How I Prepare for Sessions as a Dungeon Master for Fifth Edition DnD
“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
That quote is often attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, though even in his use of it he acknowledges that he is drawing on much older wisdom. He was talking about military engagements, but the advice holds true when applied in any situation where the outcome is likely to be affected by factors outside your direct control.
Sound like anything we know?
Running a DnD session can easily feel like trying to herd cats depending on how chaotic your players are. If you walk into a session as a Dungeon Master believing you know what will happen and you’re not prepared to amend that to circumstances that arise during the game, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
Does that mean you should just ignore preparation entirely? Well, given how I opened this post, it’s obvious I don’t think so. Knowing how to prepare a game session that can adapt to the unpredictable nature of a player party is a subtle craft. When you’re new to the process, it gets frustrating sometimes feeling that you don’t know what to prepare.
Part of the problem remains, as always, that there just isn’t one right way to do it. Only you know your players and yourself well enough to decide what is and isn’t important, and what kind of preparation is time well-spent versus what will end up on the cutting room floor in the end.
That caveat in mind, I’m going to talk in this post about the methods I use and the information I consider when I’m putting together my notes for a session. Hopefully you can find some useful tips in here that you can carry back to your own game!
Review Your Past Notes
This is the first and most obvious thing you should know before you run a session. Where are the heroes and what kind of place is it? What are they doing here?
When I sit down to prepare a session, my first step is to look back into past session notes and take stock of the current situation for the party. Of course you can skip this step for your first session, but this is why I believe it is crucial for a good Dungeon Master to take good notes.
During sessions, be sure to write down anything the players do that might have wider repercussions for the world around them. Did they anger the local crime lord of the city they’re in by busting up their operations? That would be a good piece of information to have when you’re scrambling for possible conflicts in the coming session.
(How do you organize all these notes? A DM Binder. I walked through my personal binder in this post, if you’re looking for ideas on how to organize it all.)
In this way, you can always kind of be preparing for future sessions during games. You don’t have to know what you’ll use the information you’re recording for; you have enough on your plate as it is when you’re trying to run a session. Developing an eye for these kinds of strong choices and noting them down quickly will give you an invaluable resource, though, so it’s a skill worth cultivating.
Work from a Theme
This one steps into “personal preference” territory. This is where my background in directing for theatre is obvious.
When I’m planning a session – or, more accurately in my case, when I’m planning out a campaign arc (think of an arc like a season of a TV show, with episodes all building to a season finale) – I’m always thinking about the theme of the story.
This is a little esoteric, but I’ll try to explain.
The plot is what happens, the characters are who is involved, and the theme is why you’re telling the story. My favorite way to think about theme is as a question that each scene is setting out to answer. I’ve talked before about my current campaign, in which I’m trying to explore how people interact with power and government. My central question is: “Who has the right to decide the fates of others?”
A good central theme question shouldn’t have an obvious answer.
You don’t work with a storytelling medium where you can ensure that every scene advances that theme. The players will do what the players will do, and that’s the fun of the game. What you can do is stack the deck a little bit, so to speak, by building people and situations that call that theme to the forefront. If you craft sessions with a theme in mind and trust the work (that is: don’t force it), that theme tends to shine through on it’s own.
When I move ahead to define locations, NPCs, and anything else I might need to prepare for a session I always try to keep my theme in the back of my mind.
Create Locations and NPCs
Once you know your circumstances and what you believe the party is likely to do, you need to flesh out the world around them. If they’re in a city or town, you’re going to need to define a few locations they are likely to visit. Shops, taverns, houses of possible allies, palaces, temples, monuments – there are many, many options when it comes to building a city.
To keep yourself from getting overwhelmed, stick to as few of these as possible. After all, your party is unlikely to go to more than a handful of these locations in a given session. It pays to be ready for as much as possible, but if you try to define every street and corner of where the party is, you’re going to go crazy because it’s a ton of work and most of it will never be used.
Instead, stick to the essentials and work down. You will usually get a good idea pretty fast of the kinds of places your player party likes to go first. Define those places before anywhere else. The most obvious culprit is taverns, of which there should always be one in a town and perhaps a few options in a city. If the party is out in the wilderness, defining a few features of the area you can reference as they travel is all you need to do.
