How Dungeons and Dragons Helped me Organise My Notes and Become a Better Engineer

Filed under random on 2021-09-22

I’ve been an avid tabletop gamer since I met my now wife in late 2013. I’d played D&D once or twice in uni, but didn’t really get into it. That was, until Jocelyn saw me get excited over a copy of Edge of the Empire in my FLGS and encouraged me to give it a go.

I fell in love with it all pretty quickly, eventually falling into the perma GM role in my group. Of course, with the GM chair came campaign notes that needed to be organised. Characters, stats, planning, and plot notes eventually got out of hand. I started with a small folder, eventually growing into a thick folder.

At some point, I started looking around for an alternative to organise my scratchings. My style when playing is usually pretty loose and improvisational, but I do that by being as familiar as possible with the setting and characters. When running premade modules, it’s pretty easy to digest as much as possible and lean on tropes if you’re in need of a quick NPC the party is not going to meet again. At some point, though, I wanted to start building out my own setting, and after detailing the main city, culture, family feuds, cults and intrigue things very quickly started to blow out, and I decided I needed a tool to help me.

The Tools

Evernote

Evernote worked for about a month, but I started to have the same problem as paper. While it was easy to create and write new documents, linking them was not really a feasible thing to do. My next solution needed a way to connect the dots

MediaWiki

MediaWiki was great, I could share the pages with my player group and we had a bit of collaboration going on with character backstories and session notes.

And then there was bug I didn’t patch quick enough and the whole thing was overrun with viagra ads. Hrmf, can’t have nice things on the internet. No matter, I decided my next one (unfortunately) should probably be offline instead. I’d lose the collaboration aspect but at least I wouldn’t need to pay too much attention to security feeds.

Scrivener

I had a friend that had been an aspiring writer, and she’d been using Scrivener to organise her notes. I figured it’s probably built for exactly my kind of use case.

To be completely honest, it was nearly perfect. I was able to link various notes, even create cork boards to organise things visually if I wanted. What grated on me, though, was that the Linux application just wasn’t that great. I routinely switch between Windows and Linux, so it was more or less a must that both were supported.

Another thing I became aware at around this time was Gatsby. Someone had told me that they’d set up a site with Gatsby that just compiled markdown into a nice static site. I thought it might be a bit of overkill to set up an entire site, but it gave me ideas for what was to come.

Zettlr

For about 2 years now, I’ve been using Zettlr to take down all my notes and it’s been fantastic. I love that everything is Markdown, meaning that it’s easy for me to slap it all in a git repo and even just use vim or less to read a page if I’m running out of a terminal.

It also has a fully customisable interface and custom characters, as well as autocomplete on tags and links. The overall feature set is still overkill for me, but I don’t need to remember esoteric keystrokes to effectively format my writing.

How I Ended up Organising Myself Even more

Naturally, at some point after collecting my notes together in Zettlr I started to think about how I could use what I learned here in other areas of my life. Zettlr’s name derives from Zettelkasten, which is a way of organising notes developed by Niklas Luhmann using metadata and physical cards. There’s already been a wealth of articles written about Zettelkasten, here are some links to help you get started if you’re interested:

After reading a few articles like the above and Zettlr’s own guide, I set to work implementing my own Zettelkasten. The techniques I had learned during my time with D&D notes turned out to be invaluable, and using the hashtag functionality by Zettlr I could very quickly get an overview of related notes that I could link to any new ones as my knowledge increased. Very soon I had an easily navigable (at least for me) structure where I could search for whatever hashtag I thought was relevant. I was stoked and wished I had started this back when I was in uni.

The Effects

Moving away from paper for my brain dumps proved highly beneficial. I noted down fiddly configurations a lot and was able to find and share them with ease when my workmates asked about something. I copied over JSON objects from 3rd party providers, copied down links to good documentation and posted little notes on libraries I’d been using.

I was finally able to pull together what I knew, and it was all thanks to tabletop RPGs.