Advice on Session Planning?

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Postby Grimstead » November 5th, 2012, 1:35 pm

Hey guys, my name is Mike, and I was hoping to get some advice. I've checked out a lot of D&D podcasts, and yours is by far my favorite. I think you've got a very creative and adaptable DM, and the passion for the game the players show is an example of what I, as a DM, hope to find when putting together a group. I've been running my most recent campaign for a while now, and it's highly detailed with an overall narrative... less sandbox than most homebrew campaigns (The unfinished setting pdf alone was at 86 pages before play began). I don't think I run things too much on rails, despite my thorough preparation... but this is where the problem lies. I'm spending 4-6 hours on prep for a 3-4 hour session. That's how long it takes for me to detail and flesh out every aspect and multiple possible paths through the plots I've laid out for the evening.

Now, I'm trying to step up my game by loosening up and learning how much prep is enough and how much is too much. Your game has very much the pacing, depth, and fluidity that I'm striving for; in short, its an example of what I'm trying to achieve. I learned to DM by emulating modules. My preparation looks like Im sending it to the publisher tommorow. It's probably too much. Then again, I've heard of great campaigns where the DM never wrote a thing down. Where do you guys fall? What do you prep and in what way, for each session?

Thanks for your help.
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Re: Advice on Session Planning?

Postby Sam » November 5th, 2012, 2:04 pm

I don't do any of the planning, but from what I understand, Cailin takes care of most of the story and pre-written flavor text, and Greg takes care of the encounters, improvisation, and actually executing everything. I'm not sure how much time they spend per week prepping on average, but I'll bet that having two people helps bring the number down. Though having two people working as GM isn't typical for most groups, so not sure if that helps at all.
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Re: Advice on Session Planning?

Postby Cailin » November 13th, 2012, 10:14 am

At some point I'd love to write up a detailed guide to the Thursday Knights campaign and session design process, seems like it might be useful!

Well Mike, there are a few ways to get around the "plan for ever contingency" problem without railroading. One way is to plan the world, rather than the encounter. Having an intimate understanding of the city or town the characters are in goes a long way! If they wander into the alehouse, you already know the bartender is a racist who overcharges non-humans, and is also deep in gambling debt. Develop a list of interesting characters, each with their own plot seed. It can be related to your main story arc directly, indirectly, or not at all, and if they characters run into him/her you can choose to dangle that carrot or not depending on how the story is going at the time. If the players seem to be looking for a hook, you've got it right there. And if they aren't... you can just leave out the bits that might draw the story off track. If you make a nice NPC list and pluck a few characters from it when you need it, you'll cut down on the need to anticipate by quite a bit.

Now the other challenge is when out of left field your lovely players decide to hold the maiden ransom instead of return her to the baron which was obviously what they were supposed to do, or burn the mysterious note on the orc's body. Or mind control the minion and make him tell you who the villain is too early. Well ok. We've all been there. First thing's first. Reward creativity. If your players are clever enough to successfully mind control the minion and make him spill the beans... do it! At least, give them some neat crumbs of info before the big bad catches on and melts the minion's brain. You can always rewrite your story after the fact and make new elements fit, and they will never be the wiser. Secondly, let characters have bad things happen to them as a result of their choices. If they burn the plot hook mysterious note, have something terrible happen to the village they're staying in, or an NPC they like, or their favorite horse. Make it related to the hook they just blatantly ignored, make it hurt until they can't ignore it anymore. If you have good players, they'll take the hint. Just remember it's consequences, not punishment. This will hopefully also help you develop stronger hooks than the classic mysterious note.

And then there are the times when they ask you questions you have no idea how to answer. Is there a temple to my god here? How many clerics are in the town square right now? Are these people known for any special exports? Sometimes a dice roll will make sense. Sometimes it's up to you to come up with some flavor STAT. If it's not story related and they seem enthusiastic about the answer PASS THE BUCK. Let your players drive the world from time to time and you may be surprised how much life it can inject into the game. Is the barmaid a lovely lass or a saucy wench? You tell me. Does she think I'm cute? Roll a charisma check.

In summation:

1. Make a list of NPCs with cool characteristics (physical, behavioral, plot-related) tie them to elements of your story if your players tend to meander.
2. Draw from this list whenever your players go off road exploring a town to get them back on track and reward their curiosity.
3. Reward Creativity. If they go off the rails in a creative, fun, or interesting way, give them some information or item that rewards them and leads them back to the main story.
4. Consequences. If they go off rails and things go stale or boring, liven things up with death murder and destruction as a direct result of their action/inaction.
5. Pass the Buck - let players create their own parts of the world, or shape elements you're not particularly attached to. They'll develop a greater investment in the world, and you'll have less prep!

This doesn't really do more than scratch the surface, but it's a good place to start!
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Re: Advice on Session Planning?

Postby Grimstead » November 13th, 2012, 5:54 pm

Just wanted to follow up... I've still been checking back for replies now and again. I've learned a lot this last week, and I think I've really tightened up my design process... essentially, learning what I need to plan and forcing myself not to overdo it, by adhering to some templates I wrote up for different types of encounters. They force me to leave out the fluff and froth that is better developed as the players churn it up. To be all metaphoric. 'Cause I am.

Thanks for the replies, especially because your advice is very concise and specific. I'll probably review it before writing my next few sessions.

- Mike

P.S. If you guys ever end up doing a campaign over skype and are short a guy...
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