This entry is part 6 in the series GM Toolbox
GM Toolbox

What tools go into your GM toolbox?

Written by Michael Beck, with contributions and editing by Da’Vane.

GM’s Toolbox, looks at tools, tips, and techniques you can use to improve your games. Toolbox offers you a skeleton for running a campaign, rather than fleshed out tips. This series is presented in a discussion style, and we ask you to contribute with comments about your own tools, tips, and techniques at the end of this post.

World building is an important part of a GM’s role. You can’t play in a vacuum.

In part I, we started with tools for plain geographic designs (from planets to buildings) with which to populate your campaign world.

In this part, we go into tools for large scale social structures all the way down to small scale social structures (from relations between nations to guilds and other local organizations, as well as details on cities and the people within).

In part III next week, we follow a similar way for tools used for passing on the history of the world (from legends and myths to the last-spoken gossip, as well as how to create and place items and dungeons related to these tales).

International Relations

You probably have some nations or similar political entities in your campaign world. There are several kinds of relationships between these nations, ranging from total war to cooperative peace.

There could even be the absence of any relationship at all, if both nations don’t know each other.

An international relation tool should provide:

  • The relationship between any two nations
  • Alliances and pacts between two or more nations against one, some, or all other nations
  • Some historical background to explain the relationships

Michael: I handle whole nations pretty much like they are single NPCs. A simple relationship map suffices for me, with encircled names and arrows between them, where different arrow-tips encode the relationship. I can write further information under the arrows, like the historical reason for that relationship.

Da’ Vane: You should pay particular attention to things like trade agreements and military pacts, as these usually have a lasting impact on national relations, and will often provide plot hooks in a dynamic political climate.

Tensions can flare when long-standing trade agreements, particularly for critical supplies, become disrupted for whatever reason.

Likewise, military pacts can quickly draw multiple nations into a conflict, turning a simple skirmish into a worldwide war. Because of this, nations often employ spies, privateers, mercenaries, and adventurers to do things so that they can avoid sparking international incidents.

Johnn: Some books you might consider for realm management are:

Aria Worlds

Gary Gygax’s World Builder

Gary Gygax’s Nation Builder


Birthright Campaign Setting

A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe


I also find it helpful to consider nations as NPCs, like Michael does. Give your political entities personalities, goals, weaknesses, resources, quirks and secrets.

National Relations

If you are having some form of nation in your campaign, sooner or later you (or your players) will ask about who’s got the power in that country. Who is in control of that piece of land and what’s the reason for that?

Your tool to answer these questions should also answer the following questions:

  • Who else wants to hold the power in the land
  • How obvious are the factions battling for power
  • Is the power split between different groups, and if so, who are these groups, and what share of power do they each possess
  • What would happen if this authority breaks down

Michael: Here I rely heavily on my newspaper-technique. Every news item gets its own article in plain text, which is roughly about one page describing the different struggles for power and its combatants.

Da’ Vane: You might want to pay some attention to how power is maintained within the nation as well. A theocracy, who uses the power of faith and divine magic, would rule very differently from one who rules through military might.

A democracy would have a very different method from a plutocracy, where bribery and corruption aren’t just tolerated, but actively encouraged.

The differences can also lead to interesting plot hooks in their own right – a paramilitary organization might be organizing a coup to overthrow the undead monarch, while anarchists might target all forms of government indiscriminately, inadvertently putting themselves in power should they succeed.

Johnn: Check out the very details City Government Power Bases series at Campaign Mastery for inspiration on internal politics.

Guilds, Brotherhoods and Other Organizations

Guilds are important organizations in a lot of fantasy settings. A tool to construct an organization should provide:

  • The internal structure of the organization
  • Who has the power of the organization
  • How the organization sets its goal
  • The material, manpower, knowledge and influential, resources of the organization
  • The goals of the organization
  • The relationship to other organizations

Remember that evil also organizes sometimes, and these are also organizations in the above sense.

Michael: I haven’t found a nice tool for this question yet. Nevertheless, the Roleplaying Tips article Hierarchy of Evil seems to be quite applicable, even for non-evil organizations. I will have to check that article out.

