GM Tip Request – How Do You Track All the Details of a Living World?

Living World

Details game worlds - how do you track all the details?

O Wise Sage of the Northern Hemisphere,

I come to you with an all-consuming question and have emptied my cup and am eager to learn.

There’s a world that’s been created and lovingly populated with all manner of things.

There are continents with plate tectonics and zones of subduction and hotspots and rift valleys.

There are ocean currents and trade winds, and mesothermal climate zones and arctic wastes. If you look closely you’ll even find fossils.

There are gods and people, with culturally diverse practices and dimly recollected histories. And there are monstrous creatures of bewildering kinds (although there are no monks ’cause the Creator doesn’t believe in monks [of any edition]). There are clans and aristocracies, with socio-economic statuses, chivalric codes, complicated guild statutes and unbelievingly confusing calendrical systems.

There are constellations and planets and lunar phases, and there are philosophical thought systems and diverse magical practices.

There are herbs with names and functions, and mysterious ley lines that nobody knows about. There are kingdoms with subsistence systems, power centres, rulers and outlaws, secret societies, hamlets and cities, road networks, maritime activities, ecclesiastical policies, and crystal-like beings that shoot lasers from their eyes.

There are people with names and jobs and titles and political affiliations and personality profiles and motivational idiosyncrasies.

And the Creator looked at all of this and saw it was pretty OK.

And sitting in the wings, with historically consistent backstories filled with trauma and triumph, are impatient and sceptical PCs.

The world is poised to explode in a flurry of action and dice rolls, politicking and attacks of opportunity, social climbing and critical hits.

There’s a horse-loving swordsmith about to set up a shop in Cam-for; a rogue who pretends to be a marquis who pretends to be a minstrel and who dreams of owning an air ship; a handsome mage who is a pencil-pusher in the family apportation business; and a bald blue-eyed mystic who is out to slay the gods. And there’s an insane Aranite high priest who wants to kill them all. All, I tell ‘ya.

However, it’s all dead. Or rather, it’s all static. And I have no idea how to un-pause it.

It’s all good and well to know that in Kalderesh, in the spring of 4719 AC, old King Jeffry of Kalder dies, peacefully in bed. And in the summer of the same year, a calamity strikes Barban in the form of an anomalous magical event. These things are fated to happen. After all, its 4650 AC now, and I can tell you what will happen in the winter of 4805 AC (= 933 MC = 1277 G).

So that’s my problem. I’ve got a world with a history made-by-fiat. It’s rationally constructed so there appears to be a sensible dynamic explaining what such-and-such did or how whats-it came to be.

Last winter, Lord Hocequin the Wise of Coldbridge was at odds with the skrags and was going to annihilate them. Did that happen? Is he dead and Coldbridge is now a sink of iniquity? Or are the skrags on the run and Hocequin is now a true member of the peerage? Did the Agopean navy manage to find a passage to the Galentene Empire? And what of the Ursinican rebels?

How does a poor DM keep track of who is going to do what to whom, and when, and what the outcome will be?

It’s driving me nuts! I’m terribly happy to ad-lib and off-the-cuff and impromptu and thumb-suck. I’ll even throw in a sleight-of-hand or two. BUT there has to be a way to keep track [on some scale] of the dynamics of a world.

“Make the world a happenin’ place” was an article written by Rick Underwood ages ago. I’d love to read the follow-up: “What’s happenin and how to track it”

Any advice?

Yours sincerely,
Beleaguered in South Africa

(Picture courtesy of mrbill.)


I like to assign a plan or goal to NPCs. What would they be up to if no one interfered with their plans? Players then have a choice to act or not. If they get involved, the plan may be changed. You could scale that, and write plans for cities and nations. Maybe just one sentence each. As time passes, such plans advance. But don’t worry too much about tracking them until the PCs get involved.

    Auke Slotegraaf

    Great idea, thanks. I’m just wondering, how do you actually keep track of the plans, and how their outcome interacts with your world?


I tend to keep track of the dynamics of what’s going on rather than the specifics. It’s easy to retcon something into history when it happens off screen. Maybe Lord Hocequin deals with the skrags, maybe he doesn’t. But ultimately it doesn’t matter at the point where the PCs have nothing to do with all of that. Once they insert themselves into that situation, then it becomes important. The only thing that needs to be tracked is that the dynamic exists between Lord Hocequin, his kingdom and the skrags, plus other complications.
I tend to prefer the sandbox style games, which it sounds like you do as well. This approach has worked for me as far as keeping things sane. Anarkeith does something similar in assigning certain characteristics to NPC goals and plans. I use networking charts to track all of it. I take a big piece of paper and lay out the various players and see who interacts with who and how, which lets you create more intricate machinations as the layers peel back. I actually got the idea from a fiction novel (the Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker) when one of the characters uses it to track the dynamics of the various political entities in the world.

    Auke Slotegraaf

    I mean, the player’s actions have consequences, as do the actions of the NPCs. Things the PCs do should have repercussions one day; ditto for the NPCs. I’m wondering how, practically, one keeps track of this.
    If the skrags kill the Lord, then XYZ which means the PCs eventually don’t get to ABC. If the Lord kills the skrags, the PCs could get to ABC one day. So even if the PCs aren’t in the situation *now*, I still need to know, in order to resolve future events.
    Thanks for the networking charts lead, I’ll follow that up.


