There is lots of stuff online for experienced players, but what about all of those new DM’s out there that are learning by fire? WELL GOD BLESS YOU!!! I honestly don’t know how you do it, I was lucky and got to play and play until I felt ready to DM competently, and even then I had an experienced DM to look over my shoulder and gently nudge me in the right direction. That just isn’t all that practical anymore, so as a shout out to all new DM’s out there, this one is for you. (BTW, I’m once again blowing my 2 page limit, but I want this stuff to be all in the same post, so that it doesn’t have to be cross referenced. This way, all the info that you need will be in this 6 page monster. Feel free to save it and use it off-line and refer to it whenever you need it. IT’S YOURS!!!)
Probably the best way to learn how an adventure works, is picking up published Modules; grab a couple, and compare them against each other. They’ll teach you how to organize your stuff when you’re ready to start writing your own, and show you what kinds of monsters are powerful enough to challenge characters of different levels without over-powering them, and it also gives you an idea of what kind of information that you should have prepared for any given session.
You hear the word PREP all over the place, but what is it? And what should you be doing with your time? Well, even though the Module is complete, it still needs to be “Prepared” before you can run it effectively and smoothly. Prep consists of organizing, tailoring, adjusting, and making backup plans. DON’T FREAK OUT! I’ll explain all of this stuff as we go.
First, collect your books. You’ll need all your core books (Players Handbook- PHB, Dungeon Masters Guide-DMG, and a Monsterous Manual or it’s equivalent-MM), and you’ll also want to read the entire Module before you really start any prep at all. Once you’ve done this, it’s time to get started! Pick it up and read it again, but this time we are going to start the first process of Dungeon prep: Organizing!
Organization is the cornerstone of becoming a competent Dungeon Master. Before storytelling, or puzzle mastering, or blowing PC’s away with awesome combat, you FIRST have to be organized. Nothing is more annoying then a DM who constantly has to stop the game and look stuff up. We are going to learn all that we need to during the Prep session. This will take awhile, but trust me, it’s time well spent!
The first thing that you’ll want to know, is that you’ve got everything that you need. Lots of modules like to add little details from books that you don’t have; like adding monsters that are in some obscure compendium somewhere, or telling you that you need some other reference book that
makes the company some extra green helps flesh out your adventure, if you have it GREAT!!! Dig it out and add it to your core books, but if you don’t just ignore it for now, we’ll deal with that problem later.
What we need to do now is find all of the facts so that they’ll be handy when we need them. Paperclips are a DM’s best friend. Seriously! Grab your handy-dandy MM and look up all of the monsters. Read the entries so that you know what all they can do, and mark them all with paperclips so that when your characters run into them, and start confusing you with their insane tactics, you can just flip the book open to the right page without having to stop while you’re telling them to shut up for a second.
Not all stats are written down either, you’ll have to roll up hit points for some of your miner monsters; you can either write these in the margins of the module itself, or organize an NPC chart with entries for each individual NPC. For hit points, I always type the number and a slash then leave some space behind it so that I can write in the hp with a pencil without losing the base hp, just in case they get healed or something.
You’ll also want to photocopy off sections of the Module that you’ll need for reference while playing the game, that way you don’t have to flip back and forth through everything constantly. Little maps, handouts, main NPC pages, anything that you’ll want to find quickly. Again you’ll want to have everything loose so that you can have it to look at WHILE your playing, flipping back and forth between the main Villain’s stat page can slow you down more then you think.
You’ll also want to take a highlighter and highlight the stuff that you want to find on the module itself at a glance. Stuff like treasure, important facts about stuff in the room, and for some reason they like to hide NPC dialog in a sea of fluff that your characters don’t need to know. Basically, you want to highlight anything that you feel will be important for your players to know, just don’t go crazy. If you highlight too much, then you really didn’t do yourself any favors because now you can’t find it.
Finally, you’ll want to look up all of the goofy rules that might be in the thing, such as flying rules, and other such combat that is unique to the module, and that you probably don’t play every day. Even if there is an encounter that takes place in a swamp or a mountain, you’ll want to look it up in the DMG & PHB to familiarize yourself with how they are handled. It’s best to mark this stuff off with a paperclip too.
You should also organize what spells your NPCs have, it is a real investment to go out and get yourself some index cards and a little box to keep them in. On an index card, write out everything that you’ll want to remember about how the spell works, and what it does: Just the relevant info. Please don’t sit down and record every spell in the PHB, that’s just a waste of time. Just do them as you need them and in time you’ll have them all collected because you can reuse them. The same goes for weird magic stuff that is in there, that stuff gets confusing! Especially with magical items that have a specific amount of charges; You’ll want to record the charges right on the card so that you can give it to the PC once he gets his filthy grimy hands on it.
