How much time do you prepare for each D&D session?
Probably too much.
That’s how we felt awhile back after we asked fellow DMs on Twitter.
A full 54 percent of people said they spend three to four hours (or more) preparing for each game session. That’s as much time preparing as most people spend at the actual gaming table.
Does anyone else feel like that’s way too much time?
I’m certainly not knocking prepared DMs. (Prepared DMs are the best DMs, in my humble opinion). And some people certainly like the solitary work that goes into preparing a perfect game session.
But it’s easy to get burned out creating extensive campaign worlds, crafting tons of 3D scenery, picking out just the right miniatures, crafting background lore, whipping up NPCs and selecting (or modifying) monsters.
We have some ideas to help you streamline your preparation and cut down on the time it takes.
Do more at the start of your campaign. For my campaigns, I like to front-load the preparation before the first session. I figure out random encounter tables and the maps and miniatures I might need for those. I figure out the monsters I’m going to need of the first several sessions and do the same. I get maps ready and photocopy pages from the Monster Manual to put in my binder. (I like to take notes on the actual pages.) Basically, I get a ton ready before the campaign even starts, so I’m not having to prepare those items before every session.
Don’t do too much. There don’t need to be infinite tables for every journey, rules for every encounter or endless consequences for every decision. You’re not writing a novel, you’re preparing for a game. There’s also a tendency as a DM to want to push players toward whatever it is that you prepared, especially if you prepared a lot. But be wary of players since they care little about your plans anyway.
Limit the players’ options. Have you ever asked a toddler what they want for dinner? You have to give them an either/or option (grilled cheese or pizza) instead of a menu since the options are overwhelming. Players can be the same way, and you’ll help yourself by limiting their options a tiny bit. I’m not talking about railroading. You can decide the PCs make it to the next locale without having to roll for an encounter and you can decide what encounters are available to them. In short, you can keep things on a rail without railroading.
Learn to improv. Too many people see the word “improv” and think it means creating a campaign out of whole cloth in front of your players. Not so. It just means thinking of something else for them to do when they go off the rails, and that can be as simple as picking another location in your game world, having an NPC approach them or running into a pack of monsters.
Keep some random tables in your back pocket. I like to have an idea of the possibilities of where my players might go and prep those possibilities (locations, dungeons, monsters, NPCs, etc.) But since D&D is often so open, the players could go do whatever. Having a few random tables would help you come up with something on the fly rather than trying to prep for every eventuality. My go-tos: random travel encounters (a few monsters, a few NPCs, a few events), random locations (a tavern, a house, a temple, etc.) and random monsters (based on the terrain or area they’re in). That way, if the players depart from where you thought they’d go, you could say they run into a (*rolls d20*) merchant with a broken down cart next to a (*rolls d20*) ruined temple infested with (*rolls d20*) basilisks.
Use published adventures. Creating your own campaign and world is really fun, and it’s exciting for players, too. But if you’re just want to run a fun game without so much on your shoulders, pick up a hardcover adventure book or string together several separate modules. A friend of mind has put together his favorite Pathfinder modules into one long campaign, and I’ve been running D&D’s Curse of Strahd. Pathfinder’s Adventure Paths are great long-running campaigns, and D&D’s 5e books have something for whatever you’re into. (Strahd is a horror adventure, Storm King’s Thunder is a great dungeon-delving, giant fighting adventure, and Hoard of the Dragon Queen is a great dragon-slaying good time.)
Keep things simple. You don’t need to plan for every eventuality. You don’t need eight pages of lore for each NPC. Keep things limited to what you think or know the PCs will get into. If they’re headed to a magical library to talk to a wizard before going down into some haunted catacombs, get the wizard’s stats, his possible answers and the map and monsters for the catacombs. That’s it. You don’t need titles of the books in the library or a detailed description of the path through the city to the catacombs.
Rely on your source books. Is it easier to craft an NPC from whole cloth or just grab an appropriate one from the back of the Monster Manual and change a stat or two? Do what you can to use the materials you have in front of you rather than starting everything from scratch. I also like to make notes on where to find particular monsters or spells (book name and page number) and use post-its placed inside my books like tabs to be able to flip there quickly.
Use index cards. One easy way to speed things up (and keep things organized at the table, too) is to write out ideas and notes on index cards. Quick notes on monster HP, AC and attacks; NPC details; location information and lots of other stuff can be put in simple terms on index cards. Then at the table, you can lay them out in front of you (but behind your DM screen).
Use a laptop. Instead of using index cards you can use a laptop or a tablet. I hadn’t thought about it before, but GeekDad laid out a system he uses on Trello, a free online whiteboard. I use Trello to organize work stuff, but his system for D&D notes is both efficient and simple.