Good Articles (And Good Sessions) Have Introductions
Prep is something that few GM’s discuss openly for some reason. Partially I think that this has to do with the DM’s predilection for secrecy. It is much easier to err on the side of the clandestine if it is going to preserve some mechanic, stat block, story beat, or plot twist that might encourage “metagaming” or ruin immersion during the session. Here at the DMSG we decided that it was something we should get to chatting about—because that’s what we are here for, as a resource to DMs who can’t talk to their other nerd-friends about their games because they are their protagonists. In my conversations with the esteemed Canadian DM, Jeff, we realized that questions and concerns about prep could deter new GM’s from entering the fold. And that isn’t what we want. We want more DMs, more tables, more stories, and more fun.
So here we are, talking about prep. Something that nearly every DM is certain to touch on is that there is “no right way to prep.” This is mostly true, but it needs clarification: There is no universally right way to prep. There are certainly right ways to prep, but they have a lot to do with your individual campaign, players, table and social mores, and free time. Since we couldn’t possibly begin to tell you every way to prep, instead we are going to take it in turns to talk about how we prep and let you take from it what you will.
Although I tend towards a very improvisational game (how else would I come up with towns like Squashdale?) I have the following as my “baseline” information: A world map, a region map, a few notes about the region (local culture, names of major towns and important factions in the area), and my notes from previous sessions’ prep and play. For this session I also had the benefit of having left some unfinished business the last session (The Arders had put up quite a fight the week before).
There are 5 steps to Prepping The Notebook GM Way- Recap, Prediction, Pushback, Color, and Brass (How I label them in my personal notes) or: Where are we, Where are we going, How does the world react, What does it look like, and How do I make it work?
Where did they leave it?
The first step to planning the next session will almost always be remembering what happened the last session. I often write the notes for my in-session recap now, just so that the players and I are working off of the same information. Many GM’s and game groups use a chat or email chain to resolve things between sessions, but my Tuesday group is notorious for their ability to ignore my emails.
Okay—where did we leave off? Oh, right—they had ignored all of the diplomatic options before them, snuck through the sewer, and murdered the nobles. They weren’t nice nobles, sure, but that probably should have a consequence of some kind. They didn’t even try to meet them and see if they could trade for the imprisoned demon or anything. But then again, House Arder were a nasty lot. Creating gelatinous cubes, experimenting on commoners, so it isn’t like they didn’t have it coming. They didn’t kill all of the Arders though, the son that they turned against the rest of the family escaped before his mother could kill him. What did I name him? Wilson? Wallace? Walter? Walter. He teleported himself onto the grounds during the battle and made a break for it.
“You’ve just killed a bunch of nobles, what will you do next?”
As mentioned above, I run a very improvisational game. Years of gaming with the fine lads of Nat One Productions have taught me over and over that protagonists will ruin some plots and ignore others, they will kill every carefully backstoried NPC, they will realize (read: you will forget) that a cleric can cast the sending spell and instead of a couple of sessions of traversing the tundra then negotiating the terms of a controlled emigration of the Hobgoblin lycanthropes with the Grand Tribunal at Fort Kickaz they could just cast sending (true story, I’m not bitter). Still, I like to start every prep session with a general prediction of what, based on what happened last time, the protagonists might decide to do next. This prediction is based off of a reading of the past behaviors of the protagonists, knowledge of the preferences and habits of the players themselves, the social mores of the particular group, and the particular line of narrative that they are currently working on. Like any faction in the world, I have a good idea of their goals at all times and I often reach out privately to players to check in on how their character is feeling internally and if their goals have changed (via text).
They’re going to need loot. Loot and a brief social encounter with whatever Vex decides her patron’s child is going to be called. She will handle most of that scene since it’s her patron’s kid. But after they chat with the demon and she returns to the space between the stars they are going to need loot. They did just murder a bunch of nobles after all. But whatever magic items the Arders have will have to be registered with the local Viscount. When possession of magical artifacts helps determine political power registration would be protocol to deter inter-house theft. Let’s call that the Registry of Heirlooms and Artifacts.
