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8 Ways to Make Game World Management Easy

Living World

Details game worlds - how do you track all the details?

In RPT#524, a gamer called Beleaguered in South Africa asked for help managing the massive amount of details he has developed for his world.

While he was looking for tips on a knowledge management and software and process solutions, I received lots of great advice on managing worlds in general. In today’s issue, we look at a few of those tips to hopefully help you with your own game worlds.

1. From Trevor D.

Wow. That is a great world that has been crafted so far. I have found that, without overwhelming players with new world events every session, I try to stick to the one major and two minor events per game year.

These events will happen regardless of player actions. However, if the players can be involved and learn the truth behind the event, it makes it more interesting.

Example Of A Major Event

The ruler of a city dies. The news is reported that he passed peacefully in his bed. The players were there and battled a monster that was trying to control the ruler (the power behind the throne).

Although they foiled the plot the monster killed the ruler. Now that is an interesting event, as the characters know what really happened and will now likely pay much more attention to the power struggle.

Example Of A Minor Event

A gold mine near the PCs’ main town plays out. There is minimal gold coming out of the mine. Describe what happens to the town and the economy as the town tries to adjust with the main industry gone.

The characters may want to become involved in ways to create work. Why did the gold mine run out? Could be an adventure right there.

While you want the world to evolve and change, you do not, for the most part, want your world to overshadow the PCs . Think about events as more plot hooks for the players to evolve their characters in the world.

2. From Jeremy

A couple of thoughts for poor Beleaguered.

1) Are the PCs heroes who can change the course of events?

If so, there are a couple of ways to go about this.

First, the heroes destroy the carefully crafted timeline by derailing something, and everyone goes on their merry way. The times they are a’changin’, and the PCs have the knowledge that they alone are the saviours of the skrag race.

Second, the heroes do as in the first option, but now there are two timelines: one the GM created, and one the heroes created. This allows that wonderful history to still be used at a later date, or that wonderful event the heroes averted to have been averted. You get your cake and eat it too.

2) Instead of worrying about the whole world, worry about one region

I used to have the same trouble: how do you keep track of a whole world? The simple answer is, you don’t. Worry about events in one region. Let the PCs run riot and roughshod over that region.

When it’s all over and that campaign is finished, look at what they did, and examine how it impacts events and ideas across the world. Have the history react to it, then the cultures, and so on.

In my homebrew campaign world, I have used both techniques to great effect. I have one timeline where everything stays static until the year 5032. Then I have three different timelines I follow from there. One is the timeline where PCs destroyed the god of magic’s evil plots and he was banished by the other gods. Slowly magic is draining from the world, and the world is going to end up in a modern age in a few thousand years.

Another timeline is one where that catastrophe was averted by a later group of PCs and the world timeline continues some 100 or so years to account for their deeds.

Then I have another where none of that happened, and I just fiddle with other regions and see what comes. (I also have one where events in the past went haywire and I end up with a postapocalyptic near-nuclear magic war and the world desertified. Magic is lost and psionicists rule the roost.)

Breaking down the timelines and the regions helps you design and run campaigns on a micro scale. Having the macro scale helps that micro campaign be more realistic and more true to life

Your players will not be able to absorb the amount of detail even on a micro level. I am running a game now set 32 years before my 5032 decision point in an oriental portion of my world. I had a huge campaign document for the PCs to get cultural information as this oriental section imbibes portions of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Southeast Asian, and Indian cultures and mythologies.

Did they all read it? No. Do they all understand how this all hooks to the main world? No. Will their actions matter to the world as a whole? Yes.

Not to be sacrilegious, but even the God of the Bible chose one people and one region to follow closely. Learn from the world creators. Be fiercely interested in one area.

3. From Stephen Yeardley, Blackheath, England

I use a spreadsheet with every event that is taking place or will take place listed on it. After every session if we’re active, or after each game world week if we’re in a slow period, I have a random chance assigned to whether the event was entirely successful, partially successful, unchanged, partially unsuccessful or entirely unsuccessful, from the viewpoint of whoever is leading the action and their desired outcome.

