Game day arrives, you’ve got the food set out, table has been cleaned up and character sheets sit in the middle waiting for their players. You reach down into your DM bag and pull out your notebook. Flip to today’s page and realize it’s blank. A tinge of panic sets in as you remember you forgot to go over the upcoming section. Well don’t fret, here’s what you do.
Quickly reread last week’s notes! That way you remember where the party ended.
Next, if you have a premade adventure read through the major sections and make notes. If the adventure has a summary, that’s a great place to start.
On a scratch piece of paper make notes. You need to know basics of your characters, plot points and important page numbers.
Characters you need to know three things. 1) What’s their name/title? 2) What’s their general disposition? 3) What’s their impact on the story?
If you aren’t running a premade adventure, then your next step really varies on what you have previously prepared. Regardless, I would suggest coming up with a short self-contained side quest. Such as clearing out a nearby cave of some nasty creature, running a character-driven adventure, or simply run a story you’ve been wanting to.
Character-driven adventures work best if the players are located in a populated area such as a town or barracks. They might want to develop relationships with those in the area or improve the location’s infrastructure. If you need create a quick NPC hit up my random background and random character quirk tables give them a roll and think of a quick name.
On the other hand if you’ve been thinking of a quest you want to run for some time, now’s a good time to run it! It doesn’t even have to make sense in context of the previous adventure. You can have the session wrap up with the “It was a dream” explanation.
Also see if you can divvy up the task of prepping food and getting people seated to another person, which gives you more time to read. Players generally understand the need for prep time.
If push comes to shove, see whether the party is good with a movie and board-game night. I would suggest keeping to the same genre of the game you would’ve played. I would also grab the movies/games ahead of time and ask if they’d be interested in watching them. Asking the blanket question, “want to watch a movie?” Will often it you annoyed or confused looks and responses.
Hopefully, at this point you have at at least some time before the party arrives read and take notes, my friends! Have fun adventuring.
For those looking for tips and ideas for prepping continue on.
A quick note: Prep time is really only need for new information and events. If nothing dramatically new happens in the story and instead it’s more ingraining the story or giving it depth, notes and improv should work fine. That should help you judge what and how you need to prep.
The hardest part about prepping is figuring out the what. What do you want to run? What advances the story? What is interesting and fun? If you’re having trouble answering those questions, try out my quest development template here. After you figure this out, then note down the set pieces and the characters.
During a set piece, figure out what you want to have happen and revolve around that. Focus on the buildup and the payoff. After that, think of how that leads to the next set piece. Finally repeat the process for this latest set piece. This works for homemade and premade adventures.
As you develop the set pieces, practice them in your head and out loud if you can. Run through a couple different scenarios of how you think your party will approach it. They’ll likely do something else, but it helps you understand the scenario.
Characters will likely begin developing during this period. I try to give each character something that helps them stand out. Think of things like a noticeable attitude, an accent, or even a prop.
One final note on prep work. No matter how much time you have, it will likely not be enough. It’s best to spend the time you can, but don’t overdo it. As a DM, you shouldn’t have to put much more time into the game than your players. Especially when you actually get to playing and it turns out the players had something completely different in mind.
Feel free to share your stories of being ill prepared in a comment below or on my Facebook page! See you for the next blog. In the meantime, have fun adventuring!
“Don’t forget your towel.” - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy