A Simple Method For Campaign Creation: Managing Complex Systems Over Time In A Campaign World

From David Younce

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0272

Managing Complex Systems Over Time In A Campaign World

In this article, I outline a simple, powerful technique for “filling in the gaps” and managing the complex systems of your campaign world. The goals of using this technique are to:

  1. Add detail and depth to your campaign world
  2. Make your campaign world a living, breathing, changing place
  3. Generate easy, interesting plot hooks on any scale
  4. Makethe PCs feel like their actions affect the world around them
  5. Quickly determine a current state of affairs in a given complex system
  6. Quickly generate histories, legends, politics, economies, and opportunities for adventure!

So, if those sound like things you’d like to do with your campaign, keep reading! Although my focus and examples are from a “standard” d20 System fantasy RPG setting, there’s no reason the ideas here won’t work for any setting or RPG system. For the purposes of this article, a “complex system” is the ongoing interaction of two or more individuals or groups (“actors”) where each actor has its own specialized goals and motivations.

The Method

At any level of detail, city, village, or dungeon, the steps of setting up and maintaining a complex system are the same:

  1. Map out the main actors and have some idea of their goals
  2. Determine the attitudes of the actors toward each other
  3. Determine how things are going (or have gone) for each of the actors currently or over time
  4. Translate what you have learned about the system back into storytelling terms

Random determinations for system management are made with d100 rolls, where 50 is considered a median, and things are relatively better or worse depending on how far from that median the result is. 100 means things are great, 01 means things are at their absolute worst.

For mostof the complex systems in your campaign, you probably have some idea already of the main actors involved. You might have a large swamp in with tribes of bugbears, lizardfolk, orcs, goblins, human cultists, and so on. You might have a kingdom surrounded by two or three other kingdoms and nothing but an alignment written down for each. You might have determined what deities are worshipped in your campaign world, in which case you probably have a good idea of what temples are active in your largest city.

Step 1

Take a blank sheet of paper and write the name of an actor and draw a circle around the name. For each actor in the system, do the same until you have a sheet with a bunch of more-or-less evenly distributed circles on it. If the actors are arranged geographically (as between nations or humanoid tribes in a dungeon) try to have a semblance of that geography reflected in the way you’ve drawn your actors on the paper, since actors most often have a relationship with actors nearest to them.

Step 2

With actors drawn, pencil a line between two actors where you want to establish a relationship. You need not draw a line between every actor, especially in a system with many actors.

Next,roll d100 for each relationship line and write the resulting number down. If the two actors are of differing alignments, I usually apply a negative modifier to the roll to reflect the distance in their world views.

The resulting die roll will represent how the two actors feel about each other. If you can, think of a reason they might feel that way toward each other. Note that things may come into more focus after you see how each actor is doing in the next step.

Tip: Once I have established the nature of a relationship, I often use crayons or colored pencils to color-code it so that I can quickly see what’s going on when I refer back to the page.

Step 3

When you have your actors and their relationships assigned, make d100 rolls for each actor to see how things have been going for them lately.

  • 01-49 is bad to okay
  • 50-100 is okay to good

Indynamic systems you track over time (such as cities, economies, and nations) you will make this roll periodically and adjust the relationships accordingly. Write the number

inside the circle you drew for the actor.

Step 4

As you go (or at the end, if you prefer) try to think of a reason things have been going well or going poorly for the actor. Revisit the relationship numbers and refine the nature and reasons for the relationship based on what you now know about the actors and their relative fortunes.

As we look at each level of scale in the tips below, I offer a few suggestions for translating good and bad rolls back into story terms. As you determine a story or event connected with your actors and their relationships, jot a quick note down about it on the paper beside the actors or their relationship. Then, when you have time, write a more detailed version in your notes to refer to in-game or as you craft adventures.

If you’re uncomfortable with a graphic representation, you can do the same thing in a spreadsheet, making a simple matrix where every actor has its own row and column. Input the results of your rolls or relationship values you assign into the intersection of two actors, and use cell comments to make your notes about the relationship.

