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I've been DM'ing a homebrew sandbox-style D&D 4e game for the past few months, and it's been going well so far. However, the players have finally left the "starting area" of bouncing between three different towns, and are now exploring the vast world. Which is great for them.

But I'm now running into a problem. My group and I like to focus on RP, and they like to form connections with the NPC's they meet. I'm having a nightmare of a time trying to keep in order which NPC's are from which towns, what they look like apart from other NPC's, which store is in which town, where quest givers are, and all manner of things related to running an open world game.

This probably wouldn't be a problem, however, if I kept a good notebook. But I have no idea how to manage a notebook for an open world style game. I've looked at online blogs, the D&D website, and Youtube videos, but none of them seem to touch on keeping a notebook.

Does anyone have any tips on keeping a good DM's notebook? And if not, do you know anyplace I might find some help?

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possible duplicate of DM organization ideas for Sandbox campaign –  Marc Dingena May 9 at 9:34
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I demand answers which actually talk about formatting an offline notebook! You know, this thing where you need to use a pen to write with ink? –  Maurycy Zarzycki May 9 at 17:09
    
You can't demand anything. The OP hasn't specified which kind of format he'd like to use, so we can assume he is open to any kind of format. That said, there actually are both offline and online answers. –  Marc Dingena May 9 at 18:17
    
It's generally good to wait a couple of days before accepting an answer - it encourages a wider variety of answers. Welcome to the site and I hope you got what you needed! –  gomad May 9 at 23:03
    
Thanks for the tip, and for the introduction. –  RPG Man o' War May 9 at 23:20

8 Answers 8

up vote 11 down vote accepted

If you are fine with an online solution, Obsidian Portal is one I could recommend. Some people have had bad experiences with the interface being clunky, but I think the site looks quite fresh and responsive (I think they have had a design overhaul in late 2013).

Some key selling points:

  • Wiki pages, which you can interlink quite easily, allowing you to keep track of things that are related. Wiki pages also support public and GM-only information to be saved.
  • Adventure Log, which is where you can post the notes of your sessions and write down the overall progression. It allows you to Wiki-link, so you can interweave your Adventure Log with your Wiki pages.
  • Create characters, but not just PCs, NPCs as well. Again, you can have GM-only information here, allowing you to create major plot NPCs in advance and 'unlock' them when the time comes.

For organizing an open world, I would personally create some Wiki pages to comprise a town. Using links, you can connect the page about the town in general to the big landmarks in that town, like a church, the blacksmith and stables. They would in turn have their own Wiki page, which could state in which town it resides, and which NPCs live or work there. Following the NPC link, you'd end up on a biography and stat block page of the NPCs, where the biography could link back to the town page, and the NPCs building page.

Using this approach, and combining it with Vereos' answer, you can create an incredibly potent spider web of pages, while still being able to easily navigate from one point to another.

  • Each category from Vereos' answer could be its own Wiki page, which grows gradually as your players progress.
  • Each item on such category page would simply be that, an item in a list. You'd use Wiki-links to jump to that item's own page, which would give you the details. This keeps the category pages clean and simple.
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I just checked out Obsidian Portal, and this is exactly what I was looking for! Thank you very much. –  RPG Man o' War May 9 at 15:58
    
So you'd actually log in if you need to check some detail? Right there at the gaming table? –  DevSolar May 10 at 10:55
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Consider that the players know they are playing in a vast open world. It is only fair to allow the GM to look up some notes when the party declares a new destination. Having a tablet or small notebook during sessions isn't that obnoxious. That said, Obsidian Portal is probably best for before and after sessions, rather than during. –  Marc Dingena May 10 at 18:17
    
We play using roll20, so I have access to a computer during session anyway. –  RPG Man o' War May 12 at 13:48

I use index cards with index card storage boxes. The cards and boxes are color-coded. I can keep notes on the cards even adding post-it notes for temporary information (like attitude toward the PCs and plans for that NPC in the future).

When I no longer need to keep the NPC information at hand the color-code allows me to quickly put that card back into it's appropriate storage box.

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A concise example of using offline resources to organize your open-world information. –  Marc Dingena May 9 at 14:24
    
Thanks for the idea. I'll try out this and the Obsidian Portal idea and see which I prefer. Thanks again. –  RPG Man o' War May 9 at 18:54
    
I usually combine this with character scetches on the back of an NSC's index card. This seriously helps the players to remember the NSC in question, much more so than "Brian, the peddler from Greenvillage". –  DevSolar May 10 at 10:58

Here's how I usually do:

I create a new Word document and start filling it with a precise scheme. You may want to add/remove some lines, and I usually do it too if i need some more/less. I usually use cities' names as an index, in alphabetical order. Every city is in a different Word page (no problem if you exceed the page - you probably will!)

Here's an example page.

Name of The City

NPCs met
NPC 1 - Bartender @ Golden Apple Inn, Elf
(add some more informations here about quests he may give, infos that he gave to the players, relationships...)
NPC 2 - Aila, Human, Cleric of Mystra, Level 2
(same here)

Other important NPCs prepared (not met)
King Aghar
(add details if you have some)
King's Guard, Human, Paladin, Level 4
(same)

Places
Golden Apple Inn
(if you have some description of the place, it would be nice to insert it here. Also, if something important happened here, take note)
Central Square
(you got it)

Events
- PCs repaired the Central Square fountain and got paid 20gp
- The wiz didn't want to identify in front of the guards and was taken to the jail
- The wiz got released when the PCs slain the evil baby Dragon in the near Black Rain Forest

Possible Future Events if PCs return there
- The mother of the baby Dragon is looking for them and has the city under her control.

