How to Prepare a Session of D&D in 5E

Virtually every “How to DM” guide or list will tell you that the key to running a good game is preparing your sessions. But what does that even mean? Here’s everything you need to know about how to prepare a session of D&D for 5E.

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Basics of Preparing a D&D Session

What should I prepare before running a session of D&D?

How much should I prepare for my D&D game?

How do I cut down on preparation time without negatively affecting the D&D session?

Whether you’re a first-time Dungeon Master or a veteran of many campaigns, figuring out how to efficiently prepare for your D&D sessions is one of the most important factors in running a great game – and avoiding burnout!

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at preparing for a session of D&D, and how you can make your preparation as fast, easy, and impactful as possible.

We’re going to break down preparation into these fundamental points:

  • Outlining. Figuring out what to prepare and organizing your information.
  • Prioritizing. Figuring out how much to prepare and what to focus attention on.
  • Pitfalls & Tools. Things to avoid and ways to help make preparation less daunting.

Let’s get started!

Dice, item cards, sourcebooks, and maps are just some of the things you need to prepare a session of D&D.

What Can You Prepare?

Let’s first define what preparation for a D&D game can entail. We tend to divide the types of preparation into three categories:

  • Story. All the fluffy stuff, such as location descriptions, NPCs, story events, background information, secrets, etc.
  • Mechanics. Everything that involves rules, such as monster statblocks, magic items, traps, etc. 
  • Logistics. All the stuff around the game, such as miniatures, battle maps, music, handouts, etc. Things that create atmosphere and enable physically playing the game.

For some DMs, one or more of these areas require little to no effort, while the very same areas will suck up hours of time from another DM.

Now think about your games. When you’re preparing for a game, how much time do you devote to each of these categories? There’s no right or wrong balance here, but try to still think about how you usually divide your preparation time. Do you tend to spend all your time preparing the story, leaving yourself no time to prepare the actual mechanics of the cool encounters you’re setting up? Or is it the other way around?

The reason we want you to think about this is that we want you to try and answer one very key question: What actually brings value to your game?

Preparing What Matters

At its heart, preparation is about doing what is necessary to run a fun session – and only that. Minimum effort – maximum enjoyment. Those are keywords: effort and enjoyment.

So if we want to be smart about our D&D preparation, we need to first figure out which parts of our preparation have the best balance of effort vs. reward. Try and really think about it. 

The Players’ Enjoyment

If your players go nuts for cool handouts of the magic items they find, and that is something you can quickly produce, then maybe that is something you should make a priority. 

If your players don’t even notice the hours you’ve spent building your world, that’s probably not the best use of your time.

If you spend hours building intricate encounters challenging foes, but your players still end up looking bored during combat, it might be a better idea to spend that time setting up a few more of those social encounters they really enjoy – and vice versa! (It could also be that you have a pacing issue with combat, in which case you should check out our tips for How to Speed Up Combat in 5E.)

Your Enjoyment

While it’s important that your players are having fun, they’re not the only ones whose enjoyment matters. Your ability to have fun is important too! So while you’ll probably enjoy the game more if the players are having fun, you also want to make sure you prioritize the stuff that enables you to have fun.

If you get flustered and stressed because you’re feeling out-of-depths and underprepared, chances are you’re having less fun.

The key here is to pinpoint which parts of the game you’re good at improvising and which parts you struggle with if you don’t have anything prepared. If you’re good at coming up with quick encounters on the fly, you can put less effort into preparing encounters, but if you get stressed out having to make up NPCs on the spot, you’ll want to prepare a few of those.

Example

To emphasize what we mean, here’s a quick example of how we weigh effort and enjoyment.

I personally find the easiest things to improvise are locations, NPCs, conversations, and so on, with minimal preparation. As such, most of the time I will just down a few keywords for an NPC (“half-orc, jovial, ex-adventurer”) or a location (“big tower, three stories, feels abandoned”) — if I even note anything at all. I haven’t noticed any difference in how much fun my players have interacting with an NPC based on how much I’ve prepared it. In fact, it seems like the quick and quirky improvised NPCs often leave the biggest impressions and the ones I have to find in my notes and struggle to keep a voice for are the ones that fall flat.

