time distributing information and maintaining a structure and players often gloss over a lot of what they say. After all, the purpose of a player coming to a game is to have fun with their character, not to sit down and hang on the GMs words bit by bit. In a game situation, especially one involving a complex plot and multiple important characters, notes can be excellent for players to get a hold of.

Why should GMS hand out their notes?

  • Handing out notes keeps everyone on the same page.
  • Gets the players more involved in the intricate backstory.
  • Things that characters would pick up, but players might gloss over are still available.
  • Rolls to remember things are slightly un-realistic and don’t often account for re-rolling.
  • Helps build a better meta-structure to the story of the game.

While handing out notes can have a lot of benefits, it should be done with caution and design. Should a GM hand out their entire plot without editing or letting the players figure some things out on their own? Probably not. However, some guidelines or edited notes might be appropriate.

  • Hand out a list of NPC names and let the players fill in their impressions.
  • I used this one to great benefit in a Vampire game. Gave the players a list of NPCS with pictures attached and let them fill in the info. They didn’t always remember the names, but often picked up the sheet and looked to see who they were referring to.
  • Divide your notes up like a play, into Acts and scenes. Give the players just the act and scene titles so they have an idea of some general story flow.
  • Make a complete copy of your notes, then CIA style sanitize the notes for the players. Their interest will be piqued over what they aren’t seeing.
  • Drag your laptop to the gaming table, or have one of your players do it, and take notes at the table.
  • Provide an online source for notes that can be shared.
  • If your players are taking or updating notes, ask to look over them. They can provide great ideas into player flags and hooks that you can incorporate.

This is a very brief list of some of the ways that notes can be shared at the gaming table. Do you think the idea has merit, and are there any flaws you can find in it. These are just some of my notes on the subject, so please, expand and share yours. Ever seen any of these techniques in action? Ever use them yourself?

18 replies
  1. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    The idea definitely has merit. I particularly like the idea of listing key NPCs (with or without pictures) and allowing the players to take notes. Just knowing that the NPC is important may encourage the PCs to pay more attention to the NPC when they meet.

    It seems like giving notes might be a good way to subtly encourage or reward sticking closer to the plot, since the notes will reinforce those actions. It might also be useful in helping players figure out what the plot is…

    The main drawback is that presenting a plot outline, however skimpy, may lead your players to feel that the plot is foreordained. A looser outline– maybe key words or isolated phrases, somewhat like the Dictionary of Mu without definitions filled in, might provide many of the advantages of an outline without constraining the fiction as much.

  2. zencorners
    zencorners says:

    One of the mainstays of my last several years of gaming has been the gameday write-up. The GM takes the time to write-up a page or more of “fiction” to recount the last game’s activities. I’ve found this usually works best as a hard copy handed out @ the table, but also freely available on a game’s website.

  3. Target
    Target says:

    I plan to use News Headlines and Official Orders in my Starship Troopers campaign to help the PCs keep track of what’s going on inside and outside the military view.

  4. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @ Scott Martin: You’re right. Too detailed our outlined of notes and players think they are moving in a pre-ordained fashion. I’m not sure if this is any different from running a pre-made adventure though. It all depends on how the GM plays it. Personally I’ll deviate from notes if a player presents a more interesting option. My notes, however, are rarely so organized as to indicate any sort of pre-ordainment of plot.

    @ Zen Corners: I had an online journal just for gaming stuff. I gave out XP if the players wrote up their recounts. It often came out ith 3 or 4 different takes on the same story. Really interesting stuff. Glad to see I’m not the only one who does that.

    @nblade: I’ve never tried it in a spy oriented game. Done that in a vampire oriented game once. I gave them some innocuous piece of paper with Lorem Ipsum on it and sanitized the whole thing except for one “the” somewhere. The paper was more of a prop though, as I had used lemon juice to write a secret message on it. I told them that all the information they needed was on it, they just had to look hard enough. Someone immediately got out a lighter and found the message. Shocked the hell out of me that he figured it out so fast.

  5. Patrick Benson
    Patrick Benson says:

    I am going to start creating NPC cards for the players thanks to this post. Sort of like baseball cards, on the box of an index card I’m going to put a picture of the NPC and beneath it the NPC’s name and title/role. The players can keep the card to put notes on and to refer to when they forget a name (happens all of the time in my games).

    The secret will be to make sure that NPCs who are not important to the plot get cards too. That way the players won’t start taking the approach of “No card? This NPC isn’t important.”

  6. Swordgleam
    Swordgleam says:

    My current campaign centers around a particular town, so I made up a list of a bunch of NPCs, some important, and some just colorful. Each entry had about a paragraph of information, as well as age (important in this game) and race. One player sent me back a sheet with all the names listed, and his character’s relationship to each. The rest glanced at it, then didn’t look at it again until they had something important to do in town involving the elders, at which point they all fought over the two copies of the list that were at the table.

    On an unimportant note, it’s “interest will be piqued,” not peaked. A lot of people get that one wrong, or think it’s peeked.

  7. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Patrick Benson: Thats a great idea. Index cards do truly have 101+ uses. The players can flip through and find or add information at will.
    I know I used to keep common NPCs on index cards in a box. When I needed one I yanked it out. Now I tend to develop all unimportant NPCs on the fly with a table of character stats and willy nilly addition of necessary abilities. It works for the system I play in, but might not work well for more detailed systems.

    @Swordgleam: In response to an unimportant note:I have no idea what you’re talking about. (Whistles suspiciously . . .) The odd thing is that piqued actually means to make angry. Weird semantic mangling from the french. I am a fan of the concept of living and ever changing language, but it does have to be reigned in. Thanks! Your offical no-prize is in the mail.

  8. Swordgleam
    Swordgleam says:

    @John Arcadian – From the definitions I saw (didn’t want to correct you only to realize I was wrong myself), it’s because one definition is to elicit emotion, not just anger. The adjective piqued means angry, but the verb can refer to any emotion. But I agree with you that whatever the cause of the divergence, blaming the French is surely the best solution.

    Sorry. Bit of a language geek. Studying classics does that to you.

  9. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    I had a “player packet” for my last campaign – a manila folder with maps, brief descriptions of the town, NPCs, prominent locations, etc. I think I might do that with index cards next time – a ring of index cards for NPCs, another ring for locations, etc.

    I would also have a “GM Q&A” after each plot arc, to answer questions and point out what might have happened had things gone differently. At couple of times, this turned into a “Riddle Reveal” when I made things too difficult for the players to decipher. At other times, it was a “GM Brag Session” for me to talk about how cool I was. (Yeah, I have been that GM before.) But eventually, it became a handy tool for both the GM and players to review what just happened.

  10. tomg
    tomg says:

    This is a really great idea. I would have never thought of it. Thanks for bringing it to mind. I will definitely use this.

  11. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    @zencorners – Sure. I really don’t have a place to put it, but I can email you some of the player handouts. Ping me at telastx at the gmail thingy.

  12. Alnakar
    Alnakar says:

    @zencorners – That’s one of the best things I’ve seen all year. I think I just had a nerdgasm.

    I’m definitely going to try to give out some notes to my group after this, though. It’s an excellent idea, that I’m not having trouble figuring out why I’ve never thought of before. Thanks John.

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