[Comment from Johnn: Stephen sent me a sample Excel file for us to see his idea in action.]

The random chance depends on the importance to the stories to the timeline. An event that isn’t supposed to happen until much later, as in Beleaguered’s knowledge of 155 years hence, won’t have “entirely successful” until around that time, meaning it could happen a little before or a little after. It will have “entirely unsuccessful” as that will mean the protagonists will just keep trying.

Whereas Lord Hocequin the Wise would have all involved until either the “entirely successful” or “entirely unsuccessful” comes up, indicating he is either lordly and wise or skrag meat after a complete lack of wisdom.

I use this for many things. Will the rumbling volcano finally erupt? Have gnomes done a deal with air elementals and developed airships? Has the law proposed by the Church of St. Cuthbert to ban necromancy in the capital city finally gone through? Has Yangla the Resourceful tracked down Ongu Swift-fingers for the bounty on her head? Did the new trading post at the end of Gagapp Pass finally get established after last autumn’s unseasonable rains? And so on.

So big, small, huge, tiny, it all goes in. I have several categories including (but not limited to) World, Continent, Country, Regional, Features (forests, mountains and so on), Cities (and smaller population centres), Groups and Individuals (creatures and populace).

Depending on where the PCs are, I add more importance to the categories towards the end of this list, as the PCs will become more aware of them. If Lord Hocequin is on another continent, who really cares? If the PCs are also on a skrag hunt, knowing his progress is much more important.

This system allows me to press a few buttons after setting it up and I know what is going on pretty much everywhere with minimal effort. If the PCs begin to influence anything in particular, I just give the category a slightly different set of random outcome figures and away we go.

4. From GavMo

Johnn:

In a word, Microscope.

Since discovering this game, my campaign design process has seriously evolved. The system is available as a $10 pdf, and playing it lays out a wide span of history in a visually appealing index card layout. The game encourages every narrative element to retain a legacy – the sword handed down, generation after generation, the family plot of land as it develops alongside the kingdom’s progress.

A retcon is as easy as swapping a few index cards out for others, in which the king survives the assassination attempt, and all the notable consequences.

I’ve even had some successful games where my friends and I picked up an old game of Microscope (“Past-Future Samurai Atlantis”) and ran a great D&D session that took place inside a single Event card we’d written days before.

I’ve got so many Microscope decks now, half-inch thick sets of historic Periods, Events & Scenes stacked in chronological order, I may never run out of game-worlds with flavorful, original histories and themes!

[Comment from Johnn: Read more info about Microscope.]

5. From Jess

I tend to keep track of the dynamics of what’s going on rather than the specifics. It’s easy to retcon something into history when it happens off screen.

Maybe Lord Hocequin deals with the skrags, maybe he doesn’t. But ultimately it doesn’t matter at the point where the PCs have nothing to do with all of that. Once they insert themselves into that situation, then it becomes important. The only thing that needs to be tracked is that the dynamic exists between Lord Hocequin, his kingdom and the skrags, plus other complications.

I tend to prefer the sandbox style games, which it sounds like you do as well. This approach has worked for me as far as keeping things sane.

Anarkeith does something similar in assigning certain characteristics to NPC goals and plans. I use networking charts to track all of it. I take a big piece of paper and lay out the various players and see who interacts with whom and how, which lets you create more intricate machinations as the layers peel back.

I actually got the idea from a fiction novel (the Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker) when one of the characters uses it to track the dynamics of the various political entities in the world.

6. From Anarkeith

I like to assign a plan or goal to NPCs. What would they be up to if no one interfered with their plans? Players then have a choice to act or not. If they get involved, the plan may be changed.

You could scale that, and write plans for cities and nations. Maybe just one sentence each. As time passes, such plans advance. But don’t worry too much about tracking them until the PCs get involved.

7. From Loz Newman

Beleaguered : I suspect you may be over-thinking things. Unless you really need the psychological comfort that the knowledge of a perfectly-formed and coherent world gives you….

