Measure Campaign Progress So Players Can See It And Feel It

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0921

I’m grappling with something while planning my next season of Murder Hobos:

How do you keep score in a sandbox?

No matter what style campaign you’re running, you want players to feel there’s progress.

The story advances. The quest nears completion. The characters evolve.

I think it’s important to measure progress. Not just how close the party gets toward their goal, but in how close the fail state approaches too.

Measuring It

With enumerated quests you can count the pieces and ingredients discovered, plus how many remain.

“Find the seven segments of gold and put them together. If assembled properly, with the Crystal Eye atop, the magic will once more flow and we shall have peace again. But get the segment order wrong and endless days of suffering lie ahead.”

Mysteries and exploration plots are a bit trickier.

Have one or more NPCs roleplay out the essential questions of the plot:

  • Who is behind the attacks?
  • What is their goal?
  • Why are they doing this?
  • What will their next moves be?
  • How can you stop them?

Each milestone, act, or phase of the adventure will have its own questions that feed into the big questions.

Players sense progress as they get hard-fought answers.

For sandbox though, I wonder. Is it merely filling in the map?

Sure, the character’s advance with XP. That’s measurable and satisfying progress. So is getting cool items and equipment.

But in-game should offer a tantalizing goal. A grand quest or epic mission.

Make Progress Visible

Feeling crafty? Players love props. And a visible measure of progress helps your group stay on track, pun mightily intended.

Mount a progress meter on your GM screen. Build a track or wheel for goals and milestones achieved.

Create cards to track acquisition. Index cards with your fabulous art skills for items found or NPCs rescued.

Use toys to track quest objects.

Modify a toy, mini, or puppet to show how it changes as the plot advances. Kind of like a Mr. Potato Head.

As players see progress, they’ll feel it.

They’ll get excited each time the progress track advances.

Or they’ll wring their hands when it takes a step backwards.


Questions are a form of discovery. So I’m going to call any mystery, investigation, roleplaying, and similar goals exploration.

Whether it’s “Who killed the priest” or “What’s out there?”, both questions involve going out and finding answers.

Make progress visible by writing each question on a card. Mysteries become quests this way:

  • Who is behind the attacks?
  • What is their goal?
  • Why are they doing this?
  • What will their next moves be?
  • How can you stop them?

As PCs find answers, cards move to the Answered pile.

Players can then shuffle through and see how many questions remain in the Unanswered pile.

For Murder Hobos, there’ll be a map to track what’s out there. And I think I’ll make index cards for the questions.

Today, think about your campaign and how you might add a measure of progress and how to make it visible to your players.