Da’ Vane: A good set of tools for defining organizations, especially evil organizations, can be found within the Spycraft roleplaying game, by Crafty Games. Originally d20, it is easily convertible, but most of the information it provides is generalized enough that it can be used for practically any purpose.

I own all the classic Spycraft rulebooks, and the sheer amount of tools for creating organizations in Agency and Mastermind make these my go to products of choice, but you can find enough tools in all the Spycraft lines to make them worthy of a mention. I have not tried Fantasycraft or Mastercraft, but they’re extremely high on my list of systems to pick up!

City Building

Most roleplaying groups come to a city sooner or later. Your entire campaign may even take place in just one city, with the PCs rarely venturing beyond its walls for long periods.

Having a good idea of what is where in your city, and what kind of infrastructure is available is crucial for this kind of adventure. The city-building tool should provide you with this information.

Michael: For building cities in my D&D-campaign, I’ve found another article, again from Campaign Mastery, quite useful: Pillars of Architecture. I combine that article with this great list of city places.

In my Savage Worlds campaign, I rely on the rulebook. In the Cthulhu campaign, I rely also on the information provided by the books and the net.

Here we are at a scale where it may happen that you need an improvisational tool. I still haven’t found a tool satisfying my needs, but here’s one you may try: Medieval City Generator by Chaotic Shiny. Alternatively, you may try the tables existing in some rulebooks for city construction.

Da’ Vane: Cities and other settlements are mostly defined by their populations – a factor that a great deal of tools neglect in favour of a more site-based approach.

In large settlements, like towns and cities, it becomes unfeasible to detail every building and inhabitant individually, and it is often better to take a more general overview, looking at the city in terms of districts and areas.

Whether planned or organic, districts will form revolving around shared usages of common facilities, to increase efficiency, profitability, and access. These will directly affect relations within the city, which in turn affect issues like crime, poverty, and unemployment.

There will most likely be a market district, a temple district, an academic district, a financial district, a governmental district, a noble district, and so forth. These will define the people that frequent that part of town, especially their residents.

Guilds placed together are likely to be more cooperative to guilds on the opposite side of town, for example.

Johnn: Pulling from the RPT archives a few city tips pop up:

4 City Building Tips: Give cities flavour with districts

City Features And Flavors

City Services, Landmarks And Businesses In A Fantasy Setting

7 City Tips From Your Fellow Subscribers

15 Tips For Making Cities In Your Games Come To Life

Also, the City Encounter Generator is perfect for generating seeds for your game.

City Relations

In one city, like in a nation, there are different groups who seek power and influence. The same questions for nations can be stated on a smaller level, and hence pretty much the same tools can be used.

But there may be some more city-specific answers to the above questions. The location and the environment are more important for a city, rather than for a nation.

For example, a nation could own some hills, mountains, flat lands AND access to the sea. But a city in the mountains and near the border to the wild differs strongly from a city with some harbour, far away from any other borders than the ocean.

Michael: Again I rely on my newspaper technique, but I combine it with the geographical environment of the city.

Da’ Vane: One of the key features when dealing with city relations is traffic and trade. All settlements will need a means to transport their goods and services to other cities, and to be able to send and receive visitors.

Land and sea are the most common methods, with air traffic commonly available in the early modern era and beyond, and in futuristic settings, space travel is possible as well.

Magic may also provide a means of transportation, through the use of teleportation circles between key cities.

When you think about how people are travelling to and from settlements, think about the features they will need. Land transportation normally evolves to roads, and later railroads, to increase efficiency, while other methods normally require some form of port.

Cross-border traffic might require customs offices, and specialized goods may need dedicated facilities to handle them. Finally, consider whether or not there are also means of bypassing official entry procedures – smuggling of various goods, services, and people have been a lucrative trade for centuries, so maybe there are lesser known ways into and out of the city.

Don’t just look at moving in and out of the city, but also within the city. Once you’ve worked out these connections, and who knows about them and controls them, you have a great foundation upon which to work out the relations of groups within a city.

For example, a pirate gang in control of the sewers with a hidden dock for loading and unloading can have considerable leverage – even enough to pay high ranking officials to not have the watch pay too much attention to their activities compared to their other duties, and could be very helpful in a city planning to rebel from the Kingdom and become a free state.

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