World Building Week, Part V:Involving the Heroes and Tracking Growth

This screenshot from Keynote illustrates one way a DM can track information as a homebrew campaign grows.

This post is the last in a series on creating a “homebrew” setting for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part IIPart III and Part IV before continuing here.

By this point in the setting design process, the dungeon master (DM) has enough background material to portray a convincing game world to the players. The only task remaining before play can begin is to help the players find a starting place in that world.

At the start of what this series calls “the example campaign,” this task was completed by having the first game session of the campaign devoted exclusively to the task of character generation and character background. It may seem like a full session is far too much time to allocate to the task, as many games place little or no emphasis on character background, but the time invested pays grand dividends in player involvement.

Begin the character background session with a brief meeting with all players, during which you provide an overview of the campaign themes, show or distribute copies of the regional map, briefly outline the region’s history and describe, in general terms, what ongoing conflicts exist in the area.

After this overview, your role shifts to one of support, as the players must now begin creating interconnected character backgrounds for their characters. These backgrounds can be unusually detailed, as your notes are filled with current place names, prominent non-player characters (NPCs), general ideas about trade routes, imports and exports, and rich history filled with triumphs and tragedies that can intersect with the early lives of the heroes.

You may need to make some suggestions about character races or classes, which settlements might make appropriate home towns for some heroes, or what edicts or expectations are present for paladins, clerics, wizards or any other character who acts as a member of an order or academy. But after a short while, the players will probably begin building on each other’s backgrounds in short order.

For the example campaign, it took three hours to create and generate interconnected backgrounds for six characters.

When the players are finished with their character backgrounds, play can begin.

Tracking the Growth of a Campaign

There is, however, an ongoing task the DM must perform in order to maintain the richness of the homebrew campaign: constant record-keeping. While every campaign requires the DM to record quest and experience point awards, and sometimes treasure gained, this sort of campaign requires a higher level of record-keeping. Every time the heroes visit a village, record its name, the names of the NPCs encountered there, and the events that transpired. Make notes of every rumor the heroes investigate, every NPC they offend and how, every friend they make and why.

Each note taken provides more resources for future adventures, since old friends and enemies will certainly return during the game. The notes also provide internal consistency for the campaign; if the heroes meet Bandor the innkeeper at the Rusty Dwarf Inn, the players will expect to see Bandor during future visits. If they don’t, it will be obvious that something happened to him, or that the DM made a mistake that ruined suspension of disbelief.

There are as many ways of tracking this ever-increasing pile of information as there are DMs, but one efficient way involves using computer outlining software. One free version used by this author is Keynote; although this freeware is no longer supported, it is as robust as anything else out there, and this writer has had no problems with its functioning during the past year.

Regardless of the outlining software used, these sorts of programs are very memory-efficient, and can be added and updated easily (even during a session, if the DM uses a lap-top computer during play).

Of course, the campaign outline can (and should) contain more information than is immediately available to the players. Whenever inspiration strikes, there’s usually a place for it the outline, even if it’s on a page marked “cool ideas for villains” or “neat places for combat.”

Lastly, the outline will allow the DM to see where some areas of the campaign are underdeveloped. If the DM plans to send the heroes into the Dunmarshes in a few levels, he or she can tell at a glance if more background information is needed.


19 comments on “World Building Week, Part V:Involving the Heroes and Tracking Growth

  1. max.elliott says:

    I know of a couple DM’s who favor Wikis for their campaign notes. Most favored is “tiddlywiki” a portable self-editing java wiki file. It’s rather brilliant.

  2. Alric says:

    Tiddlywiki? I must investigate…

    • max.elliott says:

      compartmentalization, self contained, multiplatform, built in die-roller, custom themes…….

      and damned addictive.

  3. One of the tools I want to make available to GMs and players for bySwarm is a mixture of world building, session planning, and session tracking. To me it seems that a wiki is marginally adequate because you still have to reference a lot of materials during the course of planning a session as well as running it. Would GMs and players find it useful to have more integrated tools that allow them to organize and track sessions?

    • max.elliott says:

      I assume you mean ? The general idea is to allow a massive group of people to participate in creating a single RPG setting by directly editing a single massively crossindexed document? Man, wiki was created for you.

      You’d have to ask the TiddlyWiki mailing list if it could suit your publishing needs.

      You’d want to try mediawiki ( ) the engine that runs wikipedia. Mediawiki already has a plugin that will allow you to automatically export a PDF from the wiki contents. The session tracking tools built into MW would allow a GM to transverse the changes his players make across time. You could keep a special page for game notes and then update world statuses later, like what NPC’s are active and which are where.

      • A wiki is definitely something I considered early on as I thought about what bySwarm would be. Wikis are great for letting anyone contribute as well as seeing changes to the content, but they are limited in what you can do with the content due to their data structure. While I haven’t found an out-of-the-box wiki platform that will do what I envision for bySwarm, there is a possibility that I will use one of the open source wikis available as a platform.

        So I guess my answer is, yes, but imagine something even better than a wiki for creating, managing, and playing in an RPG.

    • max.elliott says:

      Perhaps I can suggest something for you. Ask Alric to forward me an email if you want to take this off blog, or reply here with a list of the features you’re looking for.

      • Alric says:

        Just sent the Email, but you gents can feel free to chat here as long as you want…

      • max.elliott says:

        Thank you kind sir… I await Mikes reply.

      • Since Lorne said we’re welcome to continue here, I’ll continue here since the information might be valuable for many. 🙂 Max asked for a list of features and said he’d point me to a list of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) options that would meet my needs.

        1) It has to be in an environment that I am familiar with as web developer. If I have to learn another language, the ramp up time goes up too much. Most of my experience in PHP with MySQL, but just about anything C-like has potential.

