Reader Tips: Game World Management

Living World

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

We pick up where we left off in RPT#526, with more tips from readers about how to develop and manage game world details.

A reader named Beleaguered in South Africa asked for help managing the details of his extensive game world. Here’s how GMs responded:

From Blair Giles

I recently started a new 4e D&D campaign where I wanted to begin relatively small. I gave the players a tour of the initial kingdom, and am slowly expanding them out across the world.

My website is a nice and easy way to store all the information that is available to players.

As DM, I have started using the Microsoft Onenote program to store all my information. I find it easy to link between pages, essentially creating hyperlinks between various pages or tabs.

I’ve not gone to the lengths of future planning that you have, with most of my future planning only going from a few months up to a year in advance of the current campaign. However, I do believe there are a couple of important standards.

1) Where the players should be the focus of the world

The further away anything is from them, the less detailed you need to be.

This allows you to keep fewer notes. You can fill these out further if the PCs move closer.

2) Everyone does everything for a reason

While the PCs only need to know that Kingdom Y assassinated the King of X, as the DM you should know the King ordered the assassination to destabilize Kingdom X, as there is no heir apparent there.

3) Write notes in the way the PCs might hear it

Rumors overheard in a tavern or market, letters written from one lord to another, news from a merchant hiring the PCs to guard a caravan.

In this way, you can also introduce red herrings and inaccuracies, if you are familiar with the concept of Chinese Whispers.

[Comment from Johnn: great tip! I can see how writing notes the way the PCs might hear them saves a busy GM a lot of time. You get detail creation, relevance to PCs and potential read-aloud text all in one swoop. Nice.]

4) Sew seeds and information early

Don’t be afraid to start introducing some of these items, even when they aren’t in any way relevant to the PCs’ current quest.

That will definitely add to the players’ impression the world is moving without their intervention. It will also lay down the foundation for players to choose which quests they take on, without feeling like you’re railroading them. (Just make sure you read the tip on Chekhov’s Gun. Don’t introduce anything into the campaign if the players can’t interact with it in the future.)

From Gerald

I have a couple of ideas as to how you can manage the living and breathing aspect of a campaign world.

The first one depends on how many gamer friends you have who aren’t in your campaign. If you have enough – delegate! Get some friends to take on the roles of your primary NPCs. Give them the situation they are in and the resources they have, and ask them what they would do.

Evaluate those choices, and make a ruling as to their success, then update their situation. I would request one submission for each of your planned gaming sessions and they have as much in-game time as the PCs used.

The other option is to think of the NPCs as being characters in a turn-based game. You’ll probably want to use a spreadsheet program or something of that nature to track the events and NPCs.

Create a new row for each NPC. Each column will be one turn, which is the equivalent of one gaming session with your group (so a turn could be a month in-game or two hours).

After each session, run through your spreadsheet and determine what the goals of the NPCs are and what they are going to do to achieve it. After the first week, you’ll start the process by evaluating what happened to the goals set the week before, which will be dependent on how much in-game time has passed and what the PCs did.

You might also throw in an NPC named Natural Events, and use a random table to generate things like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

From Keith Davies

I find a wiki works well for tracking things like this, including links between entities. My campaign setting and scenario design techniques articles describe how I do this.

It’s pretty easy to track the links between entities and map out various events that may influence them. If the Ss’thar attack the Kreshtar (again), who gets pulled into the conflict? If the leader of the Kreshtar tribe is killed, what might happen (his heir was killed the last time, his bastard isn’t considered remotely suitable for the position)?

For time-driven events, other entries may be included along with timeline related tags. When spring of the Year of Unending Storms comes around, what do you have planned to happen? You don’t necessarily need to log each season this way (though it’s a thought). It might be enough to have a tag for it much as Wikipedia does for specific dates; attach the tag to the relevant entities and look them up when needed.

I’ve also got a campaign started (but idle) at Obsidian Portal where I’ve described the Kreshtar Tribes. Very summarized (and there is some further detail marked ‘GM only’) but enough to design from.

From Rob Corrina

Dear Beleaguered,

1. Surprise Is The Enemy

Some GM’s will tell you that surprise is their stock-in-trade. However, a philosopher like yourself need not stoop to such a gimmick.

Allow me to elaborate. You know more about the game world than could fit into a lecture, and more than would be practical to type, print and hand out to the players. So, how can you proceed?

Begin with player interviews. Ask them, if their character was in a book or movie, what type of story would it be? It might seem odd to start this way, but the only way to orient the players as your information partners is to set up this type of exchange. If they think you are telling them something because it relates to their character, they will listen and remember

No matter how outrageous or mediocre their expectations or ideas are, respond using your vast world knowledge of how they could achieve the story in the game world. Do not restrict your conversation in these meetings with any notions of GM vs. player vs. character knowledge.

Later, during game sessions, the player will be inclined to react, remind, identify, track and record data points they feel are most relevant to them, freeing you as the GM to represent the world and its characters.

2. Know The Rules Of The World

Details such as calendars and maps, as you pointed out, are ultimately one-dimensional.

Rules, on the other hand, have a great deal of potential. For example, knowing that the agrarian city of Ku-Man has an active Guild of Herdsman is a detail. When the players come back from the cyclops cave with sheep to sell (instead of treasure) and they are suddenly asked if they are good-standing members of the guild is a rule of the world.

2a. Don’t Act: React

A wonderful thing happens when you know the details of the world and its rules. Your personality is taken out of the equation. No longer is anything you do or say as a GM influenced by ego or aesthetics. You are simply the vessel of cause and effect.

