Game night is tomorrow. You want to do some prep but time is limited. What should you put your effort into and what shouldn’t you?
What to Prep
Having a linked structure allows you to create depth even in a prep lite game.
I’m a big fan of the three clue rule as popularised by the Gumshoe system and this blog over at the Alexandrian. Effectively you think of three interesting things the players may investigate in your scenario and link them together so that each of them has 2 clues that each link to the other ones.
These things could be fairly abstracted such as town, dungeon, forest near town, caverns in the forest. Or you can go highly specific, such as a single NPC, an event such as an assassination or one house in your village. Naturally, a mix of both works too.
This way the players organically explore your game structure without you directly forcing them in any one direction. You can then link these to the finale by adding the third clue to each area that points to the fourth.
Dungeon design also benefits a lot from some kind of logical structure. For example, a system of alarms that the guards can use to alert each other, but scrupulous players can also use to confuse and out manoeuvre the guards. Or a sewer that leads into the palace complex itself.
If you don’t have time to draw out a dungeon a simple flowchart describing each room can give you enough to work with. You can use the ‘5 room dungeon‘ format to help with this.
It’s important to know your big reveal ahead of time. What the villain wants, who is betraying who, who murdered the poor town’s guardsmen and so on. This is good to know ahead of time as it gives you some help with structure and consistency to the game and players who work something out that actually was the case can feel rewarded by it.
Your players will xtrapolate on your own thoughts tenfold. They’re genius at taking otherwise innocuous NPC’s and turning them into archtraitors and a lot of the time it’s not a terrible idea to run with what the players think as long as it makes some sense.
A good villain
Of all your NPC’s your villain is really the most important one. D&D in many respects is just a superhero game and as we know of that genre a good villain can make or break the narrative. This is why it’s worth taking a bit of time using the 6 ‘w’s ( what, who, where, why, when and how) to flesh out who your villain is and what his, her or it’s masterful plan is. This again helps provide you with some structure and something concrete for your players to deal with or at least vehemently despise.
Random encounter tables
These are quick and easy things to prep and can burn out some session time if you’re really struggling in a pinch. Though there’s plenty of generators and tables online and in source material creating your own can be a lot of fun as it allows you to
What not to prep
The vast majority of prep you spend on worldbuilding is wasted. *Raises shield*
By worldbuilding I mean the process of carving out continents, kingdoms, maps, governments, characters from kings to bakers, pantheons and everything else that makes up your setting. World building can be an incredibly fun exercise f in of itself and if you enjoy it for the sake of it more power to you however in respects to its practical applications within a game it’s almost always a waste of time.
I see this with new Games Masters all of the time, they ambitiously dive in wanting to create the next Middle Earth and even if they make some progress in this mammoth sort of task translating. Your players more often than not simply don’t care that the Rimians are horse masters from the east led by the Tyrant King Tut or how the Eldeve forest is home to the Cannibal Wood Elf Tribe. That is unless it’s directly affecting them in some way or another. Effectively you’re spreading yourself too thin and can fall in the trap of telling not showing.
I think a far better exercise if you have the prep time is to really flesh out one town, its inhabitants and a nearby dungeon for the group to explore. This has instant possibilities for in-game action.
They’re already in the books dummy! If a monster you had in your mind isn’t in the book it’s often far easier to reflavour something. There’s no Hippo in the 5E monster manual for example but an Elephant with a swim speed basically represents the same thing.
Descriptive prose & Dialogue
The majority of newly published modules still have a fetish for ‘read aloud’ text but it tends to fail as it can never translate to the players what they see at the moment at the game table. Only the DM can do that.
To this effect, I much prefer a small bullet point list of features in a room.
Dialogue is much the same. Players unsurprisingly don’t want to hear your NPC’s monologue, it’s often a good excuse to cut that speech short. I tend to just have a lot of my NPC’s ask lots of questions of the players and try to engage them in active conversation.
Again a few short bullet points on the ‘five w’s ( who the NPC is, what the NPC wants, where the NPC lives, why the NPC cares about the party, How the NPC got here, ) helps to flesh out who they are.
They’re really simple to prep and. Granted there’s a lot available online as well but you can really tailor them yourself to whatever
I can only hope that helps you next time game night swings along too soon.