My gaming workflow

Time to switch tracks completely, once again.

In my spare time, I do a bit of roleplaying. Because being a Ph.D. student and coding in my spare time isn’t geeky enough. I’m a fan of a number of games, but my current game is a campaign of Apocalypse World.

Since I’m a geek, I’ve got a workflow for information processing for the game. Because, as the GM, a lot of my job is information management. It’s taken me some time to work this out properly (and I’m finally at the point where I’m happy with what I have) so I thought I’d put it write it up for future reference and, hopefully, so someone else will benefit from it.

The Game

A quick overview of Apocalypse World, from a GMing perspective: Apocalypse World is a character-driven post-apocalyptic roleplaying game whose style focuses heavily on player-driven plots, a dynamic world, and the inherent fragility of everyone and everything in it.

This means that, if you’re staying true to the spirit of the game as it is written, you won’t have any elaborate plots written about before the game. In fact, it’s highly discouraged for you as GM to have any big plans for anything in your game - by creating a series of fronts (big problems, antagonists, or general Bad Things) , each made up of a number of threats (individual agents of the Bad Thing, sentient or not) with their associated motivations, impulses, and moves, you effectively have a bank of nasty things to throw at the party either when everything gets quiet, or in response to whatever they attempt to do.

It’s a wonderful way of running a game, but it does mean that as the GM you do end up having to keep track of a number of things. In my current game we have three or four organisations, each with about ten members each. That’s a lot of names to remember, especially when individual members have their own motivations and relationships, or are part of different threats.

There’s a great set of front sheets supplied with the game, which allow you to write down everything you need, but sometimes they’re not quite enough. In a particular session, I’ll need to:

  • Consult a list of gang members and pull out one or two names
  • Check my information about a person to work out their motivations, who they’d be hanging out with right now, or what they’d be doing at this time of the night.
  • Remind myself of relationships between characters and the world, or between two characters, or between a character and a group.
  • Consult a list of moves, to see what game-mechanical effect a person or group could have on the group.
  • Add in notes - either statements of fact or “I wonder…”-style questions - that play brings up.

A good 60% of the time, paper is fine for this. But sometimes I end up scrambling through sheets of fronts, threats and previous session notes, trying to work out who it was that Hugo beat up last week, or who Crimson is sleeping with again, or who would head Mercer’s gang now that he’s been taken out of the action…you get the idea.


If I were to replace the pile of paper with an electronic note system for my game, here is what I’d need.

iPad-based. Most of the time, I prefer my Mac for content creation, but the iPad is an excellent reading and reference device. I already have a number of my gaming books on it so I can run games at the drop of a hat (plus, it’s a good deal lighter than most of my gaming books, and an order of magnitude lighter than the five or so books I want on me whenever I head off to gaming). With a decent stand case, it’s great to have sitting to one side when you GM, ready for reference. I’ve used my Mac for reference when gaming, but overall it’s a bit bulky for the gaming table, plus the screen creates a “GM screen” effect, where I’m walled off from the players. I don’t really like that in a game, so the iPad is my preferred device to have on the gaming table.

Quick lookup. Search is a must. If I want to find notes about a character, I want them on my screen in three seconds. To be honest, most note-taking apps will have this, but it’s a nice quick way to narrow the field.

Editable on Mac. As previously stated, I prefer to type on my Mac. If I have a bunch of text to input, it’s going to be a lot less painful on the Mac, with keyboard and mouse, than it would be on my iPad. This isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but it’s something that’s really nice to have.

Quickly add notes. Sometimes a character wanders on screen who I didn’t plan for. It’s handy to be able to jot down notes about them right now, without having to wait for a break in the game to make a new entry.

Wiki links. Related to the search requirement above - if there’s a relationship in play, I want to be able to jump to the related page as quickly as possible.

Markdown support. It’s not a deal-breaker, but every app I use with markdown support means one less markup language I have to remember.

The solution: TrunkNotes

After some playing around, I’ve settled on TrunkNotes for iPad. It’s a wiki application with markdown support, and it supports all of the things I’ve mentioned above. There’s a couple of nice features I end up using that were never on my requirements list above, too: * Tags, plus macros to list tagged items (tag:front is really handy) * Snippets allow me to quickly output boilerplate for fronts and threats (I could do this through textexpander, but I don’t use these snippets outside of TrunkNotes - it’s like name-spacing, but for expansion).

Notes sync to Dropbox, and the best bit is that they sync as plain-text files with markdown formatting. Editing notes on the Mac is incredibly easy. There’s also the ability to host the wiki on your iPad, but to be honest I find editing the markdown files to be easier and more intuitive. The only hassle is new note creation - but this is still doable, just a bit more fiddly as you have to play around with MultiMarkdown-style headers.

So I now have an iPad-based wiki with all of my gaming notes in it, I have a homepage that links me quickly to all the fronts I have documented, every faction in the vicinity, and my most recently-edited pages, as well as a quick link to the comprehensive in-built documentation on the various styling options and macros available to me (some of which are beyond even my needs - Lua scripting, anyone?).

During play I may make notes on paper still, because it’s still easier to write notes on paper than type them up - especially when I’m busy directing a scene. But at the end of every session these notes go straight into the wiki, for reference in the next session. Everything is nicely linked together - fronts can link to individuals or factions who are threats, and each faction page can link to members of the gang. I currently don’t use tags to show who’s in each faction, but this is something that might change in the near future. If I need to make a new front or threat, most of the heavy lifting is done by snippets, leaving me to just fill in the blanks.

The wish list

This is going to be pretty short, but there are a couple of things I do wish I could do in TrunkNotes:

A better helper strip. I’m not sure if there’s an official name for this - the little strip that apps like TrunkNotes, iThoughts, Nebulous Notes and Byword pop up above the keyboard when you’re typing, with “advanced” keys for formatting, cursor movement, what-have-you. TrunkNotes has this, but while it has a bunch of markdown functions in it, it’s missing one for wiki-linking to an arbitrary (possibly non-existant) page - something that I sorely miss, since the brackets are still three key-presses from the main keyboard on the iPad. It’s tempting to go all-out and say that there needs to be a customizable helper strip pane, but I think it’s only missing one or two features, and it’s generally pretty good.

A dedicated OS X app. I would pay good money for an app that would act as a wiki between MultiMarkdown files in a folder, and the iPad app already syncs via MultiMarkdown files in Dropbox. The web front-end for TrunkNotes is adequate but lacking, and editing the files directly is slightly hack-ish, but if there were an application on the computer to edit those files natively, that would scratch an itch I’ve had for a long time, note just for trunk notes, but for note taking on OS X in general. I know VoodooPad now supports markdown, but it’s not just the same. If an app like TrunkNotes for OS X were to find its way onto the market, I’d end up using it not just for gaming, but for all kinds of uses.

Still, these are small problems. Overall the workflow I now have lets me create, edit and view notes pretty damn swiftly, and hopefully lets me stay one step ahead of the players at the gaming table. If there’s a better solution for this sort of job, I haven’t found it yet - and if I actually read the TrunkNotes manual all the way through, I’m sure I’ll find another few uses for the software in my workflow.