      What I would do is role for it. See who won and plan the future from there. Marking the date on your campaign calendar. Letting the present become the past and keeping the present uncertain. If you a writer type person you could make up a story. The wonderful thing about dming is you foretell the future. Make a checklist of events and future dates. when the date arrives roll the results and add them to the timeline calendar. Create next future based off outcome


When I was doing a lot of setting design, I started with the general qualities of the world and then started spiraling in with details. Once I had an idea of the overall theme of the world, I’d keep spiraling down and down through the layers – weather, science, magic, and creating pages for each.

Honestly now if I was do it again – I’d start a wiki. It allows you the most freedom to branch out and yet collect things in one place and interlink.

    Auke Slotegraaf

    Thanks; love the “spiraling in” image :)
    I’ve done pretty much the same, except that instead of pages I’ve created a directory structure that allows me to store files of various types in logical places.
    I’m still stumped, though, about capturing the dynamics.


      Well, two points to this: the first is that what you are proposing to have is simply not possible – at least not in the detail you seem to be wanting. To show you why this is true – just try to keep up with every single thing that happens in your hometown (assuming it is larger than a few hundred people). You aren’t making every choice, just noting the occurrences, and I guarantee within a few days you will be a) lost in both the amount of data as well as what it all means, and b) exhausted. Now try to imagine doing that for the entire world.

      Two, what you can so is simply setup a list of checkpoints tied to dates on your master DM calendar. So when the fith day of the third month in game comes up, you can have a note to decide the outcome of the skrag war – no, you won’t write up all the details of it, but you can know the Lord died in the battle when he was ambushed by an elite skrag unit. Beyond that – why do you need to know more, at least until the event somehow comes into play as either a PC or NPC background piece? And if it moves in that direction… that is when you take the time to actually write in-depth details of the lord’s final battle. Until then, it is all pointless detail that will never come up, and takes away from writing things that will.

      Just my two cents worth.

Keith Davies

I find a wiki works really well for keeping track of things like this, including links between entities. My campaign setting and scenario design techniques articles describe how I do this. (I’d really like to do a more formal version of this, collecting these articles and a few others and merging them more cleanly.)

It’s pretty easy to track the links between entities and map out various events may influence them — if the Ss’thar attack the Kreshtar (again), who gets pulled into the conflict? If the leader of the Kreshtar tribe is killed, what might happen (his heir was killed the last time, his bastard isn’t considered remotely suitable for the position)?

For time-driven events, other entries may be included along with timeline-related tags. When spring of the Year of Unending Storms comes around, what do you have planned to happen? You don’t necessarily need to log each season this way (though it’s a thought), it might be enough to have a tag for it much as Wikipedia does for specific dates; attach the tag to the relevant entities and look them up when needed.

I’ve also got a campaign started (but idle) at Obsidian Portal where I’ve described the Kreshtar Tribes. Very summarized (and there is some further detail marked ‘GM only’) but enough to design from.



A GM typically does not keep track of the entire living, breathing world. If Stephen King is writing a horror story about what’s happening in a small (and possibly fictional) town in Maine, does he do heavy research on Tokyo, Japan? “Star Wars” encompasses the whole galaxy, but did George Lucas ever explain the politicking between the many tribes of the Witches of Dathomir? When I’m running my D&D game in the Plain of Sorrows, am I worried about what’s happening in the Nentir Vale?

You only focus on those things which have immediate (or future) relevance to your campaign. The rest is but smoke.

If you absolutely must have details, I’d recommend what Fitz said. Start with the dynamics that drive large events, and then get more specific as needed.

    Auke Slotegraaf

    Perhaps I’m not the typical GM then 😉
    If I wanted to keep track of (most of) the living breathing world, I’m pondering on how to do that.
    Short of rail-roading, it’s impossible to know what things will have future relevance in the campaign. There’s a lot of smoke, but not just a single fireplace.

Blair Giles

Having recently started a new 4e D&D campaign where I wanted to start off relatively small, giving the players a tour of the initial kingdom, but then to slowly expand them out across the world, I actually gave a bit of thought to this topic.

The website I posted above is a nice easy way to store all the information that is available to players.

As DM, I have started using the Microsoft Onenote Office program to store all my information. I find that they are easy to link between pages, essentially creating hyperlinks between various pages or tabs.

Now I don’t think I’ve gone to the lengths of future planning that you have, with most of my future planning only going up to a few months up to a year in advance of the current campaign, however I do believe there are a couple of standards that are important.

1) Where the players are should be the focus of the world. The further away anything is from them, the less detailed you need to be.
For example, from further away to closer…
– Kingdom X and Y have gone to war.
– Kingdom X and Y have gone to war, because the King of X was assassinated by Kingdom Y.
– After years of feuding, the King of X delivered an ultimatum to X that they pull their troops back from the Island of Z, else there would be war. In return, Kingdom Y’s navy ambushed the King of X’s fleet in the straights of J. Not a single man made it to shore.
– The King of Y hires the PC’s to ambush the King of X…

The other advantage of keeping things vague the further away they are, is that it allows to to keep less notes. You can then fill these out further aw the PCs move closer.

