Preparation vs. improvisation in D&D

This afternoon I ran a session of Dungeons & Dragons, and I’ve been reflecting on the question of whether to prepare a lot before playing or whether to just prepare a few details and improvise as much as possible. (This week I’ve been reading The Lazy Dungeon Master, which explains a method of DMing where you do minimal preparation and have a very high level of collaboration with the players. I’ve also been reading Ten Candles, an RPG with a high level of collaboration built into the game system.)

I find that the adventures we’ve been using (expeditions from the Adventurer’s League) require a lot of preparation and are difficult to use without forcing the players to follow the sequence of events envisioned by the author. In today’s adventure the players were wanting to investigate things in a different order to what the author expected, meaning I needed to flip back and forth through the adventure a fair bit. It was easy to miss some important details. In the midst of all the page flipping and backtracking, it was easy to feel like I was on the back foot, despite my hours of preparation. I can think of one example of where my preparation served me reasonably well and another where it could have been a fair bit better.

The adventure involved the recovery of some stolen books, and one was a book about the Weave. In Forgotten Realms (the main setting for D&D) the Weave seems to be almost like an invisible, magical, power grid running through the universe. I don’t have a great understanding of how this is supposed to work in the world, and the preparation I’d done beforehand hadn’t made it a lot clearer. Luckily none of my players in this session were magic users, so when they asked the wizard whose book had been stolen about the contents of the book, I was able to have her explain the weave in a very simplistic and slightly patronising way, as an academic wizard might explain the Weave to a relatively uneducated layperson.

I’d also done some reading up on black dragons, as this adventure called for one, and I hadn’t run a session with an actual dragon in it yet. Despite my preparation, I missed one detail that would have made the dragon a lot more impressive – even though I think the players would still have been able to defeat it. I forgot to let the dragon have a lair action on initiative count 20 during combat, which I could have used to create an environmental effect that may have put the characters off a bit as they began combat. I think the dragons’ lair actions are important because they demonstrate the influence and impact that dragons have on the environment around where they live.

While I’m planning to keep on running the series of adventures our group have been playing, I’m also interested in trying out the more freeform and collaborative method. I’ll probably give Ten Candles a go some time soon.

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