Every dungeon master has to prepare for a D&D session. Some can get away with not preparing much or almost anything, but this will eventually cause problems for most people. How do you figure out the best way to prepare for a session?
There is no specific way how to prepare for a D&D session since everyone is different, but there are four basic ways to prepare for a session. A loose prep, a detailed prep, a lazy prep, and a modular prep.
We will go over how to pick which prepping style is best for you and then go into each style. So sit back, enjoy, and learn how to prepare for a D&D session in D&D!
How to prep for an everyday session
It is essential that you figure out what style is best for you.
If you start preparing for a session and then you prepare in a style that is opposed to you, the preparations will either take longer than they should or cause you to be less prepared than you should be.
Figuring out what style is best for you is important. I recommend looking at the four styles and how they work. This little snippet of each style will help you decide initially what you should focus on, but you can incorporate elements of multiple styles. Here are what each style is good and bad for.
Pro- This style is great for those who are chaotic and great at improvising. If you like to make things up as you go then loose prep might be a style for you. One other benefit is that you will spend very little time prepping.
Con- When you choose to prep with a lose style of planning you leave a lot of holes. If you are not constantly taking notes in a session then you will forget things. This is never good when your players want to backtrack or talk to an old NPC.
Pro- For those who want to plan out the entire story and plan counterplans so that players do not completely suprise you, this is the way to go. Great for linear stories or parties that want to be led along.
Con- You can never anticipate everything that players do. Sometimes players surprise you and break the plot. This is a style that works well with linear based games and not so much with sandbox based games.
Pro- You do almost no work and go along with the flow of your party. Great for those who love to improvise and go with the flow.
Con- All the cons of loose prep but you also have to worry about your players. Can your players come up with plots, ideas, and basically run the game on their own? If no then you might not want to lazily prep.
Pro- The whole story is written for you. You do not have to think much or prep more than just reading a book. This makes you not have to worry about creating a bad plot and if anything bad happens plot wise or even game wise you can blame the module.
Con- Everything is pre-scripted which might not work for some dungeon masters or players. Make sure that your players are generally focused to do well here and for the love of all that is holy and unholy read the module!
Now we will go over each section and talk about how to properly prepare. After each section there will be general notes on what to do.
Loose prep will be the longest section since we will introduce and cover many aspects here first.
If your answer to the question ‘how to prepare for a D&D session’ is “With as little effort as possible.” This is the right section for you.
Loose prep involves making your preparations based on ideas. You do not need to develop these ideas into full functioning plots, but here is a general layout of what I do.
After Modular prep there are sections devoted to each part of the chart. Those sections are a bit general, but here are some specific tips for loose planning.
Always keep a pen and paper handy. You never know when you will create an NPC, system, or area off the fly. You will want to make sure that you can remember it for later so have it in a somewhat organized place for when you need it.
When you prep loosely you only need to create ideas for your prep. You see the chart above? Do that.
Make a plot, then say what the players want. Only use a sentence per player. Do this for NPCs, environments, jobs, and conflicts. Only use one sentence maximum and you should have maybe 30 sentences on your personal flow chart before a session.
Here is an example that I used for my session.
Dio from Jojo’s with the power from the recent tear in reality. Players want low combat, but the option of combat. One likes intrigue, another is new, and one likes shinies. Dio NPC was a guard now is an up and coming crimelord. New harper to investigate new Dio. Bar shinanigans. All in Waterdeep (they will not be leaving). Get employees for bar. Go in the cube. Hunt down new Dio and pale man. Cube has combat. Employees will be fun and quirky. New Dio’s minions will run to players for help/hiding.
That is it. That is all I would prepare for my next session with the loose method. Notice how I did not fully script any situation? What happens after new Dio’s minions run to the players for hiding? I have no idea. If you want to use your players for loose prep or want plots, names, and more you can use what I use from our affiliate Dungeon Vault. I find it very helpful to have on hand if I am going to plan a loose prep style and you might as well.
