Watching a conversation at The Wizards Community, a place I had gone only because it was driving traffic towards this site, I came across this question imposed by one Fochizzy:
"I am legitimately curious as to how you create these random maps, monsters, NPCs and tables that you discuss. Do you create them in advance and use what feels appropriate? It sounds like you eschew most preparation, so how do you keep it all together? Because my experience with someone with a similar style to what you espouse is that they were unable to keep everything straight."
The statement was meant, I believe (in context), to be anecdotal evidence of the impossibility of such a venture. In context, there's a sort of "pffft!" sound that one can hear in the background, which I think is evident from the last line of the quote. On the next page of the thread, one can find Yagami answering it (Yagami who occasionally pokes his head up around here, and was responsible for creating the thread linking to content on this blog). I think I can offer a better reply.
The maps, as anyone knows who reads me, are a long term venture that has paid off ... but even at the beginning (around early 2005), when the only map I had was a small reproduction of the province of Voronezh, creating my own map on a computer program, which could be manipulated at will, was well worth the effort. This is where my long-running off-line party started, about 8 years ago now, in a little town on the edge of orc-country in the steppes of Russia, a town called Kolyeno. With the aid of Wikipedia, an encyclopedia, several atlases and my own imagination, I was able to insert the party into a place that had a history, and which was relevant to them at least in terms of being able to comprehend how large a world they were in beyond the simple local hills and grasslands surrounding the valley of the Don River.
Therefore, I keep the maps straight by working off the real world, where all my information is on the net, at my fingertips, and all I need do is conform that information to my perception of what a 17th century world would be like. I even have tables that tell me what moon phase exists in any particular part of the world, at any time, such as Athens in 1651.
The monsters are mostly those in the monster manual. I insert these more or less in places where there are no people. I've been doing this mostly grab-ass for the last 33 years, using my experience to estimate how many and how they're encountered, mostly with the mindset of depicting these monsters as they would live and breathe if there were no persons there to discover them. In other words, I don't have the party come across a chimera because its interesting and exciting to kill a chimera. I presuppose, IF a chimera were in this place and time, WHAT would be the chimera's motivation? What do chimera want? Is it sleepy and perhaps resting after several months of causing destruction? Has it climbed out of a cave and is mostly interested in sunning itself? Is it hungry? Has it little chimera children its raising (well, probably not, because that's not how chimera happen). IF the party stumbles across the chimera, how is that likely to happen. I have to assume the chimera was doing something before the party showed up. It wasn't just waiting there off camera, arguing with its agent on the phone before the call came for it to step out and read its lines. That chimera has an agenda. What is it? What does the chimera want? And how does what the party want conflict with the chimera, or in fact how does it coincide? Must we always assume the party and the chimera are opponents in whatever struggle is taking place?
So I manage these monsters mostly by putting myself in their place. Since I as DM have no agenda, no cattle run or railroad, then the whole matter of the chimera (or any other monster appearing) comes down to, "Has the party moved into an area where something other than vermin is likely to be?" And that thought is followed by a die roll that tells me if there's a monster there. If yes, we can start up a dialogue/battle. If no, I can tell the party they are one day closer to their destination without there being a distraction. One die roll. Everyone's happy either way. Win for the new encounter (and possible experience), or win for the party's plan moving that much closer to fruition.
And if the party is somewhere that only vermin are likely to be (vermin = creatures too dumb to know that they'll be killed if they wander into civilized lands), then the die roll is there for that, too.
NPC's are run pretty much the same way. If the party goes into a particular civilized land/area/city/what have you, I think, who would they likely find there? And what would be their agenda? Sell stuff? Get help? Ask the party to get the hell off their land? Steal from the party? Con the party into believing a lie in order to get their money? There are really thousands, tens of thousands of motivations, and I'm creative.
I don't need an overall grand plan to give an ordinary NPC a motivation that will challenge the party. The guy driving the car on the road ahead of you, who is challenging the living fuck out of you, doesn't need to fit into any grand scheme. He's a problem. NPC's are often problems. They are sometimes solutions. They have information, they have both ordinary and extraordinary little agendas, they're chock full of adventure opportunities.
