Preparing for each session is the most vital part of of being a good DM. No player likes it when every hour the DM needs to step away to read something or prepare for the next part of the adventure.
As the DM you should be prepared for what the players will be doing in that session as well as have a loose idea of any possibilities that could arise due to choices that are made. And yes, not everything is going to go to plan, that’s part of the fun! But if you at least have a few loose ideas of what could happen in various situations then you’ll be better prepared for anything that comes your way.
In this post I’ll be listing out how I prepare for an adventure as a whole, and then how I prepare for an upcoming session.
DISCLAIMER: This is prep for a pre-written adventure. I’ll talk about homebrewing in a different post, but the tips here can be used there as well.
Before I jump in to all of this, it’d be good for you to understand the tools I use for my games and why I use them. This article would get really long if I listed out tips for every different type of tool you could use.
Don’t worry though, the basic stuff that I do, regardless of my tools, can be replicated in other ways to play. Below are what I use for my games:
- A Laptop
- D&D Beyond
- Microsoft One Note
- Tabletop Audio/YouTube
- A Set of Dice
- Game Pieces/Minis
- Bottle Rings
- A Deck of Cards
- DM Screen
- Grid Paper/Dry Erase Grid
My laptop houses all of my digital tools at the table. I use D&D Beyond to have my adventure pulled up as well as to run my encounters and Microsoft One Note for any adventure notes. I keep a set of dice for my use, even though in combat I tend to use the digital dice for damage rolls — makes it way easier and faster.
I keep a set of game pieces or miniatures if I have them that can be used to represent monsters the party will be fighting; this can literally be anything from any game, it doesn’t have to be official minis. I collect bottle rings from coke bottles or milk jugs to be used as status indicators if a monster or player has an effect put on them, and I keep a deck of cards for Cardic Inspiration — one of my homebrew rules that I’ll cover in a different post.
I try to keep everything pretty clean and clutter free behind my screen — as you can see in the picture at the top — which is of course used to keep the players eyes off of my rolls and notes, as well as provide me with quick access to special rules.
Lastly, I use a dry erase grid for combat so the players can have a layout of the combat space which also has square/hex tiles for movement and distance purposes.
Now that you understand what I work with, let’s talk about how I prep.
In this section I want to talk about how I prepare for an adventure as a whole, which yes, is different than preparing for a single session.
Once I have my adventure bought, before I do anything else, I read through it from front to back at least once. This allows me to get a good idea from the start regarding what the players will be doing and the overall theme of the adventure.
After the first read through, I will then go through each chapter with a more critical eye while taking notes. This allows me to decide if I want to change something that I feel can work better for the adventure as a whole. EX: The beginning of the Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus.
If there is something I want to change, I’ll make a quick note of it so I remember to return to it when I’m finished.
Once that second pass through has happened, I go back to my notes and find the sections that I want to change and then spend some time making those changes, typically writing out the entire section so it makes sense to me.
Once I have made my changes, I like to go in and write out the entire adventure in my own words.
Now this is not something that you really need to do, all the info is in the book, but writing everything out for myself really helps me remember what is going to be coming as well as allow me to put everything in my own words.
Microsoft One Note is absolutely incredible for this. As you can see in the picture above, I’m able to label each chapter of the book, and have an individual section within each chapter for all the things they could be doing. This allows me to quickly move between the different sections without having to slow down.
This might seem like a lot, but DMing is a lot of work. I promise, if you put in the time, your adventure will be better for it.
Once I have my notes all written out and/or written out the entire adventure in my words, I can move on to my next step.
At this point, I like to go ahead and get my audio set up going. It’s good to have music or ambiance playing at certain times to help set a good atmosphere at the table, especially for combat.
You don’t need some elaborate speaker set up either, your laptop or tablet speakers will do just fine.
I’m going to spend a bit more time on Tabletop Audio here as YouTube is pretty self explanatory.
I use YouTube if I’m looking for a specific soundtrack or theme from other media like movies or video games. I’ll simply create a playlist, search for songs, and add them to it so I can easily access them later when I need to.
Tabletop Audio is a bit different. It’s a free website that allows you to either use custom created soundtracks or create your own with their SoundPad.
You can quite literally craft your own ambiance with the many different types of sounds they have, or simply just use a single track. They have all sorts of different themes to choose from as well that you can pull your tracks from.
Oh, and did I mention it’s free?
Just be sure to save the SoundPad and get a copy of the link to email yourself so you can pull it up when needed. Unfortunately they do not yet have a login/profile system to save all of your sounds to.
In my How to Start Playing D&D post I talked about the encounter builder and combat tracker that D&D Beyond has. Quite simply, it is my favorite tool to use for my games.
Before I prep for a session, I like to go ahead and build out all of my encounters for the adventure so it’s one less thing to do prior to each session.
This tool makes it very easy for me to search the monsters the party will be fighting and have the characters imported as well. It will even give me a rough idea of how difficult an encounter might be depending on the parties size and level.
One key thing here is to name your encounter in a way that makes it easy for you locate it later. I tend to put the adventure — chapter — event; or if they’re in a dungeon, adventure — chapter — location — room
One example would be: DiA — C1 — DotD3 — D6
This tells me the encounter is in Descent into Avernus, Chapter 1, Dungeon of the Dead Three, Room D6.
I will do this for each encounter in the book and when it’s time to the run the encounter, I can run it and it will help me keep track of initiative order, monster stats, and monster health. The combat tracker also allows me to roll digital dice for the monsters, and I use it for damage rolls. For me, it makes combat much quicker when a monster does 6 d6+10 damage and I can just click a button for it.
That is essentially all the prep I do for the adventure as a whole. Most of my time is spent reading the adventure, taking notes, making changes, and writing the adventure out in my own words.
So now let’s talk about week-of session prep.
Prepping for a session is much easier than prepping for the adventure as a whole. If you took the steps I took, then your work needed for the session will be limited, and that’s a good thing.
The idea behind all the adventure prep I do is so I can focus on other things during the week — real life — and only worry about the current session maybe just an hour or two prior to it getting started.
Previous Session Recap
It’s always good to just spend some time recapping for yourself what the party did in the session prior. You’ll of course then want to relay this to the party once the session starts.
It’s good for everyone to know what they’ve already done and what has led them to the point in the adventure they are currently at, so recapping yourself helps you relay this information at the start.
Once you’ve reminded yourself on what has already happened, you can now read through the parts in the adventure that the party will be getting to next.
It’s always good to read it out loud to yourself to make sure it all sounds good to you. This will also refresh your mind on what comes next so there are no hold ups in the session.
Remember, the players are going in blind, but you as the DM should not. You should know everything that is coming up next.
And don’t forget, the rules you used for adventure prep can apply here. If all of the sudden you don’t like something and want to change it, do it! Change it now before the session begins so you can be ready.
Prepare Your Tools
Take the time to prepare the things you’ll need for the session. For me, I like to open my laptop and open the tabs for the websites I’ll need and open One Note so I can have all that ready.
Additionally, if I have any specific miniatures I want to use for encounters, I’ll get those out so they’re ready to go. From there I just gather my remaining things: my dice, my deck of cards, my bottle rings, and my dry erase grid.
NOTE: If you are using grid paper, since it isn’t reusable, spend some time to draw out your maps so when it’s time to use them they are readily available.
If you’re like me and use a dry erase grid, you’re working on the fly here.
And that’s pretty much it! The bulk of your work comes prior to any session. Getting that adventure prepped and ready is so incredibly important for a smooth campaign, so take the time to get it right.
And as you can see, when you put in that work, it makes session prep super easy. Most of the work is done, all you really need is to refresh your brain before you get going.