For this month, the travelling RPG Blog Carnival has returned to base.
September’s host is Johnn Four at Roleplaying Tips. Johnn also co-ordinates the current incarnation of the RPG Blog Carnival, making September a home fixture. To celebrate this conjunction of the spheres, Johnn chose the topic of GM tools, aids, apps and hacks.
The Roleplaying Tips site outlines the topic like this:
As GMs, we have a lot on our plates. So how do we manage it all? The details, stories, characters, rules, maps, minis. Campaign notes could fill a book. A game world a dozen. And session logs – all those names, places, events, and details!
How do you stay organized as a GM? What tools, aids, apps, hacks do you employ to stay sane and on top of the million details and doodads of your campaigns?
My essay for a previous RPG Blog Carnival, all the way back in April 2014, explored my GM Binder. This is the folder of papers at the heart of my GM process at the table.
The most important document in this binder is the Session Outline Sheet. For this contribution to the Blog Carnival, I will explain the many sections of the Session Outline Sheet. This topic is so large I divided it into two parts. In this essay I explore the origins and use of this important document. Next week, in part 2, I will present a line-by-line breakdown of the current iteration of the Session Outline Sheet.
Origins of an Outline
Ironically, given the host for this round of the Carnival, my Session Outline Sheet (SOS) began with issue 488 of Johnn’s fantastic Roleplaying Tips Newsletter. This regular email should be required reading for all GMs.
Inspired by RPT #488, I compiled my own SOS as a combined checklist and reminder for all the steps involved when running a session. The sheet also serves as a preliminary record for the session, along with being a single location for all the notes, reminder and prompts needed to track the progress of the campaign.
As we all run our games slightly differently, and the mechanical notes vary wildly between rules systems, the SOS is a very personal document. It took me several iterations to find the right mix of prompts, blank space and mechanical reminders. I compiled my sheet as a spreadsheet, allowing for boxes, columns and varied font size as desired.
Breakdown of the Sheet
When I switched to a more improvisational style of running HeroQuest, I gave the Sheet a major revision. Even now, I still tinker with the sheet once a month, or so. After so many years, it remains a work in progress.
From top to bottom, the Sheet has the following sections:
- Pre-game notes
- Session introduction
- Improv & Prep Prompts
- Session notes
- Calendar & Prep Tasks
I explore each section in more detail in part 2, next week.
Focus for Prep
For every session of our campaign, I prepare a Session Outline Sheet. The SOS is important even before the game, as it also serves as the focus to my prep. By including prep areas on the sheet, I give structure to what otherwise can be a chaotic process.
Primarily, my prep needs to complete the SOS, which is such a central reference for the coming session. When I write the summary of the previous session, to read aloud at the start of the next one, I am also creating a loose prompt for which plots I need to prepare.
The improv section of the SOS has space for me to jot down the story elements I need to prepare in more detail. This helps me focus my game prep. I have named boxes for each of the four categories of story element:
The Session Outline Sheet also has a short list of all the tasks required by my prep process. I can thus cross them off as I work through the tasks. Crossing off the items keeps me motivated and helps my project management. Finally, at the very bottom of the SOS, I have space to list my long-term gaming tasks. These are generally setting or rules development goals. Copying these out every week reminds me of the bigger tasks left to achieve when my schedule allows.
SOS at the Table
The current version of the SOS is the results of years of development. Thus, it smoothly presents the information I need during the session, all listed in the correct order. For all the value of the SOS during my prep, it is during the game that it really pays dividends.
The highly structured early parts of the Session Outline Sheet are a step-by-step guide to launching the session. Once the game begins to flow, then the focus shifts more to my prompt cards, or the Narrative Outcomes Table. However, I also have a list of back-up plots on the SOS. If neither of the main tools provide a direction for the story, then I have a few reserve plots ready to run.
The other main function of the SOS during the game is to record a brief account of events. These notes about the story form the basis of the actual play reports I post here, and print out for the Players.
About a third of the SOS is made of blank lines I use to record session events. While the focus is on the story, I also make character development notes when a Hero performs a noteworthy act. These notes then form the basis of the character rewards I hand out at the start of the next session.
Finally, the Session Outline Sheet will be scanned into the computer and archived. This allows me to refer back to them as required. The SOS is a vital record of both what I expected to happen during a session, along with notes on what the Heroes achieved. I do not often refer back to old Sheets, but when I do then it is vital to have good records of previous sessions.
Building your own Outline
A Session Outline Sheet is a very personal document. Each GM needs different notes, prompts and mechanical reminders according to the style of their game and the nature of the rules they use. If you want to create a central document for each session, then you need space for pre-session prep, all the administrative notes you present to the Players about the session and an area to make notes about events within the session. I find it useful to order all such information according to when you need it during the session. Reading the Outline from top to bottom seems the best way to do this.
My best advice for creating a Session Outline Sheet of your own is to adopt an iterative process. Start with a very basic Sheet, with plenty of blank space. Use this version for a Session or two, paying particular attention to which parts you use. Expand the useful parts, cut the ones you do not need and add anything omitted in the previous iteration. Print the new version, use for a session or two, then repeat the iterative process.
Over time you thus develop your own custom Session Outline Sheet, tailored to your exact needs. The process my take you several months, but you should soon see benefits for your prep and your sessions.
If you need any more ideas, then come back to Tales of a GM next week to read part 2 of this topic, where I provide a detailed breakdown of my current Session Outline Sheet.
Over time, my Session Outline Sheet has developed into the single most important document for my game. It gathers in one place my short-term and long-term prep goals, improv prompts, notes for the Players and a brief account of the session. It greatly enhances my efficiency as a GM and builds my confidence for the session. I urge you to adopt something similar in your game.
What would you list on your Session Outline Sheet? Have I missed a category of notes? Do you have something similar in your GM binder? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Read all the current entries to the September Carnival at Roleplaying Tips.
- The RPG Blog Carnival is under the stewardship of Johnn Four, at his Roleplaying Tips website.
- See my Index page for a full list of all my RPG Blog Carnival contributions
- The host for the August event was Doctor Necrotic at Daemons & Deathrays, where the chosen topic was Super-science and Sorcery.
- Do you need more Tales?
If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Sample Villain Plots
- Something for the Weekend next week: September RPG Bog Carnival part 2, SOS Line-by-Line