Preparation, the bane or pleasure, and duty of every Dungeon Master, is an essential part of every D&D session. Preparations can be immense projects like the creation of an entire world and all that a world entails, or they can be the brief review of a premade modules most relevant sections.
At the end of the day a DM has to, to some extent, enjoy the act of preparation, or at least the rewards from it. Some people are capable of quickly referencing material or improvising a story in the middle of a play session, but you still have to know enough of the world that your players are participating in, to provide an accurate and consistent experience. You may be able to quickly improvise a plot point, but if that plot point contradicts something previously experienced, or to be experienced, and if you take too long referencing something, your players will notice and it will break immersion. That’s not to say that having to break to look up a rule, or figure out a complicated plot point is bad. In most cases, players will appreciate you taking the time to make sure things are correctly handled. But that’s where preparation comes into play. The better prepared you are and capable of handling unknowns reliably and consistently, the better the experience will be for your players, and the more you’ll look like a hero.
While I am by no stretch of the imagination a vastly experienced DM, I do have experience in preparing for published module campaigns, and single-shot stories, meant to be played in one 3-4 hour session. My goal is to relay my experiences and lessons learned from prepping for my own sessions. As this advice comes from a relatively new DM, and much of it is subjective, I’ll try to present the fundamental bits of knowledge that have helped me.
The TL;DR of this article is that everyone prepares differently based on what scenario or campaign they’re DM’ing. Preparations for a published campaign will always be very different from preparations for a homemade campaign. The preparations will also vary from story to story depending on the style of the scenario (web vs arc). At the heart of preparing is feeling comfortable with tackling anything that might come up in the next session without accidentally contradicting canon.
So what does a typical prep look like for a nights session of gaming? In my case, I’ve swung through a couple of different degrees of preparation…
The first time I ran a published campaign session, Lost Mine of Phandelver, I had read through the parts I expected to take the party through a few times and then prepared the Roll20 campaign with maps, mobs, and characters.
What happened, was hopefully my least graceful session of DM’ing ever. I missed out on every opportunity for box text (scene descriptions meant to be read aloud), butchered the two opportunities for NPC roleplaying, and in my estimation, failed to provide my players with an immersive playthrough.
For the second session of that campaign, I purchased a binder, and filled it with over 20 pages of typed outlines for each scene, fight, and NPC.
This session played buttery smooth. I felt confident in every encounter. I was able to focus more on roleplaying and letting my characters blazer their own trail without worrying about what they might do next that I would have to look up and then relay to them without time to properly process it. I even felt like even if they had gone off the rails completely, I would be able to improvise with a pre-printed list of NPC names and my knowledge of the area. The cost of all this peace of mind and buttery smooth D&D experience? I spent a solid 4 hours reviewing the module for just the sections we were likely to explore next and creating the outlines. Probably a huge chunk of my comfort was due to the shear amount of time spent reviewing the material and writing it down in memorable formats.
To get another game going with a Meetup group, I started preparing for The Sunless Citadel campaign, and old 3rd edition published campaign that was republished for 5e in Tales from the Yawning Portal. To give you an idea of the amount of prep work necessary for the whole adventure, landing in at a whopping 22 pages long, but a FIFTY-SIX room dungeon, this is a relatively short 12-16 hour long campaign, with a lot going on.
For our first session and with relatively few days from the first discussion to the play date, I was able to prep all of the initial Kobold encounters and first 20 or so rooms. I thought that there was no way in hell the party would fail every single perception check, miss every secret door, and manage to go straight to the story chokepoint that led them to the next “stage” of the campaign that I hadn’t prepared for. Guess what! They made a beeline to the next stage. It wasn’t all heartbreak and tears though, the first 45 minutes were spent dealing with one of my players having a technical challenge, which is an inherent risk to hosting online D&D sessions, regardless of the platform. We ended up making it to the second stage with only 30 minutes or so to spare in the 3 hour long session. This meant that I was able to somewhat gracefully finish out the last encounter.
Although it made me nervous, it was a good learning experience for me. Despite being familiar with the story, the shear number of rooms in the dungeon made it impossible to memorize each rooms features, clues, and mobs. I learned that I do need an outline for most parts of a published adventure.
Preparing for a published adventure is challenging for a DM because it provides you with many things that have been added with thought and precision to create a world tailored for a specific adventure. These are called story arc’s and generally events occur in a sequential, well defined pattern, the arc. The difficulty is that unplanned improvisations or edits to the story can cause echoing ripples in the story arc that break immersion, like a stone dropping into a lake. Now on the flipside, in homemade campaigns, you as the mastermind, already know the major plot points and can generally recognize a dissonant plot characteristic before injecting it into the story. This makes it somewhat easier to avoid those events because a homemade campaign is often less rigid.
While many, if not most campaigns are story arcs, a story web is another method for injecting characters into a world where the overarching adventure or campaign is accessible via many routes and does not require characters to do things in any specific order. Alexander Macris writes about the use of web’s heavily in his book, “Arbiter of Worlds”. Arbiter of Worlds should, in my opinion, be mandatory reading for any DM. It’s a little over a 140 pages long and is packed full with easily digestible pieces of DM wisdom. Reading this book gives you a permanent +5 to Wisdom.
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To wrap this article up, you’re going to need to determine for yourself how to prepare, and how much time that will take you. If you enjoy preparing, you might spend 5+ hours a week per play session just because it’s enjoyable. If you have an iron trap of a memory and masterful improv skills, maybe you read through the module once or twice for twenty minutes and call it good. Some other factors to remember are physical preparations. You may want to create little 4×6 flash cards with items to hand out as rewards or as parts of quests. You may need to draw some maps, or you may just want to write a quick recap email for your party. For a complete list of optional preparations, see below.
Lastly, I want to provide you with the tools I use to prepare for my sessions. In the Google Drive link below, you’ll find an encounter sheet for preparing for combat, a party tracker sheet for monitoring your players, and my templates for outlining the people and places of the campaign. I hope this article has helped you, and I would love to hear your thoughts on preparing for D&D campaigns as a DM or even as a player in the comments!
Nate, the Dungeon Master