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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #365

Craft A Timeline Tool - Prepping A Game World For GMing and Play


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Craft A Timeline Tool - Prepping A Game World For GMing and Play

  1. Prepare A Global Snapshot
  2. Create A Timeline
  3. Timeline As History
  4. Timeline As Game Log
  5. Timeline As Plotline
  6. Update Your Timeline
  7. Ptolus - An Example Timeline

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Watch Where You're Stepping - Interesting Combat
  2. Tool Tip - Graphviz
  3. General World Creation
  4. Making More Dramatic Combat Scenes (D&D 3.5 Specific)


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A Brief Word From Johnn 

World Dev Series

I am in the unusual position of starting up a new campaign using Monte Cook's Ptolus product, plus having another, different world product sent to me for review. That's 1500 pages of world info, combined.

How does a GM process world books so you get a good understanding of what the world is about? There's so much material, you could get lost for a long time before gaming your first session. That's before contemplating customization and fleshing out the campaign region. Whew!

This week delves into one of the tools I use for grappling with world information - the timeline. It serves a number of purposes, as you will see, and works for processing published world info, or for designers developing homebrew realms. I hope you find the tips useful.

Recent Past Issues In Txt Format

Since issue #356 I've been putting the plain text version of Tips issues online for those who have filtering or blocking problems. Feel free to grab issues you miss from here.


Johnn Four,

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Craft A Timeline Tool - Prepping A Game World For GMing and Play  

By Johnn Four

1. Prepare A Global Snapshot 

If you are like me, you don't have time to read every page of a world product before putting it into gameplay. My deadline for making Ptolus ready to play is two weeks. Ptolus is 700 pages, plus all the digital and online information available for it. There's no way I have enough time available to process everything.

Best option is to freeze the game world at a point on the timeline, and take a global snapshot of it so you can record and learn its essential details, such as the economic, social, political, religious, magical, and adventure landscapes.

The best timeline point is the first moment of gameplay. That ensures your notes are fresh and relevant.

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2. Create A Timeline 

First thing I do when processing a world for play is to create a timeline and capture any dates I run across. This teaches you the game world calendar at the same time.

I use Excel so I can shuffle things around and sort, because you can stumble upon any date in any order in the text of most world products. Use index cards, Post-It Notes, graph paper, or any system you feel comfortable maintaining a timeline with.

I consider a timeline a core GM tool. Not only do I use timelines to track game world past, but also game world present and future.

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3. Timeline As History 

Pick your starting date for your campaign. Any date and information that happens before this is history. World history is good to know because it contains themes and events that influence the present day.

For example, one of the best ways to create a campaign is to use past world events as a basis for the plot:

  1. The information is there for mining, either in the history chapter, or sprinkled throughout the core world and supplemental materials.
  2. It's a great way to reveal a new world to players and yourself. To flesh out the campaign background and premise, you'll need to mine NPC names, past conflicts, past key locations, and other important world details. You get two things accomplished at once: you become familiar with the world's history, and you get some adventure planning done.
  3. It usually allows you to explore the core world themes and ideas of the designer(s). Most world builders have a vision for how their realm is special and different, then they try to pass this vision on through writing. This has mixed results, but diving into the past often reveals the unique aspects of a world and much of the designer's thought processes.
  4. Grasp the big chunks. Most world histories deal at a high level, with the big playing pieces. Details become finer as you get closer to the present day mark, as designated by the product.

I wouldn't take much time at first reading in detail about a world's history, unless it's short, as there's more important information you need for your snapshot. Skimming will do for now, and if you create a timeline tool, you can record the past in an efficient, accessible way for ongoing reference.

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4. Timeline As Game Log 

The second stage of our timeline tool is present day. Most world products will provide a date they call present day as a helpful benchmark for your campaign starts. Often, this is buried in the text, so you'll need to dig for it.

