Out of curiosity, how do my fellow DMs prepare their campaigns?
Do you open up a word doc at type out your story hook and make little bullet points from there?
Do you wing it completely?
What’s your notes system like?
I’m simply looking for new ways to plan for my d&d games!
The Over-Prepared GM
I can’t help myself. I love all the work that goes into prepping for a campaign, and I keep all of my crazy notes and papers, so today I’m gonna try and share with you my process for the latest DnD session I prepped for/ran!
I always start by hand writing a full page or two of just random thoughts/story bits. I’m gonna give examples from the latest session I ran (BACKSTORY – this setting has frequent time travel moments and so every location I make also needs a past version and present version)
Writing Stonevale began with me rambling on about any vague ideas I had for the scene setting. I also find it’s useful to get the secrets and mysteries all clear and laid out straight away, and work backwards from them to slot in clues for players. “Stonevale Past” begins with me deciding that the ancestors of an important NPC live here – maybe the players never get far enough to discover that, but having the secrets and info at the heart of my process helps me keep things focussed, and it’s easy/fun to build walls around the secrets this way 🙂
I also generally get a feel for any creatures/NPCs that populate the area, and give them vague roles. And I try to note down key details/props/locations/events that will help the players navigate and investigate.
Now’s the time to check what happened last session just to make sure you know how the party characters will likely be feeling/acting at the start of the session, and to remind yourself of any items they picked up, or active statuses going on. Also a good moment to check what the party planned to do next, what their expectations could be and so on.
It’s hard to make myself fill this in at the end of every session, but the session summary page in this kit really helps me note down what’s most important.
Making a map is always an exciting prospect for me! I thought this time I wanted to give a more illustrative style of map, as I’ve been super inspired by the very cool maps made by @anywhichwayatlas ! I got onto pinterest and collected some ideas of the type of map style I was going for:
Above are the images I used to inspire me, and below is the finished Stonevale map! It’s come out a bit rough/childlike but was definitely a fun way to explore more ways of making maps!
Later on, I realised I’d got too into making this and forgotten about some sort of depiction of the INSIDE of the manor… Since I didn’t have any time to make more maps by this point, I went to where I always go when I need a DnD map in a pinch – @2minutetabletop ! I picked up Castle Keep, which is free (like so many of his maps are!) and faffed with some colours and levels in photoshop until I was happy. Printed them out on A3 card and they were good to go! I can’t recommend this resource enough, it’s saved my GM butt a lot when I run out of time to make a map of my own!
Adding in Detail
So next I need to flesh out those vague ideas to make sure I’ve covered what’s likely to be important for the party. I love using the town builder here as it gives me a bit of mental breathing room and asks the questions for me. I find having questions ready means the answers come a lot easier than if I was trying to pluck this out of my head, if that makes sense?
It was at this point I realised I’d likely need a family tree, even just so I could keep track of the time travel/ancestral stuff. I roughed one out, then made a slightly bigger, still very rough, version that I thought might be a handy clue for players. If they make it inside the castle, they’ll notice a framed family tree on the wall, and this will be it!
Our story involved one of the players having worked at Stonevale before the adventure, so I made a staff list for that player’s reference. This way they had some basic information on their old co-workers and the residents of the manor. I also filled in an NPC list from the people & society kit to make sure I had enough NPCs to generate about the property.
Then I used the map to mark some likely locations of the important NPCs. I made sure to spread them out so that no matter how the party approached the grounds, they’d likely hit a plot hook somehow.
Time to shove as many clues as possible in here! My experience has been that players need a lot more help picking up clues and reaching conclusions than you expect (myself included!) so I make a point of writing a bunch of quest hooks to inspire both the players and myself during play. I use the quest hooks page from the session kit to note down basically little story bites and clues that I can drop in as and when I need to. It’s a useful sheet to glance at real quick during the game!
Gotta make sure there’s some loot somewhere! There’s always at least one player who ransacks every location they visit 🙂 I hadn’t set up Stonevale to be a particularly loot-filled place but knew the manor in the centre could do with holding some of the resident’s belongings that could be steal-able. Again, I realised this quite late in my planning, and so dashed off to the @rpgtoons Patreon to grab all the free item cards I could find! Then I picked out which ones could be appropriate for certain family members and residents, and stashed ‘em in the pile ready to hand out.
This is one of the last things I come to, as it’s fairly easy to set up, but so important if you want your players to be focussed and engaged. Every time I use music or scents its palpable how much more invested in events players are. For ambient backgrounds, youtube is a gold mine. I like to have two playing simultaneously – one for music and one for background noise. For example:
As for scents, I use these a little more sparingly, but @cantripcandles does some exceptionally convincing aromas that really work for setting the mood, and taking your prep that lil extra step. My favourite is Goldwheat Bakery – the only way to get a more accurate smell would be to visit a bakery!
At this point I’m almost good to go. I take one last look over everything I’ve prepped to see if there are any gaping plot holes or parts I’ve missed. For this particular session, it occurred to me there could be an opportunity for eavesdropping on an important conversation, so I wrote out a one page script for what the players might overhear should they choose to snoop.
I guess you wanna know how the session went down after all this prep? Did the players enjoy it, did they find what I’d laid out for them?
OF COURSE NOT! They made their very best effort to skirt the entire property, clinging to the edges of the map and hiding any time an NPC interaction looked likely. Predictably, I didn’t anticipate that they would attempt to avoid everything, but the Quest Hooks page kept things flexible. That, and the fact that one player’s rat companion decided to jump down a hole and became “irretrievable until further notice”…. ahem.
Hope you find this useful, I’ve tried to link to as many resources as possible because there are just so many good ones out there right now! Thanks to all DnD creators! I think it’s really cool everyone’s helping each others’ games become even more fun to play! 🙂
Okay, this is way beyond what I’ve ever done, even at my most prepared. Kudos!