Okay—prediction: They spend several hours ransacking the house for everything they can find, then pursue Walter. Obviously they will be several hours behind him, but he’s wounded and they have two rangers, so maybe they’ll find him. Actually they won’t. I’m still annoyed they didn’t even try to talk to these people, I had a little family tree drawn up and everything. So they head north, in pursuit of Walter but there is no way they catch him. He escaped using that “shadow-step” power and there is no reason he wouldn’t use it again in order to alter his trail.
The World Pushes Back
In the last segment, between the meandering thoughts, you’ll notice that we’ve reached a kind of narrative lynchpin: this is the part where I push back. Sure, in my head it sounds like a small vengeance but this is actually an important moment. The first scene is all about them looting, deciding to pursue Walter, and ascertaining that he’s gone north—they have pretty much all of the power here and there is really very little for me to do other than narrate looting and since they bought off all of the servants they won’t encounter much resistance. If they pursue Walter (and I know they will because The Adventurers Extraordinaire have thus far proven themselves to be Extraordinarily Dogged in pursuit of escaped enemies and lost possessions) they will find that they can’t track him due to his “shadow-step” power. Ending this line of narrative here is tempting, especially for DMs that tend towards a more hands-off “sandbox” approach to their campaign, but I find that “you go outside to track Walter and you can’t because he just disappeared” does not an engaging story make. Instead, I have Walter head north before using his teleportation power again in order to avoid the “you are standing in the woods, stymied, now what?” moment that tends to follow an abrupt dead-end such as a cold trail.
I’ll lead them just far enough to get them continuing north and right into the waiting arms of the…. Red Cloaks… no, I’ve already used Cloaks too many times… The… Scarshields? Nah. Red Guard? Nope… I’m pretty sure that’s a brand of deodorant.
The Jagged Legion. Sold.
Okay, so they are heading north after Walter Arder but since they spend several hours looting the manor and he can teleport the Jagged Legion meets them on the road to say “Hey, let’s talk about how you snuck into a noble house and murdered nearly all of them and stole all of their stuff.” Eventually Brynn and Trumple will remember that they are supposed to be a noble and a court functionary respectively and hopefully they won’t just frag the guards. I’ll be sure to make it clear that’s not a great move.
Coloring It All In
Once they meet the Jagged Legion, the narrative ball is in my court. I know that both my bard and one of my rangers are tied to the nobility in this area so if the decision becomes “stand before the local viscount and explain what was going on” and “murder a bunch of Elves and become fugitives.” I can hopefully count on them not to commit to living on the lam and I throw in a show of force significant enough to deter them anyhow. Looking at my regional map, Cliffscar is the closest town with a sitting Viscount. At this point the notes I had on it were as follows: “Citadel carved into a cliff-face, forest surrounding it is young as it has been recently burned. Alchemists? Tinkers? Viscount Rhogar—Gavin will think that is funny.” Now we can begin to add some meat to the bones of the session. Or: It’s Time To Name, Decide, and Describe Stuff.
So the Jagged Legion takes them to Cliffscar to stand before Viscount Rhogar. Emilio Rhogar. Cliffscar is a citadel built into the face of a cliff. The forest around it is young but rich as they’ve had a number of man-made forest fires due to the town’s reputation as a hotbed of inventors and tinkers. Coincidentally, the sigil of Cliffscar is a burning portcullis on a field of red in homage to the red-orange hue of the cliff face the castle is carved into. Wouldn’t get the best light in a castle carved into a cliff… how do I fix that? No. How does a crafty Gray Elven tinker fix that to please his liege-lord? Tons of mirrors—that’s how. Angled all around the windows they could bounce light deeper into the cliffside.
