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D&D General What's the Most Valuable DM Prep Between Campaigns?

Retreater

Legend
Let's say you likely have another D&D campaign starting "down the road"- it might be several weeks or months, but it is definitely coming as your current game winds down.

You don't know what the players will want to play, except that it's probably going to be D&D.

What would you do with this sabbatical time? Would you make small 5 room dungeons in preparation? Design campaign worlds? Random encounter tables? Maybe you would take time off from thinking about the game altogether and recharge?
 

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jgsugden

Legend
There is no right answer as each table will differ based upon DM style, player desires, etc... but here is what I do:

When I start to run a campaign, I start to build/prepare the next one. This allows me to be thinking about the 'level contextualized' issues while I am going through them.

If the new setting will be a new homebrew, I frame the world, the Deities, and the history in light detail. Essentially, I come up with a framework in which to add materials.

Regardless of what setting it is, I identify my core stories. If this is a pre-published adventure, some of those core stories are provided, but I always add onto the framework with a few of my own. I use the 'Babylon 5' model, with a major story that spans all levels, several stories that will cover entire tiers of play, and a lot of shorter adventures that will be completed within a few sessions. All I do is identify and write down a few thoughts on each. Then I look at how they relate and try to tie them together.

Then, I pick a starting location for the PCs and flesh it out to give them the starting block for the campaign. I'll go to a medium level of detail - enough that I could wing a session there at any time, but not to the level of specificity I like to have when I'm fully prepared.

Then I start talking to potential players to figure out who wants to play and what stories / characters interest them. I then start to fold those elements into the established storylines and setting pieces I have already created. I understand and expect that some of this will change - but it helps me to insert unique new angles to my game, so even if this stuff isn't pursued, it gives the world more depth. I am often doing this a year or two before the campaign kicks off.

At this point, I am ready to add meat to the framework. I'll build a few adventure options to start and prepare them as if the first level party will go there - and have notes on how to elevate the challenge should the party level a few times before arriving in that dungeon/situation. I'll write up the main NPCs and 'practice' with them to help me lock down a personality and place for them in the setting.

At this point, I keep the setting alive in my brain, but all I really do is make a few notes here and there on ideas I may use down the road - and perhaps tweak a few items and flesh out a bit more as inspiration strikes. I won't do detailed work on it any further until we do session zeros for the PCs the players will actually run. At that point, I've been living in the campaign in the back of my mind for a long time, and I am comfortable with it, which is a huge advantage in crafting a more immersive world.
 

pogre

Legend
I would design a campaign setting that has lots of built in adventure hooks. Adventurers start in a city built over the ruins of a lost ancient empire. Adventurers start in a border fortress battling to survive the encroaching wilds. Stuff like that.
 

payn

Hero
I used to subscribe to Paizo Adventure Paths. At least the ones that interested me. So I used to have a nicely sized pool of campaign material in the bank. Since the move to PF2, thats reduced a lot. So, I have been looking in other places and systems which are not general D&D but I see the process of prep as essentially the same.

Currently I am running Pirates of Drinax sandbox for Traveller. This has been a great change of pace and so much material is available for it. I feel comfortable adding in my own homebrew when necessary too. The slow interstellar travel keeps a good pace going so the Travellers cant really take a hard left on me at moments notice, so preparing a few leads with some distant strands doesnt take a ton of prep time between sessions. Its also clear exactly what I need to prep to at least start the next session.

My distant project is working on a FFG genesys game based in the Android universe. I really enjoyed the board game, and a little of Netrunner. The sci-fi noir theme really speaks to me. Also, I tried the Star Wars games a few times, liked the system, but not so much Star Wars as a campaign theme. This will take more time because there are a nicely detailed setting book, but not much in actual adventuring material available for Android genesys. Also, finding those who are interested in playing in Android a less popular sci-fi game than star wars, and a less popular transhuman game than say Cyberpunk Red.

My white whale is Battletech. I have played all the video games and read much of the detailed and rich setting. I have also purchased a lot of minis and game mats for play (though online might be easier?). I have a hard time deciding which system would work best for a game. Armored Combat is fun, but doesnt seem to have all the great rules that the former TTRPG has. Also, it lacks some of the RPG elements that I think would make the game more fun for the players. Of course, finding players also seems to be a real issues (for me) so locking down a system, or home brewing one, and working on a campaign is on the shelf indefinitely.

