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14 August 2020

See How Far You've Come, Explore Old D&D Notes!


I recently ventured into the recesses of my vault of Dungeons & Dragons memories. Determined to forge compendiums for each of the campaigns I’ve run in the past, I pored over old notes, read over player accounts, and deciphered scrawlings that resembled dungeon maps. I must say, it sobered me to witness my transformation as a Dungeon Master over the years. My writing style, notes, nonplayer characters, plots, everything evolved at a rapid rate and I hadn’t realized it.

On RJD20, I constantly write about how we all need to improve as DMs and how it happens naturally. However, as with many other aspects of life, it’s difficult to judge yourself on how much you’ve improved. 

Is your storytelling more dramatic?

How do your notes of the present compare to three year old ramblings?

Are your maps becoming clearer?

Are your players having more fun?

Delving into my notes from past campaigns helped me realize I am improving.

My plots are more compelling.

My notes are more concise or, when they’re longer, they focus on the important details.

My maps are significantly better.

My players are enjoying themselves more.

Stuck in the present, I wouldn’t have realized this. Generally, I see myself as improving over time, albeit slowly. Now that I’ve gazed into the abyss of the past, I know how far I’ve come.

For example, take a look at a note excerpt from my first campaign in 2015:

The party has two different paths they can take when traveling to the woods. They may take the Wildland Path, a fairly safe road that passes by the woods on its southern end, and then either walk through the woods to the eastern edge, or walk along the outer ring of trees and enter at the end, or they can travel through the Greenfields the entire way, an large region of grassland dotted with farms, small groves, hills, and the like. Encounters along the road will be few, while the grassland will encompass more fights.

There are multiple parts I dislike about these notes. First, I limit the players options. Nowadays, I refuse to do this. There’s not option one or option two in D&D. I might prepare for one or two options, but dictatorially stating in my world notes that there are only two ways to arrive at a destination is treasonous to me. Next, I focus on extremely broad strokes and am not specific...in the slightest. I focus on two main things: safer path, more dangerous path. Currently, I’d specify — briefly — an encounter or two on the road and an encounter or two in the grassland. On the road, the party might encounter the remnants of a traveling circus troupe infiltrated by a curious incubus. In the grassland, the party might happen upon a sleeping hill giant, a halfling trapped in his tightly wrapped haversack. What I focus on in the ancient notes is pointless and doesn’t help me run the game in an interesting way. What I just outlined does.


Compare this section of my old notes to a similar section from a session I ran a few weeks ago. I prepared these potential encounters before the party descended into the depths of a dangerous warehouse controlled by an enemy gang:
  • Interrogate Kinit about the Rusty Corkscrews and the Verdant Skull.
  • Explore the Bloodstone Storage Sanctum.
  • Fight the loyal followers of Varmin who’ve created a barricade.
  • Investigate Marenzo Katel’s study.
  • Learn of Gerdur’s toils and taking.
  • Break through the Jungle Grate.
Concise. Action-oriented. Open-ended. Narrative-driven. That’s what I want from my notes today. It leaves lots of room for imagination at the table. While I’m preparing, I might think that Kinit will not give away any important information about the Verdant Skull, but during the session, I can throw that away with ease and reveal what I may, making up facts & figures as I go. I’m not restrained by my own notes, which is something I ran into a lot in the past. I’d write something down and feel compelled to follow it. It’s a silly but relatable concept, I’m sure. I don’t have that problem anymore.

For anyone who has run D&D for over a year, try this out. Wander back into your old notes and see what you used to do. Ask yourself, how does this compare to what I do now? Have I improved in any ways? The answer is most likely yes. Gazing at your past scrawlings will help you realize this.

And really, it’s one of the best parts of D&D.

Over time, you constantly improve. You might not realize it, for it creeps and creeps up, like a scale in winter. Your stories improve. Your table becomes more fun. You incrementally become a better, more thoughtful DM, and it’s a process that won’t stop until you stop playing.

Which, let’s face it, will be never. For those of us who play D&D, we know it can never be taken from us. All it requires is a willing imagination, funky-looking dice, a few writing utensils, and blank sheets of paper.

If you’ve read this, taken my advice, and explored your old D&D miscellany and discovered that you haven’t changed much, that you’ve not improved (or become worse which can’t really happen as long as you’re having fun), try out the following ideas:
  1. Ask your players for feedback. After every session, ask your players what they liked and disliked. Did your voices draw them into the world or rip them out? Were the combats confusing or dramatic? Simply asking about what your players prefer can drastically help you figure out where you need to improve, especially if they recur adventure after adventure.
  2. Pay attention to how your players react. Do they laugh a lot? Are they constantly smiling? During combat, do you hear their heart thumping inside their chest and see sweat dripping down their neck? Do they pull out their phones all the time? Watching your players in the moment reaffirms how your game is going. Don’t just slog along, play off your players’ emotions. Make sure everyone is having fun and is attentive.
  3. Try focusing on improving a few parts of your DMing style. Explore voices in one session, reflect on how it went, then try again. Ensure you prepare for a tactical encounter if you struggle with those, and figure out if the encounter played out in a satisfying way. Breaking areas where you want to improve into modular chunks might work better than trying to improve as a DM in general.
  4. Journey into other ways to run D&D. If you are used to writing six pages of notes for each session, go into a session with a few notecards and a map. If you primarily game using a grid, try out theater of the mind for a combat or two. Exploring new ways to prepare and play might open up your mind and let your creativity run wild. You won’t know unless you try!

In Summary


Old D&D notes are a mine of great stories, jumbled plots, hearty laughs, and doodled maps. If you’re a veteran DM, delve into them and see how you’ve improved over the months and years. If you’re a new DM, flag this article and be sure to check back whenever you feel the time is right. Remember:
  1. Almost everyone improves at the role of DM over time. It’s incremental and hard to notice, but peering into the past might help you see how far you’ve come.
  2. If you’re at a standstill as a DM, there are plenty of ways to grind forward! Ask your players for feedback, pay attention to them during the game, try improving at different modular chunks of DMing, and try out entirely different ways of preparing and playing D&D.
There’s always room to improve as a DM, whether you’re new or old, bad, good, or great. Whatever you do, don’t become complacent. Improving as a DM means greatening the adventure and excitement at the table. That’s all we want when playing D&D: a great, exciting, and fun experience.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

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