Organizing Your Campaign Notes Effectively as a Dungeon Master for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons
Effective organization is crucial for a good Dungeon Master.
DnD sessions can be chaotic, and at any given moment you may find yourself suddenly needing to summon up some lore or backstory detail you should know. The last thing you want to do is break all the tension and momentum you’ve built by having to leaf through endless piles of old notes for an answer. If you have a complicated enough story built up, which will happen as a campaign progresses, it becomes more and more important to keep your notes orderly so you don’t end up contradicting yourself and creating plot holes when this happens.
This is where a DM binder becomes your best friend.
A well-organized binder will make you look like a bonafide wizard to your players, able to summon any given tidbit of information about your setting at the drop of a hat. When you are building your own world, this becomes a herculean undertaking; I can tell you from experience it is intimidating to organize all the information you accumulate if you don’t do it from the beginning. If you are a new Dungeon Master setting out to create a campaign world, I strongly encourage you to make your binder as early as possible!
When building your own campaign world from the ground up, your binder becomes your bible. It holds all the information you could never hope to remember, from the characteristics of all the gods in your pantheon to the name of the ornery barkeep from the second town your players visited. I constantly use my DM binder as reference when planning future sessions.
In the hopes that it will provide some useful inspiration to all the aspiring Dungeon Masters out there, here’s my method for organizing my campaign notes. It’s far from perfect, and constantly being updated as more is added to the setting. That said my binder is the result of two years of accumulated work – there should be some helpful tips here if you’re new!
As I constantly belabor in the articles I write on this topic, running Dungeons and Dragons games well is complicated; as a result, I don’t believe there is any one right way to do it. Instead, I hope that by sharing my method others out there can mine them for whatever they find useful – which is how I built my own methods to begin with.
So if you’re ready, let’s take a look at my campaign binder!
Inside the Binder: The Basics
Before I even get to the meat of the binder, there are a few things I like to keep in the outside pockets that any Dungeon Master should find useful.
Aside from my personal character sheet storage for games I’m in (I only have so many binders lying around after all!), this is where I keep things like extra character sheets, blank pieces of paper, a lined notebook, and – as you can see in the image – a notebook of graph paper.
Graph paper is incredible for planning out dungeon maps and future battlemat lay-outs. The latter case only applies if you use a battlemat with wet erase pens for your combats, as I do for most of mine. This is a great low-budget option – I only have minis for the players and mostly use dice to represent monsters. If you choose to do this, pre-planning some possible lay-outs gives you something to pull out and copy when players enter combat, reducing downtime spent drawing impromptu maps and giving you time to create more interesting arenas for encounters. Personally, I like to use elevation levels and plenty of obstacles in my battlemaps, and it would take me forever to set up an area that way in the moment!
Up front, I offer to hold on to character sheets for my players if they prefer that. Some players (like myself) like to keep their sheets, but if somebody is worried they might otherwise lose it this is a nice option for them. It also helps as a Dungeon Master to have access to the character sheets for your party when designing future encounters! If you don’t have them on hand and can get copies, I highly recommend doing so.
This is also where I keep information about player holdings. In this case, the players have an estate in the city of Timbora, own a spelljammer vessel (a flying ship capable of travelling between the planes), and run a mercenary company.
Villains, Maps, Stat Blocks
I keep details about major villains the party is currently contending with up front. This section only includes “profiles” of the villains, since it mostly serves as a preparation resource – I reference these sheets when deciding how a villain reacts to things the party does or what their goals might be when planning between sessions. In session, these are things you should have a strong grasp of for your major villains without needing a reference sheet. If there is a stat block associated with the villain (which there should be if I believe there is even a small chance the party will be fighting them, and you know how players are), I store that in a separate binder of materials for the current arc of my campaign.
Next up, I keep maps of all the cities the party has passed through. Like the major villain stat blocks, the relevant maps for the current arc are in a separate binder. This section doesn’t see much use in actual sessions; it’s mostly storage space in case they return to any of these locations down the line, or for throwing together one-shot adventures in my world for different parties.
The same is true of this next section, where I store the stat blocks I have created for custom monsters in the past. In some cases, the monsters here never even got used for the game I made them for, but no work needs to have been wasted – they might be perfect for a future game!
If you’re interested in learning more about making your own monsters for Fifth Edition DnD, I’ve got an article covering my method right here. Be warned: making good, balanced monsters can get pretty crunchy – it’s not something you want to do right away. Get the hang of making encounters with the monsters from the books first!
I’m going to be skipping the blue divider here. This is where I stored information for the current arc until recently – there’s nothing there right now. I’ve started keeping a separate binder for the current arc instead, I find it easier to manage.
This section of my binder includes information relevant specifically to the current campaign I’m running in my world. My intention is to continue to use this world after this campaign wraps up, but for now this holds everything I need to know about the current over-arching plot.
I keep my session notes from past arcs of the campaign here, to keep the chain of events and what the players have done in order for myself. These notes can be an invaluable resource when planning for the future direction of the campaign; there are usually plenty of favorite old characters to reincorporate in here, along with a decent share of loose story threads that could be pulled on.