        2) It needs to be customizable and must not have the customizations result in an inability to upgrade when security or other updates come out. In other words, it must be customizable while maintaining good programming practices.

        3) It needs to have the ability to have different content types (or data types) and the ability to link those data types together. Think characters, places, organizations, etc. and the differences in data required as well as how they interrelate. As a rough example, a character might have a name, a background, and role-playing suggestions while a place could have a description, a history, and rumors. Having these details in their own fields makes them easily used in multiple forms without heavy text processing.

        4) It must have a lot of basic functionality out of the box without requiring custom code to create: forum discussion, tagging, association of different content types, content rating, content comments, and reporting tools for creating various displays of all those things.

        The current site uses Drupal, a FOSS content management system and web application framework (which you might already be familiar with, Max). While I did things in my early days of Drupal a couple years ago that are bad practice in Drupal, I’m at the point now that I know more best practices and can use it to its potential. Drupal lets me focus on what makes the bySwarm site different from a standard Drupal site by having a significant number of contributed modules. The current site has about 300 lines of custom PHP programming (not counting theming) which says a lot about the capabilities out there.

        While Stage 3 of bySwarm is still a few months away, I have started thinking about what types of information need to be stored and how that information needs to interrelate. There are some wiki modules for Drupal, but I believe the data relationships and granularity of data fields will necessitate more than just a wiki.

        I’d love to hear your thoughts. My time is mostly being spent on creating a new theme for the site as feedback I have gotten is that it feels too list heavy. I want make the site look less like a blog and more like an active and exciting community around a web application.

      • max.elliott says:

        Sorry for the delay. I volunteered to make a cosplay dress for a friend who set the original due date for march…. then cut 60 days off the deadline. Been sewing all day and night.


        I would cross off anything blog like right away. PHPNuke, Geeklog, WordPress (No Offense Intended fellows!), and the various offshoots. Sticking with the php frameworks would be best and as you already know Drupal….

        And as it’s “the other option” I’ll just knock out the major points as related to MW.

        It’s PHP+Mysql, though I have a couple reports that it’s rather picky about it’s server environment.

        You can customize it well.

        Wiki’s were made for #3, and you’d basically end up with a set of page templates. People would just paste in a template and fill it out. Hyperlinking happens automagically and there are tools to abstract out the heavy editing. I’m not sure what you mean by “heavy text processing”.

        The forum functionality is different and happens in the form of “Talk Pages”, that does take a little getting used to. I checked and there’s plugins for everything on the list already written.


        But it looks like the major question is will a wiki handle the granular nature of the data. The problem I envision you experiencing is the overwhelming task of creating a detailed database for every aspect of an RPG scene. A wiki can handle the data, if you’re willing to let it become looser. More like a book than a database. You can create page templates and change them universally and let the authors fill in the blanks for you. Make each person, place or thing have it’s own page. If your consistent with the naming, the data will interconnect on it’s own. The idea is that the wiki will absorb tiny errors without throwing anything off.

        For an example, look up the novels that are being written in wiki form. is one. They contain characters, place descriptions, maps, all interlinked in such a manner that, in one it is possible to read the story differently by following different characters. Then you set your categories and tags up to further split wiki sections up by genre, world, system, etc.

        If you’re interested in experimenting without doing an install yourself, I have a buddy with a sandbox wiki and we can set you up an account there.

        I have some other ideas I would like to share with you that are unrelated to the technical aspects, and I’ll send you an email about that shortly. And by shortly, I mean tomorrow. 🙂


        Back to my sewing machine and cursing the nicked bobbin case it contains.

      • Good luck with the costume! Sewing is one craft where I am clueless. 🙂

        To explain a bit more about heavy text processing, I’ll use an example. Imagine you have a city entry, and you want to list all the NPC entries that live in that city with name, occupation or title, and the first 100 characters of their description. From wikis I have used, listing them with their name would be trivial but getting into the other parts of the template would be non-trivial since the data is unstructured. At best, you would have some sort of tagging that you would be able to parse from each NPC entry to pull those additional parts of the template as distinct pieces of an NPC.

        Another example might be that a GM is preparing an adventure and knows he wants to have a wizard antagonist from the kingdom of Timbuk’hen for the central part of the plot. In the unstructured data of a wiki, getting a list of the wizard characters in Timbuk’hen information could be doable at best but perhaps almost impossible at worst. The unstructured data of a wiki really makes me nervous for the re-usability of the data within the site for purposes that I won’t think of until the site is in use.

        The interconnections definitely don’t worry me (apart from the page renaming issues) with a wiki which is why I’m considering utilizing wiki-style relationships instead of specific fields.

        Looking forward to your email. Send me a picture of what you’re working on, too, if you don’t mind. I’d love to see it.

      • max.elliott says:

        So this tracking is boiling down to a balancing act between dealing with a voluminous loosely-structured wikibook and a huge but tightly managed set of data-tables.

        Personally, I’d go wiki, but Mike has an excellent product in Drupal with an add-in that allows him to go in and add fields, pretty much willy-nilly. It’s pretty magic.

        and the dress is coming together, a few more sleepless nights and I’ll be done. I promise, pics will come.

  4. Ryan Schipper says:

    You might be interested in this:

    The developer intend to recreate Keynote (in .NET fo rthose interested )and add new features to it.

  5. […] World Building Week, Part V:Involving the Heroes and Tracking Growth This is the last installment of the world building series over at RPG Athenaeum. This post involves the players more than the others because it’s taking the character backgrounds and merging them in with the existing world. This is the most treacherous part of the process because all of the GM’s well-laid plans may unravel at the introduction of a strange background from a player. […]

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