Dwight D. Eisenhower said “plans are worthless, but planning is everything”. In preparing Dungeons and Dragons sessions I have found this to be almost eerily true.
So why? What's the difference?
To understand, I’m going to take you through three portions of the game which can often get away from the storyteller, and discuss how a moderate amount of planning ahead can help you avoid being caught flat footed.
Part 1: Non-player Characters (NPC's)
A great place to start is player interactions with Non-player characters. Whenever you introduce a character for the players to interact with you can try and map out their conversation tree for every potential question they could ask, but there are so many distinct questions the players could reasonably ask (and a few hundred unreasonable ones they will ask anyway) that this is not really a feasible option.
On the other hand, consider the following: how does the character speak? Are they articulate? Are they pompous? How do they respond to sarcasm and disrespect? What is their overall motivation? Knowing the answers for these questions, especially for a major or recurring character, is going to go a long way to allowing the party to interact with them in a consistent, reasonable and enjoyable manner.
If possible condense this information down into a few words. For example, beneath the entry for a King as an non-player character, you might have this entry:
Personality: formal, trusting, frugal
And just like that the character comes into focus. The king is likely to stand on formalities, and try to pay the party as little as humanly possible, but is likely to bring the party into his confidence quickly if they prove to be useful and/or appear loyal.
This is especially useful if a character is going to appear multiple times. Making notes for yourself about the character’s personality can help provide a consistent portrayal across weeks or months.
Part 2: Spontaneous Combat Encounters
Combat encounters are the bread and butter of Dungeons and Dragons. Most of the player's abilities are going to be specifically for combat encounters, as are most of the stats for monsters. Learning how to build encounters are crucial.
This is what makes it really, really frustrating when the players figure out a way to either avoid the encounter all together, or a way to approach the encounter from a direction you had not anticipated.
Let us say, for example, that players decide to try and burn down a hose full of baddies instead of storming it (yes, I have had this happen). First off, the monsters therein are going to leave the house in groups approximating the encounter in each room (due to similar proximity to the exits), but likely with only a turn or so between them. They might also try to exit the house through alternate exits- windows, weakened walls, etc.
In either case, having an accurate layout of the encounter and a description of the house in question can allow you to salvage the encounter after your plans go up in smoke.
Taking it one step further, you can then manage reinforcements depending on how the battle is going. If the players are having an easier time, have later monsters emerge from the growing blaze mostly unscathed to keep the encounter challenging. If the party is on it’s last legs, consider having the later waves emerge from the blaze having already taken fire damage to mediate the threat they pose to the players.
This all stems from being able to quickly determine who is in the the building, and how they would respond under these circumstances, both of which should be obtainable if you consider carefully the information you compiled to build the initial encounter.
Part 3: Appendix of additional NPC’s
As you progress through the story, you are going to draw up quite a few characters for specific instances. They might be a merchant, a librarian, or a cultist thug. Keep their information on hand.
Players going off-script in a conversation or a fight can be inconvenient, but you can lean on your prep work to reverse engineer the world’s response. Players going off-script in their approach to advancing the plot seems somewhat more difficult until you realize that for this your prep work consists of every story you’ve already told in your setting.
And this is really just an extension of points 1 and 2 into a wider game context. Re-introducing a wizard who gave the party a quest if the players decide spontaneously to seek magical assistance is easier if you still have the wizard’s stats and personality on hand, and having already determined the stats of a generic city guardsmen on the off chance your players do something that is both blatant and illegal.
Further, the work you have put into planning encounters can help you determine how many foes, and of which type, you want to include if the players do enter combat in a location you had not anticipated.
In each case, the session you had planned and the session experienced by the players are going to diverge considerably. However, if done properly, the information you have compiled over the course of building the session should allow you to keep the narrative flowing relatively smoothly and in a way consistent with the overall story.
Author: Robert Trueblood