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When I started taking notes, it pulled me out of the game so much. I was so focused on writing down what was going on, I couldn’t respond to what they were doing.
It made my games worse.
As the game master, your core responsibility is to the players. You facilitate the game, keep things moving, and encourage your players to contribute meaningfully to the story. Everything you do must serve what’s going on at the table. Your prep needs to not get in the way.
Why even do Session Notes?
If session notes can pull you away from the game, why would we even want to do session notes?
In Episode 6, we talked about session prep and how it improves the game experience. Session notes should do the same. If we’re going to spend time during the game, let alone outside the game, then it’s got to make a significant difference to the game.
3 Keys to Good Session Notes
After a lot of trial and error, I found 3 core components to effective session notes.
- What choices did the characters make and how did they affect the world?
- How was my performance? What did the players like? What didn’t they like?
- What specific actions did each character make and how did it develop their story?
Focusing my session notes on these three points dramatically improved my Dungeons & Dragons Games. They help me keep the world dynamic and responsive. My craft gets better each week. I also hold onto critical details and actions for each character, helping me weave their story with the overarching narrative.
Before we dive in, you can get a personal copy of the Engineered Adventures Session Notes Sheet right here.
Get my Session Notes Template
1. Character Choices and Impact on World
What did the characters do in the world?
The choices they make changes the way things play out. It has to if you want their choices to matter. In Podcast 6 we discussed how when players traverse through the story, they build context.
This is where you get that context.
Ultimately, session notes give you the information that feeds your session prep. As the characters explore the world, they make increasingly informed choices. The world impacts them and they affect the world, with increasing depth as play continues.
Write down the major story choices they made during the session, then jot down how those choices affected the situation, the setting, and the narrative. This’ll give you the direction and context to make your prep more meaningful.
With any major character choice, there’s going to be associated details. Smells when the heroes saved a child from the putrid swamp or emotions of triumph as the town is saved from disaster help tap into that visceral memory. Hold onto these details. When you callback to those choices, by including those sensory and emotional details you’ll evoke stronger connections to the memory in your players.
You’ll look like a Game Master genius.
2. How did I do? DM Feedback
It can be hard to get authentic feedback. When it comes to developing storycraft though, you need it to be the best you can be. feedback accelerates your growth. Each session, your players are giving you unspoken feedback that’s yours for the taking. Use your session notes to identify those moments and capture them to improve your craft.
When things go well, people stay engaged. They lean in. You hear their voices fill with excitement, joy, fear, or anger. They focus more game time on the things they love. Take note of those moments. After the session, flesh them out. What worked? Where were their time, attention, and emotions going?
Conversely, write down the moments that didn’t go well. You can tell when things don’t hit the mark. Phones come out. They’re not engaged or invested in what’s going on. They may be resistant to continuing down a story thread. These moments are so important to capture. At the end of the session, expand on the notes and make sure you’re clear on the things that didn’t work.
Once you have these moments layed out, try to find connections.
- Are there things players like more than others?
- Do they engage more when I have accents?
- Do combats need to be more or less complex?
- How did my execution of that thing affect the way they responded to it?
- Would it be worth practicing and trying something similar in the future?
After thinking through these questions, use these lists to inform your next session. Optimize what they loved, minimize what they didn’t, and practice what you need to make things better.
It’s an iterative process that takes some trial and error, but over time, you’ll see positive results.
3. Character Specific Actions
The bulk of my session notes are focused on the characters. While part 1 focuses on the choices made affecting the overarching story, this section captures the more intimate choices the characters make. I ask each player at the beginning of the session, a focusing question that helps connect their characters back into the story. You can find some of those questions in Episode 4. This helps me track what thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are most worth exploring for each character.
I have space for key developments, character focused insights, and any additional moments for each character. I really focus in on the individual choices each character made in the story and how they contribute to their backstory and developing narratives. If a paladin faced with the choice to save a child or embrace overwhelming power chooses the power, I write that down and make a note.
Each choice helps me chart out their story over time. I can track their development over time and present opportunities to explore the conflicts, beliefs, and actions important to them. I also have a rich font of personalized content to refer to in future sessions, adding to the mythos of their individual story.
Use this information to capture the things that are important to each character. Take note of the trends they do session after session. You’ll find greater opportunity to explore what they love while creating moments to let them decide what their character stands for.
Create your Richly Woven Narrative
As Game Master, you are the keeper of the records. You hold the bulk of the story in your hands. Through intentional session notes, you can leverage this responsibility to tell complex stories.
Take note of the major choices they make and use it to shape the world into a responsive, living story.
Keep track of the subliminal feedback your players give you each session. Maximize what they love, minimize what they don’t, and practice the things that didn’t go as expected.
Collect your characters’ choices and you’ll be able to weave their unique story threads into a richly woven narrative.
As you practice intentional session notes, you will craft deeper stories while utilizing everyone’s contributions to create satisfying collaborative stories.