session preparation

Session Preparation Effectiveness

When creating things for your DnD session you can easily sink hours into preparation. This isn’t really a problem when you like session preparation, but it is possible you might run into an efficiency problem. Some types of content are harder to generate than others and you might end up spending more time on a prep than your players do in game time.

The issue really arises on content with fiddly little details. Creating a detailed shop might take an hour or more when your players might only spend 10 minutes shopping. So how do we get around this? What can we do to make session preparation more efficient?

Spend One Minute Making a Maze that Takes Two Minutes to Solve

There is a scene in the movie Inception where a character is asked to create a maze in one minute that takes two minutes to solve. This seems like a hard task and it takes them a few attempts, but they eventually figure it out. While this is an overly simplified example of a concept, it illustrates what we are looking for with session preparation.

The idea is that as complexity increases, the time it takes to interact with or solve a puzzle increases at a greater rate. This concept is a bit abstract. To make it more tangible, let’s talk about the idea in dungeon design. It’s possible to spend less time on a dungeon than it takes to play through it because layering complexity on a dungeon is simple and algorithmic.

The first part would be creating the map, and this takes the longest if you’re doing it from scratch. After you have a map players can just cruise through that, so you can add locked doors and keys. If you place these randomly, it takes very little time to do, but can make the dungeon take twice as long to get through.

Furthermore, the complexity can be increased again by adding combat encounters, puzzle rooms, etc. Each thing you add extends the time players need to spend in a dungeon, especially if it involves some problem solving about how encounters should be approached.

Following this methodology, it’s possible that you spend less time creating a dungeon than it takes your players to complete it. Some of the items in a dungeon might take longer to make and you could easily get bogged down in details that draw out your time. To avoid that, let’s explore further methods to increase your session preparation efficiency.

Knowing Your Players’ Play Style

The importance of understanding how your players play the game cannot be overstated. Each player has their own style and will approach challenges differently. If you design things players don’t care about, they will ignore or minimize their interactions with it, fundamentally changing the ratio of play time to design time.

Additionally, you have the ability to put challenges in front of them that require them to think more creatively. Creativity demands additional time from your players, resulting in a better play time to design time ratio.

What also goes hand and hand with this concept is optional mechanics. If you make something optional, players may skip it. So if you’re short on content, don’t make things optional. Railroading can be good or bad depending on how you do it, but the struggle between what the player wants and what they have to do to get there is part of the game too.

Making Puzzles Faster

Some puzzles are simple to design but hard to solve. Working out a solution requires analysis, whereas designing the puzzle allows the craftsman to start at the solution and work backwards. Scrambling a rubik’s cube is much easier than solving one.

Good examples of these kinds of puzzles are switch puzzles, block pushing puzzles, branching path mazes, and riddles.

All of these things can be designed backwards from the solution which makes them much faster to create than solve. Additionally, while these puzzles are always solved fastest by critically thinking through the situation or applying an algorithm,  they take a tremendous amount of time to solve by brute force. The best part is, players can almost always brute force these too. If you don’t add a limit to your players’ guesses, riddles can also be brute forced within reason.

Saving Even More Time: Procedural Generation

Procedural generation is your friend when it comes to building lots of content in a short period of time. It might not always give you the bespoke touch that careful consideration and manual creation does, but depending on what you’re going for it can often get really close.

Many people think that procedural generation is just a computer thing. In actuality you can do your own procedural generation by creating a set of rules that produce the content you’re trying to generate. Adding in some randomness at certain points is what allows you to make new content for your players to explore. This can be as simple as spending some time making a loot table and then rolling on it for all the chests in a dungeon. The procedural generation here saves you time by cutting out all the references you need to what’s in each chest.

Procedural generation can be used to great effect when combined with manually created content as well. Generating content like maps while adding custom descriptions allows you to focus more on the detail and less on the mechanics. This gives you a richer experience in a shorter amount of time.

If you’re looking for better generators to help you with your next session we’ve got a whole section you can bookmark in our DnD Generators Resource page.

Batching Descriptions with Mood Boards

It can be hard to come up with detailed descriptions for everything you create. To avoid this massive time sink you can instead batch descriptions together. A good way to do this is by creating a mood board for reference. A mood board is essentially a collection of images, colors, symbols or any other references you need for a design.

You can take this further by adding a list of descriptors that you can pull from when talking about anything in an area. For a dungeon you might pull some pictures that show what the stonework looks like, choose some environmental conditions, and generate a list of adjectives that describes each sense the players would use when exploring the area. A detailed mood board can get you through multiple sessions without needing to write custom descriptions for every area your players enter.

Story, World Building, and Game play

Your story, world, and game all work together, but they are distinct things. We come back to this fact often: world building is not session prep! The biggest time sink in planning is often on things that are intangible and not actually part of the core game play loop. If you’re going to spend time on your world building, story elements, and finer details, make sure that these things are added after the game play is handled.

Ensuring the whole thing works mechanically first will spare you a lot of heartache and actually give you a space to put more set dressing that your characters will explore for a longer period of time.

Add Efficiency to Your Session Preparation

We covered some basic and easy to follow guidelines to making sure you’re spending more time playing the game than creating a game to play. But like most things in DnD, it takes practice, patience, and a lot of trial and error. Once you start using these time saving tips you’ll find that you can get more done and spend your extra time creating even more robust and exciting content for your players.

Happy DMing!

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