How to Prepare for a D&D Session

By RJ on 24 July 2020.

As the Dungeon Master, one of the most important parts of playing Dungeons & Dragons is preparing for it. At first glance, many might disagree with this statement. Lots of folks go into a D&D session with little or no preparation and have a fantastic time. What’s not immediately clear, though, is that the DMs able to accomplish prepare in various ways; they might not have a sheet of paper or a short novella about the session, but they’ve assuredly prepared for it in some fashion.

In this article, we are going to delve into multiple methods of preparation, discuss the pros and cons of each, and try to decipher which method is best for each of us.

The Traditional Method

The majority of DMs weave their sessions with a medium amount of preparation: a page or two, a map or three, and a willingness to improvise at the table. They take an hour or two to reflect on the rest of the campaign and come up with a variety of encounters that might unfold in this session. If they enjoy voices, they might practice a few accents for new or returning NPCs. Is a battle imminent? They might run through it a few times in their head and think about the monsters’ tactics and how the PCs might respond. 

This is how I’ve run D&D for most of my time DMing. Most of the time, I like having a plethora of at-will resources. I also enjoy spending time preparing for a session, researching the characters, and readying an exciting cast — time, but not too much time.

Here is an example of what I think a traditional set of D&D notes looks like:

Traditional DMing is for you IF:

  1. You like to go into a session with a firm grasp of what’s going to happen.
  2. You enjoy running published modules.
  3. You are not the best at improvising entire stories.
  4. You prefer writing down important things in detail.
If you have not tried this method before, go ahead and do it! You might thoroughly enjoy it.

The Improvisational Method

DMs who come to the table with a page or less of preparation use the improsational method, meaning they improvise most of the scenes, plots, and characters at a moment’s notice. From the outside, these people look like improvisational masterminds. What many of them do not clearly state, though, is that they spend oodles of time outside the game preparing to improvise. Sure, some DMs using this method are geniuses at building worlds on the fly, but many of them weave wonderful worlds, colorful characters, and interesting plots outside the game. They sit in their minds and foment, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. 

DMs of this method might write pages and pages of lore about their game, only to go into it with a blank sheet of paper, a head full of lore, and an excited attitude. That’s all they need.

Other DMs arrive at the table with a single sheet of paper containing a list of things about the upcoming session. What might the characters do? Who will they meet? What will they find? Where will they go? All these questions are open-ended and might be answered concisely on the page, leaving plenty of room to imagine and improvise. Right now, I prefer using a method like this, heavily inspired by Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

Using it, I outline the most important parts of the session — what I should know before we begin. They coincide with the questions I pointed out a moment ago, but also include aspects of the session such as rewards, possible foes, and how the session will begin. It’s a stellar, improvisational method.

Here is an example of what I think an improvisational set of D&D notes looks like:

Improvisational DMing is for you IF:

  1. You like coming up with things at a moment’s notice.
  2. You are well-versed in the lore of the world you are playing in.
  3. You are okay with standing by things you create to establish a sense of verisimilitude.
  4. You can keep track of many different stories in your head. 
Try it out. You might discover you deeply enjoy it!

The Thorough Method

Some DMs decide to create numerous pages of notes for a single session, yearning to prepare for any challenge that might come their way. DMs like this write out pages of text that might be read aloud during the session, fully develop multiple NPCs (their personality, history, friends, enemies, stats, & more), and ensure every inch of a dungeon is accounted for. They enjoy being ready for everything and anything the players or the dice will throw at them. With some groups, this works. However, D&D is an extremely random game.

Preparing for every thought players might have or every possibility of the dice is difficult and can lead to frustration or burnout. Only those who know their groups will follow a certain path or enjoy being on a somewhat predetermined story should use this method. 

Sometimes, this method can be used during certain types of sessions such as dungeon delves or highly cinematic and foreshadowed moments in the campaign.

