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D&D 5E What are Some Best Practices for Prepping?

I've been a DM for years now, but a feeling I have fairly consistently is that I never have enough time to prep, even when I'm only running a game every other week. I know part of this is because I am pretty much incapable of running an adventure as written, but I'd like to figure out what I can do to make more efficient use of my time for game sessions and what things I should prioritize.

Here's a breakdown of what I consider for every session, with the items in each category being ranked by the importance I give them from most to least.

  • What opponents seem interesting to me and will seem interesting to my players as well?
  • How do they fit into the story?
  • How could I customize monsters to make them more unique for an encounter?
  • Can they meaningfully challenge the party? For example, is there an opponent that imposes saving throws I could use against the heavily-armored artificer?
  • How could the opponents synergize with one another and behave tactically?
  • What is the combat encounter area like? For example, are there elevation changes and pits to help keep ranged attackers away from melee attackers?
  • Are there any interesting terrain features for PCs and enemies to avoid or take advantage of, such as magic circles that boost AC or bubbling cauldrons that could be tipped over?
  • Could there be a mid-combat complication, such as a large fire breaking out?
  • Who are the NPCs the PCs will interact with?
  • Which NPCs will the PCs interact with briefly, and which ones will need more detail?
  • What motivates the NPCs?
  • Which NPCs know each other, and how do they get along?
  • Do they have any secrets? For example, do they have an Infernal contract with a devil that they're trying to get out of?
  • What can the NPCs be doing to make the world seem more lived in?
  • What sorts of things could I have enemy NPCs say in battle?
  • How can the NPCs be used to forward the plot?
  • What interactions between NPCs could PCs witness, such as overhearing guards talking to each other while the party is sneaking around?
  • What locations seem interesting to me, and which will seem interesting to my players?
  • What can I do to portray a certain mood and feeling, such as for a dwarven city or a mote in the Astral?
  • What can the PCs use their skills to do?
  • What can the PCs use their tool proficiencies to do?
  • What events could the party see, such as the sights in a bustling city?
  • Is there any non-threatening flora or fauna the party might find interesting?
  • How can I organize my resources to make easier use of them (such as references from multiple source books)?
  • What new magic items that I could homebrew would I and my players find interesting?
  • How can I organize everything I've prepped to be easily accessible at the gaming table during a session?

Are their certain resources available in physical media, apps, DM's Guild, etc that could help with some of these? For example, is there a source with pre-made fantastic terrain I could pepper into combat encounters, or a source with adventuring relevant uses for each tool proficiency, or a source with formulas for magic items? For NPC detailing I've already attempted making a collection of tables on ChatGPT from various sources, with mixed success.

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Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
When it comes to prepping notes, specifically, I put things in a word processor document (specifically Word, currently) including monster stats pasted and copied from whatever sources I'm using (thus a PDF or SRD is really helpful). Then I can edit, add notes, or highlight anything I don't want to forget or emphasize for the players. Print those off for the session and I have materials I can take notes on in context as we play.

I've been doing this for years, then it turns out Matt Colville does something really similar and talked about it on his youtube channel. Felt kind of validating, I won't lie.


Moderator Emeritus
I have three levels of prep. The first two are catch as catch can whenever I get a chance or an idea strikes me and the last one is specific to a forthcoming session.

1. Big Picture Prep is done by hand in a notebook. It has lists of NPCs, the relationship of factions, elements of backstory coming to the fore, etc. Basically, the stuff that is not tied to a specific session and may come into play across more than one specific adventure, but also a running list of adventures I plan/hope to put in the “sandbox area(s)” for PCs to potentially encounter. I draw sketches, circles and arrows, and that kind of thing.

2. (Re)Reading the Adventures I’m running (if I am running one) and making marginal notes right in/on them. Currently I am running adaptations/mash-up of “Secrets of the Towers” from Dungeon mag and UK4 - When a Star Falls. Since the former is only providing the basic premise of said towers I don’t need to keep referring to it and the needed notes about it are either in the notebook above and/or specific session notes (see below). But I am running the module nearly as is, so I don’t need to remake the wheel, just add specific elements to my setting/location and convert some stat blocks that will end up in #3.

3. Specific Session Notes (typed in word and printed out so I can write on it mid-session) that I prep one to three days ahead of the session with a specific info needed if the PCs do what I imagine they might do based on current direction and what they have expressed. This ranges from 1 side of one page to 5 pages (though the higher end of the range is usually due to stat blocks). This includes stat blocks, treasure, NPCs (but not stat blocks if combat with them is unlikely or can be run off the cuff) and some detailed/developed ideas from the notebook in #1. I very frequently cut and paste stuff from one session’s notes to the next if the players haven’t completed something or gotten far enough.

I can share some scans/PDFs of what this looks like in the next day or two if anyone is interested.


My prep starts with the considering the ongoing story and environment, and what is going on with each character in terms of their wants and needs - ideally, there can be a tension between what a character wants and what they need. And I think about what miniatures and terrain would be cool to use, just at a personal level - I love building cool encounters. Then I think of complications, challenges, and consequences.

