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Start A Campaign – Part 4: How to prepare a great game in less than 30 minutes

Written by Expy - Published on July 27, 2007

This article is part 1 of the “Start A Campaign… Now! series.

  1. Start A Campaign – Part 1: The first game
  2. Start A Campaign – Part 2: Before the second game
  3. Start A Campaign – Part 3: The second game
  4. Start A Campaign – Part 4: How to prepare a great game in 30 minutes or less

I remember when I had a social life.

I was following up on some horror campaign discussions this morning and someone linked to a helpful article on the d20 SRD. I read the whole thing and it was very interesting but very long. Then I thougt screw this. I just want to have fun with this D&D stuff. I don’t want to spend my week-end preparing a 4-hour game.

I believe it is possible to prepare a 4 hours game in thirty minutes or less. Don’t get me wrong – to run a extraordinary game like a horror campaign or single-game stand-alone campaign you’ll need to invest a lot more than 30 minutes. But for most weekly games, it would be great to spend less time preparing.

How to prepare a game in 30 minutes or less.

  • Generate or use a pre-made map. Gryphon from community3e.com suggested an old Ravenloft map or real castle maps in this article on DM tools. (5 minutes)
  • Don’t bother with planning the descriptions too much but focus on one element to set a mood. Constant rain. Darkness. A smell. Anything that you usually don’t do. Stick with it and your players will feel the tension from the outside element that’s gnawing at them. (2 minutes)
  • Generic monsters. No time to mess with the latest weirdo from Monster Manual 7: Underwater invertebrate beasts. Go for a goblin, a giant, a wild animal. Just bookmark a book or scribble the stats down. (3 minutes per encounter)
  • Spice up each encounter with something special. Make it very obvious that there is something different about an encounter. For example, the characters meet a lone gnoll with a shiny silver 2-handed sword. That’s unusual. It will keep them on their toes and it’s not much work to think of a single weird fact about each encounter. (2 minutes per encounter)
  • Add a situation that involves a riddle to the game. Just google riddles. There are hundreds of websites on riddles – all ugly as hell apparently, so I don’t want to link to them. (5 minutes)
  • Reuse old material. I always prepare scenes that I end up not using because my PCs have a knack for the unpredictable. I also reuse maps of places they have already been to and they never notice. (5 minutes to dig up the old stuff)
  • Bring back an old problem or villain. You can worry about explaining the return to life of a fallen enemy later. Just bring back the villain (3 minutes)
  • Polish the most lacking aspect of the game you just planned. (5 minutes)

What to do in-game to make sure you don’t run out of material

  • Let the players role-play.
  • Encourage role-play by being lively when impersonating NPCs.
  • Fudge the monsters’ HP if a fight isn’t long enough or hard enough. N.B.: If you are a player, know that your DM will never do that. That was a joke. EDIT: I wrote more on this topic: 18 ways to increase combat duration.
  • Give the PCs a mysterious magic item. It is mysterious because even the DM has no clue what it does. The players coud spend hours toying with it trying to figure it out. Eventually they’ll come up with a guess about what the item is for and you can just go with the flow and confirm the players’ guess.
  • Award enough XPs for the characters to level up. That’ll eat up 30 minutes or an hour.

What do you think?

I’m sure there’s so much more a DM can do to prepare a game well but quickly. But is it possible to really prepare a good game in 30 minutes? Am I talking out of my buttocks here? Any suggestions?

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Written by Expy

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Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

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21 Responses to “Start A Campaign – Part 4: How to prepare a great game in less than 30 minutes”
  1. Rick_TWA says:

    I’ll add that in making maps, you don’t always have to be terribly precise. For the most part, a bunch of circles on a piece of white paper with half-dozen (at max) word descriptions on them “small dirty musty jail cell”, or “once-lavish, now decripit bathing room”, “bigass throne room”, etc…. connected by lines generally approximating the layout of your dungeon, castle, etc… will work just fine. You can pretty easily make up more complex descriptions, details and dimensions on the fly based on your abstracts.

  2. Yax says:

    Good point. I also played actual fight sequences without the map and miniatures a few time. We used a whiteboard during a convention once and I must say I enjoyed the liberalism of not having a hexagon- or square-combat map.

  3. Tom says:

    When playing d20 modern games, and a firefight ensues, I don’t even bother with the ranges. Most of the players tend to get into range anyways, so no sense worrying about losing time with players trying to figure out if they’re at -2 or -4.

  4. Yax says:

    Yeah. Range can be annoying to keep track of. Since I play on a small map I usually never have to track range. Yeah!

