It may sound obvious to some, but one of the best things you can do to improve your DnD game as a dungeon master is to take time to think about your campaign. So often dungeon masters spend a lot of their session prep working out mechanics, dialogue, and descriptions, but not all of the session preparation time should be mechanical. Spending deliberate time thinking about scenarios and the world as a whole will help you identify problems long before they ever occur in game.
A fair portion of people reading this might assume that they’re thinking about their game all the time. Why should they be setting aside time to think about it deliberately? While it may be true that a lot of DMs are quite mentally engaged with our campaigns, that does not mean we’re always thinking about the right things.
When we daydream about campaigns and scenarios we’re often running our mind over a story. Deliberately thinking about our campaign is more about bigger questions we might need to answer than it as about figuring out what could happen with your players.
Let’s look at an example. Say you’re running your party through a tomb. You’ve already planned out the maps, the monsters, the loot tables and the storyline. This is all normal session preparation. If we wanted to be more deliberate about our thinking though we’d try to go a step further.
This is where we get into questions that might never come up, but can help you tell a better story later on. Who is buried there? Why? Who buried them? If it’s a long forgotten tomb you might not need to know these things, but answering these questions for yourself will help you create a more compelling world.
So far we’ve just talked about some surface questions, but we can go deeper. Is the kingdom this tomb belonged to still around? If not, are there any symbols that would exist? What about statues? Does any of this culture’s heritage present itself in the zombies or ghouls that now stand in your players’ way, say in clothing or appearance?
As you can plainly see, there are so many questions you can ask and there is so much to think about. We don’t really even suggest you write all this down. It’s not likely that it’s all important. But by thinking about it beforehand, you’ve established some mental structure ahead of time for when you need to pull up something for a history check or develop some lore on the spot.
Knowing When to ask Questions
The real tough parts about deliberately thinking about a campaign and a setting are your focus and direction. A good starting point is to consider everything visually. Imagine a room in the location and think about what it looks like. Don’t just consider the top down map, but instead the first person visuals.
If the room looks barren in your mind, ask why it looks empty. What’s missing? This is a visual focusing technique that hones your imagination down to a perspective that is functionally useful for you. Similar to artists, learning how to visualize things in your mind is a skill that needs to be developed for this too.
Moving from focus, we can consider directional thinking. Directional thinking is essentially the order in which you tackle something. This is easiest when you start on one question and then ask more questions for each answer until you’ve gotten far away from the topic.
Who’s buried in this tomb? Sir Thornforge.
Why was Sir Thornforge buried here? He died in battle.
What battle? And so on.
By moving through ideas this way you can start to get some ideas of why things are the way they are in a scene. Once you’ve made a collection of new ideas about multiple topics you can start to connect them together. Are the people buried in the tomb all from the same battle? Is the tomb also a war memorial? Did the people buried here know each other?
Making Use of Idle Information
With information like this, information that has no mechanical context to the session, you can develop flavor that is functionally helpful for the game. Now when someone casts Speak with Dead you can answer questions from a pool of ideas you’ve already generated. When your players ask for more description, you’ve got some tidbits in your back pocket to sprinkle into your narration.
Where Thinking about Your Campaign Really Helps
Nothing presented above is revolutionary, but it helps us avoid some real problems. All too often we build a mechanically sound dungeon and never think about why it was constructed in the first place. By setting aside time to think about your campaign and your world without the expectation of generating notes and functional pieces for your game, you’re really taking time to think about the things that don’t come up all that often.
As someone who really likes traps (see our many articles on them), one thing that I always venture to do is use them realistically. Traps that occur in DnD need purpose. If there are traps in a tomb it’s to deter grave robbers or punish vandals.
If there are traps in a fortress, though, we’ve got a different dilemma. How do the people actively working in the fortress get around them?
If it’s a vault, sure traps make sense, but when are they armed and how are they disarmed if someone wants to get to their treasure? These thoughts will make your traps better, but they are not required to run your game. What this does is force you to make traps that make sense.
This kind of deliberate thinking can also help you out when it comes to history. Sure, there are some main story points you will fill in naturally. But setting aside time to think about smaller details helps you make places seem more lively.
Stepping outside of the dungeons, you can consider who’s at the tavern. What stories are they telling? What kind of rumors would they share? While the thinking you’re doing might not be about the main plot at all, it will come in handy when your party wants to get a drink with the NPCs. Farmers in the bar might complain about a bad harvest, merchants might celebrate a good shipment and gamble more loosely.
Will all these little pieces of knowledge tucked away, you’re building up an arsenal of the mundane and everyday facts that make the world work. You get to know the religions of the lands and the people in a town. You get to understand the relationships of NPCs and how the weather’s been.
While all of this is trivial to gameplay and necessary planning, it does help you more easily enter a flow state when you run a session and better prepares you for your players’ questions.
Planned Time For Thought
You might not yet be sold on the idea, but see if you can take 30 minutes to really think about your game. Don’t do this while you’re distracted with some other task. Dedicate the time to just thinking about the world and what goes on in it. You might be surprised just how much more you think about when you’ve set aside the time to run through the world in your imagination.
The methods are simple. Block out some time. Get in a comfy spot. Think about something for the upcoming session or campaign and try to really envision it. Paint a picture in your mind and try to fill out any missing details. Once you have a good picture, start asking questions about it. Why are things the way they are? How do these things relate?
Thirty minutes might seem like a short time to go into these ideas, but you’ll be surprised just how fast the time will fly by when you lose yourself in thought.
Thinking Trains Your Imagination
We hope encouraging you to spend more time thinking about your game has been well received. We know a lot of this stuff can sound obvious, but there is often a big difference between intentional, concentrated thought and thinking about your campaign while doing other things.
If you put just a little extra time into it you can quickly start to see greater rewards than you first anticipated. Give some deliberate thought about your game a try before your next session and see what a difference it can make.