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Interview with DMs: How do you prepare for your sessions between games?

A few different perspectives on how multiple DMs prepare for their games between sessions.

DnDSpeak asked DMs to share their methods for preparing games between sessions. Here are their secrets:

I like to go for a long walk before I start planning just to get away from the obligation of ‘working’ right away for next session. Usually that lets the random hanging plot threads find natural ways to tie in with whatever mess the players made 🙂

Once I’m ready to start writing down my ideas I like to start on paper. I look over the notes for what my characters picked up or showed interest in. I ask them, individually, what they are most curious about for next session so I can make sure to plan out whatever that thing or place may be so they don’t surprise me too much.

Most of my world building is outlined before the campaign starts in a google doc. So after my paper notes are done it’s a matter of finding the right place in the doc to flesh out with player requests. Often this means adding or updating the table of monsters, outlining what players learned about a location (or what I made up on the spot) etc. Going from Paper to Digital takes about a week or two – I don’t like to do it all at once, sometimes great ideas pop into my head while I’m driving or such.

Usually this means I have to generate the following;

• Movements and plans of the groups favorite NPC’s so the world feels like its moving on its own.

• Something that happens that the players don’t see, with far-reaching effects – to generate a little mystery – this can carry over from session to session if they haven’t discovered it yet.
Some way a favorite NPC/enemy/god reaches out to them unexpectedly – this means I usually write out a letter or the description of a vision and they get that at the beginning of next game.

• One or two scenes to set the campaign mood – how their long rest scene looks for example.

• A new location to visit – usually the next leg in a journey they are on.

• Coming up with a list of 5 strange items I expect the next location/enemy will have.

• One or two random encounters with a strange, unfamiliar enemy.

• One or two Story-line encounters with the familiar plot-based enemies.

In my last campaign there was a lot of in-group deception so each player was consulted out of game to go over any secret stuff that the character needed to have handled, or ways they were investigating the others on the down-low.

Every once in a while I get a special request from the players. Once they wanted to have a shopping day in-game so I made a shopping minigame as well.

Then, the day before the session I write down a bullet list of points I want to get to something like;

• Player 1 Receives a secret letter at midday.

• Player 2 gets a holy vision at the next long rest.

•Player 3 is being hunted by NPC 1 – if the group doesn’t make it to X in time NPC encounter ensues.

• Earthquake at midnight

• Treasure 1 2 and 3 should be scattered where the player’s go.

I tend to be forgetful while playing so having a list like this is a handy reminder for me.

Last thing is to look over what they did last session as a whole to determine if they level up. In general we don’t track individual EXP, I just look over what they accomplished and then we start the next session by leveling up, when appropriate. I like doing it before the game ‘starts’ so I can handle level-up questions and so the group is re-familiarized with their abilities so they are less likely to forget to use them.

I tend to find myself churning out possible encounter ideas and potential directions the plot could go depending on how the players act. I make quite a lot of them, and usually go into far more detail then I need, considering that I rarely use even half of them in a session.

Despite the fact that I am never truly able to prepare for what shenanigans my party will get into next, I find that having other plot progressions laid out makes it easier for me to come up with ideas on the fly. I mix this collection of resources in whatever way works when I am confronted with an unexpected development, and I find it tends to work itself out. If the players somehow do end up following one of my preconceived routes, it’s that much easier for me!

Needless to say, this method is not as effective if you don’t have a large enough gap between sessions to mull things over and type up an abundance of story possibilities.

TL;DR: I type up tons of ideas and concepts beforehand, and mix them or use them as the session requires.

I make a word document in landscape mode and separate it in three columns. The first is flavor and main objectives. The middle one is for travel encounters, NPCs and roleplay. The third one is for combat encounters.

Then, I use an excel worksheet for helping me organize with everything.

