DMs: How do you do your session plans?

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Hey everybody. I'm a longtime 3.5e and Pathfinder DM, and I'm trying to up my game. I find that I spend way, way too much time prepping my sessions. 4-6 hours sometimes for a 3-4 hour game. These are 100% custom adventures in a homegrown world, but still. I've been trying to figure out why this is, and I think I have a clue: The only DM notes I've ever SEEN aside from my own are the official modules, which are pretty dang verbose. And I learned to DM by emulating those.

But a lot of DMs, I understand, get by with drastically less prep work. I've been searching for examples of other DMs session plans, and I've only found one scanned page so far.

What I want? Scan a couple pages of your past notes, or copy paste if theyre electronic, and post them, so we can all benefit from seeing how other people do it! The kinds of labels and shorthand and format you use might spark ideas for others... I know I could use the help.
Im fairly new as well, I have done a bit of research on the topic. Im doing a Home Grown world, and the best advice I have found is to make factions. Make a background of each factions Motivation then flesh out a Leader, a Hero stat and a Regular members stats. Figure out how you want them to interact with each other or not. It takes out a lot of planning for the world and I can just worry about having enough random encounters or dungeons.  I know this does not cover planning out an epic adventure but it does help.


K-Ray.

NPC "What is it?, what is he?, I know what he is!, I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE!"

PC "What am I?"

NPC "LEAVING!"

Is this the kind of thing you're looking for?

 
Punch out at the Winding Coat

Exp: 875


Monsters: Leogold Riverking, 2 Lowtown Kneebreaker, 1 Market Green Grifter, 2Guttersnipe


Setup: While the PCs are back in Fallcrest investigating the deaths of Kurman Greatiron or Norris Ravensmar, word comes that there has been a disturbance at the Winding Coat that appears to be related.  The proprietress of  Fallcrest’s house of leisure has been found dead in her private chambers.  The girls who were off the clock were upstairs and could hear the altercation, and one (Janona Redbeard) badly burned her hand on the door when trying to gain entry.  If the PCs choose to investigate they will find the brothel cleared of all paying customers with only a few working girls milling around, Janona among them.  Janona will readily confess that she made out the word “Kindersprig,” but she was unable to hear much more than that over the din of fighting and screams before Nericia succumbed to her wounds.  When talking to the working girls a DC 15 Diplomacy or DC 10 Intimidate or Bluff check will reveal that the girls would periodically get a night off and the brothel would be closed for “regular” customers.  The girls have a feeling of uneasiness about those nights, but no one has ever dared to look closer.  A DC 15 Perception check will reveal that the girls are not used to being spoken to diplomatically and will probably be more forthcoming if they feel forced to comply.    


            If the PCs choose to examine the brothel floor-by floor and do a Perception check (DC 10) in the storage room on the first floor they will find a secret passageway that leads to a small basement area housing 6 young human girls.  2 will claim to be from Winterhaven, 3 from Nenlast and 1 from Fandesburg. 


            If the PCs choose to examine Nericia’s drawing room, they will see signs of struggle everywhere.  Her candle is completely burned down, her bed is scorched, and there are fingernail marks on the inside of her door.  Nericia’s face and arms are badly burned and a golden pendant on her neck is burned into the skin.


            Depending on how long the PCs stay they may come down stairs to find a group of 4 humanoids milling around on the first level.  Their stats can be found above and on page 94 of Monster Vault: Threats of the Nentir Vale.  Leogold Riverking is a Shifter Avenger dressed in a dark purple cloak, and he stands silently in the middle of the room while his underlings lounge about.  There is also 1 Lower Quays Guttersnipe (Halfling), 1 Market Green Grifter (Half-Elf), and 1Lowtown Kneebreaker (Human).  The Lowtown Kneebreaker is sitting with his feet on the table leaning back in his chair when the PCs enter.  The Market Green Grifter and the Guttersnipe have one of the girls cornered and are talking with her.  All of the working girls look very nervous.  These River Rat thugs are seeking to move the girls to a safe house outside of Fallcrest and are willing to engage in combat to secure their quarry.  The Avenger will not resign himself to defeat, though the Guttersnipe may flee.  The kneebreaker may well give up if things turn south and the PCs give him the chance.   
































































Leogold Riverking (Avenger)



Level 5 Skirmisher  



Medium humanoid (shifter)



XP 200



Initiative +XX



Senses Perception +2; low-light vision



HP 60; Bloodied 30


AC 19; Fortitude 16, Reflex 17, Will 21


Speed 6



M Overwhelming Strike (standard; at-will) * Falchion



+8 vs. AC; 2d4 + 6 damage.  Shift 1 square and the target is pulled into the square Leogold just occupied.



r Censure of Pursuit (Class Feature) * Force



If the Oath of Enmity target moves away willingly, add a +6 to damage rolls until the end of Leogold’s next turn.



M Sequestering Strike (standard; Encounter) * Falchion



+8 vs. AC; 4d4 + 6 damage and the target is teleported 3 squares.  Leogold is teleported to a square adjacent to the target.



a Oath of Enmity (minor; encounter) * Close Burst 10



When you make a melee attack against the target


and the target is the only enemy adjacent to you, you


make two attack rolls and use either result. This effect


lasts until the end of the encounter or until the target


drops to 0 hit points, at which point you regain the use of


this power.


If another effect lets you roll twice and use the higher


result when making an attack roll, this power has no


effect on that attack. If an effect forces you to roll twice


and use the lower result when making an attack roll, this


power has no effect on that attack either.


If an effect lets you reroll an attack roll and you rolled


twice because of this power, you reroll both dice.



Alignment Evil



Languages Common



Skills Athletics +6, Intimidate +5



Str 13 (+3)



Dex 14 (+4)



Wis 18 (+6)



Con 12 (+3)



Int 13 (+3)



Cha 10 (+3)


Equipment: Falchion, Cloak


Here's a complete list of all the notes I took in preparation for my last session:

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Here's a complete list of all the notes I took in preparation for my last session:



Ha!
Here's a complete list of all the notes I took in preparation for my last session:

Ha!

It's not always so little. For the session before, I printed out some monsters I thought I might use, in order to have them handy. We didn't end up using them, which is the exact reason I take as few notes as possible, unless they're for my personal interest. I'm done preparing things just in hopes the players will enjoy, or even encounter them, but I still think about my games all the time, and have a mental toolbox of ideas and inspirations to draw from if the players don't give me enough to go on.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Here's a complete list of all the notes I took in preparation for my last session:



What gives? Ripping off my campaign, are you? :-p


In all seriousness, as time has gone by and I get used to the system, I've been preparing less and less. With my Monday night group, I've come to  improvise whole sessions, making up maps and traps on the spot. At most, I'll have bookmarks in my Monster Manual for monsters which are likely to appear.


And yet, sometimes, I have to prepare a lot for my Saturday night group. They're older and more tactically inclined, so I have to come up with interesting maps and creatures that will work off one another. It requires more prep time, but hardly more than an hour or two, depending on the scenario. Even then, no written notes, aside from stat blocks and maps. Interaction and exploration are usually improvised.


So, I guess what I'm getting at here is that knowing what kind of game your players are expecting and working on your improvisational skills, you should be able to drastically reduce the time required for preperation. System mastery is a nice plus. Oh, and don't be afraid to ask input from your players. That helps a lot. I let my players name people and places, for example. Heck, I let my Monday night group choose their quest (they chose to hunt dragons).


Last piece of advice: if you haven't already, I suggest you read The Dungeon Master Experience column, by Chris Perkins. Lots of edition-neutral advice in there, dealing with lots of subjects relevant to us DMs.


P.S.: I forgot to mention, I DM 4e. I know that 3.5e/PF require more prep, because of their encounter building guidelines and the oddly-balanced creature here and there. I don't have nearly as much experience with those games, but I hope the above can still help you.

