Player A: “Where did we leave off last session?”
DM: “You guys just finished exploring the temple.”
Player B: “That’s right! Let’s go shopping.”
Player C: “Are we back in town yet?”
Player B: “Yeah, we said we were going back.”
DM: “You’re not back yet. You talked about going.”
Player C: “Can we just say that we walked back?”
DM: “Even the dead and unconscious?”
Player B: “Wait! Who’s unconscious?”
Player A: “Someone died?”
Not only is this sort of discussion a waste of time, but it can be frustrating too. Decent session notes can help to prevent such confusion. In this brief article, we’ll explore a range of possibilities for such notes. More specifically, we’ll explore the use of session summaries, meaning notes that one person can provide to the group before the start of the next gaming session to refresh everyone’s memory of what happened last time. I suggest that everyone take notes for themselves, but this brief article focuses on the question of who should compile notes for the group and what form they might take.
Who Should Take Notes?
It seems obvious that having a session summary is better than not having one, but who should shoulder the primary responsibility for writing such a summary–the players or the DM? There is probably no right or wrong here, but I’ll argue that the DM is better suited to the role.
To start, not all players are natural note-takers. Left to their own devices, many players will actively engage at the table but write down very little. Many will occasionally jot down an NPC’s name or location. However, these notes are barely more than personal reminders. Many times, our group has asked one player to volunteer as chronicler, and this usually guarantees that the notes will be more comprehensive than a few personal reminders. Yet, the same dilemma applies in that not all players are natural note-takers. When someone ill-suited to the task takes up the role, the results are usually less than satisfactory, and players then have an added complication of how to avoid hurting the chronicler’s feelings.
Sometimes, a natural note-taker will put his pencil (or pen, or laptop) to good use and crank out a LOT of notes for the group. This can be great, but as a player, he may often confuse important information and irrelevant information. Even if the fault is not his, the end result may be incomplete or even misleading notes.
The DM, given his knowledge of just about everything in the campaign world, as well as his knowledge of the campaign’s direction, is best suited to provide notes for the group. In his summary, he can omit or dramatically downplay unimportant information and tangents (like the 30-minute debate on whether the simple blacksmith is actually the master villain in disguise). The DM can ensure that the few important nuggets of information make it into the summary, even if he does not stress their importance.
DMs might object to adding yet another task to their long to-do lists, but the benefits of good summaries far outweigh the drawbacks. As DM, I find that the process of making a summary helps me to get my head back into the game before planning the next session. It helps me to recall all the little odds and ends of the past session or two. It reminds me what the party was doing and why, as well as what I had planned for them. If the summary is composed of simple bullets, it takes very little time to write. Reviewing the details in your mind is what takes the time, and a decent DM would do this anyway.
Smooth Play or Hand-Holding?
The idea of the DM providing a summary for the group does raise a legitimate question though: Is this a way to ensure smooth play or is it an example of the DM coddling a group of players? Put differently: If good note-taking is a mark of good play, then shouldn’t the DM leave the group to its own devices, keeping only the notes that he needs for himself?
In most aspects of my life, I tend to prefer natural rewards and consequences, so this argument or objection appeals to me. However, running a smooth game is also very appealing. After some consideration, I’ve concluded that smooth play is much more important than allowing mediocre groups to flounder. I also found sound rationale for providing summaries to good and bad players alike.
The most convincing rationale is that the players are not their characters. As a teen, I was able to play almost every day in the summer, but as an adult, we began to play only once per week, then every other week, and now only once per month. Real life gets in the way. Consequently, it is quite easy for a player to forget something from weeks earlier, but a PC should remember an event that happened to him less than an hour before. Thus, when I DM and provide a summary, I make sure that I include the information that the PCs would definitely remember. For example, the PCs may not recall the name of the wizard in the nearby city. They may not recall that a sage advised them three months earlier that the local temple was haunted. However, they would definitely recall that it is currently summer, that it has rained for the past four days, that it is now the night before a major holiday, that they just battled a monster ten minutes ago, and that one of their companions died. I always ensure that PCs know the season, the weather, holidays, very recent events that they witnessed, very recent conversations that they had, etc. How much more I give them depends on my own goals. Do they need better hints to get to the next stage of the campaign? Are they floundering? Do I want to foreshadow things coming in the next session? In short, I provide small details when they serve my needs or those of the overall story. There may still be consequences for the player’s lack of note-taking or memory. For example, a party that completes an errand quickly may gain in-story rewards, while one that flounders and needs my many hints to get back on track would lose out on such rewards or even lose favor. However, my reminders, delivered through session summaries, ensure that they’ll never completely stagnate (which is when fun just stops for everyone).
What Should Summary Notes Look Like?
There is no proper format, of course. If writing summary notes is new for a DM, I suggest starting with baby steps. Just provide some important basics, such as:
- Long-Term Goal: In a sentence or two, remind the group of its long-term goal. For example, “The Beckett family has come to the area of Blackwater Lake to rebuild its fortunes, and you’ve aligned yourselves to the Baron of Blackwater.” If you wish, you can take a sentence or two to remind specific PCs of their goals, but I find this to be unnecessary. If you type your summaries, these long-term goals are unlikely to change often so you can frequently copy and paste them from earlier sessions.
