Almost two years ago I wrote the first post for Day 8 of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge. With two more campaigns under my belt, my prep style has evolved (perhaps matured?) into a method that works for me. Well, two methods really: one I call “scene-based” session prep, and the other one more resembling a “sandbox” full of toys and other plot hooks. Which one I choose depends on the needs of the session as well as the campaign. For a linear campaign or adventure, the scene-based prep session works just fine, but for matrix-style adventures that stress intrigue or investigation, the sandbox method works best.
Here’s a little bit more insight into why I choose one method over another, how I use it to generate and organize session material, as well an example of what the final product looks like.
Scene-Based Session Prep
All through my Sailor Moon: Power Guardians campaign I had a formula or template to follow based off of the show itself. Essentially, in every episode the baddies are up to something, the sailors have some new mundane life challenge, the baddies’ plan collides with their mundane life challenge, the sailors fight the baddies and thwart their plan, and the mundane life challenge is defeated or resolved. That gives you an easy five-act structure to start from, with the flexibility of adding a handful of transitional scenes as needed.
Many traditional RPG quests operate in a similar manner: travel to another location, collect X or defeat/destroy Y, and then return. Dungeon crawls are the same way, but with a little more choice. In a simplistic dungeon, the PCs begin in Room A, choose between going to Room B or Room C next, both of which eventually lead to Room D. Certain encounters more or less have to happen in order for the plot to proceed. Certain rooms must be explored to progress deeper into the dungeon. Granted, there’s still a lot of variety you can get out of a linear adventure, including success and failure, but what the players face next is fairly predetermined by the GM.
To prep for a session using the scene-based method, I began by writing down the dangling plot threads in the campaign. This included what happened last session, but more importantly, what was left unresolved. From there, I could determine whether the next story beat in that plot would help complement the main plot for the session and fill in some of my introductory or transitional scenes. If so, I’d work it in to the next session. If not, I’d save those story beats for another session.
Next, I figured out what the overarching goal and obstacle for that session/episode would be. This basically consisted of answering two questions: What do the PCs want to do? What do the villain and her henchmen want to do? The PCs’ goals would generally help me figure out their mundane life challenges, while the villains would provoke the sailor soldier fight scenes, usually by trying to drain the energy of innocent Londoners or acquire power magical artifacts innocuously placed among existing British artifacts/landmarks. In my initial prepping for the campaign, I’d already created a rough outline that included all the session plots, although the PCs’ goals tended to surface over the course of the campaign or change as they got to know their character better.
For each of these goals, I further broke them down into achievable steps, which formed the essence of a scene. Each scene had an obstacle to overcome, a cast of characters (and their motives), as well as a location. Whether or not the obstacle was overcome and how was up to the PCs, but the next scene would generally follow in order, with higher or lower stakes depending on the outcome of the one preceding it.
The end result was a campaign that was fairly railroady, but I think it worked because it was emulating the anime episode format and the PCs had enough choices to make within the scenes to feel like the story was interactive. Their choices also had ramifications on the remaining episodes, especially once they visited the Space Time door.
Here’s an example of a scene-based session document I actually used for the second-to-last session (hence the relatively low amount of “mundane life challenge”). You’ll notice that it doesn’t go into super exhaustive detail, and I only used one stat block for the session (for Arianrodh, not included). Often I was pressed for time (I usually banged out one of these in an hour or so) and U couldn’t fully flesh out a scene, so instead I relied on my improvisational skills to carry the session (as well as the players’ penchant for roleplaying with each other). The players saw a different version of the session, mostly because I had to change things on the fly as I forgot cues or wanted to seize on new opportunities in play, but at least for my purposes I had a Plan A in place.
Example Session-Based Prep Document
Covering Wednesday, 11/26/14
Dangling Plot Threads
- Annabelle (aka Sailor Triton) auditions for a spot in a Christmas recital
- Sailor Pandora enlists Sam into mischief?
