A few weeks back I wrote about how to quickly hammer out a series of timelines for NPC factions for your game. In the course of using the timelines I’d made I found myself asking the question: “How do I know when to pull the trigger on the next stage of the timeline?”
The easy answers are “Whenever is dramatically appropriate”, “Whenever you feel like it.” or even “When the stars are right”. For me though, that wasn’t quite a good enough answer. I like to have things planned out loosely because I have a tendency to forget to set events in motion if there’s no reminder.
The answer I came up with is a simple and widely applicable system. After building your timelines, you assign a number of points to each step. The NPC group in question has to accumulate that number of points to begin the next phase of the timeline. These points are arbitrary and can represent anything you want. “6 points” can be “6 artifacts”, “247 cultists”, “$5.2 million”, or whatever you want. As you write each adventure, in the “victory conditions” or what passes for them, include how many points each group gets toward their current timeline, depending on what happened in the adventure. You can also simply evaluate how many to had out post-game if you don’t fancy guessing how the game will go down beforehand. Again, this is arbitrary and you can fiat it whenever you like, it’s just a rough framework and it helps you to get a feel for the state of where various plans currently are.
Something important to remember is that any factions that the PCs aren’t currently opposing during the adventure probably get some points simply to represent time to pursue their goals unmolested. This means that if the PCs are dealing with multiple NPC groups, the only way to keep all the groups stymied is for the PCs to deal them defeats that are so crushing that they actually lose “progress points” otherwise, they slowly work their way to success while the PCs’ attention is elsewhere.