So, during downtime I collect material for games I want to run. I spend more time reading about settings and familiarizing myself with history, politics, specific nuances that will spice up the campaign. I spend more time working out bigger picture because I find individual encounters to be easier to whip up as needed. I also just generally enjoy reading adventure modules and materials for a variety of game systems and settings. At his point, I should have the energy and excitement to run something new, but also have a package of options for my players to choose from.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
When my current campaign starts heading toward the end game, I will already be talking to the players about what is next and gathering their ideas. I can then create a schedule of prep that needs to be done each day/week to be on time to start the new campaign when the current one finishes, whatever that prep may be.
 

aco175

Legend
I may ask them it they want anything different than the last campaign, but so far, I'm running my 4th campaign centered around Phandalin right now. It is nice to build on some of the past campaigns with seeing how some of the things the old PCs affect the new locations. I would gather some maps and locations I may want to use and place some grand ideas around, but focus on the first few levels and NPCs. We had a couple explorations in the ruins of the town of Leilon, but now the forces of Neverwinter have stabilized the town and are resettling it. Next campaign, I may update the map and show that and allow for some other threats to come. I also would just reuse some of the older information from the town and not change everything. My players do not know the 2e listing for the tavern is now the 5e version.
 

dave2008

Legend
I have pretty much abandon DM driven campaigns at this point, so we work as a group to decided what the next setting/adventure will be in general terms. Then I will work on the details, checking back with my players when needed until I am ready for the first adventure.
 
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Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Think about what story you want to -tell-.

Consider what message you want to carry forward, what sort of style you want it to be in and what stories that style tells particularly well. Do you want to tell a story about the interconnectivity of people in society? You're going to want a central threat that causes multiple communities to band together against it. If you want to tell mythic fantasy, you're going to need to make your players into unique heroes in the backdrop of the world. Things of that nature.

Consider what kind of narrative elements support the thing you want to share, the story you want to tell. Does having a fragile NPC in a fight sequence reinforce the idea of cooperation to keep them safe? Add that in. Does a reticent ogre who has to be convinced to help fight against an evil army to help protect the city, and thus become welcomed by the city for his efforts, even valued and treated as a friend rather than shunned as a potential threat help to bring out the story? Write about that.

Create a framework of story-moments which support your primary narrative and then go from there. They needn't all be strung together, or even remotely connected. But the more you show your players that the world is structured in the way you intend, the more you encourage them to interact with it on that basis, which can make the story all the more compelling...

If you're a huge nerd, you can also spend that time making a world that best supports your idea. Or taking the time to reshape another world to that end.
 

dave2008

Legend
Think about what story you want to -tell-.

Consider what message you want to carry forward, what sort of style you want it to be in and what stories that style tells particularly well. Do you want to tell a story about the interconnectivity of people in society? You're going to want a central threat that causes multiple communities to band together against it. If you want to tell mythic fantasy, you're going to need to make your players into unique heroes in the backdrop of the world. Things of that nature.

Consider what kind of narrative elements support the thing you want to share, the story you want to tell. Does having a fragile NPC in a fight sequence reinforce the idea of cooperation to keep them safe? Add that in. Does a reticent ogre who has to be convinced to help fight against an evil army to help protect the city, and thus become welcomed by the city for his efforts, even valued and treated as a friend rather than shunned as a potential threat help to bring out the story? Write about that.

Create a framework of story-moments which support your primary narrative and then go from there. They needn't all be strung together, or even remotely connected. But the more you show your players that the world is structured in the way you intend, the more you encourage them to interact with it on that basis, which can make the story all the more compelling...

If you're a huge nerd, you can also spend that time making a world that best supports your idea. Or taking the time to reshape another world to that end.
I assume you are saying this is what you would do?
 

Esbee

Dungeon Master at large.
Well, for my own part, my regular game ended in a bit of a TPK last year, and due to the pandemic we went on hiatus and I ended up with a year between games... during that time I codified my house rules into an organized document; reread the books; and started laying out adventure threads.

I also rolled out the battlemat and made a team of characters to run through a random dungeon generator. That was beneficial as I realized just how rusty my knowledge of the rules was, and also gave me a practical refresher of both BTB rules and my House Rules. It was also oddly satisfying... and I ended up with 3 multi level dungeons to lay at the feet of my real players.

As our return to real play loomed, I laid out about a dozen adventure paths, and fleshed them out, came up with a stack of rumours the players could learn about said adventure paths, and let them figure out what they wanted to do. Now that they have made choices, the trajectory is a little easier to predict and I can prep more specific details tied in with what has been established.

Dammit! Talking about it here is makes me wish game-day were sooner!
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
I assume you are saying this is what you would do?
Precisely so. When asked for advice I give it!

Considering the story you want to tell, and the stories that shape that idea and make it concrete, is a great way to provide yourself a framework of interchangeable components that reinforces the whole.

Even disconnected events unrelated to the story (I.E. Random Encounters) can still support the core narrative, that way, without being a part of the BBEG's plans or the specific response to those plans.
 

turnip_farmer

Adventurer
Read the rules.

It sounds like you're talking an established group of players and that the theme and style of the campaign will need to be agreed with then first. So there is no point designing anything that might not fit. Especially not if you get all excited about your ideas and then find that no-one else is interested.

But rereading the rules, reminding yourself how all these stupid abilities and spells actually work, can be valuable prep in helping you run (and plan) games in future.

That's only if you really want to do something for your DnD game though. You could just use the time for something else completely!
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Let's say you likely have another D&D campaign starting "down the road"- it might be several weeks or months, but it is definitely coming as your current game winds down.