- Elle (aka Sailor Hela) is DOWN WITH THE SICKNESS
- Arianne (aka Sailor Deimos), Lara (aka Sailor Phobos), and the Blackfyre
- Rowan (aka Sailor Io), Toby, and Sara
Scene 1: The Realm of Faerie (Cutscene)
Mother Danu summons the four soldiers of her domain. Callum, Isolde, Deirdre, and Feargus. She calls upon them to begin the assault, take back the treasures. She reaches out a hand and pink electricity forms in her hand. The eyes of the four soldiers turns fierce purple, and they become doll-like. “You shall each play your part. Now, go. In the name of the Clan Tuatha.” They bow and leave.
Arianrodh emerges, fair of hair, stars hanging in her locks, her skin the color of night. She is instructed to set a trap for them by the soldier of Wind and Sky. They must not be allowed to rescue her. If she fails, well, death would be a mercy.
The Winter King emerges from the darkness. “I shall lead my armies to the Golden Kingdom, then, my Queen. Together, we shall cover the earth in frozen darkness, and together we shall rule. I am reaching the zenith of my power, and not even their combined forces will be enough to stop us.”
(Set Mother Danu free and allow her to become the Queen of Summer once again?)
Scene 2: Getting Ready to Say Goodbye
The girls decide to see Cassie off to the airport for “Thanksgiving.” But an early snowstorm spreads darkness over the sky, and things look ominous. Elle’s sickness begins to take a turn for the worse right then and there.
A howling wind crashes through the side of the windows, putting everyone on edge. Then, the snowstorm really begins. Flights begin to get delayed, and a plane skids off the runway when it tries to touch down. The snow really picks up, and the Fae begin their onslaught. Before they can get too far, Elle’s sickness erupts into a giant hole that sucks them all into the underworld. They must escape somehow, but also rescue Sailor Uranus!
Scene 3: Descent into Hell
The girls wake up in a dark place. It’s the underworld, full of ghosts, some of whom they might recognize (dead characters from their pasts). In Cassie’s case, there are enormous amounts of dead. The people in the Silver Millennium who died because of her weakness.
Scene 4: The Underground
They must trudge onwards without giving up, before finding themselves in a twisting underground cavern.
Darkness confounds them. Arianrodh uses shadow creatures against them in a war of attrition.
However, many slave fae are there and can be coaxed into helping. They are clearly former creatures of the light, forced to labor down here in the mines. The senshi find a smith who can help them reforge the sword if they can free them from their captivity. The one who holds the chains must be tricked into letting them go by giving them his word.
They eventually discover Sailor Uranus and fight! But Arianrodh flees with the tiara into her father’s domain, nearby.
Scene 5: The Ice Palace Revisited
The soldiers come face-to-face with what’s happening on earth through reflections in the ice walls. Shit just got real on Earth.
Arianrodh fights with the power of her father’s winter guard at her side. It’s a struggle to defeat her and escape back to earth.
Scene 6: Back on Earth
Callum touches Cate’s mind from across a dream. It’s urgent, she mustn’t delay. Come alone. He sounds hollow, not the same man as she remembers.
Callum lures Cate somewhere, brainwashes her, and Isolde uses the opportunity to follow the senshi back to their base, where the treasures are being kept.
Depending on what happens then, the soldiers are joined by the rest of the senshi!
Sanbdox Session Prep
Knights of Dragoneia, by comparison, is a much more freeform campaign. The PCs have a lot of agency to determine what they want to do and where they want to go when. When they enter a new town, it’s up to them to decide which people and locations they check out first, so the A to B to C linear structure falls apart pretty quickly. The PCs might decide to do C then A then B, so I need to prepare my notes in such a way that I know generally what’s going on in my head, but I can refer to my notes for more details on an NPC or location as needed.
