Welcome to the first installment of Behind the Screens, a regular column by Dungeon Masters for Dungeon Masters that presents helpful tips for use in your D&D campaign. Each month, guest DMs will present an item from his or her tool kit that you can adopt to make running your game easier, more fun, or both. Some of these DMs work in R&D, while others are fellow enthusiasts from the wider Wizards community who are eager to share what they've learned. Here you'll find house rules, ideas for bringing a campaign to life, lessons won from hard experience, and more.
Before every session I run in my ongoing D&D campaigns, I like to put together a little cheat sheet that helps me keep the session moving forward. While this cheat sheet outlines the main aspects of the adventure I'm running (the dungeon the players are exploring, the town council meeting they are breaking up, and so on), its chief purpose is to help me maintain the pacing of the adventure. The cheat sheet has four main parts. I work on them in the following order during my prep time, though I arrange them in the reverse order on the final sheet.
The Main Adventure
This section contains the material I expect to be the central focus of the upcoming session. It might only be a portion of a larger adventure; for example, my cheat sheet might have only one level of a multi-level dungeon, because I don't anticipate the players making their way down to another level this session. This section contains what you'd see in a published adventure: maps, room descriptions, monster stat blocks, treasure and XP notes, and so forth. None of this material should come as a surprise if you've been a Dungeon Master before.
Here is the most critical material for maintaining the pace of a session. This section includes six to ten "interludes": setups for short scenes, usually no more than a short paragraph of text. Interludes give me something to throw at the players when I feel the game stagnating. They shake things up or just help me engage the players, drawing them back into the game world.
Usually, an interlude consists of a simple summary that sounds like the description of a scene from a movie: "The party's hireling asks to become the paladin's squire," "A band of black-armored riders thunders through the town square, putting civilians in danger," or "A swarm of skeletal rats makes its way down the corridor, ignoring the heroes." It creates an interesting situation that probably won't take more than ten or fifteen minutes to resolve before getting back to the main story.
Interludes are great narrative arrows to fill my session-pacing quiver, but they also serve another key purpose: fleshing out the world, and the campaign, in ways that aren't necessarily tied to the central adventure. To this end, I identify four main kinds of scenes, and before each session I try and make sure I have at least two interludes of each kind prepared. When I sense a slow moment, I pick the interlude that I think will make the game the most interesting at that point. At the end of the session, I can carry over any unused ones (I almost never use them all) to my next cheat sheet.
Character Story Arc
These scenes illustrate or develop some aspect of one of the player characters' personal stories. Usually, these grow out of the character's bond to the world, or out of previous events or interactions. They are personally relevant to an individual character (or maybe a couple of characters) but don't usually tie into the primary ongoing narrative of the campaign. Examples include the following:
- A player character receives a letter from a dying relative.
- The party comes across refugees from a player character's home town.
- The player character overhears a rumor concerning the whereabouts of his or her archnemesis.
Campaign Story Arc
These interludes are tied into the larger narrative of the campaign but don't have a direct impact on the current adventure. Usually, they reinforce the campaign's major themes. Here are a few examples:
- The party stumbles across the remnants of a battle between two armies, with no survivors.
- The party is called upon to witness the hanging of a member of the thieves' guild.
- A player character receives a visit from a local noble who attempts to bribe the character into joining his or her house.
Scenes of this sort reinforce the primary themes of a campaign setting: the abundance of magical technology in Eberron, the harshness of the wilderness in Dark Sun, or the gritty danger of my version of Greyhawk. These scenes are also great for highlighting a particularly interesting piece of world lore, such as:
- The party is approached by a street vendor claiming to sell many cure-all magic potions for one low, low price. (Eberron)
- The party comes across the remains of a caravan, still carrying the skeletons of people who failed to make the journey. (Dark Sun)
- The party witnesses a legal duel on the street between a paladin of Pholtus and a cleric of St. Cuthbert. (Greyhawk)
These interludes give some depth and history to the NPCs that the party interacts with on a regular basis. Most of the time, they are small scenes of little consequence, such as conversations that take place around a campfire. Other times—especially when an NPC is important to the ongoing plot—such scenes might draw the players back to the central conflict. Examples include the following:
- The party's benefactor invites the player characters over for dinner.
- A player character comes across a rival adventurer in a tavern, who starts up a civil, if tense, conversation.
- A player character witnesses one of the party's hirelings staring at a charcoal drawing of another person: a loved one, a dead family member, an enemy, or the like.
One section of the prep sheet that I do reuse from one session to the next is the random encounter tables. I usually build my own tables based on the environment where the adventure is likely to take place. Much as the Dungeon Master's Guide recommends, I populate these tables with a mixture of monsters, potential combat encounters, environmental challenges, opportunities for exploration, and friendly (or at least neutral) NPC interactions. The random encounter tables follow many of the same methods that I use for the interludes, but with more challenges and potential for combat.
The very last thing I do is create the recap. This is an idea I shamelessly stole from Chris Perkins, and he, in turn, stole it from television shows. It's what I use to remind the players of what has happened in previous sessions and prepare them for this session. I do this part last because, with all my other prep work done, I now know what events from earlier in the campaign might come into play via interludes. I'm not just summarizing what happened last time; sometimes, the things I describe in the recap occurred months earlier. For example, if a recurring villain might show up (or even be referenced) in an interlude, I'll add a description of the players' last encounter with that villain to the recap.
Structurally, my recap consists of the same opening line every week ("Previously in the Tyranny of Dragons campaign..."), which indicates to my players that I'm ready for the session to begin. This is followed by three short paragraphs that provide enough information to remind the players of things that have already happened in the game without making their eyes glaze over from a lengthy pre-session recitation.
Once the recap is done, it's time for thrilling adventure! With cheat sheet in hand, you should be ready for almost anything that might come up.
About the Author
Rodney Thompson is a senior designer for the Dungeons & Dragons game. In addition to serving as a designer on the fifth edition of D&D, he is the co-designer of the Lords of Waterdeep board game and its expansion. Rodney is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and has worked at Wizards of the Coast since 2007, when he joined the company to act as the lead designer of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Saga Edition.