Sep 30

September ’16 Blog Carnival, Part 2: Session Outline Sheet Line-by-Line


RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallFor 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?


To learn more see Johnn’s blog.


Breakdown of the Sheet


In part 1 I explored the origins and use of my Session Outline Sheet.


This week, in part 2, I present a line-by-line breakdown of the current iteration of my Session Outline 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 many years, it remains a work in progress. Regardless, here is a close breakdown of the current iteration of my Session Outline Sheet.


From top to bottom, the sheet has the following sections:

  • Pre-game notes
  • Session introduction
  • Improv & Prep Prompts
  • Session notes
  • Calendar & Prep Tasks


Let us explore each one in turn.




Pre-game notes

For simplicity, I ordered the sheet according to when I need information during the session. Thus, I begin at the top with a welcome to the Players and then work down the sheet as the session progresses. This systematic approach to the information on the sheet keeps me on track, and helps to avoid omissions and errors.


From the top, the sheet reminds me to thank the Players for attending, notes the date of the game and the likely date for when we are playing next. Then we are into the administrative tasks with the session number, and assorted mechanical details I need for the current session.


I then have seven blank lines to note any rewards due to the Heroes for the previous sessions. This space also highlights rules announcements, or any other matter I want to raise with the Players before we begin the session proper. Generally the Players are better focused at the start of the session. Whereas, if I delayed such discussions to the end of the session, then tiredness and an eagerness to catch buses would limit the time available.


Session introduction

Once all the housekeeping and meta-game topics are complete, we are ready to begin the game. The next section of the Sheet is a formal introduction into the gaming part of the session. This format is deliberately formulaic, as I repeat the same steps each week. I hope it represents the roleplaying equivalent of the opening credits on a television show.


Every week I read out the name of the campaign, the current book title, the session title and the game date. Next comes a “previously” set of statements, where I summarize earlier events. Some weeks they are a short précis of the last session. At other times, I add in references to earlier events in the campaign, when I expect these to be relevant to the forthcoming session.


My aims with these summaries are twofold. Firstly, I want to remind the Players of what happened previously, without requiring them to read the lengthy actual play reports. Secondly, there is an element of foreshadowing, to hint where the session could go. This can nudge the Players towards revisiting these previous events, or simply explain why I weave a particular plot element back into the current session.


Of course, with my improvisational style, there is no guarantee the session will evolve as anticipated. Should the Players take the game in a new direction, then I can always revisit the planned story element in another session.


Finally, there are two lines headed “Currently in . . .” These contrast with the “Previously in . . .” summary just read to the Players. This final section notes the instigating incident to start the session. Thus, it marks the transition from the GM talking to the Players talking.


I outlined Instigating Incidents in an Improv Gaming essay.


Improv & Prep Prompts

The second section of the SOS revolves around my prep. First I have two lines to record any general game tasks I must complete for the upcoming session. This is about keeping my prep organised, and ensuring I use my limited time constructively.


Then I have a line to note the expected scenes for a session. Next, there is a line to record the key locations for this campaign. Both of these reminders help me to focus both the session and the campaign. The key locations of the campaign should appear regularly in the game.


As noted last week, the improv section of the SOS has space for me to jot down the story elements I need to prepare in more detail. I have named boxes for each of the four categories of story element:

  • Locations
  • Items
  • People
  • Challenges


I discussed Story Elements as part of my Improv Gaming series.


Finally, there is a list of my reserve plots. When all the other tools at the table fail, I can turn to the SOS for help.


Session notes

The largest area of the SOS is the blank section dedicated to recording the current session. These 23 lines are about one third of the whole document. During the game I briefly note here what happened, along with any specific actions which merit an experience reward at the start of the next session. These notes form my archive of events, and the basis of the actual play reports I write.


See a recent actual play report.


Calendar & Prep Tasks

The last few lines are devoted to the in-game calendar. I note weather for the day, along with times for sunrise and sunset. There is a dedicated box for the movements of the two moons in the campaign, recording the current phase and rising times.


At the very bottom of the sheet is space for a list of documents to print. The bottom margin space is used to list out my long-term goals, typically setting creation and rules design. The printer cannot print on this space, so I use this area for my hand-written notes.


As I write this, I realise the calendar location does not fit the sequence of items on the SOS. However, it also serves to bump the session notes up the sheet. I do not find it comfortable to write on the bottom quarter of the SOS. My hand drops off the clipboard, making an unpleasant change in level between my wrist and the paper. Thus, to ease my writing, I keep the calendar section here.



I hope this detailed account of my Session Outline Sheet gives you a better idea for what you could include on your own sheet. Ideally, this essay gives you rough ideas for the first version of your SOS. I expect your sheet will go through several iterations before you find the right balance of items to match your game and your style. However, this breakdown of my SOS should give you plenty of ideas to start the process.


What would you include in your SOS? Is there a category of items I have missed? Do you use something different in your game to achieve the same effect? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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  1. […] Phil Nicholls offers us the Session Outline Sheet: Part I: Part II: […]

  2. […] September ’16 Blog Carnival, Part 2: Session Outline Sheet Line-by-Line […]

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