Here's a complete list of all the notes I took in preparation for my last session:

What gives? Ripping off my campaign, are you? :-p

I only steal from the best.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

My campaign is mostly a sandbox and i basically run it as a bunch of site-based locations, so i do most of the prep for each site up once and don't really prep much after that. 
My game used to be 3.5, but we switched to 4e last year. I have found that prep is faster with 4e (but mainly because it is faster to make monsters and balance encounters). 4e also has this thing called a skill challenge, which is basically a rubrick for helping dm's run things that are basically a combination of several skill checks.


I'm going to walk you through how i prepped for my current story arc: 

Years ago, when i started the campaign i drew a map and I wrote some basic notes about each place on it.
Towns/cities got short write ups about size, leadership, military, ect plus a few general ideas about what is going on there that can lead to quest hooks.
Other locations get a short 2-3 sentence brainstorm, for example, one savannah has a rapidly growing jungle that sprung up inside of it a few years ago in game time. 

Here's something similar to what i wrote down:
The jungle used to be a clump of trees in a savannah, but all of a sudden stated growing out of control. Almost every creature there is 1-3 size categories bigger than the standard version (adjust stats accordingly). This is because of an artifact that is causing everything to grow at an accelerated rate. Also there are 2-3 factions warring over it. If the pc's get involved they will likely have to take sides. 
 
And that is how it sat in my binder for 4 years.
The pc's recently finished a small story arc, and at the end of that session talked about where to go next. They've known for a while that there was an artifact responsible for the sudden jungle growth, but that's all. They decided to teleport there, get the artifact and see if they could use it for terraforming other ares of the game world.  o i had one week to figure it out the rest of the details.


Prep #1
I decided the artifact would be a spear that was created by a druid long ago, but that it had been sundered. The sundering caused an explosion of primal energy which caused all of the the sudden overgrowth. I also decided on 3 factions, but needed a reason to keep them fighting...

So i picked Couatls (LG ones, like from 3.5), trolls, and a dracolich.
To spice it up i decided the couatls would be obnoxious paladin types (think Miko from OoTS), the trolls would basically be nature-loving isolationists and not really evil.
The trolls used to have possession of the intact spear, and lived in the savannah (in a ziggurate) in relative harmony with nature. One day they were attacked by the dracolich and the spear was sundered releasing a tremendous amount of energy and seriously wounding the dracolich, he then fled with the spearhead still stuck in him.
The couatls sensed the surge (all the way in the astral sea), and in a rash of zealotry decided to involve themselves and kill the trolls. A small strike force attacked the ziggurat and was successful in routing the trolls, but didn't actually kill many of them.
The trolls have built a temporary village of primitive huts.


Things i wrote down:
The couatls have drastically inferior numbers to the trolls (and stole their ziggurate) (i decide on 12 couatls to 150 troll warriors).
The trolls still have the haft of the spear, (and really, they are the good guys in all of this), they do want the reunite the spear, but mainly are pissed at the couatls for stealing their home and trying to steal the spear.
The Dracolich still has the spearhead, and he hates everyone. I decided to stick him on a floating island (to make it hard for the trolls to just walk over and assault him). 

The location of all 3 factions on the map (the pc's will be teleporting in, where they land will determine which faction they meet first).
Stated out 3-4 types of couatls and trolls (warrior, ranged, caster, and the leader/cheiftain).
Stated out 2 big (dire?) versions of monsters for a few random encounters (wolves and owlbears). 
(Didn't map the ziggurat or worry about the dracolich yet)

I'll make up names and start keeping notes of npc's they meet during the game (if i need to), but at this stage I had enough ideas and concepts to RP out several sessions and toss around some random encounters. And If the pc's decided to attack the first scouting party they find, i have stats for them... 

Gameplay
Turns out that was enough to get me through almost 5 sessions, and we had several good fights in there; the players met the couatls first and decided to side with them, so we had a few fights against trolls and a Random against a pack of my new owlbears). Also, in between sessions i threw together a skill challenge to use when they met the couatl leader.  After they felt they had enough info to go after the dracolich, they decided that would be their next destination (i ended session there)...


Prep 2
Stat out the dracolich, and figure out what his floating island looks like. 
Decide where/how the fight is going to be and use the terrain to make it awesome.
Also, did the Troll camp design and got that ready, just in case they change their mind or get there faster that i thought)  
I can pretty much completely forget about mapping out the ziggurat (doesn't seem like it will ever matter).

Gameplay
Getting to the dracolich, talking to him, fighting him, and divying up his loot took 2 full sessions (we actually ended one session mid-combat since it was getting late).
They have the spearhead now and have decided to try to steathily steal the haft, since they don't want to take on 150 trolls at once. I already have a map of the troll camp, i'll probably make it a skill challenge with failure meaning a big battle.

Total prep time:
Prep #1 took a long because of all of the stat blocks, but otherwise i didn't really spend much time on it. Probably about 12 hours spread out over 2 days.
Prep #2 actually took a little long since i obsessed over the dracolich fight (probably 5-6 hours) and his loot.
Prepping 2 skill challenges: I am pretty quick at these, and can write up a full complexity 5 (12 successes before 3 failures) in about an hour.


So in total i'll have spent maybe 20 hours prepping for what has already been 7 sessions and will end up being 10-12 game sessions (depending on how the troll section plays out and what the pc's decide to do later). Ten sessions at 4 hours each is about 40 hours of playtime, so i seem to be prepping about 1/2 an hour for every hour of play. But the nice thing is, since i did most of the heavy lifting at once, I get 3-5 weeks without needing to prep anymore.


FWIW [4e designer] baseline assumption was that roughly 70% of your feats would be put towards combat effectiveness, parties would coordinate, and strikers would do 20/40/60 at-will damage+novas. If your party isn't doing that... well, you are below baseline, so yes, you need to optimize slightly to meet baseline. -Alcestis
Maps take up most of my prep time.  I am not very inclined toward the visual arts, so I need all the help I can get.  Also, I really like the tactics of combat, so I tend to come up with maps where both sides have a lot to work with and takes me some time.

The other place I devote a lot of my time to is background.  Sometimes NPCs who I didn't think will become important do so, and I can come up with reasonably compelling motivations and dialogue on the spot, but I really like figuring out in my head how various factions and individuals interact, what drives them, and what kinds of cues PCs will be likely to pick up on.  I don't think is necessary for successful playing at all, but I enjoy it. 
Just wanted to post some acknowledgement for all this good advice. Thanks for your explanations and examples. If anyone else wants to chime in, please do... I would hope that this thread helps more than just me at some point or another. I'll keep checking back!

Oh, and I think this has all brought to light one of the reasons I may be so thorough. I like to play, more than DM... but more than either, I love world building. Those 2-4 pages most people mention about their homebrew setting? Mine was 86 pages, 33000 words, before we started... factions, places, places within places, how the planes work, the religions, high quality artistic maps, and everything. So I think a starting point will be to extricate myself from feeling the need to be as thorough in session prep as I am in my world building. Either that or just bite it and become an author to make some money off my insanity.

Please continue if anyone else has something to say.
My general advice with preparation is the newer you are to DMing the more you need.  However this preparation is still useful to the more seasoned among us, and almost becomes second nature that we really don't think about it as preparation.  Most of this comes from having experience with DMing and creative thinking.  Keep in mind that all the things I'll be recommending are usually things that you gain with experience being a DM so might not be that helpful.

All that being said, here is what I do and recommend for preparation:

1.) Familiarize yourself with the monster manual, and take notes of page numbers for monsters that are level appropriate for your pcs.  You might also consider taking some additional notes of monster stats and maybe pick some things that are related to the areas that the PCs are exploring.

