Personal Prep Series #2 : Spreadsheets and Dice

My DM dice on the players' home base map.

Prepping the Game: What’s That?

In a broad sense, that means preparing for your game, yes. But what does that really mean for you? Do you run test combat to see if it is too difficult? Are you practicing voices for your NPCs, or comparing words to find the best one for your descriptions? Do you just use a name generator and wing it? In this article I take the baton as it is passed down by fellow DM Nicholas (from Nat One and The Notebook GM, as well as our first article in this series) and write about my preparation for a game with my players. The goal is to show existing and new DMs that there is no one way to prep. And that it is neither as scary nor as difficult as you might think.

I break down preparation into a few pieces: the start, setting a pace for the game, the bulk of the session, and the ending. What those mean for me might not be what they mean for you, so take this advice (and perhaps all Dungeon Master advice) with the following disclaimer: what works for my table may not work for yours. Find what’s good for you, and use that. And find what does not work for you, and learn what not to do.

Stretching Before the Workout

Starting is not as easy as you think. Some groups only meet once a year, or these friends meet every week but only for the game. There’s chatter; complaints about the weather, talk about the newest movie in theatres, or someone is showing off some new dice they bought. Your role is not to be the teacher and stop them; your role is to set the mood.

A start can be as easy as starting the music you always use, but my preferred way is to simply clear my throat and say “Let’s get into the game, shall we? When last we left our adventurers…” and I start my recap. I always recap, because it helps get minds in tracks. It helps Steve remember that he got the killing blow, it helps Mary remember that she nearly lost her soul, and it helps Aubrey remember that cool sword she got last time.

And why do you need to prep the recap? Because a good start is important, and you don’t want to miss a fact and interrupt yourself during your own recap. That’s like a stumble while you are trying to start a sprint. Like a runner stretching before a marathon, your brain needs a slight warmup. But then you can start!

Setting the Pace

So now that all our brains are ready to play, how do we proceed? Usually, I prepare the first 30 minutes of a game in a bit of detail. Again, I do this to set a mood, for both the players and for myself. This part is really more for me than anyone. This is where I make sure the right NPCs come out, the right lines are said, the right atmosphere is described. And it is where I kick start this wild roller coaster.

For example, I have a group that was given seven encrypted messages, all with a different key or solution. Last session we ended with all players but one poring over those messages. This makes for a boring start. To get them back into play, I am going to describe the storm that has been raging for 12 hours now. The storm has gone from rain to hail to snow, and it is the middle of summer. That should be an indicator that things are afoot. If not, I am going to add frogs to that rain.

See, the idea is that they are under time pressure to stop a major magical cataclysm from happening. So my prep included a way to start the game and get them back into a sense of urgency. Hopefully, this will do the trick!

The Heavy Lifting

Encounters is a rather large grouping. An encounter, by my definition, is anything that stops the players. Meeting an NPC, solving a puzzle, or fighting kobolds: all of these are encounters. I usually plan five encounters in a session, keeping in mind combat usually takes the most time. Switch it up, because that is fun for players. So let’s dissect this grouping:

Combat is something that, in my opinion, needs very little prep. There are great tools online (such as the Kobold Fight Club) to help you come up with a good measuring stick for how easy, or hard, combat is going to be for your group of adventurers. But since this is about how I prep, I will let you in on what I do. If it makes thematic sense the group will get their ‘boss fight’, also known as the deadly+ encounter. But usually I let them have up to four or five medium encounters between short rests.

In a spreadsheet I have all the PC names listed, with their AC, and I write down all the monsters. I use numbered tokens (blank poker chips) so for each monster I write down which chip to use, what their HP and AC is, I roll initiative in advance as well, and make little notes if need be (“when only two kobolds are left, they will flee in opposite directions” or “heals 20 HP each round”). I always read the full monster stat block as well, to make sure that I know all of the abilities and tag the pages I am going to need with a sticky tab.

Then, I make maps. Personally, I love keeping my maps for later usage or reference, so I buy a pad of one inch gridded graph paper (in Canada, I can get that for $15 for 50 sheets, so $0.30 per map) and draw the maps at home. I then color them in markers, and they go in my art portfolio.