You don't know what the players will want to play, except that it's probably going to be D&D.

What would you do with this sabbatical time? Would you make small 5 room dungeons in preparation? Design campaign worlds? Random encounter tables? Maybe you would take time off from thinking about the game altogether and recharge?

I would take a sabbatical.

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Voadam

Legend
I generally run adapted modules in my homebrew mashup setting.

This came up for me last year when my brother mentioned he was burning out on DMing too many games so I offered to start a new campaign for our online group if the group was amenable, which they were.

I went through the modules/APs I have and made a list of the ones I was most interested in running and brought it to the group for a discussion of the then currently most appealing themes for them. We picked one that generated the most interest (Iron Gods from Pathfinder converted to 5e) and I spent my weeks of prep time while the old game wound down reading the first module (Fires of Creation), the sourcebook for the background nation (Numeria), online conversion advice specific for the AP, and some generic 5e stuff (Xanathar's).

If I were starting a new one I would go through mostly the same process, if I didn't have a module picked out I would focus prep on reading stuff for the rules system I wanted to run (I've only begun to read Tasha's) and reading stuff for possible inclusion in my setting. I would probably also want to get more familiar with options on Fantasy Grounds so I could do more stuff with it beyond the basics I've got right now. All my current prep time is trying to stay current with stuff for the next game and I have not made time to successfully get a handle on FG stuff beyond my FG basics.
 

MarkB

Legend
I'd probably take time to let my brain recharge. Talking with the players about what they want to do also seems like a good idea, if you're considering running published material.
That sounds like the best option. Prepping a session only for the players to go a different direction is tough enough, doing that on the scale of a campaign could get painful.
 


Rhenny

Adventurer
First, I refresh my memory about past and what may come up next.

Sometimes, I outline a few alternative paths or contingencies.

Almost always, I like to make a quick cheat sheet for some notes on NPCs that the PCs may meet. (Personality, Motive, Distinguishing Features).
 

Concept-Skeleton-First adventure
And all during the process, Buzz.

Easy to remember with the handy acronym CSFB. 😀

First, Concept. Unless this is a one-shot, my first step is to come up with about 6 different campaign ideas that I would be enthusiastic to run. I don’t need much at this stage: one or two paragraphs for each Concept. The most important thing at this stage is emphasizing what would make this campaign different from bog-standard D&D.

I then put the different concepts to a vote by my players. There are many, many ways to do this (secret ballots, open ballots, multiple votes, single votes, ranked choice, etc.), but the most important point is that I present each concept and why I am excited to run it (this ties into Buzz later).

Once the group has chosen the Concept, next step is the Skeleton. This is the Skeleton of the campaign. It should not take more than a single page! It should set out what are the big expected “beats” and “set pieces” of the campaign, as well as the levels at which I anticipate them occurring. This serves several purposes;
  • setting expectations: is this going to be a 1 to 6 campaign, a 3 to 5 campaign, a 1 to 10 campaign or a 1 to 15 campaign? How much material do I believe I have?
  • setting up foreshadowing: I will refer to this document all through the campaign. If I know that the second arc will take place in the Feywild, I will set up that there are portals to it (and how they work) in the first arc;
  • identifying issues and challenges before session zero. If the campaign will mostly take place in the mountains, this would be useful if someone wants to play a ranger. Conversely, it’s less interesting to play a sailor in an adventure taking place in a land-locked country.
  • highlighting synergies before session zero. Maybe this pirate-themed campaign will be great for sea rangers, coastal druids and fathomless warlocks! Or tritons and veldrani. Tell your players this! I have seen players that are unwilling to try certain builds because they read an “optimizer” post somewhere that said it was underpowered. Creature of the sea is a lot more useful when you are exploring shipwrecks. GWF Fighters are less useful when many fights are underwater.

Third, the First adventure. I generally don’t need to sketch out more than the First adventure, but it is important to me that the First adventure really set the tone for the campaign. One, it should introduce the NPCs, the world, and the concept of the campaign. Second, I will try to include at least one-mindblowing moment. Maybe a battle in a temple that is slowly sinking, so that the characters must find a way out before they drown. Maybe a single tough monster that makes the finale feel more like the Alien franchise than D&D. Maybe something like the scene in Spiderman where the commoners the heroes helped start pelting the villain with garbage just when the heroes need a breather. Again, the details of the adventure can wait until after Session Zero. At this stage, I’m only thinking about what I want to introduce in the adventure and the big set piece. I don’t need to stat out every encounter.

Finally, Buzz. If you’re excited, your players will be excited. But very often, your players may not see how excited you are. Share your enthusiam with them, it’s infectious. When pitching the Concept, tell them why you think the Concept is awesome. When building your Skeleton, share your information with them about classes or races that are particularly well-suited, or why you are excited about something. When preparing the First Adventure, ask your players if they have any idea about their backgrounds to help you set the adventure up.
 

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