The Alexandrian

For a beginning GM, the location-based method of adventure prep is the best way to go: Draw a map. Number the rooms. Key the rooms (i.e., describe what’s in each room).

(1) Start small with a Five Room Dungeon.

(2) After a couple of those, go a little larger. And, when you do, start thinking about Jaquaying Your Dungeon.

(3) Okay, that’s getting awesome. But this map-and-key thing is a little too static: Monsters are just sitting in their rooms and waiting for the PCs to wander by and hit them over the head. So mix it up by prepping an Adversary Roster that’s independent of the map key and then run the monsters in the complex actively (so that goblins from area 6 might run across the compound and reinforce the goblins at area 1). At this point, it may also be useful to broaden your encounter design to give yourself more flexibility in how you use encounter groups.

At this point you’ve probably run about a dozen adventures and you’re starting to get comfortable as a DM. Awesome. Now you can start exploring non-location-based methods of adventure prep. For some basic priming check out: Three Clue Rule, Node-Based Scenario Design, and Don’t Prep Plots. Or, for another classic alternative, check out Hexcrawls.

And if you’re really ready to jump into the deep end: Game Structures.


Throughout all of this, however, don’t over-prep. I think it’s really important to NOT use published adventures as an example of how to prep: Professional adventure writers are trying to communicate their vision to you. If you’re prepping notes for yourself, however, you can trust your creative instincts in the moment.

For example, it’s not necessary to elaborately work out and write down all of the different tactics that a group of orc fighters might use. You can just jot down “8 orcs” or “8 orcs, they’ll try to kick over the pot of boiling stew to burn the PCs” and then trust yourself to be creative in the moment.

Rule of thumb: Details are overrated (with the proviso that essential details and awesome details should always be jotted down).

Similarly, you don’t need to spend a lot of time customizing every stat block. You can take generic stat blocks out of the Bestiary and make them interesting through context and use and creative description. (The one-eyed orc chietain wearing the steel-plated skull of a wyrmling is pretty awesome. But there’s no reason you can’t just use the stat block for an orc warrior from pg. 222 of the Bestiary.)

Another rule of thumb: If you’re spending more time prepping it than your players spend playing it, you’re probably doing something wrong.

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10 Responses to “Thought of the Day: Prep Tips for the Beginning DM”

  1. GeraintElberion says:

    First time I’v seen a Pathfinder tag from The Alexandrian, and ‘Bestiary’ rather than Monster Manual?

    Are you playing some Pathfinder, or just recognising their current place in the hobby?

  2. Sertorius says:

    Just curious, but why not suggest a store bought campaign for new DMs?

    I am DMing a game after a long, long layoff from pen and paper RPGs (nearly 20 years). I suppose I could have tried to draft a campaign from scratch, but opted to run Pazio’s “Rise of the Runelords.” It’s not perfect, but it’s very good, and I feel in the newbie DM effort vs player payoff scale, I’m doing very well indeed.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    Quite a few of my “Thoughts of the Day” are actually recycled from forum posts and the like. In this case, I was giving advice on reddit to a Pathfinder GM (thus the Pathfinder references) who was specifically asking about prepping his own adventures after using the Pathfinder Beginner Box.

    I do recommend that new GMs start with a pre-made adventure or two. But at some point they’re going to start prepping their own stuff, and this is, IMO, the best path to take for that.

  4. Jan says:

    Cool tips! In contrary to most of the tips I read, which say something like “be a fan of your players” and such, it’s a different approach to tell a new dm “Hey, use some store bought adventures or campaigns and then read this post.” That would be all he needs to learn, though at some point he should get some tips like “be a fan of your players”, but that is somewhere along the way while gming. I guess I need to adopt that approach to the dm tips series, I want to write for my own blog.

  5. Sir Wulf says:

    The decision to use a store-bought scenario versus growing one’s own is largely a matter of confidence. A new GM who feel comfortable with a bit of improvisation can run a game with little more prep time than someone reviewing and running a pre-made sceanrio.

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    @Jan: Yup. That’s my take, too. When I was a new DM, what I desperately craved was solid, concrete steps that I could follow. Only when I had my feet firmly planted on that foundation was I ready (and now eager) to read stuff about “being a fan of your players” and “remember to describe how things smell”.

    There’s also a big division (in my mind, at least) between how you run the game and you prep the game. The former, of course, depends on the latter (and vice versa). But I often find a lot of clarity by clearly separating advice between the two activities.

  7. Jan says:

    That’s another good hint for dm tips, that I’ll consider for my won gm tips. Thanks!

  8. d47 says:

    “Another rule of thumb: If you’re spending more time prepping it than your players spend playing it, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

    Well, if you enjoy writing out details or imagining various possible outcomes, I think you should spend as much time as you like on preparation. Just don’t force the players to do things so you can read your eloquent descriptions to them.

  9. Gray says:

    So, hey, how is a five-room dungeon useful to a GM wanting to run a combat-light game that isn’t a D&D style of game? It seems built under the assumption of dungeons and combat being important, despite initially saying it’s a widely-applicable setup. I’m not seeing it.

  10. Justin Alexander says:

    I don’t really make a case for the 5 Room Dungeon being widely-applicable. It’s a decent little default structure, but isn’t the be-all or end-all of scenario design. It’s not even the be-all or end-all of dungeon design.

    With that being said: I recommend clicking through and reading the original 5 Room Dungeon tip. None of the rooms need to have a fight in them in order to adhere to the 5 Room structure.

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