Here is an example of what I think a thorough set of D&D notes looks like, though it’s not as exhaustive as I’d like it to be: 

Thorough DMing might be your preferred method IF:

  1. You enjoy planning every aspect of a session.
  2. Your players enjoy a streamlined storyline or campaign experience.
  3. You have a concrete story you and your players want to tell.
  4. You do not like improvising on the spot.
Go ahead and try out this method. You might like it more than you think.

In Summary

There are three primary methods of preparation when it comes to D&D. Each have significant strengths and weaknesses and they are by no means exhaustive. They are as follows:

  1. THE TRADITIONAL METHOD. The DM has a few pages of notes, including maps, character cards, and plots. They have reviewed the story and are ready to go!
  2. THE IMPROVISATIONAL METHOD. The DM has one page or less of notes and is ready to create anything and everything in the heat of the moment. They are most likely an avid worldbuilder and know their world well, allowing them to be ultra improvisational
  3. THE THOROUGH METHOD. The DM has spent countless hours preparing for the session, readying battle and world maps, boxed text, NPC specific lines, voices, and intricate plot points that rival the complexity of the greatest narratives in history.

If you have not already tried all three, go ahead and do so! You might discover you prefer one over the others, or discover certain times when one method might be superior to another.

Let me know in the comments if there are any other major methods of preparation for D&D that I am missing. I look forward to reading about them.

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Tense Social Situations, Secret Storylines, and Splitting the Party

After a week break for the holiday and a trip to Michigan’s upper peninsula, the Caught in Galen campaign resumed last Thursday. As I predicted last time we met about the campaign, it was a session without combat and it was stellar. Honestly, it was my ideal session of Dungeons & Dragons — I could go without combat for awhile, but I know my players are not the same way. This session marked the “thirteenth” of the campaign and the political intrigue and tension truly ramped up. Things are getting interesting in Caught in Galen.

I did not do much preparation for this session, as I knew most of it would be improvisational storytelling between the player characters and various NPCs. It was almost like a bottle episode in a sitcom; most of the session was confined to a tavern dear to some members of the party: the Faded Ember Inn. Nonplayer characters came and went, building onto the story with each passing second. Everyone in the group had their time to shine this session, and the trend of splitting the party in this wide open district continued. 

I learned a few things during this session, ideas I think anyone reading this will be able to implement into their games.
  1. Social situations can be just as tense as combat.
  2. Secret storylines can still be showcased in front of the players and not their characters.
  3. Splitting the party in a city campaign happens often and is least for a time.
Before we dive in, if you would like to follow along with the campaign week by week or check out the various characters in its cast, check out the Caught in Galen Campaign Compendium. It is a great way to keep track of each session and the numerous characters who appear in a campaign or adventure.

Let’s delve into Caught in Galen Session 4: Beside Faded Embers. If you would like to see my pre-written notes of the session, they can be found here (players, don’t look!):

The Zaburk Confrontation

The session began in the Faded Ember Inn, the entire party gathered together. They spoke about the ordeal in Coresaw’s Tower and what to do next: would they search for Andhere and Esegar? Would they go to meet others who might be involved in this mess? Would they wait for their contact Rasdrak to arrive? Their discussion was interrupted by the arrival of High Priest Zaburk, a half-orc cleric who’d recently risen to the highest rank of the nearby temple of Anubis. He had complicated relationships with most of the characters, and some of them thought he was behind not only the undead disaster at Coresaw’s Tower, but the death of the former high priest — a beloved individual. In the doorway of the inn, first Ignis and then Roy of Riverside confronted the half-orc. Zaburk demanded Roy retract a statement he made to the Galen Tales, one of the journalism outlets in Galen. At first, Roy refused and basically spat on Zaburk. The half-orc kept calm and revealed the temple had one of Roy’s friends from the Hidhuntre Clan in custody. This radically changed the already tense situation. Roy didn’t change his demeanor, but did change his mind, and the encounter slowly faded to a simmer. Roy would retract the statement he made to Oreo Belwiggin before tomorrow’s paper went out, and his friend, a dragonborn named Blaze, would be given back to him when the paper came out...not badmouthing the temple of Anubis or Zaburk.

