When a GM creates his own setting (e.g. two neighboring kingdoms), he details it with important people, political relationships, events and so on. During a campaign, PCs' actions alter the setting's equilibrium, both in expected and unexpected ways. For example, the accomplishment of an important quest may change the evil plans of a villain, or the political stability in an important city. There are a lot of details to keep track of. Furthermore, in following campaigns the consequences of the previous ones must subsist.

How can the GM keep track of the current state of a campaign setting during a campaign and/or throughout different campaigns?

To make it clearer, let me explain how I am currently managing my campaign and what the problems I am facing are.

So far, I've created some simple text documents where I lay out an overview of the continent my campaigns are set in. There is a document for a generic description of the continent, and other documents to describe countries, empires, peoples and so on. Then, for each campaign I've created a folder where I keep the material for every quest. Obviously, this material relies on the documents I mentioned previously.

When I run a campaign, I keep track of the PCs' actions in a calendar. Now, if these actions include some event relevant to the setting (e.g., the killing of an important NPC), they have to be registered somewhere. I don't think that editing the main documents is a good idea, since it represents the initial situation of my setting (also, it could be useful to have a log of all the happenings in a particular environment, and not just the last one). With this post I just want to know how experienced GMs manage this problem. Computer-based methods are preferable.


3 Answers 3


Why there is a setting

Remember this important point: the setting exists for the purpose of being engaged with by the players. Sure, you can play with the setting and decide the outcomes of distant wars or who this dragon is currently dating but if this is not relevant to the players its essentially GM masturbation: a fun but solo activity best not shared with other people. Part of "managing the problem" is to make the problem as small as possible.

The player's drive everything

With that in mind, the first piece of advice is to limit your workload to what matters to the players (including yourself). That is, concentrate on only what the players do and experience first hand; everything else is hearsay.

To illustrate, if the players hear that the king was murdered by the grand duke then that is interesting but the only piece of fact in it is that the players heard it; whether or not is true only matters if the players decide to do something about it, you don't even have to decide if it is true until they do.

If you just drop this out as an off the cuff rumour in a tavern then you don't need to record it at all; if the players are interested in it they will remind you by asking about it, if they are not then it just drops into the big void known as things that failed to engage the players. Alternatively, if this is a major part of your adventure arc then you don't need to record it because you already know all about it!

If the player's kill an important NPC then you only need to decide what happens to the extent that this impacts the players. For example, if they kill the head of the local goblin tribe and bugger off never to return then who cares what happens? However, this is boring when you have been given a golden opportunity to show them that their actions have consequences. There are a whole host of things that can happen:

  • The goblin leader is replaced from within; the new leader establishing his authority by launching raids on the player's base village.
  • The goblin leader is replaced by an ogre; the new leader establishing his authority by launching raids on the player's base village.
  • The goblins are displaced and enslaved by an orc tribe; the orcs establishing their authority by launching raids on the player's base village.
  • The goblins are exterminated by a necromancer who raises them as an undead army; the necromancer establishing his authority by launching raids on the player's base village.
  • Something else that's even cooler; whatever it is results in someone launching raids on the player's base village.

What does happen is whatever you think will be the most interesting for the players (again, including you). The key element here is that whatever happens; its impact has to be felt by the players otherwise its not worth worrying about. Therefore please treat "launching raids on the player's base village" as a euphemism for something that affects the players in some way.

What makes an NPC important

Focusing on the players also gives you a solid basis for deciding who the "important NPCs" actually are: an "important NPC" is one that is important to the players: their importance to the fictional world is irrelevant.

If the players neither know nor care that King Larry VI died and was succeeded by Queen Kylie III, why do you? If the player's know and care that the barmaid Elizabeth has dumped the swineherd Charles and has now been seen around town with dunnykin diver Henry then these are important NPCs. That Charles is planning to chop up both Elizabeth and Henry and feed them to his pigs is a good adventure hook; that Kylie is planning to annex the distant province of Bogrovia isn't.

Background Information

Remember that background information is background information because it is not exciting enough to be in the foreground. If your background is more interesting or important than what the players are doing then why aren't you telling that story? Its like that moment in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones when Anakin and Obi-Wan talk about falling into a nest of Gundarks and the audience reaction is: "Why aren't you showing that? That sounds way more fun than watching these guys ride an elevator!"

Keeping records

So, having reduced your workload by about 90% by realising that you don't need to keep anywhere near as many records as you thought you can now approach the how to keep records question.

Paper is fine if that works for you.

Editing your source documents with the track changes turned on is good too - you can see where you are in relationship to the crossed out bits of where you were. There are services like Google docs and Office 365 that will keep versions of documents as well.