I mostly stick to paper and pencil after I found my laptop to be both time consuming and distracting. There were times that waiting for it to load cut into the game and I really didn’t like how that felt. Keeping things on paper has helped things run a bit more smoothly. In-game I take down some notes about what’s happening and then the following day I write up a small summary to begin the next game with (our games are biweekly). I bought and printed a lot of templates off of R-N-W.net, which have been super helpful for keeping tack of towns, npcs, and monster encounters. Everything I have written down and printed I keep in a binder that is organized with tabs so that things are easy to find. I also have the books with me during game day with specific pages bookmarked (especially the monster manual). And during the game I have another large notepad I use to keep track of numbers, Initiative order, and monster HP.

Outside of the game I keep a small gridded notebook with me so that I can jot down ideas, sketches, and whatever else comes to me to figure out and refine for future game days.

I started out with a laptop but ended up finding it clunky, so I keep everything in notebooks now. I have quite a good memory when it comes to main plot beats, so I mostly fill them with reference information and prior things the group did or what certain characters sounded/acted like, then later on during the week I expand on what side character’s motivations are and how they fit into the larger world. I also keep side beats and a random list of names handy in case they want to go off the beaten path.

A combination of a few things. I usually keep a google doc for each session and start by taking notes of events that I know are going to happen or important info on locales my players are in or plan to go to.

If I want certain dialogue to occur or am thinking of certain interactions that will happen I’ll write out some lines a character might say or personality traits of theirs. I’ll also make maps of cities using either Photoshop or using this site https://watabou.itch.io/medieval-fantasy-city-generator
If I’m planning on giving them a dungeon to explore I go straight to the grid paper and start drawing by creating a 22×25 box (the size of my grid map I use for my games).

Lastly I get the stat blocks I need from the monster manual or from rpgtinker.com If I have to ill make my own using other existing monsters as a base.

Usually I just have a notebook with me all day. If a thought comes into my head I got it down, whether is homebrew creature and items or just a town and npc. Then I go home, use Google Docs, and flesh out the most fitting or interesting ideas

Mentally, I daydream about scenarios in-world, and try to “get in the heads” of my NPCs. I sometimes “discover” connections or synergies that become canon and lead to events the players interact with.

I generate a lot of NPCs. After every session. I write a summary of the session and update NPC databanks. Maybe they met “Alrik” and my notes have him as flamboyant and shifty, but i played him differently when the moment came, so I need the notes to reflect the new Alrik. Notes on voices, gestures, motivation.
I write “scenes”, aka, noncombat encounters with terrain features or objects, sometimes NPCs and monsters. These are “stock” and not fixed to a location until I use them.
I map, by hand, extensively. Cities are time-consuming, but maps inspire ideas.

At times I craft miniatures, “in-world” maps and prop documents, terrain etc. I have been doing this more, lately. I curate playlists and seek out new music, avoiding all OSTs.
I use notepad.exe, and a pencil. For maps, ink, watercolors.

To prepare for my next session I normally have a Google doc with the session basics laid out (loot, xp, important plot stuff). I try to keep six to seven sessions planned ahead of when we meet but sometimes school gets in the way.

I like to have a set of index cards in case the players want to ask me something in secret or speak to a telepathic being they hang out with in private.

If I need to practice a voice I do for an NPC the players will meet then I practice in the car with either lines I want to use or by singing along to the radio with that voice.

I keep at least two calculators on me at the table. One for keeping track of high hit point enemy health, and one to add up total damage in case there’s a resistance I need to keep track of. For 5e I’d recommend using improved-initiative.com because it gives you a lot of the important information for a monster if you just click on it. If you have time before your session you can convert other editions to work with the sites formatting.
For the world map I hand drew it and have important locations like capitols or dungeons labeled and let the players mark random road locations they find along the way. But for city design there are some great generators online for those of us who don’t like drawing all the tiny houses into the city. Dungeon maps are much easier to steal than they are to come up with on the fly. The KOTOR star wars game has some great dungeon maps that I borrow as needed, and your players will probably not know if you are stealing a floor plan from a module that’s easy to find online like Curse of Strahd.