I don't have to keep track of them because, well, chances are as an adventuring party you'll never see them again. Even if they're someone you see everyday, I don't have to create their stats or most of their wealth because there's no logical reason the party would ever have knowledge of that anyway. I myself only need it if that person is actually going to get into combat; the idea that I'd sketch out an entire NPC sheet for the local grocer who always says hi to the party when they come back to town, whose name is Greg and has a pretty wife, is ridiculous. Why would I do that? Even if the party attacked Greg, in about two seconds I can decide that he probably hasn't got any special stats, and being a grocer he's probably got between one and eight hit points. If he were a guard, he'd have a d8 for mass and a d10 for his level, and maybe (50%, say) either a 16 strength or a 15 constitution. Probably nothing else. That thief that robbed the party is bound to have a good dexterity (roll 5d6 and keep the highest three). It takes no time. And the NPC is probably going to disappear forever soon after, or be dead. Why would I waste time designing them down to how much they weighed or what color their eyes were? The party doesn't care. Why should I?
And if the body is to be rifled, I can just as easily rattle off a dozen things the body is carrying or wearing in the middle of a session as I can write it down ten days earlier in 'preparation.' Preparation there is a waste of time. I can be preparing better things ... like a general treasure & arms table that identifies the value the NPC is carrying fast enough to keep the game going.
Yes, I eschew a great deal of bullshit preparation. Most of this preparation is a sort of self-roleplay thing that people do in order to be part of the game when the game is not going on. But then, I wrote a great long post about that.
Keeping this "all together" is really about going with the flow. Not trying to force the party into a box. That means that a lot of things get left by the wayside, never developed, because the party really wasn't interested in them. And sometimes it means my forgetting the name of that grocer because the party hasn't been back to that town in seventeen months of play. But you know, if I start calling the grocer 'Gary,' no one cares. And if someone says, "I thought his name was Greg," I answer, "Oh, right, Greg. Anyway, Greg says ..." and the game goes on.
There is this rather foolish sense that a DM has to be this flawless individual who can never make a mistake about something they have in their campaign. That's simply not true. The gentle reader will find generally with the party that they're ready to adapt to a lot of things - such as keeping notes themselves if they ever want to find that strange little man outside that town. I don't keep information like that in my head for the party. They remind me. They say, "Hey, did we find that prayer rug the town said they were missing?" And I think, oops, forgot all about that. Out loud, I say, "Nope. No sign of it." Whereupon the party goes, "I wonder where that is."
But you know what? If they NEVER find it, no big deal. Because sometimes things just go missing. Sometimes, the town just has to get along without that prayer rug. Maybe a black pudding ate it. Maybe its in someone's backback right now as they're getting aboard a ship for China. Who the hell knows? What the hell difference does it make? If the party doesn't find that particular bit of treasure, no biggie, there will be other things. I don't have anything in my world hinging on the whereabouts of that thing, so if I've forgotten to toss that thing into the treasure where, seven months ago, I totally meant to, what the hey? The game still manages to go on.
I never tell the party that, of course. I keep it close to the body. I never reveal what happened to stuff that was never found, because in reality, there's just stuff we lose and we never find. There are people we knew really well who might be, well, anywhere. We can't even find them on the Net. Maybe they died before the Net got really popular. Who knows?
Every once in awhile someone in the party might say, "I wonder what ever happened to ..." and I think, hm, maybe I'll have them find that. Or I think, naaaaaah.
Not telling the party things helps a lot in keeping it all 'straight.' Not having a plan helps in that there's no real definite reason to keep things 'straight.' My principal self-rule is that I don't intentionally fuck around behind the party's back changing things. Once I decide that this is that, I make it that. True, I do forget stuff - like that prayer rug. But I never had any specific plans for what that rug was, anyway.
In the main, I'm less concerned about making the world "fun" for the party than I am letting the party make the world "fun" for themselves. I don't worry about if I'm running a world like a computer would run a world. I don't get wrapped up in how much personal glory I'm getting, of if the party properly respects the effort I've made. I want to know for certain that the party is having a good time. That it is worth it for them. That they're engaged.
I'm engaged in making all this background. It amuses me more than enough to have created a big park where other people want to play. I don't feel at the same time that they need to pay lip service to me for having created it.
So there you have it. I keep it together by playing it pretty loose and off the cuff, which works because the world as it stands is pretty loose and pretty much undefined. The less defined it is, the better park the world becomes. I like it that way, my players like it that way.
I think that phrase, "keep everything straight," is telling in itself. Railroads are straight. FIXED design is straight. Inflexible things are straight. I don't make a straight world.
Mine is wiggly all over the place.