How do you manage an online sandbox campaign?

In my youth there would be binders packed with handouts, character sheets, maps and campaign miscellany. Notebooks would serve as a comprehensive gazeteer for made-up worlds, or a legend of notable locations in the forests, cities and dungeons where a party of mighty adventurers would crawl. Sometimes that even would serve in lieu of a plot. They’d have diagrams of traps, sketches of important artefacts and personalities, as well as, of course NPC write-ups – very detailed, but probably quite 2-dimensional by modern standards.

I’d bundle it all together with dice, blank sheets, figurines, floor plans and blunt instruments of writing, and then portage the assembled folio from my place to the library, school or to friends houses, ready to unfurl for play at a moment’s notice.

How times have changed.

Now I’m preparing to run a player-led campaign online, where very little is known up-front.* The players will introduce plot elements, characters, locations. Stuff will happen each session. There’ll be consequences, new elements, twists and blowback. Something innocuous in an early episode may develop into an important campaign device. New antagonists will crop up. Portentous events might unfold behind the scenes and cause problems for the party.

Who knows how it will unfold?

I don’t.

But I do know I want to keep on top of things as it inevitably gets more intricate.

What combination of tools and methods do you use for keeping your GM notes in good order for an online, player-led, emergent campaign? I’m thinking sandbox rather than pre-defined scenario, and a system that may help with organising elements such as:

  • story arc / plot outlines
  • episode notes
  • relationship maps
  • NPC background / actions
  • timelines
  • location maps
  • visuals and other digital handouts

I’m interested in reliable, lightweight and low-friction approaches.  I don’t want to create an admin overhead. I want to manage the campaign, not the organising system. It should help me keep on top of things as they are introduced or develop over a series that is initially billed for 8 sessions and about 20 hours.

The ‘user experience’ is important – easy to scan and quick to access stuff during play without slowing things down. And seamless to share things with players as passing them a handout when playing in meatspace round the dining table.

Tools may or may not be tied into virtual tabletops, like Roll20, or campaign platforms like Obsidian Portal. Solutions could include methods such as bullet journaling. Maybe you have reliable campaign management templates you keep returning to?

If you can, please show me, rather than tell me.

* I’m thinking of this ahead of an Unknown Armies 3 campaign. This version of the game has plenty of good advice for facilitating player-led, sandbox narratives, but doesn’t really talk about the admin side of it.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. aquarionics says:

    I’m currently documenting how I’ve dived into a UA3 campaign at, although I haven’t got that far in the series yet. For campaign management I’m using the novel-writing software Scrivener, which is already set up for keeping track of characters, locations, plots & research. ( Screenshot: )

    if I wasn’t doing that, I’d probably be using MS OneNote, which is a surprisingly comprehensive note and binder system, and has the added advantage of being free. We used to use that as a collaborative campaign management for a largeish LARP game. OneNote has the added advantage that you can keep a separate notebook as a public version shared with the players, to share bits.

  2. Jagusti says: Author

    I was a bit unsure how cumbersome Roll20 would be for campaign tracking, but the Post-Apocalypse video series by Adam Koebel may help allay those concerns. I’ve only just started watching, but it seems it may be simple enough to hack/use for this purpose.

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