by Mike Shea on 14 May 2012
Back in late April I created a survey to assess Dungeon Master game preparation habits. I received 804 responses from DMs running many different variants of D&D over many different periods of time (weekly, monthly, etc). While I do not plan on analyzing every potential slice of data from the survey, I offer the complete survey results in excel so you might analyze it yourself. Please feel free to send your interesting analysis to firstname.lastname@example.org. Today I'm going to look at one particular slice of these results and offer some editorial comments on what I see.
The following table represents the responses of 198 dungeon masters who primarily play 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons and run games weekly or more often. This gives us a clean sample of DMs who play the same edition of D&D and run games at roughly the same frequency.
Here are the summarized results:
|< 1 hr||1 - 3 hrs||3 - 6 hrs||6 - 10 hrs||> 10 hrs|
|Total Preparation Time||5%||64%||24%||5%||3%|
|none||< 30 min||30 min - 1 hr||1-2 hrs||> 2 hrs|
|Combat Encounter Design||5%||42%||36%||12%||5%|
|Non-Combat Encounter Design||13%||58%||22%||7%||1%|
|Battle Map Preparation||21%||48%||22%||5%||5%|
|Experience and Loot||29%||60%||9%||2%||0%|
|Props and Handouts||42%||46%||9%||2%||1%|
I ordered the results roughly by the topics with the most amount of time spent. These questions aren't perfect. Some of the questions, like adventure planning, can be interpreted differently by different DMs. Still, I believe the results give us some interesting insights into the preparation times of D&D 4e DMs. Below, I present some of the results that I found most interesting.
Of surveyed DMs, 69% spend less than three hours preparing their game each week. Only 8% spend more than six hours. That sounds about right to me and isn't too surprising a result.
It is also unsurprising that DMs who run weekly 4e games spend most of their time on combat encounter design. It is one of the few components of 4e that we can't simply design at the table. We need to have some idea where our PCs will fight monsters and some design ideas to keep those encounters new and different. Some 4e best practices, such as the Combat Out and the multi-staged encounter require time to prepare. There is an opening here for some better encounter design tools to help DMs build encounters faster and easier — something I plan to address in future articles.
It's interesting to see a wide spread of time spent on world building and monster design, two activities I think offer little improvement to an actual game. Of the surveyed DMs, 22% spend no time on world building while 17% spend more than an hour a week on it. Of the surveyed DMs, 28% spend no time on monster design while 32% spend 30 minutes a week or more designing monsters.
Why do I consider these time-wasters? In my experience, world building can take a significant amount of time preparing material that never actually sees action at the table. Worse, it can lead a DM to railroad their group down pre-defined paths. With thousands of prepared monsters already available, there is little need for a DM to spend any time designing their own monsters. The excellent monster books Monster Vault, the Monster Manual 3 and the Monster Vault 2: Threats to the Nentir Vale can help us re-skin and re-level monsters to suit just about any encounter we build.
Who the hell am I to tell DMs they shouldn't build fantastic worlds and powerful monsters? Obviously, we all do this for fun and should all spend time where we enjoy spending it. Sometimes, however, we think certain activities, like monster design and world building, give us the (perhaps false) impression that we're actually helping our game. Some activities, like statting out monsters, is mechanically simpler than the dangerous and scary act of raw creation needed for things like really good NPC design.
Spend your time where you enjoy it, but have a clear and realistic view of how much use it actually is during the game.
With the results above in mind, here are a few tips for spending your time on the most effective elements of good D&D 4e dungeon mastering:
By embracing the principals of the lazy dungeon master, we can spend our game preparation time where it has the greatest impact and keep our game flexible enough to grow into a unique and interesting story driven by everyone at the table.