Updated: Aug 20, 2021
How many times have you been in session, and your player asks you about Mr. NPC Genarathor, The Axe-Wielding Smithy-guy, that they met 10 sessions back? Were you able to figure out the information quickly? Now, how many times has that happened, and you made it up as a moment of genius improv, only to figure out that you now have contradicted something major?
I have had this issue. In fact, I'd wager everyone who has done anything off-the-cuff has run into this. At work, at the table, wherever. Getting organized is a key skill that is something non-negotiable, even if people tend to rally against it. Enter "getting organized" into any search engine, and you will return an entire marketplace of options for improving focus, tidiness, scheduling, and general organization. Books, planners, charts, software, and even TV shows (where you can learn counterculture clothes folding... I blame you, Marie Kondo!!! Why did you wait until my 30's to come into my life and show me I've done this wrong all this time!? >_<) can be found on the topic. So if you are like me, you tend to find and absorb all content surrounding getting organized.
Alas, I digress.
Here are three key reasons why being organized is one of the top priorities when running a game in Dungeons and Dragons. The practical advice will follow in later articles, but covering the theories as to why it is important must come first to establish the foundation.
1) Finding things faster than greased lightning
Categorizing the information allows for any needed details to rise to the surface quickly, instead of thumbing through pages, loose sheets, and note cards. This will speed up efficiency and will cut down on game lag.
Take the Axe-wielding smithy-guy as an example. If you were effective at organizing your world, when an NPC is referenced, you would whip out your OneNote details, hit the "People" notebook housing every NPC's detail, search for the name, and boom, you have the entire NPC history up in seconds.
You're a wizard :)
2) You look like a mastermind
When you can rapid-fire content (quickly and accurately because you prepared and organized it in advance), the world comes alive for your players. This creates a symbiotic investment between player and DM: A) investment of time by the DM + B) resulting reduction in lag time during gameplay = C) happy players who are rewarded for their time invested.
Imagine that you were at a Sherlock Holmes play. You sit in the audience, following along with the murder mystery. You feel it gripping your heart as Sherlock's amazing mind works to solve an impossible case.
Intermission arrives, and you chat it up with your friends in the lobby about how great this play is. You pick up some quick snacks, and you pop back into your seats for the 2nd half. The curtains are drawn, and the second act is something else that doesn't seem quite right.
Watson is now behaving like Sherlock and is leading the case. However, the mystery now surrounds stolen pastries and makes no further mention of the murder investigation you were previously invested in.
What happened? Did the actors decide to improvise the back half? Was the script this twisted that the actors were forced to betray your trust? You ask, "Is this some crazy plot twist?"
This feeling is how it is to be on the player's side when the details no longer match the past. This potential risk may occur when you don't know where you stashed the information and decided to make it up on the spot.
A risk that could be avoided if you had organized your notes.
Had you done so, no beats would have been missed, and you look like the mastermind keeping everything in check.
3) It can spark creativity and identify issues.
When you move pieces around to categorize and understand the world you created for your campaign, questions begin to form. Questions about how a place came to be, how this person relates to an area, and what did you eat for dinner last night? Well, maybe not that last part. What I can say is that I have used organization skills to build out my cities as a text road map to quickly identify what is missing and what has too much overlap. In doing so, I found flaws, holes, and moments I could expound upon.
For example, I had 3 guild factions working within a sprawling city space as a competing thief network. I dug into the weeds of how each faction was laid out, what was stolen by each, and how each faction works around and commits subterfuge against the others. All of this was created to have the framework for when the players inevitably encounter one of the factions.
I then laid out the city details against merchants and taverns in my OneNote and promptly realized... I forgot the nobility... How can a network of thieves not have a noble cast built for them to exploit? All I had composed was the general title. No people, area, or possessions had even been laid out for the players to encounter. A massive hole was identified.
As for creativity, that is where the fun begins. When session planning, you get to ask what could happen in all of these locations that are now carefully cataloged. Remember the nobility I had forgotten? I now had a treasure trove of plot hooks to explore that could draw the players in. One nobleman kept monsters in an underground fighting arena where people gathered to place bets. Another was exploiting the Duke, who had learned he killed a man while hunting. The list went on and on.
The world and session organization is the backbone of the game. It helps create clear focus and actionable items for you to build off of as you lead your table through a fantastic adventure of their chaotic making. It allows you to be nimble as a fox, satisfying the hunting questions of the players as you can locate and provide the answers they seek, respond to their ridiculous actions, and stay one step ahead.
Until next time - keep creating, keep thinking, keep wandering.
Further Reading: Prep Basics: Laying the Foundation through OneNote