I’m still figuring out what works best for me in terms of prep. Ten years ago I mostly winged it or ran packaged modules, and I’ve only recently come back to the hobby. Mostly I start planning and generating ideas using good old pen and paper. I’ve settled on the unique notebook from Code and Quill pictured above, which gives me a dot grid layout in the left-hand page and lined on the right. Decent pencils for drawing and a fountain pen for writing. Good quality tools are just more satisfying to use for me but your mileage may vary. I use a well organized series of Google Docs for my final work and long-term notes. As with many things in life I find moderate doses of responsibly consumed alcohol really lubes up the gears of inspiration.
Now, as for prep itself, I split prep into two main sections: Campaign/World Building and Session Prep. Campaign and world building are massive topics in their own right, and many do not consider them part of regular prep work for sessions. But for my prep style they are crucial. So if you’ll bear with me I’ll go through both and show you how I do things. In general, the campaign/world building prep is building myself a trove of resources: locations, NPCs, organizations, and possible spur of the moment plot points. Session prep focuses on the immediate now. Taking elements from the toolbox of campaign/world building that I’m pretty sure I’m going to need and fleshing them out as required. Then there is the nitty-gritty of building encounters, thinking about loot, and inserting future plot hooks or decision points for my players.
As I said earlier, I consider campaign building in the context of prep as generating the toolbox of things I can use as a DM. Assuming you have your world at least roughly fleshed out you have major ideas for the different areas, nations, races, etc. When I am in the middle of a certain arc of a campaign I will do some extra work on particular groups, towns, NPCs, and locations that the party may reasonably encounter. For towns this will include at least some of the possible taverns, inns, and merchants that may be in that town or city, some important NPCs, and anything else that is particularly interesting or that can serve as plot hooks, sidequests, or distractions. This keeps me from having to come up with these on the spot during a session, which can slow things down as well as have me falling into ruts and tropes. There are certain names, personality traits, and the like that stick in my brain. When all else fails I often fall back on these when put on the spot in a game. Now while these may be awesome names or traits, if I overuse them they become routine and boring. After the 5th surly dwarven blacksmith the surly dwarven blacksmiths become less and less interesting. Creating tables of names and even tables of personalities can help. I also try and make these locations and NPCs as flexible as possible. These NPCs and locations could appear in any number of towns, or whole towns could appear in any number of regions. This means I don’t ‘waste’ time inventing a town or NPCs the party never visits. I build a stockpile I can draw on when needed.
Individual session planning is mostly for fleshing out specific locations that the players are, in all likelihood, going to find themselves in during the session. Since I probably have lots of this on hand, it is mostly adding more details or refining. Similar to flexibility of locations and NPCs themselves I described in the previous section, I also try and be flexible in things like what NPCs have what information. I don’t want players to have to specifically go see Torvald the Dwarven Blacksmith to get information concerning Silvanna the Half-Elven Bandit Lord. I usually either determine that a handful of different NPCs could know this, or merely think of some things the characters should ask in order to get them the information. The main thing is to keep play and story moving forward, as opposed to having a firm idea of what the players need to do and who they have to talk to. I’m shaping a world around them, not trying to script their actions.
Of course most of the time session planning (or planning for a few sessions) involves fun things like dungeons and encounters. I may have a dungeon or other specific adventuring location already well defined, but encounter building I tend to save for the last minute. I always start with theme. The theme fits into the storyline that runs through the campaign, although the atmosphere of the location tends to trump everything. Is the dungeon mostly inhabited by undead? Barbarian tribes? A creepy cult? I try and think of a theme that includes either one fairly broad monster type (undead, fey, goblinoids) or that can include a mix (undead + cultists, orcs + mercenaries, dragons + kobolds). This gives me options to draw from in my encounters. While I want to have a broad selection to pull from, if a single dungeon or location is going to have multiple encounters in it I often want to simplify for myself what monster abilities, attacks, and spells that I have to be familiar with. So I tend to try and simplify the number I actually use in a given location or session.
I hope that gives you some insights into my process, and maybe it will help you. For me the most important things are: story, theme, having a robust toolbox, and being flexible in my preparation. And as always, a little whiskey goes a long way.