As previously mentioned here on the blog and in the most recent podcast, we’ll be bringing you more content centred on tabletop role playing games here on The Crafty Players. To that end, this week I’ve got some Games Master (GM)/Dungeon Master (DM) tips on helping you prep for an upcoming session. I’ll be framing this as preparing to run a game of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, but a lot of this advice can be used for any system you’re planning on running.
The First Session
If you’ve never DMed before the first session can seem like a very daunting proposition. Hell, it can seem daunting if you’re an experienced DM! But don’t worry I’m here to talk you through it. The first thing to consider if this is your first time running a game is that odds are it’s your players first time playing a game – so they won’t be able to tell if you suck at it! Hurray…?
For the first adventure you run I would recommend using a published adventure. There are a few official adventures out already for 5th Edition D&D like Out of the Abyss or (the one I’m running right now) Curse of Strahd, and you can also find some really great stuff on the DM’s Guild. This will take a lot of the stress and workload off you because you know everything you need is somewhere in those pages. Prior to getting stuck into that adventure though, have everyone come together for character creation. This will allow people to create bonds and ties between their characters immediately and will lock in a group dynamic and reason for the party to be travelling together. I also highly recommend running a session of your own devising as the very first session. Nothing elaborate, just a single session with a beginning, middle, and end so that your players get a feel for their characters, bond a little, and you can find your feet as a DM. This will make it feel like the players have already accomplished something, rather than it just feeling like an elongated setup. Check out Chris Perkins great article on treating a D&D session like a TV show, and using a three act structure to build those sessions.
Every Other Session
When I’m prepping for an upcoming session I tend to replay what’s happened already in my head, and continue it on to what I imagine might happen next. I look and see where the story could go and what choices the characters might make. With a few sessions under your belt you’ll know the characters a bit better and might (emphasis on might!) be able to roughly predict their actions. I imagine NPCs the characters might meet and come up with their personalities and maybe a voice, before finally statting them out if needed; I think of locations and will run a little “read aloud” text in my head; and most importantly I think of moments where each player can shine. The nature and unpredictability of role-playing ensures this won’t always happen, but I do what I can and if a character doesn’t get their moment this session, they will in the next.
Lastly, I brainstorm what else is going on in the world. If there is a Big Bad Evil Guy or Gal (BBEG), what are they up to? While the party was wasting time getting drunk was the BBEG planning a dark ritual to murder them all? And what about elsewhere? Is there a civil war bubbling amongst the dwarves, or an army of orcs marching on a human settlement? Try to remember that this is a living world. Other things are happening off screen. Remember that actions have consequences as well – if the players do something try to show the consequences down the line. If they removed a tyrannical overlord, who took over? Was there a bloody battle for power or more subtle but equally deadly manoeuvring from a noble house? Did they replace one tyrant with another?
This is a “do as I say not as I do” moment but take notes! For the love of God take notes! I’m actually quite bad at this, but I’m getting better (it helps that we record our games now). Simple things like names and mannerisms of NPC’s you had to make up on the fly, or names of places of interest, or how players reacted to certain things. You’d be amazed at the little nuggets of information your players will throw out that can be easily missed.
On that point, listen to your players. It’s a collaborative story and they will give you a gold mine of stuff if you let them talk and just listen. I can’t count the times a throwaway comment from a player has become a major plot point further down the line. Something as simple as an out of character joke like “Ha, imagine if the two of them were secretly working together.” Yes… imagine…
So that’s it really, that’s my process for planning a session of D&D. Not scary at all right? Just fun imaginative brainstorming and a tiny bit of paperwork. Special thanks to my partner Marie for suggesting this as a topic!
For more tips check out: