One of the biggest differences between Dungeon Masters is how they prepare for sessions. Some will prepare extensively, down to the smallest level of detail. Others will fly with just a handful of bullet points scribbled on a sheet ahead of the session.
I’m somewhere between the two. Currently I’m running two fairly long running campaigns, so I’m averaging out about 3 hours a week of play time which I need to prep for. I find that the amount of preparation is fairly similar when using published content and homebrew content.
Published content obviously saves a lot of time in terms of coming up with the encounters and the associated story but the lack of familiarity with the content means you have to spend a bit longer familiarising yourself with the maps, encounter areas, traps, NPCs etc than you perhaps would if you came up with all of these things yourself.
In this article, I’m going to look at how I prepare. In this instance, I’m going to talk about how I prepare for a session running a published adventure, however the process for a homebrew adventure really only differs very slightly.
Plan out the key events and NPCs for your session
I do this in one of two ways. I either create a mindmap using a tool like Simplemind or create a Word/Google Docs document which outlines a potential flow for the session. It’s important to note that this is not meant to define a linear timeline of the session. I don’t however want to railroad my players. What this is meant to be is a reasonably high level list of all of the potential places, NPCs, encounters, rumours etc that my players could encounter within the confines of a 3 hour session based on where they are currently located and the previous storyline.
By way of an example, in my Curse of Strahd campaign, if my party was leaving the Death House and setting off into the centre of the village of Barovia, I would create a mindmap with ‘Barovia’ at the centre and determine that within the course of the next 3 hour session they might encounter some, all or none of the following:
- Mad Mary
- The inn and shops in the village
- Ireena and Ismark
- Donavich and Doru
- Strahd (in the form of a fleeting harrasment of the players to make his presence felt)
I need to have a pretty clear idea of how all of these encounters could run and I will have to read each encounter at least a couple of times to familiarise myself with the content. The mindmap isn’t meant to tell me everything the published adventure does. Instead, the mindmap is meant to be a list of short prompts, some maybe only a single word, that reminds me of the gist of the encounter – to ensure I don’t miss anything.
I can also do this within the Word or Google Docs document. It’s slightly less straightforward to read, and the mindmap has the advantage of being able to draw connecting lines between related encounters, but it still serves the same purpose on the whole.
Have a think about NPC dialogue
I mentioned in an earlier post that NPC dialogue was a weak point of mine. Now I plan out a few responses to questions or conversation that the players might engage in. Again, it doesn’t have to be full word for word scripting, just a note of the general gist of the response. It will mean you won’t slip up and respond incorrectly. I found this particularly useful in Curse of Strahd where so much of the story hinges on NPC motives, relationships and responses to the players.
Print off and annotate maps for any key locations
I can’t remember every detail of every map and I’m not good under pressure referencing a location number in a hardback campaign book, so I either download or scan the maps for key locations and print them off. I then grab a ball point pen and scrawl on the maps.
Again, I don’t need to write the full details in, but it’s helpful if I know that there are 6 vampire spawn behind a door before the party listen at it or look through the keyhole.
Print off any handouts
I play largely online through Fantasy Grounds, so handouts are covered but when I play in person I like to have handouts of anything the players may need. Having images of the monsters the players encounter will go a long way to making the session more visually appealing. D&D Beyond is a great source of monster images.
Prepare any tokens
How you do this differs in online and offline play, but the principle is the same. You need to get out any minis or tokens you are playing with in that session. Set them aside in their groupings to make sure you can access them quickly when needed. For online play this consists of creating the encounters, placing them on the map and then hiding them/moving them to the GM layer.
Know your monsters
Delve into the monster manual or the stat blocks in the adventure and learn what your monster does. What are it’s special abilities? How far does it move? Can it fly? Does it grapple players? What is it immune, resistant and vulnerable to? Sure, you could look these up at the time but I guarantee the combat will go much more smoothly if you know all of this in advance.
Once you’ve done all of the above you can sit down with your favourite dice, a snack and a cold drink and wait for the fun to commence.