Preparing with situations and characters

How do you cope with the fact that players can do anything? Your carefully laid plans get ruined by the players reacting in a way you don’t expect. I’ve had a couple of near TPKs as a result of thinking things through too carefully in terms of a particular approach from the players and not being ready for them taking a different approach.

As I’ve run regular D&D sessions over the past year, my preparation style has evolved as I’ve learned what I can improvise and what I struggle with. The sessions which have gone best are the ones where I have set up situations and characters/monsters and not tried to plan too hard how the players will deal with these situations.

This very much fits with DMDavid’s recent blog post about preparing situations instead of plots and encounters –  Dungeon Masters, Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead — DMDavid.

In my Darokin campaign, my second session worked really well. I had a ruined building next to a river crossing, and I had some thoughts about what was in the building where – there was a bit of paper with some clues to it they needed to find, and also a camp site showing that the people they were chasing had been there recently. Add in rotten walls and floorboards, a giant rat, some bats and frogs, and I was ready for them to go anywhere.

Then they had to cross the river, but the only boat was on the other side, it was too fast to swim and too far to jump across. Again, I had the situation prepared, with various possible ingredients, but I didn’t know how to solve it. I just responded to their attempts by asking for particular ability checks (and fortunately they succeeded the check for throwing a rope to the gnome when he got swept away), and eventually they worked out a way that felt plausible to me. Then they had an owlbear attack in the night and succeeded in driving it off!

The third session was not so successful.

It started well – they made their way to a ruined keep (beautifully drawn by Heroic Maps), explored the ground floor, dealt with the orc guard and the baboons, and spoke with an Alliumite (playtesting for the new Creature Codex from Kobold Press). All good.

Then they headed downstairs to the dungeon where the big boss was camped with several more orcs. And that’s where it started to unravel.

I had expected them to do a bit of scouting and check out the area before barging in, and I had put various buffs and assistance in the rooms round about, but they just came down the stairs, ran to the door of the central room and attacked.

That encounter had been designed to be overpowered for them without the buffs, but fortunately I had under-estimated the power of a 5e PC. Even so, of the five characters, we lost one character and two others were on death saving throws (both rolled a 20, thankfully!). I was seriously worried I was heading for a TPK…

I had another recent preparation which worked out really well recently.

In my other campaign, we’re playing through Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and the party are reconnoitering in the bandit camp. To prepare for it I created several groups they might meet and what they were doing, rather than trying to drive them through a particular sequence of events. See HotDQ – raider camp encounters

This meant they could wander around the camp, and I could improvise encounters based on these characters I’d created and the basic set of information from the module. They got annoyed by a persistent kid, amused by militant kobolds, ignored by druggees (and perstered by their children) and chatted with some soldiers round a cart with beer. One of the soldiers has just recognised one of the characters from the attack on Greenest… They also saw other groups I had prepared, which gave a bit more background colour.

It worked really well. By understanding and preparing the characters and situation in advance and getting into their heads, I could make them interesting and make them react appropriately to the PCs without having to script everything. I’ve since had one of the players say they loved the concept of the kobolds trying to be military.

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