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Knowing the Game

by Jae

It would be a challenge to know every rule in Dungeons and Dragons since there are multiple books and loads of supplemental material. But the rules of DnD are just a framework for mechanics. So if it’s difficult to know all the rules, how are we expected to run the game, let alone a good one? In this article we are going to talk about strategies for knowing the rules you need and how to better manage a session.

What We Know and How We Know It

No dungeon master is perfect. Everyone of us has our flaws and weak points. For some it’s with role playing, and for others it’s combat. Your group may look to you for rules and guidance, but no one is likely to be upset if you have to look things up. That’s what the core rule books are for.

There are rules you just know by heart. Many DMs and players can quote the rules for spells, attack rolls, and various other game mechanics. Certain things are used so often they become ingrained into our everyday game sessions; we never need to look them up and can run the game smoothly without fumbling through pages mid game.

This idea is nothing special: we know some things, but don’t know others. What we’re proposing here is that you know what you’ve practiced and done the most. All the other rules have not set in because you’ve not practiced them much or read up on them. You could simply improve your game by cramming more knowledge into your head:  reading the books at night before bed, running mock scenarios, or making rule flash cards.

But we suggest you don’t. There’s a better way. Rather than improving your game by studying more, focus on smaller chunks and offloading some of the heavy lifting.

Session Preparation, Not Campaign Preparation

The biggest mistake that we often make as DMs is that we set our eyes on the bigger picture. This causes us to loose focus on the narrower scope of problems that we have session to session. Rather than trying to know everything you could possibly need for all your sessions, focus on just the next session. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t work out your story lines and world in advance. This is about simple mechanical rules that you will need in your next game. Not the game after, not every game, just the next one.

DMs typically fall into one of two categories: over-preparing or under-preparing. DnD is not all about rules, but having fun with your group. The goal is to optimize your session preparation and so that you can run a better game and reduce anxiety. The Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook do a terrible job at teaching people how to set up for a session. Unless you’ve played for years or have come across other pieces of advice, there’s no way you’d know how to improve or that there’s opportunity to do so. So let’s talk about session preparation.

Session preparation is something that a lot of people do normally, including your players. Many DMs prepare to at least a minimal extent.  A lot go too far and will prepare scenarios that will never be played out and plot lines that will never be picked up. You have limited time to prepare, so make the most of it. You can’t write out every scenario and memorize every rule. So, how can you use that time most effectively to make a session run more smoothly? The trick is knowing what to prepare for and how to prepare it.

Knowing What to Prepare For

Knowing is half the battle, and it’s easy to know what to prepare if you approach things the way a player might. When figuring out what to prepare a session, you should be able to draw a line through the content you’ve prepared that is likely to be followed. Even if you’re running an encounter that branches, like preparing a mystery, you’ll still be able to anticipate ways your players will go. After you know what situations to account for, you can start to break this information down into useful categories:

  • NPC interactions
  • Area Descriptions
  • Combat Encounters
  • Puzzles/Traps/Exploration
  • World Building/Story Elements

That’s a lot of elements to prepare for! The good thing is you don’t have to prepare a lot for all of them. This is simply an outline to ensure you’ve not forgotten anything you think is likely to happen. If you don’t prepare for a scenario that ends up playing out, don’t panic! You can always improvise. Preparing for everything is impossible; your players will always mange to surprise you.

What you should do with these buckets you’ve created is examine what you’ll need for each. NPC interactions require NPCs, names, stats, personalities, and perhaps a character voice. That’s a lot to think about, but it’s easy to break down. You can even roll some of these traits out randomly, like NPC names.

For each point of interest you can list out the items that need to be prepared. It might help to write them down. Once you have this list, you’ll be able to see what you are or aren’t prepared for by using it as a checklist. Here’s an expanded version of what’s listed above:

  • NPC Interactions
    • NPC Name and Stats
    • NPC Personalities
    • NPC Role Play Descriptions
  • Area Descriptions
    • Names of Locations
    • Locations/Points of Importance
    • General descriptions for the area
  • Combat Encounters
    • Enemy stats and numbers
    • Enemy tactics and fight conditions
    • Environmental considerations
    • Particular Combat Rules
  • Puzzles/Traps/Exploration
    • Key descriptions
    • Hints
    • Trap stats, rules, and damage
  • World Building/Story Elements
    • Individual Plot points
    • Relevant answers to player questions
    • Re-occurring names, descriptions, and knowledge

Knowing How to Prepare

Now that you have a list to work through, it might feel a little overwhelming; that’s because you’re focused on the whole list. Don’t look at the list as whole, but at each item. Preparing each item from the list should be a simple task, and if it’s not, you can likely break it down further. You should start with your main points and check them off as you go.

