In 1984 at Gen Con, I first served as an official dungeon master for a table full of strangers. I ran the adventure that would become I11 Needle. As I explained in “Running I11 Needle at Gen Con in 1984,” the session fell short of my standards. Frank Mentzer, please forgive me.
Judges’ copy of Needle from Gen Con 17
In the years since, I’ve run many more convention games. I’ve improved. Sometimes I even meet my standards.
This year at Gen Con, I ran 8 D&D Adventurers League sessions. This post explains how I prepare these sessions.
I start by reading the adventure twice.
My first, quick read provides a high-level view. When I finish, I want to know the important characters, the expected course of events, and the clues that lead the player characters through these events.
Most adventures feature an overview intended to serve the purpose of my first read, but these summaries never seem to help me. When I take my first look at an adventure, I’m keenly interested in what leads the PCs through the narrative. But a typical summary just lists events: “After finding the casket of wrath, the characters go to confront Lady Frost.” I need to know what motivates the characters to go from one event to the next. Those leads become the most important clues I must communicate to the players.
The first read enables me to reread knowing which details merit careful attention. I can sift clues from set dressing, key characters from extras.
During the second read, I pay careful attention to the decisions the characters will face. When I run the adventure, I can miss a bit of color, but I must communicate the details that weigh on decisions. I tend to think a lot about the actions players might take during a session. Although I enjoy when players surprise me, I still imagine their likely choices and consider how to handle each one.
A 4-hour convention slot leaves little time for decisions that swing the course of an adventure. I want to present any real options to make them as interesting as possible. See “How running an adventure eight times can be fun and educational.”
Even the best adventure authors sometimes make bad assumptions about what the players will do. See “Actions players always take and choices players never make.” For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen assumes players will join a caravan with some cultists transporting looted treasure and then travel for weeks—instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold. Like every D&D player ever. I wondered have the authors even played this game? (Answer: Yes. More than me, but perhaps not with so many strangers at recent conventions.)
Whenever I spot such an oversight, I plan on how to account for it. Will I reinforce the need to infiltrate the caravan? Will I present the cultists as too tough to confront? Will I let the players slay the cultists and then contrive a way to get the PCs to the next chapter. Sometimes I let players discover the risks of each option so players reach a dilemma. See “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.” Sometimes, I just make players understand the facts that make a bad strategy bad.
On my second read, I may mark up the pages. I cannot bear to mark up a hardcover adventure, but Adventurers League pages call for the red and blue pens.
Red and blue notes on page
In blue, I break the wall of text with sub-headings that flag key information. In play, I rarely scan my headings, but when I do, they can cut minutes of text skimming. Plus, the process of writing headings turns me into an active reader. I notice things that I might otherwise overlook. I remember more at the table, so I look down less.
In red, I write names and other bits of text I must find at a glance. Names always go in red, as do quotes that I might read as I glance down.
Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1
On any dungeon maps, I note everything I need to know. My captions include monsters, locks, objects of interest, difficulty classes and so on. Ideally, I can run all the rooms from the map.
When I first started running organized-play adventures, I would work from a packet of pages. This led to disaster. As I referenced maps, monsters, and descriptions of encounter areas, I plucked them from the pile. Half way through the session, I faced a shuffled heap. While I spent minutes hunting for that one sheet, I stammered apologies.
Color reference sheets and player handouts
Now, all my adventures go into a loose-leaf binder with tabs separating each module. Double-sided printing makes the best use of space.
I print second copies of the maps and monsters on single-sided sheets of colored paper. I can pull my green, monster stats at a glance and I never lose them in a stack.
Player handouts, including magic-item descriptions and story awards, also go on colored paper and in the binder. If I plan to run an run an adventure more than once, I use card stock.
A pre-printed, urban battle map fits this encounter
For any of the adventure’s encounter areas, I look for pre-printed maps in my collection that suit the location. Many encounters rely on few specific details, so any map that captures a location’s flavor will serve.
When none of my existing maps fit, I might print or sketch a map in advance. If an adventure always lands PCs in a location, I’ll wind up drawing the map anyway. Drawing in advance saves time at the table. Plus, if I’m running an adventure more than once, more players can enjoy any effort I invest in maps.
Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace on Dungeon Paper
Maps go into sheet-protector pockets and then into the binder near the encounter description. (For more on printing maps, see “How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software.”)
A map in a sheet protector paired with an encounter
After years chasing miniatures, I can match most monsters with suitable figures. If I lack figures, I may use the excuse to add to my collection, or even fabricate a figure.
Miniatures for the CORE 2-2 adventure
No one leaves a D&D table annoyed because they needed to use imagination. So if you lack miniatures, you can bring tokens or even candy to represent monsters.
Finally, creating monster initiative tents in advance pays off at the table. When combat starts, ready-made monster tents avoid delay. Plus, pre-rolling gives me time to note key monster stats on the tents. This keeps things like Armor Class front-and-center rather than somewhere in a pile of green sheets. For my initiative tents and more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”
How do you prepare for a published adventure?