Feel free to begin your campaigns in any time you wish. For example, I find sometimes a game world's present day is in a state I don't like, or doesn't work for my campaign concept. There's too much war, or not enough. It's too civilized, or not civilized enough. Sometimes a period in the past is too good not to take the players there and game out, and sometimes you can envision a compelling future based on the world's current vectors that drives you to start play at that point.

When you are ready, declare what the present day is. Everything that happens before that date is History. This is noteworthy because it means it's non-interactive. Time travel campaigns and flashback encounters aside, what is history cannot be changed, and therefore the players have no say in it. The day your campaign truly begins is when players can take their first actions or make the first decisions that affect the world around them.

Therefore, pick present day strategically. Don't bypass what you'd like to play out. Skip ahead of stuff that is critical and must happen in a certain way for your campaign premise - players represent a high-risk agent of change. Players accept history as such, especially at campaign start, so now is the time to ensure any set-up conditions.

Once the clock ticks past the start date, you change from history mode to present day mode. As PCs take actions and make choices, you'll need to record events, consequences, NPCs met, places visited, and so on. 'Present day mode' is just an ugly way to say game log.

Your timeline, by recording events as they happen, becomes your game log.

This solves a few GM logistic issues, such as organization, pre-game and in-game note taking, planning, and reference. You are taking regular notes, but each entry has a date stamp, allowing you to list entries in the order they occurred. As soon as the clock ticks, the encounter that just happened is now History. Game log = timeline = happy GM.

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5. Timeline As Plotline 

For my GMing purposes, I've defined plot as my plans for the campaign. These plans are not in cement though. The players are welcome - and expected - to change them. Having plans in place gives me a foundation to plot out reactions, consequences, and follow-up encounters.

I define story as how things play out during sessions. Story combines my plot with player choices. It's dynamic. Story is what's happening right now in the campaign.

Always keep an eye out for story, like a journalist with keen senses. Find story by taking account of the current situation - who the PCs are, what the PCs are doing, what's at stake, who the NPCs are and what they're doing. Strip away the rules, condense gameplay, and wrap actions, consequences, and characters into a story.

Story is a sense of what's happening or what has just occurred. For example, a battle might take 2 hours in real time to game out. However, the story is the PCs were waylaid while on their mission to save the kingdom, losing precious time and resources doing battle with creatures looking for their next meal. The fight was won, thanks to the life-and- death actions of the heroes, who have come a long way from their humble roots. They don't have time to congratulate themselves though, because they must press on.

This sense of decoding and condensing game play into a tale is important to develop. Be sure to share these views, summaries, and observations with your players at every opportunity. Tell the story. Encourage your players to do the same, either in retrospectives, or better yet, during descriptions of PC actions.

Story is the dynamic unfolding of events based on player decisions, character actions, and GM in-game actions. Plot is your static plan of what's happened in the past and what's slated for the future.

If you plot future plans with estimated dates along your timeline, then what you've got is your plotline - the third stage of the timeline tool. This is a great planning method, as long as you can stay flexible and not be tempted to force things in a certain direction against player wishes to suit your schedule of events.

The timeline of plot points has the added benefit of being a reminder and scheduler. As the calendar moves onward, you'll see events and plans appear on the horizon, plus any short term plot points about to be triggered.

When plans go awry for a particular item, you can change the date, or move the item to a dateless limbo area where you can quickly insert it back into the plotline.

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6. Update Your Timeline 

As with any diary or documentation tool, it's only useful if you keep it current. As soon as you lose trust in the information - outdated, missing, incorrect - then the tool becomes a burden or gathers dust.

Prepare to keep your timeline up to date:

  • Keep it handy while you do planning.
  • Update it during sessions, if possible. Use it as your game log.
  • Update it after each session as a habitual post-session activity. Fix entries, refine information, add entries you forgot during play.
  • While you read campaign and world related books, keep the timeline nearby for data entry, or develop a system so you can transfer dated items quickly when the timeline is available. For example, make entries on Post-It Notes, then process accumulated Post-Its as soon as possible.

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7. Ptolus - An Example Timeline 

Here is an example timeline I'll be using for my Ptolus campaign. I've cleared out some data to protect the innocent.