Further Notes
Everything else you want. When I find out I'm writing too many notes on the same topic, I create another category instead of messing up this paragraph.

Of course you may want to reorganize this (for example adding a Monsters Slain paragraph, a Goods Found one, or removing Prepared NPCs)

If you have some trouble remembering where that city was, how distant was from another city, or how much time did the players take to get there, you should draw a map. It doesn't have to be detailed, every city or place could be a small spot with the name of the place below. Once you have two or more spots, you could draw some lines between them and write above them the number of days/miles the PCs walked to get there.

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I use a wiki (specifically ikiwiki as I can use vim to edit the files during the session and use git to check track of it all). From then on, it's a simple matter of searching the wiki to get the right information.

I tend to use tags so that I know where the NPC comes from, profession, relationship with the main plot, etc... From those, you could write a small shell script that generated meta-pages that would details thing by tag.

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Gitit strikes a similar vein. –  Raphael May 9 at 12:10

Make your players do some of the work for you! I've created a G+ community page for my first edition sandbox campaign and a sub-section called "People & Places" on it. Players receive 10xp per character level for each substantive entry they write. I let them write whatever they think is important, although I suppose you can require each entry to have things like name, profession, location -- you know, the typical Ultima-esque rundown. I've found that there is always at least one player who really wants that extra couple hundred experience points.

Between this and session recaps (150 xp per character level per game session), I have a pretty good player-created notebook to supplement my core campaign notes. Those core notes only cover the important stuff that will have ripple effects throughout the setting regardless of whether the players interact with them directly, and then I use random generators for all the little stuff like shops, taverns, store-keeps, minor NPCs, hirelings, etc.

Just remember, if you haven't mentioned it to your players yet (or if they can't be bothered to remember it), then it doesn't exist. Having them be responsible for summarizing and indexing all this information means you have a solid idea of what the world looks like to them, what interests them about the setting, and what they're paying the most attention (which can also help with generating new ideas for sandbox activities/quests).

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I would be careful not letting your PCs document their mis-interpretation of your setting, but I encourage taking advantage of their 'points of view'. It helps you understand how your players really see what you have created for them. –  Marc Dingena May 9 at 18:13
    
@MarcDingena: Unless I feel that the misinterpretation is my fault (i.e., bad/misleading descriptions), I let it stand in the entries without comment -- just like I don't try to correct their maps. Of course, I have told the players that it's not my responsibility to fact-check their notes, so they are aware that silence/xp is not the same as approval. And who knows, someday their "misinterpretation" may prove better than my original idea and will become the "real" story. –  Craddoke May 9 at 19:33

Evernote

I have successfully used several methods to contain GM information in growing worlds. I have used wikis - including desktop and tiddly varieties, Scrivener, mindmaps, notebooks, card files, and more. The current champion is Evernote.

I have used Evernote to organize notes and information for my Dresden Files campaign - I turned to this tool when the MindMeister mind map I was previously using was overwhelmed by the number of nodes I was creating. Evernote has a large ecosystem of apps with integration, including Mural.ly if you want the visual layout and organization of a mind map or mind-map-like application.

I am presently storing notes and resources for a TimeWatch game. The killer app for this - and I have tried the new, free, multiplatform OneNote, just BTW - is the Web Clipper. See an interesting article? Clip it. See a picture of something you want to use as a setting? Clip it. A wikipedia entry on an animal you want to use as a monster? Clip it. The web clipper turns "that looks cool...I should remember that for my game..." into "that was cool, glad I grabbed it for my game!"

Evernote notes are formattable with bullet, numbered, and checkbox lists - you can write a list of information PCs should get from a scene and make them checkboxes and record whether they got the information or not...

They can contain links, images, and even audio. It will be a big file, but you could record your whole session in a note...

You can access Evernote from any modern computer (web interface) or mobile device (apps for phone and tablets).

You can organize your materials into different notebooks, use tags to mark campaigns, systems, settings, NPCs, monsters, etc., and use Evernote's amazing search to find everything fast.

Oh, and Evernote will make text in images searchable! Snap a picture of a book cover, a sign, or even a (moderately neatly) handwritten document, and after a sync period, you can search for the text inside. Fantastic.

Evernote is free for 60MB of uploaded data per month and you can buy extra capacity without committing if you just have a picture-heavy start or something. So far, I have never had to pay.

It's also great because it's meant to keep stuff forever. So stuff I squirrelled away for that Dresden campaign that was never used is now available - easily - if I want to grab it for TimeWatch!

Want to share with co-GMs? Evernote supports shared notebooks. Want to offload some responsibilities (like session logs) to your players without opening the kimono? Give them the email address for your Evernote and let them mail notes to you...

It makes keeping track of your world(s) quick and simple.

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Now, I haven't got a huge amount of experience DMing, and I certainly haven't done anything open world like this, but I do know what I would use for it: OneNote.

Or, you know, a filing cabinet if you're into IRL artifacts or whatever.

I would have a section/folder for each area, and then pages and sub pages for towns and individuals. That way, you can easily track down records for an area if your party wants to travel there spontaiously. Oh, you want to go visit NeverMidgard for no apparent reason? Just a sec... you arrive to see Lord Nashinra leaving town.

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Just use a spreadsheet. It's dead easy and can be easily converted into other formats later. Then you won't be tied to any specific software or web site.

You can create columns for town names, npc names etc. Lay the data out so it is logical to you, remember that you are likely the one looking up the info. Then you can later put in selectors to only show columns that include a specific town name etc.

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