Disclaimer – I’m not an expert. Like most DMs, I’m learning as I go; it has taken me numerous sessions to finally find a groove that I’m comfortable with which reduces how long it takes me to prepare my sessions within my campaign. Whether you’re planning a one-shot, or just looking to reduce your organisation time before (and during) your game, here’s how I enable myself to create a fairly well-structured session and also allow myself room to manoeuvre when my party inevitably do something I did not expect.
That’s one of two things every DM needs to understand and accept right now: your party will not go where you pointed. They will be creative, and they will make their own decisions within the game which don’t correlate with what you had secretly hoped. They will abandon your dungeon. They will take a rest in a dangerous place. They will decide the quest isn’t as important to them as it is to you and explore somewhere else. But – and this is the second thing to remember – this is ok! I’m a firm believer that my job is to design amazing moments for my party, and adapt when they’re not feeling it. My job is not to force a narrative upon them, railroad them into a path because it’s ‘where the story goes next’. There are, however, lessons to learn from when a party branches away from your narrative: was your quest enticing enough to the individuals in your group? Were the stakes high enough to encourage them onward? Was your dungeon design (and vocal description) just too mediocre? Maybe. But we’re always learning. It’s part of the fun.
So, how do I plan? Well, I used to be so insecure about forgetting details that I would literally write-up in prose everything I needed. I used to colour-code. I used to rehearse. I still have the notes from my first session and there are pages and pages of information. But, like I do as a teacher, I find shortcuts to reduce workload. The best shortcut for me? Flowcharts.
Initially, I draft out a session which involves some basic narrative arc fundamentals:
a) A call to action or dilemma for the party (trigger).
b) Obstacles and hurdles (encounter/s for the party)
c) Rising stakes or building tension (make it worse)
d) Crossing threshold (penultimate event before climax).
e) Climax and conclusion (a boss fight or final puzzle/obstacle).
Once I have a basic outline – one that provides flexibility within the encounters but normally narrows towards the threshold – I begin to drill into the details and attempt to reduce all of the key information to a single page.
The key, I find, to this part of the planning is to keep my notes simple so that if my party decide to do something unexpected, I can simply traverse my grid and shift my encounters elsewhere. NPCs can move to a new location, treasure and encounters can quickly be shuffled, and I can think on my feet. As the players move through a grid on my sheet, I simply tick it off to reduce clutter on my page.
In terms of a wider campaign, I apply the same process – a large (and ever-changing) flowchart which enables me to quickly shift from location to location depending on the whims of my group. Being a DM is largely about being on your toes, having enough planning to keep the story moving (always), but ensuring that organic adventures grow out of your party’s decisions. It’s not your narrative, it’s the group’s. You are a player, too – and your role is a lot of hard work, but it should also be a lot of fun.
I still use spreadsheets for NPCs, a log of plot points for my characters’ individual backstories and key events, and I still write my narrative introductions and descriptions in prose. Don’t get me wrong, attempting to write an immersive experience does involve writing, but when it comes to your individual session, whatever format you choose to plan with should leave you feeling confident. If you’re anxious about missing a detail, or secretly terrified of your party altering course, then experiment with some different organisation styles in order to match your personality. Flash cards, post-it notes, etc. can all be used effectively if that’s your thing.
Ultimately, my best and my most humble advice is to simply use a framework that allows you to relax and enjoy the game. Listen to your party role-play rather than re-reading notes, be involved without micro-managing five steps ahead, and – if all else fails – you can just ask the party for a break whilst you get a coffee and reboot.
Find what works for you, and enjoy what you create.
The Desperate DM.