This will work fine, and there are some additional things you can do with the data in a spreadsheet, such as charting relationships over time to show changes in the balance of power. However, since I am used to drawing them out on paper or using graphical computer tools such as Visio or MindManager for my charts, my examples will reflect the graphical way of handling system management.

On A Tribe Or Village-Wide Scale

Okay, so your players parleyed with the lizardfolk tribe you expected them to battle and have decided to spend the night in the lizardfolk village. Now, suddenly, you need to know what kinds of things are going on in the village and whether there’s any adventure to be had there. So, you tell people it’s time for a quick break and play will reconvene in five minutes.

While your players break, you take out a blank piece of paper and write down all the major actors in the tribe. In this case, we’ll say you have the Chieftain, a Shaman, another Druid, the biggest Warrior, and the PCs. In a relatively small system like this, you can draw a relationship line between every actor and every other actor.

Now it’s time to determine the attitudes between the actors in your tribe-wide system. Assign numbers for anything you’ve already established.

In our example, I’d call the Chieftain-PC dynamic at least a 70 because combat was avoided and he is having them stay the night. For other relationships, roll a d100 for each possible relationship in the tribe and write the result on the relationship line you’ve drawn.

You’ve already played the Chieftain as a bit of a coward, so you decide to apply a -10 modifier to relationship rolls involving him since he’s likely to be overthrown soon.

You don’t establish the PCs’ attitudes, but you can establish how the other actors will feel about them.

A few d100 rolls later, we have the following relationships:

  • Chieftain-Shaman: 3
  • Chieftain-Druid: 58
  • Chieftain-Warrior: 16
  • Chieftain-PCs: 70 (assigned)
  • Shaman-Druid: 82
  • Shaman-Warrior: 73
  • Shaman-PCs: 21
  • Druid-Warrior: 83
  • Druid-PCs: 23
  • Warrior-PCs: 56

Now, establish how well each actor (except the PCs) has been doing over the last little while:

  • Chief: 12
  • Shaman: 27
  • Druid: 19
  • Warrior: 20

With these numbers in front of you, come up with a quick picture of the tribe’s politics. Here’s what I first thought of, based on the above numbers:

It looks like the Chieftain’s tenure really is about to end, and I would peg the Shaman as his replacement. There is strong enmity between them, each blaming the other for the tribe’s situation (the 3 roll). The other Druid tenuously supports the Chieftain but is good friends with the Shaman. I interpret this to mean that the other Druid is the Chieftain’s brother and, while he recognizes the leadership has been poor, would rather see the Chieftain driven out than killed (which is what the Shaman clearly wants).

Since every actor rolled low on the current status roll, I’m going to say food has been extremely scarce, and the whole tribe has been suffering. The Chieftain knows the jig is up and has invited the party back to camp in the hopes that they will defend him if things turn sour (he may even throw himself at their feet and beg them to do so).

The Shaman, Druid, and Warrior seem to like each other pretty well, and none of them likes the fact that the PCs have come to visit, except the Warrior, and even he is pretty indifferent. It looks like the Shaman and the Druid are going to use the opportunity of the PCs’ visit not just to depose the Chieftain but also to establish themselves as the saviors of the tribe by cooking the PCs for dinner!

If the PCs figure the situation out, they might be able to save their skins by allying with the Shaman against the Chieftain and by sharing whatever provisions they have to build up trust with the Shaman. Now we have a pretty exciting evening laid out back at the lizardfolk camp, whereas five minutes ago it looked like they might just roast marshmallows together!

On A Dungeon-Wide Scale

Most dungeons contain several types of monsters, including some with intelligence, living in close proximity to each other. Over time, it is natural that alliances, trade, enmity, war, servitude, and other relationships will develop between the groups in your dungeon.

Lawful Evil creatures tend to organize themselves and often seek control of the groups around them through subversive and subtle means. Chaotic Evil creatures are more likely to seek control of an area by conquering surrounding groups and using the survivors as food or slaves. On the other hand, most intelligent creatures understand that a mutually beneficial (though perhaps tenuous) relationship can be established with neighboring groups so that each group can pursue its own goals without losing too many of its number in unnecessary bloodshed.

When a party of PCs arrives on the scene, a well developed dungeon system will already be behaving in a realistic way. You won’t accidentally have a unicorn in the next room over from a brutal tribe of bugbears without any explanation as to why.