Conversely, I hate having to come up with magical items and other rewards on the fly, because I don’t want to upset the game’s balance. So I make sure to put extra thought into any magic item I expect the characters to come across.

Finally, I know that I can quickly improvise a serviceable combat encounter. But I also know that my players really enjoy tactical, challenging combat, so I try to prioritize putting a little more effort into combat encounters than I do into fluff material.

In essence, figuring out what you should prepare is about looking at everything you can prepare and trying to determine what you feel brings the most enjoyment to you and your players with the least amount of effort. After all, your time isn’t unlimited – which brings us to the next question.

How Much Should You Prepare?

I would bet you real human money that most cases of DM-burnout are a direct result of mismanaged preparation time. In particular, over-preparation – many DMs simply prepare way more than they have to. Both in terms of how many hours of gameplay they prepare for and how much time they put into preparing each hour of gameplay.

Sounds familiar? I bet it does. Because we’ve all been guilty of this at some point. It’s the bane of being a DM and wanting to be a good DM.

It used to be that I would spend just as much time preparing for the game as actually playing it. Sometimes even more! (And considering I play 8-hour long marathon sessions, that’s saying a lot!) And I hated it. Dreaded it. So much I had to take a break from DMing and reevaluate if I even wanted to be a DM!

When I did come back (because, of course, I want to be a DM!), it was with a new mindset: I’ll spend 30 minutes preparing for my weekly game. I’ll spend more if I want to, but only if I want to. My goal is no longer to be fully prepared but instead to be just prepared enough.

And here’s how I did it.

Step 1: Prepare to Improvise

As I’ve briefly touched upon, we want to focus our efforts on the things we can’t easily improvise. Every part of our preparation process should be about giving ourselves just enough that we can quickly come up with the rest at the table. There’s no need to spend 10 minutes writing down a full paragraph of background information for an NPC if a simple “used to adventure with the PC’s father” will suffice.

To keep things efficient and running smoothly, what I usually do is create an outline for the session. I open up a document or find a blank sheet of paper and start jotting down the names of the locations I expect the characters may go to during the session. Think about the characters’ starting point and their immediate goal (if they have any), and try to anticipate where they might go.

Here’s an example from a session I was preparing a little while ago. The first thing I did was make a list of the locations the party might cover during the session:

  • Suzail – Marketplace
  • Waterdeep – Jarlaxle’s Hideout
  • Avernus – Mordenkainen’s Tower
  • Astral Plane
  • Pandemonium – Styx’ Hollow

The PCs in the game I was preparing for were high-level and could jump between cities and planes in seconds, so don’t worry if your list doesn’t cover quite as much distance. If you are running an adventure set in a single town, your list could just as well be:

  • Tavern — Bubble & Broomstick
  • Blacksmith
  • Temple of [insert deity or belief]
  • City Hall

…and so on and so forth.

Next, write down the scenes you expect to happen at each location – such as a band of ruffians picking a fight with the PCs at the tavern, a thief stealing something from the temple while the PCs are there, or the mayor giving the characters a quest at the city hall.

For my game, the list looked like this:

    • Suzail – Marketplace
      • Demon Ambush
      • Friendly NPC explaining the situation
    • Waterdeep – Jarlaxle’s Hideout
      • Demon Encounter
      • Talking with Jarlaxle
    • Avernus – Mordenkainen’s Tower
      • Demon Encounter
      • Talking with Mordenkainen
    • Astral Sea
      • Planar Travel Encounter
    • Pandemonium – Styx’ Hollow
      • Dealing with the Bone Merchant
      • Talking with the Ice Devil Captain

It’s important to note that I didn’t expect the characters to go to all these locations – for all I knew, they may not go to a single one of them! – they were just the locations and scenes that I thought were most likely to happen.

This outline is what I would call the minimum preparation. I could, if I had to – and sometimes I do – run a game with a set of notes that looks like this and nothing more. 

It would mean coming up with NPCs, scenes, and combat encounters on the fly, but even just the act of putting this outline down on paper has already sparked my imagination and given me ideas for which demons to use or what kind of NPC I want. 