2.) Practice describing people, places, items, monsters, and anything else you can think of.  Keeping it detailed but concise is generally what people want to try to maximize your mileage on your words.  Coupled with the first suggestion you might find that you can reuse many of the same monsters and just change how they "look" to the players and that helps cut down on prep time.

3.) Try to learn a new word a day.  Worst case scenario you learned something new, and the best case you have that one word that makes your description of something perfect.

4.) Practice combat positioning and tactics.  Set up an appropriately sized room for a conflict and practice moving pieces around for combat, and using abilities on monsters.  You don't need to go overboard and actually perform the battle, but get used what abilities the monsters have and how you can apply them.

5.) Practice drawing/creating interesting rooms.  It's one thing to be able to draw that 10x16 room and another thing to draw a series of interconnected rooms on the fly.  Granted this is not needed for some DM styles and play groups, but if it's relevant to you then no reason not to get better at it

6.) Read stories, watch movies, play video games and borrow like a fiend.  Sometimes it's just what you need to get the creative juices flowing.

7.) Give yourself some time to mentally let go of worries, and let your mind play.

8.) Sit down and have a nice heart to heart with yourself.  Get used to the idea that whatever plans you have will be compromised and learn to embrace the new directions the players take you in.  Reflect on things that you did right and wrong, and be your own harshest critic.
I agree with Shaddylogic's list, though I've never really run practice battles. The rest of that list are things I take for granted, but which I've had to cultivate over the years. Most of them are important things to do even apart from gaming.

Just remember that you're around the table with other people, each of whom has a creative brain you can tap into, a brain that is wired to think of things that it will enjoy. Don't shut those brains down, tap into them.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Normally I just bookmark some monsters in the MM I expect the PCs to attempt to fight before each session. I also have an overarching "Event" that is happening. The PCs usually will want to get involved in that, but if not, the plot will follow them wherever they decide to go. That usually works well enough.


Recently I've been doing a game with the following plot outline. Spoilers if I'm your DM. These are all my notes for the campaign, and the extent of the prep work I plan to do. (outside of bookmarking monsters) I also stole the opening act from someone else. 


Show

The game starts with the PCs rescuing a farmer’s son who was kidnapped by a goblin queen, holed up in the mountains in Tyrath a few days from the minor city of Kabul. When they free the boy, they find a strange key on the queen. Upon investigation it is the Tyrathian Key, one of the 6 keys of power.


 


A few nights before they cross the border back into protected territory, out of nowhere, a giant reptilian beast wanders into their camp covered in blood carrying a half deer. It starts crooning at them and places the deer by the fire. If they attack, it flees back into the forest. It turns out that they have a friendly single headed hydra trying to give them presents. It comes back each night with more bloody meat.


 


 The next day, they go to the border crossing. The bridge is made out of black stone carved with skulls - an obvious leftover from the days of the BBEG's days as a lich king. It crosses a fairly decent sized river. The guards are wearing blue breastplates with purple chainmail underneath (the default for this country). They do the crossed-halberds "Halt, who goes there" deal and make the PCs identify themselves. All goes well, and the guards are about to let them pass when the hydra comes ambling out of the forest with yet another offering. The guard refuses to let the party pass across the border until they 'prove' they're not Morden cultists by killing the beast that's been helping them. Eventually, they manage to get across the border, by dealing with the hydra, convincing the guards, sneaking across the border or whatever they come up with. It's not super important which; the point is that the border guards are prejudiced jerks.


 


Their next stop is the City of Kabul, that was the home town of Alexander and, more importantly, where the great big huge monument to his heroism was built. There they A] get some exposition about the Morden’s evil history and defeats, B] get ratted out by the State Security/Border Guard that tried to stop them at the border. The party subsequently gets attacked and either run out of town (if they win the fight) or imprisoned (if they lose the fight) on suspicion of plotting to resurrect the Morden. If they get sent to prison, you can run a mini session where they break out with the help of the actual Morden cultists. If they are run out of town, they encounter some actual cultists who are sympathetic in the woods.


 


 Either way, the cultists reveal that the set of 6 keys used to seal Morden’s prison were given to the protection of the nations that sealed away the BBEG and stored in some places that are culturally representative of the nations. Each nation got one key, and its super embarrassing to have lost it. The cult goes on to say that actually, they are all pretty much missing right now but no one knows it. Since they already have a key, the cultists trust that the PCs are after the same thing (freeing Morden). They have agents in tons of cities, and if the PCs go get the half the keys the cultists will get the rest. Meet up with their agents to find out where they are hidden.  Then meet at the entrance and we can open the vault and free him.  (PCs probably want to stop this somehow)


 


After they gather the last key, they are visited by a member of the Templar of Dusk who informs them that he has seen their progress, and his order wishes to engage their help. After the last rise of Morden, they formed as a society devoted to hunting out his cultists, and work outside any government, because they don’t think they are effective. PCs have heard of the org, but governments have been saying they are “terrorists” and it’s almost as bad to be one of them as it is to be a cultist. The higher ups of the cultists are never in the same place, and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to decimate their leadership. All 3 leaders will be present for the reawakening ceremony. Cultists will follow PCs to the chamber, and use teleporters to summon the leaders who will perform awakening ceremony. Let this happen, and then use it as an opportunity to destroy their leaders. Leadership normally never sees one another, and doesn’t know who they are. If one is killed another always steps right up and they can never make any progress destroying them. This is the opportunity to really decimate the Morden cults.


 


Keys

Each key is keyed to a specific attribute, and provides a +2 to it in addition to being 1/6th of what is needed to open the vault. The key the PCs find first belongs to the Tyrathian Royal Family.


                                                                                                                                                       


Tyrathian Key +2 Cha


This is the key owned by the Tyrathian Royal Family. They know they lost it years ago when the current kings great great grandfather took it hunting (he was a lush, hints he really just got lost while drunk in the woods). They have kept a fake on display in their throne room for years since. 


 


Acrosian Key +2 Wis


This key was originally stored in the vaults of light. Where the holy relics of the Archons are stored. Heavily guarded and long thought impossible to enter. Apparently, that is not the case, as upon investigation of the crime scene, the PCs realize it was the work of Black Archon Cultists, and has been covered up by the church because that’s super embarrassing. The Key is in a Black Archon Church.


 


Sethis Key +2 Int


The Sethians built a (pyramid) temple atop their key and keep it under close watch. They actually still have their key, but it’s not wise to trespass in their holy chambers as those who profane the world snake are typically the first sacrificed.


 


Gabluk Key +2 Con


One of the tribes has it, and hid it. No one can agree which tribe it was. Accusing a tribe usually results in a challenge and defense of honor. Turns out that one tribe stole it because the next tribe to get it was a Morden Cult and they wanted it out of their hands.


 


Stonefell Key +2 Str


Lost in the underdark. Turns out a tribe of Minotaur tunneled into a dwarven vault and stole it. Fairly public, but the dwarves do their best not to admit that’s what happened. Minotaur live in a giant maze filled with traps and warriors in addition to a full-fledged town. Whole town is a giant maze, constructed in accordance with Minotaur religion which is devoted to mazes, confusion, and generally making sense out of super complex problems.


 


Zaratan Key +2 Dex


This key is relatively simple to obtain. When the original keeper received his key, he fed it to the turtle. It may still be in the beast’s intestines, or it may have fallen into the sea by now. No one knows. If it isn’t in the intestines, some serious magic will be needed to scour the ocean floor.


