Being a GM is a big job: you need to be familiar with the rules (or at least know where to find them in the reference books), create engaging challenges for your players to solve, and weave it all together in an interesting story that will capture the imagination. If you’re lucky enough to be running an on-going campaign, it can definitely feel like the work is never-ending. It’s easy to fall into rabbit hole after rabbit hole of worldbuilding, campaign prep, and NPC creation, but after a while you start to learn techniques that make it a bit easier on your time and mental energy stores!
If you’ve caught any of my Chill Creation streams on Twitch, you’ll have seen glimpses into my creative process for writing NPCs, Magic Items, and City Building, but I’ve realized that it isn’t exactly a good example of what my campaign prep actually entails…if I spent 3 hours on each NPC my players were going to meet, I would never have time to actually run the game itself!
To remedy this, I want to share my actual process for campaign prep, and the tips and tricks I’ve learned over time to keep it easy and stress-free! It all focuses on the must-have things you need before going into each session.
1. Review what happened last time
To know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been! This is often heavily dependent on your ability to take notes during each game session…which can be pretty tricky as you already have a lot of other things to keep track of! I’m usually a pretty extensive note-taker, too, so I’ve had to drastically change the way I take my notes once I began GMing.
Now, my notes tend fo focus on the highlights:
- Where did they go?
- Who did they meet?
- What did they do?
For example, during the last Heroes of Iyastera session, the party was still exploring the abandoned Temple of Druanta beneath the forest east of Garran (that’s the “Where”). In the temple, they found and fought a Blight Beast who turned out to be a wildshaped Blight Druid...but at the end of the battle they escaped (that gives me some of the “Who” and the “What”). After the battle, they returned to Garran to tell Mayor Roland what they found and claim their reward (again, more “who” and “what”).
Those key events– exploring the temple, discovering a blight beast/blight druid, and reporting back to Mayor Roland– are all I really need in my notes. Of course you may want to add in some other important highlights, like the way the party met two new adventurers in the temple and how the Paladin received an encouraging message from Druanta themselves, but that’s still pretty manageable.
The notes you take should serve as a memory jogger so you can keep track of the different story beats and plot points you introduce to the party. They’re also really helpful when you provide a re-cap at the start of the new session…though here’s another tip: have the players give the re-cap themselves! The players should also be taking notes throughout the game, and there will be things they remember that you may have missed. This is a great technique for a few reasons:
- It keeps the players engaged in the story progression
- It makes your job easier (you don’t have to memorize everything yourself, just fill in the bits they may have missed)
- It tells you which parts of the story stand out to each player, which makes for good campaign prep material when you’re shaping new story beats!
2. Make a short list of “must have” events
After you’ve reviewed what happened during the last session, you’ll want to determine what “needs” to happen to help the party get from point A to B and onward from there. Start by identifying the party’s current status in whichever task/quest they’re pursuing.
If they are in the middle of the quest, then they simply need to keep progressing to the next stage. If they haven’t received the quest hook yet, then what do they need to do to get the information or guidance they need?
Have they just finished a quest? Then perhaps this is a good opportunity for a Downtime session, in which they receive whichever rewards you have identified for quest completion and can take the time to restock supplies, interact with eachother, or pursue self-improvement goals (one of my Sorcerers wants to learn about different schools of magic).
In the interest of keeping things simple, try to keep a simple list of the things that “must happen” focused on no more than three items. The average session is about 4 hours long (though our D&D for kids session average about 2-2.5 hours) and you’d be surprised at how little actual story progression happens during a session! I’ve had as many as six pages’ worth of material prepared for a single session, only for the party to spend four hours on one or two paragraphs of prepared material! So with your shorter list, remember that progression depending on the size and role-playing focus of your party…you may not even get through all three of those points! Allow the party to drive the pace, and you can step in here and there to help them along if things slow to a crawl.