Okay—so they are sitting in front of Emilio Rhogar. Rhogar is known to be gruff but fair, accustomed to the freak occurrences that are all too common amongst his quirky constituency. They stand accused (and guilty) of the crime of Murdering A Bunch Of Nobles. Even though House Arder was up to some nasty antics no one wants to set a precedent that it is cool to kill nobles if you don’t like what they’re up to. However, House Arder was up to some really unpleasant business and the rest of the nobles are likely glad enough to be rid of them. Plus, Trumple is definitely going to lay on the charm pretty thick and talk them out of any real retaliation. So they aren’t going to call for the execution of a powerful adventuring party. Community service it is then, I’ll send them deep into the mines under Cliffscar and make them fight something mean. If they return victorious, I’ll let them keep their favorite of the magic items they found in House Arder.
So here’s my session:
They loot the manor house, free the demon, and head north to track Walter Arder. Instead they find a unit of The Jagged Legion sent to take them before Viscount Emilio Rhogar of Cliffscar. Cliffscar is a castle built into a cliff surrounded by young, recently burned forest. Rhogar and the other nobles, their suspicions confirmed about House Arder decide that a delve into the lower tunnels to try to deal with monsters harrying their deep rangers is a suitable punishment and a win-win for Cliffscar. If they make it back after defeating the monsters, I’ll let them choose their favorite magic item from House Arder and make it their own.
I draw a quick map of the tunnels for reference and, using page 274 of the Dungeon Master’s guide, I draw up my underground monsters, which I’ve decided are similar to giant crabs. I create all of my monsters this way because I think it’s easier than trying to find a related MM entry and tweak from there. I prioritize fast combat in my game (my sorceress is a new player who tires of combat quickly) and brewing my own monsters gives me a bit more freedom. A stat block, to hit, armor class, save proficiencies, damage rolls/types, and 3-4 abilities matched to the creature and environment are usually sufficient to make the combat interesting as long as I’ve taken care to match them well. For these creatures I wanted to do a grapple attack that bolstered the second attack on a successful grapple, building on my crab theme.
On the way I want them to have an obstacle, and nothing says obstacle like cavern full of suspicious-looking, glowing mushrooms. As they walk through them have them roll a Con save, whoever fails, if anyone, becomes the messenger for the mushrooms and is taken over and used as their voice. They just want to be left in peace and will allow players to pass if they are nice. If they act hostile towards the mushrooms I’ll start sending spores at them and making them roll Con saves until they die, kill all of the mushrooms, or let up.
Both of these encounters, if you are paying attention closely, reinforce my theme which is “maybe try to talk to things instead of just hitting them with sharp metal.”
Since my sessions generally last between 3 and 4 hours I know that these social encounters and the battle against the Cave Crabs will likely end the session, leaving a bit of room to throw an over-large claw at the Viscount’s feet and collect (well, re-collect) their prize.
Finding The Sweet Spot
Well, as it turns out I did a GREAT job of predicting how the session would go, but as stated before the protagonists ultimately had little choice in the matter given how we had left off the previous session and how flagrantly illegal their actions were. I also apparently did a great job of creating tough monsters because one of my Cave Crabs rolled a double critical hit and dropped the bard in one shot, he was down to his last death saving throw before recovering. In my zeal to homebrew everything for Murrad I’ve had a problem with too-weak monsters in previous sessions, but I seem to have found a sweet spot with this combat—enough power to put the fear of crustaceans into them but not so much as to make the encounter a death sentence. Luckily I’ve found this sweet spot just in time for them to hit level 5 and reach a new power bracket. Womp womp.
If You Give A Post An Introduction, It’ll Probably Ask For A Conclusion
The preceding was not the right way to prep. Well at least it was not The Right Way To Prep. This series will continue and other DMs will show you their carefully laid prep and tell you how to do it. Listen to them, they are smart folk. For me, and for some others I suspect, I consider myself more charming and witty than I do methodical and intelligent and I find that if I stick to my 5-step plan (Recap, Prediction, Pushback, Color, Brass) I create enough to be going on with during the session while still allowing me to spend a majority of the time making sweet, sweet, eye contact with my players and giving them room to assume some narrative control and make the story their own.