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Introduction

I've been playing table top RPGs for some twelve years now, both as a player and a frequent DM. During this time, I've had maybe half a dozen campaigns and none of them have been particularly accurate in regards to timeline and time management.

The problem

The problem revolves around keeping track of the smaller time frames in which events occur and, in extension, what else would occur during that time.

The bigger timeline (Year 2000: A happened, Year 2050: B happened, and so forth) is quite easy to keep track of, since most campaign (at least the ones I've played) take place within a year or so. The problem I have is keeping track of the day-to-day timeline.

Example

The PARTY sets off by foot from TOWN1, through the FOREST, before intending to reach TOWN2. This journey is estimated to take one week. Now, before they left TOWN1, the WOODELF sent a message via raven, asking his siblings to meet up with them in FOREST. Furthermore, two nights before leaving, PARTY burglarised a corrupt ARISTOBRAT and stole THINGY1. ARISTOBRAT wants THINGY1 back and has sent out nationwide messages, alerting local authorities of the theft and PARTY's description.

Halfway through FOREST, PARTY is ambushed by a band of villains, resulting in a long (play-time-wise) fight and once PARTY is victorious, the GROUP decide to call it a night.

Next time GROUP gets together, it's hard remembering how long the journey was going to take, how long PARTY had been travelling for, how long the raven would take to get to WOODELF's siblings, when ARISTOBRAT's message will reach various cities and holdfasts nad what the result of that may be. The timeline, and thus potentially the campaign, gets messed up.

Question

Is there a quick, easy-to-use and flexible method, application or other service that can help me keep track of the timeline of a campaign?

Notes

  • I've tried writing it down in a notebook or word document. It easily becomes gibberish, and/or disappears among all other notes. Word document is easier, but disrupts the game flow (Wait, I have to write this down. Hang on, let me find the right document. Oh, damn, computer is laggy).
  • The answers to this question suggests either not bothering with it (which I obviously want to do) or using counters which I tihnk works splendidly for keeping track of time passing, but not as much on keeping track of when along the timeline a given event occurred. thanks to @BESW for the question
  • This question relates to keeping track of events that occur regularly, with an even spread on the timeline, which is not the case for my question, as it relates more to creating and managing a detailed timeline of events that occur, pardon my lack of sophistication, willy-nilly. thanks to @BESW for the question
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I know this is an old question, but I suspect the "application or other service" parts of the question fall afoul of our policy against "shopping" questions... \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 22 at 6:50
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To add to fgysin's answer, if your campaign takes place over longer scales, with travel taking e.g. weeks, quad paper becomes useful:

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In this case you'd use either a separate sheet, the other side of the paper or the right half for notes. Cross over days that go past with nothing significant happening, but use a number for notes if something is important:

enter image description here

Depending on the size of the paper and grid, you can fit a year on 2-4 pages, meaning even decades-long campaigns stay (relatively) organized.


Regarding who maintains it, as GM you can more easily set yourself reminders in the future or notes about NPCs if you do it. However, if a player does, you can still ask them to mark down e.g. a star without telling what it means. Sneaky way to hint at a deadline...

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Game time calendar

Our group solves the exact problem you are describing using a game time calendar. This is essentially exactly what it sounds like: a table listing dates in a column, with checkboxes next to them on which we can mark the passing of days. We also left some space for short notes.

We used this extensively in a very long sandbox like fantasy campaign (set in Middle Earth with MERP/RM). It helped us keep track of the day-to-day events, as well as regular events like income, arrival of trading companies, shipments, due taxes, etc.

Example:

+--------------+---+-----------------------+
| Date         | ? | Notes                 |
+--------------+---+-----------------------+
| Narvinyë 1st | X | Left the city         |
| Narvinyë 2nd | X |                       |
| Narvinyë 3rd | X | Ran into some orcs    |
| Narvinyë 4th | X | Hunted down orc chief |
| Narvinyë 5th |   |                       |
| Narvinyë 6th |   |                       |
| Narvinyë 7th |   |                       |
| Narvinyë 8th |   |                       |
|  ...         |   |                       |
+--------------+---+-----------------------+

Advantages:

  • Quick to use: a simple check mark is mostly enough.
  • Notes allow for a coarse log of what happened in an efficient way
  • You can easily annotate important dates in the future (How long until the smith finished the sword for player X? When is the next paycheck coming in?)
  • With proper formatting you can easily fit half a year on an A4 or letter sheet.

In your case you might have to keep this calendar to yourself as GM if you intend to note down things like "Arrival of the evil lords armies". Otherwise I'd suggest just outsourcing this: give it to your most meticulous player and let him do the bookkeeping for you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the last sentence. Some players just LOVE writing down details and minutiae. This is perfectly suited for in-game roleplaying if you have the classic bookish wizard. \$\endgroup\$ – STT LCU Oct 22 '14 at 12:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I've done this - it's what you do in the real world, right, write it down on a calendar? In fact for most established game worlds (Greyhawk etc.) there's a PDF out there somewhere that looks like a desk calendar with their custom months and stuff on it. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Oct 22 '14 at 17:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Especially good when you have a tool (like excel) that can calculate moon phases, weekdays and other events based on the official game calenders for the used years. \$\endgroup\$ – Trish Nov 10 '17 at 16:40
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Gantt Charts

I've been spending a lot of time solving the problem of "what ELSE is happening?", and settled on the Gantt chart method. I can map out what is happening in parallel timeframes, dependencies, sequences, and triggers. During the game, I get access to the master chart (PDF copy, for instance) and simply make manual updates in pencil mid-game. After the game, I update the master chart. If there is wildly complex parallel activity going on that I couldn't predict, I simply whip up a simplified mini-Gantt on paper.

