I think a person can judge their proficiency in some area by determining the relative complication of the things in that area that frustrate them. For example, I cook fairly frequently. I’m no executive chef, but I can turn ingredients and a shrug into dinner. I’m at the point where I’m not frustrated by complicated terms like “saute” or fancy tools like a “whisk”, but I’m also not frustrated by my local grocery not stocking dragonfruit or sufficiently earthy mushrooms. I’m at a mid-amateur level, where I’m frustrated with not having the right ingredients on hand for a quick meal, or not having the appropriate frozen items thawed. Basically, by prep work.
There’s one frustration that has dogged me from my first attempts to make a sandwich to now, and that’s silent steps in a recipe. In casual cooking there’s a magical amount of time beyond which a reader rejects a recipe out of hand. In order to keep recipes under this threshold, writers will subsume cooking steps into the ingredients list, where they no longer add to the cooking time.
I generally expect that a recipe will take longer than the strict given time, because I have to spend time looking for my cayenne pepper and heating my pan and so forth. But “six slices bacon, cooked and crumbled” is not an ingredient. It’s a step. It’s a step that adds five to seventeen minutes to a recipe depending on how you do it and how you like your bacon. An extra ten minutes is a death knell for certain recipes, but moving that step to the ingredients just means that a cook won’t finish it in the listed time anyway. I’ve seen small, largely inconsequential time sinks like “green onion, chopped”, but I’ve also seen massive omitted steps like “a pound of chicken, cooked and shredded”.
I don’t want to get too deep into this; if you want to hear about cooking adventures, maybe a DMing blog isn’t for you. You can read more if you’re so inclined. The point I’m trying to make is that budgeting for the amount of time something takes or the amount of time something should take is completely different from budgeting for the time it will take or, most relevantly, the amount of time you have.
DMing is no different. As a player I’ve seen few sessions cancelled because my DM suddenly couldn’t make it. I’ve seen far more cases where a DM couldn’t make it because circumstances didn’t allow them to commit the time they wanted to session preparation. They knew what they wanted to do and how to do it, but actually doing it required more time and effort than they thought it would or more time then they had. I’ve run into this more and more as we’ve been using software, which means I spend far longer building maps with tiles than sketching them on a playmat or far more time looking for NPC portraits than…not doing that.
If you’re strapped for time and a session is imminent, there are a few options. One is to get really, really good at improvising; most DMs seem to learn this through trials by fire rather than expressly working on it. Another is to grab a prepared adventure off the shelf, tweak it for your setting and players, and run it as a one-shot in the middle of whatever arc you’re doing. Jared Hunt wrote a great article on this a million years ago that’s especially relevant in OGL systems like D&D 3E and Pathfinder but valid for any system. The 3.5E Dungeon Master’s Guide II has a pretty good section on game preparation that specifically states “if you have less than three hours to plan a session, definitely use a published adventure; if you have three to four hours, consider it anyway”. Unless there’s a chance your players will recognize the adventure and knowing about it beforehand causes a problem, like a murder mystery, this is a perfectly fine way to get a session on a tight deadline.
But say you have no published adventure at hand and you’re not confident in your ability to pull a full session out of your hat live and on camera. You still only have an hour to prepare a session. Let’s assume that you don’t have to trawl your favorite image site or local folders for art and that you don’t have to design a map for publishing anywhere. (I understand that most groups use pen and paper rather than software for their pen-and-paper gaming. I know, right?) Let’s assume you just have four or five players, some freedom in what the next session can be (that is, more “we’re on the road to the neighboring kingdom” than “we were falling down a waterfall inside a prison in a very well-mapped portion of Milwaukee”), and sixty minutes between now and a deadline. What then?
5 minutes: panic. It won’t help anything, but you’ll get it out of the way.
5 minutes: review your options. Go to your bookshelf,
video DVD case, video game collection, whatever place you have that stores creative media. Look over what you have and grab a few items with which you’re familiar. They don’t have to be your favorite, just somewhat disparate; don’t grab all the Die Hard movies and call it a day.
10 minutes: determine your plot. Given what you’ve grabbed, consider each and boil it down to its most basic conflict. This is the plot you’ll use for your session, so if you happened to grab Clifford the Big Red Dog or Dance Dance Revolution move on to the next item in your list, unless DDR happens to have gained a comprehensive story mode since the last time I checked. For these purposes the heroes and most of the setting are irrelevant. We only want a conflict and perhaps an antagonist, so ignore everything else.
Try to think of the plot you get in broad terms so you’re not too caught up in the minutia. That is, don’t think of The Avengers as “a disparate group of heroes team up to stop a great evil” because the heroes are irrelevant for it (you’re using your heroes instead), and don’t think of it as “a bad guy steals a magic device” because that’s a MacGuffin rather than a plot. Even “a magic device opens a portal for aliens” both states the conflict too specifically and ignores the primary antagonist. When we look at it very, very broadly, looking at the villain and conflict gives us “a magician appears to herald and lead invaders”. That’s the sort of thing you want because it gives you a lot of wiggle room.
