You’ve got the players, the time, and the excitement. But you may still be unsure of how to prep for a D&D session.
You know all about “railroading” and want to avoid it. You want to provide a genuinely open experience for your players, while still feeling confident about providing a rich atmosphere, engaging encounters, and memorable NPCs, all tied into a campaign that makes sense.
But how can you know what your players are going to do ahead of time and prepare for that?
Let’s get started!
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Proper Playset: How to Prep for a D&D Session, Part 2
Anyone new to running Dungeons & Dragons or any other TTRPG can feel a little overwhelmed when it comes to preparing content for their sessions. Once you have a few concepts in mind and a little practice, it gets much easier.
Welcome to the second part of this two-part series! Today, I’ll be going over how to properly prepare for an upcoming gaming session. In this article, I’ll be referencing Dungeons & Dragons, but these strategies will work with any tabletop RPG system.
Part one covered railroading as a concept and discussed when pre-defined structure is actually a GOOD thing in your games. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out here.
HOW TO PREP FOR D&D USING THE PLAYSET METHOD
Many new Dungeon Masters fall into a trap. They overprepare content, buffeting themselves from the potential outcome that their players will outpace them, go a different direction, or otherwise navigate the game session in a way that renders the DM blindsided and unprepared.
This causes undue stress to many a Game Master, especially those who haven’t yet built the confidence to feel like they can just “wing it” if (ahem… when) the game circumstances demand it.
They envision scenarios where players bring their characters to a place they haven’t studied enough yet. They imagine cancelled quest lines and impromptu wilderness adventures. They worry about last-minute requests to attend events the player characters weren’t invited to. The list is infinite.
Because the list of potential outcomes is truly infinite in a tabletop roleplaying game, it is truly impossible to prepare for them all. So stop trying! It’s only stressing you out. What you need instead is a properly constructed playset.
What Do You Mean by ‘Playset’?
Think about a child’s playset.
It usually comes in a box, with a set number of pieces. The pieces are themed to fit together in some way or another. The child can use these to build a myriad of scenes and enjoy imaginative play to their heart’s content. A generous parent may even buy expansion sets for this set, allowing the child to further expand the scene and potential outcomes.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
When you prepare for a gaming session, you only need to build one of these playsets in your mind. When you have a bullet point for each NPC, location, and interesting point within a scene, your characters can interact with it in any way that they please. This gives them the freedom they want and deserve in this type of game, and it gives you the toolset and confidence you need to run it effectively.
Let me give you an example.
Example: A Memorable Masquerade Ball Planned in <30 Minutes
I’ve been using this method for a long time, but I want to give you a very recent example. Just two days ago, during my Tuesday night game, my players went to a masquerade ball. It was being held on Jarlaxle’s trio of ships in Deepwater Harbor, in Waterdeep.
Waterdeep is on the Sword Coast within the Forgotten Realms. I invented this entire event. It’s not in the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist adventure manual, though that’s “technically” the adventure we are playing right now.
If you’ve spent any amount of time reading around here, you’ll know that my players love to do a few things:
- Surprise me
- Do crazy, ridiculous things
- Split the party
I’m sure many of you have a similar group. Mine really enjoys a humorous game, so a lot of their antics are hilarious, but also incredibly unpredictable. There is no way in a thousand years I would be able to guess what they would do when given VIP status aboard a ship full of the city’s nobility, all donning masks. I’m not worried about them murdering everyone or anything like that; in fact, quite the opposite: they had a major primary goal of preventing a mass poisoning that was to be orchestrated by the Cassalanter family.
The Poisoning Puzzle Background Info
I did not have a “correct” solution to this poisoning puzzle problem. That’s not really my concern. It’s the players’ job to solve the quandary, not mine. Now, I WANT them to figure it out and feel like superstars, so I’m not going to make it unsolvable, but I also want it to be a challenge. A significant challenge.
Here were the poison puzzle parameters:
Three ships. One central ship, where “Zardoz Zord” hangs out (Jarlaxle in disguise, which they had previously figured out) is the VIP ship. As VIP party members, they may travel between the three ships freely. This central ship is the largest and most closely guarded. Food and drink will be served aboard each of the three ships.
Before the party, the players discovered a magically-enhanced “Assassin’s Blood” poison was distributed amongst a large quantity of rainbow-colored glasses to be used during the masquerade ball across all three ships.
