My typical night before D&D is usually filled with a variety of blog searching and brainstorming. If I’m lucky, the week before I’ve attempted to nail down what the players should expect for the following session. Usually this gets me a focus on what to plan out during the week, but hey, I never plan things out during the week. I’m a busy gamer, I’ve got other games to play. Beers to drink. Life stuff. Or something.
Sunday night however, that’s usually when I get most of my creativity down and start working out what could possibly happen during the next session. If my players are feeling generous, I’ll be able to squeeze out of them their immediate goals and plan around those. Otherwise it’s down to creating plot hooks and at least having an idea for the next part of the campaign. My game world is very open, so players are really free to do pretty much whatever they want. There’s an overarching plot ongoing that was introduced to them at the beginning of the game, but it was also left out there as something could just as easily be left alone and unresolved.
Less about the current, more about the process. Google Drive is my main repository for homebrew rules and campaign notes. All of my players have access to what is basically my Players Handbook for the new classes, adjusted stats, leveling charts, and whatever other systems have been changed from the standard PHB. They all have access to it and are free to consult anything in there at any time. Hell, some of them use it from their cell phones during a game session. Personally I bring my laptop to each session and I’ll have all of my DM notes in a separate section. I have all of their character sheets stripped down to stat blocks and relevant abilities, along with magic items, so I have a quick glance at whatever I need. I also have all of my NPC’s sorted out with the same stat blocks and a description for myself or the players.
I don’t really do much with maps, although I could if I started creating them digitally. I just haven’t really found anything that I want to pay for online, and a lot of the free solutions seem overly complicated. I did make a couple of wide area maps for the country the campaign is based in that turned out pretty well, but it was printed up. Generally I’ll have a whiteboard at the gaming table and something hand drawn to work from. Part of coming up with new ideas is finding bits and pieces from existing ideas that mix in with my own insanity. The vast depth of OD&D blogs out there makes it pretty easy to find concepts that my players may have never encountered, or that I would never have thought of. I never blatantly rip something off though, everything really needs to go through my own personal filter and get mashed together.
In planning a session for 4 hours there’s a handful of assumptions to make. First, everyone expects some combat. In four hours we can usually slug our way through three combat sessions at the most, on average lasting 6 rounds. Combat that runs much longer than that can get tiring. More sessions than that in a night and we’ll be running out of time halfway through the fourth. Three also assumes there isn’t much else in the way of dialog with NPCs, discovery of new information, dealing with traps/doors/puzzles, or other narrative devices that moves a plot along. We rarely devote 4 straight hours to combat, and generally stick to an easy and hard combat rhythm.
I have two sets of notes that I’ve been tracking since starting this most recent campaign. One set is for all the discovered narrative by the players, and tracking all of their activities. Who they have met, what was talked about, when objectives were made, where they were going, and how battles have been resolved, pretty much everything that a Character would have knowledge in has been done up as a review at the end of a session or sometime during the week. I recommend doing this, and if you can keep DM info out of it, release it to your players so they have a living document of their activities in the campaign. I’m not quite there with it yet, still some things that need to be pulled out, but it’s close.
The other set of notes are more for myself, these are my planning notes. Everything that’s already happened before the next session is taken into account and I plan out a bunch of different things that players could possibly encounter depending on the choices they make. These can include sets of battles that might occur, all of my plot hooks go here, previously encountered NPC’s might have something reactionary that will occur during a session (this keeps the world setting at a level that seems more alive), and of course any treasure that would be discovered is planned out long beforehand. I’m a big fan of using treasure against the party before they get their hands on it. These notes are unfortunately far less structured because of how much planning goes into them. I don’t always get the chance to use some of the things I’ve planned, which can get confusing if I’m trying to base my plans off of my notes, instead of the party review notes.
Other things that I keep limited to myself are concepts for adjustments to existing rules that I haven’t implemented yet. I have been tweaking leveling systems on the back end for a while, but we’re not using them in-game yet. Probably if we re-roll new characters in the future I might implement it. Things like domain powers used to be in these notes until I nailed down a pantheon of gods and the current campaign has seen them in action. I’ve also been using these private notes as a section to digitize things that existed on paper, that I might not have characters use, like a martial artist class, rules for psionics, a CR system that can apply to 2e proficiences, mercenary groups in the country, etc.
I might pull out a martial artist that they would encounter in battle, and all of the rules would be written down there so players wouldn’t be able to accuse me of pulling things out of my ass. Or the mercenary groups being a recurring bit of flavor in structure, attitude, and potentially as groups for the players to join if they’re so inclined. Psionics exist as well, even thought they’re not available to players. It’s important to have your rules written down, or be able to pull examples from a book that has it written down. Credibility as a DM comes from making judgement calls that are either fair, or previously documented. If someone didn’t like how the MA worked, I could have them come over to the laptop and take a look at when the doc was created. Not just now, but years ago. Yes this is planned, you’re only confused because you’ve never seen it before.
That’s what all the planning is about too, you never want to have your players feel like you’re arbitrarily getting the best of them because you just throw shit against the wall until the party succumbs to you. If you can prove that a challenge is difficult by design you’ll garner much more respect than constantly DM’ing on the fly. It’s a nice trick to be able to do once in a while and still have your players engaged in the story, but do it too long and you’re bound to get called out on it. Being a great DM requires infrastructure so you can easily present your world in a smooth fashion. Hopefully my epic wall of text sparked some insight.