Easy Dungeon Master Preparation

Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manuals from second to fifth edition.
Photo: Michael Harrison

When I started my latest Dungeons & Dragons campaign, my goal was to reduce the amount of time I spent with my Dungeon Master preparation for each session. I’d burned out on building crazy complex combat encounters with labyrinthine Dwarven Forge creations, and over-plotting with hundreds of wiki articles linked together like some nutcase’s string-smothered pegboard. I was one of those obsessive Dungeon Masters you’ve heard about…

I needed simplification. My wife (who plays in the campaign) and I both work. We have two kids, one of whom is on the spectrum and requires a lot of attention. We’re busy folks. So I made a vow to keep it to 30 minutes of prep for every weekly session.

But here’s a confession: I really enjoy prepping for my games. I love world building and generating NPCs, plotting and designing encounters. When I was a kid, I’d flip endlessly through the Dungeon Master Guide, writing down cool treasure that my (often non-existent) PCs would discover. I’d spend hours populating entire towns and cities with gregarious guards, impatient innkeepers, megalomaniacal mages. Rarely did these creations ever grace the gaming table, simply because I rarely had friends with the attention spans necessary to play.

Better Players Mean Better Stories

When I grew up and found the best gaming group in the multiverse (sorry, but they’re taken), I still kept up this old, childlike–and childish–habit. And I found that, even though I had active, engaged players at the table, most of my precious material never saw the light of day.

Eventually, after playing GM-less games like Fiasco with my group, I realized that we were all pretty darn good storytellers. My wife’s even a novelist, for God’s sake. It turns out that I can rely on my players a lot more than I ever did as a kid. The stories we tell together are far better than the ones I can tell on my own. And, as it happens, this method of running a role-playing game fits really well with the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

A Fistful of Index Cards

I had an idea of how to pare down on my prep, but it wasn’t until I read Mike Shea’s The Lazy Dungeon Master that I really figured out how to make such a lightweight system work. Shea conducted a survey of over 800 DMs, across all editions of D&D, and then wrote about ways to streamline prep and focus on what mattered: time at the table.

My system is pretty close to the one that Shea outlines in the book. If you want to know specifics, I highly recommend checking out the free preview PDF or just dropping the paltry $6 for the full eBook. It’s well worth it for the survey data alone, but Shea’s clear, concise, and genial writing style is icing on the cake.

Shea uses index cards to organize his game sessions, and I came close to ditching my laptop and doing the same. But after some thought, I realized that there’s a electronic tool that does really well at emulating index cards: the digital kanban board. The easy-to-use, no-frills Trello was first on my list to try, and has served me so well that I don’t see a reason to go anywhere else.

(Dungeon Master’s) Screens at the Table

Some might frown on the practice, but I’ve been using my laptop at the games table for almost a decade. And using Trello has made it even easier. I used to just bang out image collages in Photoshop for encounters, and scan through them in OS X Preview. This is similar, but even more organized.

Trello boards are made up of multiple lists, and each list can hold multiple cards. Take a look at my D&D Session board below:

Dungeon Masters and Trello

The first list is probably the most important one. “Paths” are simply the most likely next steps that my players’ characters are going to take. Based on last week’s session (and, really, every session before it), where are they heading? What are they aiming to achieve? What’s forefront in the characters’ minds? Everyone needs a little reminder from time to time, and “Paths” serves as a way to keep us all on the same page.

I’ll add secrets and surprises to these cards, so I don’t forget them as the PCs explore that particular path. It’s important to point out that, yes, you can share your Trello boards with your players, but… don’t share this one. Collaborative storytelling is fun, but so is discovery. Keeping a few things secret from your players amps up the intrigue, and is absolutely key in a good campaign.

There are also lists for NPCs, Villains, and Locations on this first part of the board. I’ll try to operate as much as possible out of the “Paths” list during the session itself, but if I need any details, I can go here.