This process is simple, easy to use, leverages the power of digital tools while employing the ease and simplicity of paper/pencil. It also allows me to keep track of all the elements of the world all at the same time so the world can continue to exist even if the PCs are not interacting with it.

Journals

As for your problem of Journaling what the PCs have done, I make that a separate process. I jot down details in a notebook as they happen, then reformat into something more journal-like after the game. I often send out a narrative summary of the last game's activity just before the next game session to keep the magic going. As @Hassassin suggests, you could even get a player to do this for you, but I tend to need to record details that the players might not recognize as being important.

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There are a number of disciplines that use timelines, not just RPGs. As a result, there are a number of tools for tracking them. While I was already aware of Aeon Timeline, it is OSX-only as well as commercial software. While we are used to investing in our hobby, I thought I should see if I could find some more options.

This blog post brought a number of new ones to my attention.

Because I don't know exactly what your system requirements and budget are, I have extracted from there the list of items that are free (at least with a free option) and web-based (and eliminated items that are just javascript components or dead links):

The inclusion of a tool here is not an endorsement by me of their quality or fitness to your purpose. This list merely serves to bring to your attention tools that are designed to do the job you describe.

*Timeglider is apparently no longer free except for students undergraduate and younger. The javascript component at the heart of their app is available free for non-commercial use.

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Why not just use a real calendar? Or better yet, an event planner.

Go to your local arts & crafts or office supply store, and purchase a hand-held book-fold calendar or event planner, along with some pencils. The more generic and blank, the better.

You now have a handy portable event planner for all of your campaign's major events.

The best types of 'clendars" for this sort of record-keeping is a hand-held event planner, with not only days, but hours written in, so you can plan the exact moment when each event is going to occur. This will run you about $20 for a decent one, but if you want to keep track of your campaign timeline, it's an invaluable tool.

Just make sure you write everything in pencil. After all, events can change. The party may find a shortcut, or get delayed by an avalance, and you'll have to erase their arrival date and place it elsewhere in your timeline.

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I find one simple techneque, that alone is not enough to solve all your problems, but may be getting the "Low Hanging Fruits" is:

  • Keep a file in a common group accessible place.
    • I like facebook, but there are plenty of others
  • In this file write down:
    • A session title
      • Eg "A Unexpected Guest"
      • This acts to jog your and everyone elses memory
    • Player XP gained during that session
      • so often useful to have this recorded.
    • The InWorld End Date and time of that session
      • Sometimes if there was some kind of timeskip noting that too.

This simple measure means you will start and end sessions at the same time in game. You don't have issues like: "It seems like it is always the weekend". You can place importent events by your memory of which session they happened in. or explictly cross reference session title with dates.

This gives enough feeling of time consistency that any breaks can be overlooked.

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One interesting method I found, that nicely integrates random encounters, is the Time Pool described in this article by The Angry DM, a longtime tabletop game master with a very angry blog. I especially like that the frequency of random encounters and/or sidequests can be modified with ease by adjusting the dice rolled or the unit of meaningful time!

The system has a few actions:

  • Roll for Complications. Take a set of dice representing units of time spent by the players -- an amount equal to the Time Pool unless otherwise stated -- and roll them. Any 1s rolled represent a Complication. The dice used are selected according to how likely Complications are, with d6 being the default.
  • Advance Time. Every unit of meaningful exploration time spent by the players adds a die to the pool. When this occurs, all effects with the same duration as the unit of time are ended. The GM may then Roll for Complications if, during this unit of time, the players have been noisy or triggered other conditions for a Complication. In the article, the unit of meaningful time is 10 minutes, suggested for exploring a dungeon. I find that this is far too fast for overworld travel, so I switch it to 2 hours in that context.
  • Clear the Time Pool. The Time Pool has a limited capacity of 6 in the article. When it is filled, instead of Advancing Time, the GM performs this action. All effects with a duration of 1 hour (or 6 units of time) expire, and that much time is removed from effects with longer durations. Perform a Roll for Complications. Then empty the dice in the Time Pool. Mark that 1 hour (or 6 units of time) has passed.
  • Time Flies. Whenever time is skipped (such as by rest or narration), Roll for Complications with 6 dice, one for every hour (or 6 units of time) that passed, but do not remove dice from the Time Pool.

Complications can be a lot of different things, but ultimately they need to present difficult choices or resource sinks that the players would want to avoid. They can also be chained to create a sidequest (or antagonist's plot against the party) that progresses each time the relevant Complication is chosen. In most modules, complications will just be random encounters.

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This is an issue in two ways. The primary is the obvious, that keeping track of what has happened when is a crucial bit of knowledge when planning long term occurrences in a campaign world. The second, is leaving the players with a firm sense of continuity.

I find that the best option can be to create a Single Calender document, using such things a Word's bookmarking to keep things organized. Nest things by year, month, week, and day (Or however they keep track of time in this world) and make meticulous notes. Also, practice good data redundancy with this document, possibly keeping on Google Docs or other cloud server.

Also, remember that this isn't just a Dungeon Master issue as players too can loose track of what's happened to them, and in what order. Ask your players to keep a character journal or compilation about how they'd tell their adventures at the local watering holes.

I find that using these two steps can lead to a more whole sense of flowing continuity in your campaign world.

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