So, what information do you want the players to have? (Don’t say “everything!” That’s an easy out and a sure way to bore your players.)

This is strongly based on what your goals are. Do you want them to gasp in awe, and prostrate themselves before your world-building skills?

Or do you want them to have fun? What are your players’ goals?

VIP It

Try the VIP (Very Important Point)-ing technique. You described a situation: you have mountains and continents of data to handle. And near-exponential amount of links between them. Complicated by the perceived need to evolve everything simultaneously.

Reduce your workload! Think of what the player characters will hear. You don’t need to worry about things that will never affect the gaming group. And if you try to load too much detail into your players’ heads, they’ll get bored with all the exposition that’s chewing up their precious in-game time.

Unless you have some magical equivalent of Global News or Teleport Networks, PCs won’t hear about events instantaneously and perfectly.

They’ll hear distortions (both voluntary and involuntary) of the truth : delays, hypocrisy, “Big Lies”, incompetent tale-telling, sensationalism, rumours, confusion, conflation, wish-fulfilment, interpolation and extrapolation… the list is huge.

YOU get to choose which dribs and drabs you use to illustrate your world. Not explain it, illustrate it.

Don’t explain, show. An NPC merchant griping about civil wars across his suppliers’ routes is way better than 10 minutes exposition. If the players want to delve for more detail, you have an NPC backed up with all the information you’ve created.

Yay for you! Lists of calendars and constellations and such-like can be mentioned in passing during the campaign set-up phase (i.e. be kept available for players to consult as needed). Apply this show, don’t tell bottleneck to your world and you will automatically filter for the most important info.

Keep It Natural

Stay within what the NPC:

1) Knows (see the limits on information mentioned above)

2) Can say without fear to people like the PCs (will they get bored and go away without buying anything?)

3) Can talk about easily (not all NPCs are gifted with the skills of honey-tongued GMs)

An NPC who’s griping devolves into 10 minutes of geo-histo-political cultural exposition isn’t “Showing, not telling”, he’s simply a layer of make-up larded over with lukewarm exposition.

Forcing yourself to act through NPC bottlenecks will force you to plan ahead and think about what is actually important for the players to know. Everybody benefits.

Imagine scenes with NPCs whose behaviour will show what’s happening in the world. Plan how this will interest your Players (Very Important Point, that) and get them talking with the NPCs. Go with the flow, enjoy yourself.

How To Make It Live More

Listen to your players speculate about why a piece of news has reached their ears. If it catches their attention, they’ll theorize about causes, possible behind-the-scene players and their motivations, possible consequences and all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas.

Take notes.

If a player comes up with a better reason for an NPC doing something unusual far away, steal the idea. Replace your old idea with this new one.

This clashes with other information? Good! It will add a touch of randomness to your world that will simulate the NPC’s capacity for illogical, self-destructive, egotistical behaviour. Or, conversely, altruistic, protective or charitable behaviour.

When rumours clash, you have no obligation to give players the truth. Anything they heard that contradicts what they later discover to be true is obviously due to Chinese Whispers type communications problems Even reliable honourable NPCs can be honestly mistaken and act sub-optimally.

List these theories and VIPs and create NPC mini-scenes and bottlenecks to bring in a few more details that confirm the players’ theories. Your group will love the feeling of nailing it first time!

Don’t Force Hooks

If they’re not interested in some plot-critical information, don’t force them to be. Drag the bait across their path once more at some future point. If they still don’t bite, don’t worry. At some point they’ll realise they’re crucially under-informed and start actively looking for the info.

So long as the players trust you to not be withholding important details for your power-mad pleasure, you’re good.

8. From JG

Beleaguered wrote about a huge campaign world that he doesn’t quite know what to do with.

It sounds to me like Mr.B wrote his campaign setting in a vacuum, which is great and all, but in the end, it’s the players that are the driving force behind any campaign.

My personal choice when running a campaign is to know where the PCs are going to be, and then exclusively focus on that area of the world.