In more investigative/intrigue-heavy sessions, such as those taking place in urban areas or at court, I ditch the “this happens, then this happens” format for prepping, but I do identify the plot hooks, PC goals, the major actors/factions, locations, as well as some things to happen to the PCs to get them back on track in case they get stuck, as well as some random or “filler” encounters if i want to slow down the pacing between major plot points.
In this mode of planning, I prefer to get input directly from the players as to what they want to do in the next session. This usually consists of a poll connected to the event on Facebook where they can vote for different objectives: “Investigate the Legend of the Dragoneian Knights at the next Grand Temple,” “Acquire more smithing materials for magic items,” “Recover the lost formulae for smithing knightly weapons,” “Investigate the Emperor and the Fengshang Army,” and “Seek out the source of corruption/monsters.” With their preferred objective in mind, I can build a session that touches on one or more plots chosen by the players themselves.
After I’ve solicited their feedback, it’s time for me to determine what my own goals are as a GM on a campaign level. Do I want to introduce another quest here? Bring in new or recurring NPCs? Evoke a specific theme from the campaign? Or hint at something to come down the line? I can answer these questions fairly easily based on the high-level story outline I wrote while I was devising the campaign to begin with.
From there, there’s a bit of magic involving inspiration and creativity, but what I end up with is a brief summary of the session highlights as well as the background context to the session’s events. Once I’ve identified major characters and setting locations, I flesh them out with more detail as well as their purpose and relationship to other elements in the session. Now is also when I come up with a way to hook the player characters into the goals decided upon by the players.
Below is an example of a sandbox-style session prep document, which has been semi-redacted in order to shield my current players from things they might have missed when they played through this scenario (or wouldn’t have been able to find out at all)! It may be worth mentioning that the material below easily supplied me with two full sessions of play, but there were also a number of improvised scenes and connections as well as changes to the prep document that occurred during play itself. There are also a lot of things I didn’t elaborate on, instead relying on the PCs trying to do something and telling me how they plan to accomplish it. Based on how good a plan it is, I can decided whether I can let them try or if it’s a dead end, and I can use their plan as a jumping-off point for alternative solutions if they fail at their initial plan.
Example Sandbox Prep Document
Chapter 6: The Fog of Desire
The Knights travel from the Temple of the Twelve to the closest Provincial City in Fengshang.
The roads are heavily patrolled and entry into the city is restricted to residents or those with traveling papers from their home town/province.
When they arrive, they see a scuffle occurring between a black-robed figure and a young woman. It looks like a mugging/assault! The PCs can intervene, and then the young woman transforms into a monster! The black-robed figure gets away. The murder of Fenghe takes place at the same time. The old woman was a distraction to keep the black-robed figure (a Sindragonei Hunter) occupied.
NPC: The black-robed figure is Shae-long, a sixties-something woman who has dedicated her life to hunting and exterminating Sindragonei, though she is wary of the group claiming to be knights. She might join the PCs, or get killed, but her abode/base has a wealth of scrolls that will allow Cat & Gwen to spend 4XP and pick up some Forbidden Knowledge: Sindragonei. They will need to find more scrolls in order to advance the skill further.
Shae-long has a [REDACTED].
- To investigate the self-proclaimed emperor of Fengshang.
- The PCs meet a former consort of the king’s court and get a sneak peek at the political climate inside the most secret part of the palace
- To investigate the source of the monsters.
- Introduce the first Sindragonei creatures, the Lamia
- The PCs uncover that one Lamia has been inciting a plot that’s plagued a city with crime
- (Local/Sindragonei: Lamia): The City Guard are looking for information surrounding the deaths of prominent merchants as well as the rash of crime in the area, including rumors of monsters.
- If they can gain his trust or fool him, the city guard admits that the assassinations appear to be committed by something evil, because the bodies are completely exsanguinated.
- Usually found in their home, no pattern to timing, but the latest one was found close to the Magistrate’s compound.
