D&D 5E New Session Prep Method

Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
I just finished my second highly successful session using a new method of game prep, and I figured I would share, in case you found it useful.

The gist: Instead of planning out complex scenes and encounters, I use my prep time to gather simple lists of ideas that I can mix together to create scenes and encounters during play. So far, my hand written session notes require just the front and back of a sheet of college rule.

I was inspired by Mike Mearls's recent article, Randomness: the Clever DM's Helper. Those short little 1d6 charts are kind of brilliant. Six items turns out to be a useful amount of variety for a list of ideas. Few enough to remain on point, but plenty to require some creative ideas to fill out the last couple. So, I pretty much used them for everything. A list of monsters I want to use, a list of interesting locations or scenes, a list of one sentence interludes, and a list of possible rewards. This takes surprisingly little time. After that, I create any NPCs, Custom Monsters, or items I might need.

Here's an example, pulled from today's notes:

Background: The PCs are trapped in the Plane of Shadow, and are exploring the undead controlled city of Evernight in search of a portal back home. Note that this is session prep. I've already done a quick one-page outline of the adventure as a whole (good for several sessions), and a fair amount of reading of setting material.


GOALS
* Make the players think that one false move will get them killed.
* Be willing to kill someone.

QUESTS
* Find a portal out of the shadowfell
- Ask around about the Thayan Enclave
- Investigate rumors of weak spots between the planes
- Find a helpful stranger

ENCOUNTERS
d6 Monster CR
1 Zombies 1/4
2 Ghouls 1
3 Ghasts 2
4 Dark Ones 4 Use Spy NPC as basis
5 Vampire Spawn 5
6 Vampire 13

LOCATIONS / SCENES
1. Corpse Market
2. Lamantha's Mortuary (temporary safe place to stay)
3. Someone is captured for a "Funeral" (buried alive for ghouls to eat later)
4. Temple of Filth (Undead place of worship)
5. Meet a friendly guide (who serves a beast who wants to consume the PCs emotions)
6. Meet up with the manhunters (cannibal hunters from last week in the burning forest)

INTERLUDES
1. A pack of ghouls demand a humanoid show his medallion of citizenship.
2. Castle Nowhere reappears
3. A slave auction (possibly for a captured friendly NPC) - "Rare Elf meat"
4. One of the NPCs disappears in the night
5. Dark One pickpockets a PC
6. Someone spills a cart full of body parts.

REWARDS
1. 70 gp each
2. 140 gp each
3. 150 gp each
4. 140 gp each
5. 200 sp, 40 gp each
6. (hoard) 7 carved bone statuettes (25gp each)


NON-PLAYER CHARACTERS

Lamantha
Necromancer, craftsman, and healer for the undead
------------------------------------------------
Trait: Quiet
Ideal: Privacy, work ethic
Bond: She is loyal to her customers
Flaw: She knows about teh pool of daylight in the Temple of Filth
------------------------------------------------
* Paces when thinking
* She dresses in clean, neutral clothes of fine make
Lamantha runs a mortuary. She is skilled at making useful items out of corpses, and regularly helps heal or stitch up the undead. She sometimes prepares living bodies for "funerals".


Liara
Bard, works with the Phantasmal Slayer
------------------------------------------------
Trait: Honest (hard to reconcile with her willingness to deceive in order to serve people to the slayer.
Ideal: Whimsy; people
Bond: Loyal to the Phantasmal slayer, and her friend Pamor
Flaw: Foolhardy bravery; feeds people to the slayer.
------------------------------------------------
* Pink Hair, very long and braided back
* Enunciates overly clearly
Liara is a bard who travels the planes. She is dependent on the phantasmal slayer for a means of travel.



As you can see, I always start with Goals and Quests. I find it important to determine up front what I want to accomplish as a DM, and what the Players are going to try to accomplish.

Then I pick out monsters. I'm not really building encounters, though ideas might come to mind. Still, the chart is useful for quickly creating one when I need it.

Locations and scenes are directly related to the PC Quests. They represent opportunities for rest, information, or simply events that I want to have happen. I don't have to use them all.

Interludes are more about adding texture and nuance to the world. They might play into my DM goals, or just give a specific PC something interesting to do.

Rewards are pre-rolled rewards. I tend to create five single encounter rewards, and one hoard. I might stick a magic item or two in there somewhere. Then I can use random chance or a flight of inspiration as to when they may appear, if at all.

---

You might notice that ideas may start vague early in my notes, but become more solid later. For example, I have an encounter of (meeting a helpful stranger). I didn't know who that stranger was at the time, only that they will eventually try to feed them to a emotion eating monster I haven't created yet. Then I took a walk to get coffee and brainstorm. When I returned, I created Liara, the planeswalking bard.

I imagined her meeting the PCs at any of a number of locations. But, as an example of how this method works, here's what really happened: The PCs were attempting to dig up a cohort who had been buried alive in one of the Ghouls ritualistic "funerals". I felt like something needed to spot them, so I rolled an encounter, and four ghouls wandered into the graveyard.