 


Morden’s Trident


Mordens Tomb is a labyrinth towards the center of the mountain, which is actually a dormant volcano. Anyone can enter the labyrinth. Opens into a giant pool of lava, with a hexagram stone alter. The keys go in each point, and the lava shifts and flows, creating a tunnel deep into it sustained by magic. The tunnel goes to a chamber with three sigil stones. “Truth, Justice, or Honor” or something. You can hit any and it will shift a wall behind it creating a new tunnel. Hitting one means sulfur gas or lava floods the room, hitting the less wrong one means you get a dangerous tunnel with traps or monsters. The right one just goes to the next chamber. There are then X chambers where X is the number of PCs. Each chamber has a challenge to overcome it where each PC can shine.  Ignoring the challenge gets you sulfur, losing it gets you another challenge hallway, and winning gets you the easy one. The final chamber has his tomb, encased in stone, and on top is his trident. This is where the ritual to bring him back is performed.  As soon as the trident is touched, the protective walls start to collapse, and the chamber begins flooding.


Important to note. I did not design the actual encounters, traps, or challenges the PCs will face. Just a rough guide of what exists at each stop along the way. (I do have brief paragraph descriptions of each city) This was also written up after being asked to run a game with a stronger obvious plot to follow. 

"In a way, you are worse than Krusk"                               " As usual, Krusk comments with assuredness, but lacks the clarity and awareness of what he's talking about"

"Can't say enough how much I agree with Krusk"        "Wow, thank you very much"

"Your advice is the worst"                                                  "I'd recommend no one listed to Krusk's opinions about what games to play"

I don't usually make notes unless I've been particularly busy/forgetful lately.

Here's a transcript of the notes I jotted down over the last week or two:
Nudge Va Lia about chi.

The dog is still in the kobold village.

Haven't seen the twins in a while.

The squid is on the move again.

Might want to touch on Rose if the opportunity comes up.


It's been a busy couple weeks for me. I run a very sandboxed campaign with heavy role-players, and DM almost exclusively off-the-cuff, so my game prep is negligible.
Boraxe wrote: "Knowledge of the rules and creativity are great attributes for a DM, but knowing when to cut loose and when to hold back, when to follow the rules and when to discard them, in order to enhance the enjoyment of the game is the most important DM skill of all." Keeper of the Sacred Kitty Bowl of the House of Trolls. Resident Kitteh-napper.
Thank you Very much Shirebrok.

The Dungeon Master Experiance is a great help.


K-Ray  

NPC "What is it?, what is he?, I know what he is!, I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE!"

PC "What am I?"

NPC "LEAVING!"

Here are my pre-notes from my last session. You'll notice that I modified the monsters heavily, and put together some flavor text/dialog to help.:

Show

Hook/NPC RP: We need to know what we are going up against. We need you to recon outside the walls, gather information on what we are up against, and when/how they plan on attacking.
- Skill Challenge Cannot assist, only way to assist is via bluff, diplomacy, stealth, streetwise.
Thievery - 3 times
Perception - unlimited
Insight - unlimited
History - 3 times
Nature - 1 time
Arcana - 1 time
Bluff - Disguises (+2 to next check)
Diplomacy - Fast talking/persuasive at getting info (+2 to next check)
Stealth - remain unnoticed (+2 to next check)
Streetwise - figure out where to go and how to blend in (+2 to next check)

Thievery - snag anything like maps or documents
Perception - get a general idea of what is going on.
Insight - Get a general idea of what is going on
15 successes before 3 failures.
EXTRA Credit: if they choose to try and disrupt/sabotage

Hook/RP:
We’ve lost contact with our men in section X. Last we heard they were engaged with Trolls. We need you to go find out what their status is and re-supply them with provisions.
Flavor Text:
As you approach this intersection, you slow. You see the remains of a battle ahead. As you get closer, the stench of burnt flesh is overwhelming. You cover your noses and investigate... You come across a severely burnt figure in the fetal position, cradling the remains of 2 small children in his arms. Not far away you see the burned out remains of a building, a partially destroyed sign lists about hanging on by a single wire, swaying gently in the wind, you can barely make out the words ‘Sisters of Morodin Orph... Further up the road you see a hideous half-human, half wolf beast, nearly torn in two. It would appear as though this might have been a druid who was killed mid transformation. Next to him, impaled upon a flagpole, you see a dismembered thri-kreen, his arms and legs are strewn about, as if ripped from his body by something very powerful. Finally, you see a troll, lying in the middle of the road. A fullblade juts from its chest, on the other end is a goliath, slumped over the hilt. The sight gives you a sickening feeling as you take in the sight of a giant battleaxe lodged in the back of his head. You realize that you have arrived too late. There will be no resupplying this party.... A NOISE JOLTS YOU OUT OF YOUR SHOCK...Your eyes are drawn to a mostly demolished two story house, a set of yellow, beady eyes size you up...Suddenly you realize that whatever caused this mayhem is still here! Roll initiative (and on first round troll smashes through rubble to jump them) -

Troll Encounter, hard encounter.
Wave 1 (2800 xp):
4 Bladerager Troll - lvl 12 - 700xp (2800 total)
- Metal claws 90 HP, 24/26/24/23
Speed 7
Regen: 5
Claw : +18 vs AC, 2d6 + 18
Rend (Encounter): +18 vs AC, 2d6+31
Death Burst: +15 vs Reflex, 1d6 +10

Wave 2 (2000xp):
1 Briar Troll - lvl 10 - Solo Controller (2000xp)
400 HP, 24/25/22/20
Speed 6
2 action points
Regen 20
Aura 1 - ends turn next to it takes 5 dmg
Dominates/stun effects are dazed instead, dazed are unaffected
Whenever he takes damage, he gets OA with claws
Claw: +16 vs AC, 1d6+15
GreatBow: +18 vs AC, 1d6 + 20
Rend (when surrounded by more than 1 person): 2 attacks, if both hit, target is weakened until EONT
Grasping Brambles (Encounter): close blast 5, + 13 vs Fort, 1d6 +24, pull 4, immobilized (save ends)

Wave 3 (3500xp):
3 War Trolls - lvl 14, 1000xp (3k)
110 HP, 28/27/24/23
Speed 7
Regen 10
Threatening Reach: (can take OA from 2 squares away)
Greatsword: +20 vs AC, 1d6 + 19
Sweeping Strike (encounter): +20 vs AC, 1d6+10, close blast 2, targets are knocked prone.
Blood Pursuit: Whenever an enemy within 2 squares of the war troll moves or shifts, war troll shifts 1 square closer

1 Spitting Troll - lvl 10, 500xp
100 HP 24/22/23/22
Speed 6
Regen 10
Claw: +16 vs AC, 1d6+15
Javelin (10/20): +16 vs AC, 1d6+12
Minor - 1/turn: (range 5) +13 vs reflex, 1d6 poison damage
Minor - 1/turn: 1 troll within 10 who’s regen is inactive immediately reactivates it
Here are the notes I made for the Episode Recap that Chris Perkins suggests...I use the key notes section to make points about things I think important..in this case, had they discussed tactics, they would have had an easier time...and something happened to an orphanage...who would do something like that (i.e. perhaps they should investigate)...

Show
Episode 15g: The return to the orphanage
The party successfully navigated the encampment and gathered some information about the impending attack. Upon their return, they were tasked with resupplying and reconnecting with a party sent to the northwest sector. Upon arriving, they realized that the party they were sent to help was dead and an orphanage was laid to waste. The trolls who caused this mess were still there and quickly jumped the party. What happened next was pandemonium. Orilio, a 7’5” female Goliath found her dead brother and helped the party during one of the waves of attacks. Lucky for the party, they were able to reasonably handle the waves, even if it did cost them all of their healing surges and near death experiences. Seeing how late in the day it was and exhausted the party was, they ended by heading to the tavern to get a good rest. Afterwards they’ll head to Morgoff, to report the bad news...
Key Notes:
* Tactics matter...
* Regeneration is a pain but easily managed.
* What happened to cause an orphanage to be burned to the ground? Who/what would do such a hideous deed like that?
* Trolls enjoy crispy flesh, lamb like in age...
One last thing I'll mention from my experience...I've done a lot of Pregens for the group...I've found that the MM tends to be out of date with regards to appropriate defenses and attacks/etc of monsters....furthermore, I dont like the concept of recharge...too many issues tracking things in battle...instead, I use the general idea of creatures and the general gist of what they are about...then I use a modified spreadsheet to customize their stats...a lot of this is based on Chris Perkins...

docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AkJ...

this is the DM sheet I put together for me, keeps track of items/gold per level, monster mods, skill check mods, and other special house rules (like critical fails)...

