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Making Gaming Notes by Location

This campaign, I've started playing with a new way of organizing and preparing story information that hasn't come to the party yet. The results are that I've reduced my prep work and increased my improvisation opportunities. The players are reaping the benefits as well by seeing their character's actions have a solid effect on the game world without having to tease those changes out through story means.

In the Starhounds campaign, the crew of the Jenny Haniver are operating as western space marshals. They're hopping from location to location in their little space jalopy hunting down bad guys and generally keeping the peace on the space frontier. I wanted each location to not only have an individual feel but also to be a living, progressing community. Changes happen, and I wanted the party to be witness to those changes. But, more important for the campaign, I wanted the party to focus on changes they've caused. So I make notes for each location about what's happened after the last adventure.

I'm still writing my event-based process map campaign structure, but that's just for the main story lines now. Most of the detail I'm writing for this campaign is at a local level.

Now, to clarify, I'm not writing local timelines. There are other RPG advice blogs out there who recommend writing down what's going on at your locations and then working out what aspects of those timelines are important to and affect the party; make notes about the changes wrought by the duke's marriage to the neighboring mining magnate's daughter and then work that into the party's story line. But that kind of writing is a little to close to GM-as-storyteller for me. The notes I'm making are about the sorts of things that directly involve the party - things that will happen to them or that they'll get involved with as soon as they get back to there. More often than not, my notes are about the aftermath-type stuff, the results of the party's own adventures.

I've got a drive folder with a different doc for each location. After each adventure is over I think about what the repercussions could be and make some notes. And when I have an idea during the week, I open up the doc on my phone and jot it down in that location's document. Sometimes one location's aftermath ends up at another location, which is the kind of stuff I love.

Here's some examples of notes modified from my own current campaign (in case my players read this) -

• After disembarking, the party come across a memorial (photo on the wall, flowers on the floor) to the guy they killed last time. The story told by locals makes the party out to be the villains and gives the dead guy more virtue than he had in life.

• Soldiers from [Location Y] have arrived at this station looking for the thief who escaped the party at [Location Z]. This complicates the party's hunt for her.

• Helping the Duchess to thwart her enemies in the previous adventure allowed her to consolidate her power. She's got more work for the party, but she's more demanding of respect from them.

Etc.

As I said, these are things the party will discover immediately upon arrival and not background story lines. I'm not making notes about elections or changes in the price of pork bellies or anything else that's part of the location's story. Just what's party of the party's story.

I've not been doing this very long, this campaign is still young, but I like it enough that I'll be using it in any future sandbox-ish campaign. It's been beneficial enough to have a real impact on my game prep and execution.

First, I get a lot more player buy-in by hitting them with a local update as soon as they land than I ever did trying to introduce backdrop story elements in the flow of play. And by up-fronting all of this story stuff I don't have to shoe-horn it in later in an awkward info-bomb dialog or search roll.

Second, I don't need to go back through pages of notes about what happened the last time they were at a location or wrack my brains trying to remember what NPC did what. I don't have to waste any game prep thinking about what the outcome of the last visit is. I've already given myself detailed notes about what comes next in that location's story.

And last, I can make my process mapping notes even more vague than I usually do. I can follow the party's lead even more because they'll be reacting as soon as the adventure starts. And with these notes, I have my B story as soon as the party arrive.

As I've noted, this kind of writing will only be a benefit for sandbox or sandbox-ish campaigns where the party flit from location to location. It'll work well for Traveller or other space-based games. I ran a fantasy campaign where the party were basically freelance road wardens and this would've worked there as well.

But limited as the application may be, for this campaign it's been a huge help.


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