If you have a lot of items in one category, such as 4 combat encounters, try to work on them at the same time so you can chunk the preparation together and save time. But, you may ask, how do you actually prepare for these things? Let’s take combat as an example.

Combat Encounter Example

Combat encounters have a lot going on, so to prepare for them you will need to understand the encounter itself and think about the process that you go through. On your list you may have some basic items you need to know, but there’s no way you’re going to keep it all in your head. So break it down into the relevant chunks and make some cheat sheets.

Monster Stats and Tactics

Your Monster stats should be easy to find. List out the relevant pages in the Monster Manual, physically bookmark the pages, or have the relevant stats for the monster written down. For monster tactics, you actually need to plan this out ahead of time. Your monsters are likely not just blindly running to their deaths, but instead trying to survive and win. So plan out conditions and tactics for them ahead of time. You should never need to think about how a monster reacts.

For example, if a wolf pack loses its alpha, the remaining wolves may flee. Knowing what they will do in response to certain things will both take the burden off of you in game and make things flow much smoother.

Environments and Conditions

Next up is the environment and how it affects combat. You can break this down into into how it affects your players and their senses. The description is the first part, how your players perceive the environment. Do you have difficult terrain? Is an area dark? What parts of the map provide cover? Having this information ahead of time helps you manage combat, and often is as simple as explaining that it exists.

Specific Rules for Combat

Every combat will have something that needs to be looked up. There’s either a special monster attack, a particular spell, or some player interaction that makes combat unique. For these preparations you don’t need to pull up all the rules possible, which we’ve seen many DMs do. You’re simply looking for the ones that you are going to use.

Before a session where you use intelligent monsters, you might want to have the grapple and non-lethal damage rules handy; players might try to capture them and interrogate them later. Before a session with an ambush possibility, brush up on surprise rounds mechanics.

If you can, you will want to brush up on your players’ rules. Good players make it harder to predict their actions, but each class generally has a default strategy or skill that they use in combat, like a Warlock’s Eldrich Blast or a Cleric’s Spiritual Weapon. Knowing how these work can drastically decrease the amount of time you spend working through these fights.

While it may sound like a lot of work upfront, the process makes it easier to prepare in the future. This is practice for making it more simple in the future. Your monster cheat sheets are reusable, your NPC preparations can be stored entirely in a spreadsheet and pulled up quickly for reference, and environmental descriptions can even follow a formula of describing the five senses of an area. By making these preparations, you’ll get better at using them in your game and save time in the long run.

Better Cheat Sheet

A cheat sheet should be enough information for you to refer to, but not so much that you need to spend 10 minutes reading it to get the idea. Goods cheat sheet examples often come from shorthand rules for spells or weapons on character sheets. They contain the information you need in their most condensed form. If the shorthand is complicated, it would be best to have a key to reference.

Everyone makes their cheat sheets differently. But once you get the basic information you need in front of you, play will move much faster. A good NPC reference makes role playing a lot easier, and a good description write-up can make the session feel a lot more alive. Keep in mind that these are just your notes, they’re not the whole story. They should be enough to answer basic questions and provide your players with a sense that the world is deep and lived in.

When building your own cheat sheets, think about what is useful to you. In our own campaigns, we have a cheat sheet for combat conditions, spells, a monster sheet for each encounter, and an NPC spreadsheet for that session. These are all very basic, but each one helps prevent decision fatigue and allows us to stay sharp and handle whatever our players throw at us.

Preparation Time and Re-usability

You’re not always going to have enough time to prepare for a session. In those cases you just have to do your best. One way around this we’ve already discussed in this article is to focus on just this upcoming session. Another tactic is to structure your preparations to be reusable.

If you make a combat cheat sheet, don’t start from scratch each time. Fill out your next one in the same way. Try to follow the same steps each time. If you can reuse any part of your preparation process, you’ll be able to prepare more content in less time.

Preparing is Work, But it’s Worth it

While you wont always be fully prepared, sitting down and focusing on the important things ahead of you can improve your game. You don’t need to know all the rules, just the ones you know you’re going to use that session. With time, you’ll get better at knowing the game mechanics and it will show in your campaign. Good luck getting ready and Happy DMing!

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