Realistically, it comes down to simplification...there is enough math/etc to keep track of without adding to it...figure out what you are comfortable doing without (ongoing damage, zone effects, etc) and removethem from the monsters, adding in other simpler things to take their place...simply adding a longbow to most creatures makes them more dynamic without complicating things.

The other key advice is make your players improvise in addition to you...if they come up with a great idea or tactic, or something, don't worry about the rules, have them explain it, force them to come up with how it will resolve and what needs to be done...if it seems feesible, go for it...

i.e.
Them:I want to knock the bat out of the air....
DM: Ok, how do you want to do that...
Them: I want to run off this wall, attempt to grab the Winged Bat in mid air and use my weight to drag it to the ground and pin it...
DM: Ok, what do you think needs to be done to do that...
Them: Athletics to jump, attack to grab.
DM: Ok, when you hit the ground, they'll have a chance to escape (athletics vs your fortitude)...also, make a saving throw, if you succeed, then you land on it, and it takes 1d10 damage, otherwise it lands on you and you take 1d10 damage...

what I exclude is the rolls to determine height and length of jump, no need for a str check to grab, just let them do their normal attack, as well as what they do with their weapons/etc...what they requested seemed plausible, they thought it out, I added a few minor things to it for fun and voila, we had an epic moment in anotherwise normal encounter.

Simplyify, make your life as a DM easier, not harder...you got enough to track and plan and improvise...
The other key advice is make your players improvise in addition to you...if they come up with a great idea or tactic, or something, don't worry about the rules, have them explain it, force them to come up with how it will resolve and what needs to be done...if it seems feesible, go for it...

i.e.
Them:I want to knock the bat out of the air....
DM: Ok, how do you want to do that...
Them: I want to run off this wall, attempt to grab the Winged Bat in mid air and use my weight to drag it to the ground and pin it...
DM: Ok, what do you think needs to be done to do that...
Them: Athletics to jump, attack to grab.
DM: Ok, when you hit the ground, they'll have a chance to escape (athletics vs your fortitude)...also, make a saving throw, if you succeed, then you land on it, and it takes 1d10 damage, otherwise it lands on you and you take 1d10 damage...

what I exclude is the rolls to determine height and length of jump, no need for a str check to grab, just let them do their normal attack, as well as what they do with their weapons/etc...what they requested seemed plausible, they thought it out, I added a few minor things to it for fun and voila, we had an epic moment in anotherwise normal encounter.

Simplyify, make your life as a DM easier, not harder...you got enough to track and plan and improvise...

I highly recommend this approach. I've had great success with it.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

I'm new as well. I've never actually gotten to play D&D, only DM, because none of my other friends knew how to play at first. Anyway, the couple times we played, I had probably 10-15 pages of notes, because I'm an idiot.

A good way to do it would be to watch people like Chris Perkins DM. Watch the games he DMed for PAX with Acquisitions Incorporated. I pretty much learned how to DM by watching him. Granted her knows his crap, because he DMs all the time, and helped make the game, but still. So long as you have a general idea of the plot, and maybe a list of NPC names to help you along, you should be set.

Hands down the best thing you can do for yourself is to familiarize yourself with commonly used monsters in your campaign. If you have several sessions where the PCs are getting attacked by Kobolds, and there are similar/the same monsters in some of the encounters, you shouldn't need to use the stat blocks for more than once or twice. That is easily one of the fastest ways to speed up a game.

Since you're in a homegrown world, that makes your game exponentially easier. You don't have to worry about any metagame info your players may know about the setting, because it's yours. You set the parameters and only you know what can and can't happen.

Learning how I best remember and recall information on the spot has been key to DM’ing over the years. Large blocks of text as found in published modules and settings are useless to me at the table. I find that if I draw up a map, even a simple one, and write quick notes about NPC’s or encounters on the actual map then I can easily find that information when I need it.


 My campaign map is about 20” by 20” square drawn on heavy weight paper, it has keep and town maps on the back side, they are taped to the base map and many fold out so that I have more room for notes and pictures. And so if I need to remember the name and attributes of a particular NPC I flip to their home town map, for some reason I can find this info much more readily than if it was in a book.

A picture speaks a thousand words, and it’s easier to get information from in the middle of a session. So I copy or cut out all sorts of images and then tape or glue them to my books and maps, my screen has all kinds of stuff added to it, and all of the images are in game people or places.  

I find color to be very helpful as a memory que as well. The yellow section on the map below are goblin fungus, an organism that spawns goblins and behaves much like yellow mold. 

Check out "Friday 5 minute maps" for some great ideas about easy art map making. 


 this 
This picture is from one of my old PC's. I find those guys make great NPC's because I know them so well. Sometimes the PC's kill one of them but I just change their name and stick em back in somewhere else so its not like they are gone for good =-)

Here’s another tool that I have found to be helpful; it’s a matrix of all the political power blocks in my campaign. Having it graphically displayed like this allows me to more easily see how PC interloping will affect things.


 

Another helpful tool for me has been an accordion file folder. I have a 12 pocket one that is 2 or 3 inches fat when loaded. I store Adventure modules that are an integral part of the campaign world in the folder with the low level ones being first and the higher level ones being last. If the party moves into a new area or encounters an NPC from one of these modules I can easily locate the information. I’ve tried a few different approaches to module (I guess they are called adventures now) organization but sorting them by level has been the easiest to remember.


 


That brings up another good point; some of my reference material is 30 years old. Having a library that I am familiar with is very helpful. The stats change over the years, but that’s actually pretty minor information, easily developed on the fly. The stuff that’s difficult to keep track of is storyline and NPC interactions and motivations. If you continue to use the same sources in your world they will become more robust and easier to work with as time goes on; cutting out a major part of your prep time.


As for balancing encounters it seems that many DM’s get wrapped up in making the encounter perfectly balanced. In my games it always seemed like either someone didn’t show up or someone else brought a friend. So balancing the encounter to the party before I got to the table was impossible. My solution was to rough it out and then include optional reserves, I have always felt that dungeons should be living, breathing places with monsters coming and going and helping one another or fighting each other on occasion. This logic helped me to loosen up as far as trying to create perfect balance. Better to consolidate 2 or 3 encounters into one big one if the party is having an easy time, or keep them as discrete events if the party is a bit weaker that you had planned for.


The other important facet of encounter balance is to introduce the players to the concept of tactical withdrawal, and enable them to do this.No need to be subtle about this either; give them a teleport out tablet and tell them "there is an encounter tonight that you will probably have to run from, and no I’m not going to tell you which one it is or was". Whether through the use of one shot magic items or helpful mundane ones like “smoke bombs”. I’ve mentioned this before and some people very much disagree with me so your mileage may vary. But I have found games to be much more satisfying for the players when they are unsure of success. It also takes a lot of the stress off of you if you know that they have an out if things get too tough.


 

The big advice I might give : Any prep material you actually do, try to make sure it is usable in the future. If you make a map of a cave... don't write 'bugbear lair here', just write Room 1. I roughly copied a travel brochure for Mammoth cave a while back and I think I've used that map in well over 100 adventures since then (Shhhh... don't tell the party).


I'm not saying this is the best way, but this is my organizational chart, so to speak. I started out with a piece of paper with 4 circles in each corner... that was my world map.


