The Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition game I dungeon master for meets about once per month. It’s challenging to develop my skills and tricky to keep the story moving. Over the last year, my game preparation has evolved and will undoubtedly continue to evolve.
After the last campaign ended with the Elite Mad Wraith incident, I made some creative decisions about the new campaign. I recently started re-watching Firefly, which helped form some key components:
1) Each session will be mostly self-contained and episodic, in addition to moving the meta-plot forward. Television and comic books work best with this similar structure: each issue or episode contains a complete product, with a beginning, middle and end. Every element should move things forward, without filler; everything should exist for a reason.
2) The campaign will have an American western feel. This is still Dungeons and Dragons, so there won’t be six guns or cowboy hats; I probably won’t even have horses. Instead I’m aiming for the middle ground between law and anarchy. When the sheriff is the only law in town, a weak one opens the door to chaos and a corrupt one can ruin a town.
When I begin to prepare for a specific session, I first consider the primary story for that specific game and what I’d like the climax to look like. Last month focused on the player characters’ escape from prison, and culminated with clearing a hidden base of bandits.
Next, I break down the specific high level beats and start thinking through the skill challenges. I try to consider the pace and to integrate skill use with the rest of the session. Last session’s skill involved fleeing from the posse; the more the player characters succeeded, the more advantages they would enjoy when the battle began. I firmly believe that skill challenges should not determine whether a battle happens; instead, they should influence how an encounter happens.
Finally, I pull together the encounter specifics. I use the Monster Builder (sometimes in conjunction with the Monster Manuals) to assemble the bad guys according to budget, then I sort out the terrain. For the last session, I knew I wanted to use my new Harrowing Halls Dungeon Tiles, but it wasn’t until this step that I decided how they would work best.