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Prepare a D&D Game in 15 Minutes

by Mike on 16 August 2021

The original Lazy Dungeon Master offered recommendations for "five minute game prep". Looking back, I oversold this idea. I don't think it's realistic to fully a prep a game in only five minutes. I find it takes me about 30 minutes to comfortably prepare for a game using the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

That said, I think it's reasonable to ask where one would put their effort if they only had fifteen minutes to prepare. That's tight but doable. Let's look at one way to prepare for a game in only fifteen minutes.

For a video on this topic, check out my Preparing for your D&D Game in 15 Minutes YouTube video.

Pick Three Steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

The kind of game you're running dictates which steps are likely to help you the most. I've covered this topic before in Choosing the Right Steps from the Lazy DM Checklist.

For the sake of this article, we'll assume we're running something like a single-session homebrew adventure. Thus, we'll break down our fifteen minute prep into three steps:

Even these steps will be tight in 15 minutes. Secrets and clues are powerful but not always easy. I could easily spend five minutes staring at the ceiling trying to think up my final three secrets and clues. Some days they come easy, some days they're a struggle. Still, this is a reasonable model and not far off from the original steps in the original Lazy Dungeon Master.

First Five Minutes: The Strong Start

First we can ask ourselves how our game begins. What initial scene will draw the players into the game? What happens around the characters at the beginning of the game? If we're lucky, we might have an idea for this right away. If we're not, we might be starting from scratch. When in doubt, a monster comes to town.

Second Five Minutes: Three to Five Fantastic Locations

What three to five fantastic locations might the characters discover in the next game? Think of these as scene backdrops. What sets the stage of a scene? We're going to abbreviate the normal "three aspect" style of defining what makes a location special and stick to just one. Give it a cool name. "Bridge of Teeth", "The Gaping Maw", "Statue of the Fallen King", something like that. A good evocative name is all you need for a location — something that inspires your own ideas and seeds your brain when it's time to fill it out during the game.

Much of what we're doing in this fifteen minute prep is seeding what we need to improvise during the game. Good evocative location names do that.

If you're having trouble, grab some random tables like the monuments table in the Lazy DM's Workbook or the Dungeon & Exotic Locations, Monuments, and Weird Locales tables in chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Random tables are a great fast way to shake your brain out of a rut and inspire some ideas for locations.

If you have extra time, maybe grab a map from Dyson Logos to go along with your locations. A good map can often fill in multiple sessions.

Third Five Minutes: Secrets and Clues

With our final five minutes we'll hammer out some secrets and clues — up to ten if we can. This is going to be a stretch so don't overthink it. Grab onto easy ones if you need to. Seed your mind with the question "what interesting thing can the characters discover in this session?". You can start by breaking them down into particular types of secrets that may help you grab them more easily. These types include:

When breaking them down by these types it's a little easier to come up with two or three per type and call it a day.

Tools for Improvisation

It's vital we have the right tools on hand to improvise during our game. For monsters, the Monster Manual is hard to beat. Understanding what types of monsters might fit the locations or story we're running will help us pick them. The monsters by challenge rating in the Dungeon Master's Guide and the monsters by ecology in Xanathar's Guide to Everything can help us pick monsters during the game itself.

For NPCs, we're best off with a good list of random names. According to many DMs, this is the number one most valuable improvisational tool for D&D. Beyond that we can improvise their view of the world, their motives, their appearances, and their mannerisms. If you need, grab a character from popular fiction, switch the gender, and you're ready to go.

The Dungeon Master's Guide random treasure tables can help you fill in treasure as you need. You can jump straight to the table you want for either consumable magic items or permanent magic items. Most of the time tables B for consumables and table F for permanent magic items serve you well throughout the game. There are also piles of random treasure tools on the web. Here's my favorite random treasure tool when you don't want to roll on the book.

The Lazy DM's Workbook is designed to be at your side when you're running the game to help you improvise as much as possible. It has tables for NPC names, items, monuments, town events, and monsters. It also has ten "lazy lairs" to give you ten commonly used locations with maps, tags, and descriptions when you need a location quick.

With the Lazy DM's Workbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master's Guide on hand, I'd argue you have what you need at the table to run a great game.

Creativity from Constraint

Prepping an entire session of D&D in fifteen minutes sounds like a horror show but sometimes the best horror shows lead to the most creative work. Consider the story of the Klon Concert in which pianist Keith Jarrett turned a horrible piano into one of the most popular jazz piano albums of all time. With constraint comes creativity. See what kind of prep you can get done in 15 minutes and what sort of game it produces at your table.

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