This is what it's evolved to:


I now have 3 notebooks that I keep for a home-brew campaign. Plenty of people get by with much less stuff, but my old gray mare (me brain, berk) ain't what it used to be.

Book 1: DM SHORTCUTS


This is just a bunch of stuff I put together to save time when I'm winging it. It isn't campaign-specific. It includes:
 - A brief list of common house rules
 - A handful of pre-generated treasures of each challenge rating
 - 1 Super-generic pre-generated first level human character of each class (including NPC classes).
 - A handful of higher-level generic pre-generated NPCs, organized by 1 of these choices : A - Fighter types, B - Arcane types, C - Priesty Types, D - Stealthy types
 - All the dead PCs and any NPCs I actually took the time to make along the way.
- A list for an 'adventurer's kit' that includes backpack, rope, torch, oil, mirror and other common supplies 25 gp will buy. The things can be bought individually, but it's good for quick NPC treasure and speeds up character-making by avoiding penny-ante haggling.

Book 2: MAPS:


I organize these from scale-to-scale.
World Map
Continent maps
Kingdom maps, organized by continent
Local area Maps, organized by kingdom or area
City Maps (mine are really simple... just enough to show the scale of the city, with each city block drawn out and numbered, so I can say... Area 1 is where the Temples are. Area 2 is where the Prison is located. Area 3 is the castle. Area 4 is the Market. Etc...not much detail needed beyond that, since most adventures you can buy already have detailed maps of Inns and Temples and Towers and such.

Book 3: CAMPAIGN.


This notebook is in 2 parts.
3-A includes all the basic notes of the setting, organized by continent.
- Names of the gods and cultural descriptions of the peoples of the land
- How the calendar works (mine is 10 day weeks, 40 day months, 10 month in the year; each season is split into 2.5 months or 100 days). This makes it easy to roll percentile for random stuff)
- A brief history of major historical and recent events (which I compiled from the backgrounds of the characters, which I organized by year).
 This was the best thing I ever did for planning campaigns. If they say their father is an important noble, I add his father to the family tree, so to speak.
- A list of "Prophecies", in case players throw some divinations about... generic stuff like "War, Famine, Flood, Wedding"

3-B includes copies of a historical timeline for all the major events in the lives of the PCs.. If the PC tells me there was a plague that killed his family... I mark this on my history. I use this information when players talk to the various NPCs... I can say something like... "You knew him from the orphanage. His family was also wiped out by The Red Plague that claimed the lives of your parents. He was like a brother to you." or "Here is the site of that battle that your clan leader was in 100 years ago that forced him to send your great grandfather into hiding. 100 years is a long time... the river has moved and the hill has been leveled. The only thing that still remains is the cemetary there, though many new graves have since been placed there.".

I use all these notes to help me wing it. My latest campaign was a war with orcs, fought Roman-style. My last sessions notes were as follows:
good guys = 1 legate from legions 1 - 5 plus auxilliary for legion 5.

4000 orcs, 10 mastodons from somewhere with over-sized siege tower, guarded by the big scorpion-riding leaders. Siege tower atop marble quarry.
orc plan - reinforcement of 300 hvy foot orcs to march south and block bridge
chance to raise dead. roman stories of underworld. players are more greek. need boat. .... marble quarries... 'the dwarves dug too deep'...
sappers try to make it into underground marble quarry in order to attack mastodon baggage train.

Adventure Notes: engineers have finally broke into the mine. players lead the charge to clear the mines of monsters and hopefully take out the baggage train of the orc army. while there, they discover a path to underworld, which will include a chance to bring back one of the old dead characters. Players will go to three islands, borne on ships of the fallen dead of all the dead npc allies met so far. look at character histories for dead ancestors as well. ravenloft creepy? isle 1 = players are tiny compared to the natural wildlife.. treat them as 2 categories smaller and let them fight medium or large dire animals until they make it to ..... hercules tasks???


The way the adventure actually played out: I winged everything, but used all the notes above to do it. They were called into the war tent. I winged how they role-played a discussion with the general about how to handle a near-miss with the catapult. Result = move the general and the content of the tents, but not the tent. If they actually hit the tent, they can fake his death and catch the orcs off-guard if they hope to capitalize on the supposed defeat of the good guy's general.

the 300 orc reinforcements? the players were each assigned 100 men, depending on their level... a variety of troops. they role-played meeting with the orc leadership and made a strategy of waiting til the orcs bolstered their defenses and pushing the orcs into a bend in the river where they could cut them off from the main army. I ran an individual combat for each player involving a minor orc leader with an accompaniment of orcs, giving each player a full combat to shine, rather than spreading it out. The combats were brief, the orcs were outmatched, the battle was won. One cool scene involved fighting under a bridge that the orcs were trying to burn... and a group of chariots racing downhill through orcs, the decision of when to stop required a professional soldier check.

The attack on the marble quarry involved a make-shift tactic of using the mirrors from their soldier's adventure kits to create a glare on the catapult engineers and also give the players a chance to make it to the hole the sappers dug, while wading through the big flooded ditch.

The players were cut off from the most of the armies when the barge-catapult came in. And I used an old mine map. The dwarven sappers left equipment typical to a miner and I described it in detail on the meticulous of how organized it was... (paving the way for an encounter with the meticulous Dwarven Engineer Commander later).

In the mine, there was an ogre barbarian, straight out of the 3.5e monster manual, behind a handful of normal orcs.

I played up the cunning of the ogre. He didn't fall into the trap of getting flanked, made him a tough opponent. But he was still pretty stupid. He decided to sunder a pillar in the mine... all went dark and the players found themselves in the underworld.... a misty green-gray foggy land much like where frodo and sam went.

A rogue with a bowl of slop can be a controller. WIZARD PC: Can I substitute Celestial Roc Guano for my fireball spells? DM: Awesome. Yes. When in doubt, take action.... that's generally the best course. Even Sun Tsu knew that, and he didn't have internets.
Short version... plan a bunch of generic stuff beforehand.. make it organized.

Keep up with any stuff you actually flesh out and re-use later.

Make some brief notes of the major stuff that might happen.

You are then ready for anything.
A rogue with a bowl of slop can be a controller. WIZARD PC: Can I substitute Celestial Roc Guano for my fireball spells? DM: Awesome. Yes. When in doubt, take action.... that's generally the best course. Even Sun Tsu knew that, and he didn't have internets.
This has probably been one of the most helpful threads I've read here - thanks everyone for the input.

Just wanted to post some acknowledgement for all this good advice. Thanks for your explanations and examples. If anyone else wants to chime in, please do... I would hope that this thread helps more than just me at some point or another. I'll keep checking back!

Oh, and I think this has all brought to light one of the reasons I may be so thorough. I like to play, more than DM... but more than either, I love world building. Those 2-4 pages most people mention about their homebrew setting? Mine was 86 pages, 33000 words, before we started... factions, places, places within places, how the planes work, the religions, high quality artistic maps, and everything. So I think a starting point will be to extricate myself from feeling the need to be as thorough in session prep as I am in my world building. Either that or just bite it and become an author to make some money off my insanity.

Please continue if anyone else has something to say.



Destrada, you sound like me. I'm only at 30k words though. In our group, there's a huge issue with keeping the story straight, who the factions are, and the intricacies of each character, diety, sub-diety, etc.

How do you (or any other world-builders) keep this kind of thing straight and collectively manage your shared perspectives of the world? Particularly when each character could potentially shoot off in a thousand directions with the variety of themes we have going on in the world.