3. Relationships

Unlike most aspects of the campaign, relationships can be arbitrarily defined by the GM as early as the pre-game planning stages. I usually assign an underdog as the patron of the party members, such as the youngest son of a noble family.

Simply insert this patron into their backstories. A few words about how he was there, at the risk of his reputation, to help the character when no one else would is usually enough to engage the players in the world. The other side of that coin is that the players are the young nobleman’s only chance of realizing his own hopes and dreams.

Much like a story on the news, it is very different if you know someone who lives there. With a relationship, the players now feel they know they know someone who lives there. And in such a way, the details come to life.

The arbitrary nature of this relationship can also be called upon during the campaign: “You are all in disguise as Shuck-Dul Raiders crossing the border of Aevenskull under the cover of night.”Is a fine way to start a session, even if that is not where the last session left off, provided the mission is for the young nobleman. And since you are not trying to surprise the players, you hinted several times they might need to sneak into Aevenskull.

Do you see? When the all the details of the world are crisp and certain so must the objectives of the players be. Only when the world is an ambiguous sketch is there an option to make the players’ inclinations and whims drive the narrative (or what exists where a narrative is supposed to be).

4. Protect What You Have Built (Player Psychology)

Now that you have started to bring the world to life with rules and relationships, you are going to have to protect your investments. For example, if the players leave town on an expedition their young patron is not to be murdered, kidnapped or replaced-with-a-doppelganger. I blame some bad T.V. and movie scripts, as well as 1970’s gaming, for putting these self-destructive notions in people’s heads.

Why, though. Why not swat the young nobleman while the players are out? Indeed, why not have him assassinated right in front of them!? That would be dramatic, wouldn’t it? After all, it is a violent world and what a swell way to illustrate that than to destroy the players’ primary conduit to that world.

Because, it is not an NPC you are destroying, it is your entire campaign. The patron character is a symbol of trust between the GM and the players and, as such, must be respected. You have only just begun to build the players’ confidence and interest. Even the most reticent among them are stepping out of their comfort zone to roleplay a little bit. Do not slam the door in their faces.

If you do, some players will never show up again. They won’t even know why, just that they gave something a try but it didn’t work out. Some of those that do stay will stab everyone and everything you put in their path. Why not? You cannot trust anyone or anything in the game world, starting with the GM.

That being said, many things happen to the young nobleman. He gets a letter warning him of a conspiracy against the city. He falls in love but does not have the money, stature or unique dowry items required to win the father’s approval. He is appointed treasurer of a guild that is about to go bankrupt. His haughty, well-to-do uncle (who the players know to be a villain) goes missing and they later find him dead. There are political, martial and romantic demands that he cannot navigate on his own. There is intrigue which sounds too dangerous. But the players will always be there, more or less at the right time. Because they have to be.

I know this all sounds awfully specific. But there doesn’t have to be a young patron. Anything that becomes a psychological anchor for the players is no longer a data-point or a detail. It is home and family to the player characters.

It could be a sanctuary or a base or a herd of animals or a vehicle. Many circumstances involving this anchor can and do happen. But it must never truly be threatened unless the players are present and in a powerful position to judiciously punish the perpetrator.

Bad things happen too. People and places are destroyed. Just not the one person or place the player characters depend on.

You may have to go as far as to specify what is and what is not safe as if you were explaining the mechanics of a board game.

5. All Together Now

Generations ago a noble would bring back a sand-colored mare from beyond the southern desert as a wedding gift for his bride to be. (detail) Currently this tradition lives only as commerce. (rule) There is a certain horse breeder who specializes in gift mares. (detail)

To help their patron win over his future-in-laws the players decide to invoke the old rites and take the actual journey beyond the southern desert and bring back an actual mare. (player initiative/ rule-breaking)

The GM guarantees he will not employ the clock against them. In other words, if they go south, get the horse and return they will be on time instead of ‘too late’. (secrets are bad)

6. The GM Emerges

The best source material in the world is only prep for the big show. Tabletop role-playing is not a solitary act, and there is nothing quite like bringing a world to players live. Just remember, you will learn more, and faster, from mistakes.

From Jane Sill

I have recently encountered the same issue of keeping track of an entire world. I have taken my cues from some study techniques I used in college. I have a 3 ring binder with dividers. Each page is a quick reference for the GM.

Nations And Politics

I have one section for nations and their politics. It has a brief description of a given city or nation’s politics. For example, do they have a prejudice against elves, or maybe there is unresolved turmoil from a big monster, warring factions, wizards experiment gone wrong, and so on.

The information should not exceed one page front and back, and should make note of a given population by race and profession. For example, 75% human 10% elf; 65% commoners, 10% experts 12% military.

It makes random city encounters easy to roll at a moment’s notice. It is also the page to make a note on notable characters, history and adventure hooks.

This section will also have a page for notable wilderness areas such as a haunted forest or the mountain region the giants inhabit.


A second section should be made for NPC stats. It is nice to have a quick reference for each NPC the PCs fight, do businesses with, or any other reason they might interact with them.

I have a section for random encounter tables I use often, and ones I have made for specific areas. It helps speed the game along.


I have a section for maps. Some are for the PCs and some are for the GM only.


Two other sections that might be useful:

  • Active quests to keep tabs on given clues and goals
  • Battles fought (helps to keep track of xp gained in dungeons that last over several games)

You can add sections as you need.

Do not to fill in every detail. It is a quick reference for the GM, not an expanded history. If you need more than a page or two of information, maybe a separate notebook on the topic can help.

While adding more depth enhances the game, it adds to a GM’s workload as well. I really enjoy the stories I weave, but I have killed a campaign trying to get ALL the information down.

Just focus on a good outline and let the PCs do the rest.

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