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A tool that I use to run my campaigns: A spreadsheet organized into a timeline grid. What I use it for: Understanding the motivations of my antagonists, thus ensuring my players can never go “off script.”

Content of the article: "A tool that I use to run my campaigns: A spreadsheet organized into a timeline grid. What I use it for: Understanding the motivations of my antagonists, thus ensuring my players can never go “off script.”"

As much as I want to share a google spreadsheet with everyone as an exemplar, I'm going to narratively describe it–the last thing I need is to accidentally my entire personal life by giving the internet access to my google dox.

By timeline, I don't mean an actual line stretching for 30 yards. Rather, I write the dates on the left hand column in descending order (from oldest to the future), and along the top row, I list all the important characters: antagonists, NPCs, and the party itself.

If I'm using a published campaign (for instance, Lost Mine of Phandelver), I will read through the book and add the dates along the left hand side. So 500 years ago, the Phandelvers Pact was established? I will write 500 years ago in column one, and in column 2, under "Backstory", I will list that the Pact was established. Gundren Rockseeker left Neverwinter 4 days ago for Phandalin; the party left 3 days ago; Gundren was ambushed by goblins yesterday; the party is going to be ambushed by goblins today; like this:

Gundren Rockseeker Party
4 days ago Leaving Neverwinter for Phandalin with Sildar Hallwinter Gathering supplies in Neverwinter
3 days ago Traveling to Phandalin with Sildar Leaving Neverwinter for Phandalin
1 day ago Ambushed by goblins on the Triboar Trail Traveling along the High Road to Phandalin
Today Being brought to Cragmaw Castle by 2 goblins Traveling along the Triboar Trail

The more information I gather from the source material, the more columns I add, and the more expansive the dates get. Also: the future actions/plans of your antagonist(s) should be laid out! Are the redbrands going to move on the town? When will the Black Spider uncover the forge? What will he do with it? Some of this you can decide, some of it is in the source material, but either way–their actions can be gridded out, whether it's 1 week, 1 month, 1 year into the future. I am able to piece together the puzzle of the story, and see what everyone is doing at the same time (now) and into the future. While Gundren is being taken to the Cragmaw Castle, Iarno is feeding a farmer to a Nothic, the Black Spider is searching for magical treasure, and the green dragon in Thundertree is parlaying with the cultists.

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3 things come from this:

  1. When you are able to read across the "today" row, you are able to flavor your narrative description with a heavy degree of foreshadowing. If you know the cultists are meeting with the green dragon, why not have it fly over the Triboar Trail on its way to Thundertree for that meeting? You know where that dragon is going, what it is doing, and how little it cares about the party–but for your party, they're seeing and understanding that there are bigger, badder monsters in the region than the goblins that are sniping at them.
  2. When you are able to read up and down the antagonists rows, you are able to adjust to your party's actions accordingly. IF the party decides to fire on the dragon, and IF the dragon decides to land for combat, and IF the party survives and the dragon continues to its meeting, part of its negotiations with the cultists might involve the cultists attempting to lure the party to Thundertree. You can then adjust the plans for both the cultists and the dragon accordingly. This is what is meant by "every action has consequences."
  3. At session 0, when players have vague ideas for the types of characters they want to run, I can hammer out the details. "Oh, Mary, goblins abducted your family? Well, let's say that happened 3 weeks ago, on the Triboar Trail." I will add separate columns to my spreadsheet for each individual character.

It has helped me so much in realizing the future of the game is fluid. I like to/try to come to my first session with a pretty concrete understanding of everything that has happened in the past. When the game night is over though, I will look at the party's actions, look at the future plans of all my antagonists, and adjust accordingly. One question I see asked repeatedly on here: what to do if the party doesn't take the bait for a quest hook and they want to sheer sheep in town while drinking cider and singing songs in the tavern instead. That's A-OK, they're just going to be rolling with drunken disadvantage when the Redbrand begin their scheduled hostile takeover, and god help them when they're bound and gagged and the Black Spider shows up on the scene, kitted out with sick gear to claim Phandalin as his seat of power.

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Source: reddit.com

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