So, you are running a Dungeons & Dragons session tonight. You feel prepared, but you know that it’s impossible to fully prepare, because your players love to come up with ideas out of nowhere, and you are left scrambling! Here are a couple of things to make sure you have ready for tonight, that might make you feel a bit better.
Now, I want to be clear, this is not for your first session of a campaign, there are plenty of articles online for that. This is just to make sure you are ready for every gameday. Feel free to bookmark this article, and check it every week.
This is also not for planning your weekly adventure. It’s your job as DM to figure out what your story is, alternatives your players might take, and the motivations of your NPCs so you can react honestly to the stuff you cannot predict.
What Do You Want Them to Do? Why Would They Do That?
Unless you are playing a full sandbox game, I imagine that you have a rough story that you imagine this game taking. What is the next few things that would happen for that story to happen? Have you created in-game reasons for their characters to want that? Perhaps they hear someone drop a comment, or their hear about a bounty involved, or some kind of story hook. Many players are willing to go towards the story you have in your head, you just have to get it out of your head, and into theirs.
Why Do They Care About the Adventure?
Speaking of which, make sure that they have their vision well understood. Perhaps they were told to go check in on this person that has been acting weird. Well, they checked in on him, and he is super weird, but what are they supposed to do with that information?
Or they know that this villain is clearly a villain, but defeating him will be dangerous. If you haven’t given their characters proper stakes, they might just leave, and go find a more manageable problem. Even if they are super-heroic characters, nobody wants to die. Give them something worth dying for.
What If They Get Stuck?
They are on the right track, ready to do your story and fight your villain, but they got lost. Not their characters got lost in the world, but the players got lost in the story. They don’t know what they are supposed to do next. You could just remind them of the facts they have, or you can have something small but noticeable happen that gets them moving again. Perhaps someone random gets killed in the marketplace, and the guards get the murderer, but that murderer drops a note that has a reminder of the next place to go.
Maybe your players were going along with your story, and they got a little bored. Or you mentioned a random NPC that has nothing to do with the story, but they are convinced he is. A popular Matt Colville response to these situations is what he calls “Orcs Attack!” Which means what it sounds like, an encounter happens suddenly and without warning. Similar to the situation above, something that is quickly resolvable, but points your players in the right direction to get them going down the story again.
I do want to mention, I am not abdicating for railroading your players. If there is a chance to change up your story and bring in Sam Smorkle, absolutely do it. Your players are the most important people in your world, so let them lead the narrative. This is only if you can tell that they want to do your story, but are getting a little lost.
What Are The Consequences of Inaction?
Let’s say they just aren’t interested in your story, and don’t really want to be. They go East when the action and adventure is West. In this case, start making different story to the East, one that they are trying to find. But later, remember what “Big Bad Evil Guy” (BBEG) was to the West, and have that BBEG win whatever they were trying to accomplish. Perhaps your party was supposed to stop the Warlock Kalarel from summoning Orcus, and they didn’t care. Well, now Orcus has been summoned, and the town of Winterhaven has been turned undead, and Orcus is coming with his army from the West. If your players weren’t interested in a dungeon delve, perhaps they are interested in large-scale combat, leading armies of the living to stop the undead. That’s a very different story, that is a direct result of their inaction earlier.
Do I Have Character Spotlights?
Most (not all) parties in Dungeons & Dragons have a, more or less, balanced party.
- 1 – Strength based fighter (Fighter, Barbarian)
- 1 – Dexterity based fighter (Ranger, Rogue)
- 1 – Divine based caster (Cleric, Warlock)
- 1 – Arcane based caster (Wizard, Druid)
Or they might be balanced in characterization
- 1 – Focused on getting that money
- 1 – Focused on saving innocent lives
- 1 – Wants to explore the fictional world in front of them
- 1 – Wants to seduce the barmaid.
Whatever the case may be, try to have a moment in every session specifically designed for each of your player characters. That might mean changing the story or the challenges that you designed, but it’s more important that your players feel important and are having fun, than your story and world making the most amount of sense, 100% of the time.
What If People Don’t Show Up?
If you were planning a big surprise battle, and people don’t show up, what’s your plan? Do you nerf the big bad? You do put more activity in the time leading up to the battle, so the fight is the first thing you do next session? Do you just take the bad guy away, maybe have that fight in a different setting with different stakes?
Sometimes as you are writing story beats or puzzles, you have a specific player in mind, because you want them to have a chance at the spotlight, especially since many story beats are meant to help flesh out a character’s arc or aesthetic. But then they don’t show up! Have a backup plan for each puzzle or moment, ensuring the whole night doesn’t come to a stop because the Paladin forgot it was her sisters birthday today, and couldn’t come.
Befriending the Enemy?
If your party is anything like mine, they like to Diplomacy their way out of fighting the BBEG, more often than you would think possible, to the point of becoming a Warlock to the Demon Prince, in exchange for the safety of a city and it’s people (you know who you are).
Have an idea in your head of what your villain might want, what they would be willing to trade. Perhaps they have an emotional weakness that your party could tap into with a good enough Insight Check. Come up with something, jot it down in your notes, and remember that you have something if that comes up. No need to flesh out a huge conspiracy or traumatic life moment (yet), just something that allows the players to make that choice if they want to.
This especially happens with newer players, but can happen to anybody that just wants to start a fight. If your players decide they don’t like the local guide/ Mayor Questgiver / Elder Wizard, what are the consequences? Will they walk into a trap instead of the secret passageway, because they weren’t warned? Will they not get paid for their efforts, and the villain doesn’t have all the treasure and magic they were expecting? Whatever it is, there are consequences for their actions, make sure you know what they are.
Do You Have Your Pages Marked?
This is the most technical question, but an important one nonetheless. 15 minutes before everyone shows up, put sticky notes to mark your pages, or write down the page in your PDF of the monsters they might fight, maps they might need, or flavor text you want to incorporate. A few minutes of this prep can keep the momentum of the story or the fight from coming to a halt because you forgot that the “Gnoll Flesh Gnawer” is in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, not the Monster Manual.