Getting Organized For A New Campaign

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0568

A Brief Word From Johnn

Happy New Year to you! How was your Christmas? My wife and I went to British Columbia to visit her family for the holidays.

While it was -20C in Edmonton where we live, it was a balmy -2C where we were staying. Practically t-shirt and shorts weather.

I start a new campaign this year. My group finished the Riddleport campaign last November. Then due to schedule conflicts and the holidays, we have not had chance to dig into a new campaign. Well, that’s technically not true.

We did play one session with new PCs. My vision was to create a new game world and run that. We ran one game in it, with bare bones setting details sketched out. However, afterwards I realized I do not have the time in 2013 to build a world, a new campaign, a series of adventures, plus all the stuff I want to do for Roleplaying Tips.

Something had to give. So, instead of building a homebrew world, I’m using Ptolus as the setting. I’ll also be using a combination of published adventures and homebrew adventures.

The overall campaign arc is still in development, but that will be homebrew, using a villain out of a D&D 3.5 book. I just selected him last night (there was rubbing of hands and gleeful cackling). However, he’s a long-term villain. I have several others to conjure up for more immediate conflicts.

Getting Organized For A New Campaign

Software and Tools I’ve Picked to Stay Sane While Running “Chalice”

My Riddleport campaign wrapped up late last year in a hairy finale where the PCs ascended as a new pantheon of gods. The group decided to run their immortal PCs in the background while starting a new group of characters who serve the godling PCs.

That means we’re starting a new campaign (we’re calling it Season 2). Very exciting! And we’re calling Season 2 The Chalice Bastards, or Chalice for short. Why?

Well, the Silver Chalice was the inn the PCs used as a home base in Riddleport. And the group decided, based on how the characters turned out and were roleplayed throughout Season 1, that their PCs had a mean streak but for the sake of good. We voted, and Chalice Bastards became the new campaign’s name.

That suits me. It’s a great name, and something I’m already plotting around. Chalice will have more than one meaning or reference, as the PCs are about to learn.

I Will Be Better Organized This Time

In Season 1, my information started to sprawl out and it became near unmanageable. It caused me a lot of GMing headaches. I’m not going to make that mistake again.

In this article, I’m going to show you how I’m organizing my new campaign so I stay on top of the ton of details, files and references my campaigns always generate.

Step 1: Pick Your One True Source

One big problem was I had my notes in too many places. I could not find what I wanted fast because I was flipping through multiple software files and paper notebooks. Sometimes information even went missing. Not good.

The solution is to have one place where you put all official and canon campaign information. Call this your One True Source (OTS).

It then becomes your job to update your OTS regularly with all information you create and need to run your campaign. For example, if you use a notebook to record ideas or sketch out NPC and encounter designs, you need to transfer “keeper” information from this to your OTS. That way, you have all official information in one coherent spot.

You might want to schedule a set day and time to read through your ramblings and transfer keeper information to your OTS, to make it a habit.

Now, when you need to summon an NPC’s name, or find encounter details or get the scoop on a world region you’ve created, you know exactly where to find it.

My One True Source

There are many options for your OTS. I’ve selected Dungeon Master Tools – MyInfo Software, which I’ve used for several campaigns now.

Another great option is Evernote. I am actually also using Evernote for Chalice, but there’s a reason why I’m sticking with MyInfo as my OTS. If there’s interest, I can explain why in a future email.

Index cards also offer a flexible solution. Easy to file and find information, and cards keep your information in small, manageable chunks.

(By the way, if you love index cards but yearn for software, you have to check out Trello. It’s free and cool and simple. I’m experimenting with it right now to help me build adventures.)

An organized RPT#69 – Putting Together The Ultimate DM Binder, GM Binder is a favoured solution too.

In the past I used a simple Business Source Expanding File, accordion file to great effect. Easy to store hand drawn maps, props and loose papers this way.

Back to software OneNote, is super because of its document type flexibility and tabbed interface.

Or you might find these more game specific apps more to your liking:

Wikis are another great option. I use PBWorks, which is free, but not as my OTS because I can use MyInfo offline. But a wiki might be the perfect tool for you. You should also check out Obsidian Portal and TiddlyWiki.

iPad Apps

I have an iPad so can only comment on iOS apps. But three you might be interested in are:

Stick to One System

Ok, a lot of options and I know I’ve missed a few. The point is, pick one system, tool or piece of software and stick with it. Don’t keep switching because you find a pain point in your current OTS. Every solution has strengths and shortcomings.

If you keep switching to find that perfect tool, a) you will never find it and b) you will waste a lot of time migrating information around between tools that you could have spent working on your campaign.

Do your research up front and then make a decision. And then make sure your One True Source remains up to date, organized and reliable.

Do this, and you will keep your GM sanity when your campaign starts to heat up.

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Step 2: Curate Your One True Source Often

Imagine a pile of folders and papers sitting on your desk. Some papers are napkins with ideas inked on them. Some are graph paper with maps sketched out. Some are 17 page adventures you’ve cobbled together. A few are Post-Its and ripped-apart page slips with your scrawl marks on them.

