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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