Behind that I have lore specific to the campaign, such as detailed information about organizations they are contending with and their opinions of the party. This is also where I have planned out the possible end paths for the campaign; I keep an open mind with these, since you can’t predict what players will do, but I like having an idea of where I want to take the campaign. Having a certain direction gives me something to turn to when I’m not sure what should happen next in the story.
Finally, the back part of this section includes my notes on the themes I’ve seen emerging in my campaign. For those not coming at this from the same background (I studied directing for theatre in college, and to say that has an impact on how I run games would be an understatement), I should define what I mean when I’m talking about theme. The theme of a piece is the unifying question that every scene or moment in the story seeks to answer. It is always in the background, rarely obvious but always informing the direction of your story.
Personally, I like to let the theme emerge organically in the story. I look back through my notes and pick apart what has been happening until a theme becomes clear to me, and from that point on I look to steer the story towards it. This way, the theme should end up being something that both you and the players are interested in exploring, since it emerged from the player contributions to the story as much as your own.
A good way to define your theme is by naming the question your story is seeking to answer. You don’t need to know that answer – I think it’s better if you don’t!
The primary question that emerged for my current campaign is: “Who has the right to decide what is best for the whole?”. I’ve taken this question and run with it, trying to explore different forms of government and social organization and how they handle times of crisis in each arc of the campaign.
Above you can see one of the exercises I did for myself once the theme crystallized for this campaign. I made a sort of alignment grid, each axis representing one of the primary conflicts within the theme. In this case, I chose Order vs. Chaos (the belief that people should be more or less governed by laws) and Individualism vs. Collectivism (the belief that one should serve themselves vs. the belief that one should serve a greater whole).
This section contains all the information about my world’s history that is relevant to any campaign set in that world. You can see in the above image some notes on the calendar used in my world. I also include information such as a breakdown of my main pantheon of gods, notes on the distant lost history of the world that is largely unknown to current societies, and special notes about cultures in my world (orc culture in my setting, for instance, is very different from typical DnD orcs).
Nearing the end of the binder, I file away all my notes from the arcs I have run in this world in the past. For the current campaign, this is a fantastic resource to reach back into for inspiration. It gives me a place both to find old characters to bring back for future sessions, and to find old encounters or ideas I hadn’t used that I can re-purpose. I’ve even had entire dungeons I designed go unused, and that would be a lot of effort wasted if I couldn’t recycle that content!
Speaking of dungeons…
At the back of this section I have every dungeon I’ve ever made in this campaign setting, whether or not they have been used. I store them in sheet protectors, with all the materials associated with the dungeon kept grouped together as you see in the images above. I use the same method for the dungeons I have prepared for the current arc of the campaign, though I keep those sheets with the rest of the current arc materials. I like being able to take out all my dungeon materials and spread them out on the table in front of me during a game, and this makes that easy!
If you want to know more about how I make dungeons, I’ve already written one article on the topic (Making a Dungeon: Tomb of Fenregaur) and plan to write more down the line.
Finally, in the very back of my binder, I have a breakdown of every region in my world along with some notes about the culture in the area, politics, leaders, history, and current events. I put a lot of this information together well over a year ago; as a result many of the details are out of date, but it remains a useful resource. When the heroes are likely to soon travel to any of these places (which I’ve recently made very possible for my current campaign by giving the party a flying ship, gods help me), I can pull out this foundation I laid out and build off it.
I took the time to define details about distant lands the party was unlikely to even see in the campaign, and I continue to think about how their politics are inevitably effected by the efforts of the heroes and the events of the campaign – the world tends to be a very interconnected place, after all. Taking the time to fill out details like this can lend extra richness and depth to your world, and if you can find the time I highly recommend it.
The Current Adventure Binder
I’ve only just started to organize my current campaign arc notes this way, but I already love how much easier it is to find everything I immediately need.
Right up front, I keep all the stat blocks for custom enemies and major villains together in one sheet protector so I can pull them out as needed during games.
After some local and city maps relevant to the area the heroes will be in during this arc, I have a couple dungeons made and ready to go. I store them the same way as I do in the main binder, with all the materials for each dungeon grouped in a sheet protector.
Behind that I keep session summaries, starting with the most recent session in front and moving back chronologically from there. Then, relevant information about places and NPCs (such as my break-down of the city of Saltori, which I covered a little bit in this article), followed by any extra materials I might have – such as extra information about a Cult that I’ll be using as an opposing force during this arc.
Taking all this out of my main DM binder made my life much easier in session. The likelihood I have to pull information from the larger binder during a session is rare now, I keep everything immediately relevant in this smaller binder.
Well, there you have it – my method for organizing my campaign world notes. I re-iterate, ad nauseum, that this is just my way. When you set out to run games for your own groups, take whatever seems helpful and dispense with the rest. Only you will be able to discover what works best for your personal style of organization and storytelling!