The Art of Adventure Prep

In my time running D&D games, there is one constant that has plagued me – bad prep notes. Try as I might, getting all the information I need into a form that leaves me able to accurately run the game I planned has eluded me, leading to one of two outcomes; a game where I feel strangled by my notes, or an entirely improvised game that is fun to play, but overly complex to build over multiple sessions.

Here, I’m hoping to spend some time critiquing my various prep methods. I hope this is useful to you (and myself), planning games in future. Also, please let me know if you prepare your notes differently. I’d love to learn from you guys too!

The DM Folder.

Of all the methods I’ve used, this is by far my favourite, but by the far most unwieldy. In the Sunday Night games I ran (after which this blog is named), I had a lever arch folder split into various sections. These ranged from a section devoted to the city of Waterdeep (maps, charts for shops, detailed descriptions of areas of interest, etc), a section devoted to NPCs (name scratch sheets, stat blocks for NPCs the characters had met, or could meet), and a section devoted entirely to pre-built adventures and spare maps.

This method was wonderful for a number of reasons. I had everything at my fingertips, all in bullet pointed format and easy to rattle off. I could make notes to my heart’s content and print off additional material when I needed. Flicking to the place I needed was made easy by good sectioning, and good labelling. The method’s huge downfall is the sheer amount of space it takes up. Before even beginning to worry about DM screens, dice trays, handouts, minis, 3d terrain and maps, and the rest of those things that we DMs love to use, the majority of our gaming table was dominated by my folder, even on a 6’x4′ table.

This method is something I use outside of the game now. My Talomire setting is wrapped up entirely in one folder, giving me all the resources I need to build adventures and plan nights of gameplay. It’s not something I can use at the table anymore, unfortunately.

The DM Journal

This single item is responsible for the vast majority of my RPG related creativity over the last few months. Constantly carrying a journal that is dedicated to maps, concepts, mechanics and lore means that so much of what would once have been lost to the aether has instead been codified and kept. The rampant creativity, the ability to riff on ideas over time, the ability to come back to ideas and maps down the line; these are all invaluable, and I recommend it unreservedly.

When it comes to running games from a journal you gain a lot of the advantages of a DM folder, but without the ability to properly organise it. It also requires you to be disciplined in your creativity, writing what needs to be written in order. With the way my mind works, this makes it difficult to run anything beyond a one-shot from my journal. Truthfully, this is entirely down to my own lack of discipline. My second journal, I’m hoping, will be much more organised, but I’m not really too hopeful.

My Notebook

With my latest campaign I decided to try and combine the two methods I’ve tried before. I bought a ringbound notebook and took notes on the published adventure I was running. Edge of Darkness is a free Dark Heresy adventure, designed in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. I took bullet point notes on each of the areas, cutting out the descriptive elements from the adventure and highlighting all the elements of that section that I felt were needed. My issue with published adventures has always been making them my own. Reading from the book I feel I need to keep to their vision, and as a result I stop improvising and creating. With this adventure I felt I was able to tear out the things I needed, shave off the parts I felt were surplus, and really make the adventure my own.

The problems I found were mainly due to my failings as a DM, rather than the method. I found myself reading the descriptive text, rather than using it as a guide. As such my descriptions were two-dimensional and lacking a certain something to really make the city immersive. Which leads to…

Prep Moving Fowards

Moving forwards I have two games that I’m planning, and I’m planning on preparing each game in different ways.

  1. Warhammer 40,000
    My 40k campaign is designed to be an open world, investigative game. As a DM that means I have to have all of my information in one place. If the players decide they have a lead on one planet that leads to a completely different planet, then I need to be able to flip to that information. The idea is to condense all of the preparation I need to run the campaign into bullet point format, and run from a ringbound notebook. Each NPC will have a specific motivation, and their movements will be jotted in sections at the back so I can keep track of them. Rather than large block of descriptive text, I plan on filling the book with artwork that depicts the scene I want to portray, with notes on each of the five senses to add flavour (no pun intended).

    A lot of my conceptual preparation for this campaign will be done in my journal, then  moved across to the notebook fully formed.

  2. The Monthly Brew Dog Game
    The Brew Dog game is going to be made up of a series of one-shot games. As such, this game will be run entirely from my notebook. A single map, with each room named to give flavour, and a quick rundown of the mechanics of the encounter within will cover a double spread or two, allowing me to improvise as much as I want without having to worry too much about continuity.

Final Words

I hope any of this is helpful. I plan (when my PC decides to start working again) on making a video detailing how I prep adventures, which should make a lot of what’s written here make more sense. I’ll post that up here when it’s done.

If you’ve got any thoughts, fire me a comment or a message. I’d love to hear how you prepare your games, so please teach me your ways!