This is part two in a series of posts on how I've learned to prep for my D&D sessions. If you're interested in starting at the beginning, check out the first post, One Shot + One Shot = 2.
Preparing for a session can be a challenge as a DM. There's definitely a wide spectrum between preparing the bare minimum with the intent of going in and improvising most of the session, and writing out lines of potential dialogue that each NPC might say. There are quite a few blog posts out there that lean toward the former end of that spectrum, suggesting that you only prepare what you need for that given session. From a logical standpoint, I agree with that - it makes sense on paper to only prepare what you need, rather than build out complex currency systems that never make it into the actual game. That being said, that's the part of DM preparation I really like. The additional scope also happens to be one of the roadblocks that get in the way of me writing more, but that's a story for another post.
After I had started DMing the Battle for Ercellonia campaign, I had a couple one shots strung together with the loosest of threads. If you go back and listen to the early episodes of The Magic Missile podcast, you can hear how likely full of continuity errors those early sessions were. I didn't have a clear picture of where to take a "campaign", and because it was set in a homebrew world that I hadn't built out yet, I had the additional problem of not having a world already ready to explore.
After we decided to run with this campaign as a party, my session prep mostly assumed a linear campaign path - the party would go to town "A", talk to NPC "B", and take on quest "C" in that order. I prepared roughly 5 or 6 sessions in this manner, and for the most part, it worked. As we played more and more, I found that my party, like most D&D parties, don't follow - or don't want to follow - things in a specified, pre-determined order. My party doesn't like being railroaded.
Because of that, the advice of just preparing the minimal amount of content needed for the next session hasn't really been reflected in my session prep. I've had a tough time separating the worldbuilding aspect of preparation from the actual "what's-in-the-next-session" aspect of preparation. In order to focus on what needs to go in the next session, I've needed to build out the town around the party, or the next town, or the history of a given area, or the rival adventuring party, or the... you get the picture.
An unfortunate side effect of the simultaneous world build/session prep is that there have been ideas put into sessions that aren't completed thoughts yet, so they end up as loose threads that never get revisited. An example of this was a temple in the city of Wileforge in our Ercellonia campaign. The Temple of the Cog was supposed to be a temple dedicated to the 5e god, Gond, with an NPC named Alane Caebraek as the head of the temple. I had envisioned potential quests coming out of that, but in practice, the temple changed to be for the goddess, Erathis, and the extent of its presentation to the party was that a book happened to be located in the temple, and two members of the party spent a total of 3 minutes there. That temple, in particular, helped shift my focus to make sure that everything I add to the world has a purpose.
Recently, I've done a better job of separating the worldbuilding from the session planning. My goal is to always be worldbuilding. The more detail I can add to this world, the more of a sandbox it can be for my party to explore. I've got plenty of room to expand on the history of the world, or how the individual cities came to be, or even just what the names of all of the cities are.
In the meantime, my session preparation has changed fairly drastically. Instead of working on a "script" of sorts, and hoping my party follows it closely enough, I've been able to identify what I need going into a session, and prepare just that. My session notes are still quite long and detailed - the current arc weighs in at 7500 words, and we haven't gotten to the first main conflict yet, but the notes are specific about the session, and not the world around it. Out of those 7500 words, we've been able to play 6 hours worth of content and counting.
My preparation for a new session involves identifying any NPCs that the party is likely to encounter and adding them to a session-specific NPC list, along with a quick description of what each NPC looks like, just for reference. I also identify any maps that will be needed in the session, and either find/create them. Because the worldbuilding aspect is done, the rest of the session specific prep really boils down to what actions are the NPCs taking that would have an effect on the world. From there, the game is really just how the party would react to those actions.
Instead of trying to build a world and a session at the same time, I've broken them down into separate work streams, and it's allowed me to focus on building a session that's fun for my party to play through. By keeping that in mind, I feel like the quality of our sessions has improved quite a bit, and there's more of a coherent story being told, instead of vaguely related encounters. Seriously, don't go back and listen to the early episodes. Those sessions were all over the place, and it was hard for anyone, including the DM, to connect the dots as to what was going on.
Have you built out a homebrew world while also session planning in it? Is there a better approach I should be taking? I'm very open to hearing other takes on this, so feel free to add them in the comments below!