There are websites like https://www.obsidianportal.com/ and http://www.epicwords.com/ that allow you to keep hyperlinked records online. They have DM facing and player facing parts so you can push the work to your players! Create an NPC by putting a hyperlink to a non-existent page in your session summary and tell the players that if they want to record info about that NPC then they can do so.

Look around and see what you like.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Asking for recommendations is an off topic question, but that doesn't make offering something as part of an answer's solution off topic. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 1, 2016 at 4:19

Even though it's a system I grew to like slowly (see my question Apocalypse World without Fronts: Are we missing out?) I recommend using something like Fronts from Apocalypse World and Dungeon World for keeping track of things, and keeping it simple. This is my personal adapted version from the core system. It's a reasonably generic system, but I think it's best suited for situations where the antagonists have the initiative most of the time in the grand scheme - luckily, that's a common state of affairs in RPGs and fiction in general.

Fronts (or "Story Arcs")

A Front is defined in Apocalypse World as a set of linked threats and actors, but I prefer to think of them as story arcs. A civil war between the Oompa-Loompa peasants and Uruk-Hai burghers is a Front, with its threats and actors being various political and military leaders, along with their armies, forts and weapons. The Vizier's plot to overthrow the Sultan is a Front, with its actors being the Vizier, his co-conspirators and the Sultan himself. You can include stuff other than characters too: items, locations, enchanted snowstorms etc...

Start by naming a Front, describing what's at stake and listing its most important characters and objects along with short descriptions. These are for the GM only, so you can include stuff your players shouldn't know, but if you want you can create a journal similar to this for the players to remember stuff with:

Vizier seeks Sultan's Throne

Stakes: If the Vizier succeeds, the Sultan will die, and the realm will be ruled by the Famine Cult using the Vizier as their puppet.

Actor: Vizier Rahman craves the Sultan's power, but doesn't have the courage to assassinate him himself. Rahman is secretly a member of the Famine Cult and has basic knowledge of mystic arts.

Actor: Sultan Harun is the young, inexperienced but just ruler of the realm. He is of trusting and gentle nature, and many consider him to be a bit weak. He seldom leaves the confines of his palace, but often meets envoys in his throne room.

Actor: Mistress Fatma is the Sultan's closest servant, and is in charge of all the lesser servants. She knows all the rumours around the palace, has eyes about everywhere, and while she doesn't personally care for the Vizier's attempts she is easily persuaded by gold.

Actor: Sinuhe the Surgeon is the doctor in the town. He's a foreigner but known to be talented, so he'll likely treat the Sultan in the event of any medical emergency.

I recommend keeping the descriptions brief: as you can see, a sentence or three is enough to spell out quite well who's doing what in this situation! Also, it doesn't have to be just characters:

Location: Sultan's Palace is luxurious, known for having a lot of meandering corridors to make it seem larger, and has a huge garden, with secluded pavilions and secrets lying around.

Group: Palace Guards are numerous (a couple of hundred or so) and patrol the Palace and the grounds constantly. They wield deadly but ornamental sabres and wear fancy helmets that obscure the facial features of their wearers.

Object: Sultan's Porcelain Dishes look pretty normal, but are powerfully enchanted to turn bloody red and scream if poisoned food is put on them. Only the Sultan, Fatma and the Vizier know of the enchantment.

And so on. That's a very short description, but tells a lot, and it doesn't have to be 100% comprehensive. If your players show a keen interest in exploring the intrigue of the Famine Cult, you can add them as a Group, writing down a short description for them too. Or if they decide a foreign envoy at the Palace is the most suspicious one, give the envoy an entry to flesh out her character and weave her into the plot. And of course, should someone die, you can draw a little tick next to their name to signify their demise.

Countdowns: Keeping track of ongoing evil

Or "ongoing events" if you prefer.

So now we've got bookkeeping of things in order, so let's move on to events, evil plans and the like. Apocalypse World has this thing called "Countdown" which is a six-phased "doomsday clock" for various bad stuff - or good too, in theory. It is used to remind the GM that there's things about to happen - and these things will inevitably happen without player intervention. Use these for evil schemes, oncoming disasters and so.

A countdown has six phases. For the first three phases, the event is oncoming, but is not certain to happen. The last three, it's already on its way, but there's time to brace for the impact and prevent the worst. At six, the full effect of the event happens - the bad guy casts the spell he's prepared, Sauron forges the One Ring, the planets align to awaken a sleeping god or so on.