One of my favorite world building/gm help sites is World Anvil because it asks me a lot of questions about the races, places, and culture of the world that I wouldn’t have thought to ask myself beforehand, and it also converts everything you write into a file that makes it look like it’s from a dnd book/module.

I’ve been experimenting with prepping using index cards.

So, I grab a handful of cards, about dozen or so, sometimes a few more. One card I set aside for a session title or summary, another 8 or so for encounters, then 4-6 more for items, and some spares.

The first card will a session title or summary, and will have the big picture, the short list of themes I want to hit, the eventual outcomes. That sort of thing. I might also note on the back of this card the expected party makeup (what levels, how many, what classes, what special skills they have that could be their moment to shine) – this is mostly to act as a reminder to me while designing. Other DMs might want to write reminders of PC plot arcs if that’s a big thing in your style of game.
The next 8 or so cards would be for separate encounters, or scenes, or rooms, or whatever. I would have enough cards to cover the number of encounters I’d expect the players to get through in the session, with one or two extras as backups if they’re speeding through the content, and a few more again as variants/random encounters.

On the front of each encounter card I jot down the gist of the encounter – this would include an evocative title (“Goblin hunting party”) and then a dramatic question (“Will our heroes avoid being discovered?”). Also jotted would be a bullet point or two for the NPC motivations, plans, or objectives. Lastly, also on the front would be bullet points describing or setting the scene, including any hooks. Title, dramatic question, motivations/plans/objectives, descriptions/hooks.
On the back of the encounter cards I write down what I need for the mechanics. This would be the key combat stats (HD/HP/AC/MV/TH/DM/ML/IQ), reminders of relevant rules (pursuit? morale modifiers? grenade-like missiles?), and so on.
Another 4-6 cards are for items or things – these are cards I’ll be handing to the players at some point (much easier than reading out a boxed text from page 17 of the module and hoping someone is jotting down important notes). I’ll even take the time to sketch out a picture of the thing. Not too much time, because I’m crap at illustrating. If an item has important DM-only information I’ll make two cards – one I’ll hand to the players with everything that would be patently obvious, and another for me with the details of the curse, the hidden power, the NPC secret, etc.

The spare cards are exactly that, spares. I want to be in the state of mind that I can at any time simply tear up an encounter card if what I’ve written is garbage. I want the freedom to not treat these cards-in-draft as being precious. Sometimes I’ll even lay out all the cards into their respective columns, all blank, and then pick up one blank spare card and deliberately tear it up, right there and then, complete waste. A sacrifice to the gods of creativity and inspiration.

Now, importantly, in this method I don’t fully work up each card in turn.

Instead, I’ll go wide, jotting down multiple evocative titles and dramatic questions, sometimes skipping the question on one card and coming back when a later card gives me inspiration, other times going deep on one card because I’ve just had a brilliant idea I want to capture.

Also, writing these down onto index cards (and not into a digital document, or a big pad of paper, etc) lets me juggle and shuffle the cards as I’m pulling this design together. There is no imposed implied sequence of events, because each encounter is on a separate card and can be shuffled. (Obviously “Monster Cave – Exterior” would probably be encountered before “Monster Cave – Interior”, so there can be some sequencing).
As I shuffle the cards around, I’ll find connections and such, and can jot down hooks and foreshadowing and so on. I’ll also keep referring back to the session summary card for reminders about the session goal and party capabilities, and to also update it as I get a clearer concept.

Another point about using index cards – they are of a constrained size and capacity. It puts a limit on how much I can write about a scene, and that’s a good thing.

Often, I’ll have a one or two cards that are not crap ideas, but they don’t fit into the rest of the cards. Maybe it strikes the wrong tone, or the specific monster just doesn’t fit into the ecology or tone … since these are all written on index cards I can pull them aside and add them to a growing stack of “ideas I’ve had that are not total crap but haven’t figured out where to use just yet”.