- As for crime, there’s some smuggling operations to avoid taxes, a black market for a drug that allows you to hallucinate your fantasies, and gangs that are demanding protection money, and theft/burglary.
- The theft/burglary seem to be preludes to the assassinations.
- In addition to the City Guards, Shae-long is also hunting the lamia, and she can be a rival or ally in the hunt
- (Regional/Sindragonei: Zhen Yu) Through rumors/advertisements, the Knights find out that one of the girls working at an upscale brothel used to be in the King’s court.
- (Personal: Tsujin) An Ao Shi dojo is recruiting bright young men and women to train as the next generation of officers to serve in the Imperial Army
Lamia are shapeshifters who feed off the energy of desire in humans. They are a combination of vampires and kitsune. In their true form, they are human from the torso up and animal from the bottom down, i.e. snake, bird, lion, etc. [REDACTED]
The Spirit of Invidiel found a kindred spirit in [REDACTED].
The City of Jinan
- City Center
- The Temple of Fendelar
- The Magistrate’s Compound
- The City Guard barracks
- Park/festival grounds
- The Merchant Quarter
- The Marketplace
- The Merchant’s houses
- There is a small dojo dedicated to the Ao Shi school of warfare here. They are training the next batch of officers to help the King take over all three countries.
- The Pleasure District
- The Brothel where Budding Willow works
- The casino run by Enlai
- The inn where Azalea senses a lamia
- The black market where opium and other illegal goods are traded
- Tea houses, restaurants, theaters
- The Red Kettle, where Shae-long stays
- The Peasant Quarter
- Various laborers live here with the occasional noodle stand
Elaborate courting rituals. Women chose which suitor receives their sexual favors. Younger, more successful courtesans rent their fancy jewelry to older, less popular courtesans. Residents read tabloids called “the mosquito press” because the stories “went buzzing around stinging people.” News includes accounts of courtesans fighting each other or being arrested for having sex in their carriages.
Budding Willow is like Hatsumomo from Memoirs after she was disgraced. She pretends to be the victim but in reality she is just as opportunistic and selfish. Getting an audience with her is difficult as she will only see paying clients. (10 Fengshang yuan)
Budding Willow was thrown out as Zhen Yu solidified her power in the court and gained the ear of the Emperor. She knows that the King never considered invading the other countries until Zhen Yu came as tribute from the northern province. Rumors flew that [REDACTED].
Also at the Fallen Blossom are the drug users. A clever PC can find out about the source, which leads them to the black market.
The Courtesan won’t give out this information for free. She wants help attracting the attention of a specific man (Enlai) to become her patron.
- What is Zhen Yu like?
- Ruthless, extremely clever and crafty. She quickly rose to the top of the pecking order by inciting the King’s anger toward his other concubines, many of whom were let go. She hears that now the King puts them to death. She was lucky to have been let go a long time ago. Her ability to change people’s minds is uncanny.
Feeding off Desire
There is a lamia in the city, working with [REDACTED]. [[Motive motive murder murder MYSTERY.]]
Other powerful merchants in the city:
- Anguo (Dead), book merchant, Enlai has purchased his business to keep his widow and employees afloat
- Cheung, tea merchant
- Fenghe (Killed last night), silk merchant
- Kang, porcelain merchant
- Nianzu, jeweler
- Weizhi (Dead), furniture merchant
As they get closer to tracing the conspiracy to the merchant, the Lamia sets her spawn (shapeshifting small creatures, the size of dogs) upon them and then eventually confronts the Knights. They can [REDACTED].
The Greater Lamia
The Night Market
[[I never got around to writing this up and luckily the PCs never visited it.]]
Other things happening in Dragoneia:
- The Fengshang Army is moving [REDACTED].
- Farigean have increased their raids on[REDACTED].
How do you approach session planning? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And check out the subsequent post in the series on player “homework”: what do you ask of your players before and between sessions? Thanks again for reading!