As you map out your actors on paper at a dungeon-wide level, do it in a manner that represents the way the groups are geographically arranged in the dungeon, and only draw relationship lines between groups likely to interact.

Favorable relationships between groups can mean they are allied against a common foe, trade with each other, simply allow passage through each others areas, or one group may secretly or openly control the other group.

Unfavorable relationships mean tension, raids, war, a predator-prey relationship, and so on. When your players start noticing the politics of your dungeon, a clever group of PCs will begin to play one group off of another or make temporary alliances with a group of monsters against their neighboring enemies.

When you roll for how things have been going for a monster group in a dungeon, you start to see who the power players are. Doing well on this roll means the actor is getting what it wants. So, what does that tribe of bugbears want? Food? If you roll that they are doing well, but they are surrounded by enemies, that means their raids for food are successful. If they have allies, it might mean the bugbears get all the food they need in tribute from the groveling goblins next door.

Do you have a group of drow slavers that is doing well? That probably means that they are both getting a steady supply of slaves from somewhere and that they are finding a way to export and sell their slaves without much trouble. If things are going poorly for the slavers, they have been unable to capture slaves, the slaves they were exporting were stolen by another group, they lost one of their best fighters in a recent slave raid, they can’t find a market for their slaves, other groups have started to band together against them, or whatever else you can think of.

On A City-Wide Scale

This is my favorite level of detail to deal with, and I hope I can show you why. Since cities are often a base for PCs to return to between adventures, they are also one of the primary places the PCs look for new adventures. There are usually a number of important groups or people in the city, all of whom have resources, motives, allies, and enemies.

PCs interact with NPCs on a regular basis in your cities, which means it is easy for your barkeep to make small talk about the cleric charged with murder or the city councilman sentenced to hang tomorrow for corruption. Also, since in many campaigns players return to the same city time and again, it is the first level of detail for which I make rolls over time to determine how fortunes are changing between the factions (I re-roll how each faction is doing about once per season and make changes to the relationships according to the reasons I make up for changes in fortune).

So, while your players are out of town in the dungeon, things can (and should!) still happen back in town without their immediate knowledge.

It is easy to get PCs involved in the interaction of your groups in the city. NPCs naturally gossip about what they’ve heard. Gather Information rolls at a bar have never been so easy to deal with when you already know what’s going on in town. If a PC is connected to a group, he may be called in to help or investigate when things are going poorly, or he might share in the benefits when things go well. If the PCs have been engaged in an adventure involving a group, I either tie the results of that adventure into my explanation or apply a modifier to the group’s rolls because of it.

Factions in a city include all your major temples, druidic orders, powerful guilds, important bad-guy groups such as cults or thieves guilds, individual persons of prominence such as the mayor or duke, important institutions such as arcane colleges, and so on. Good-aligned institutions can still dislike, compete, or even raid and kill each other if their goals are different. (History is rife with examples. Most religious conflicts can be seen in this light).

When evil institutions and good institutions have a strong relationship, I often take that to mean the villains are secretly controlling the good institution or that the good institution is filtering arms or other aid to the villain group to allow it to attack enemies of higher priority. Imagine the look on your players’ faces when they figure out that the holy water they found on the dead bandits was supplied by a faction within the temple of the god of life so the bandits could fight the undead cult in the sewers!

Some examples of good things that can happen to actors on a city-wide scale are:

  • New members joining because of a popular leader
  • Newfound political power (I usually relate this to waning fortunes of rival groups)
  • Successful operations against enemies
  • Profitable business ventures
  • New pacts of alliance
  • Important treasure/magical item obtained
  • Land, title, or honor granted to the group or its leaders from the powers that be

Some examples of the bad things happening to your city-scaleactors might include:

  • A leader killed/arrested/indicted/captured for a crime
  • Membership waning due to a boring leader
  • Important treasure/magical item lost
  • Failed operations against enemies
  • Victim of raid/attack by enemies/bandits/humanoid tribes
  • “Secret infiltration” by another group, political influence lost
  • Alliances turned sour
  • Business ventures failing
  • Public opinion of the group waning because hypocrisy/corruption revealed
  • Title/land/privileges revoked
  • A fire or other calamity at the group’s headquarters

Mike Mearls’ book, Cityworks, contains great additional ideas of how to handle factional interplay in your cities.