Currently I split my time two ways between sessions:

1. Prepare for the next immediate session by writing a little session guideline containing descriptions of the places the PCs are most likely to go, a little list of region/race-specific names I can grab if needed, some appropriate CR monsters and loot, any relevant NPC’s stats, and the plot points I would like to reveal if possible. This is usually 4-5 pages of text. I also like to print up monster stats so I can write on the page during combat. If there are props to make, I make them! Last session I hand-wrote a bunch of diary pages and correspondence, for example.

2. Continue building on the overall behind-the-scenes plot/structure. I’ve organized a few different documents with the PC backstories, world history, regional lore and landmarks, some tables, major NPCs, etc. I started my adventure knowing the overall plot but no gritty specfics, so, as much as I can I continue to add little things to make the world alive AND lay groundwork for all that’s coming later.

I do two types of planning, depending on where in the game we are. My game is very episodic and focused on a lot of travel, so before the next location I spend 8ish hours planning various quests, locations, and the big picture for the next leg of the journey. Every week I spend 1-2 hours fleshing out details for the next session. I don’t plan very far out, the big picture planning usually starts 2 weeks before we are set to start that part of the journey. I use trello to organise campaign notes, items, and characters, so that’s an important tool for planning. I use kobold fight club to plan encounters, because it has great filters and can include monsters from official and non official material.
I start by brainstorming situations that sound interesting, or that a certain character might find really engaging. Then I do some research through the dmg and the internet for ideas or mechanics that would work well in that situation, that fills out the quest. Then I figure out the hook for that quest, and how it will end. Once I have that structure, I try to let the ideas stew in my brain for a few days or a week, then make any changes I think of and fill out the encounters into exact enemies, treasure, and prepared dialogue.

When it comes to preparing sessions I sometimes prepare them months in advance, but I do love preparing them on weekly basis because you never know what will your players do. I sometimes spend 4 hours a week and sometimes 10 hours or more, it all depends where they are in story. I do have prepared most of the arcs and cities with people who the may meet or not, on my laptop or random papers. I stick to paper and pencil and draw my own maps, dungeons etc. Sometimes I use different books for inspiration and monster manual for thing they may encounter. sometimes, if they miss something, I might use it deeper in the story or change it a bit and throw it at them.

“DMs, what do you do to prepare for your upcoming session?”
About two to ten hours a day.

“Do you use computer software to help, or do you stick to just paper and pencil? What programs do you use?”
Scrivner, Scapple, the internet, etc.

“How long in advance do you prepare?”
Up to three months or longer.

Note – all of my games can be viewed on this youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2TZucbqPpz9Bx8rz57Wbmg/playlists

I run very sandboxy games, but I try to think of most of the permutations that could occur with my players. I’m relatively new, but I try to build up a library of temples, dungeons, etc. that I can just use depending on where the players go.
In my monster manuals etc, i have sticky notes on all the CR relevant creatures they could encounter. If I have to try and decide what to throw at them, I distract them with something that will make them roleplay for a few minutes while I figure it out.

Finally, I make sure I have as many random tables available as possible to give the feeling of randomness and like i’m not railroading them.

I try to work on about 15 minutes of prep a day, so all in all I probably spend only an hour to and hour and a half for each session, depending on what it may need.

I used to have a big three ring binder that had sections for everything : hooks, world map and events, NPCs Town info etc. now I use a program called The Keep http://www.nbos.com/products/the-keep . I find it makes it faster to have everything digitalized. It can even preload the .pdf files from modules / one shots if needed.

As for prep, I try to have at least 3 different hooks and 2 encounters per set as a starting point for each session. I have a long list of NPC names and some stats I can just grab and go from. If you do not have much done in advance I would highly recommend using tables to help ease the stress. The Keep has NBOS software idea pad integrated into it. Idea pad is a random table generator. There is a short learning curve to it, but once accomplished, it is easy! You can find almost anything tablewise via the web or reddit (or here!). Prep is about 1.5 hrs for every hour of play.

I typically prepare 3-4 days in advance, as many of my games are on roll 20 I have to build maps beforehand, which I typically do with external software then upload onto roll 20. My map builder is Illwinter floorplan generator, and most of my planning is online.

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