Visual Notetaking: Starter Guide for Sketchnotes

This is by far my most favourite way of getting all the non-sense my party gets into transcribed on paper. The term sketchnotes is a German thing from what I can tell since I only find German sites on that topic (but this could also be caused by my browser settings). Nevertheless, I found the practise fits great to session notes, as the method was developed for keeping track of lectures, meetings, or seminars.

What are Sketchnotes and why are they so great?

Sketchnoting helps you to create records that are easier to remember and are a great way to understand complex facts better. Due to the combination of words and small pictures your brain can process information more quickly and save that information for future use.

The reason for that is that that meaningful images are the German Autobahn to our long-term memory. In fact, a study ( shows that after three days, participants recalled only 10-20 percent of written or spoken information while almost sixty five percent of visual information seems to have stuck.

Finally, it is a lot more fun to sketch your barbarian behead those pesky cult members with a doble Nat 20 Kill than simply writing it down. Also in my experience the other players are usually quite impressed with the notes and it makes a great memory that you can flip through after your campaign has ended (so much better than childhood picture albums 😀 ).

“But I can’t draw ☹!”

So what? The big advantage about sketchnotes is that you create them mainly for yourself, so no pressure there. Also because of the fast pace for notetaking, sketchnotes are meant to look unfinished and rough around the edges.

On top of that, it is very easy to get started with them. Most symbols are simply a combination of shapes and lines and the frequency you use pictures in your notes is up to you. Just try to implement more and more pictures into your adventure log every session and you will see the difference it makes for yourself.

A quick prompt for you to get started:

Try using these four symbols in your notes and expand your visual alphabet with more symbols as you go.

Session Date

Light Bulb



Those icons are key in my own visual alphabet, I use them nearly every session. More symbols I use can be found here.

What do I need to get started?

Starting off you can simply use whatever tools you are using right now for your session notes. A random pen and some paper is really all you need. If you are a digital note keeper, you will probably not have such an easy time to get started with sketchnotes. An iPad with an Apple Pencil and the app Good Notes works great for me, but that is an investment not everyone is willing to make, so maybe consider going analogue to try out sketchnoting your Pen and Paper Session. Trust me, it is loads of fun.

For those who want achieve proficiency in note taking, I would recommend some additional tools to make your notes more interesting to look at:

  • Bullet Journal / Binder (if you like adding pages afterwards)
  • Fineliner (black)
    Brand and tip do not matter much, simply go with what you like best. I am using the edding 1800, but sometimes I also use a Stabilo Fineliner
  • Grey Highlighter
    A light grey felt pen also works, but the edding 345 does not smutch your black lines as much and so far it that is my favourite marker for shadows
  • One (or two) felt pens or fineliners with your favourite colour
    Simply stick with those two colours for the whole journal, it does have a very cool effect and you save time on colouring. But if you are really into it a diverse colour palette is also fine 😉

Add these to your adventuring gear and that is it! Well apart from your beautiful, creative brain and a session to play in.

Roll for Initiative: Let the sketching begin!

As a player, I usually work on my visual notes in two steps: During the session and after the session. If you are a GM you might also use your sketchnotes as a form of session preparation. More on that topic is written in the GM Chronicle Article.

During the session, it is your job to take notes and try to add as many pictures as possible in the context. If you are comfortable with adding images to your text, try to avoid writing something down and instead create a picture of that situation. And keep in mind your pictures do not have to be perfect your quest is rather to be quick about it so that you do not miss important details.

While fighting you might have more time to sketch out memorable moments, since the casters usually need more time to decide on what they would like to do. When you are not taking notes that time can be quite dull, but when you sketch you have more time to jot down a hilarious failure or a great nat 20 moment. (Like in this fight against a dragon when our ranger shot his arrow into the dragon’s anus.)

Creating icons on the fly is sometimes quite challenging. When you find yourself having trouble try to minimize the object to basic shapes and add details until you can make out its meaning. As for intangible things you need to get a bit creative, e.g. drawing a shield as a symbol for protection or combining a flask of water with a halo for Holy Water. Just try it out and if it is not as clear as you would like, you can always add a caption for clarification.

After the session it is time to add shadows and your colour highlights. Decide on a point on your sheet of paper where the light is coming from. On the opposite site of your objects you use the grey highlighter. The side that the imaginary light shines on can be highlighted with the colour of your choice. In the end it could look like this.

And these are my beginner’s tipps to get you started on visual notetaking with sketchnotes. Drop a comment if you tried it out and share your best practises!

If you need more inspiration for a D&D inspired visual alphabet, then check out my favourite icons and how to draw them.

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