An example of such event would be the Vizier from our previous example trying to bribe Mistress Fatma. Draw a six-phased counter or a progress bar, which you will fill up as his attempts proceed. The first three steps represent the Vizier courting Fatma with gifts and trying to gain her support. The players don't get to see the bar - they see Fatma wearing more expensive jewelry than usual, wandering into her thoughts more than usual, having private conversations with the Vizier more than before and so on. Fill this progress bar as time goes on to remind yourself that this is an ongoing situation, and the PCs don't have a lot of time to prevent it. Stop filling it if the players keep investigating the matter and actively hurting the Vizier's actions.

When the progress bar reaches its midpoint, Fatma has agreed to participate in the murder plot. She's still making arrangements, procuring tools for her deed and planning, but she's already committed. The PCs will see her acting weird, may find items in her possession she shouldn't have, may get attacked by her if they dig in too deep. And should the progress bar ever fill up, she'll carry out her plan and attack the Sultan.

Of course you'd want to have more than one countdown to represent such a complex situation of court treachery, where the perpetrator has multiple avenues to pursue their objectives and the Sultan is a bit of a wild card too. I usually list them in a format like this:

Countdown: Vizier bribing Fatma

0-3: Bribes have been delivered

4: Fatma accepts to join the plot

5: Fatma has a murder weapon

6: Fatma carries out the deed

Countdown: Vizier uses poison

0-3: Vizier Rahman is looking for identical non-magical porcelain to replace Sultan's dishes

4: Dishes found: Rahman is procuring poison

5: Rahman has acquired the poison and the non-magical dishes

6: The Sultan is served a poisoned meal

Countdown: Famine Cult wants Action!

0-3: The Vizier is exchanging letters and meeting spies of the cult

4: The Famine Cult decides to off the Sultan in an armed coup

5: The Famine Cult has an armed force ready to act

6: The Palace is assaulted by the Famine Cult

Countdown: Sultan disapproves of paranoid adventurers

0-3: Kind requests to tone done the suspicion

4: Sultan assigns a nosy guard to follow the PCs around

5: Sultan requests the PCs stay in their guest chambers or leave the Palace

6: PCs are thrown out of the Palace

Each countdown reminds you, the GM, of what's going on and, in their "6" phase, what's going to happen if the PCs don't prevent it. Create new ones as you feel appropriate, and strike out ones that have served out their use (for example, the Vizier's death would nullify many of these countdowns).

In a nutshell

  • Create a new Front to describe something important that's going on
  • For each Front, list what's at stake, important characters, locations, items etc along with short descriptions
  • Add to this list when something becomes significant
  • Create countdowns that represent events about to unravel
  • Keep an eye on the countdowns when GMing, advance them if the fiction warrants it
  • Strike out any countdowns that have served their use
  • Have fun

For a complete, immersive campaign, you'll probably find yourself having multiple fronts, each with their own actors, and multiple countdowns for each. I advise you to start small though and try to use only one Front at first to get a hang of the system. Also, if you find there's something bugging you with the system, tweak it, adapt it, twist it, cut it. It's meant for you to better manage complex fictional universe storylines, not just to be a series of hoops for you to leap through. Make it yours!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've never played Dungeon/Apolcalypse World, but that's a very fine, very detailed, and very complete answer. Gets my +1. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 31, 2016 at 13:52

I've had a good experience with using Scalar as a reference work - you can describe a place and link all the organizations, people, and smaller places within it, but then you can also look at your "people" tag(s) when looking for an interesting NPC, your "low-level" tags when looking for a challenge for a new party in the same world, etc. More useful the larger your world grows, especially if you're the type to think up an interesting character, item, or adventure idea that's not quite right for the current situation - you can collect a big pile of them, then establish the relationships later. The features that distinguish it from similar tools IMO:

1) When you hover over an internal link, a short description pulls up, so you can say "the tower has three guards" and when you hover over guards, you see their brief combat stats, provided you've set that as the description on the Guard page.

2) You can upload images and annotate specific areas of the pictures with whatever you want, including links. So you can have a dungeon map with little hover-reminders for you of what encounters take place in each room.

3) You can embed media, like YouTube videos, either at a specific spot on the page or so they follow you down the side. Useful for soundtrack switching.

It's not the best for quick editing in place, though, so I use a GDoc to track the story and changes, then go back and edit them in during a break or after a session.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Does Scalar support LaTeX or similar? \$\endgroup\$
    – Passage
    Mar 31, 2016 at 13:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Passage I doubt it, but you intrigue me - what are you looking to do? \$\endgroup\$ Apr 1, 2016 at 3:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ There are a few templates floating around for building WotC-style information blocks for use with 5e materials. Simple text layouts are fine for personal use, but if you're going to post it anywhere you may as well make it look good! There's a CSS template that might work instead, and it does seem to support custom HTML/CSS files. \$\endgroup\$
    – Passage
    Apr 1, 2016 at 16:30

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