by Mike Shea on 13 July 2015
In the Lazy Dungeon Master and in the article Five Minute Game Preparation we talk about eliminating less useful activities while preparing for our D&D game. What parts of our preparation is worth the time? Where can we focus our attention before our game to make sure our game is great? Today we're going to look at a handful of elements in our preparation for D&D games that IS worth spending the time on.
Good handouts show you care without taking up considerable time. They add a tactile layer to your game and, when done up with fancy parchment paper, can give your players the feeling of "being there". Handouts also help you prepare the rest of your game. They tie together threads, identify NPCs, and focus your players on the important elements of the story. You can likely build an entire adventure with just a handout. Think about the letter from the burgomeister in Ravenloft. That whole handout and the one found on the dead messenger later spell out the entire plot of Ravenloft.
To go an extra mile, use a paint brush and some red or black paint to mark up or write the handout. A few splashes of blood or a strange hand-painted glyph can add a lot of interest in a handout.
The idea that handouts are a good area to spend time is an example of a larger Lazy Dungeon Master philosophy - that of reuse. The more you reuse something you've prepared, the more value you'll get out of it.
Take the time to understand the backgrounds of your PCs. Talk to your players and ask them what makes their PCs tick. This can change and evolve throughout your game so ask more than once. What drives them now might not be what drives them later. What are their goals? What are their dreams? Who was important to them back in the day? Write this down and review it before every game to see how you can work the threads of the PCs back into your game.
People love loot. Take your time understanding the sorts of treasure your players want and what their PCs could use well. Understand what types of weapons and armor they prefer. Spend some time with the Dungeon Master's Guide and write down items you think they'll love. Throughout your campaign sprinkle these items in as rewards. Make them unique and interesting. Give them a good backstory or maybe an intelligent personality. Good loot will bring sparkles to your players' eyes but it's hard to do well so take your time and do it right.
You certainly don't want to over-prepare your adventure and force the PCs into a single direction but it always helps to have an idea where the story is going and what ties the players from one part of the adventure to another. This is particularly important for published adventures. When you're running Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Rise of Tiamat, or Princes of the Apocalypse, you'll want to understand the threads that tie together the major sections of the adventure. What will move the PCs forward in the right direction? Understanding the path is often a useful way to spend your time.
Awe-inspiring locations are a critical linchpin for our roleplaying games and they aren't easy to improvise at the table. Spending time to build an interesting adventure location is a great way to give your game a lot of depth. A good location can fill out a few days or nights of adventure and is highly likely not to be wasted. For suggestions take a look at the section "Where do Monster's Dwell" on page 4 to 6 of the D&D 5th Edition Monster Manual. It has tons of good ideas that might get your gears working. You'll need to develop a few things when building a fantastic location:
Watch out for the trap of focusing too much on the backstory of the location. Think present tense when writing descriptions. What will the PCs see, hear, feel, and discover? Don't write about what happened here 100 years ago, write about the clues so the PCs can see what happened here themselves.
If you know your group is headed for a big battle, it is often worth taking your time to make the battle particularly interesting. Set up interesting terrain with a battle map or some Dwarven Forge. Add layers of interesting environmental effects, ancient monuments, and waves of monsters. Put in a cool objective beyond just killing all the monsters. Set up situations that will make each PC shine in their own special way.
You may not set up an encounter like this every session but once in a while it is sure to give your players an encounter to remember.
The above suggestions are just that, suggestions. Each of us has to spend the time to understand what parts of game preparation are worth the time or not. As in all skills, we should continually review our process, analyze what works, and evolve what we do to run the best games for us and our friends.
Special thanks to Lio Leeuwerink for suggesting this topic.