Politics, landscape, social interactions and NPCs all depend on where the PCs are in the world at the time, and I care little about what’s going on outside of that portion of the world, except from a macro level.

When I speak of a macro level, I’m referring to things the player characters could not possibly hope to influence, at whatever level they are.

When the characters start out, it’s smaller scoped things (such as the local political scene), and when they go up in levels, they start meeting more and more important people, and their goals become bigger (say, working with the local nobility).

The Macro Level

The only thing I keep an eye on at the macro level is what’s happening to drive the entire campaign arc.

I also try to make sure that, at the end of every session, I ask the players what their intentions are. This lets me focus on creating another adventure in the precise direction they intend to head (so I don’t waste time creating an adventure they’ll never go on).

Focus On 150 Relationships

They say a person can only hold information about 150 relationships in their heads at any time. Assuming for the moment your players are relatively socially adept, they probably have about 75 real relationships in their lives that they should keep track of.

That only leaves 75 or so relationships in the game for them to deal with. You have to pick your moments. Don’t let the players remember the innkeeper that means nothing in the grand scheme.

Do make certain they will remember certain characters, however. Focus on making NPC personalities distinct and extreme.

If the PCs don’t care one way or the other for an NPC, they simply won’t remember them, and you should dump that NPC from the campaign, quickly, even if he’s supposed to be important to the story. (They’ll find someone to love or hate in your story, and then you make THAT guy the focus of the story.)

If the characters LOVE or HATE your NPCs, it will make them easier to remember. If you have an NPC the players like for some reason, it doesn’t matter why, keep bringing that NPC back.

Same thing with the ones they hate. That will impact your campaign, inasmuch as you will have planned something else, but the players will decide for you which characters THEY want to deal with, and then you modify how your campaign looks.

Making NPCs More Important Than Planned

A few easy ways to get seemingly innocuous characters directly involved in your storyline are some tried and true favorites:

The Double Agent

A guy who seems to be your friend, but who really isn’t, who sooner rather than later turns on the party and takes on a new role as “bad guy of the month” (don’t use this one too often as players tend to hate it).

The Man Behind The Curtain

The guy the party just defeated has a master, and he’s pulling the strings (you can use this repeatedly up the chain of command).

Puppet Master

The previously nice people of the town of Whateverville have been taken over by parasitic organisms that control their actions, causing grief for the PCs, who presumably don’t want to kill the nice townsfolk who were previously helping them.

The Miraculous Return

Serves two purposes: the first allows a previously slain enemy to return, stronger than ever before.

The second is it allows for an instant man behind the curtain scenario to pop up. After all, someone had to raise this evil guy from the dead.

This is one of my personal favorites, because it allows the party to kill people at will, and allows for you to return them to the storyline. Yeah, it’s got a kind of daytime Emmy quality to it, but hey, it’s supposed to be just about the fun, eh?

The Mob

There’s always room for crime syndicates. And there’s always people willing to sell their souls for profit. Anyone can be gotten to by the thieves guild. And with enough cash, anyone can turn on their friends.

Deities

Not a big fan of this angle, personally, but you can always use visions for your priest-like characters, to steer them in the direction of adventure on the horizon, and introduce new characters. After all, if someone’s god tells them they can trust Bob the Blacksmith, who are they to argue, right?

All of those examples allow you to refocus player attention on other characters they might care about more than the ones you’ve created. They’ll let you know when you hit the nail on the head. Usually with something like “this guy is cool,” or “I hate this guy.”

By focusing only on the locales and NPCs the players either like or hate interacting with, you can focus on giving the players the best time possible during the game, and it dramatically decreases the amount of information you have to prepare for a given session.

You also ensure you minimize the impact to your campaign world, since, as the players did nothing in the odd parts of your world, you really don’t need to bring anything to the table about that part of the world.

The idea is, if they haven’t been there, you can just keep that part of the world static. For all the players know, it’s been moving around this whole time (who’s to say otherwise?).