As for NPCs, I could name them and give them a bit more personality but I like to develop a personality for NPCs on the spot. If I plan NPCs they change upon introduction so planning that for me is pointless.
I am catering to my weaknesses and strengths here but I will also have a pen and paper to record names and positions for new player employees.
Once again this does not have to look exactly how you plan but it should be close if you want to plan loosely. Remember to fill in your weaknesses and rely upon your strengths, but this is all the prep I would would write for my next session using the loose method.
If this is too little prep I suggest combining it with detailed prep in spots where you feel that you need more information.
One of the ways how to prepare for a D&D session is to make a detailed preparation.
This type of prep work involves a lot of writing and a lot of work, but has a pretty great payoff if done right.
If you do detailed prep correctly you will not be unable to respond to your players 99% of the time.
That 1% is when they do something crazy and roast an orphanage to try orphan BBQ. You really can’t plan for that.
To give you an idea of how much work you need to do in order to prep the detailed way look at the chart.
This chart is ridiculous when compared to the rest of the charts. Loose prep has 6 steps while detailed prep has 11 steps!
BUT if you do all of these steps correctly you shouldn’t have to worry about being unprepared for anything.
When you start a plot you come up with a cool idea like in loose prep but you have to then think of the players and only after that come up with a finished plot. Why you do this is to mitigate the chances of your players leaving the plot halfway. If you don’t think of your players and then make the end plot everything is potentially thrown out the window. Which would suck.
You now have to think of everything and detail it. How the session will most likely start, NPCs that the players CAN encounter, not will but can. You will need to fully plan out the enviornment that the players will be in and the conflicts. Then you must tailor the jobs to fit the player’s desires while crafting every aspect of these jobs.
Sounds like a lot right? Well we are not done yet!
You see, every player is well…. a player. Players tend to smell a plot and either intentionally or unintentionally veer away. Never going along the beaten path and forcing you to lose all of that precious work. We don’t want that do we?
In order to not have all your preparations go to waste you will have to re-purpose (as told down below) and make countermeasures along with backup.
Countermeasures might drive you insane. Countermeasures are where you create reasons why the players SHOULD do the things you want them to. This is different than railroading since you are not forcing them. Countermeasures can be a nice bag of gold, conscience, whatever.
Backups are for when you players don’t care about countermeasures and you need to get them back on track. These backups can take the form of a mysterious fog which blocks off their escape. It could also be a monstrous cry of 2 dragons fighting in the direction that party has decided to go.
Backups cause players to get back on track. They do not need to be violent or forceful. Instead players can just go on a sidequest that links up to the main quest.
After this novel you are finished.
Detailed prep is a whole lot and I will not give you an example because it would be far too long. This prep is for those with time or who want to plan everything out for their world/game.
There is nothing wrong with this preparation, but it is a lot of work.
Detailed prep is great for beginners or authors of their own worlds, but what about the exact opposite?
When someone asks you how to prepare for a D&D session and you respond ‘I don’t!’ That is the lazy prep way.
Lazy preparation is extremely simple. Let me give you a chart that shows how to prep lazily.
Lazy preparation involves almost no effort. You create an environment like a town, give jobs, and then are done. Once the players make an enemy or give you an idea you make a plot. Here is a great example of lazy prep notes.
Players are in a town. Tavern has rats, goblins, or clearing out a cemetery.
That is it. That is everything you would need to prep for a lazy session. As for the plot? You do not have a major plot until maybe a few sessions in!
This type of style is great for running sandbox games or games where players want to create their own story. The dungeon master has to worry about almost nothing in prep and molds the game to the players.
The problem with this type of prep is that you have nothing preped. If you players want to do something else you have to make it up on the spot. You will have to make up everything on the spot!
This is a style that is extremely hard to do and requires you to take more notes than players during a session.
Now that we have talked about how to prep your own plots, what about games that have pre-written plots?
