When I first started playing D&D, I wasn’t much of a note-taker. The sum of all the note-taking I managed in the first few months was a handful of names with no context on the back of my character sheet. In fact, it wasn’t until that same DM gifted each of us a notebook that I started keeping them. It’s hard to know how to take notes for your game as a player. There’s a balance to be found in taking useful notes without being too busy writing to truly participate. In my time as a player, I’ve found my preferred strategy for note keeping. But, first thing’s first:

Why Keep Notes?

Within weeks of my first DM giving us all notebooks, I went from the player who took the fewest notes to the unofficial note-keeper of the group. This dramatic change in attitude to taking notes as a player came for good reason. Taking thorough notes helped me remember things that my character would realistically remember, slip more comfortably into my character’s mentality, and immerse more deeply in the world of the game.

Perhaps you feel it’s your DM’s job to remind you of the name of that NPC from last week, or the password the party must give to the thieves’ guild to pass safely through the city’s underground. You wouldn’t be alone in that view, and in gaming groups where the players and DM are happy with this arrangement, it’s perfectly fine. In fact, in some gaming groups, it’s considered preferable to a player jotting down notes from time to time. If that’s what works for you and your group, you’ll receive no judgment from me.

I would, however, encourage you to try note-keeping out. You see, when a player needs to stop roleplaying to ask their dungeon master for a name, password, or some other piece of information that they’ve forgotten, it takes everyone out of the moment. Consider an exchange between a player character and an ally NPC. If you haven’t kept notes and it’s been a busy week between sessions, it might go something like this:

NPC ally: Was there anything at all distinctive about the attackers? Any way for us to identify them?

Player: Yes, actually. They were all dressed in dark robes. On them was- uh…. sorry, DM? What was the symbol on their robes again?

DM: It was an eye with a star-shaped pupil, embroidered on the back of the robes.

Player: They were all dressed in dark robes, with an eye with a star-shaped pupil embroidered on the back.

Now in this scenario, not only did the player have to stop roleplaying to ask a question, which interrupts the immersive experience of the moment, but their phrasing mirrored the dungeon masters. This is something that almost always happens to a varying extent, in my experience. When the dungeon master provides a reminder of the information your character knows, the most natural and comfortable way to convey that information in character tends to be a very similar, if not identical rephrasing of the information. By keeping your own notes, you have the information at hand, and the in-character exchange can flow smoothly:

NPC ally: Was there anything at all distinctive about the attackers? Any way for us to identify them?

Player: Yes, actually. They were all dressed in dark robes. On them was a symbol- an eye on the back of the robes. The odd part was the pupil- it was in the shape of a star.

Certainly, a player could produce the latter phrasing after the dungeon master’s reminder in the first scenario, but I’ve found that in the overwhelming majority of players- myself included- that isn’t what happens. I suspect it’s a combination of being snapped out of character to ask about the information and that same effect that makes us loathe test questions which ask for a definition in our own words when the phrasing used in the question seems perfectly apt.

There’s also the matter of assuming your character’s mentality. Being able to flip through a notebook full of the character’s knowledge is a useful immersion technique. It creates a bit of “getting into character time” before the session or a roleplay scene. These moments of roleplay become more seamless and feel more natural. It aids in that immersive magic wherein the wall between real-life player and fantasy character thins, and you forget for a fraction of a second that you’re sitting around a table with friends instead of giving a compelling speech in the council chambers. As both a player and a dungeon master, I live for these moments, which come about much more often when players have some notes to reference.

Keeping The Balance

It’s important that player note-taking doesn’t keep players out of meaningful scenes. A player should be in the moment more than writing things down. To that end, I have two types of note-worthy information: things to write down now, and things to write down later.

The things to write down now category includes anything that is likely to be quickly forgotten:

  • Important numbers
  • Passwords
  • The names of places, people, organisations, etc.
  • Step-by-step instructions for a task that requires great precision
  • Directions
  • Time frames for quests

Elaboration on these raw facts comes in the things to write down later category. This can be done during a break in the session or after getting home from the game. In the case of the latter, I recommend doing so within 24 hours of the session, to make sure that the details are as fresh in your mind as possible.

To give an example of this system in action, let’s consider a session in which we hear of a powerful cleric in another town who can cure the strange disease that has gripped a member of the party. My in-game notes might look like this: Father Johan. Pelor. Greencliff. Renne.

Whereas my elaborated notes, updated after the session may read: Powerful cleric Father Pelor, can be found at the Temple of Pelor in Greencliff, a few days travel from the city. Perhaps he can cure Renne.

The in-game notes give me the raw information I need- names and places. It takes only a few seconds to jot down, keeping me engaged with the game. The expanded version of the notes, written during a break or after getting home, provide more information while the session is still fresh in my mind. This is the version I would actually read over before the next session.

Organising Notes

I have experimented with three methods of organising my notes: a section for each town, a section for each session, or a section for each information category. The category method divides information into a set of classifications: locations, lore, people, items, and events. Initially, this seemed like the best method because it made it quick and easy to look up something specific. As games went on, though, this method became the messiest, as certain notes spanned multiple categories. Organisation by session also proved to have its challenges, since remembering in which session an event happened proved to be surprisingly difficult.

Thus far my preferred method is to organise by location. This means that each time the party comes to a new city or town, I assign a few pages of the notebook to that location. In addition to making it easy to look up past notes, it also provides an opportunity to collect lore about each place the party visits, which makes the game world feel more tangible and real. Each place develops a personality and tone in the notes across subsequent visits. In an A5 notebook, I generally use one page for a small village and three for a major city.

Take Note

I find player notebooks are very personal and variable. While I typically use any cheap A5 notebook, I’ve met players who buy a gorgeous, high-end notebook for each character and campaign. While some players use pen or type up their notes after the session, I take all my notes in pencil. The freedom to erase mistakes has proven invaluable to me time and time again, and I love the heft of a physical book full of player notes. There is no right or wrong way to do it- my cheap notebooks and pencil are no better or worse than a lovely handcrafted notebook or typed notes. All that matters is that the note-taking process is beneficial to the game and doesn’t distract from the experience.

Player notes aren’t for every player or every party. I do hope, though, that you will try them out if you’ve never done so before. It may truly enrich your tabletop experience, as it did mine.