It’s difficult to sift away an entire story to get only to the parts we need because we’re trained to care about heroes, actors, franchises, and other serial numbers that aren’t always easy to file off. Once you have an eye for it though, it becomes something like a second nature. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is “bad guys are racing to an artifact using a hero’s notes.” Batman: Arkham Asylum is “bad guys take over their prison, including their captors.” Even a gospel ends in “a religious figure says things that antagonize a lot of people.” All you want is a situation that your party can address and, depending on your play style or system or party, perhaps somebody they can hit to solve things.
10 minutes: tweak the plot to fit your campaign. Once you have the basic idea down, think about how it can slot into where your players are. This is why we divorced ourselves from the bits above; you’re not worried about Star Wars being interplanetary if your plot is “a dangerous weapon is in a powerful group’s hands.” You have plenty of space to fit it into the setting of your campaign, the location where your players are, and the level of threat they can handle.
You should also consider a hook. If the players heard about said magician and weapon but decide it’s not their problem, you’re back to where you were an hour ago. Give them some reason to be involved. Perhaps somebody will pay handsomely for their efforts. Perhaps it’s clear the threat can’t wait for a better-equipped group. Perhaps they’re just good people who like adventure. Bonus points if you can fit the plot into your existing campaign mythology; if the dangerous weapon has the same sigils as the scepter the players found last month, you’ve built on your arc and given the PCs a reason to remember the session. You can consider the long-term ramifications of it later, when you have some breathing time.
20 minutes: legwork. I know that to a lot of players it seems anathema to be thirty minutes into their hour without having considered a single number. Designing monsters, traps, dungeons, maps, NPCs, and other accoutrements takes time, and we just frittered half of our time away on something petty like our plot. Twenty minutes is not enough to build a single high-level NPC in some systems. So what are we going to do if only a third of our prep time can even be used for the actual, physical prep?
Steal, unabashedly. Steal from the rulebooks, using NPCs and monsters provided by designers. Steal from the Internet, checking forums or articles or wikis for things you can use. Steal from yourself, grabbing NPCs or monsters or maps from past campaigns or sessions, whether it’s to increase continuity or because you don’t think anybody will remember them. Your goal in one-hour prep is not to make a session that will stand the tests of time, like the Colossus of Rhodes looming over the harbor of your campaign. It’s to make something quickly so you don’t have to cancel a session, and speed requires approximation. Only the most onerous player will complain if these gnoll rangers feel a lot like orc fighters because you grabbed them from a wiki page, or if this temple is twenty feet longer on the inside than the outside because the map you’re using wasn’t perfectly to scale.
…in fact, if you have a player that really measures every room, I suggest skipping this whole post and canceling the session to give yourself a week off from dealing with them. Unless of course they have motivation besides pedantry, like they’re an architect looking for secret rooms or they have reason to believe there’s space-folding magic at work.
Since we’re dealing with numbers, it’s hard to steal from other systems. There’s no Fate-to-D&D conversion and there shouldn’t be. But you can share among 3E, 3.5E, and Pathfinder with almost no worries. This is much, much easier if you already know where to look, one of the reasons I have so many pictures, notes, and maps stored on my computer. I’ve included some of my favorite sources at the bottom of the article. Again, the goal is to play fast and loose with numeric integrity. You can take a temple map and use it as your bureaucratic office, and you can take an elven fighter and use it as your human guard. Don’t dwell on how an NPC or monster works and whether it’s what you want long-term, just focus on whether it’s what you need right now.
10 minutes: setup. Get everything you need to run the session you have planned. If you use miniatures, pick them out. If you use mapping software, build your maps. If you use a fine tool like Live GameScreen, gather your NPC portraits and background pictures. This isn’t just table-work either; if the NPCs or traps or whatnot use a rule you aren’t familiar with, like grappling or ritual magic or grappling again because it deserves to be mentioned twice, review it. You may have time to do some of this mid-session and you may need to do some of it on the fly, but the goal is to be prepared as possible when the clock hits 15:17 (or whenever your session starts). With Internet access or a robust local image folder it’s much easier to find a picture of a gnome ranger on short notice than it is to build that same ranger or come up with the reason he’s carrying all those elephant feet.
So there, you’ve taken yourself from zero to gaming in sixty minutes. If you’re doing your prep in the hour before the session starts, it’s fresh in your mind and you’re ready to run it. If you have decompression time, like a day at work (so “decompression” is relative) or a walk to your FLGS, turn everything over in your head and consider your options now that you have the bulk of the work done. You’ll still need to do something on the fly, but that’s a DM’s job and at least now you have a foundation around which you can build a session.
- Unofficial Pathfinder SRD NPC list – I like this list the most because it works. Other D&D wikis exist, but they’re packed to the brim with custom NPCs using custom classes and custom feats to cast custom spells with their custom items. If an NPC has footnotes, it’s not quick enough for one-hour prep.
- Wizards of the Coast Map-A-Week Archive – Tons of great stuff if you can find it.
- squid.org Random Name Generator – There are scads of name generators, but this one has a lot of options that make exactly as much sense as I need them to at any given time. Rinkworks’ is keen but it will never return “Eight Lonely Foots”.