More important than just the places, though, are the people that inhabit them. Players won’t remember what a shop looked like five minutes after they leave, but they’ll remember an interesting shopkeeper.
This is a good time to point out that not all NPCs need to be created equal. In the interest of efficiency, you only need to strongly define maybe 3 to 5 NPCs in a typical session.
If you think an NPC will play a central role in the story, flesh out their motivations and goals. It might also be a good idea to write down a short physical description; I like to write short, to-the-point descriptive phrases such as “long greasy brown hair, unkempt beard, weathered shirt, rough hands, strong” for these characters and improvise more flowery descriptions in session. There’s no reason you can’t just write yourself a short paragraph for the character if you don’t feel that comfortable with that kind of improvisation, though.
If it’s Joe Blow Shopkeeper #34, though? You probably don’t have to do much of anything at all.
My typical method for these “smaller” NPCs is to just drop names and a single personality trait to play off for each of them. I’ve heard of other DMs keeping lists of names to pull from for such characters in case they need them, and that seems like an excellent time saver. A list of possible names for each race behind the screen can give the illusion that you’ve prepared more than you have, which is always a good thing. It also makes the world feel alive if each character has a name that you can pull up without missing a beat. Just don’t let on if you hadn’t initially named them, maintaining the mystique is crucial for player immersion.
Even the most story-focused game will likely involve a dungeon dive or two, because it’s right there on the tin and people expect it. The game is called Dungeons and Dragons.
Building a dungeon is a post all it’s own (I’ve done one already, right here), so I won’t waste too many words here.
For my purposes, I usually prepare at least one dungeon per campaign arc for the party to visit and conquer. I’ll make more if the mood strikes me, but I’ve found this is more than enough for my DM style. Always be prepared to scrap the whole plan, though – I have a few completely fleshed out dungeons currently in my binder that never saw the light of play. I just file them away where I can easily pick one of them back out if the design can be hammered into an arc I’m planning.
Don’t waste work. Anything you don’t use can always just get moved to future session or even a future campaign if the stars never align in this one.
Everything you’ve done before has been to prepare for this step.
Just as a play is built from a series of scenes, a session of DnD is built from a series of encounters.
I should be clear here: an encounter doesn’t have to mean combat. A scene in which the heroes have to plead their case before a monarch can be every bit as gripping and dramatic as a combat encounter (sometimes more).
Encounters are most often obstacles you throw between your players and their goals. Maybe you are travelling along a dangerous road through the mountains, as an example. You should create an appropriate list of combat encounters the party might face, sure. But you should also prepare a few skill-based challenges for variety. Maybe there is a large chasm they have to cross and the bridge has been taken out. Maybe they cross paths with somebody, which is always a tense moment out in the wilderness if you play it right.
You can also use encounters to flesh out your setting more. When your party is in a city, you could create a list of possible encounters such as seeing a bard busking in the street or getting roped into a (clearly rigged) game of chance.
When you start to see a DnD session less as a monolith and more as a collection of scenes, the session design becomes much simpler and less intimidating. You can’t predict what a party will do throughout a whole session, but you can have a list of scene prompts appropriate to the area ready to go that can adapt to whatever they choose to do.
Consider Possible Consequences
This is an important final note. When you are preparing a session, especially when you are creating scenarios that place the heroes in danger (which you should be, because that’s how drama happens), by nature you’re better off not planning “just one solution” to the problem.
However, it is crucial that you can think of at least one solution.
If you have no idea how the heroes could possibly avoid or escape a situation, that probably isn’t one you should be putting them in. Thinking through what you might do to solve this problem if you were in the party will prevent no-win scenarios that aren’t all that fun for anybody.
This isn’t to say you can’t place your party in extremely perilous life-or-death situations, but you better make it absurdly clear how deep the shit they’re in is so they know that they should consider escape rather than confrontation. That can be dramatic, but players will never default to “running away” from a situation. Assuming they will is a one-way ticket to a TPK.
Make no mistake: a player death might happen because of player error or poor dice rolls, but a TPK almost always happens due to DM error. There’s exceptions to prove the rule – and they’re always memorable – but it’s something you should be aware and mindful of when designing sessions.