Meeting an NPC can really differ in preparation. I have decades of experience improvising stories, so it is no problem to come up with a new and engaging interaction. But an NPC that has a long standing place in my world and some import to the overall story generally gets more fleshed out. NPCs don’t often get a statblock (at first) but they get a story. I give them several lines of background story, tie them to the location and/or the story in a way, and give them a character that’s based off the story. Then I add a voice in my head (I practice out loud if I need) and pin that down in a stereotypical sentence.

Here’s an example:

Fletcher Marcus Albrecht: human male, 42 years old, has been town fletcher since his father passed (who he trained under). Son was recently slain as an innocent bystander in a magical duel. This is why he is bitter but especially towards all open displays of magic. (Voice: Argus Filch “We got along jus’ fine ‘fore the magics started flyin’!”)

If they are a story important character, I add a description that stands out. It might not have to be something “special” such as “he has a glass eye” or “the left half of his face is showing severe signs of burns” but something that adds flavor and will help the players remember. If I describe Marcus as “whittling an arrow” each time I introduce him, whether that is in the inn, walking down the street, or visiting him in his shack, that will stick. When, in three months, I say “you see an individual approach you, in his hand a short stick that he seems to be whittling a point to” the players will immediately think back to “that one guy”. That little detail is enough to establish him as a recognizable individual, but never tipped the players off to his importance.

Solving a puzzle is by far the hardest encounter type to prep, please do not underestimate this one. I have had people frustrated at my table because they couldn’t solve what I thought was an obvious riddle. I’ve had people at my table immerse themselves for an hour in a paper cut-out I gave them to solve a tangram-esque puzzle.

A puzzle needs to be clever and engaging, but you also need to lay out in advance when to intervene by providing hints. That’s pretty much all the prep you can do though; once you have good hints laid out for yourself, you’re good to go. This is the one instance where I like to use a test audience, and the DM Support Group is great for that!

Awarding loot is sometimes even prepped in advance. Oh, trust me I use plenty of generators. But when the group needs to find a cursed sword in the Lich’s tomb, or they need to collect a crystal mace from a cave of umber hulks, I like to have those items prepared for them.

In one high-magic campaign I run, the party had some people abducted in their sleep and then sold as slaves. To free them, they had to pay eighteen thousand gold pieces. That’s a lump. But they also had a chance to investigate a slaver that was looking to buy a Dragonborn for twenty five thousand gold pieces. (I expected them to sell their party member to him as an undercover prisoner.)

They ended up killing the buyer though, and so they had a pouch with twenty five thousand gold, netting them seven thousand in the process. It was fun, but all the rewards were planned in advance. And sometimes it is good to plan the inventory of your monsters: give one of them a +1 longsword or maybe a Greater Healing Potion. If the party can stop them from using it they get the goods!

The Cooldown

I love ending on a cliffhanger, and I am sometimes really bad at pacing myself. So I plan an ending, and if we move towards that ending faster than I expect I can slow myself down (and the whole game) so that we get there. If the players cause a natural slowdown that is fine too, they are having fun and so I let them. But I plan my ending generally the same way I do my start: the last 30 minutes or so are pre planned: who is appearing, what is happening, who is talking, what they are saying, etc.

Since I cannot always anticipate perfectly what the players do, I might have to stop five minutes earlier or later but we tend to end where I want. Which then brings me full circle: I have a great springboard to start from again next time!

Prepping: You’re Done!

That’s my prep, from start to finish. I get the game mood set, then I place people in their carts and kick off the rollercoaster. I plan the ride, with all the twists and turns, and I know in advance when they get off the ride too. Believe it or not, there is still a lot of improvisation that happens at the table, like that one time two blue kobolds showed up stacked on top of each other while wearing a dress, pretending to be a single human being.

But overall, knowing what will happen prepares me better and requires less prep (strange as that sounds). Once I caught on to this process, my preparation notes could fit on half a sheet of paper. And by now, I can fit it on a single sticky note!

A pleasure to write for you all, and we will see you next time! Until then: happy gaming!

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Been a gamer all my life, and ever since I picked up the polyhedral dice I put down the controller. And I have to admit: I don't miss it really! Currently I run a bi-weekly game in a homebrew world on Tuesdays, I play in a homebrew world every Wednesday, and I run another game every Thursday in a canonical Faerun. All games are 5e.