Here’s another Heroes of Iyastera example: The Lucky 13 is still exploring the Feywild. Last time they foiled the plot of some mischevious Satyrs who were charming travellers and stealing their supplies. Now, they have learned of some darker beings who have made their home in the swamplands farther East. To progress the story, I need the following things to happen:
- Find the swampland
- Acquire resources they’ll need before the next battle
- Discover who the next enemies are
I’ve kept this example spoiler-free, but those are the basic things that the party needs to pursue during the next session (or two). Pretty simple, right? Any campaign prep I do will be focused on those three points of things that “must happen”.
3. Prepare your NPCs
While I have done three-hour NPC creation streams on Twitch, it absolutely does NOT take that long to prepare your NPCs for your home game! In fact, I keep my list of fully-prepped NPCs fairly short, limited to key characters that I know the party will want to interact with. Try to use your short-list from step two as a guide for determining which NPCs you’ll need. Depending on your list, you may not have to prepare too many NPCs at all! For the Feywild team, they’ll probably only meet one NPC in their next session…the one that will help them gain the resources they’ll need before going back into battle.
If your party is in the middle of Downtime or exploring a city, you’ll need more. Start by determining who the party might want to interact with. Innkeepers are an easy start, as most parties will be looking for a place to take that cherished long rest when they’re not roughing it in the woods. After that, think about the different classes in the party: Wizards may need to look for spells and spell components. Fighters might want to upgrade their weapons and armour. A Cleric might want to pay respects at the local temple, especially if there is one for their chosen deity.
I like to categorize my NPCs into different functional groups, and the amount of detail they require will be dependant on their function within the story:
- Support (low prep): This category includes the standard merchants, innkeepers, and villagers that the party will turn to if they need services and supplies. Unless they become reocurring friends with the party, you don’t need too much detail for them.
- Lore (medium prep): Some NPCs in your adventure will be designed for communicating key information for the setting or task at hand. These Lore-Bearing NPCs will need more notes associated with them in regards to the type of information they have to offer and how they have accessed that information.
- Quest-Companion (high prep): These NPCs are the ones that might accompany your party on their journey…whether a helpful guard or a fellow adventurer, they’ll need a stat page of their own so they can aid the players in combat.
So that works for your prepared NPCs, but what about those random characters that you don’t predict, that your party will want to interact with? It’s very common for the GM to create NPCs on the fly. In such cases, you only need a few things: Name, Race, Purpose, and Motivation. Here’s an example:
Say the party wants to meet one of the farmers gathering berries in Garran. I’m not going to have full details created for every farmer in the field, so I will need to put something together pretty quickly.
- Name: Gerome
- Race: Halfling
- Purpose (i.e. job, role, etc.) Berry Farmer
- Motivation: To experiment with planting new crops, like corn.
The first three elements are pretty easy and will serve to give you a basic description of the character, along with their reason for being in the berry field. The fourth piece, Motivation, is a way to quickly give them something interesting that might set them apart from the other NPCs. Think of Motivation as a goal or desire that the character is pursuing. For Gerome, he’s kind of bored with just growing berries, so he wants to try something new! These notes are also how you’ll get started with your more detailed Support, Lore, and Quest-Companion NPCs!
4. Ready your Tools for Creating On-the-Fly
The last thing you’ll want to do, after reviewing the notes from the last session and preparing the key events/NPCs for the new game, is make sure you have some quick-reference tools handy! Whether creating a spontaneous NPC or trying to fill a room with interesting items, there are lists and tables for just about any scenario you might encounter. Here are some of the tools I like to have ready at the start of my sessions:
- List of Random Names for quick NPC builds (you can also use Fantasy Name Generator)
- List of household/mundane items for setting descriptions (to make a place feel “lived in”…like socks and half-melted candlesticks…check out this Random Item Generator for inspiration!)
- Encounter Builder that includes monsters that the player might find in their locale (I usually use Kobold Fight Club for this)
I hope you find these tips helpful…campaign prep can get pretty complicated, but it’s something that will definitely come easier with time! The more you play within the world, the better your understanding…and the easier it will be for you to improvise! In an ideal scenario, the amount of time you’ll need for campaign prep should descrease the longer the campaign runs. I hope this short guide helps you on your adventures. I may create a more polished guide later on, so keep an eye out! Also remember to tune in at twitch.tv/scrivthebard on Tuesdays for more RPG creation!