Ask The GM – Staying Organized

By John Serpico on


Katherine asks – So when I plan for a campaign I have an overall end goal for the party (that sometimes changes depending on the circumstances), but I tend to only plan in small increments because my party tends to be spontaneous. Do you have any tips for staying organized? I have so many things that I need to remember that I feel like my brain is going to explode!

Katherine, while there are certainly many ways to plan for a campaign, I am preferable to your approach. You have an end goal that the party can move towards, but preserve enough flexibility to adapt to your players’ spontaneity. In essence, you’re meeting the players where they live. You’re letting your GM style serve the party and the game.

The trick here is that the “small increment” planning you do means you need to have stacks of NPCs ready to go on short notice, idea about multiple locations on standby and an understanding of all the political, military or magical consequences that can happen if your players suddenly decide they don’t want to hunt the big bad anymore and instead try to get elected to the town council.

You, of course, already know this. And the fact that you have so many things to remember means you have all these things to begin with. So how should you organize? How does a GM with piles of options make sure that she can pull the right one at the right time?

My first suggestion is also my most emphatic. I cannot recommend GMing from behind a laptop enough. Having access to folders full of maps and plug-and-play NPCs at your fingertips is a tremendous boon. Also, using a laptop in real time means you can take notes in real time, which will make it easier to use your notes to plan for the next session. As a corollary to that, I strongly recommend keeping everything in DropBox or Google Drive so that you have access to it anywhere. You can be running the game on your home laptop and then, a few days later, open up the related documents on your work computer (at lunch or on break, of course) to do some brainstorming and writing. Heck, you can even make some updates from your phone while waiting for a bus or laying in a hammock. The best way to be organized is to give yourself the tools to be.

My next suggestion is more philosophical. Be constantly aware that there are only so many things your party can do in each session. Especially when it comes to past events. While I’m sure you would love to have a quick-to-find reference guide to every NPC they ever talked to or every potion they identified, drank or sold, be comforted by the fact that if they’re thousands of miles away from that one little village with that one stablehand they saved from kobolds, you probably don’t need to remember his name. In other words, you can kind of “tier” the things you want to keep top of mind. If you’re using a laptop and have folders of old NPCs they met and old dungeons they explored, make a sub-folder full of things that probably won’t come up again. You still have all that information, but you can focus your attention on a slightly smaller pile of “everything in the world.”

Finally, take some time to think about what bits of information are most important to your players. Based on how they play, what are they most likely to need in a moment’s notice? If they never have any interest in the economics of the places they visit, you may be able to spend less time building (and organizing) marketplaces and trade routes and all those other economic things. What types of things are they the most interested in? Allocate your attention there. What types of things are they the least interested in? Move those things to the deepest subfolder in your gaming Google Drive.

Hopefully your players appreciate how invested you are in building a game around their style of play. And hopefully that appreciation lets them extend you the courtesy of patience as your dig through your notes to find what you need when the party decides on a flight of fancy.

Happy GMing!

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