On An Inter-City Scale

Simulated economies are a level of detail that many GMs feel no need for, and that’s just fine. On the other hand, if you know the wheat harvest has been poor this year in Crafton but the fishermen in Bayport are having a record year, it can give you new ideas for adventure. Perhaps the bad harvest is because a strange disease introduced by a twisted druid has been killing all the wheat.

Perhaps the fish are all coming to the surface because they fear the kraken that has awakened in the deep. If you can come up with stuff like that on your own, go ahead. But I can’t, so I use this system to help me see what’s happening with the economies of my settlements.

Instead of mapping out each city as an actor (though you can do it that way too), I list the major industries of a settlement separately within a larger circle. The relationship lines now become directional arrows, and represent the flow of goods between cities. Then I make the random rolls as for any other scale. If I see that the industry is doing well at its origin but that it’s having trouble getting to one of the other settlements, it might indicate bandit activity or something of the like.

If the industry is doing poorly but trade is good, it might mean that prices have risen due to great demand from the consumer settlement, but the producers are having some problem that prevents them from being able to fill the need.

All this can lead to a sense of reality and to plot hooks for your adventurers. If they’ve become friends with a certain farmer, he can now tell why things are going poorly for his farm, and why he needs their help. You’ll have a better idea of what caravans between cities might be carrying. Once you’ve determined the foodstuffs that a settlement has access to, you can describe signature dishes found only in that city’s taverns.

Knowing what is happening to the farmers, merchants, and artisans in your cities helps establish a sense of place, making one town easily distinguishable from another to your players.

On A Kingdom-Wide Scale

I don’t always feel the need to deal with things at this scale, but in a realm where nobles or other contingents are competing for power and resources, it makes sense to do so. If your players are interested in a campaign with political intrigue, rolling at this level is a must. When the King is starting to get old and no heir has been born, it’s definitely time to map out your actors and get to work figuring out who is allied with who against whom.

Good things happening at this level are endorsements by churches or other nobles, raising powerful armies, discovering or taking advantage of natural resources to build wealth, making your enemies look foolish at court, and so on.

Bad things are a death in the family, secret alliances exposed, recruiting troubles, being charged with treason, or advances made by one’s rivals.

On A World-Wide Scale

For a more complicated, but more detailed way of tracking multiple realms, I recommend the Countrycraft article by Ray Winninger in Dragon Magazine 293. For a quick-and-dirty look at your upcoming intercontinental conflict, just map out your actors, establish whether they’re trading, fighting, or scheming together, and roll to see who’s weak, who’s strong, and who’s going to take advantage of the situation.

When you want to write the history of your world and you’re stuck for ideas, start at some time in the distant past, make up a few empires, roll to see how they do year to year and who gets along with whom, and pretty soon you’ll have an outline for how your ancient empire of elves became the scattered remnant they are today after the meteor smashed into their main city and the neighboring humans took advantage of the situation to rush in and attack!

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Hopefully, the system presented here will help you realistically and quickly deal with the many complex systems a good campaign contains. To quote the seventh rule of Dungeoncraft from Mr. Winninger’s Countrycraft article: “Running a good campaign is about building a world, not building a story.” When you make your world as alive as you can, the stories will flow naturally.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks

Poker Game Encounter Idea

From James Seals

I read in one of the articles from my recently purchased GM Tips Encyclopedia an idea for a campaign start that I’m going to use. The characters begin on a boat in a poker game. Using real cards, we’ll play out the game with me in control of an NPC Sorcerer who is cheating.

I love this idea. It’s giving me loads of inspiration for a recurring NPC, and I’m definitely going to use it. However, I’m not quite sure how to stack a deck of cards! Do you know? :o)

Thanks for your help, and the tips you send each week. [Johnn: Sounds like a fun encounter you’ve got planned, James. Here’s one idea, and maybe Tips readers will send in more… A GM screen is required. Go to your nearby “dollar store” and purchase two decks of cards with the same design and colour on the back. Use one deck with the players and play poker like you normally would. Play your hand behind your screen. Keep the second, identical deck behind your screen, pre-sorted by card type (i.e. Aces in a pile, Kings in a pile, and so on). Substitute cards into your hand from the second deck as needed.

