Refamiliarize yourself with the heroes, what they've done, and what they plan to do before you start planning the adventure. Note their unique abilities. Be aware of their personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws. Keep their goals in mind. Review any notes you took during the previous session, especially any that pertain to the heroes. Build an adventure that's uniquely designed with the heroes in mind.
Brainstorm about a page worth of notes. Where might the heroes go next? What might they find? Who might they meet? What challenges could they face?
Make a list of other potential scenes, six to twelve of them, that could logically follow the first. Keep these brief and vague. None of them should be longer than a sentence or two. You're not planning a story. You're just trying to anticipate what directions the players might go in.
Prepare a few questions to ask the heroes, at least one for each, to get their roleplaying minds working.
Start strong with an adventure hook that is introduced in a compelling way. This will be the most outlined scene in the adventure because you are in control of how the session starts. Decide on the location and list some complications, discoveries, moments, NPCs, etc.
Come up with a list of locations implied by your brainstorm scenes, at least six and up to twelve in total. Each location should have an evocative name and a few moments, discoveries, and complications tied to it. They may also have NPCs tied to them, though NPCs tend to move around and show up just where they're needed...
Complications, Discoveries, and Moments
For complications, discoveries, and moments, write six to twelve of each, including any tied to locations. It's possible that they're all tied to locations, though it's good to have a few floating free just in case.
Complications are traps, hazards, monsters, and anything else that might have the heroes rolling dice. It's a good idea for at least one of the complications to be a battle, and for that battle to have more going on than just a fight, be that someone to rescue, a switch that needs flipping, or other complications nested within it.
Discoveries are things the heroes find that could aid them on their quest. This may be secrets, hints, and clues, or maybe treasure. Be sure to include at least some treasure and a magic item or two.
Moments are just incidental little bites of flavor that help spark the imagination.
Come up with a few NPCs relevant to the adventure. Treat them like a mini-faction, giving each a name, a driving goal, and a few defining characteristics. Complications, discoveries, and moments can be tied to NPCs just like with locations.
Make a map or two, as vague or detailed as you like, as long is you establish where the adventure starts and in what direction the heroes have to travel to reach its locations. For at least one battle complication, make a gridded map with some interesting features for the heroes and monsters to interact with during combat.
Pick a few songs to play at specific times during the adventure. A song can be tied to anything: a location, a scene, or a complication, discovery, or moment.
If you have time, come up with a handout or two. Blah blah blah.
Before Session Zero
Come up with a few ideas about the campaign, a broad concept of the world, a potential overarching theme, and a hook. But don't plan too much before session zero. Let the heroes your players create inform the world and where things could go. After session zero, continue with the following steps.
Now that you know who the heroes are, elaborate further on your campaign hook.
Come up with a list of things, at least six, that are unique about the world of your campaign. These might have already revealed themselves during session zero.
Establish three to six major factions. Some of these were likely already created during session zero. Come up with three to six defining characteristics for each faction and at least one driving goal. Then write three to six things that will happen as each faction presses ever closer towards completing their goal, assuming the heroes do not interfere.
List of Names
Write a list of names appropriate for your world. Always keep this list handy. Cross off names and note what characters they end up being as you use them.
Sit down at the table for session zero with a few ideas about the campaign, a broad concept of the world, a potential overarching theme, and a hook. But don't plan too much beforehand. Let the heroes your players create inform the world and where things could go.
Introduce the game system and its style of play with with CATS:
- Subject Matter
Introduce the campaign based on the few ideas you have for it. Present the world and a hook for adventure. Encourage your players to make heroes that would naturally bite the hook, and to make heroes with connections to each other and stakes in the world. Be prepared to pivot if the vibe at the table is going in a different direction than you planned.
Building the World
Start building the world together based on the heroes. What factions are they members of? Where do they live? Where are they from? Use those details to make a broad outline of the world together. Then dig a bit deeper into the place where the campaign will begin, be it a town or a wilderness location. Don't plan much beyond that.
Establish what kind of roleplaying the group is going for. Will it be the kind of game where players narrate the gist of what their characters do and say, or will the players embody their characters by speaking in their voices the whole time? Or perhaps somewhere in between?
Establish how much narrative agency the players want in the game, and how much you as the DM want to give them. Are you the arbiter of all things in the world, telling the players exactly how things are? Or are players allowed to invent their own things within reason? Do the players even want that power? For some players, this kind of power breaks their immersion. Along those same lines, do the players want complete freedom to do whatever they want or do they want to be railroaded towards the "story"?
Address potentially sensitive topics that might come up during play, establish lines and veils, and introduce the X-Card and the player ability to call for a "pause for a second".
Session One and Beyond
- Start the session by asking the players what happened last time, filling in any relevant missing details.
- Run the adventure fast and loose. Be a fan of the heroes. Present them with a challenging world. Play to find out what happens.
- End the session by asking for and gracefully accepting feedback. Do Roses & Thorns (and Buds) or Stars & Wishes.
- Establish in-between session expectations.
- Schedule next session.
Tools and Resources
- Watabou's Procgen Arcana
- Neighbourhood Generator by watabou
- Village Generator by watabou
- Medieval Fantasy City Generator by watabou
- Perilous Shores by watabou
- One Page Dungeon by watabou
- Cave Generator by watabou
- Azgaar's Fantasy Map Generator
- Dungeon Scrawl by ProbableTrain
- Printable Graph Paper of All Kinds
- Fantastic Maps - Tips and Tricks
Dungeons & Dragons Specific Tools
- The Homebrewery | Make Custom Homebrew Content for D&D
- D&D Beyond | An Official Digital Toolset for D&D
- Kobold+ Fight Club | Plan D&D Encounters
- DiceCloud | Online Character Sheet
Homebrewed Content for Indie TRPGS
- One More Multiverse - Virtual Tabletop
- Foundry Virtual Tabletop
- Menyr Virtual Tabletop (and more)
- Roll20 Online Virtual Tabletop
- Fantasy Grounds
- Owlbear Rodeo
- Fari App