Lately, I’ve been enjoying making lots of documents for my Dungeons & Dragons games. I know I talk about “understanding can serve you better than knowing” a lot here, but there’s a point where you understand so much you start needing to record it all somewhere so you remember it later. Generally, I like to keep these documents to broad, general strokes without a lot of specifics so I can cleave to my principles as a DM, but it is very helpful to have all the specific, complex systems worked out ahead of time. For instance, in the domain of dread I’ve built for my weekly Sunday D&D, I have a list of the various tiers of effects the players can encounter, the ways various encounters tie into those tiers, how to switch between tiers, and how the world/the people in the world respond to their efforts written down. What I add whenever it comes up are the specific debilities tied to the tiers as my players encounter them. Those I do not have built out ahead of time since I don’t need a name until it’s happening and the name and specific effect should reflect the situation the player character has found themselves in.
As a result, I tend to start with documents that are a few pages in total, mostly filled with bulleted lists up to five or six indents deep, tying causes and effects together so I can easily search and reference them. I also have general principles, map-making notes (since I use these documents only for large-area campaign arcs), and lists of names so I’m not forced to come up with those on the spot all the time (though I am considering just making a separate document just for names across my tabletop roleplaying games rather than doing one-off lists all the time). Usually three to five pages when I start. After that, though, they tend to grow so long as the campaign they’re built to support continues, at varying rates that reflects how much new content my players get into.
I don’t build in specific text to these documents, since I try to avoid pre-writing that stuff, but I do include the type of information my players can find in places if there are any special rules tied to that location. Otherwise, it tends to flow from my understanding of where they’re located. For instance, to use an example from the game I ran the day before writing this, I have notes pertaining to the faith of a city in the main cathedral. This information is limited by the special rule for this cathedral (that it was sacked and desecrated by a mob of cultists twelve years and change prior to the day the players enter it) and given a general direction by it’s specific purpose (it was the stage for a ritual the players were hopefully going to learn about elsewhere, so it mostly provides information meant to confirm player suspicions about the general timeline of events that explains the city’s weirdness). So while I don’t remember the specifics of what I told my players last night, I could easily reproduce it so that the general feel of it was the same.
It’s a lot of fun, to start with this basic block of rules and guidelines for navigating a strange location, chip away the parts that don’t work and then add on flavor and decoration as it goes. The process of slowly refining it from a collection of broad strokes to a finely crafted setting and sequence of events is a labor of love, something I enjoy doing between sessions as ideas come to me that build on all the strange events, interesting people, and twisted locations I’ve been coming up with on and off for the past year and a half (for this specific domain of dread, anyway). I just love to tinker, you know? And understanding the basics of it enough to change things in the moment if they feel off or too powerful means I almost never get things in a situation where I’m overly punishing of my players’ mistakes.
Honestly, it’s just fun to tinker with this stuff. To shift numbers around, try things a bit differently from time to time, reward my players’ ingenuity even if it technically shouldn’t work that way, and come up with new challenges if it seems like they’re getting bored or falling into static patterns of behavior. And to have it all written down so I can remember all the crap I’ve come up with. Being able to search a document for a specific word or series of characters makes it SO MUCH EASIER to find stuff than my old method of manually hunting through a binder full of scribbled notes on worn-out paper.