Session Design Styles

I’ve been pretty head-down these last couple of weeks working on the last dungeon for the Zelda campaign. Final dungeons tend to be pretty serious, but I’m also trying to keep it from reading like a normal dungeon to keep with our campaign theme. It means I’ve had to work on a bunch of monsters, a bunch of puzzles, several bosses, an aesthetic to tie it all together, and the props and bits that go along with the above, all at once while balancing the difficulty level and pacing appropriately. It’s a lot of work, but it means I can pretty much coast from here until the end of the campaign because the hard work is already done.

I have noticed that my design this campaign is more rigid than I usually like. Part of that is using software; the more our gaming program handles, the more I have to build within that program and the less I can make up in the middle of a sentence. Part of that is this campaign in particular; it has to feel like a Zelda game, which means the maps have to be done before the players walk into the dungeon, and I can’t suddenly add a room that isn’t on the map the players have in their hand. Part of that is the final dungeon; the biggest dungeons so far have been four sessions long, but this one is somewhere between seven and ten, which means I have to have more done beforehand than usual. There’s one particular set piece that took a lot of time and effort, and I’m still not really done with setting it up, so if the players want to do that first I’ll subtly, then forcefully, nudge them in another direction.

All told, I feel like I’ve had a higher planning-to-content ratio than I normally do. I don’t think that’s actually true, because it’s more like flurries of planning followed by a few weeks of not doing a darn thing because it’s already built, but it feels that way.

But it at least got me thinking about rigid session design, which isn’t about inflexibility as much as…actually, I think it’s easiest to explain via a chart:

  • Standard Process: Roughly equal planning for the amount of content you get out of it. This is a broad area because it covers a broad array of styles. Most beginner DMs fall in the northernmost areas here, in the lands of “I have to plan every feat this monster has, because that’s how I do it when I’m a player.” They tend to drift farther south as they become comfortable with the system, acknowledge the needs of the table, and/or accept their own inherent laziness.
  • Loose Design: More content than planning. You’re putting in work, but leaving yourself some wiggle room to adjust things on the fly and make it seem like you planned more than you did.
  • Rigid Design: High planning, high to moderate content. You’re doing a lot of work, but you’re getting a lot out of it.
  • Improvisational: Low planning, moderate to high content. You have enough of a grasp on your game to wing it. The problem here is keeping things consistent; if that wizard knew teleport six sessions ago, he should probably still know it today.
  • Bad Process: Moderate to high planning, low content. If you’re spending a lot of time working on sessions and not getting a lot to show for it, something’s wrong. Either you’re working too hard on minutia because you want to get things unnecessarily perfect, or you’re working on things that don’t actually matter for your gaming table.
  • Faffing About: Low planning, low content. You’re not sure what you’re going to do, and you’re okay with that. This is very close to intentionally not planning at all.
  • Haha, what?: High planning, low content. You’re too caught up in things that don’t matter to the game, even if they matter to you. You’re mostly working on backstory, or building monsters that have a very small chance of appearing, or preparing a lot of individual things that you could be preparing as a group.

This may be best illustrated by an example. Say our example DM has multiple kingdoms the players can visit, each with a set of guards the party is likely to meet and/or fight:

  • Standard Process: The DM designs a single stat block. She ignore all racial abilities and cultural factors, though if a player asks she may decide the dwarves are using axes and adjust accordingly. What’s important is that she has a “guard” stat block.
  • Loose Design: The DM plans one stat block, but intentionally doesn’t select a weapon and a feat or two. She’ll decide those when the players arrive so she doesn’t have to plan stat blocks that don’t matter. She could also adjust the numbers for racial powers (giving the dwarves a few more hit points, giving the elves a +1 with their bows), but that’s optional.
  • Rigid Design: The DM plans one stat block for each set of guards, including their racial abilities. This leads her to interesting situations, like acknowledging that orc guards might favor the double-axe or that elves might prefer light armor, so every set of guards feels unique.
  • Improvisational: The DM has an idea of what the guards can do and knows what makes each race different, so she makes a quick note about the numbers for a generic guard instead of building it via class levels, feats, etc. She expects to fill in details on the fly when the players meet a guard. This leaves her the freedom to say “dwarves have higher accuracy and more hit points but lower damage” even if she doesn’t have rules or a build to back that up.
  • Bad Process: The DM figures out that a fifty-person guard should have twenty-five second-level fighters, thirteen fourth-level fighters, and so on. She builds a stat block for each level of guard, even though the players are very unlikely to fight or even meet the higher-ranking guards. Much of her work is irrelevant to the session.
  • Faffing About: The DM knows there are guards but not much else. She’ll figure out the rest if and when the players meet them, either by using a pre-built stat block or by making things up wholesale.
  • Haha, what?: The DM designs custom weapons and armor for each set of guards, or does each guard’s stat blocks individually so they have distinct builds and personalities, or gets caught up in writing the history of the guard to explain where the organization is today. The great majority of her work is irrelevant to the coming session, and players are unlikely to ever encounter most of it.

I like running things improvisationally, though I know I can’t do it all the time and the players from my failed sandbox campaign will back me up on this. I also know it’s not for everyone. But I think loose session design is something everybody can do, and I’ll talk about that next post.

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