Thursday, February 19, 2015

Organizing Campaign Materials

How do you organize your campaign materials? This is a topic that I have always found somewhat frustrating, but particularly so in D&D / OSR games. Over the course of a campaign, you wind up with maps, charts, random tables, dozens of NPCs and monsters, random items and more. The amount of book-keeping here goes up exponentially if you plan something like a sandbox hex-crawl as well. For even a single location, you wind up with a map.

A lot of stuff goes into running a smooth campaign. You know the stuff I'm talking about. As a DM, you wind up with a ton of notes on everything from maps to monsters, NPCs, locations, traps, items and more. If you have something as ambitious as a sandbox hex-crawl, the amount of stuff you wind up taking notes on can go even higher. For a single hex location, you can easily wind up with:
  • The location itself, description and hooks
  • A random encounter table for the area
  • Stats for any monsters / NPCs that are liable to be encountered in the general area.
  • A dungeon or other maps to have pre-sketched out for the encounter(s)
  • A wandering monster chart for that dungeon
  • Notes on each of the traps in that dungeon
  • Special items listed for any of the NPCs or monsters in the area, in the dungeon, or to be found as loot
And it's not unusual to go even further, with weather tables or other random tables for magical nonsense or effects, particularly when those effects are attached to a some form of wondrous character-sheet-altering item in the way of so many old D&D modules.

Now multiply this over even a dozen hexes and you wind up with a huge amount of book-keeping even if many of the tables overlap, and this is without broader more general notes on things like NPC interactions, any kind of developing metaplots, and so forth.

So the question becomes: What do you do with all of this data?

The traditional method often involves a massive DM notebook. It's a tried and true method, granted. It's what DMs have been doing since the hobby began. On the other hand, it does not scale with volume of information at all and I always find myself resenting page-flipping during play. So what are the alternatives?

I've had someone suggest Evernote to me for this purpose. It's a good program, and I use it fairly often already in my personal / professional life. In a lot of ways it will beat a notepad and pen for this kind of thing, but it has some drawbacks as well. I've not found a good way to cross-reference information within the program, which is unfortunate, though it does support the ability to tag entries for later searching.

My chief problem with Evernote is simply that the notebooks lack the ability to sub-divide them well. You only have two organizational layers: a single notepad, or a stack of notepads. This may not be a problem if you are using Evernote exclusively as a DM tool. Unfortunately, as someone who is already using Evernote for an organizational tool, I simply don't have enough subfolder capacity to structure all of my notes in a meaningful fashion.

I've heard some good things about Scrivener as well, but haven't had the chance to play with it much. As it's supposed to be writer's software, I'm hopeful and probably need to get it just for my day job. Unfortunately, I am cheap so that's a dream for another day.