If I had the time – and only if I had the time – I’d fill in this outline with just a few keywords for each scene, briefly describing what each scene entails. That spark of imagination I got while writing my outline would expand so I would end up with something that looks like this:

  • Suzail – Marketplace
    • Demon Ambush
      • Map: Marketplace
      • Monsters: Hezrou, Vrocks
      • Treasure: something crafted from dead demons
    • Friendly NPC explaining the situation
      • Guard Sergeant
  • Waterdeep – Jarlaxle’s Hideout
    • Demon Encounter
      • Map: Warehouse
      • Monsters: Marilith, Manes
    • Talking with Jarlaxle
      • Can point to Styx’ Hollow
      • Treasure: something that can help the characters travel through the astral sea
  • Avernus – Mordenkainen’s Tower
    • Demon Encounter
      • Map: Wizard’s Tower
      • Monsters: Glabrezu, Manes
    • Talking with Mordenkainen
      • Can point to Styx’ Hollow
      • Treasure: something that can help the characters travel through the astral sea
  • Astral Sea
    • Planar Travel Encounter
      • Map: Astral Sea
      • Monster: Astral Dreadnought
  • Pandemonium – Styx’ Hollow
      • Dealing with the Bone Merchant
        • Sells magic items
        • Can point to the Oracle
        • Wants characters’ souls
      • Talking with the Ice Devil Captain
        • Can point to the Oracle
        • Wants characters to kill pit fiend boss

This is an outline I can really work with. No matter where the characters decide to go, I have something I can give them – I’ve prepared to improvise!

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Step 2: Prioritize Your Preparation

When you’ve filled out your outline, it’s time to look at your clock, check your blood sugar levels, and determine how much more time you want to spend preparing. Only got 10 minutes? Time to make some hard choices!

As mentioned previously, I hate improvising magic items and rewards on the fly, so that’s where I’d spent my 10 minutes – flipping through books to find the right items or coming up with some of my own. I also know my players love item card handouts, so I’d open up our handy app (hey, promotional plug!) and create item cards for them. 

Let’s say I find some more time somewhere. I know my combat encounters get a lot better if I’ve put just a little thought into them, so I’ll spend some time selecting (and perhaps adjusting) some fun monsters and finding some good battle maps.

I could keep going, but I think you get the drift. It’s about prioritizing the preparation that’s important to you – what you can’t easily improvise well. That might not be items and maps – perhaps it’s NPCs and finding the right music. Whatever the case, make sure you get the important stuff done first. That way, anything extra you prepare is just that – extra.

Step 3: Everything Else

This is the final step, but – and this is important! – it is an optional step. This is the stuff you do not want to get stressed out about. If you don’t get it done, it doesn’t get done. Meh, maybe next time. Don’t worry about it.

So what are the extras? Well, that’ll differ depending on what is hardest or easiest for you to do personally. For some, it’s those cool – but not strictly necessary – item card handouts. Selecting the right music. Having beefed up the boring ogre with a more fun combat Action. 

For me, it’d be something like a terrain encounter or cool puzzle, or a completely new monster. These are things that are usually high effort, but also high reward. Creating a cool and fun puzzle can take hours, and while I know my players enjoy them, it’s also not something they need to have fun. If I have the time, awesome, but if I don’t, there’s no puzzle in this part of the dungeon. And that’s okay too.

If you take anything away from this article, let it be this: if you and your players are having fun, you’ve done all you need to do.

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Pitfalls & Tools

Finally, we want to address some of the potential pitfalls you may stumble into when you’re preparing to run D&D, as well as some tools that may be able to help you prepare more efficiently.

Worldbuilding

By far the biggest time-thief when it comes to preparation is worldbuilding. If you’re running a homebrew adventure or world, it’s not uncommon to get caught up in figuring out the world’s lore and history, the intricate political balances, the subtle nuances of the exotic cuisine, and before you know it you’re googling whether or not dinosaur-meat would be edible and or looking at coats of arms from the late Dark Ages.

The fact of the matter is that 90% of worldbuilding is either irrelevant, superfluous, or boring. At best, it’s mildly interesting. You can spend 10 minutes building a cool encounter that’ll keep your players entertained and at the edge of their seats for an hour, or you can spend an hour crafting an intricate family tree for your main NPC so a character may – if they listen closely – go “oh, so you’re her nephew!?”

