I’m a busy dude. I’ve got this blog, two podcasts, a job, a girlfriend, and awesome people in my life. All of these deserve my attention on a regular basis. Not to mention all the normal life stuff we do each day like commuting, cooking, cleaning, exercising, laundry, and more. Some of you might have all those commitments, plus a few more like, oh I don’t know… pets or kids. So what are we to do when we also have D&D games to run?
Now, my life isn’t always so crazy. I often have at least some time to prepare for my D&D games, though almost always less than I would like. So how do I go about preparing for an adventure? I always start with an outline. It’s very bare bones to start but I try to at least put the following in there.
- A very basic idea of what might happen during the session. Sometimes this is no more than a paragraph or a few bullet points.
- A basic description of expected combat encounters, including number and names of creatures to be used. Descriptions start as simple as “5 orcs, 2 shamans, and a pit trap.”
- Names of NPCs the players will come across, their motive, and a quick distinguishing characteristic such as a club foot or funny accent to help make them memorable. This could be something like, “Famnoodle Breswick, gnome bard of Dark Whispers, wants to kill Bragonian nobles who are also slavers, has hook instead of left hand.”
- I jot down twists and turns I could throw into the session to make things interesting in the main storyline as it comes to me (to make this easier, use Google Drive so you can ideas on the fly). These things might include, but are not limited to, a villain having a hidden weakness or strength, a helpful NPC showing up, revealing an NPC as a double-crosser, other threats coming into play the party may not be aware of, and pieces of a character’s background coming into play. These are good for me to have in the case of the unexpected, I can whip out a PC’s long lost brother returning after decades if the players are having trouble figuring out what to do or if a story feels boring or uninteresting. It helps keep the players on their toes. Remember that not every twist needs to be a Red Wedding.
After that I go back and flesh out my outline depending on how much prep time I have. I usually start by fleshing out encounters and dungeons fully, then bullet points for any social interactions and exploration, followed by descriptive read aloud text (in the rare event that I have time for it). Of course I don’t want to over prepare.
Be An Idea Pack Rat
If I do over prepare, I find I try and steer my players too hard in the direction I prepared for, mostly because I don’t want my work to go to waste. Remember, D&D is a collaborative story, and it’s best when you let everyone have a say. If players want to go off the rails let them. Not over preparing will help with that, but when you have a cool idea you’re excited about and the time to do so, you can’t help but flesh it out. Also, sometimes you don’t over prepare, but players go to the unexpected place or so far off the rails, anything you did prepare still feels like it was for naught. Fear not! If players miss something you spent time on, save it for later. After all, when players go off the rails, its often because they’re doing something fun and unexpected, and that’s the kind of play we all want to embrace. Heck, I’d venture to say that for many people, it’s the reason they play tabletop RPGs.
While I certainly don’t think railroading adventurers is a good idea, I do think holding on to something your players missed is. Say they decided to wait outside the red dragon’s lair and fight her in the open rather than delve into her volcanic lair. Don’t throw out that graph paper or start talking to your adventurers about the cool monsters they could have fought and treasure they might have if they had “done what they were supposed to.” Save that dungeon, its secrets, and bust it out when your players take on a fire giant or clan of devils. So when you do prep something, hold onto it. It will help you in the future when you have less time to prep, and need to rely on improv.
All right. Let’s get down to it. Sometimes you don’t have any time at all to prepare or sometimes players decide to zig when you were sure they’d zag. Have no fear! Improv is useful in all D&D sessions (you can’t possibly plan everything) and the more freedom you allow yourself, the more you will be comfortable giving your players.
Many of you have heard this, but the first thing to remember is saying, “Yes, and…” when a player asks if he or she can do something. Everything from, “Can we ignore the noble’s pleas to save his daughter from the vampire lord, and hunt some dragons instead?” You might say, “Yes, and you’ve heard there’s a competing band of dragon hunters in the area, who would probably have information on the closest dragon’s whereabouts.” Boom! Look at the layers of adventure you’ve just added by saying, “Yes, and…” You can always caution adventurers that if they ignore the noble his daughter might die and there could be worse consequences, but they may still choose to ignore that. Don’t worry about it. Write it down and have those consequences come back to bite them at a later date! Saying, “Yes, and…” is difficult at first, but trust me, the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the better your game will be for it.