These glasses were dosed and specially crafted by a powerful, evil wizard in disguise as a high-end traveling glass salesman. They also met him at a dinner party not too long ago, where there was an assassination attempt on the head of the vintner’s guild. They also spotted this villain escaping the crime scene after their tavern was set on fire.
After sneaking aboard a ship and stealing a few of the glasses for experimentation, they discovered the poison was distributed in the glasses as follows: a thin coating within the glass, and the glasses had air pockets containing a vaporous version of the toxin.
If a person drank from the glass or broke it, they would ingest a deadly dose. Water spread the poison, killing any animals within a moderate radius. They decided dumping the glasses in the ocean was not an option because of this, as a lot of Waterdeep’s food supply comes from the bay.
Symptom onset ranged from two minutes to two hours, and death was inevitable without an immediate antitoxin, which my players did not have time to produce in mass quantities.
The Goal: Prevent all of the poisonings from taking place. If possible, reveal the scheme with sufficient evidence against the Cassalanters so the city can see them for the villains they truly are. Do this without disrupting the event, as Jarlaxle will certainly have severe repercussions in line should you wreak havoc on his party.
They chose the goals. I gave them enough information throughout our campaign for them to know Jarlaxle would be having no shenanigans aboard his vessel.
Everything I Prepared for the Masquerade Ball
I didn’t, much. How could I? I built a “playset,” because I had no idea what my players were going to do.
To do that, I spent a few minutes thinking about how the ships were decorated, how many servants/guards were on each ship and what their duties were, how many nobles were there, and the details regarding the poisoned glasses. I also decided now would be a great time for the Cassalanters to take Jarlaxle out of the race for a pivotal plot item with a surprise attack in his captain’s cabin. I also had the party schedule, listed below, ready to pace the session.
As we played, I described food, decorations, and NPC interactions as they became interesting or relevant. If the question was, “Is xyz at the ball?” The answer was always yes.
To help me with this, I had ChatGPT come up with a nice long list of weird costume ideas that I could glance at for inspiration if needed. That’s it. The whole “preparation” for this masquerade ball, which my players DEVOURED and are still having a most excellent time with, took less than thirty minutes.
So far, we’ve spent a total of about twelve hours to play through everything I set up out for this, including their pre-party research, scouting info, preparing and planning, and being at the actual party. We’re about to start the Costume Contest part of the evening the next time we play.
Masquerade Ball Schedule
They received this schedule for the ball which ChatGPT helped me with. They did not receive any of the italicized details. I used this to pace the evening.
7:00 PM – Early Boarding for Select Guests
This is when my players chose to arrive, for the most part. They did split the party before the ball began.
8:00 PM – Boarding
Guests arrive at the dock and board a majestic galleon ship transformed into a floating ballroom.
8:30 AM – Welcome Speech
Jarlaxle, the flamboyant drow rebel and host of the ball disguised as Zardoz Zord, gives a swashbuckling welcome speech, thanking the guests for attending and setting the tone for the evening’s festivities. I used Eleven Labs to deliver the speech.
9:00 PM – Cocktail Hour
Guests mingle on the ship’s deck, enjoying champagne and hors d’oeuvres served by butlers in themed attire. The ship is beautifully decorated with twinkling magical lights. The Heartbreaker is decorated like a giant Valentine’s Day party, the Hellraiser is decorated as a sunrise with everything in gold, and Jarlaxle’s ship, The Eyecatcher, features purple and red theming with spidery touches.
9:30 PM – Costume Contest
Jarlaxle as Zardoz Zord announces a costume contest with a grand prize. This is the first part of the competition. Participants strut their stuff on a makeshift stage, showing off their elaborate masquerade masks and costumes. I made the grand prize an airship, as a potential segue into their next campaign arc.
My players will of course win the contest, unless they purposely botch it. They don’t know this upfront. It will appear to be a very close competition. They literally spent hours of game time since they learned about the ball excitedly deciding on themed costumes and inviting NPCs as their +1. You better believe I’m going to reward them for that.
10:00 PM – Dancing and Entertainment
The ballroom opens, and guests are invited to dance to live music performed by a band of talented minstrels. There are also various entertainment acts throughout the evening, such as acrobats, fire dancers, and magicians.
11:30 PM – Midnight Feast
A lavish feast is served, featuring an array of sumptuous dishes from exotic lands, including seafood delicacies, roasted meats, and delectable desserts. The dining area is adorned with opulent decorations, creating a truly enchanting atmosphere. This is when the poisoned glasses will be used. If successful, the rest of the events will instead be consumed by panicked guests.