What would you do with this pile? You’d probably want to sort it out. You’d create smaller piles organized by topic, such as NPCs, Maps, Plots, Game World, Tables & Reference.

You would probably also transfer notes from the smaller or dirtier pieces onto full sheets. You might also put the sheets into some order, such as alphabetical.

And then you would gather up each pile of sheets and make the stack tidy, tapping it on the table a few times to get all the edges together.

This exercise is known as curation. Curation is akin to tending your garden, keeping it watered and fed, but also weeding it and trimming the unruly plants.

As your campaign carries on, your OTS will grow like a pile of paper and folders does on your desk over time. And that’s a trap. A Grimtooth kind of trap.

You need to curate your One True Source often, else it grows out of control and becomes a headache that taps your SAN points.

Search is not the Answer

A big misconception digital GMs have is that “search will help me find what I need whenever I need it.”

Search suffers from GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. Here’s just one real life GIGO example that bit me in the butt last campaign and which illustrates why you can’t keep a messy OTS and just rely on search.

When I create an encounter I tend to think and plan in small plot arcs. 5 Room Dungeon style. Because most of my encounters are part of a web of NPCs, locations and plots, single encounters usually relate to other encounters.

In MyInfo I have a section called Plots. I keep all ideas, past plots and current plots stored here for reference. This section includes adventures and encounters.

Well, I started creating lots of encounters and tying them together as the campaign went along. I’d get an idea, type it in and flesh it out. But soon my information started to get split up amongst multiple encounters within MyInfo instead of put in their proper buckets. And searching would give me multiple hits, which forced me to open several documents each time to find the specific reference I needed.

For example, while creating an encounter I’d need a new NPC. Let’s call him Klash. So I added a couple lines about Klash in the encounter and moved on. Then I had some thoughts about the overall plot arc and put those notes in a different area within MyInfo. And those notes happened to involve Klash. Later, I decide to create another doc in MyInfo to store Klash’s personality profile and stat block.

Now I’ve got important info about Klash in three separate places! By the end of my Riddleport campaign, I had 418 documents. Searching for “Klash” right now produces 6 results, and 4 contain information that should be part of his overall character sheet.

Here’s a simpler example of why search will fail you. Duplicates. I will create a second or even third document in MyInfo about an NPC, location or item, not realizing there’s already a document created for it. This will happen no matter what system you use. And it foils search pretty well. Which document is the official one?

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Curate Regularly

There are two solutions for information sprawl and redundancy in your OTS, which are part of a good curation strategy.

1. Curate As You Go

Have your categories in place from the start. Then it takes just moments when creating a new document about an NPC, item, location, plot, encounter or whatever to file it under the proper category.

Before creating a new document, you can scan fast in the proper category if you do not remember whether the thing already has a document or not.

2. Review On Schedule

Set a regular time to review and organize your OTS.

  • Gather up info that’s sprawled since last review and combine it into a single doc.
  • Find and remove duplicates. For example, in MyInfo a single click sorts all my documents by name. It takes moments to scan and catch duplicates this way.
  • Move misfiled items. Sometimes I put an NPC in my Gazetteer, or an Item in my Plots area. While scanning for dupes, move misplaced information to their proper bucket.

3. Gather Up Your Notes

I saved the most important curation step for last. What bit my butt hard last campaign was having information stashed away in multiple pieces of software, paper notebooks and loose pieces of paper.

I’d get an idea at work and throw it in Evernote. I’d get an idea at Starbucks and write it in my journal. I’d get an idea watching hockey and I’d write it in the margin of a magazine.

You need to consolidate all these notes into your OTS. That puts all your information in one place so you don’t lose it. Even if search is clunky because of duplicates or sprawl, you still know and trust your information is in this one place. Nothing is more frustrating than looking in a thousand places for a key piece of information just before your players are about to arrive on game night.

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Get On Top, Stay On Top

Curation might seem like a lot of work. But that’s just because of the pedantic way I’ve explained it to you just now. It really just takes a few minutes each review. And doing so gives you wonderful benefits:

When reviewing, consolidating, fixing and sorting your campaign information, you keep more details fresh in your head and you remember them longer. Remembering more information means sleeker GMing because you can just referee and narrate without having to reference your notes as much!

Also, better detail recall means you paint yourself into fewer corners because you have the facts straight and do not miss out on important information. I hate it when I miss a key detail and then have to refactor a game element so it makes sense again. Grrrr.

A regular review also generates a lot of inspiration. I get ideas as I sort through my campaign notes, and often I’ll find new ways to connect different ideas together.

For example, I might suddenly realize how I can connect two NPCs in an interesting way (one might now be a step-brother of the other) and then see how I can connect them to an encounter (the one brother now owes a gambling debt and is getting “reminded” by collection agents in an alley).

We play every other Thursday, when schedules permit. So my curation takes place:

  • Just before the game starts. I have a few minutes between getting home from work and game time. Reviewing notes and curating them here refreshes my memory of campaign details.
  • My off-night. On the Thursday night I’m not GMing, I use that time to do campaign prep. And I start prep sessions with notes review and curation to get my head into the details and the right mood.