We mostly manage our content on a secret facebook group, which is also where we organize meet times (there's 5 of us). We 'recap' most sessions with a narrative account by one of the PCs, from their perspective (or objectively 3rd person, for those who are not lit-interested). This is a TON of work. It's a chore when I'm busy, but a blast when I have time to kill. Any ideas or suggestions for managing this? We've been working on a wiki, but that's even MORE work...
     My style is very different from those offered here.   Keeping in mind that I create all paper minis, by hand for every adventure, I would say my average prep time for a 5 hour session is 15-20 hours.    Not counting stat blocks, it's usually about 2-3 pages of notes.   My current campaign has been going for about 7 months and I'm up to 80 pages, about 1/4 of which 30 or 40 NPCs or organizations with info on what they do, how they are significant, their motivations, etc.
    
     I'm not crazy about some of the manual aspects of my approach; like finding, printing, cutting out and folding paper minis, but I'm too poor to buy any.   I do very much enjoy the world-building, the NPC creation, the taking of player-submitted backstories and adding hooks and then working them into my world.   Love that stuff.

     All DMs need to improvise some, unless you are running a strict boring railroad adventure.   To improvise an entire session I feel is lazy, and weakens the experience.   When I write, I will foreshadow stuff that won't bear fruit for weeks or months.   I seriously doubt the ability of most DMs to have enough forethought to do that strictly through improvisation, but perhaps some DM's have incredible memories.    I just know that I would never use the 'off the cuff and let's wing everything approach'.
When I write, I will foreshadow stuff that won't bear fruit for weeks or months.   I seriously doubt the ability of most DMs to have enough forethought to do that strictly through improvisation, but perhaps some DM's have incredible memories.

No better than anyone else's. The idea is not to rely on any one person's memory, but that of the whole group. A whole group does have an incredible memory, compared to a single person.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

 To improvise an entire session I feel is lazy


I suspect you have no idea how difficult it is to weave the current story seamlessly into not only the world as built but also the back-stories of the characters and their entire adventuring careers on the fly.

When I write, I will foreshadow stuff that won't bear fruit for weeks or months.


Any fool can foreshadow events they know will happen. Those same fools then often feel almost compelled to make those things happen the way they intended. It's far more interesting to foreshadow an event that might not even be a vaguely formed idea, and work to bring it to life over weeks, or months, or even years without losing the thread of the overall story or having some unrealistic (in terms of your particular world) and jarring event happen to trigger it.

I understand that not every DM is capable of doing all of that, but to call those who can "lazy" or to claim that they are weak, is patently ridiculous.
Boraxe wrote: "Knowledge of the rules and creativity are great attributes for a DM, but knowing when to cut loose and when to hold back, when to follow the rules and when to discard them, in order to enhance the enjoyment of the game is the most important DM skill of all." Keeper of the Sacred Kitty Bowl of the House of Trolls. Resident Kitteh-napper.
I understand that not every DM is capable of doing all of that, but to call those who can "lazy" or to claim that they are weak, is patently ridiculous.



I said that DM's who don't prepare any notes in advance are, in my opinion, lazy.   I think they are also doing their players a disservice.

   Does such a DM create maps as play goes on?  Does the DM break out monster manuals and look up enemies and their stat blocks while the players are waiting?   Does that DM invent traps and their damage, perception, countermeasures, on the fly?   That's is going to result in a lot of making up of numbers, guessing at balance, or slowing the game down.

  Also, this note-less DM is going to remember the names of all the locations the party visits?  All the NPCs, along with their voices and mannerisms and motivations and goals?  And on top of all that, this 100% improvisational DM is also going to have the table savvy to drop in clues for the future for stuff he hasn't written down anywhere? And then perhaps 3 months later, when he is making up another game on the fly, he's going to remember every one of those little nuggets and have them connect?  I simply do not believe that.

I remain convinced that someone who does spend prep time every week can do it better than someone who wings it.   To begin a DM session with no notes at all is, in my opinion, a weak approach that will result in an game inferior to whan it could otherwise be.


Does such a DM create maps as play goes on?


Such a DM, perhaps, has a filing cabnet full of maps organized so that any one of them can be pulled out and ready to serve in seconds.
 Does the DM break out monster manuals and look up enemies and their stat blocks while the players are waiting?


The DM in question may have long-since memorized the reference material mentioned, and very well could have mastered the art of creating monster stat-blocks on the fly so that play progresses far more smoothly than one who needs to rely on notes.
Also, this note-less DM is going to remember the names of all the locations the party visits?  All the NPCs, along with their voices and mannerisms and motivations and goals?


Does the note-taking DM write down a blurb in his/her notebook for every cook, blacksmith, baker, beggar, guard, thief, merchant, child, farmer, rumor monger, sailor, and harbor master the players encounter? How long does that take? How long does it take to look through 400 pages of NPCs to find the specific baker the characters met last year in a specific hamlet?
 And on top of all that, this 100% improvisational DM is also going to have the table savvy to drop in clues for the future for stuff he hasn't written down anywhere? And then perhaps 3 months later, when he is making up another game on the fly, he's going to remember every one of those little nuggets and have them connect?


Already covered in my last post.
 I simply do not believe that.


Fortunately, your belief isn't required to make it so. Just because you don't have the ability to do so doesn't mean no one else does.
I remain convinced that someone who does spend prep time every week can do it better than someone who wings it.   To begin a DM session with no notes at all is, in my opinion, a weak approach that will result in an game inferior to whan it could otherwise be.


I remain convinced that the DM who brings dozens of pages of notes to a session has already laid the rails and will make sure the game stays on them. A DM who relies on his/her notes to get through every mundane encounter is unlikely to be able to handle an unexpected decision without calling an end to the session to gain time to write more notes on how to get things back on the track he/she had previously determined they were supposed to be on. No game is as weak, tedious, and pathetic as one where you are unable to deviate from the path the DM wants.
Boraxe wrote: "Knowledge of the rules and creativity are great attributes for a DM, but knowing when to cut loose and when to hold back, when to follow the rules and when to discard them, in order to enhance the enjoyment of the game is the most important DM skill of all." Keeper of the Sacred Kitty Bowl of the House of Trolls. Resident Kitteh-napper.
Prepping has NOTHING to do with railroading.

I jot down notes for every NPC with a voice (including notes on voice inflections, accent, etc).
Prepping has NOTHING to do with railroading.


Since you say that so emphatically...I'm still not convinced.

The very fact that you know something is going to happen, and foreshadow that specific event, is evidence that the rails have been laid.

I jot down notes for every NPC with a voice (including notes on voice inflections, accent, etc).

Before, durring, or after the session?

Boraxe wrote: "Knowledge of the rules and creativity are great attributes for a DM, but knowing when to cut loose and when to hold back, when to follow the rules and when to discard them, in order to enhance the enjoyment of the game is the most important DM skill of all." Keeper of the Sacred Kitty Bowl of the House of Trolls. Resident Kitteh-napper.
Prepping has NOTHING to do with railroading.


Since you say that so emphatically...I'm still not convinced.

The very fact that you know something is going to happen, and foreshadow that specific event, is evidence that the rails have been laid.

I jot down notes for every NPC with a voice (including notes on voice inflections, accent, etc).

Before, durring, or after the session?




Not everything I write down comes into play.   I create locations in motion; areas of adventure hooks which has NPCs with personalities and goals.  The party might encounter them, or not.

I make notes before, during and after.   I also send a summary of important stuff that happened to every player about 2 days after each weekly session.

Is it your position that NOT prepping before an adventure is better?   That inventing maps, looking up stats blocks or inventing them, creating locations and NPCs, is better done on the fly?


Re: Notes

before - rails
durring - wasted time better spent actually playing
after -  unless you have perfect recall, you'll miss something or missremember something



Re: Prepping

Not having 80 pages of useless notes is not the same as not prepping.