- Starting Locations/Specific Goals: Remind the players where everyone was at the end of the last session. I like to add specific goals or reasons why they were there. For example, if the group is all in one spot: “Recently, on behalf of the Baron, you have been looking into several strange occurrences near the old Temple of Phaedrus. You suspect that a cult is operating near the temple. You ended the last session in the empty dormitory.”
If, on the other hand, a large party is scattered about in several locations, your notes must be a little more involved. An example from my currently monthly campaign: “The Becketts and their dwarven allies are in various locations at the moment. Granny and Kieran are in the village of Lakesend, resting and healing. Sir Callum and his squire are at Blackwater Keep, serving the Baron. Four of the Ironfoot dwarves went south to the outskirts of the city of Yarrvik to gather their kinsmen and to prepare for their migration north. Roger, Daniel, Raynard, Jade, and Lewie are at the temple of Phaedrus Invictus, looking for any sign of your missing kinsman, and everyone else is at Fort Angus, working to develop your fief there.”
- Locations/Encounters/Treasures: If the party is exploring just one area, like a temple, this step could entail merely listing the rooms recently explored. I also like to mention any noteworthy monsters, NPCs, and treasure with each corresponding area. For example: “Last time, you quickly cleared the entry, the refectory, and the calefactory. You then explored the old chapel, where you found the desecrated relic. Finally, you entered the dormitory and defeated the giant spiders there.”
If the party is moving long distances, my notes here might be a brief list of settlements visited, geographic oddities bypassed, rivers crossed, etc. Again, I would mention any monsters, significant NPCs, and treasures wherever they were encountered. For example, “In the last session, you traveled across Southumbria for three weeks. You spent a night in Albanton (Sleepy Satyr Inn), rode south for three days without incident, fought off bandits outside Kingstown (gaining a few coins), spent the night there (Golden Goose Inn), traveled for another four days without incident, met a band of Phaedran pilgrims en route to Yarrvik, and just caught sight of the city in the distance.”
- Ending Location: Be sure to note where the party members are when the current session ends.
Can a Summary Be in Story Form?
Yes, though this can be very time consuming. I enjoy writing such a summary when I find the time. I should note that I did not jump from writing bulleted summaries to writing dramatic narratives. The transition took many stages. Over ten years ago, my summaries were just bullets (many of them poor by my current standards). At some point, I began to incorporate a few brief blurbs of boxed text that I had prepared before the session being described. For example, I may have prepared five different blurbs, each about three-sentences-long, describing a PC’s critical hit on a monster. For example: “You sidestep the creature’s deadly stroke and drive your blade into its side, punching through the coat of leather scales. Black blood spurts forth as the goblin lets loose a hideous scream. It staggers back and collapses, falling off of your blackened blade.”
Having written a few such blurbs before the planned session, I was able to simply read one when a PC scored a critical hit in battle. Players seemed to like those, for they provided some flavor without slowing the game (they are brief). After the session, since I already had them typed on the computer, I just pasted them into my summary for added flavor.
Still later, I started to incorporate into my summaries some boxed text that was not combat-related. Sometimes it was a location description. Sometimes it was the brief speech of an NPC. You can already see what was happening to my notes. They were becoming more detailed and rich, but they were also becoming less focused. For a time, I did not realize that these longer notes, while interesting to most players, were not as useful as my brief summaries.
Eventually, just a few years back, I stumbled on what seems to be a winning formula. I now write a brief summary after each session, and from time to time, I write a short story that sums up the most dramatic event of the session. Thus, the group always has the basics that it needs to reorient itself. In addition, occasional stories provide the group with a lot more.
What are the Benefits of Story Form?
First, summaries in story form allow me to give my players entertainment outside the gaming session itself. You and your players will also be able to read these stories fondly many years later.
Second, the stories allow me to share tiny bits of my world without boring the players. The story, being focused on their own characters, is far more palatable than an information dump on some race, location, or historical event.
Third, the stories allow me to correct minor mistakes that I may have made during the session itself. Short player memory works in your favor here.
Fourth, the stories allow me to flesh out NPCs in an entertaining way (this is especially useful for DMs that currently find role-playing NPCs to be challenging).
Finally, the stories allow me to drop some hints on important plot points. Several of my players have told me repeatedly that they enjoy the stories (which is always nice to hear), but they have also learned to comb through them carefully for clues. I have noticed that player engagement is usually strongest when I have time to write these summaries.
If you’ve been having any difficulties with your game sessions notes, perhaps something written above will help. Fortunately, notes are seldom a problem for our group these days. Not only have my DM notes developed, but some of my players have actively started taking detailed notes. I post these to our website after each session and use them as a basis for my own notes. This has taken some of the burden off me while running the game. If you haven’t tried this yet, I encourage it.