  5. Stûnibu says:

    quote “Fudge the monsters’ HP if a fight isn’t long enough or hard enough. N.B.: If you are a player, know that your DM will never do that. That was a joke. HAHA yeah a DM would never change things from bing txt book :P

    i think your idea is good but u cant always do that! u need mostly long thought out quest with meaning with some random quick ones… i think!

  6. Wayne Humfleet says:

    Awesome ideas Yax. My problem is my players don’t like pre-made adventures and I have no time with three kids to actually sit down and hammer them out. I’ll be using your tips to keep them on their toes when it’s my turn to DM. Thanks.

  7. Yax says:

    You’re welcome!

  8. Noumenon says:

    “Add a situation that involves a riddle to the game. Just google riddles.”

    I was amused by the way you italicized google like it was the name of a spell. (Google has to be what, seventh level? If legend lore is level six?)

  9. b0xman says:

    sometimes, you dont even need that.. a successful game can come from spur of the moment… although the percentile is low, its is a fun challenge for the dm to think on their feet. make up a map in game on a post-it note, use your judgement, and eventually you wont need to plan, just have the main story in mind, and when the player strays too far, think fast!

  10. Selles says:

    Monty Hall garbage. Why not just pretend you had an adventure and go straight towards the loot. This saves even more time!! What do we have here a +6 holy avengers and 100,000 platinum in his belt pouch. Well heck!!, you guys just leveled 5 times for one “tough” goblin. Lazy DM’ing leads to crap games that have no real sense of worth. Too many campaigns like it out there already, don’t encourage this shit. If you don’t have time to make a quality adventure, don’t play for a week or two.

  11. Yax says:

    @Selles:

    You don’t want to improvise all the time, but improvising a session won’t kill your campaign. A balance can be struck there.

  12. Scarlet says:

    I find that it is a lot better not to have it lain out on a map. My brother (always DM in the games I was in.) Just laid little bits of paper on the table and we got to chose what to do from there. It was really restricting when I first tried it on a map.

    Anyway your tips are very helpful. I find it hard to create campains because I never know where to start. And because I always put it off (it takes just too long) but this really helps. Thank-you.

  13. Wing says:

    I think Selles was referring to the idea of simply bumping the players up a level just for the sake of keeping them busy or wasting time. Which is kind of a missuse of the level mechanic. An entire campeign using that kind of stuff would shoot characters up levels with no real progression to match it.

    Instead, I usually do a sort of subversion of this entire guide. I don’t prepare campeigns in details and such. I allow the world to grow from impovization just as this guide says and such. But the rest is only vaguely what I do. Instead, I create many encounters, just as he said, and maps in my free time. A little here a little there. And use them where appropriate. If the characters wander off into the forest, maybe they run into the tribes of monsters there. Just go into the storage, find an appropriate encounter for that and throw it at them. When I plan adventures I only plan loose encounters (encounters, to me, aren’t only combat. it can be a very complex trap or a puzzle. anything worth awarding exp over is pretty much an encounter) and string them togather as the players go. They arrive in a city you’d generated and go to the tavern? Okay. let’s check what we have prepared (left over encounters and events from previous adventures will work fine, too). Aha! Drugged and kidnapped. That’ll work great. All of a sudden you’ve roped your players into a small adventure where they have to break free from their captors and get their stuff back and perhaps stop the scoundrels from whatever they were trying to acomplish by kidnapping the PC’s. Weather it’s some political hoax just just trying to take their stuff and sell ’em as slaves. Heck, in the latter option, they could probably get a bounty for turning the beaten kidnappers in and get a foot in with local authorities. Bam! all that from just a batch of planned encounters. All youll ever need. Except imagination.

  14. sdfsdi says:

    I’ve fudged monster numbers/tactics when the encounter was just a bit too hard. It saves me having a wipe. Sometimes killing a party or some members is good. Loss lets you know its a real game. There’s no game out there which lets you keep winning. Imagine Mario Brothers with infinite lives, or perhaps when you make a mistake, it only shows that you made one and lets you keep playing out the level to the end. Fall off a cliff? Reset back on the platform before the fall instantly. Land on spikes? Ouch that hurts, lets keep going.

    Loss is what makes things fun. If you can’t lose, there’s no accomplishment. Just don’t kill them off meaninglessly.

    To note; the mailing list isn’t working.

  15. Rickerdoo says:

    This is wonderful information. I have never played d&d before, but I do plan on getting multiple new players into it in order to start a group/campaign.

    Would dropping the PC’s straight into a battle be a good idea?

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