You have the adventure. You have the monster manual. You have players, miniatures and dice.
But are you really prepared?
Anyone who has run a published adventure knows it’s not quite as simple as thumbing through the book and reading a few passages aloud.
This week, I’m preparing to launch an expedition into Barovia. A team of brave adventurers made up of my pals are going to head to Castle Ravenloft and take down Strahd von Zarovich, the evil vampire lord.
That’s a start, but what I like to do is prepare a campaign binder. In it, I assemble multiple things including maps, notes, monsters and everything I’m going to need. It saves me bringing along multiple reference books or having to waste time at the table flipping through the Player’s Handbook every time I need to find a spell.
Keeping detailed notes and references in your campaign book also helps when you need to go back and reference an old NPC, location or event.
First off: Get a three-ring binder. They’re cheap (a couple bucks at any office supply store or even most grocery stores) and they make filing everything really easy. You can put handouts in the inner pockets and put all of your notes, copies and references into the binder with a three-hole punch.
I love having a binder over a folder or notebook for a couple reasons: You can rearrange items or add in new pages at any time AND you can pop the pages out when you need to use them.
Quick references. On a page or two, I combine a few things I’ll need to reference often. For Curse of Strahd, this includes random encounters, notes on locations and a map of Barovia. For any campaign, you can also include lists of common names (for making up PCs on the fly), special saving throws or difficulty checks and any other special information about your campaign world.
Maps. Whether it’s handout maps of towns, a DM reference map of battle locations or small maps of roads or forests (for those random encounter locations), I like to have plenty of maps at the ready.
Monster and NPC entries. I print out or photocopy every monster or NPC. That means I have exactly the info I need at hand (don’t have to flip through the monster manual) and I can write information (especially hit points) right on the page.
And if an NPC joins the party, you can pop the page out and hand it to your players so they can manage him or her.
Monster strategies and spellbooks. Your players know how their characters work together. I like to know how my monsters will do the same. Some adventure books are good at advising how an encounter might go down, but in the opposite case I like to have a short run-down on how things will go.
Also, monster manual pages are great at laying out stats, but they often just list spells by name. Instead of having to dig out spell descriptions at the table, I find it nice to have at least a few at the ready when it’s time to fight.
Player and character pages. You may be the kind of DM who wants a copy of his player’s character sheets. You may also not care quite that much. Either way, it’s great to have a page (or pages) that outlines your player’s PCs including info such as names, special abilities or other character details.
Does that one rogue always like to sneak attack? You could include the sneak attack rules. Does one of the PCs hail from a town you’re exploring? Good to know in case the party runs into his old friends/enemies.
List of villains and NPCs. It’s good to know who is who and where they might be. Knowing the roles of various NPCs and their last-known location can be really helpful when the party is trying to find the guy and no one remembers where he went.
Notes from each session. You don’t need detailed analysis of every game session, but it’s nice to note any encounters, their outcome, interactions with NPCs or any quests the party received. I also like to mark down how much XP the party accrued.
Side adventures, encounters and maps. Your PCs may not follow the main story exactly the way you want. It’s good to have a few side quests available if they veer off the beaten path, and having them ready to plunk down on the table straight from your binder is really nice.
Extra paper. You’ll want to take notes, write down plot hooks, adventure ideas or whatever. It’s good to have some extra blank paper in there somewhere.
Player handouts. When they get to a town, you can hand the players a map. When the harried courier delivers a note, give them a copy. When they arrive at the dark and mysterious castle, pull out the painting from the book. Again, this keeps you from having to pass around a book or or flip through a dozen pages when you need to hand something over.
House rules. We didn’t like the way crits were handled in 5e, so we reworked the rule. We promptly forgot and had to figure it out each session. Maybe you have your own critical failure table, a bonus for players who expeditiously resolve their turns in combat or a really great way to figure out flanking. No matter what it is, I like to have all the house rules on a sheet for quick reference. It’s also nice to have on hand when you have a new player at the table.
Evernote is ostensibly for taking notes and storing them. BUT you can also upload PDFs and other files. If you prefer to take an iPad to your games rather than a bunch of sourcebooks, you can organize all of your notes in Evernote pretty easily. You could basically do everything I noted above in Evernote rather than making paper copies. If you were to use a PC for setting all of this up, the number of files and documents you could end up having could become a little confusing to manage, in this instance you may want to use software like FilecenterDMS or others, for example.
Obsidian Portal is a wiki designed specifically for RPG campaigns. You can set up pages for locations, PCs, NPCs, maps, house rules and more. Your players can log on from their own accounts to reference the pages or add to the wiki. There’s a feature that allows you (or your players) to write an adventure log, and you can also make certain pages (future events or locations) secret from your players. It’s really cool.
DMs/GMs: What else would you add to a campaign binder? Let us know in the comments below.