Some people can just read an adventure and they are ready to run it. I am not like that. In order for me to absorb it, I have to take notes.
The Basic Idea
Homework? When you run a game, you'll be blabbing away and multitasking like crazy. Having concise and organized notes means you won't have to waste precious table time looking things up. You will have it all right there! In my experience, looking stuff up ends up wasting tons of time and players might get bored. Your session can lose steam and get derailed if you're not careful.
Read through the adventure and take notes on a sheet of paper (or whatever). Leave space on the right side to create sidebars, and also leave room on the side for notes during the game. Look up stuff and add in your own flourishes. Write page numbers to the important stuff in the adventure. When we play, I write down initiative and hit points right there on the sheet.
Write Notes During the Game: Also, during the game, when something special happens, immediately write it down on your sheet. It could be a funny line someone said, an idea for the future that pops into your head during the game, or a cool moment that happened that you want to make sure you don't forget.
A lot of times when you run a game, there's awesome little moments that get lost in the shuffle. Those little nuggets are the lifeblood of a good campaign. You do not want to lose them! They are the things you can build on.
Trim Away: When preparing a published adventure, feel free to junk whatever you don't like. You're the director of the movie, so put your stamp on it. You are not obligated to stick to the text. Prep time is the perfect time to add your own fun details.
This is the first page of my notes for my last Planescape session. It probably looks like gibberish. I tried to highlight the important stuff and I will try to explain it below. This page involves the group's sojourn into Barovia. I pulled out a bunch of stuff from Curse of Strahd and had my way with it:
What Happened Last Time: I start every session reminding the group what happened in the previous session. Players generally don't remember too many details. This helps get them in the right frame of mind so we're off and running right away. It's good to write this down in advance, so you can get all the details straight.
When you present this to the group, don't drone on and on. Just say the main things that happened and anything relevant to the current session. Try to say just a few sentences. Definitely mention the funny or cool stuff that the heroes did last time so you can set the mood and spark their memory.
Space for Sidebar: Leave space on the right side of your sheet. A lot of times when you are preparing a published adventure, the information is presented to you in non-linear ways. Old adventures tend to give you weird details in weird places. I put that important information in sidebars on my sheet, so it doesn't interrupt my flow in the game.
Sidebar-worthy information might include:
- Details on a Town/Place: The ruler, a few places, a few NPCs.
- Special Rules: Such as "Chaos Shaping" rules when you go to the plane of Limbo, or drowning rules if I'm running an aquatic adventure, that kind of thing.
- Background/History: Adventure authors tend to go apeshit writing background info that the heroes will never learn. It's often complicated and I have a hard time keeping it straight. I make a sidebar and spell it out in a few bullet points on the off chance that the group actually investigates the history.
- Ship stats/Ballista stats: If the group is using a special vessel or weird siege item, I'll write the stats of it, and any special rules (often a ballista has a weird rate of fire).
Encounters: I try to organize my gibberish so that the most important things are immediately noticeable. I underline and put boxes around the most important things, and to separate sections. It might look like hieroglyphics to others, but as long as it makes sense to you, you're good. The point of this is for you to get all the information you need at a glance.
Monster Stats: As you take notes in each area/room in the adventure, write down the monster stats right in that room description. One great thing about 5e is that monster stats are super-simple. Here's the stats of one of my favorite D&D monsters, the ogre:
(MM pg 237) Ogre: AC: 11 HP: 59 +6 13 (2d8+4) dmg
- Spd: 40 DEX: -1
- Saving Throws: I know what spells my players use, so I only write down those saving throw numbers. If the save is 0, I don't even write it down.
- Range Weapons: In most stat blocks, the humanoid bad guys have a range attack that pretty much has an identical attack bonus and damage to their melee attack. If I think I won't remember that the Ogre has a javelin, I might note it and the range: (javelin 30/120).
When I write down spellcasters, I absolutely make sure to write down their save DC and their spell attack bonus. This is one of the things that most frequently causes a session to slow down. I always write these numbers down, sometimes repeatedly just to make sure I see it right away.
Spells: Preparing monster spells is funny. How many rounds does a combat last? In my sessions, not many. Just 2 or 3 rounds, really. So I look over the monster's spell list and I find a few spells it will use. In bullet points, I write the spell down and what it does.
If you look at my Barovian Witches stat block up there, you'll see my format. Here's ray of sickness:
Ray of Sickness: Rg: 60 +4 2d8 poi (+CON save DC:10 Fail = poisoned until the end of my next turn) Poisoned = Disadvantage on to hit & skills.
