Campaign Management Toolbox

Old metal tool box
Photograph taken from an Etsy listing.

One of my multitude of flaws as a GM is that I do not run a very organized campaign. Notes are often scattered, and obtuse. An NPC’s name is buried in the middle of a paragraph of the notes from two sessions ago. I don’t want to waste everyone’s time, so I just come up with something new off the top of my head and hope the players weren’t paying enough attention to notice. And that’s terrible. As GMs, we want our worlds to be consistent and life-like. No, our players probably won’t notice if we rename an NPC they’ve only seen once before, but that’s because they need to hear an NPC’s name three or four times before they’ll start to remember it. And if we can’t give them that repetition, then the setting is just a vessel that they use to play the game. It will never become a persistent world in their minds, and thus the game can never achieve its full potential.

Unfortunately, we GMs are but mortal men and women. We do not have the power to hold an entire world within our minds, with all the characters, locations, and events such a feat would entail. Perhaps gods would make better GMs, but players will have to settle for those of us who just think we’re omnipotent. And if we want to pull that off, we need tools. I’ve spent the last week reevaluating and updating the various methods I use to help me manage my campaign, and I think I’ve assembled a tool box which is relatively comprehensive, easy to use while in play, supports a dynamic world, and is simple to keep updated. That last one is particularly important because my note-taking has always been atrocious.

The campaign calendar is one of my newest tools. Based on my old post, Suppositions on Time Tracking, I created a calendar with 7 days in a week, 5 weeks in a month, and 10 months in a year. It might seem arbitrary to deviate from the gregorian calendar most of us are familiar with. However, I didn’t feel the gregorian calendar was sufficiently easy to use. Not only do the number of days in a month fluctuate throughout the year, but since the number of days in a month is not divisible by the number of days in a week, the whole thing turns into a big mess. In my system, each unit of time measurement can be fitted neatly into the next largest unit of measurement without any remainder. The only problem is that the 4 seasons cannot be distributed evenly amongst 10 months. But I just made the transitory seasons (spring and fall) two months long, and the other seasons three months long. That seemed suitable enough to me.

As an added bonus, changing from the gregorian calendar adds to the atmosphere of the game world. Even if the players never need to think about the game’s calendar themselves, the fact that I now know how the calendar works helps make NPC dialogue seem a little more authentic. If you’re interested, the seven days of the week are Famday, Moonsday, Skyday, Earthday, Seaday, Kingsday, and Godsday. The five weeks of the month are Squire’s Week, Knight’s Week, Baron’s Week, Earl’s Week, and Duke’s Week. And the ten months of the year are the “The Month Of…” Rising, Blood, Healing, Blades, Victory, Restlessness, Glory, Defeat, Wisdom, and Remembrance.

Functionally, I use the calendar to track events over time. I keep track of what in-game day it is when we play, and note down any significant events which happen during that day. I try to avoid too much detail, just making quick notes, such as meeting with an NPC I want to bring back in the future, starting or completing a quest, things like that. Going back through the calendar, it can serve as a log book of sorts. It also helps me track cooldowns. If I tell the players it’ll take a week’s worth of time to research something, then I can mark down when they begin researching it, and I won’t forget when it’s time for them to be finished. This also helps with cool downs, or establishing other time limitations. I am coming to appreciate that the passage of time is potentially one of the most interesting aspects of a D&D game–both on the adventure level, and the campaign level. The calendar should help me use that tool more efficiently.

Part of what makes the calendar relevant is a pair of tools which I’ve taken to collectively calling the Quest Log. The first of the two is a list of the PC’s stated goals. It only takes up a few lines, but it serves as an essential compass to me when I’m preparing for each new session. I know from listening to my players that they’re interested in stealing an egg from a great and terrible mountain-sized spider which lives far to the north east. So if the land between where the players currently are and where they need to go doesn’t have any towns or monsters in it, I know I need to work on that to be ready for the next session. The second part of the Quest Log are a list of ‘open hooks.’

Open hooks are ongoing events which the PCs know about. It is important to note that, while there is some overlap, not all open hooks will be among the PC’s stated goals. For example, my players expressly decided not to involve themselves in the war between the Orcs and the Elves in the Western forest. Likewise, not all of the PC’s stated goals count as open hooks. For example, one of my PC’s stated goals is to acquire the hair of a drow. Unless there’s a contagious epidemic of baldness amongst the drow, this doesn’t really count as an ‘ongoing event.’

Using the ‘Lines in the Water‘ mechanic devised by Eric of Dragon’s Flagon, I assign a die to each of the open hooks. More volatile situations use a die with fewer faces, while more stable situations use a die with more faces. Once every in-game week, each open hook’s die is rolled. If the number is a 1 or a 2, the situation gets worse, if I roll the die’s maximum number, or one less than the maximum, then the situation gets better. I heartily recommend you read the original post on this mechanic to get a fuller explanation. It’s one of the most innovative and elegant mechanics I’ve seen in awhile. By using it, I can quickly determine how my game world evolves around my characters. They’ll learn that an opportunity they choose to pass on will not always be there for them in the future, and I avoid any biases I may have about how I would like the event to develop without the player’s help.

