Have you ever sat down to run a D&D game and thought, “Oh crap. What am I gonna do? Why didn’t I prepare ANYTHING?” This happened to me sometimes as a kid and now it happens more than I care to admit as an adult. People get busy. There’s chores to be done, work to be accomplished, family obligations, social obligations, and more. These commitments also often get in the way of actual game time, so I’d rather run a game unprepared because who knows when the next time we’ll get to play is? Not only that, my players have cleared time on their schedules and made a commitment to the game. I don’t want to let them down. At the same time I don’t to run a bad game either which can be a result of unpreparedness. What’s a DM to do? You should prepare to be unprepared.
This blog post provides a few tricks you can try for those games when you couldn’t even spare the last-minute prep.
Having an adventure you can pull off the shelf that you’ve already read makes life easy when you haven’t prepped. As a bonus, reading a well-written D&D adventure can be just as enjoyable as reading a book. Yet where can we find the time for pleasurable reading? We don’t even have time to prep our games! Fear not, there’s some solutions. First try multitasking. If you commute using public transportation or get a little cardio in on a treadmill or bike during the week, these are perfect times to read an adventure. If neither of those things work for you, remember – everyone poops.
I know reading the Wizards of the Coast hardcover D&D adventures can seem daunting. If you don’t have the time, desire, or money to read one, you don’t have to do that. There are tons of adventures you can for free (like on this site or found in Dragon+) or very cheap on the DMs guild or DriveThruRPG. Ratings and rankings can help you discover which adventures are well written as can the in-depth reviews from Merric’s Musings. If you’ve got time to scroll through social media, odds are you have time to read a short adventure.
As you read an adventure, the best thing to do is mark segments and encounters you really love. You just slap a quick post it note on a hard copy or place a bookmark on a PDF. When the fateful day comes that you’re unprepared you’ll be able to grab what you need and go. You don’t need to use the whole adventure, just take the parts you like (more on that below).
If you’re playing a longer campaign with a connected story, you can still make use of published encounters and adventures. Some simple re-flavoring (or re-skinning) will make everything fit in your story. For example, let’s say you’re running a story in which giants are the main antagonists, but you really want to use a red dragon encounter from Rise of Tiamat. Simply re-flavor the red dragon to be fire giant eldritch knight (the breath weapon and flight abilities are spells and the attacks are various weapons and stomps). The minions can likely stay the same. Boom. No math required. It’s all done on the fly.
Steal, Steal, Steal from Podcasts and Web Series
In a world full of actual play and advice podcasts and web videos, it’s even easier to multitask. The Adventure Zone, Total Party Thrill, Critical Role, Behind the DMs Screen on The Tome Show, Venture Maidens, Dice, Camera, Action, and more have lots of folks playing or talking about their D&D campaigns. If you’re hurting for an idea, there’s absolutely no shame in stealing from these properties, especially if your players aren’t part of the audience of the property you’re stealing from. Even then you can make an idea work, provided you add a bit of a twist of your own or apply some of that reskinning.
When you do have time to prepare, build a little improv into your game. Maybe write the first and last scene for a session, but let the players decide how to get from beginning to end. You can use random tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and have a few of the resources listed below ready to roll as a safety net. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, maybe just have a single improvised scene and go from there. Improvisational storytelling is a muscle. Work it out, build it up, and you’ll be ready if you find yourself running a game for which you did not prepare.
Save What You Don’t Use
Sometimes players go off the rails, causing you to throw out what you’ve prepared. Don’t walk away from that sweet kobold dungeon just because your players decided to hunt pirates on the high seas. Keep that for your less-than-prepared day.
Let the Players Take the Reins
If you haven’t prepared anything and feel comfortable with improv, let your players decide where the story goes next. Maybe they have downtime between adventures and decide to pursue a plot thread from one of their backstories or an enemy that got away during a previous quest. Maybe they have a dark relic that they want to figure out how to destroy. Maybe they want to blow off the main quest anyway and hunt pirates. If this is the case, ask lots of questions at the start and listen to the players as they respond. Let them construct the plan of action. Ask what they want to do and how they want to accomplish it. Take notes and answer any of their questions and you’re ready to roll. For some players it might be weird to open up a game by asking, “What do YOU want to do?” but once they realize what’s happening, most will love it.
Find Products Made Just For This
In addition to the resources listed in this post, you might also want to checkout Kobold Press’ Prepared! by Jon Sawatsky and the Book of Lairs. The former is a book of encounters and the latter is a book of dungeons. Put ’em together and you got game nights to spare! I also recommend two products by Michael E. Shea of Sly Flourish. Fantastic Locations gives you a bunch of amazing abstract locations that can be turned into dungeons large and small. His latest (currently) ongoing Kickstarter for Fantastic Adventures is a bunch of short one-shot D&D adventures with fun twists and turns. This book can be used with Fantastic Locations to really flesh out adventures and have an awesome experience.
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