Spreadsheets: the best way of keeping DM notes, ever?

Note to my players: Alz and Xur. If you’re stalking my blog, skip this article because there be spoilers ahead. This works on an honor system.

Keeping track of plans and notes is probably one of the toughest parts of being a DM (right after ‘finding a group to DM’ and, even more challenging, ‘finding a group to play’). For very long time, I’ve relied on LibreOffice Writer to keep up. However, as the length of notes grows and party starts to juggle multiple side quests at the same time, scrolling up and down the document quickly gets annoying. Details quickly become hard to find, there’s page after page after page of unimportant details that you don’t need at this time, but can’t hide away and everything just becomes a mess.

I’ve been handling this limitation reasonably well for the longest time, until eventually came the time for me to dust off my “5d dungeon” thing and throw it at my discord group. But a problem soon appeared: planets are a filler. They have lots of fluff, you get to describe the environment to your players a lot, but at the end of the day there’s not all that much to do while traveling. Players quickly move from planet to planet, and I, as the DM, must scroll back and forth, searching the 60+ page document for descriptions of how planets look and who populates them.

The map of the 5D dungeon, shamelessly stolen from reddit. Keeping notes for this thing is a major mess.

Eventually, there came idea. Wouldn’t it be easier if … I don’t know, I just kept the notes for the planets in the same spreadhseet where I keep the map?

Sure, the idea initially sounds dumb. Text in my Excel? one might ask themselves. Isn’t that for numbers and shit? Aren’t those squares a bit small for text? Can a single cell even contain multiple lines of text? The answer is, of course, yes and no.

The last question is an absolute yes — ctrl+enter will add a new line into the cell (if you’re using online spreadhseet editor, you should take care that you don’t accidentally hit ctrl+r afterwards). As for the rest: the good news is that if the text is too wide to fit within a single cell, it will generally overflow and fill up the neighbouring cells (as long as they’re empty). However, a cell will not overflow up and down.

Notice how the second line of the bottom text is cut off.

In case that spread is unwanted, we can insert content (empty spaces count) to the neighbouring cells. This will hide the overflow:

You can guess in which squares the spaces are

This behaviour is great, because it allows me to hide a lot of text into very tiny area. This makes managing notes easaier: you only enter the most necessary info in the top row of the cell, and hide the fluff below the fold. Everything that’s hidden becomes visible if you double-click the cell for editing.

Since we can style text in every cell much like we can style a word document (except in a slightly more primitive way), this works great in practice. Let me explain on the example of the 5d dungeon map.

Spreadsheets note in action

Three lines above every ‘planet’ currently display only the most basic and necessary info that I need at any time: name of the planet, its size, what kind of environment the planet has, planet description, and quick demographics (with most important races in bold). If I need more info about environment, I can just click the cell that hosts environment info and I’ll get a full description until I click away:

Need to know about demographics? Let’s double-click that:

WoW, so very original. What next, you’ll rip off Guild Wars 2 as well?

All in all, that’s pretty basic stuff, and there certainly are some downsides to using spreadsheeds for what’s not their intended purpose (you have to do manual line breaks) — but damn. I wish I started using spreadsheets for notekeeping sooner. They outright excel at that task.

FAQ: Why not install [insert specialized software here] or use [insert webpage]?
A: because I hate installing too much stuff / because it probably doesn’t run on Linux / because I already have enough tabs and user accounts as it is.

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