That’s probably a bit harsh, but the point is this: don’t burn yourself out building the world. The world isn’t important – the game, and what the characters interact with, are. Treat your world like a theater backdrop: a brightly painted piece of plywood that’ll set the scene, but which can be quickly manipulated and replaced. And which shouldn’t take too long to make.

Additionally, keep in mind that the player characters should be the stars of the show. Yes, having well-rounded NPCs to help flesh out the game world can make it more immersive, but the player characters are the heroes — don’t steal their thunder!

Expect the Unexpected

If you have been DM’ing for at least a while, chances are that you’ve tried spending hours preparing for a session only for the characters to do something completely unexpected which forces you to throw everything you have out the window and scramble for solutions. Yeah, we’ve all been there.

First off, we need to acknowledge that in a game like D&D, there is simply no way we can prepare for everything. It wouldn’t be D&D if we could. The whole point of the game is that the players can do exactly what they want to. We can’t – and shouldn’t want to – change that.

What we can do, however, is minimize the risk of something taking us completely by surprise.

If I have time, I try to always go down my outline and consider each location and scene: what is the most likely way my players could derail this?

If I know my players tend to antagonize powerful NPCs more so than they should (and of course they do), I may want to plan for what happens if they decide to attack Mordenkainen instead of performing the service he requests, or what happens if they don’t peacefully explain themselves to the guards after a bloody barroom brawl and violently try to resist arrest. 

Now, I won’t go spend much time actually preparing for these scenarios, but I’ll mull them over in my head so that if it happens, I won’t be caught completely unaware. I will have thought about Mordenkainen’s reaction or thought about an NPC that could intervene on the party’s behalf if they’re about to become arrested for attacking the city guard.

Travel Tip: Characters Always Go the Right Way

It should be noted that even when you prepare with an outline like in Step 1, sometimes characters stray off the beaten path. That’s okay! As much as we try, we can’t prepare for all outcomes.

If your players choose a location you haven’t prepared, an insanely simple solution is to take the bullet-point list of a similar location and simply adapt it for the new location they went to. 

Going back to the example of the town with the tavern, blacksmith, and so on. Say your players choose to look for a theatre — they want to take in some entertainment after some rough adventuring. You can easily adjust NPCs and encounters originally set in the tavern for a theatre. Make a barmaid into an actress or a singer, and change the fight’s location from the barroom to backstage. Be flexible, and you can find an analog for most things even if the physical location isn’t exactly what you prepared for initially.

In this way, no matter where the characters choose to go — and no matter what you’ve prepared — the characters are always “going the right way.” They’ll have an encounter that you prepared for and get the information that they need to progress the plot of the story, and you’ll never have to spend time ripping your hair out trying to figure out how to get the party back on track!

Conclusion

D&D is a complicated game but it’s often made more complicated by folks over-thinking things. You can save yourself a lot of stress and trouble by limiting the amount of time you commit to preparing for sessions and being more mindful about how you use that time.

Assess what’s easy for you and what’s hardest and make sure you commit your preparation time to what counts — the things you struggle with. Prioritize the important things (locations, encounters, NPCs, plot-related things, etc.) and make certain they get done first. If you have time left over, feel free to spend more time on the extras! 

For more tips on how to run better D&D games, subscribe to us on YouTube. We post videos with walkthroughs, DM tips, and discussions of current D&D news. You can also get early access to YouTube videos by supporting us on Patreon (patreon.com/eventyr).

If you’re really strapped for time, know that you can also always turn to us for help. Over on DM’s Guild, we have published 5-star Rated guides for the most popular adventures officially published for 5E. We’ve taken the time to do the outlines and organize the information so you don’t have to! What’s more, if you support us on Patreon, you also get a discount on most of our digital products via DM’s Guild.

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Lydia Hodgins

Organizational wunderkind and general keyboard gremlin, Lydia Hodgins is the project coordinator for Eventyr Games. A 25-year veteran of D&D, Lydia has enjoyed watching the game grow and being a part of the community that helps fill the gaps in official content.

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