GMing is a lot of work. People will tell you this wherever you ask about taking up the mantle of Game Master. They will tell you about the burden of mapping, building encounters, setting up story arcs, and immersing players in the world you have created. That is all well and good. You can do a lot of it ahead of time, use time before the game is actually running. You build your maps, name your towns, and all that fun stuff. The work I don't see mentioned somewhere though, the one that kills me, is the upkeep work required to keep it all going. Today I want to talk about that.
Upkeep, in my opinion, is all the little stuff you have to do between sessions that doesn't push things forward, but just keeps you grounded in where you are. It's keeping track of random NPCs that were generated on the fly because a PC wanted to buy a new sword, or the name of that tavern that a PC randomly decided he was going to start a brawl in. It can be tracking debts that are owed to small groups.
Upkeep is tracking how many charges off that ring of wish the PCs have spent. How the King reacted to the snafu at his ball. Who is a friend. Who is an enemy. Who is wondering which they are after a more recent snub from the PCs that may or may not have been unintentional.
In short, upkeep is how you keep track of everything that's happened in your game. Why do you need to do it? Because if you can't keep the game's past on lockdown, the game's future can suffer from it.
Wait, Who Is This Guy Again?
Ever have that moment happen in your game? Two PCs want to go talk to an NPC that they met, only you have no idea who this person is. Or, vice versa, there is an NPC the PCs need to talk to, one they met before, but they have no idea who that person is. Now, if it is a minor thing, then you can just go and fudge it and it will be ok. But what if it is a major thing?
Also, wouldn't it be ideal if you didn't have to fudge it at all?
The big problem is that upkeep is a lot of work. The more complex your game is, the larger the scale and scope, the more work you have to do. That this work is basically just playing "catchup" for your brain and having a reference guide for later can make it daunting.
I ran a Star Wars game for 5 people, but the scope of NPCs meant keeping track of three different spreadsheets for organizations, and having to track what those characters were all doing. The fact that the NPCs had different views of each PC made things even worse. After certain sessions I could be doing multiple hours of upkeep. It sucked. However, I can't say it wasn't worth it.
So how to do it?
Step 1: Good Notes In Session
First, help yourself out as much as possible. Take quick, but detailed, notes during the session. If you name an NPC, write it down. If you make an inn or tavern, write it down. If you introduce a prominent character write it down, along with the why they were introduced and how the meeting went, and how the NPC views the PCs.
At the end of the session, make a note about important things that happened.
Step 2: Clean Notes Are A Plus
Have your notes? Great. After game when you have time, clean them up. If you can, write a quick summary of the session. Put down your notes in as organized a fashion as you need. Just make sure that things are neat, tidy, and organized so you can find things when you need them. It does you no good to have a file with every NPC the PCs have ever met if you can't find the NPC you need during session.
Step 3: Keep It Up
Finally, you need to keep it up. Some sessions you won't want to. Some sessions you'll want to do anything but do it. However, you need to keep it up. Upkeep work piles up and piles up fast. The more you can keep on top of it, the better things are. Also, the happier you'll be when moving forward to plan your future sessions. After all, once you have all this stuff set and noted down, why not use it?