by Mike Shea on 1 June 2015
In the Lazy Dungeon Master we try to narrow down adventure preparation to 5 minutes on a single 3x5 note card. If we DMs have only five minutes to prepare our game, what would we spend the time? What elements are most important for us to have on hand before we run our next game? There are likely a lot of answers to this question and every DM likely has their own list. Today we're going to look at one example list that refines session preparation down to 5 minutes with a single 3x5 note card.
In this refined look, we divide a 3x5 card or a page in a trusted Moleskine notebook into three sections:
You might see a lot of things missing from this list and it makes a few assumptions. First, it assumes we're using a Monster Manual or similar monster book to build encounters at the table. It assumes we have a fantastic location already in mind and ready to use. If we don't, we can likely use one of the maps in the back of the Dungeon Master's Guide and some of its random tables to add some flavor to the setting. We might also be running or reskinning a published adventure like Lost Mines of Phandelver or Princes of the Apocalypse that already includes interesting locations for our players to explore.
Falling back on published material makes it significantly easier to prepare our game and gives us the ability to narrow down our preparation onto a single 3x5 card.
Let's take a more detailed look at each of the sections of the 3x5 card.
Improvising the first scene of our game isn't likely to work very well. Instead, we might spend a minute or two fleshing out the first scene you're going to run. Is our group beginning by meeting the distraught elven king who's son was murdered by cultists? Are they beginning on a street being attacked by vampire assassins? Are they beginning on the back of giant vultures hunting a manticore?
This starting scene should draw everyone into the game. It needs to be a strong opener that pushes everyone out of their problems in the real world and captures their imaginations.
When we have it, we can jot down the important parts right at the top of our 3x5 card. A tweet-sized sentence should suffice.
What are the major scenes and beats in our adventure? How do they play out? What are the important pieces we don't want to forget? These might be outlines of the scenes themselves or just important points we don't want to forget. They might represent three to five scenes in a game or the big points of the one big scene we care about. They might be three options the players might choose from or a more linear list of locations they're going to visit in order.
Good adventures are packed with interesting secrets and clues that help the players understand what is going on. These clues add texture to battles. They drive NPC conversations. They can be etched deep into ancient stone walls buried under the earth for a thousand years. Clues and discoveries are the rewards of exploration, interaction, and combat.
We can think of discoveries as the story of our adventure broken down into small bite-sized pieces focused on what our PCs and our players will discover. They're far more efficient than a campaign bible or twenty thousand words of backstory. Discoveries are the pieces of the story built to ensure that they will matter to the PCs.
Discoveries we jot down might not actually get discovered. Lucky for us, discoveries are reusable. If they don't come up in our next game, we can keep them in mind for the game after that. Unused discoveries can be a thread that ties our adventures together.
We get bonus points if these discoveries directly relate to one or more of the PCs in our adventure. The better tied in PCs are into the discoveries, the more involved our players will become.
This style of adventure preparation definitely has gaps. As we discussed, it assumes we already have interesting adventure locations either from published adventures or our own previous work. Building fantastic adventure locations is hard work and certainly not something you can whip together in five minutes.
It's also missing key NPC information. It assumes you already know what you need to know about major NPCs. It does, however, have room for the one single most important part of an NPC—it's name. If you have a name, you can often improvise the rest of it as you need.
There are no combat encounters. If our group is used to large set-piece battles, we might add that to our scenes, but we don't have the room or time to fill out everything about it. We can probably whip out an improvised encounter if we need to but adding all of the interesting layers to a great set-piece battle can be hard to do without careful planning.
Depending on our style as a DM, there may be many things missing from this style of preparation. As all things in life, we are best off spending time to figure out what works well for us and our groups. Hopefully this gives you some good ideas. Enjoy!