12:00 AM – Talent Show
This is the second half of the competition to win the airship. My players were particularly excited about this part of the evening and planned more extensively for this than for saving the potential poisoning victims.
1:00 AM – Unmasking
Guests remove their masks and reveal their true identities.
2:00 AM – Surprise
As the night progresses, a surprise performance takes place, showcasing an extraordinary display of magic, illusion, or music that captivates the guests and leaves them in awe. This will be a performance by a famous local bard they are friends with, modeled after David Bowie. They do not know about the performance, and initially suspected the “surprise” might be the poisoning.
2:30 AM – Party End
The ball comes to an end, and guests disembark from the ship, bidding farewell and expressing their gratitude for the unforgettable experience.
How My Players Handled the Poisoning
Brilliantly. They used their items and skills to deceive employees, distract nobility, and remove the glasses with swiftness and efficiency. They even exposed the Cassalanters as extreme villains without endangering themselves in a very clever way. If you’re reading, you get an A+ from me. Nice work, guys!
If you’d like to hear the details of the story, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to share them with you—but that’s not really the point here. The point is I DIDN’T HAVE a correct solution I was specifically looking for. I had some ideas for how I might solve the puzzle, but I did not have a final answer.
I simply had the pieces of the encounter ready to go in my playset, and my players worked within the scene.
What if My Players Had Left the Party, Let People Die, Blown Up the Boat, Etc.
Then they left the party, let them die, or blew up the boat. We deal with the ramifications for that and move on. It’s not my decision how they want to handle the encounter. I know based on their above-table conversation what they’re excited about, so I lean into planning and setting up encounters I think they will love.
Ultimately, it is not my choice. I present challenges, facilitate rules, and breathe life into characters and locations they develop true, real-life emotions for. They decide how to interact with these things.
I present challenges, facilitate rules, and breathe life into characters and locations they develop true, real-life emotions for. They decide how to interact with these things.
I know for a fact they cannot turn down a prize like an airship, and they desperately want to win a talent show. Is it weird to have a talent show with an airship prize at a fancy, noble masquerade ball? …Yes. But who cares? It’s a game and we’re all having an excellent time.
How to Think About Planning
Another way to think about preparing your content it is an improv production or play. You have the set pieces and the actors. Before the show starts, everything and everyone is just sort of standing around. Once the curtain opens, though, it’s showtime! Now the actors move into place and set pieces are traded out as needed. Just make sure you don’t lean into a premade script.
I suggest you have a few tools at the ready to help you out:
- A list of NPCs ready to use
- Location descriptions ready to use
- An idea of how certain aspects might “play out”
- For example, what happens if there’s a fire or other emergency?
- What happens if a fight breaks out?
- How will the surrounding NPCs react to the players?
- Should I include a timed event to spice things up?
- Are the NPCs doing something behind the scenes? (Yes… almost always.)
- Jot down anything you might forget before the game, or send yourself a scheduled email to show up just before your session starts. I like doing that.
- **IMPORTANT: How does this tie into the overarching campaign? I like to have about three links if possible, to make everything fit together nicely.**
Measures of Success
You will need to practice. You can always have a super-structured, pre-defined encounter in your back pocket ready to go until you feel more confident.
I encourage you to try this in your next session! Once you do it a few times, it will not only feel easy and fun for you, but it will also free up a LOT of time to focus on other things. Like painting that giant pile of miniatures.
The ultimate measure of success is whether or not you and your players are having fun. If that’s the case, then you won D&D! Great work!
As a Dungeon Master, figuring out how to prep for a D&D session can be daunting. With the right approach, it can become a simple, fulfilling and fun process.
Understanding the concepts covered in this two-part series, Game Masters can gain confidence in their ability to prepare for their gaming sessions. Part one discussed what railroading is and when pre-defined structure can actually be a positive thing in games. If you haven’t read that yet, why not take a look at it? This article focused more on the practical aspects of thinking about how to prep a D&D session, and gave you a really specific example to show you what I mean.
Whether you’re running Dungeons & Dragons or another tabletop RPG system, the principles and tips shared in these articles are applicable. So gather your players and embrace the excitement of creating a memorable gaming experience for everyone at the table, hopefully in a lot less time!
Do you use a similar process when you prep a session? I’d love to read your feedback in the comments below.
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