Thursday, November 6, 2014


I've almost always used a 3-ring binder as a GM. Unless it is a one-shot where managing long-term campaign information isn't important, I find I need a certain level of organization in order to keep things consistent. This isn't the case for everyone. I know GMs who are good to go with a scribble on a notecard or even less, but I suspect a 3-ring binder would benefit many GMs who believe they can go without them. 

There have been times when I've gotten lazy with organization and ignored the need for a binder, or perhaps used a binder but not organized it properly. This almost always hurts my campaign. Either I lose track of crucial details that should be important or I can't find crucial information when I need it during play. So I try to make a point of organizing my material before hand in a new binder and maintaining that binder as the campaign unfolds. 
The tabs in my current Sertorius campaign

Preparing a Binder
Find a binder that works for you (in my experience they fill up quickly so larger is usually better), get some dividers with labels, and then set out a game plan for organizing it. How you do this will largely depend on how you run sessions, with the structure of your adventures dictating how things need to be organized. 

My own style is a bit murky, dipping in and out of sandbox, investigations and flexible adventure arcs. It is a bit on the muddled side to be honest. I find what I need the following sections labeled: 

Adventures: This is where I put a 1-2 page sheet for each adventure, with things like hooks, goals, complications, key characters described, etc. This is also where I place my Events. This is something I am on the fence about. In the past I have had a separate section for Events, but now I find it more handy to have it right there in the adventure section because the two things tend to come up together anyways. 

Locations: This is where all my maps and area descriptions go, arranged in alphabetical order. Here I place all my cities, inns, encounter charts, catacombs, forts, ruins, area maps, world maps, etc. This section is probably the one used most during play. 
A palace based on the Herodium in my locations section 

NPCs: This is where I put all my major and minor NPCs. Each NPC gets a page of stats and notes. These need to get updated regularly when things happen. 

Cults, Organizations, etc: This is where I put my power groups, religions, social organizations and criminal societies. Some of this information I repeat in the Locations section as well (for example my entry for the City of Port Sul repeats text from my entry on the Malmori, a group that controls the black market on magical monstrosities). 

Specialty Folders: The rest of my binder is more customized as the campaign evolves. I may archive information in new tabs as needed (for example if I amass a huge amount of information on Ronia, but our campaign is currently just focused on The Vaaran Kingdoms because the players traveled or relocated, I will likely create a Ronia folder or Southern Gamandria folder for that material just so it doesn't clutter up the stuff I am currently working with. 

I used to have a section for my campaign logs but now just keep those on my computer. 

Keep in mind this is how I organize for a particular style of fantasy campaign, my modern mafia campaigns are structured in an entirely different way. The same for my Doctor Who campaigns or Call of Cthulu. This is just the structure I've found works for me with fantasy. 

Updating the Binder
Even with the best organized binder in the world, if you don't update it regularly it will be useless. The whole point is to have up-to-date information available during play. 
An important entry in my NPC section

After a session I review my notes and consider all the important things that happened. Do I need to include anything new in an NPC description? Was the destructive rampage of the party at The Four Taverns damaging enough that I need to make note of it in the Locations folder? Did any events get set in motion that need to be noted in my Adventure folder? The players started a magical plague that affected several communities, what towns and tribes need updating as a result. 

One thing I find myself updating a lot in Sertorius more than other games is the map, because the players tend to have a big effect on things as they gain power. 

Obviously you can burn through paper as a result of doing this, so I usually simply note things in pen until I have no space, and then revise the word document and print it again. You can also just keep adding new sheets of paper to keep a chronicle of your notes as things happen. This is largely a matter of preference. 

My regional map for the campaign
in my Locations section
Preparing For Sessions
One reason I really like binders is they help me visually understand what I need for the next session. This can sometimes be a trap because you may forget things that are not immediately obvious from the binder tabs and structure, but on the whole I find it helpful to look at the binder sections to help me identify what NPCs, Locations, etc I need to work on that week. 

The Value of Consistency
The big thing I get from being organized in this manner is consistency, and I find players really value that. They appreciate that their actions reverberate down the road. Now you don't need a binder to draw a line from something the players do in game to something that comes up down the road, but it helps by making it easier to track down the details (especially if you update things regularly). 

It Doesn't Have to be a Binder
A binder is probably a bit outdated at this point. With laptops it is easy to do all the things I just described but with greater efficiency. My word folders are organized in this way so I could easily run a game using my laptop alone, but I don't trust computers not to fail, and the last thing I want on the day of a game is to have a hard drive crash or similar catastrophe. So for me the binder is just safer in terms of reliability and making sure I have what I need come game day. 

And there are other methods too. I used to use something like a rolodex for my campaign notes. That made it very easy to simply pull out the relevant card as players went to a particular place and make any notes needed based on their actions. This was useful in particular for NPCs and locations. 

In the end everyone does approach organization differently and we each have our own way of managing information flow. This isn't the one and only way. It is a very good way and one among many worth checking out if you ever do run into organizational issues in your campaign. 


  1. I am a huge fan of organizing all my campaign and game notes in three-ring binders. Been doing it since the 2e days when one of my professors was throwing out a bunch of binders so I grabbed them all.

    I am also a fan of tabs on the side for major divisions and the multi-colored sticky notes on top to ID things that run across multiple tabs.

    I have tried doing the same thing in Microsoft One Note and other programs, but this works the best for me.

  2. I agree on all counts Timothy. Smaller tabs to subdivide folders are a great option (and that reminds me that I need to pick some up for my current folder). Sticky notes are great. I find the trick is to keep them close to the page edge so they provide a narrow visual cue without getting in the way.

  3. I'd left the 3-ring binders behind somewhere in the mid 2000's ... and returned in the last year or so, with a vengeance. It's now SOP, and really enjoying the process.