Re: Inventing

Yes, for those that are capable of it. Those that aren't should bring their notes and rails.
Boraxe wrote: "Knowledge of the rules and creativity are great attributes for a DM, but knowing when to cut loose and when to hold back, when to follow the rules and when to discard them, in order to enhance the enjoyment of the game is the most important DM skill of all." Keeper of the Sacred Kitty Bowl of the House of Trolls. Resident Kitteh-napper.
Some DMs actually work better in a rather impromptu setting, while others work better when everything is laid out in front of them.  Given the propensity of players to break away from the DM's plans, a pretty good advice was given to me:


If you're going to plan ahead, plan ahead for just one or two sessions.  Everything you've planned past that is likely to be shredded to pieces by the players.



While I don't mind keeping notes for consistency's sake, I'm probably one of the more unusual DMs who tend to keep almost everything about the campaigns I run in my head.  Particular details, such as custom monsters, are often left to monster generators -- or in the case of D&D 4E and 13th Age (which I use more often), Excel files with various formulas for monster creation encoded -- but for the most part, any NPC that's worth remembering in general is remembered, while remembering all other NPCs and areas I delegate to the group.  If no one remembers or wants to remember those NPCs/areas, then I'm free to change them if I want to, as I'm running and playing a game after all, not writing the next Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings novel.

The fact that you can actually run a game almost completely impromptu in 13th Age through the use of Relationship Dice and a few concepts in mind has me ecstatic about the said system. 
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This is what I believe is the spirit of D&D 4E, and my deal breaker for D&D Next: equal opportunities, with distinct specializations, in areas where conflict happens the most often, without having to worry about heavy micromanagement or system mastery. What I hope to be my most useful contributions to the D&D Community: DM Idea: Collaborative Mapping, Classless 4E (homebrew system, that hopefully helps in D&D Next development), Gamma World 7E random character generator (by yours truly), and the Concept of Perfect Imbalance (for D&D Next and other TRPGs in development) Pre-3E D&D should be recognized for what they were: simulation wargames where people could tell stories with The Best Answer to "Why 4E?" Fun vs. Engaging
       

@JetShield and swampDog

Why do you assume there is this false dichotomy that DMs either prepare for the entire session and force people onto rails, or that they don't prepare at all and are lazy? Also setting up straw man arguments on both sides doesn't really help get your points across. I think we can all agree that there are some DMs that do fit the mold of what you each describe, but for the most part DMs that use either approach might use some combination.  In theory they are the same just the method of storage and preparation is went about differently, and is based on the comfort of the DM in using one method strictly over the other.


Bottom line


Both approaches can be used in a way that can create the same engaging experience in the hands of someone proficient with the approach. To say one is better than the other is to close off the opportunity to learn from each approach.


Is it your position that NOT prepping before an adventure is better?   That inventing maps, looking up stats blocks or inventing them, creating locations and NPCs, is better done on the fly?



There is a decent contingent on these forums that would passionatley say yes, 0 prep is best.


I would lean towards less prep is better. Creating unimportant, or non plot essential NPCs on the fly is very important. This allows you to adapt the adventure when the PCs/players don't care about your prewritten stuff.


A great example was our current game. We insisted on buying an airship. I know the DM had not prepped to have us find/get one. We did some gather info checks, and roleplayed the search for one, and this led us to some on the spot created smiths at some on the spot created city that makes airships. Had the DM not done that we wouldn't have gotten a chance at an airship, and wed have been pretty disappointed. It derailed the entire session into improv and it turned out great. 


Do I agree that no prep whatsoever is best? Not really. Do I think a DM needs more than a page of notes for the whole campaign, and some sticky notes to slip into a monster manual? Not at all. The DM should know beforehand who the important NPCs are, and maybe their main motivations or goals. Same for locations. What are the biggest cities or geographical concepts. If you lock all that down too early or outside of a session you have a few problems. 1- the players can't add anything, and have a harder time becoming invested. 2- your players have a harder time coming up with interesting/off topic things to do. 3 - None of your players will learn it all, and the game will turn into "The DM lectures us about their campaign setting" and everyone whips out their iphones. 


Also, I've seen very few DMs who do voices in any manner whatsoever that enhances the game. More often than not its distracting/annoying. I had one who could do them for humerous games, and one for serious games. They couldn't change tones or their vocal changes hindered the game. A DM doing voices is a warning sign for that game, and possibly a strike against. Very few can do it well, and those who can't are better off not doing them at all.

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"Can't say enough how much I agree with Krusk"        "Wow, thank you very much"

"Your advice is the worst"                                                  "I'd recommend no one listed to Krusk's opinions about what games to play"

I would lean towards less prep is better. Creating unimportant, or non plot essential NPCs on the fly is very important. This allows you to adapt the adventure when the PCs/players don't care about your prewritten stuff.

And that's the main purpose of low- or no-prep gaming: being able to easily let go of preconceived ideas for the session and go in the direction the players want at the time.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

Personally I feel it's not a good idea to say which sort of prepping is good or bad, because at the end of the day it's up to the DM to decide what works best for him and his table.  For my 13th Age game, for example, I did zero pre-designing of the campaign, it just happened that all the stories of my players could easily be put together into one cohesive campaign, in spite of the fact that none of them spoke about what their character's background story and/or motivations would be beforehand.  The fact that all their stories fit together, combined with the motivations that they developed themselves, allowed me to imagine an entire campaign in my head, with all other "preparations" done through the power of spreadsheets.  This resulted in just about zero prep time needed for our sessions.

How about maps you say?  Here's the thing: I practice collaborative mapping, wherein I have the players imagine what their characters are seeing, and then I draw it appropriately, giving my own suggestions here and there for good measure.

How about NPCs?  Like I said earlier, I only note important NPCs, everyone else is the players' responsibility.

How about plot?  Like I said, players created the plot themselves, and it's the journey (and the possibility of not completing their own plot) that makes the campaign interesting.

What about PC motivation?  Players problem, not mine.  I require players to make their own motivations to play, all I do is string those motivations into one cohesive adventure. 

So I'm pretty happy to say that my 13th Age game is as collaborative in design as you could probably get.

- - - - -
Prepping is good, and some DMs prefer to prep for multiple adventures, knowing that if those things aren't used now, they can be adopted for later.  But lack of preparation isn't always bad, as some DMs are actually more liberated by the lack of structure (beyond what is given by the rules).  Like I said earlier, the best advice given to me regarding the matter was to prep at most 1 adventure ahead, and expect that prep to go to waste (but keep it in file anyway).

So yeah, all this name-calling about improv DMs being lazy or prep DMs being railroady, isn't healthy for the hobby. 
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You are Red/Blue!
Take The Magic Dual Colour Test - Beta today!
Created with Rum and Monkey's Personality Test Generator.

You are both rational and emotional. You value creation and discovery, and feel strongly about what you create. At best, you're innovative and intuitive. At worst, you're scattered and unpredictable.

D&D Home Page - What Monster Are You? - D&D Compendium

57047238 wrote:
If you're crossing the street and see a city bus barreling straight toward you with 'GIVE ME YOUR WALLET!' painted across its windshield, you probably won't be reaching for your wallet.
I Don't Always Play Strikers...But When I Do, I Prefer Vampire Stay Thirsty, My Friends
This is what I believe is the spirit of D&D 4E, and my deal breaker for D&D Next: equal opportunities, with distinct specializations, in areas where conflict happens the most often, without having to worry about heavy micromanagement or system mastery. What I hope to be my most useful contributions to the D&D Community: DM Idea: Collaborative Mapping, Classless 4E (homebrew system, that hopefully helps in D&D Next development), Gamma World 7E random character generator (by yours truly), and the Concept of Perfect Imbalance (for D&D Next and other TRPGs in development) Pre-3E D&D should be recognized for what they were: simulation wargames where people could tell stories with The Best Answer to "Why 4E?" Fun vs. Engaging
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