  • I track the current date in the top left corner for quick reference and updating.
  • Names of weekdays and months are numbered so I can figure out their order and sort them in Excel easily.
  • I've appended the number of days in a month to the end of each month name for reference. If I memorize this information through use I'll just remove it as it won't affect sort order.
  • The Type column contains a drop-down with current values Event and Log. This lets me sort or filter by entry type in the future. For example, I will want to view only game log entries so I can get a report on what happened during game sessions. I like to review session logs, when I have time, to mine for hooks, loose ends, planning, and logic and consistency checks.
  • The plot columns will contain plot specific notes about an entry. PCs might have their own plots, and I'll be running at least two plot threads, so having seperate columns to track notes, ideas, consequences, and reactions to an event entry lets me sort, filter, and view on a plotline specific basis.

* * *

Past, present, future. History, game log, plotline. A timeline is a handy GM aid for many reasons. At the very least, it helps you learn the world calendar. :) Create a timeline for your campaign today.

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. Watch Where You're Stepping - Interesting Combat 

From: Palmer of the Turks

You're in a fight, sure, but how much do you know about the terrain? Yeah, there's walls here and there, and that space is blocked by a boulder, but what are you _standing_ on? Or in, for that matter?

Before combat, it's a good idea to create a number of minor terrain hazards and inconveniences you can toss out there to make people pay more attention to what they're doing. When a fight breaks out, pick a few and scatter them on the field secretly.

Note the game effects of entering, passing through, and staying in each affected space (if they apply).

Some hazards can be minor inconveniences most combatants can ignore safely (loose gravel on cave floor, minor chance of losing balance and suffering a small penalty). Some can be inconvenient (heavy, tall grass slows movement). Certain terrain should be relevant to the setting (patch of lava, perhaps).

Depending on the feature, perhaps allow characters a free roll to see if they notice it before they enter the space, with the option to move elsewhere instead).

Ideas include:

  • Shallow pothole
  • Gopher/Rabbit hole
  • Tall and/or heavy grass
  • Small shrubbery
  • Small fire
  • Campfire
  • Bonfire
  • Smoldering firepit
  • Flaming oil patch
  • Unlit oil patch
  • Shallow mud
  • Deep mud
  • Black/Slippery ice
  • Thin ice
  • Puddle
  • Thornbush
  • Corpse
  • Old, dusty corpse
  • Pebbles/Gravel
  • Loose rubble
  • Dusty patch
  • Breaking plank/step/tile
  • Lava
  • Shallow water
  • Deeper water
  • Running water/river
  • Low ceiling
  • Distracting glare
  • Slippery muck
  • Wobbly footing

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2. Tool Tip - Graphviz 

From: Alex Bender

Tool Tip - Graphviz:

Ever want to track the intricate interweaving of anything via text but have the output in an easy to understand picture? (jpg, gif, tif, png, etc.) Graphviz originally used to track code-module dependencies, but I've found it great for keeping track of all the characters, both PC and NPC, and how they relate to each other in my campaign.

As things change, rather than re-draw the whole diagram, just change a line of code and it all works out.

For one set, to track a large online setting with over 1000 characters, I use a database and then just run a report to get up-to-date information. For my tabletop game, where there's only a few characters involved, I make the changes by hand.

Here's an example gif relationship diagram.

Here is the code that generated the diagram in GraphViz.

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3. General World Creation 

From: Michael L. Bricker

When creating a fantasy or sci-fi world, it helps to keep in mind several often overlooked points about planetary features.

  1. Deserts When deciding where deserts should go, remember that a desert always forms on one side of a mountain range or a similar barrier. The reason being that, when winds carrying clouds bump up against a tall mountain range, they prevent the continuation of the clouds' travel. This results in one side of the mountains being lush and wet, and the other being a dry, arid, desert.