Perhaps one of the most obvious tools in my toolbox is a keyed campaign map. My world is printed on a hex map, the value of which I’ve written about a number of times in the past. I created the map using Hexographer, which is the only digital tool I’m using right now. Everything else is done on paper, and fits neatly into a binder. Each hex on the map is keyed twice. First, each hex is part of a numbered ‘region,’ which is outlined in red on the map. Each region has some very basic information associated with it: ‘World NPCs’ which live there (I’ll get to that later), important locations which exist there, the government of the region, a very brief description of what is currently going on there, and an encounter table.

LS Campaign Map for the Continent of Edargelen, Region 1, made with Hexographer
Region 1 of my campaign world

For example, region 1 on my campaign map is home to no World NPCs, and the only important locations are Honon village, and the Dwarven Trade Road. Region 1 is ruled by the human Korrathan Empire, but is on the edge of their territories. The only thing currently going on in region 1 is that the town of Honon is attempting to rebuild after it was destroyed, and there is a group of bandits which attacks small groups of travelers. Based on that information, I created a small encounter table where there were not many encounters with monsters, since the area is considered civilized territory. There is a 15% chance of encountering bandits, a 10% chance of encountering wolves or dire wolves, and the rest of the encounters are just with traveling merchants or patrolling guards.

For most hexes, the region key is all that I need. However, for added detail, each hex is also individually numbered. Most of these numbers correspond with nothing. But if a hex has something particular in it, such as a town, or a monument, or a dungeon entrance, then that information is keyed to the individual hex number rather than the regional key. Again using region 1 as an example, there is only one hex with anything specific in it. Hex 28.18 contains the lakeside town of Honon. So here I would quickly note the name of the town, and the names and purpose of any NPCs the players have interacted with before. Depending on how important the town is to the game, I may have more information as well, such as the town’s purchasing power or the services it has available. In the specific case of Honon, I once ran an adventure where I thought the players might attempt to barricade the town to defend against an attack. They didn’t, but I’ve got a map of the town none the less, which I keep next to hex 28.18’s individual key in case I ever have another use for it.

The only one of these tools I devised myself is the list of the ‘World NPCs’ I mentioned earlier. World NPCs have a larger sphere of influence than standard NPCs do. They are queens, popes, generals, mighty wizards, and dragons. The players may not have met them, but their actions can none the less affect the player’s environment. All world NPCs have a short description of what they want, and how they want to get it. For example, for Grum Okkor, king of the Trolls, my description might read “Wants to build the first Troll empire. Is banding the numerous Troll dens together. Will attack the Korrathan Capitol city on the Squire’s Week during the Month of Blades in the year 3999. Chance of success: 70%”

World NPCs are my method for making the world seem fluid around the players. Events they’ve heard of are not the only ones which affect the world. If the players are nowhere near Korrothan during the Month of Blades this year, then they may return home to find it’s not a safe place to be anymore. Or, at the very least, they’ll return home to a nation recovering from a brutal war. And if they are in Korrothan during the Month of Blades, then they’ll have the opportunity to participate in the war and save their homeland.

The final tool in my box is a simple list: enemies of the PCs. These are characters which the players have insulted, or harmed in the past, and who are angry enough to seek revenge. Each of the PC’s enemies has a plot. One of them might be waiting for the players to return to their town before they strike, while another might be actively tracking the players down. If the players unwittingly stay in one place for too long, their enemies might catch up!

And that’s everything I’m currently using to manage my campaign. I will admit, it’s a little ambitious considering how bad I normally am at maintaining notes. But I think it’s also structured enough, and minimalist enough, that I should be able to avoid many of my characteristic problems, such as including far more detail than necessary. I am hoping these tools will help me improve, but campaign management is still one of my weakest skills as a GM. If anyone has any advice they’d like to share, or ideas on how I can improve the tools listed above, I’d love to hear about it!

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4 thoughts on “Campaign Management Toolbox”

  1. I more or less use the following calendar method in Pahvelorn:

    Not quite as systematically as I would like to, but it’s worked pretty well so far.

    Why not 12 months of 4 weeks each rather than 10 months of 5? That allows you to maintain the seasons.

    Do you have a post-session checklist of things to update? I find that to be very useful (not that I actually do it every week, because I’m lazy).

    1. I guess the only real benefit of 5 weeks/mo and 10 months is that I come out to 350 days per year, which is nicely close to reality. Wheras 4/12 only comes to 336. Still, the value of even seasons easily outweighs that. I’ll have to switch to 4/12 in my next campaign world.

      I’ve never used a post campaign checklist. I’d be interested to learn more though!

      1. It’s been a while since you posted this, but I think this is a great post. I’ve already set to work adapting it to my own campaign!

        However, I think the 10 month year is actually much at modeling seasons, if you use the 6-season ecological calendar instead. The two “new” seasons, pre-spring and late summer, are only 5-6 weeks long, so they can easily become single-month seasons with the four main seasons lasting two months each. Then you can introduce simple regional variations on the fly just by changing the intensity of pre-spring and late summer.

        You won’t be able to use “season” as an objective unit of time, but I don’t think I’d use an intermediate unit between month and year anyway.

        1. It’s always good to have comments on my older posts. I’m glad you found this one useful!

          I had originally considered adding an extra, really strange season. But as this was meant to be broadly applicable, & for use in a pretty standard campaign world, I figured I’d stick to reality. Yours is not a bad idea, though.

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