Malloy's Ultimate DM Client
If I were going to design a custom DM client for this nonsense, what would I want out of it? Consider this a DM's wet-dream checklist of features to make me love you forever. I lack the programming skills to create this myself, but if someone does, somewhere out there, you will make a killing.
  •  Modular entries / Inboxing: the entire system boils down to an extremely versatile list manager and note card system. I need to be able to open a new note card on the fly and have it automatically drop into an inbox where I can sort it at my leisure, thus keeping the system flexible enough that I can use it during the game itself. These note cards would be the heart of the whole program.
  • Searchable Tags: I need to be able to tag each note card with whatever I want it to be, and have a method of searching those tags. If I write down the data for a thing and call it "Monster," "Forest," "Shapeshifter," I should be able to search any of those tags and bring up every entry containing that specific tag. This would make having to wing elements mid-session so much easier, for cases when you just don't have something prepared.
  • Playlists: In many ways, it helps to imagine the system something like iTunes - well, how iTunes was a few years ago, these days it's just frustrating. Like songs in iTunes, the individual note card lives somewhere in the file system of the program, but you can access it by pulling up a tag, accessing it alphabetically, or by creating specific Lists of things. One could simply have a playlist that is "NPCs in Region X." Or whatever else. The ability to organize these playlists into folders would make this extremely useful.
  • Extremely good cross referencing: Likewise, the ultimate use of this nonsense would be to be able to link to other notes within a given note. If I have an NPC who has Item of Wondrous Property+2, I want to be able to click that item in the notes for that NPC and bring up its associated note. Once you have this included, the entire system becomes extremely useful. Your notes themselves can simply be links to other notes, creating the beautiful situation where I can have a note called "Random Encounters for the North Woods" and have an ordered table where each of the results link to the note in question. 
If the above were produced in a way that was user-friendly enough for the average person to be able to populate and run without tearing their hair out, you would already convince a great many people to love you forever. However, if you want to really win the prize of Ultimate DM Client, consider the following features to implement:
  • Virtual Dice: A lot of programs have a virtual dice roller built in, but if you're going to make a DM client, you might as well add this. This isn't so much because DMs will want to use these over physical dice on the table, but because it allows for other useful things such as...
  • Integrated Random Tables: If a note is tagged as a random table, you can hit a button and it will automatically roll the table and highlight the result. If the result is a linked note, it can be set to automatically open it for you.
  • Combat Tracker: Allows Monster / NPC notes to be "activated" and placed on a tracker that is simply a vertical stack of some kind that can be arranged in order of initiative. Activating 4 of the "bugbear" note card would simply stick 4 tokens labeled Bugbear on the initiative tracker, with a space beside them that will have their default HP listed, and HP remaining. Add your PCs and their hirelings to the combat tracker, and keeping track of initiative becomes silly easy.
  • Hit Die Generator: Allow notes tagged Monster or NPC to be listed with random HP. When you activate them as above, it will use the virtual dice to properly generate random HP for them.
  • Random Name Generator: exactly what it says on the tin. By default, should offer "generic fantasy" names, and then specific lists for Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and maybe by theme: Norse, Greek, African, etc. Make these lists editable so DMs can add in their own entries, and make it so they can make entirely new lists if they choose. Pro Tier? Let these random names auto-populate randomly generated monsters activated in the Combat Tracker.
  • XP calculator: If an NPC or monster is tagged as giving XP when killed, the Combat Tracker will automatically tally how much killing it is worth over the course of the battle. If you've got 5 orcs worth 30xp each, as you click "defeated" on each one, the Combat Tracker will keep an updated count of how much XP was earned.  
  • Hexcrawl Organization: Load a map image and set it as a hex map. Will automatically apply hexes overtop of the map.  Each hex is now a clickable, and will open the relevant note or playlist associated with it.  Thus, I can click hex A21 and it will open my playlist of notes I have associated with it. When my players go to A21, with one click I have access to my random encounter tables, relevant NPCs in the area, any maps or encounters I had planned for the place, and so on. I can populate an entire sandbox with information only have to deal with what I need when I need it. Seriously, do this. 
I envision the glorious experience of sitting down to a session with my rulebooks, a laptop, and this program opened. My players veer off-course and explore some area I hadn't planned on today, but that's fine. I've already set up the map for it.

They arrive at a section of woods and I click on my hex map, bringing it up. It launches the playlist of notes for the area. I have my wandering encounter table, weather tables, important locations in the area, maps, NPCs, the works. They decide to poke at some ruins there, so I bring up the ruins notecard. I've got important details and descriptions, all of the associated random tables. I have the map of the ruins themselves, with internally linked references to the notes for each of the traps, monsters, treasures and salvagables within the ruins themselves. After some time, I decide to check for a wandering encounter. I pull up the integrated wandering encounter table specific to the ruins and click auto-roll. It brings up the entry for an NPC warband I had planned on introducing at some point. I throw them into the combat tracker and notice one of them has a magical sword whose properties I can't remember off-hand. Click. Got it. I roll to see if either side was surprised, and begin. 

In 2-3 clicks, I have everything at my fingertips for anything I could possibly want for the session. If the party goes completely off the menu for some reason and gets to an area I had completely forgotten to prepare for? They are in the woods. I'm just going to search for the Forest tag and see what all I have laying around.

And even better: when preparing for these things in the first place, I can literally just import any NPC/Monster/Item/Spell/whatever I find interesting and keep it all in a growing database. When I'm setting up a new cave/dungeon/whatever, I have literally everything at my fingertips, just a search away.

It would be the ultimate setup.

Now, where do I find an ambitious programmer when I need one?

Until next time,

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