A quick word about random encounters, THESE THINGS ARE GOLD!!! If the module includes them, you’ll definitely want to save that, because like our spell cards, they are reusable. How you handle them depends on your style as a DM. Always copy these things off to loose leaf and keep them in a binder or something. You can either pre-roll hp and pre-record any treasure they might have, or if you’ve got a set and feel confident, you can roll everything up randomly at the game. Usually this is just 1 or 2 creatures so it don’t take any time to roll them up. You’ll want to look these up in your MM too, but instead of marking them off with a paperclip, just write the page number down directly onto your Random Encounter list.
Now we should be pretty damned organized! Yes our eyes are bleeding and our fingers are cramped and scarred with paper cuts, but we got all of our homework out of the way! We are prepared for anything!!! Well not quite yet, but the really time consuming part is over. We know where everything is at in all of the books that we need. We have important stuff loose leafed, for easy flipping, and our index cards are all together with spell info and magic items. We are now ready to start tailoring!
Tailoring the Adventure
What this means, is that we’ll be fitting the module into our own gaming world that is unique to us. Sometimes this is a lot of work, and sometimes it isn’t. If you are playing in your own world, then you need to either add the new areas to your maps, or change the names of these areas on the module to fit where you want all of these events to take place. Continuity is key here, if you put a river by a town in this adventure, then that river needs to be there when the characters come back to the town 3 years from now. Sometimes the module can take place anywhere, but most of the time they are full of specifics, and these need to be factored in when you make your decisions about what to do.
Also, sometimes the adventure talks about an NPC that . . . Oops, you killed him off. Well, we are going to have to replace him with somebody else. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Say you want to put one of your own NPCs in the module that might be in the area. Go ahead and do it, THAT’S GREAT!!! You should feel free to make this module your own. Just remember logic and continuity.
Remember how the Module told you that you’d need some obscure book about “Monster Mythology” well you don’t need to spend 20 or 30 bucks for a paragraph and a half about what gods the NPC goblin priest worships, not unless you think that you can get your moneys worth out of it. It’s just as easy to make it up, or Tailor it to fit inside of your world. It’s just a name, if it’s more then that, then all the info would have been in the Module itself. On the same token, if it’s a weird monster that you don‘t have the stats for, then just replace it with something else. If it does a specific feat that is required to run the module then it should be in the module itself, this is annoying but you can find a monster with a similar feat, just make sure that it’s not so powerful that it slaughters your players, nor so weak that it gets killed the second somebody spits on it, if this isn’t possible then you get to work on the secret power of every DM; the ability to lie one’s ass off.
Don’t forget your Random Encounters lists! They love to put obscure stuff here, either replace it with a different monster that is native to the area, or write DM’s Choice.
Spells need to be tailored sometimes too, by looking all of them up in our organization process, we know which ones that we ain’t got. I know that there is a monster in 2nd edition AD&D called, “Zombie Lord”. One of his special abilities was this thing labeled, “Weakness, like the spell.” Well guess what. There is no spell called Weakness. I spent more time than I care to admit to trying to find the specs of this spell, because I LOVE ZOMBIE LORDS!!! But alas, it was a typo that never got corrected, so what I did was, I just created a reverse to the spell, Strength, and all was happy in the world! If it calls for a spell that you don’t have, again, use logic! If you can get your money out of a given Supplemental book then go for it, but don’t buy a book that you only need one entry out of. Just replace it with a spell that has roughly the same effect, tinker with an old spell that you have info for and create a new spell, or simply ignore it, because if the Module didn’t think that it was necessary to include it inside of it, then it’s just an
advertisement for a book they can’t sell extra way to add color and life to your game world.
Now that we got the game tailored to our world, it’s time to adjust it to fit our characters.
Adjusting to the Characters
For some strange reason Module writers think that you’ll have no problem finding 6 or 7 players to play with, but of course we know better, don’t we. The Module should be labeled something like, “This Adventure is suitable for 4-8 players of 5th-10th level," or such gibberish. In English this means that you’ll either need 4 players of 10th level, or 8, 5th level characters to run the adventure. That’s what it’s been play tested for, but as a rule of thumb take the highest level suggested, in this case 10, and multiply it by 3, and that will give you the minimum amount of hit die that your players need to have, to survive the dungeon as written, in my example the party would need to add up to at least 30 HD. Of course this is just a rule of thumb and won’t work for all situations, but it’s a good guide.