There will come a time when two of the same card are in play–an instant sign of cheating. However, the characters won’t know _who_ is cheating. This is a great opportunity for Sense Motive or skill checks, and to increase the drama.

Also, you might rule that a successful gambling or sleight- of-hand type skill check on behalf of the NPC lets him substitute a new card for the offending card. This simulates his cheating ability. Just take one of the duplicate cards in play and substitute another one. The players will know the NPC is cheating for sure now, but their characters won’t. A great source of player irony!]

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Adventure Design Method

From Midellin

This is a hard one for me to give advice on, but maybe if I explain how I run my campaigns others will be able to get some good from it.

  1. I divide the information I am going to need into the following categories.
    1. Maps
    2. NPCs
    3. Monsters
    4. Treasures
    5. Storyline / Plot hooks
    6. Character backgrounds to be used later (usually gathered in-game)
  2. I then sit down and create a whole bunch of maps, either from my own imagination or utilizing one of the many wonderful utilities out there. I spend anywhere from 1-4 hours on this. I start with the world map, and then work my way down to the dungeons and house/castle maps. Using the utilities available saves a lot of time.
  3. I then work out a whole bunch of NPCs in advance. This I generally do using utilities. I don’t find this as much fun as map-making, and so I don’t spend much time on it. However, I do allow the NPCs to be randomly placed throughout the world at any given time (so that, as the PCs travel so do the NPCs, and they may run into someone at different places).
  4. Monsters & treasures / rewards. I have a deck of encounters, and all of them can be modified for any situation/level. I usually have a few beasts ready for the game, and a few that are pre-rolled. The rest, if the party is feeling adventurous, I roll up at the table.
  5. Storyline and plot hook. I generally start the adventure with a simple storyline of something that would peak their interest and make them want to find out more. From there, I allow their actions/backgrounds to develop the other plot hooks so that they feel their characters are affecting the world.

I will also have reputations/rumors follow them around, especially if they have run into a few NPCs in different towns: most NPCs are gonna tell the tale of these noble/evil/inept adventurers (some may even decide to put themselves in the hero’s part).

I let the PCs have a bunch of little quests until they become semi-powerful, then their reputation is established and they can get hired/prophesized/volunteered into challenging situations.

So basically, I fly by the seat of my pants, with everything I could possibly need at my fingertips. I spent too many years playing with PCs that would run off after the faintest hint of a strange rumor, and of course they were running into areas that I hadn’t prepared. To combat this, I have developed a style that is heavy on storytelling/NPC RolePlaying, and light on prep time.

I make sure that I always have dungeon/village/NPC/monster/treasure/random encounters ready for whatever the PCs decide to do, and usually they wonder how I can manage to always be ready for everything that they do (I play with a sadistic bunch that loves to harass the DM by not going along with the story).

I haven’t shared my secret yet, as it has given me near god- like status amongst my fellow gamers. (They once spent 8 hours of game time teleporting around, trying to get me to not have something ready, but when you’ve got base figures for tons and tons of locations, all you gotta do is pull it out, give it a name, and grab some NPCs to live there.)

Anyway, those are my tips. I know they are long-winded, and they kinda ramble. Thanks for taking the time to build a wonderful site. I have enjoyed reading your tips immensely, and hope that some of my ideas may be able to help others too.

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Use Game Boards For Quick Battlematts

From Jen Delaney

If you’re broke, cheap, or just need something on the fly for miniature combat and don’t have a hex map, improvise with either a chess/checkerboard or (what we use) a scrabble board. Even a Stratego board can do.

If you have transparencies, you can lay them over the board to draw terrain or walls, or use game pieces (pawns, checkers, tiles, etc.) to develop boundaries and enemies. We’ve used extra dice and pencils to improvise walls and hills, desks, corpses (a giant’s corpse can make useful cover…).

It may not be pretty or ‘authentic’, but it works in a pinch.