Microsoft Built My GameMaster Notebook

Posted in EpicTable Blog on February 13, 2008 at 8:10 pm

When it comes to RPG session prep, there’s a fairly strong inclination among GMs towards free products. Any why not? There are some decent wikis out there, there are some products aimed specifically at RPG campaign management. So, why have I dropped my Wiki-On-a-Stick in favor of Microsoft’s OneNote 2007?

I like free as much as the next guy, and I agonized over buying OneNote. It’s not free, and it isn’t really necessary from a certain point of view. I mean, I had my Wiki-On-a-Stick with MediaWiki. It worked. It traveled well. It was free.

So why did I switch to OneNote for my GM Notebook?

It comes down to this: OneNote 2007 is really slick. It does everything I need it to do, without getting in my way, and does it faster and better than any of the wikis I’ve tried.

It’s not a product dedicated to RPGs, but that’s not really what I want. I need something more free-form than that when I’m planning an adventure. Sure, I’d love something to build stat blocks for me, but frankly, I don’t spend the bulk of my time with stat blocks. I spend my time writing pages of notes, moving ideas back and forth, organizing and revising, shifting encounters or adventures around in the larger scope of the campaign.

OneNote is perfectly suited to this task. It has a multi-tiered organizational model. Pages are grouped into sections, and sections into notebooks. In addition to these, you have other tiers, such as section groups and sub-pages, giving you a lot of freedom in how you organize your work.

Because it’s so freeform, you’re not forced into any one way of working. I have a section group for each chapter of my campaign, with a section for each for each adventure, and within that, with a page for each encounter area.

Killer Features for the GM

OneNote is really feature rich. You can share notebooks, draw on them, annotate them–but none of this is what makes it a standout for me. So, rather than tell you about OneNote in general, I’d like to tell you about the features that I care about in the context of being a GM, prepping to run my game.

Freeform Pages

A OneNote page isn’t a linear document like a web page or a Word document. You click where you want to add text and start typing, rather like you might jot down notes in different parts of a physical notebook page. You can then drag that block of text around the page, reorganizing your notes as your ideas evolve. Of course, you can move or copy them to another page or link to them from other pages.

Effortless Organization

Unlike Microsoft Word, all your content is accessible from one view, via tabbed pages and sections. I don’t have to troll around through my filesystem looking for this image or that document.

Unlike my wiki, organization is fast and easy. I can copy and paste notes from one page to another or one notebook to another. Theres no need for “edit-this-page” buttons, scrolling through markup to find where I want to insert my content, no save button….

Because there are tabs for pages and sections and notebooks, I don’t have to walk the tree to get to the page I’m looking for, like I do with the wiki. I can be on the page I’m looking for in the time it takes me to go back to the home page, and find my next link, and begin my descent into the wiki. I could, with a lot of maintenance effort, make my wiki behave like that. With OneNote, it’s just there.

Effortless Formatting

I wouldn’t even mention this if it weren’t for the popularity of wikis. Unlike my wiki, OneNote is a WYSIWYG editor. I’m as capable of dealing with markup as the next guy, but sometimes, I’m just plain tired of remembering which markup dialect to use with which tool. (Am I writing HTML or BBCode or MoinMoin wiki or MediaWiki or…. How do I do a link again? Was a numbered list ‘#’? Oh yeah, a leading space puts it in a shaded box….)

Fast

My wiki wasn’t quick. It just wasn’t. I spent seconds waiting for page loads. Yeah, only seconds, but over time, that wears on you–especially if you’re trying to maintain some sort of creative flow. Maybe I could have tuned it, and should be ashamed to call myself a developer after having neglected to even try; but frankly, I don’t care to spend the time messing with tuning a wiki, hoping to make it perform better. It would probably have been faster on a real harddrive, rather than a USB stick. But I wanted to use it on multiple computers. I didn’t have to do anything to OneNote, and it’s super responsive–yeah, it cheats by using the local harddrive–I wish my wiki had cheated.

Seamless Synchronization

I do the bulk of my campaign and adventure prep on a desktop, but when I’m away from home or running a game, I use a laptop. I have a OneNote “notebook” on a USB stick, but unlike my wiki, using a OneNote notebook from a USB stick is still super-fast. And I’m not out of luck if I forgot my USB stick or just didn’t feel like taking the time to get it out of my backpack and plug it in. (Yeah, I guess I really am that lazy.) OneNote notebooks are stored on the local machine and synchronized with their primary source—which in my case, is on the USB stick. This isn’t the old Microsoft Briefcase synchronization or the PocketPC sync client. This works. Transparently. All the time.

Screen Captures

OneNote has a handy little feature that lets you insert a screen capture. I can pull up a PDF of a Pathfinder adventure, for instance, and pull a quick screen capture into my OneNote page. Sure, I could copy an image from a PDF or from a website and paste it onto the page, but if I want just part of the image, or if it’s multiple images or images and text? I don’t have to go to the trouble of taking a screenshot, cropping it in a photo editor, and copy-pasting into OneNote. The screen clip feature lets me drag a rectangle around the area of the screen that I want to capture, and it’s instantly transferred to my OneNote page.

Exporting My Data

My biggest concern with OneNote was getting my data back out of it in case I someday decide to go a different route. I’ve gone through a lot of notes management products and can’t afford to have my deathless prose trapped in someone else’s proprietary format. OneNote 2007 supports export to Word and HTML, and with the help of a free add-in, to XPS or PDF. It certainly wouldn’t be pain-free to migrate away from OneNote once you’d accumulated lots of data, but it wouldn’t be impossible. It looks as though there’s a way to write export add-ins, so hopefully some enterprising soul will write an export to XML or RTF.

Wrap-Up

OneNote won’t be for everyone. That it’s Windows only will be a non-starter for some. For others, the price will be too high. (It’s currently around $60 for the Microsoft OneNote Home and Student 2007 at Amazon.) Some of you might be so much better with wikis than I am that you don’t need it. I personally spent a lot of time with wikis, Word, and other tools, arguing that I couldn’t justify the money for something that I didn’t really need. However, OneNote has made my prep work a lot more enjoyable and my campaign more organized. It doesn’t actually do anything that I couldn’t do before–it just does it better.

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