If people ask you how to prepare for a D&D session and your answer is to read the freaking book! You might be a modular preper.
Modular prepping is extremely simple. In fact, here is a chart.
While modular prepping is extremely simple you do still need to do a lot of work.
That is right, modular prepping is a lot of work.
Before you even begin the game you need to read the entire module or you will miss something crucial. It happens every time, and that is why you have to read the module.
After you have read the module, you know the plot, environment, NPCs, basically the entire campaign. There is one element that modules cannot cover though, the players.
Players will do some crazy things in games and you need to have some ideas on how to fill in the gaps. Look for flaws in the module and think of areas where you players will not likely follow the plot. Here is where you will need to fill in the gaps either proactively or retroactively.
Modular prepping isn’t really complex, but there is a lot of work that you will need to do.
But what about aspects that are important to any sort of prepping?
Before you begin, always make sure that you have current player HP, AC, passive perception and anything else that you think you will need.
Always keep players in mind when preparing for a session.
If you do not keep them in mind, they will not care about what you plan. If the players do not care about what you have planned or prepared all your preparation will be wasted when they decide to do something completely different that you have not prepared for.
Think of what the players want.
If you have a group of players that like non combat adventures and create a mega dungeon for them, that mega dungeon might never be used.
This is the exact same thing if the opposite occurs. Players will want to do what they like. It only makes sense. That is why when you figure out how to prepare for a D&D session you need to keep player interests in mind.
But how should you prep?
How to prep
Prepping can take an extremely long time if done poorly.
Instead, I recommend thinking about the game when you are bored. Usually this happens when you are driving or have some other relatively boring activity.
During these times think of a cool plot, environment, monster, NPC, whatever and then write it down when you can. You can also develop your ideas while bored and completely prepare for a session without dedicating any real time to it.
What I do not recommend is frantically preparing for a session the night before. If you do this, you are bound to fail.
With all this said you should still write things down when you prepare. For this, I recommend getting a routine.
When you write things down have some music if you need to. Have a specific place where you prep and write out what you need to. Put all those thoughts together and make one awesome session.
But how much should you prep?
How much to prep
How to prepare for a D&D session? Should you spend hours on end making sure that you are prepared for a session or almost nothing?
It depends on your prepping method but you should prep for three sessions.
This makes it so that if your players decide to speed up the pacing and blaze through your session you still have some content for them to go through.
There is however such a thing as over prepping.
If you prep for more than three sessions, you might have over prepped.
Over prepping is something that is okay to do if your players follow what you have planned, but generally over prepping is bad.
If you over prep one of three things happen.
- Your players decide to not do what you thought they would and then all your prep is thrown out the window.
- You forget where your players are currently and only try to speed them along. This way they can get to the good stuff that you are excited about. This makes the session dull and extremely boring.
- You forget where you previously were when it comes time to play the game. During the game, you can only think about what will happen since that is what you prepped for.
Only experienced dungeon masters might not suffer from one of these three things. The truth is that your players will always be players. Any work or ideas that you have will more than likely be thrown out at some point. Players are always surprising dungeon masters for good or ill.
As for the second point, we all get excited about something cool. Chances are that you planned ahead and over prepped because there was a cool idea you wanted to make happen. I get it, but you need to understand.
Over prepping can make us excited about what is to come and forget about the here and now. If this happens, you will not focus on the current session. Instead, you will focus on what can and might be. This makes the present boring. Your players will be able to tell that you are bored and get bored themselves. You will never get to that later prep and it sucks.
As for the last point, this usually happens when we start prepping and think that we are already finished with the current session prep. Once this happens we get bored as dungeon masters and start planning ahead.
Once you plan ahead you have all the new content in your brain while you have forgotten to review the old content. This ends up in a session where it looks like you did not plan.
This is my plea to you, do not fully plan out any session, or even prep for sessions that are more than three ahead of where you currently are. There are too many drawbacks.
