GM Prep: Prompts vs. Accounting

April 11, 2020

I realize that all the notes I end up using when I GM a game tend to serve one of two purposes – either they are creative prompts, or they are accounting of things to be tracked.

Obviously, many games can use both, but it’s worth considering if a game is asking you to prep notes and stuff that isn’t helpful so you can cut past that to more useful prep.


Prompts are things that make it easy to improvise “what happens next” – where should I place the next scene, who should we focus on, and what do the NPCs want or attempt to do?  Flag mechanics in games like Prime Time Adventures or Tenra Bansho Zero work, as much as things like Threats in Apocalypse World.

The trick to a prompt is that it doesn’t need to be 2 pages of detailed back story, it’s like 2-3 sentences or a short list of bullet points I can reference and work from in the moment.

Character portraits can also be prompts – I will sketch characters and then I “know” their attitude and just looking at the sketch lets me figure out how I want to play them.  If a visual prompt works for you, use it.


Accounting notes are anything I need to reference because it tracks things that will have mechanical effects – that could be character stats, or how much food the party has in their packs, or whatever.  It might also be notes on how specific rules work, in case there’s complicated or easy-to-forget exceptions.

The two basic rules for Accounting style notes are:

Most Used Info

Most used info goes in one place you can scan easily with your eyes and jump to what you need quickly.  For physical notes, using a reference sheet, or a home made quicksheet, or sticky tabs in a book can help.  For PDFs or files, having a quick jump tab or bookmark system to hop back and forth can help, or even having two copies open set to different parts of the file.

Consistent Navigation

You want to know WHERE to look quickly for a TYPE of note.  So if you put all the NPCs in a spiral note book but all the spell list is on a file at least you know where to look.  If things are in the same kind of place/medium, then you spend time having to jump around looking within that, to find the thing you want.  Standardize the type of information for your campaign – “X goes here, Y goes there, this is the format for this information”.

Also consider that while many computer files allow you to have several things available, they might not all be visible at the same time, which can cause problems.  For example, let’s say you make a spreadsheet and put each NPC on a different page.  Maybe something comes up where you have to use 3 NPCs stats at the same time – now you have to click back and forth to find them and reference it.    This sounds so small easy, but if you have to do it once or twice a combat round for a game where you have 5 combat rounds… it becomes tiring and annoying.

Overcoming Counterproductive Note Advice

Unfortunately, many games will give you counter productive ways to track notes.  It might be overly detailed character sheets for NPCs or having you prep things that never show up in play.   This means you have to work around the default or the instructions given to you – and RPGs can be hard enough as it is.

Now, I have a background in graphic design, so I have some experience with forms layout, which helps me identify quickly into a game how well the layout of sheets or information is, or isn’t working.  But there’s some general rules and tricks that can help you simplify quicker.

  • Quick reference info goes to corners on physical documents.  Top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right.  This applies both for prompts and accounting notes.
  • Quick reference info for computer documents depends on what you can reasonably have visible on a window or hot key over to easily.
  • Different sections can be made easier to navigate with color or shapes/symbols – think like bullet points or “Information boxes” but used to differentiate one section from the other.
  • If you can’t remember ever needing something in a session, it probably isn’t that important and can be either left out or placed somewhere that’s a little harder to access (another page, etc.)
  • If you find that some character sheets/info trackers work better for you than others, try to see what adds to the readability and organization – you can steal that layout idea for different games if the info needs turn out similar.

Hardcore Note Optimizing

And… if you’re playing a very accounting-notes heavy game and plan on playing a lot of it and want to go all out in optimizing your physical notes, you can take 3 highlighters or color pencils to track what info you use…

  1. With Marker 1, put a dot next to a general area of info every time you look it up in play.  Marker 2 is used the same way for the second session.
  2. Whenever you’re looking for something and have a hard time finding it, when you DO find it, use Marker 3 instead.

After two sessions you’ll see what you look up the most, vs. barely/not at all, and you’ll also see what info is poorly placed, since it’ll be dotted with Marker 3.

I would only do this if you plan on doing big campaign play with a complex game to make the effort worthwhile, otherwise, it’s just plain overboard.

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