This was a stellar encounter. There was no combat, but there was tension. Everyone was listening, paying attention to every word said by Zaburk, Ignis, Roy, and the other participant, a kobold priest named Dimhaz. I knew there had to be some sort of power dynamic between the party and Zaburk, he needed to assert dominance in some way. Originally, I was going to have him push past Ignis and grab a stool off a tabletop (the inn was closed at the time, thanks to him). However, Ignis wouldn’t let the half-orc in, but he did not want to start a fight. That’s when Blaze’s capture and ransom came to my mind; it worked out so well. I’m excited to see where the Zaburk-party relationship will go...

Outside Listening In

A fantastic moment in the session was between me and one other player, his character’s name Jason. As everyone returned to their room’s and homes for the night, Jason and I created an awesome narrative that caused the other players to hoot & holler. In his session zero, Jason fought a gazer (a tiny, tiny beholder) and killed it, but was unable to dispose of the body. Thus, it was stored in a bucket of cold water in his room, covered by a blanket, blood still on the floor. So, when he finally returned to his room this session, I stated “You enter your chambers and cross the bloodstained carpet. A terrible smell wafts from where the body sits. What are you going to do with it, if anything?” Immediately, multiple players started laughing hysterically, thinking one of their party members had a dead body in his room. What secrets was he hiding from them? What ensued was a hilarious chain of events between Jason’s player and I that involved disposing of the body.

Despite none of the other player characters being involved, everyone felt like they were included in this moment; it was something they were drawn into, interested in, despite it really not involving any of their characters. It was a fantastic moment and what I strive for every time I have an aside with another player. Sometimes, people take these moments off the table and go into private. I don’t think that’s necessary.

Split Again, the Joys of the Internet

The culmination of the session saw the splitting of the party, yet again. Roy, Ignis, and Luna headed back to the Faded Ember Inn with Blaze, the dragonborn saved from the temple of Anubis. Flux was moving toward the Cobalt Forge guild hall to meet with his guild members about the many issues at hand. Jason was investigating the former high priest’s office as the entirety of the temple of Anubis, including Zaburk, was deep in prayer. The session was over at the table, yes, but was to be continued via the internet. Using Facebook Messenger, Flux moved to his guild’s hall and spoke to a contemplative stone half-giant about the villain at hand, Varmin, and the mysterious crimson metal used to fill Coresaw’s Tower with undead. From there, he went to the Red Tower and spoke to a warforged guard named Contort about a young human fellow before heading back to the Faded Ember Inn. In the temple of Anubis, Jason attempted to gain some intel on Zaburk in his new office. He managed to find a few interesting things, including a bloody club, a strange tadpole, and a secret passage below the temple, but he was caught by Zaburk somehow and saved by a lithe creature whose skin was made of the starry night sky. Where did he wake up/appear? Outside the Faded Ember Inn.

I’ve discovered running a city campaign in which the characters have various connections leads to the party splitting quite a bit. I’m fine with it, especially since these encounters are usually just some roleplaying and can be done between sessions using the internet. However, I expect this will lessen as time goes on, the stakes grow, and the party will need to stick together to survive. For the time being, though, I’m enjoying the numerous plot threads intertwined in the vast city of Galen.

In Summary

This campaign is fast becoming the favorite I’ve ever run. I’m learning more and more with each session and the story is developing at a rapid rate. As I said before, I learned the following from Beside Faded Embers:
  1. Social situations can be just as tense as combat.
  2. Secret storylines can still be showcased in front of the players and not their characters.
  3. Splitting the party in a city campaign happens often and is least for a time.
Who knows what I’ll learn next session. I’m certain it will be just as great as this one, if not greater. I’ll let you know how it goes next week.

Until then, stay creative!

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