Dungeon Master Skills You Can Bring to Work #3 – Preparation

A few weeks ago, I was involved in a D&D game where my players had just infiltrated the temple of a cult that they were investigating. They knew their disguises might not fool every cultist they passed, and everyone felt tense. Huddled together and sneaking along the passageways, they found a door and tentatively opened it.

“What’s inside?” One of my players asked.

“Oh right,” I stuttered, searching hastily through my notes. “It’s–um, I think it’s–aha!” I located the description of that specific room in my notes and told them, “It’s an empty broom cupboard! You find nothing inside.”

Disheartened, the party continued down the hall. They stopped at a fork to listen for approaching danger. “I rolled a 16 for Perception,” our rogue announced.

“Right, yes.” I fumbled once again, searching through my description of the temple to discern what dangerous lurkers might be around each turn. “You–ah–you hear some rocky sounds, probably…”

This continued for the entire game session. Though my players enjoyed the exploration, the experience made me painfully aware how woefully underprepared I had let myself be.

You Can Just Wing It, But Should You?

I know preparation can be tedious. It’s time-consuming, and it might feel like more work than you need to do, whether you’re prepping for a sprint review or a dungeon crawl. It’s very tempting to just throw up your hands and say, “Whatever, I’ll wing it.”

But winging it usually has a predictable outcome both at work and a D&D session. You’ll probably be fine, but it won’t be spectacular, nor nearly as productive as it could have been. You’ll have lots of “Um”s and “Hold on let me check”s, and someone will end up losing their head to an Orc.

Okay, that last one probably only happens in D&D, but the point remains. You can be a more effective leader and run a better meeting when you take the time to think about what you’re going to say and do. You’ll be more focused when you know what you want to get done.

Three Steps to Prep

1. Make an outline

Now, I don’t know about you, but I only have 24 hours in a day. Most of that time is spent asleep, at work, or doing various important tasks. That only gives me a limited window of time for planning D&D games. Because of this time limit and the infinite nature of the possibilities in a D&D game, I know it’s not possible to plan for everything.

But I can keep track of what my players have previously stated to be their goals and where they are in the story. Using those two threads, I can weave together a somewhat cohesive outline for the next game, even if it’s just a few rough sketches of the various places the game could go. Even a list of bullet points is better than nothing when it comes to having a plan.

Taking time to think through your goals, expectations, and priorities relieves the huge mental burden of trying to keep track of all of that in your head. Writing it down and thinking it through means you will be calmer, more prepared, and more productive as you execute on your outline.

2. List your must-haves

Dungeons and Dragons is a story-based game. Different DMs have different levels of intricacy for their overarching stories. But I like to try and tie a lot of threads together into a fascinating plot. Because of this, there are often events or pieces of information that I need to let the party discover at certain points.

Keeping those in mind while also coordinating a goblin bandit raid can lead to missing things and upsetting the pacing of the story. So while I’m planning each game session, I make a to-do list of the “must-haves.”

These are events that I need to steer toward no matter what my players decide to do. If the outline is like a road map laying out a few different options of how the game can go, then this list represents the pit stops. No matter where we end up, we’ll still hit these points. This list is shorter than the outline, and each item is quickly and easily summarized.

Maintaining a similar list for meetings—or just your daily work—can help you prioritize your attention throughout your day. This focuses your attention on what really needs to get done.

For meetings, this list is often the meeting agenda. Otherwise, attendees can take five minutes to determine priorities at the start of the meeting. In a group effort, it’s important to clearly communicate your priorities. If you notice that you’re getting close to the end of a meeting and you haven’t hit all of your must-haves, redirect everyone’s attention to those points.

3. Don’t over-plan

A reasonable way to avoid the dangers of no plan would be to make a very detailed plan instead. But I’ve found that over-planning for a meeting or a game of D&D can harm the intent of the event.

In my earlier DM days, I would plan elaborate encounters for my players, placing specific reactions after very specific events. I knew precise lines of dialogue that certain characters would say, how many monsters would jump out of the wall at a given point, and the exact moment that the party would realize they were accidentally resurrecting a god. But my players didn’t follow that invisible script. They did something else, something that seemed reasonable to them, and my whole plan for the entire campaign shattered.

The same problem can arise from an over-planned meeting. If you dictate every turn a meeting will take, you don’t give your fellow collaborators the space to raise their own ideas and concerns.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to planning, having a plan is going to be better than having no plan. It’s important to learn what style of plan you prefer, while keeping in mind the dangers of over-planning.

For your next big task, project, meeting, or even D&D game, try to take some time beforehand to plan out what you want to do. You’ll end up feeling more confident and prepared, and you will surely defeat the forces of evil this time around.

Come back next week Sunday for the next post in the series:

  1. Inclusion
  2. Deliberation
  3. Preparation
  4. Communication
  5. Teamwork
  6. Adaptation