But what do you do when your players decide to not follow the beaten path?
Players are players. This means that when you prepare for a session players will never follow your grand plan. This is Dungeons and Dragons. You are not writting a book, but instead telling a story with others.
Because of this no planning will be perfect. This is why you may have to re-purpose some of your content.
Re-purposing is simply putting the encounter or situation in a different area. Here is a drastic example.
The players are at a fork in the road. They can either choose to go left or right. You planned for them to go right but instead they go left! Make the the thing on the right happen now on the left side of the road.
The choice wasn’t really there, and the illusion of choice is often presented in other games like video games so don’t feel too bad about it. You need to give the players something interesting to do so re-purposing is completely fine.
Just do not make player decisions irrelevant.
There is a huge difference between re-purposing content in an unknown location to the players and making their narrative choices to spare, kill, or affect the story not matter.
But how do you even design a plot?
Basic plot designs
Pick a cool idea. Maybe you read a book or watched a show and thought ‘wow that is cool! I want to use that in my game.’ If so this is a great way to start.
If movies or books are not enough, think of an interesting situation or the mayham that a spell can cause. Perhaps a monster will peak your interest, just look around until you find or think of something cool.
Envision how the end of the plot will be and make the players work towards the end.
Have every job if you can connect to the plot.
Jobs (middle plot)
The middle part of the plot is where your players start doing jobs that are not directly related to the plot, but are necissary.
In the begginig your players might be trying to find their own footing and not work towards a plot at all. In the middle of the campaign your players still might not be working towards the end plot, but they need things to do.
This is where you start making small sidequests, odd jobs, strange dungeons and more. I highly suggest that these self contained adventures have some reference towards your end plot.
It could be that the big bad guy is mentioned as a pretty powerful and cool dude in an enemies journal. Perhaps this spell is mentioned in a myth from somewhere along the players adventures.
Either way, make the jobs tie a little bit to the main plot line if possible. This will shock and impress your players a lot if they get to the end and make you look like a master story teller even if you are just bumbling along.
The main thing to remember about the middle of a campaign is that most of the time the jobs players get are interesting self contained adventures that tie a little bit into the plot.
But what about those who give the jobs? What about your dastardly and lovely NPCS?
I highly recommend that you make NPCS that only have a name, occupation/purpose, and a personality. This personality may be from a quirk but something to make them come alive.
If you want to learn more about how to make NPCS I have an article dedicated solely to making great NPCS.
Cr is a lie!
Now that we have that out of the way, make conflict that is applicable to the situation. If you are playing in a city give the players some thugs or something applicable. This should seem obvious but I have had situations where I question why a gargoyle is in the forest as a random encounter with no explanation.
If you are wondering how to make combat interesting as conflict, I highly recommend looking at this article. It will help you with combat.
On the opposite side, if you are looking for non-combat encounters I have an article meant to help you.
I know that most of the conflict section is outsourced but they are very lengthy topics.
If you think you are done, you are sorely mistaken or bored of your game.
Dungeon masters end up thinking about their games all the time. They will keep adding ideas to the pile for their players. Dungeon masters will keep making up new ideas and new content. The truth is, you are never done prepping. Especially if you are thinking about D&D whenever you are bored.
Always make sure to take care of those extra ideas by writing them down somewhere and maybe making an optional side quest or something for your players.
The game never ends, and the prepping never ends. I just hope that by now you have a method on how to prepare your Dungeons and Dragons game.
There are four base methods to prepare for a session but you can combine them to make your own unique preparation method.
When prepping cut down prep time by thinking about the game in the shower, when bored and driving to work, whenever you have downtime.
When you prep make sure to prep 3 sessions ahead but do not over prep. Nothing good comes from over prepping.
There has been a lot to cover in this article, but I when prepping take some aspects from three out of the four.
I generally use a small bit of detailed prep to plan out the environment, lazy prep if my players have a cool idea but mostly use loose prep for my sessions.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!