2) Everyone does everything for a reason. While the PCs only need to know that Kingdom Y assassinated the King of X, as the DM you should know that the assassination was ordered by the King in order to destabilize Kingdom X, as there is no heir apparent there.

3) I always try to write these notes in the way that the PCs might hear it. Rumors overheard in a tavern or market, letters written from one lord to another, news from a merchant hiring the PCs to guard a caravan, etc. In this way, you can also introduce red herrings and inaccuracies, if you are familiar with the concept of ‘Chinese whispers’.

In fact, there’s nothing wrong with writing up major events in each of those styles and giving them all to the PCs, each with slightly different takes on what happened, or who was to blame. Slowly build on those with more rumors from other sources as the PCs get closer and you add more details. Eventually, the PCs might start coming up with their own theories that you hadn’t even considered, which you could then substitute instead of your own!

And finally, don’t be afraid to start introducing some of these items, even when they aren’t in any way relevant to the PCs current quest. That will definitely add to the players impression that the world is moving without their intervention. It will also lay down the foundation for the players to choose which quests they will take on, without feeling like you’re railroading them. (Just make sure you read the tip on Chekhov’s Gun. Don’t introduce anything into the campaign if the players can’t interact with it in the future).

Hope that helps (it’s kind of late here at the moment, so I feel like I’m rambling on a bit :).

    Auke Slotegraaf

    Your devious ways are a delight!
    I’ve always thought that flagging done blatanly, such as you say: “their own theories that you hadn’t even considered, which you could then substitute instead of your own!” is just too cool! Picking up on gossip around the figurative water-cooler is an awesome tool (just don’t let the PCs catch on that you’re eavesdropping!).


I have a couple of wildly different ideas as to how you can manage the living/breathing aspect of having a campaign world.
The first one depends on how many gamer friends you have who aren’t in your campaign. If you have enough – delegate! Get some of your friends to take on the roles of your primary NPCs – give them the situation they are in, the resources they have etc. and ask them what they would do. Evaluate those choices, make a ruling as to their success then update their situation. I would request one submission for each of your planned gaming sessions and they have as much in-game time as the PCs used.
The other option is to think of the NPCs as being characters in a turn based game. You’ll probably want to use a spreadsheet program or something of that nature to track the events/NPCs. Create a new row for each NPC, each column will be one “turn” which is the equivalent of one gaming session with your group (so a turn could be a month in-game or 2 hours). After each session, run through your spreadsheet and determine what the goals of the NPCs are and what they are going to do to achieve it. After the first week, you’ll start the process by evaluating what happened to the goals set the week before which will be dependant on how much in-game time has passed, what the PCs did etc.
You might also throw in an NPC named “Natural Events” and use a random table to generate things like earthquakes, volcano eruptions, etc.
Hopefully this might be of some use.

    Auke Slotegraaf

    Good ideas, thanks.
    I’ve used a modification of Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth to generate possible sequences of world events (which, as you suggest, uses people to represent major NPCs, entire nations, or gods).
    I’m stuck with just the logistics of how to keep track of actors, actions and outcomes; my spreadsheet-based book-keeping system becomes a messy tar-ball after just a few iterations.
    Love the “Natural Events” NPC :-)

Johnn Four

Thanks very much for the comments, everyone. Some of these will be appearing in the newsletter.

I feel the technical issue is still unresolved for Beleaguered. Fitz mentioned a wiki. Gerald mentioned a spreadsheet.

Has anyone seen an example of either of these tools, or others, that successfully map out complex relationships and help manage details well?

Personal Brain is excellent, as mentioned by Nickalin:

The Brain people offer ongoing tutorials, webinars and example files to help you learn the software.

MyInfo is another awesome tool. I’ll try to do a post about how I use it to manage my campaigns some day.

Anyone else have examples or ideas?

    Blair Giles

    Forgot to address that in my original post.

    I’m actually in the middle of moving all of my campaign material into Microsoft’s OneNote.

    I have separate tabs for general campaign areas (such as Characters, Places, Maps, etc). Under each of these tabs I then have separate pages for more specific items, then subpages underneath those pages if required.

    One of the key features that drew me to using OneNote is that you can literally just pick a spot on the page and start typing there (or insert a map, or a picture there). It has a pen, so you can simply draw connecting lines on the one page if need be, and you can create hyperlinks between the various pages effortlessly.

    My second favorite feature has got to be that it incorporates into your print devices, so you can print directly into it from other applications. Maps, character sheets, and anything else I need all get printed straight into OneNote. Then I can either move them into the correct folder/page I need, and can also work on them if I need to print them out for player handouts.

    As always though, at the end of the day it’ll come down to whatever works best for you, and your way of thinking. I honestly don’t think there is, nor could there be, a perfect method.


It is not an easy job indeed. One need to be updated and accurate. I prefer having a spreadsheet with players’ names and record the things they are doing.

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