The PCs hid in the open grave, so I had the ghouls start digging up someone who had been buried nearby. They were there for some food. After this body had been unburied, the PCs lept out and drove off the ghouls. The cleric checked the dug up body to see if it was also buried alive. I determined that this was a great opportunity to introduce Liara.

And so everything came together. The PCs drove the action, and I managed to get a very dangerous NPC into their mix without anyone being the wiser. Of course, now she's going to be conflicted about murdering the people who saved her life. There's potential in that.

Anyway, I hope you find this useful.
 

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wedgeski

Adventurer
This is terrific. I particularly agree with putting Goals and Quests at the very top of the page. If I could make that section flash in neon on a sheet of A4 I would. It's so important to keep a free-flowing exploration session on-track, and as a DM I want to reflect those goals in as much of the action as possible.

Where I fail in this method is with the "Interludes". The version of myself that prepares games just doesn't trust the version of myself that runs them to come up with good idea on the fly, and where you have six lines of notes, I will have an entire page. This is unfair on the second version of myself, who always seeks to come through in a pinch.

Nice post!
 

kbrakke

First Post
This is perfect. I have already started doing something similar, but seeing my own jumbled mess clarified is very handy. I will be stealing this right away. I get worn down with some of the bickering on other threads, but then I see something like this and am reminded why I even bother to go on forums.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
I also find it helpful to include a list of random NPC names - in my current game it's a 5 x 10 list of names, sorted by nationality, gender and race, because there's only so many female Wood elves named "Hargthar" or "George". ;) when I have to create a new NPC on the fly, I strike the name, write a one or two word mnemonic and importantly the very next day fill in the details in my notes while the info is still fresh.

Also helpful is a random list of non-money rewards (not more than 4 or 5, that takes me through at least one session).
 

Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
This is perfect. I have already started doing something similar, but seeing my own jumbled mess clarified is very handy. I will be stealing this right away. I get worn down with some of the bickering on other threads, but then I see something like this and am reminded why I even bother to go on forums.

I can understand how you feel. I think it was a mistake separating fan creations into a separate forum, because it takes away most of the constructive conversation, plus give the creative stuff less general attention. Oh well.
 

S'mon

Legend
I can understand how you feel. I think it was a mistake separating fan creations into a separate forum, because it takes away most of the constructive conversation, plus give the creative stuff less general attention. Oh well.

Yeah, I tend to think siloing creative & workshop stuff is a very bad idea on any RPG forum.
 

Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
I also find it helpful to include a list of random NPC names - in my current game it's a 5 x 10 list of names, sorted by nationality, gender and race, because there's only so many female Wood elves named "Hargthar" or "George". ;) when I have to create a new NPC on the fly, I strike the name, write a one or two word mnemonic and importantly the very next day fill in the details in my notes while the info is still fresh.

Also helpful is a random list of non-money rewards (not more than 4 or 5, that takes me through at least one session).

I've been thinking on this since you posted. It's a really good idea. My sessions tend to be short (about 3 hours), so I'd want something reusable over a few sessions. Perhaps I should consider things like this that I prep for each adventure. I just wish I could find a resource for fantasy names that I like. Do you have any suggestions?
 

leinadvirgo

First Post
I've been thinking on this since you posted. It's a really good idea. My sessions tend to be short (about 3 hours), so I'd want something reusable over a few sessions. Perhaps I should consider things like this that I prep for each adventure. I just wish I could find a resource for fantasy names that I like. Do you have any suggestions?

My fallback is to use language translators and word scramble. my current campaign they are located in a land I'm using a lot of historic Celtic and Pict history, so i just think of an adjective or noun that describes something about the character i want to use. Just now I put in Vase Seller and got Díoltóir Vása... which is coincidentally how a lot of English last names originated.

The second method I use works best on location names, but take a name, take the middle and put it at the beginning. Washington becomes Shin'wa Ton, or hingwash. America Eriamca. Brazil Azbril. if that doesn't feel right I add some apostrophes and swap out some vowels.
 

Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
My fallback is to use language translators and word scramble. my current campaign they are located in a land I'm using a lot of historic Celtic and Pict history, so i just think of an adjective or noun that describes something about the character i want to use. Just now I put in Vase Seller and got Díoltóir Vása... which is coincidentally how a lot of English last names originated.

I like this one, at least for human cultures. I don't know if it would work as well for fantasy races, but perhaps if I found the right language.
 




Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
Here are the general adventure notes. Most of the actual work came from reading books and thinking about what I wanted. The notes just list the major locations or events, with a few guiding notes. For the most part, each numbered section represents a session, but only because I only tend to have time for one thing per session.

Here are my notes [brackets indicate commentary added for this post]

Shadowfell Adventure

1. Burning Forest
- Beat the crap out of the PCs. I want them to feel like they're in constant danger.
- Den of Hunters, Neverwinter Campaign Setting p.211 (Shadowhounds).

2. Evernight
- They need to stop and rest.
- They also need to locate a way back.
- An abberation that feeds on fear finds them here.
- Needs something more.