One of Shea’s most valuable pieces of advice–and the big reason he likes index cards–is that limitations help encourage creativity. You can’t fit a lot of text into an index card, and Trello becomes fairly useless as a DM’s tool if you fill up each list with a bunch of text. Keep it simple. Just a few words to describe what’s happening, who’s involved, what their motivations are, and maybe a detail or two for flavor.

Screen Time

You may notice that most of the cards are colored coded. Like ensemble shows, it’s never fun when you’re left to constantly wonder what’s happening to your favorite character as the writers fade him or her into the background for too long. It’s the same if you’re playing a character in a role-playing game.

Dungeon Masters and Trello - Labels

So each card is color coded according to one of my PCs. At a glance of the board, I can get an idea of whether I’m focusing too much on one character’s stories (or NPCs or Locations or their arch-nemesis) and mix up the action so that everyone feels like they’re getting their fair share of the limelight. This isn’t super important for my group, thankfully, because we’re all in it together, and no one is a prima donna, but your mileage may vary. As the Dungeon Master, you’re aiming to keep everyone engaged in the game, and sometimes that means giving everyone their own “very special episode”.

Letting the Cards Fall Where They May

Another reason Trello works well is that you can drag your cards around just like you would physical versions. If a Villain isn’t likely to show up in this week’s session–say the party thinks they defeated them a few weeks ago, the suckers–then drag them to the bottom of the list. Or if they truly have kicked the bucket, go ahead and Archive them. You can always reactivate them once they’ve been resurrected as a lich or whatever.

More Lists

Want more info at your fingertips? Make more lists. I’m a huge fan of the Donjon tools, and a few months ago, I asked the owner what he thought about making the generators accept queries in the URL. To my great joy, he added the functionality, and now I can link directly to a level 6 urban encounter of medium difficulty for my 3 PCs. So I created a list called Random…

Dungeon Masters and Trello - Random

…and populated it with a bunch of cards filled with links to various Donjon generator results…

Trello and Dungeon Masters - Random Lists

…and even created a “Names” card with options for various races…

Dungeons and Dragons and Trello. Dungeon Masters love lists of random names!

…so that whenever our group enters a new inn or meets a new NPC or things are getting a little boring and some combat would be fun, all that stuff is right there, just a few clicks away.

I’ve also got an “Unanswered Questions” list, to ensure that I don’t get too Lost in my own mythology. I’m also contemplating a list with references to confusing and often-forgotten rules explanations.

Readable and Writable

Yes, it’s information right where it needs to be, when it needs to be. But the really cool thing is that this always-topical, ultra-modular, one-of-a-kind Dungeon Master’s screen is editable. Just click and add text. If, as a group, we decide that an artifact does something special, I type it in. If a villain reveals their dastardly plan, into the card it goes. It becomes canon, and I have a record of it for the next session.

As much as I love campaign wikis, this on-the-fly worldbuilding is a lot more scalable and it takes place mostly at the table with my gaming group. And, as I’ve said, we’re a lot better at building stories together than any one of us is alone.

What’s Next?

Above all, I want to keep my customizable Dungeon Master screen lightweight. If I’m not too careful, I’ll revert to my old habits and go add cards for every NPC, town, tavern, family, dialect, etc. To that end, I go in before every session and do some cleaning. Pare down on what’s there, move cards around, and get back into the game a bit. I ask myself a few questions about what I think the players might do, sketch out some more Paths, archive some cards, and then I’m ready to go.

It’s not as planned out as one of the official D&D modules, but you end up improvising a lot more, and that’s freeing. My players can try anything, I can add whatever detail I want, and because I haven’t planned myself into a corner, I’m a lot more open to trying new things.

If you’re a Dungeon Master, give Trello a go yourself and let me know–in the comments below or on Twitter–the strange paths you find yourself treading.

Aside from writing for GeekDad and managing its Instagram account, Michael is a web developer and analyst. He loves games, the web, and other geeky stuff, and podcasts about board games at The Dice Section.