Even titling this post, I feel two competing sets of energies: one, an eye-roll, from those of you who don’t enjoy taking notes, and another group, perhaps smaller, but who may read this with bated breath, ready to find out if they should probably hurry and get some new and exciting stationery supplies. So, note-taking nerds with a lovely, fun, nerdy hobby—unite! D&D and tabletop RPG note-taking, here we go!
This post addresses some general ideas about note-taking during sessions as well as a few helpful suggestions for notes after or between sessions. What I most want to discuss, though, are things to keep in mind for notes in duet-specific sessions.
“I don’t take notes.”-our friend Eric during a Storm King’s Thunder session*
It’s a good idea for both players and DMs to take notes during a session. But there are some duet-specific adjustments that can help protect your game’s rhythm so that careful and precise note-taking doesn’t slow things down.
Everyone has their own style and level of detail for the notes they want to take during sessions. What makes this process different for duets is that there are only two of you (I recognize this is rather obvious), so there isn’t much time between events and interactions to jot things down. By contrast, in a party with multiple characters, you can write notes while the other players are speaking or taking their turn. DMs, you also don’t have that down time while players are talking with one another to get set up or write a few something down, so making things as easy for yourself as possible going into a session, with duet-specific strategies in mind, will help to protect your game’s timing and movement.
Below, I walk through some player- and DM-specific advice, and I also provide a few examples from our game that have worked for me. I’m very much an analog note taker, whereas Jonathan keeps most of his files in OneNote, so we’ll try to provide you with strategies and examples of each where possible.
Note: Taking breaks during games is important, and these in-game time-saving strategies can help you both maintain your excitement and energy as well as stop when you need to.
Below, I address players first and then have advice and examples for DMs.
Write what you need, wait to write what you don’t.
During a session, the DM has prepared an outline or sketch of the interactions and encounters for the day. Of course things never work out exactly that way, and so they update notes to some extent as they go and some after the session.
Jotting down some post-session notes can be really helpful for duet players as well if it’s not already part of your gaming note-taking practice. Again, with just two of you, it can slow things down to need to stop and write extremely detailed notes, so players can speed things up or keep them moving with simplified in-game note-taking. During the session, write down the essentials and maybe a basic timeline of events and plan to fill out the rest of it later. If someone says something you’re worried you’ll forget, go ahead and capture that as well, but try to stay in the moment as much as you can.
An example from our game:
Our central party recently entered a gorgeous, underwater city that’s almost entirely unknown to them. The political situation there has a lot of bearing on the boss fight they’re leading up to. Jonathan put a lot of work into the description of how we got there and the city itself, and I knew he could send me that information later, so while we played, I focused on imagining it through my character’s eyes.
However, when one of the NPCs started setting up more of the political intricacies, I wanted to make sure that I had specific-enough notes on what he said that I would have the essential information for later, but I didn’t need to capture everything.
As you can see in the picture, I have an illustrative quote from the new NPC and a few descriptions of things that happened. For example, the sahuagin ambush, which built up as we went in a scary and exciting way, took a while for us to work through the combat for, but only takes up one line in my notes. I also made sure to record how many of the special underwater arrows my character had used so I could update her quiver later.
Write post-game notes with future-you in mind.
After the session, or before you play again, go back and make sure that you captured everything that was important from your session. Did you character do something cool in combat that they might want to do again? Did you learn something important about one of the NPCs that you want to ask them about later?
These more detailed notes can help you with some of the internal development of your character and add to your game’s emotional depth, suspense, and growth. Maybe your character has some things they need to reflect on before you next play—these notes can be a great place to do that.
As you’re adding these details to your notes, make sure that you leave yourself time indicators for when things happened as you may not remember them exactly in order.
The example from our game continued:
The day after our session, I went back and fleshed out the details a bit more, making sure that I filled any gaps that I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to remember later but might need. These more detailed notes aren’t always linear, since I’m not recording them as we play, so I make sure to give myself time indications as I remember important information. Sometimes I get a bit behind with my more detailed notes, so the filling-in is separated by several pages from the original play notes. I jot down how many pages back, roughly, I might need to turn backwards or forwards to find the coordinating information to make my notebook easier to manage.
Simplify playing multiple characters in combat.
If the idea of juggling multiple characters is overwhelming to you, skip ahead. One of our suggestions for playing a duet is to have a few key characters in a central party who accompany the primary character. Most of the time, the DM will portray and play these characters. However, as your game gets more advanced, and you’re working at a higher level, it may be helpful for the player to handle the primary character (their player character or PC) and the central party (the really important NPCs who travel around with the primary character).