Aside: People here know that there is a world where a ball of flame burns the sky for half the day. Some creatures can travel there so long as they remain hidden from the sky sentinal. [I ended up calling this the Scorched World]

3. Trip to shadow-Phandalin
- The players know they are being hunted.
- Endless Alleys [from the Neverwinter Campaign Setting]
- Suicide cliff (cave opens into material plane, but the only way out is in the face of a cliff too trecherous to clib. Belongings and suicide notes are left behind)
- The sense of being hunted. (could be a dracolich) [The previous adventure was to stop the raising of a dracolich, which blew up in their face and trapped them in the Shadowfell.]

4. Shadow-Phandalin
- A fortified town that is centuries old.
- A safe haven with friends and food.
- People eager to hear tales of the savage world.
- The PCs literal colorfulness gives them away as outsiders.
- They recieve directions to a a known portal, but the hunter alters their memories. [The hunter ends up with many names throughout my notes. I haven't settled on one.]

5. The Hunter's Den
- Here is where they discover that they weren't being stalked. They were being led.

6. The Portal
- Where the underground lake at Wave Echo Cave sits in the Material Plane, a massive crater lake with a portal in the center is here.
- Protected by a shadow dragon (formally a copper dragon, glad for some company)
- The shallow lake is littered with metal objects from the dragon's hoard. It sparkles under light



ENCOUNTER IDEAS
Shadow Hounds
Skeletal Wolves
Phantasmal Slayer (Heroes of Horror, p.152)
Bullete
Cloaker
Darkmantles
Ghosts
Ghouls/Ghasts
Gorgon
Mind Flayer
Bond Naga
Roper
Wight
Wraith
Beholder Zombie
Will-o-wisp
Bargest (Pathfinder Bestiary)
Bodek (Pathfinder Bestiary 2)
Dhampir (Pathfinder Bestiary 2)
Gray Render (Pathfinder Bestiary 2)
Nightshades (Pathfinder Bestiary 2)
 

1. Burning Forest
- Beat the crap out of the PCs. I want them to feel like they're in constant danger.

:lol:

I rekon we ought to do this a couple times per session to keep 'em from getting too uppity.

After the PCs win a great victory you needs to give 'em a good whoopin' to teach 'em their place. :p
 

SubDude

Explorer
Here are the general adventure notes....

Thank you very much; this is a good breakdown of your whole adventure and while I'm sure each note brings different things to my mind than you intended, the utility of such a high-level overview makes it a great idea.
 

Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
As I sit here prepping today, I had some additional thoughts on the the possible differences between encounters, scenes, and interludes.

A lot of the differences are about what stage of prep I'm in. When writing my list of Encounters, I'm mostly just picking out monsters. I have just enough space per line for the monster name, the CR, and a small note about possible usage.

My scenes, then, are the important parts of the adventure. Because I have a lot of players, and I can't guarantee that any particular player will be able to make the session, scenes tend not to focus on a particular PC.

Interludes, then, are small moments, and these I really do like to tie to specific PCs where possible. Here's where I'll include traps, magical mysteries, and just things that will be interesting to a given player. Also, by the time I'm working on interludes, I've already chosen all the major scenes and encounters, so I have a better vision in my head of the whole adventure.
 


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
NON-PLAYER CHARACTERS

Lamantha
Necromancer, craftsman, and healer for the undead
------------------------------------------------
Trait: Quiet
Ideal: Privacy, work ethic
Bond: She is loyal to her customers
Flaw: She knows about teh pool of daylight in the Temple of Filth
------------------------------------------------
* Paces when thinking
* She dresses in clean, neutral clothes of fine make
Lamantha runs a mortuary. She is skilled at making useful items out of corpses, and regularly helps heal or stitch up the undead. She sometimes prepares living bodies for "funerals".


Liara
Bard, works with the Phantasmal Slayer
------------------------------------------------
Trait: Honest (hard to reconcile with her willingness to deceive in order to serve people to the slayer.
Ideal: Whimsy; people
Bond: Loyal to the Phantasmal slayer, and her friend Pamor
Flaw: Foolhardy bravery; feeds people to the slayer.
------------------------------------------------
* Pink Hair, very long and braided back
* Enunciates overly clearly
Liara is a bard who travels the planes. She is dependent on the phantasmal slayer for a means of travel.[/FONT]
This is my favorite part. Write up them NPCs to be interesting, but don't waste time with a bunch of stats/numbers. What I couldn't do is just have a list of locations. I'd need at least one overland map, and one tactical map. And if the PCs say "hey let's travel to" wherever, woe to them if they pick a place I haven't mapped out yet. All they'll get is a handful of wilderness encounters until the session ends, so I can draw the map up for next session!

Personally, I spend most critical prep time just writing up three encounters. The PCs have a habit of entertaining themselves, so I just use the planned encounters to keep the game session moving if it slows down.
 

Wednesday Boy

The Nerd WhoFell to Earth
I think player's should have session prep, too...

That's a great point. Sometimes our group will do an ad hoc party session prep when the GM ask us what we plan to do that session. Or I'll consider some things my character might want to do. But I never go through a formalized player session prep process. I'm not in a campaign at the moment but next time I am, I'm going to give it a try!
 

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