When I started GMing, I used to prepare all my games with extensive notes on many different things. Over time, they took various forms, from long, linear descriptions of scenes with an NPC appendix tucked at the end to a swarm of sticky notes I would put everywhere. I could never be satisfied with any system for these notes until, one day, I learnt about the existence of mind maps and stopped using notes entirely.
The problem with notes
Let’s first discuss the problem (I have) with regular notes.
As a GM, I find notes rather hard to follow and use during a game. They are either too detailed and become cumbersome to manipulate, browse, sort and read; or they are too synthetic and fail to give me the information I need to keep up with players actions.
Also, notes are difficult to organise: they typically take the form of a linear representation of the scenario, trying to give the key points of each scene in sequence, or they are like sticky notes, with nothing to show how each is related to the rest. Having notes written linearly is really less than helpful, as soon as your game isn’t. Also, players very seldom do what you expect, and they certainly never follow any pre-determined sequence.
To put it briefly, I find that notes can be hard to follow and create more problems than they solve.
Mind maps to the rescue
Mind maps are not really a new idea: they’ve been around for ages. Today, they’re being used by all kinds of people for all kinds of purpose, from taking notes in a business meeting to brainstorming about advertising slogans. For our concern, they prove to be a very good solution to the problems described above.
As you can see on the picture, a mind map is constructed around a core idea, placed in the center of the page. From there, a multitude of topics and sub-topics are drawn, until a complete, non-symmetrical, free-form hierarchy of ideas is developed. This really is all there is to a basic mind map: a flow of ideas arranged organically on a sheet of paper. It is important to note that the level of detail is up to you, not much is imposed on you by using a mind map.
Note that depending on how you organise and fill your map, you might want to keep your nodes balanced. If for instance you decide to represent clues and information as leafs stretching out of scene nodes, spotting an unbalanced distribution of these across the scenes suddenly becomes very easy and might help save the players from a frustrating evening, spent hunting the one scene or the one NPC with all the clues. This is what’s happening in the map above: nodes in blue indicate where vital information is available, and most of it is in a single place, under the node “Jhaven”.
Once you’ve laid out a basic mind map, you then have many options to make the most out of it: you can indicate types of scene (main line clues, optional secondary plot, dangerous encounter, key NPC…) very easily by adding some colour to the links between the nodes, for example. Or you can add numbers to specific nodes, to underline their respective importance in the scenario or perhaps the order in which you expect the players will encounter them. Whether this expectation is or isn’t met during the game isn’t relevant anymore, since you don’t need to rearrange your notes to cope with a change of plans. It’s all there, clearly laid out before your eyes, at all times.
Not just for preparing
I find mind maps to be as useful for taking notes after a game as they are for preparing. Since you already have all key elements in the map, they can all be marked with a comment indicating whether this clue has been uncovered, or this place visited, this fight won or evaded, and so on. You can read a min map from a game you GMed three months ago and instantly know what remains to be done.
Mind map tools
Even though you can draw your mind maps by hand on a sheet of paper, I would recommend using a dedicated tool for that. One reason is that constructing a mind map means gradually building a set of ideas without knowing first how far exactly each is going to stretch. It is simply much easier to do this kind of work on a computer. Moreover, if you are willing to use a computer during the game, the digital mind map presents the advantage of being interactive: for example, you can close most of your map and open the nodes as the players make their progress along one branch. You can even embed all kinds of documents under the nodes of the map, like NPC portraits, audio files, Locations or NPC stats sheets and use them during the game.
Below is a short selection of mind mapping software to get you started. I had to try a few before I found one I really liked; it’s important the tool fits your mind perfectly, so don’t hesitate to download a few and play around with them. I hope you find one you really like and ditch these old pesky notes once and for all!
FreeMind Free software, Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, BSDs (Java-based). A basic but effective mind mapping tool.
XMind Free or $79-99, Mac OS X. Produces good looking maps, striking the right balance between aesthetics and effectiveness.
MindMup Open Source, usable from a Web Browser. An impressive tool, easy to use and available everywhere. Note that your maps are either stored online publicly, or put on your Google Drive (or equivalent). Certainly worth a try.
MindMeister Free (up to three maps…) and then 36-90 euros/6 months, Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, Android, iPad. Can make very nice looking maps, but pricey to me.