Keeping a DM Log

The astute reader will have noticed that over the past few weeks, the World Building 101 series of articles has trailed off. I really enjoy writing WB101 pieces, and do hope to continue the series, but I’d prefer to avoid writing about bizarre minutiae simply to keep it going. (I’m pretty sure some of the articles already got close to that point as it stands, in fact!) That said, I do intend to continue WB101, but at a slower pace. In the interim I’ll be continuing to write DM advice, though with a slightly different focus than worldbuilding. Today’s piece will focus on DM logs.

I have previously written about writing and maintaining a campaign bible—a document containing details of the setting and events of your game. A campaign bible may also contain notes for the Dungeon Master’s eyes only, but this is not a DM log. The purpose of a DM log is quite different—rather than tracking the story or NPC notes, a DM log tracks notes on the actual act of DMing.

Every session you run can be a learning experience, and it can be very helpful to keep notes on what worked and what didn’t work, to improve your game sessions in the future. Keeping a DM log will help you do just that. After each session you run, take a few moments to jot notes on things that your players seemed to enjoy, or things that fell flat. Doing this can help you marshal your thoughts and give you something to reflect on before your next session, and can also be used to track your progress or remind you a few weeks or months down the line of problems you encountered in game and how to avoid them.

Make a point of talking to your players regularly about the campaign, as well, and note the results in your log. You don’t need to do this every session, but you should do it once every three to five sessions at least. Ask what they like and didn’t like about the session you’ve just completed, as well as what they want to see more of (and less of) in the campaign as a whole. Look over these notes when you’re planning future adventures, and you’ll find your players stay very happy and keep their enthusiasm for the game high.

Another technique you might consider—though this is not something that may be possible for everyone, for a variety of reasons—is to record a session and listen to it after. You can often hear in the players’ body language and tone of voice what they enjoyed or disliked during the session, and get more specific details about it than you would with asking them after—they may not remember everything as clearly at the end of a session, but by observing their reactions during play you can pinpoint it. You can also monitor your own performance, checking for bad habits when providing descriptions (lots of “ums”, pacing problems, repetitive word choice, or just droning), and take notes on what you can be improving that way. If you do want to record a session, though, make sure your players are all okay with the idea before you do so, and if any of them are uncomfortable with it, don’t press the issue.

Keeping a DM log is something that can help you improve your technique and reduce your bad habits or mistakes. It gives you a written record of the lessons you learn after each session and helps you remember things you want to do more (or less) of in the next session. It’s a tool I’ve found invaluable when I run games, and I can safely say that my dungeon mastering has improved a great deal as a result. Even a few short moments of taking notes and reflection can be enough, so give it a shot!

Comments (4)

Chris (November 20th, 2010)

This is something I really need to do in my own games. This lack of preparedness is my biggest weakness as a DM - and it means having my players prompt me with an important NPCs name from time to time.

It would certainly make my life a lot easier.

Mike (November 21st, 2010)

Some great tips here that I’m going to try to take advantage of in the near future. My gaming group is splitting off from our regular 4e campaign (everyone is burned out) to try out some other rules systems. I’m going to start working on a sandbox campaign world, where these trial games are set. If everything works out as planned, maybe it will become the default setting in the future. The DM Log would definitely help me keep everything straight as time progresses.

Speaking of world building, would you consider tagging all your World Building 101 posts so that they can be easily accessed in one place? Maybe a link to the WB101 articles in the table of contents list on the side? I can certainly use the google search widget to get them all, but collection would be nice (and would filter out the articles, like this one, where you mention WB101, but it isn’t directly related to that content.


Jonathan Drain (November 23rd, 2010)

Mike: Good thinking. I’ve been planning such a feature, but haven’t had time to get around to it. A list will be added eventually.

NeoFax (December 21st, 2010)

What a excellent idea! I have only been DMing for like 2 yrs now(1yr 4E and 1 yr Pathfinder). I use Paizo’s excellent adventure paths to prepare my game, but I never even thought about keeping a journal on what works and what doesn’t. I strive to be a good GM and already ask the players to critique me every so often, but I think this idea will help me even more. Especially since people are normally harder on themselves. Since we play online and use Ventrilo for voice, it shouldn’t be hard to record the sessions as IMO spur of the moment RPing is my downfall. I am always falling short when trying to evocatively explain settings, creatures and battle flow. Thanks!

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