Hello book and dungeon bees! Today I’ll be going over some basic structuring for when, as a DM, you run a session for your table!
Setting a time
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a group of friends preparing to play D&D are in want of a time to play. Yes, the old adage is true: it’s super difficult to find consistent times to gather and play D&D. Part of this is because adult life is messy and hard to keep strictly scheduled sometimes. In the past, I’ve been in some successful consistent groups but even then there were breaks necessarily taken when one person’s schedule suddenly no longer fit.
If you’re planning just a single session, things get a lot easier. People can commit to a single afternoon or evening, a few hours, or even a whole day if necessary. What happens after that? Well, it’ll take hard work and commitment to turn that session into a multi-week affair.
Prep work: is it necessary?
Now we come to the biggest question of the DM’s existence. For myself, I’ve tried a little bit of everything and here’s what I’ve got on prep work. Prep work can be incredibly rewarding when done en masse, but it can also be exhausting especially if you find little payoff in the game. People often forget that the DM is also at the table, and is also a player of sorts. A lot of DMs struggle with the balance of making their players happy while also still enjoying being the DM and being happy at the table. Myself, I’ve only been happy during DMing with my current group, as this is the only table where as a DM I’ve felt I enjoyed the game as well.
This is partly tied to figuring out how prep work should work for you. To a certain extent, every session needs a little bit of prep. For a one shot, this means obtaining the materials you’ll use during the one shot from story plot to battle maps to minis to characters for your players to be. For a consistent campaign, the first session will need similar prep work. You’ll need information on the world your players are diving into so that you can begin worldbuilding. You’ll also need the basics of DMing, such as creature stats, magical items, and information on currency and inns.
In the time when I had loads of free time to prep sessions, I prepared a lot of stuff. I found worldbuilding worksheets online and built up the world my players were in to the point that I know how their planetary system actually works versus what the civilization has figured out so far. For individual sessions, I would draw out maps of the city they were in and assign up to 300 unique buildings with NPCs, item inventories, and potential plot points that they were free to stumble upon or completely avoid. I would put a list of potential encounters by my stuff while DMing, and keep an eye on it in case a trigger action happened such as “X character goes down this alley” leading to encountering a particular NPC.
That being said, I haven’t done that extensive prep work in a while. The most I do these days is decide in the hour before the session that I’m going to present a few possible encounters. I’ll get creature stats, NPC generators, and magic item lists fired up so that if the characters make certain choices I’m prepared to give them some combat or have them find some items. As the campaign has been driven by the players primarily, and there’s less necessary exposition and worldbuilding, I’m able to do this and be more of a backseat DM to their story.
Talk to your players
I list this as the next step because it’s important that you check in with your players about so many things, even as you’re prepping your session. It’s always good to discuss content and triggers that you should avoid, make sure the time and place you’re meeting works for everybody, and get a certain amount of discussion in about characters. Here is a condensed, and by no means complete, list of things you should check in with all your players about before a one shot, first session, or sometimes any session starts:
- Mental health – is everybody feeling up to a game that may take several hours?
- Content – is there anything in the story that needs to be checked on content wise? Is everybody comfortable with what might potentially happen in game?
- The table – make sure all of your players are comfortable with each other; all your players should know if the table is comprised of friends or strangers, and if a player seems hesitant to speak up be sure to ask them privately about it
- Characters – are your players building their own characters? are you providing pre-made sheets? what are the restrictions on characters they can make?
- Time and place – it’s always good to double check that everyone can easily make it to the location of the session at the appointed time
- Game mechanics – if you haven’t played with some of these players before, it’s best to do a quick check up and make sure they understand the rules of whatever game you’re playing
- Any questions? – be sure to give your players an opportunity to ask any questions that may be on their minds
Get supplies (and snacks!)
Depending on what kind of a session you’re looking at, you’ll need any number of supplies.
- Character Sheets – All of the players will need a sheet of some sort. If you have access to printing, paper sheets can be a fun way to keep everyone engaged. If you’re a pro-tech group or playing online, then it’s good to have a uniform organization of the character sheets such as everyone having one on Roll20 or everybody using the same sort of sheet.
- Maps – If you’re planning to have some combat, or even just some exploration, it can be good to have maps. This is more important for at-the-table games than for online ones. If you can, draw out/print your maps ahead of time so they’re ready to go at the drop of a hat!
- DM’s Supplies – A DM can need/want any number of things. If you’re at a table, you’ll need a screen of some sort to keep players from seeing your rolls and your notes. You can buy DM screens that have stat blocks and information printed inside, screens with attached dice rollers and initiative trackers, or just make a barrier for yourself. You’ll also likely need minis/figures of some sort for during combat, dice of your own, spare dice for any of your players (if an in person game), and stats and notes for what you’re planning (or access to generators/tables if you’re going to be improvising).
- Snacks and Drinks – The average (in my experience) session is 4-6 hours long, which is a while to sit and do one thing. It’s a good idea to have something to drink during the game since talking, and sometimes using voices, is a big thing. If you’re playing an in-person game it’s usually a good idea for everybody to bring one or two snacks to share around the table, or if you’re playing a longer session (I’ve played 10-12 hour sessions before) you should arrange to have food at some point.
Dungeons and Dragons, and other table top systems, is a game. The point is to have fun! If you’re playing a one shot and things start to feel boring, uncomfortable, or otherwise not fun then it’s time to pause and either reevaluate the direction the game is taking, or perhaps call it off. In the case of sessions for an extended campaign, there will be times that things are slower or a little boring for someone. But if session after session things are consistently boring or uncomfortable that means it’s time to speak up. I’ve played campaigns where some sessions were dedicated to a specific character’s story arc, and that meant fewer roleplay opportunities for the rest of us. And that’s okay! It was fun to see the story progress for that character, and though there was more downtime than usual for myself it wasn’t the norm and so I didn’t grow bored over time. So long as you’re still having fun, that’s the important thing!