I’d like to preface this post by saying that I’m talking specifically about guidelines and advice for planning an adventure in 4e D&D, but some–or possibly even all–of this article could apply to other games that require an element of planning.
I like games where you can improvise and do things off-the-cuff; it makes for an interesting and dynamic world that responds to the decisions that the players make and allows them to have a real stake in how things turn out in the end. D&D can be that kind of game, but it’ll always require some element of planning in order to really run smoothly. Sure, you could make everything up as you go along, and for the most part that’ll work just fine–until you start running a combat encounter. Once this happens, things will grind to a halt as you find all the monsters you need in your various books or on the Compendium, sort out your battle map or tiles, find all your minis (or use appropriate stand-ins), figure out where everything goes, come up with interesting terrain, and so on, and so forth.
The simple truth is that a little planning can go a long way, and it’s entirely possible to plan in such a way that you can leave yourself a lot of room to react to what the players do, and allow them to see the impact they’re having on the world.
Re-Skin your Encounters
In D&D, it’s pretty easy to separate mechanics from flavor when you’re dealing with things like terrain effects, traps, and monsters. Swapping out types of damage and changing the way you describe things can be enough to make an encounter full of orcs and trolls feel like an encounter full of aberrations from the Far Realm.
This won’t necessarily be possible with all of your encounters. You definitely want your big set-piece encounters to feel distinct and to be exciting, and for the most part these encounters aren’t really going to be the kinds of encounters your players will easily avoid anyway. If the fate of the world hinges on a fight with the mad necromancer Falagoth and his undead minions, it’s a fair bet that your players will wind up in that encounter one way or another.
A lot of the minor encounters can be constructed in such a way that they can be re-purposed easily. Using monsters that have easily re-skinnable abilities helps this, as does having a stable of terrain effects that you can easily drop into an encounter. You might even consider organizing your Dungeon Tiles with note cards containing potential effects on the game, for easier use during play. A nice side-benefit of this technique is that, when your players manage to avoid an encounter completely (and they will, at some point), the encounter isn’t wasted; you can re-skin it and use it later, with little or no modification.
Create Generic Maps
You may have a number of encounters planned, but you don’t want to specify their exact order or location. Say, for example, your adventure revolves around fighting a murderous thieves’ guild in a city. You know that most of your encounters will be in indoor and urban environments, so it might be worth it to create five or six different maps for different locations around the city. Then, when your PCs get into a fight, you can choose an appropriate map and combine it with a group of enemies to create an encounter.
Create Encounter Pieces
It’s no secret that some monsters go well with each other. A challenging encounter often capitalizes on these synergies, allowing the monsters to work as a team as well as the players do. Something you can do to allow you to adjust your encounters on the fly is create a roster of encounter ‘pieces’–effectively, groups of two or three monsters that go well together, either mechanically or thematically–and keep them in a binder. Don’t worry about making an exhaustive list; focus only on the level range and types of creatures that your party is going to be fighting in the immediate future. Then, when an encounter ensues, you can grab a few encounter pieces and put them together to create an encounter that makes sense based on what’s happened so far. Combining this with generic maps can allow you to construct an entire encounter, including terrain, traps, and so forth, with only a few minutes of table time required.
This is probably the single most important piece of advice that I’m going to give here. It’s tempting to want to plan out your entire adventure storyline from start to finish before the players even start playing through it. This is fine, but you should use broad strokes to define your story elements, and refrain from planning out specifics–encounters, skill challenges, even important NPCs–until you anticipate needing them. I know that, in my group, we can usually get through about two combat encounters and some roleplaying/investigation/skill challenge stuff in a single session. So, when planning for game day, that’s what I prepped for. I didn’t bother prepping anything beyond that, because that can wait. Instead, I really focused on making the stuff that’s going to happen in the next session interesting.
What this allows is, should the PCs do something that has implications down the line, I can integrate the consequences of their decisions into the adventure. Because I plan one session at a time, everything I plan is informed by what’s happened so far. This means that the players actually do have a significant impact on what happens in the story, and I try to make that plain to them.
Save Important Decisions for the End
The end of a session, that is. If you’re going to have a big decision for the players to make, and that decision is going to have significant ramifications in the rest of the adventure, it helps to put that decision near the end of a session. That way, you have a lot more time to think about and respond to their choice, and the consequences are likely to make more sense and feel more authentic.
The main alternative to this is to prep for multiple outcomes of the decision, so that you have something planned either way. This is a valid way to do things, and might be necessary sometimes. This is where a lot of the stuff that came earlier in this post can help you; if you can plan just enough so that you can react to multiple decisions quickly, then you’re more likely to keep your players engaged and coming back for more.