    To further the general feeling of realism, remember that the direction of the planet's rotation affects the direction of prevalent winds in a region. Earth rotates from west to east, which means prevalent winds in the northern hemisphere are west to east, and ones in the southern are east to west. If your planet rotates in a different direction the winds will switch accordingly.

    So, it helps to make sure your deserts are on the proper side of the mountains as to the direction of your planet's rotation (this avoids discrepancies).
  2. Mountains Being huge amounts of rock and soil thrust up due to the shifting of continental plates, mountains will mostly form around the edges of the plates, so it pays to draw up a rough outline of where your major plates are, and then build your mountains along the edges.

    Same goes for some types of island chains that form where the plates cause mountains to grow out of the ocean.

    After you have your plates, you can easily place island chains (if wanted) and mountain ranges, and after the mountains, your deserts.
  3. Lakes Lakes are often large and shallow canyons and valleys that got filled with water at some point, and do not drain quicker than they are fed. As such, it pays to give thought to how such a large dent was made.

    A prime reason is glaciers. The Great Lakes around the state of Michigan and along Canada were formed this way. Therefore, imagine where a glacier from your planet's past would grow. Place it down on the present-day continent and imagine how it receded north. You will hopefully see good places where the land would be gouged and lakes would form.

    Note that lakes need to be fed by some source of water, usually a few rivers and many streams and creeks. There should also be a point where water leaves the lake and heads toward the ocean.
  4. Rivers Rivers usually start on or near a mountain and make their way toward the sea. Rarely do they spring from nowhere, and as such, it does not give the world a natural feel to have your rivers spring out of the blue instead of slowly forming from small creeks and tributaries. (Of course, if you want to give your a world that fantastical feel, by all means ignore everything I'm saying here.)

    Remember that a river is usually flowing toward the closest sea, following gravity and the path of least resistance. This might not always be in a straight line, but if it matters in which direction the water is flowing, it helps to know which way the ocean is at.

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4. Making More Dramatic Combat Scenes (D&D 3.5 Specific) 

From: Miguel Garcia

  1. 1) Tossing and pushing in melee There are rules for Bull Rushing and pushing characters, enemies, and objects around. If you want additional action in a combat scene, spice it up with a few characters and enemies being knocked around a good distance with the appropriate attack roll/damage rolls.

    This only applies with bludgeoning and unarmed weapons. (A slicing weapon would just cut through.) If a huge troll swings his club like a baseball bat and deals damage, send the affected character a few feet away instead of keeping her in the same place.

    To reduce the frustration that opportunity attacks might cause your players, just suppress the opportunity attacks against that specific enemy (in roleplaying terms, this would mean the character has already measured her opponent, and now approaches carefully).

    Assign the knockback distance based on the size of the enemy (5 feet per size increment x 2), on the damage ( 5 feet for every XX HP received), or on the dice roll (all crits).
  2. Slamming and bouncing Ok, now that you've sent your characters flying, give them a chance to recover instead of slamming against a wall or the ground. You can set a reflex check to land or bounce properly against the wall, or an agility/strength check to either bounce or slam against the wall without taking damage. Skills like tumble or jump can also be used to be fairer with acrobatic classes.

    To define damage, set a damage dice roll per feet (i.e., 4d per 5 feet flown), or half the damage taken with the first attack, for example.
  3. Collateral damage and effects A combat scene with sharp objects and nasty magic blasts falling around doesn't usually result in a tidy or safe place. Unexpected events can happen. For example:
    • Smashing an opponent's head with a morningstar might result in a spray of blood that might blind the character.
    • A freezing effect inside a cave might turn the fungi and ooze on the rocks unnaturally slippery.
    • A specific kind of energy inside a temple might activate some trap mechanism.
    • A fire blast inside a forest might ignite the highly flammable oil on the leaves of the local trees.
    • A bludgeoning attack on a disarmed/defenseless attack may smash not only the enemies' head but the highly valuable artifact he magically hid inside his skull.
    • A missing arrow crushed a hive of venomous bees, pierced a box filled with poisonous gas, or the side of a humongous creature that resembled the wall of a cave.

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