But we also enjoy significant player contribution to the story, so I have to keep things open enough to accommodate a big reveal from a player character (the last game finished with significant, overlapping reveals from TWO characters which completely changed where the next session is heading, both geographically and thematically).

In the way we run games, I am responsible for world events, but players are responsible for character backstory and are free to add significant details - so in the last game, for example, I just discovered that one of the characters has significant connections to powerful political figure in the party's destination, which only became their destination when another player revealed that that is where his mentor is hiding out from a criminal organization.

Which makes my prep interesting!
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"Never prep for an adventure the same way twice."

My motto is not about throwing out what works great for you, or dismissing a procedure like Mike Shea's great advice, rather it's about realizing that each adventure or session has unique needs for what needs to be prepared (including the amount of prep).

For example, a list of names for a dungeon crawl might be time ill-spent, whereas getting clear on what the time pressure is might be more useful.

Another example, prepping a location might take 2-4 hours (maybe that's two weeks of prep for you), but it gives you enough material for two to three sessions of play.


Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I think this is a very difficult thing to give good general advice on, because what kind of prep and how much of it a DM needs will be very personal to them and their own style. Unfortunately, “learn how much prep you need and do no more and no less than that” is not useful advice to anyone.


I'm pretty lazy on prep, but I like to plan for being lazy. When we start a campaign, I discuss general themes and character ideas, where and when it's happening in my campaign world. I get a general idea of type of campaign people want and I float a few myself. So at the end of that planning, I get together a general outline. Where is the campaign starting, what factions and individuals are going to be important. For simplicity, I refer go both cohesive groups and individuals actors.

So when thinking of actors, sometimes I think up a cool personality for an individual and build up from there, other times I go top down, there. I think about what the actor's motivations, goals, a general idea about how they're going about achieving goals and what they're willing to do. Basically a LG actor wants what's best for the general good as they see it and will try to stick to that, NE will do whatever it takes and so on. I don't use alignment as a straightjacket, and not all actors get alignments but it helps me distinguish them and gets me started thinking about their approach.

So I decide that I have a wererat guild that is willing to do whatever it takes to survive and isn't above terrorizing people to get their way. They're probably led by a forceful personality so I'll come up with that NPC. Meanwhile I've decided that I haven't done a strong dragon for a while, so there's a green dragon who can change shape into human form. They've been around for centuries, I can tie them in to a legendary pirate from the area, were they the pirate or just the power behind the throne? Could be interesting either way, I may decide later. Meanwhile they secretly control the town and will try to trick the PCs into doing their bidding. Throw in a couple others, some that I leave vague other than a name and a sentence or two, others that will be interacting with the PCs over the next few sessions.

While I have general ideas of what is going on in the background, I don't really plan out campaign arcs or storylines right away, the different actors know what they're doing and I can extrapolate based on what impact the PCs are having but I only have general ideas of where things might head. For the first session or three I'll have something figured out to give players an introduction to the area and what's going on but after that? I just throw out potential leads and at the end of a session or story arc, and ask them what they want to do next so I can prep. They can also make suggestions based on some other hint or tidbit I've thrown in.

For an individual session I check my notes, update them based on what happened previous sessions and then flesh out the idea for next session. Most of my planning, to be honest, is simply shower thoughts that I put down on paper. Typically though the notes are maybe 200-300 words, a page or so typed up. I may also copy/paste in some notes about the actors I think they might interact with. Because I have a general idea of actors, I can figure out how those actors could aid or hinder the group's goals. Sometimes I'll type up some note or journal entry for the players to read that will give some exposition or details. Occasionally a cryptic map or bits and pieces that over time will make sense but individually don't mean much.

Then I figure out reasonable enemies based on themes that they might face. I generally figure out what monsters might be involved, and then figure out how many I need for medium and hard encounters (I almost never play out easy encounters). Most of the time these will just be a list of the monsters involved, I'll figure out details of setting when and where the encounter happens. Maybe 1 in 5-10ish encounters will have predefined setting where they will take place with potentially other goals.

So that's it. I know who's who, what they're doing and thinking, I have rough ideas of locale. I spend time on regional and sometime local maps, I never do old school dungeons and a lot of exploration is TotM. Even the predefined encounter settings, I'll just make notes and rarely use an actual map. To me detailed exploration of a ruined castle, once you get past the general description and flavor, is kind of boring so I skip it so we can spend time of RP and encounters that matter.

Other than that I have lists of taverns, business names, individual names broken down by gender and faction or species. All of which means a lot of my prep is up front and then when running the game I know the outlines so I can fill in the blanks as we go. Also means I really hated having to run virtual games where I had to do maps ahead of time. Just not my thing.

Works for me to just make things up as I go, as long as I have a foundation to start from.


Ah! I remembered a good one that is broadly applicable.

Don’t make a plan assuming a specific player will be in attendance with their PC.

There are probably exceptions, but I’ve seen this fail quite often when the one player the GM was counting on being there can’t make it. My own solution is, when introducing story beats specific to PCs, is to expand them to apply to multiple PCs - basically hedge my bets for the inevitable “can’t make the game.”


B/X Known World
Seconding Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. I’d also recommend the Game Master’s Book of Proactive Roleplaying. Both fantastic resources.

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