Other Things to Do
The best way to avoid this is to write at least one little moment for each NPC somewhere in your outline. It could be a reaction to an event, a funny line, a heroic moment, or maybe the NPC has some kind of moral conflict. If you are able to include animal companions in each of your sessions outside of when they are used in battle, you are doing a great job.
Maps: Sometimes if I am preparing a dungeon, I draw a map right on my notepage. Usually I change maps. I cut out all of the empty rooms and the rooms I don't want to use. Generally, I simplify dungeons so we can get to the good stuff. I feel like a giant dungeon sometimes can create malaise and it might even sour your whole campaign. So I draw a crappy little map and I label each room with what is inside.
Having a map that you can look at and see what is in each room right there is extremely helpful! That's one reason why I love the Castle Ravenloft walkthrough map so much:
Names: You should write some cool fantasy names down on your sheet. Usually in a session, the group will end up talking to some random citizens, guards or waitresses. If you have a pre-made name list, you can just grab a name without missing a beat.
Notes During the Game: If you look on my sheet, you'll see right by "Toys" that I noted which toy each hero bought. Those are exactly the kind of little details that I won't remember at the end of the session. Now, when the session is over I can mull it over and maybe think of something fun to do with these items. Maybe the Strahd ventriloquist dummy gets possessed or something? Who knows. The information is there, that's the important thing.
Ideas: In general, no matter where you are, any time you have an idea you should write it down immediately. These ideas will disappear and sometimes you'll remember them when it is too late to use them. That is the worst.
Guess what? You're probably going to need to make yourself some reference sheets as your campaign grows. You're going to update these after every session.
In my Planescape campaign, my heroes "own" a bunch of buildings in the city of Sigil and there's all these portals to other planes there. The adventurers run a festhall:
Festhall: This sheet lists all of the workers in the festhall that the heroes own. For each NPC worker, I wrote down their name, race, and a sentence on what they are like/their story.
Curiosity Shoppe: One of the closest allies of the group owns a magic shop which I lifted out of Planescape: Torment. I have a page that lists the items she sells, and information about the owner and her tragic past.
Sigil: Normally I'd have at the very least some notes on the city of Sigil, but it's not necessary. This blog is my notes repository! I just keep my Guide to Sigil open during the game.
Often in my campaigns, I'll have an NPC accompany the party. I write their stats on an index card. I don't write them on paper because if I have too many sheets of paper, it gets jumbled up. These sit to my right, by my dice bag.
My group has two NPCs with them, Fall From Grace and Selinza the cat lady. They are on index cards:
Don't Lose These: There is nothing more annoying than losing these little cards! I always keep them right in a special pouch in my gaming bag so this doesn't happen.
When the Session is Over
I prepared a page of Death House, the level one Curse of Strahd adventure. I went a little overboard so I could try to demonstrate everything better. Honestly if I was going to run this, each room would be a sentence or two except for the library.
Here's the page from the pdf, and my notes:
Bullet Points: Most of my notes are in bullet point and list form. It's very easy to clump stuff together that way, and each line contains a separate important thing.
Page Number: Try to note what page in the pdf/book this stuff is on for easy reference. I put it in a circle so it stands out.
Dumbwaiter: The dumbwaiter might be important, so I put it in a box. The heroes in theory could get into all sorts of hijinks in there.
Secret Stuff: I generally put parenthesis around secret things so I don't accidentally read them out loud. Secret doors, especially!
Always Write Down the DCs: Keep them nice and clear!
Flavor Text: If a room has stuff meant to be read aloud, I note it on my sheet and I'll write the gist of the text in parenthesis.
Library: If you see room 8 on my sheet, it's a library. Another good thing about this type of preparation is that you can flesh things out. Most times if there is a library in an adventure, I make up some books that the heroes might loot. The books sometimes refer to the setting, sometimes they're just jokes, sometimes they refer to some obscure thing from a past campaign to give the players the sense that the things they do matter and will be referred to in future campaigns.
In this instance, The books I made:
- The Tergs: A reference to the horde that Sergei and Strahd battled back before Strahd became a vampire.
- Hag Theory: The secret purpose of this book is to help the heroes identify the potions in Old Bonegrinder. Those potions are deadly!
- The Mesmerist's Pendulum: This is just a goofball reference to Ravenloft 2.
- Mordenkainen's Spectacular Legend: He's a famous wizard! And the heroes don't know it yet, but they might have a run-in with someone quite similar to this fellow...
I think if you take anything out of this, it's that the most important thing for you to think about is looking up spells, magic items and monsters in advance. I am guessing some groups don't mind doing that at the table. But if you are like me and you are looking to get things done and keep things snappy, you should probably do it in advance.
Merric Blackman wrote about taking notes here.