If you keep your garden weed-free, well-fed and watered, and orderly, your plants will thrive. So too will your campaign by curating your OTS.

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Step 3: Separate Ideas from Canon

Here is another big gotcha from an information management and GM sanity point of view.

Keep your ideas separate from official campaign information.

When you mix up what might be with what has happened, you get mixed up in your notes and planning and GMing. For example, if you can’t remember if you’ve told the players something or if it’s just an idea you wrote somewhere, you’ve got a problem.

Unless the detail has actually happened during gameplay, or the players are aware of it, or other official stuff depends on it, then that detail is still an idea, not canon. You can still change it without disrupting anything.

This is great because your options here are wide open. And you need to know if this is the case, else you risk logic errors or embarrassing yourself.

I keep ideas separate from canon by putting my ideas in a different system. I use Evernote for this because it’s free and has a version for my PC, Mac, iPad and iPhone. Notes get synched across all devices, so I always have my latest notes with me.

In this way, ideas do not taint my OTS. I know, with 100% certainty, that my OTS is official campaign information. I sleep well at night. 🙂

If you use index cards, put idea cards in a different box. If you use a binder, create a new binder for ideas. If you use other software, create a different account or file, because it’s best if ideas do not get mixed in search results or while browsing.

And be sure to curate your ideas along with your official campaign notes.

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Step 4: Books Get Their Own Shelf

This one is simple. I do not want to hunt around for misplaced books while prepping. What a hassle.

So I’ve cleared space in a bookshelf beside my game table to just hold my campaign related books.

Dropbox For Ebooks

I also use ebooks for my campaigns. I have purchased a lot of ebooks over the years, and use them for reference, inspiration and campaign content.

As with physical books, last campaign my ebooks got spread out across different devices and computers, and various folders and hard drives.

I’ve consolidated all my RPG ebooks onto one hard drive now (and backed it up).

And I’ve created a folder in Dropbox for my campaign. In that folder is another folder called Reference, and here’s where I’m placing all my new campaign’s ebooks, saved web pages and files.

I like Dropbox because all my computers and devices can access the files. I no longer have to figure out on which computer, device or hard drive an ebook lives.

Also, I can access Dropbox from the web. So if I’m at a friend’s place, I can surf to my campaign information from his computer.

MyInfo works great with Dropbox too. I put my MyInfo campaign file in my RPG folder, and can access it from the different computers.

Evernote uses Evernote servers to synch information. So I do not need Dropbox for it. (And Evernote actually recommends you don’t use a service like Dropbox for its local files.)

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Step 5: Use Just One Notebook

I have several notebooks. One for work, one for personal stuff, a journal, one for Roleplaying Tips and a few from past campaigns. I like handwriting my thoughts and ideas out, so I always need an ink-and-paper solution around.

Last campaign, my Riddleport notes started to creep into different notebooks. That became a headache because searching through a notebook itself is analog and manual enough, but searching through multiple notebooks because you’re not sure where you wrote something is a huge pain.

This time around, I’m sticking with just one notebook from my campaign thoughts!

At lunch last week, I went the local bookstore and browsed their journals and stationery section. I waited till this time to do it because journals are always on sale in January. I picked up a nice $30 hardcover journal for $7. Score!

(Also, if your game calendar is based on Earth’s, now is the time to get calendars and day timers at huge discounts. Just scratch out 2013 and replace with your campaign’s year.)

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Step 6: Keep It Simple

I know there are several first-time game masters reading this because I received a few introduction emails recently from gamers trying GMing out this year. Congrats on stepping up!

I just wanted to comment on the fact that this article contains a lot of tool suggestions and information about staying organized as GM.

However, you really just need a copy of your rulebook, some dice and paper and pencils to run a game. That’s it.

I enjoy using a computer, various stationery items, tons of books and different props for my games. But these items are all optional. To be a great GM, you just need to keep running games and to use your imagination.

The veteran GMs who are Roleplaying Tips members would agree with me. Keep it simple when starting out!

Also, I know many GMs have a more ad hoc style. They just pick up and go. However, my campaigns tend to have tens of thousands of words of notes by the end because I like to write. Writing helps me think things through, and it’s fun.

You might not have information management challenges because of your GM style. But, if you are like me, then I hope you found today’s tips useful. Getting mixed up, sprawled out and disorganized is a killer when you GM with lots of information. A little planning at the start of a campaign to ensure your information stays organized and that you have a system you trust goes a long way toward strong GMing confidence.

Are You Interested In Learning How to Use MyInfo For Campaign Management?

If there’s enough interest, I’d like to create a short course that would show you how I use my software of choice – MyInfo – for campaign management.

I’d start from scratch and do a real case study and tutorials for you using my new Chalice campaign, which I’m just starting to plan and organize. Perfect timing!

You’d receive a combination of short tutorials, tips and video screencasts of me using the software to create my One True Source for Chalice, and how I use it to prep and run my games.

This would all be free for you, as thanks for being a Roleplaying Tips reader.

But first, I’d like to find out if there’s enough interest to warrant putting a campaign management and MyInfo course together.

Sign up for the course here: GM Organization

If enough RPT readers are interested, I’ll start building the course right away!