So what else do I use to help me out in improv situations when I have no time to prepare. Check out the list of resources I use below! There’s already a lot of great fan-created resources and more out there for fifth edition D&D and having a computer or tablet will definitely make your improv life easier.
If you’ve been following this blog it should come as no surprise that I love Google Drive. There are two documents I use, in addition to the outline above, which help immensely when I have to improv my way through part or the entirety of a session.
- Hooks Document This document contains all the hanging plot threads of my game. I organize them into categories, I have one for each PC, which includes threads given to me in their character’s background (my father went missing when I was a child…) and things which pop up along the way (remember last week when I snuck off on my own and robbed a dragon…). Then I have two more categories. One is for threads hanging from the game’s main story (The Brotherhood of the Moon is trying to kill all shifters) and the other is for side quests (we agreed to help the local law enforcement take out a den of orange spice dealers). If I have nothing prepared I look at the document. I might say to myself, “Oh yeah, our warforged barbarian Grolox has slavers hunting for him. Let’s have them show up at the inn.” That’s a great jumping off point for me.
- Wiki and Recap Document I share this document with my players. One or more of them acts as a scribe for the party, listing all the characters, places, and organizations they come across and detailing the events of each session. If I don’t have anything to pull from the Hooks Document above, I’ll take a quick gander here and ask myself some fast questions. What if a defeated foe had a lover out for vengeance, or returned from the grave as an undead? Who is the real power behind The Servants? What if some new evil moved into the aberrant ruins right outside of the city where the adventurers are staying?
Official Wizards of the Coast D&D PDFs
The Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide are great, but when I’m improving I don’t want to spend a bunch of time flipping through books looking for the right rule, magic item, or monster. That’s why I rely on the PDFs below. Searchability is huge when you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Using the documents below, I can search for the exact heading I want, or for a specific phrase like “Challenge 10.” The best part is these PDFs are free so go get them!
- Dungeon Master Basic Rules – Encounter building guidelines, monsters, and magic items.
- Player Basic Rules – All the rules for combat, exploration, social interaction, and spells.
- Hoard of the Dragon Queen PDF – More monsters and magic items for characters level 1 – 8 in this online supplement. You don’t need the full adventure to make sense of it.
- Rise of Tiamat PDF – As above, even more monsters and magic items for characters level 8 – 15 in this online supplement.
- Princes of the Apocalypse PDF – Monsters and magic items for characters level 1 – 15 in this online supplement.
We’re only a few months into the release of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons and there’s already a lot of fan created content out there. Here are a few things I like to keep open on the old laptop when I’m playing in case of improvisation. In fact I use these even when I’m in the planning stages for a session, because it makes life so much easier.
- Encounter Builder – The rules for building encounters are difficult. If you’ve tried it, you know. Luckily Kobold Fight Club has made it super, duper easy with this encounter builder which also generates random encounters, tracks encounters, saves encounters, and allows you to manage encounters. It’s pretty awesome. Check it out!
- Monsters By Challenge Rating – This isn’t one I actually have on my laptop, but I do have it taped to the back, inside cover of my Monster Manual. You can thank Mike Shea of Critical Hits for this perfectly sized monster by challenge rating index, which was missing from the book itself.
- Monster Sorter – Of course, Ari Marmell’s monster sorter doesn’t fit into the back of your Monster Manual, but it does have the ability to be sorted in various categories including challenge rating, name, type, and more. This is a must have!
- Spell Sorter – Similarly, Ari Marmell has come to the rescue again. Do you wish there was a list organizing spells by school of magic? Overall level? Class? Have no fear, Ari is here!
- Merric’s Musings’ List of 5E Adventures – Tons of adventures for all levels, many free.
- Free Game Resources on World Builder Blog – Magic items, monsters, D&D fifth edition rules modules, backgrounds, spells, adventures, and more created by yours truly.
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