by Mike Shea on 28 November 2016
Here at Sly Flourish we've often discussed the steps in game preparation that make the biggest difference in running a great D&D game. Starting strong, building a good adventure skeleton, having some fantastic locations on hand, preparing secrets to share; all of these are quick and effective steps to prepare what we need to run a fun game.
There's one big step we might put ahead of all of the rest, however. Before we take any other step when preparing our next session, we can take a few minutes to review the characters and let that guide us as we prepare for our next session. Our new step zero: study the characters.
As much as we love our story, players love their characters. The more we focus on making them the heroes of the story, the more fun our players will have. We can't do this if they feel like the nuances of their characters don't really matter.
"Yeah yeah, it's great that you're a deposed prince, but you're fighting off rat swarms like everyone else."
We can't effectively review our characters if we didn't bother to write down the details. Maybe we have copies of their character sheets or some emails containing character background information. Maybe we're using a campaign worksheet. Whatever we do, when we start hearing about peoples' characters, we should write that shit down. Players love it when we tie the ideas of the characters into the story. It's an easy win.
What sorts of things should we pay attention to? Well, first off, know their goddamn names. Make flash cards if you have to but spend some time remembering the names of the characters. With those names in your head, you're likely to remember a lot more about them. When you're stuck somewhere or out for a walk you can go through each of the characters and think about what you might draw from them into your next game.
Some GMs like to focus on statistical stuff like what level they are, what their passive perception and passive insight are, and things like that. That sort of information won't really help you integrate the character into the game. Backgrounds are great. Connections between characters and NPCs are great. Motives, drives, quests; these are all great things to remember. Was the dragonborn glave-wielder part of a family of ale brewers? Jot that down and use it!
If we're running a pre-published adventure like Out of the Abyss or Curse of Strahd we might think that much of the work preparing for the adventure is done for us, but these published books know nothing about your characters. Even if you do nothing else to prep the next part of a published adventure, take some time to think about how the characters will fit into it.
Here's another cool trick. Say you're using the campaign worksheet to capture the basics of a character. Take a picture of it with your phone. If you're stuck in a meeting or in line for your mocha frappuccino, pull it out and take a look. Ideas may start to jump right out at you wherever you happen to be.
Next time you're getting ready to prep your game, before you do anything else, take a good look at your notes on the characters. What are they about? What hooks can you tug on? What can you do to make them the hero of the story?