The first part of adjusting it to the characters, is to set it to the proper difficulty level. THIS IS HARDER THEN IT SOUNDS!!!! Notice how bold, and easy to read that that sentence was, this isn’t a mistake, remember that. You are going to screw it up and you won’t know it until actual play starts. Never underestimate the chaos and destructive powers that a guy with a sword can wreck! It’s better to overestimate then it is to underestimate because you can always pull back, but it’s not as easy to make a scenario more difficult.
Usually you won’t have enough people to play the game as it’s been written, just don’t underestimate the PCs, I can’t stress this enough, but for now I’ll quit barking at you about it. We need to adjust the monsters to the proper level . . . Well perhaps that isn’t quite accurate, perhaps I should say Numbers. Play with hp, and the number of monsters that appear, this is always a mystery that only experience can teach you. If an encounter is just to big, feel free to cut it down some, you can always send in more troops if you PC’s are wasting them, or chopping through a horde too easily. Some of this will just have to wait for game day to make your final adjustments. We want to make it difficult, but not impossible. YOU don’t ever want to kill a character. Yeah characters die, but make sure that it was because of something that they did, not you. Keep track of their hit points and listen to them. Have them warn you if they are running low, if the module doesn’t include a method for handling a retreat then you’ve screwed up, but guess what? It happens to the best of us. Just adjust it the best that you can to fit with the players abilities, most of the time it won’t be a problem, but you need to think about worse case scenarios and TRY to plan if one happens. More about this later.
It is helpful to know what character classes that your PC’s will be prior to prepping the adventure. If this isn’t possible, you are going to have to dictate to the members of the team what classes that the dungeon needs while they are rolling up new characters, if this is the case then you can run it as written! But for this exercise, I’m just going to assume that the characters will be already established and ready to continue from a previous game.
We’ve read through the adventure so many times that we practically know it by heart! Now we have to go back to certain areas and adjust them to what your party can accomplish. If they don’t have a thief then they are going to need ways to get through locked doors and to open chests. No cleric? Well, they are going to need to have some way of regaining hp quickly to survive. Maybe a magic item needed to beat the dungeon requires a wizard to wield it, but nobody is playing a wizard. That means that maybe the item needs to be replaced with something that they can use. Hide extra potions around if you think that they'll need them, give monsters keys, or maybe the characters are carrying too many magic items for your taste already, you can erase them from the get-go, and replace it with something like cash or scrolls . . . if they got to much money, you can fix that too by making them pay tolls to enter cities, and increase the prices of supplies.
Also look at your players style, what is it that they like to do? Maybe you can add a puzzle element to the dungeon, or you want to make it more geared towards setting up some fun things to role-play. If you’ve got a character that hates goblins and gets a bonus to slaughtering the poor little buggers, throw some in there! Give the thief a sentry to sneak up on and back stab. Add a wizard to an encounter to heckle them. Maybe you see a spot where you could put in something fun that YOU’VE always wanted to do, go ahead and add it! Just be aware of the consequences of your actions, if you give an enemy a powerful magic item, chances are that by the end of the adventure it will be in the hands of a PC, and this can really bite you in the ass down the road. Don’t be afraid of it, but be aware of it. Perhaps you already did it, then this is the time to adjust the module to account for that as well. If your main villain is a wizard, and your fighter has a sword that is +5 when fighting wizards, well, the villain is going to have to defend himself or else the climax will be ruined. Always protect your story! Get creative, maybe an NPC thief can steal it and give it to the Wizard who puts it some place where the warrior can't find it until after the adventure is over. At the same time, you don’t want to ignore stuff either. You can adjust things so that they have opportunities to actually use the swag that they have earned. Make sure that the module gives each of them an opportunity to really shine. Look at their characters and insure that some of the abilities that they have can be used.
You also want to look at your enemy tactics as well, and make your final decisions if you want to use them or not. If you used that one in the last game, then you should change it some. Make it possible for a quiet breach of security on the PC’s part, and what they will do if the alert goes out.
Now we’ve made it fun for party, it’s time for the last stage of prep. Preparing for alternative story-lines.
Players have this profound habit of accidentally getting deviated from what it is that they are suppose to be doing. This isn’t much of a problem in a controlled setting, such as a dungeon crawl . . . But most of the time, the only way that you can control where they go, is to get down on your knees and beg them not to. Now, the module might tell you that two guards blocking a locked door will keep the PC’s from heading off of your map or the prepared adventure, but we both know that this is the biggest crock of crap that we’ve ever heard in our lives. When we set limits, it is always going to piss somebody off and they will become obsessed with finding a way to bypass the limit, and the entire time, thinking that THIS IS PART OF THE ADVENTURE!!!
The worse thing that you can ever do, is tell a player, “No.”