When you get that far, simplifying your stat-tracking and record of things like HP (hit points) and spells slots can go a long way to streamlining larger combats run by two characters. There are sites like D&D Beyond or apps like Fight Club 5 (for Apple) that can help you manage multiple characters at once. (For Fight Club 5 for Android, click here.) If you prefer to work from printed materials, post-it notes are your friend. Create one for each character with their name, hp, and blanks for spell slots, and then put all of those post-its in one spot. As you’re getting acquainted with the character’s or characters’ stats, consider jotting down their AC (armor class) on the post-it as well so you don’t have to turn to their sheet. This lets you see them all at once, and you’re not having to flip back and forth between character sheets quite as often, and it gives you an idea of how the whole party is looking throughout the combat as well.
Remember to take your time, especially at first, getting used to your primary character and, when you’re ready, the DM can turn the stat block or sheet of the first member of your central party over to you to run during combat.
A visual example:
I put post-its on each character sheet with hp, spell slots, inspiration, sorcerer points, etc. to help myself keep track of the multiple characters and what they have going on, and it also lets me reuse the character sheet and keep it in its binder. I also place the character sheets in their initiative order in the binder to help with navigating combat and who’s up next.
We’re working on a post for how to juggle multiple characters in combat and organizing your campaign materials in general, so stay tuned for that or ask questions in the comments below.
Taking things to the next (unnecessary, but fun and exciting) level.
Briefly, for the writers who are also note-takers, I want to touch on a third tier of note-taking with the caveat that this is in no way necessary, but if it’s fun for you, then I encourage you to carve out the time to do it.
One of the things that’s so unique and special about duets is how in-depth the characters and role-playing (RP) can be. Speaking as an introvert, I’m a lot more comfortable embodying my character in a one-on-one setting than I am with more people, even when they’re close friends that I trust. So many of my favorite moments in 2018 happened during our duet—some were romantic, others were suspenseful and exciting, while other moments were clever, funny, or surprising.
For those more narrative-specific moments, or anything I want to make sure I really have captured, I write out an almost verbatim record of what transpired. I usually do this by hand, but you could type it out as well. Many pages of my notebooks from our duet read like novels, with dialogue between characters, or the specific emotions my character was experiencing moment to moment in a certain situation. But unlike a novel, these notes are just for me, so I’ll summarize some things that an author writing for a wider audience wouldn’t. Or, if I already have it recorded well enough in my previous two levels of notes, I might just skip it altogether.
Set the player up for success with advance prep.
Dungeon Masters, there are also a few simple steps you can take to help your partner out and set them up well for their in-game notes and immersion experience. For instance, if they’re going to be meeting one or several NPCs, or if there’s a lot of information they’ll need to get within a short amount of time, perhaps you can prep that for them in advance. If they’re entering an important location and will need to be able to follow along with your description, consider printing it out for them or sending it to them afterward so they can focus on imagining and immersing themselves in the environment instead of copying things down as quickly as they can manage with the risk of missing other important information.
In our game:
For some reason, introducing a bunch of cool and exciting NPCs seems to be part of my personal DMing style. When I know that Jonathan and our central party (our player characters) are going to be meeting several people at once or over the course of a day, I put together a google doc or a Pinterest board (sometimes both) and share it with him. Most often I’ve taken the pictures from Pinterest and put them in a google doc.
When it’s time, I send him the file, or ask him to open it, and quickly run through the people’s names, classes or abilities, and the photos I picked out that represent how I imagine them. Taking this step allows me to help the characters get a good idea of who they’re meeting, and Jonathan can focus on our interaction without having to worry about how to spell everyone’s names, etc.
You of course don’t have to pick out pictures of them, but there’s some really amazing fantasy art out there, and it can be a great way to develop NPCs or help your partner better envision a character.
Make set-up for fights and encounters easier and more nimble.
Before your session, set up an HP tracker chart that will let you see everyone in one spot so you can keep up with them more easily while you’re playing. On the sheet (or screen if you’re using an online program) write their name or identification number (ex. Treant 5), their max hp, and their AC.
Also, while you’re getting this set up, go ahead and roll initiative for them, and lay out your initiative order with gaps or blanks (probably only necessary for the analog notes) so that your primary character and central party’s initiative rolls can be entered in easily.
Depending on the style of your duet, you and the player may be juggling multiple characters at a time, so this can really help speed things up for both of you. It also allows you to be more available if they need help or if you’d like to get a map or props out for the combat. If you aren’t sure if a certain person or creature is going to be involved in the fight, go ahead and write them down anyway, and you can always mark them out if you don’t need them.
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