The Stages of Planning

I’ll admit that I spend a decent percentage of my free time planning for my Friday night gaming sessions.  I’ve noticed over time that I go through a simple cycle for my planning throughout the week, each part focusing on a different aspect of the game.  The ultimate goal, of course, is to create an immersive enjoyable experience for both my players and myself.  Here are the phases I go through


The first thing I concern myself is with the world and story itself.  I look at my current Big Bad Evil Guy and try to figure out what he is doing and why he is doing it.  If I know my players are going to be going to a new town soon I figure out what is going on in the town, what motivation people have, and who the players will likely interact with.  From there I expand attempting to anticipate the moves of my players, the enemies, and their allies.  It is important to know how much information your players have and ensure that they know what they need to know.  I use to have problems with giving my players information during combat, but they are in a completely different mindset when in battle so it is important to allow them to gather this information outside of the initiative roll.  I try not to spoon-feed all of their information to them, though.  The story is more dramatic when they are able to figure things out themselves.

Want to surprise your players?  Do something expected.  Your players will be expecting betrayal or NPCs who act as allies to become enemies, especially if their goals aren’t directly clear.

Encounter Building

Once I know where the story is going I take the important bits and design encounters around them.  My group’s primary motivation is currently delving into the ancient history of the world.  I decided that their destination would involve going through a kobold warren and, just to make it interesting, I decided to use the dungeon out of the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.  This would be something familiar to them, but I wanted to twist it a bit.  They were significantly more powerful than any kobold they faced, even the lead wyrmpriest who was only a level 9 solo (against a group of six level 12 characters), but the kobolds had reoutfitted their warren with much improved security.  While the kobolds themselves proved not to be a threat, the traps and ambushes they had set up proved to be nearly exhausting for the party.  The traps for each encounter made up at least half of the experience for each encounter.

I always want to add something unique to important encounters.  Combat should feel different at least every few battles and the players should have to reevaluate their tactics in certain situations.

Creature Building

A major way I try to make the world my own is by designing my own monsters.  Usually I’ll take a base monster and modify it to fit the theme, or I’ll take several monsters and Frankenstein them, taking pieces and aspects of each and combining them into a new monster.  The theme for the kobold dungeon was traps, traps, traps.  Now, I don’t like the idea of a party moving at a crawl because they feel they need to stick that 10-foot pole on every floor tile.  To culminate the kobold encounters I had the little bastards bring out a War Machine they had spent years building.  Essentially koboltron, the war machine consisted of 5 separate parts.  Each part had no actions of its own but the kobold pilot could spend its action to give a particular part of the machine actions.  There was a slashing blade (skirmisher), pincer claw (controller), artillery head (artillery), defensive bulwark (soldier), and ambulatory unit (brute).  Instead of the monster being one big standard-move-minor solo monster with a couple extra actions it was 5 standard mobs that essentially occupied the same Huge space but only had a standard action each.

Creature…. building

I try to make my world as immersive as possible, but I unfortunately can’t afford dwarvenforge products.  I do like to purchase miniatures, but when you have a giant mechanical kobold golem miniatures usually just don’t cut it.  In this situation I ended up dragging out my box of Legos from 20 years ago and building a miniature that fit the koboltron.  The reactions of my players when I placed it on the game mat was amazing.  “You’ve got to be kidding?” “Is that really what we see?”  “I don’t know about you guys, but I think I’ll be heading out of the dungeon now.”

Of course, I don’t use Legos often, but I do go through a phase every week where I want to make sure my ideas have a good physical representation.  This is usually done by making sure I have the proper miniatures or miniature equivalents (a penny, a paperclip, a piece of cardboard and a printed image can go far) or map drawing.  I find that preparing and drawing maps ahead of time can go a long way for making combat or noncombat encounters more fun and detailed.

While we’re on the subject, I highly recommend Gaming Paper for repeatably usable maps and Game mastery flipmats for single shot or quick maps.


With new creatures and unique encounters come unique mechanics.  I try to toss things up a bit by adding unique mechanics to the game, but they can’t be too complicated that the players can’t figure it out or It is too difficult to explain it to them.  For example, in one chase scene where my players were fleeing on horseback from an army of kobolds I had modified the mounted kobold rules to make them fit better.  I added the vehicle steering rules to horses and changed a few attacks to allow the kobolds to dismount the players.  My group got the idea that the kobolds were trying to slow them down while a pair of drakes attempted to catch up and did an excellent job of slowing their attackers down enough to get away: The exact goal I was hoping they’d go for.

Smoothing Gameplay

I always want to try to make my characters more comfortable when they play and this means figuring out ways to ensure that as much information is available any time.  I’ve made initiative card hangs, purchased status effect flags, use status effect chips, Quick reference cards, Masterplan, and a lot of other things to try to help speed up combat.  I enjoy designing the game environment as much as I enjoy designing the game world


And of course there is actual playtime.  The culmination of the events.  The story being told, live, in action, getting to see all my work come together.  While we play I try to take notes about what I like and what I don’t like in the world.  I try to understand what my players know and what I want them to know.  I adjust the world on the fly as well as the encounters, monsters, and everything that I’ve done all week.  It is necessary to be as flexible as possible with every aspect because things don’t always work out the way you want.  Improv is one of the most important skills you can have as a DM


Oddly, every Saturday I am very eager to continue working on the story.  While everything is fresh in my mind I want to continue forward at full steam and begin preparations for the next session, but as much as I try I cannot.  I usually spend my Saturday doing other things, but I keep a notebook with me to write down ideas I have as they come.  For over the next week I have a lot of new things to plan and prepare.

Michael McElrath

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