We are going to look over our module one last time and look for spots where this might happen. It’s okay to talk out of your ass at times, and you’ll need to, because no matter how well we plan, the chances of the PC’s heading off map is going to be high. We can’t see everything, but that is what makes being the DM fun and challenging. Let the little stuff slide, but look for huge holes. If a house that the PC’s will enter is mentioned but the interior isn’t described then you can add some fluff to it, nothing fancy just write down one or two curious objects. If your PC’s have to knock on some doors to get information then write down a short, reusable list of 0th level NPC names. Don’t get too carried away! Most of this stuff can be improvised, but some stuff, if you screw it up, then it will mislead the PC’s into heading into some crazy plot-line that you know nothing about.
Remember how I told you to never underestimate your players? Well this is the time to prepare one or two NPC’s that can aid the PC’s if they start to get their asses handed to them. These NPC’s will be a couple of levels higher then what the party is, and be treated as henchmen. Careful about getting too carried away with these guys, you don’t want to start playing with yourself, these NPC’s are just used as assistance, if you know damned well that you are going to need them, then give them to a player and have them roll their attacks, but you keep track of their Moral and make all final decisions about what they will or won’t do. You can either make the PC’s hire the help, or have them heroically arrive in the nick of time, but remember and remind your players as well, that since these NPC’s are taking part in the Melee, then they will have to be entitled to their share of experience points and treasure, so that the more help that they hire, the less XP they will earn in the long run.
Another worst case scenario that we are going to plan now, is inexplicable retreats. Sometimes these are required as a proper strategy to defeating a given scenario, but if it is gone about in the wrong way, then it’s not going to work. If the PC’s kill a bunch of bandits in their lair, and retreat outside to regain health and spells, then that’s cool; but if they head back to town and dawdle to much then the bandits will hire more requites and make plans for a better defense. The longer that the PC’s are away, the stronger the badguys are going to be. Just use logic, if it’s one or two days, then they might be able to recruit 4 or 5 men per day.
The final worst case scenario to plan for is character death. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, you just have the player roll up a new character, but if you are in a dungeon, getting him into the party could be a problem. Plan for this by putting a jail or something inside of the dungeon where the new character can be found in. We don’t want to do this, but sometimes we have no choice as there are lots of players who just seem to think that every adventure is a suicide mission.
Of course, the last part about the module that you’ve got to prepare for is the ramifications and the consequences of everybody’s actions . . . Or the lack there of. If the players are intent on not surviving the dungeon, or refuse to battle the villain that the module is about, the villain is going to win. What does this mean?
Players can do really really stupid stuff for really stupid reasons. They can kill a captain of the guard, be rude to the king or queen. This stuff can’t be planed for, but you do have to plan for if the Players lose the game, and it will change your world for the worse every time that it happens, you as the DM just have to have the moxi to let it happen.
If you tailored your main city into the module where an evil Necromancer is turning folks into an undead army, by the time that the next game starts, the capital city will be ruled by a necromancer, and the King may be dead (or at least forced to flee), in which case his entire kingdom is now at the mercy of an evil wizard. The world doesn’t end, it just changes. YOU have to let it happen.
Modules are almost always about major events, and the only ones who can stop it are the PC’s themselves, have fun with it. Very few games end in defeat, but it needs to be in the back of your mind what you are doing and how it will effect the world . . . Hell, there might also be a world change if they win!
You’ll also want to roll up a backup villain in case yours gets killed too quickly. You want your climax to be as powerful, and as cool, and as hard as you can get it. If the villain gets killed by some lucky shot, well that’s not good enough! Be flexible, else your D&D game could turn into a bad movie night instead.
You did it!!!! You are now ready to play, and play confidently! You can now focus all of your energy on the creative aspect of the game because you got all of your crunch organized, you know where everything is at, you know where the characters need to go to start the adventure, and you’ll always be at least 10 steps ahead of them at all times.
Now that you know the process, you can do just enough prep to play a session, as some modules are really time consuming to play, it is just unrealistic to think that you can do it all in one sitting. The idea behind using a Module is to give yourself less prep work, not more.
After your players have beat the game, don’t throw your module away, keep it! The money spent on these things is, in most cases, worth it just for the maps alone. You can also keep your favorites next to you when you’re writing your own adventures, to refer to in regards to the format that the professionals use. Once you have it added to your map, then in the key write a reminder about what module that this stuff is in. Organization is the key! As is recycling your work. Not only can you reuse your index cards and loose leaf crunch fliers, but you can reuse the buildings in the module by simply redressing them and writing a brand new key without anybody even noticing what you did.
Modules are cheap(ish), collect them! Even if you don’t play the whole thing you can steal the maps, NPCs, tactics, and even the mini adventures and side quests out of them to use on a rainy day.
Have fun and good luck!
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Contact me at Ripx187@gmail.com
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