Complete Dungeon Master Pre-Session Checklist

Creating a pre-session list of what is needed to run the game is a great way to ensure that nothing is missed and everything is kept organized. Specifics of these lists can and should change from playgroup to playgroup, but there are some general categories that are worth including in any dungeon master’s checklist.

A complete dungeon master’s pre-session checklist should include:

  • Gathering resources
  • Noting down specifics about players and goals
  • Creating a general session idea and guide through session notes
  • A list of NPCs
  • A few possible encounters
  • A few possible side quests

Some of these sessions will be significantly shorter than others, and the most important of the different list items will vary from session to session. Read on to learn more about specifics for each one.

Gathering Your Dungeon Master Resources

Gathering resources so they can easily be accessed during gameplay is essential as a Dungeon Master. Resources include: sourcebooks for rules and monsters, maps, miniatures, in-game items, notes, etc. Anything that you need to run the game properly.

If you play in one location often, it is probably best to set up an organization system nearby that houses all the main resources such as books and miniatures. This way, you are less likely to lose or forget an integral game piece.

If you travel to Dungeon Master games, consider dedicating a bag to bringing along resources. Saving yourself the trouble of needing to pack and unpack resources every session will result in less prep time, less loss, and more consistent scheduling. 

When figuring out what resources you will need for a session, turn to session notes and possible encounters. These two sections will likely dictate what resources are needed most, and you can adjust accordingly.

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Make Sure to Have Player Notes

Player notes, in this context, means notes on your players that you have taken as the DM. This information can be about any part of their character, so it is best to break it down into one of two categories; Mechanic notes and story notes.

Mechanic notes are specifically related to how the player character interacts with the world, or information on their character sheet. This most often includes statistics like armor class, passive perception, and spell slots. How much you track these statistics vs. your player’s tracking them is a personal preference.

Story notes revolve around what a player character wants to do. This covers notes about family or background, goals, items of interest, connections, etc. Often, these are best when tailored to the session or recent sessions. 

If a player expresses that their character would be interested in more magical weaponry, jot that down and present opportunities for that to come up in-game. Keeping notes on requests and interactions will keep your players more engaged in the game.

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Keeping Session Notes

Session notes will often be the largest item on the DM’s pre-session checklist. At its core, session notes are a blueprint for running a session. There is a lot of information that can go in here, so it is important to find an organization system that works for you.

Consider leaving NPCs, encounters, and side quests to their own categories when creating session notes. This will allow you to have organized sections that you can quickly flip to as it comes up, while leaving other general information such as events in the session notes.

Session notes are meant to help you run the game. The exact level of detail that you put into notes or keep in your head or even improv on the spot will vary with personal preference. With that said, there are a few different categories that most session notes will include. These are:

  • General story notes – What is the villain up to? What will the party have to deal with next? How is the world reacting to events so far?
  • Area descriptions – What is the feeling around the next town? What is notable about the jungle the group is traveling through? Are there ruined castles nearby?
  • Big encounters – Keeping a list of encounters separate can be helpful for certain sessions, but if the party is inevitably headed toward some conclusion, keeping that encounter in the session notes with a more fleshed out plan can be beneficial.
  • Monsters – Keeping notes on what monsters may show up, where, and why can take encounters and elevate them to the next level. 
  • Interesting Occurences – Including random, small events that fit in well with the area can make your world feel alive. This can be as simple as a street race or as intricate as a pickpocket targeting party lookalikes.

Keeping session notes organized will be hugely beneficial in speeding up play, so find a system that works for you. Starting with the above categories and adjusting as needed is a great option for beginners.

NPCs are Essential to a Good Session

NPCs make up the bread and butter of DnD content. These are every person that the party interacts with outside of themselves – if you, the DM, are controlling them, they are an NPC.

List Big NPCs The Party Is Likely To Meet

A list of important NPCs that the party is likely to meet in that session is great when planning and tracking a session. This list should include their name, what they do, what they look like, and some general personality notes. All of this it to help you play them when the opportunity arises.

Especially for important NPCs, it is best to make them unique and memorable. That way, the party will look back at the NPC encounters and trace it in the story.

Creating NPCs On The Fly

Creating a whole world of NPCs is obviously challenging, especially when trying to make each one unique. This becomes even harder as adventuring parties go in unforeseen directions, forcing you to improv a whole town of NPCs.

Keep a list of NPC ideas and names to easily build new ones when necessary. Names are the most important here, as it is incredibly common for a player to ask a local guard what their name is, leaving you stuck. Keep a list and simply cross off names as you use them, noting down where and when. 

NPC ideas may seem like a challenging list to keep, but in reality, these should simply be small goals or notes. One could easily read “baker – has three daughters”. From this simple note, when combined with a name, a character can be formed and further fleshed out in play.

Make a List of Possible Encounters

Keeping a list of encounters, especially when the party is traveling, is great for controlling the pace of the game and keeping things interesting. Even if you are not a fan of random encounters, having a list of “set piece” encounters that you expect the party to run into is great for organizing and fleshing out ideas.

Anytime the player group is challenged with something they have to overcome, that is considered an encounter. This includes combat, skill checks, a difficult parley with some other force, sneaking into a place, etc. These are large encounters that often incorporate more than one player and can have dire consequences if failed. 

Most often, an average 3-4 hour DnD session should have 4 to 6 encounters. This keeps the game flowing, exciting, and fun. Toward that goal, make a list of the encounters you think the party will run into while planning and set it aside. Consider it a map to guide the players toward if you notice they are stalling or getting bored.

Take Note of Possible Side Quests

While your campaign likely has a main quest that the party is either actively pursuing or ignoring, it is always useful to have side quest threads that the party can pull on. Not only does this make the world feel more alive, but it allows the party and group to take a break from one style of play and embark on another.

List a few possible side quests, their importance, the possible reward, and how the party might stumble upon them. Do not worry about including more than two or three, as these are often activities that can take a whole session.

When designing side quests, consider where the party is. This should inform a lot of other decisions about side quests, such as where the party will hear about it and what importance they hold. For instance, in a town, it is likely that there is a quest board, or the local innkeeper has some stories to tell of ancient ruins nearby. In the middle of the forest, maybe the party stumbles across a dying adventurer who asks for help or an unearthed tomb. Be creative!

Players want to be rewarded when they complete side quests. Many times, this reward can be tangible such as gold or weaponry, especially if offered by a town. However, for other side quests such as those given by animals, gods, or stumbled upon, consider other forms of reward. This could include boons, friendships, messing with a villain’s plans, etc. These are all valuable and will come up later in play.

If you need some ideas, check out my playlist of complete side quest!

You’re Set For Your DND Session

By spending a few minutes to get your checklist together and plotlines in order, you’ll be DMing an incredible session in no time!

Until next time, my friends,

May your game have advantage!

-Halfling Hannah

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