Time to Review
At this point in the preparation process, you probably think everything is ready to go. First, you’ve thought of some ideas. Second, you filtered those ideas and selected the best options. Then, you’ve taken those ideas and turned them into a full adventure premise. Next, you’ve created your notes for the game session(s). Its true. You could go ahead and run your game at this point. But there is one last step. It’s a step that game masters skip when they’ve procrastinated too long on their preparation. and now they are running out of time to get all their notes together. I’m talking about the review process.
Have you ever created a presentation, and then immediately delivered it to a group of people? Without a review or practice rehearsals? Chances are, you’ll find a couple of slides that are poorly framed. Or you stumble through a concept because you forgot what you were trying to say. Running a game without any sort of review is like that. Once you’ve written your notes, you’ll want to review them. Your review reinforces the ideas of the adventure you created in your mind. It helps you spot any potential errors before its too late. Its no fun to try and do mental gymnastics at the table to correct any oversights you missed. So save yourself some trouble and do the review. Let’s discuss the three types of review that you can do for your notes.
Editing is the most basic form of reviewing your notes. In this process, your looking for grammar mistakes, and structural issues. These days, spell checking programs handle the grammar corrections. If you haven’t corrected those as you’ve drafted, now is the time to do them. If you create read aloud text, review these by actually reading them aloud. See if they are clunky, or conveying the points you want. Try to keep any of this text brief and focused on the points of action.
For structural issues, you are looking to see if you arranged your content in the best format. This will help you with readability and flow as you work through your notes at the table. Think about what information should go where and will be most useful. Everyone has preferred ways to process information. Keep yours in mind and edit your notes to make it easiest for yourself.
The editing phase of your notes review is the least valuable. So if you find yourself crunched for time, cut this review phase first. You are the only person that will be using and seeing your session notes. If they are not in the best condition grammatically, it doesn’t really matter. As long as they are useable, you’ll be good to go.
The content review phase is the most important. In this step you are reviewing the actual premises of your adventure. You are looking for gaps, or inconsistencies in the story and in your notes. Does it make sense that the murdered would have been able to kill the victim? Did they have the means and ability to do so? Does the rest of the timeline line up with the incident? You get the idea.
You are trying to poke holes in your story. Being critical of your work can be hard to do. You have been thinking about the adventure at this point for some time. Its easy to get caught up in the details and sweeping events of the adventure. You forget to stop and think if they will actually tie together in play. Thinking critically about your work is all about making it better. We can be protective about what we’ve created.
But as a dungeon master, your focus should be on enjoyment at the table. Not, the first concept you created or “thought would be cool”. I don’t want to come across too harsh. At this point in the review, you have content that will likely see play. You’ve done a lot of work to get your material ready. Your job as a content reviewer, is to make it flow. Sometimes that means extra work. But the alternative isn’t tenable. If your players find the flaws in your adventure logic, your in too deep at that point. And the patch fixes to the adventure will be a lot clunkier than if the you did the rework ahead of time.
The Most Important Review Phase
The content review phase is the most important phase of the review. If you can only do one part of the review, it should be this one. If you have no time for a review, stick to adventures that have simplistic plots. Now is not the time to try and pull off a murder mystery. Go with something tried and true. When in doubt, plan encounters with a high probability of combat (remember, the players can avoid combat if they wish and meet certain criteria). Combat can eat up a lot of table time, shorten the prep you need for a given session.
The last stage of your review is to crunch some numbers. You want to make sure that your adventure difficulty is tuned appropriately. Make it too hard, and you could wind up with a total party kill. Make it too easy and you run the risk of leaving your players unchallenged and bored. It is your job to find the right balance.
In D&D, most playtesting revolves around combat. There are a lot of resources out there that help you plan encounters and analyze monsters based on their Challenge Rating (CR) vs. the party’s size and level. But, unless your players and monsters are facing off in a blank room, there are lots of other factors to consider.
Combat Factors – Physical
- Environmental Hazards. Is there anything that can harm the party or the monsters? Does it affect one side more-so than the other? A red dragon in a volcano is in less danger than a party of humans.
- Terrain. Are the kobolds using three quarters cover behind boulders from a cliff ledge? Or is it the players with cover? The group with a 25% bonus to defense is going to be a lot harder than one without.
Combat Factors – Metagame
- Action Economy. The side with more actions as the greater opportunity to turn the tide in their group’s favor. Especially if that number shifts over time (as creatures go unconscious). You want this to be close to a 1:1 ratio. If you shift the ratio in favor of monsters, make them weaker and vice versa.
- Damage Per Round. You are checking to make sure your monster can’t one-hit knock out a player. Sure, the wizard might get one-hit. But the fighter should not. Additionally, check for high damage area-of-effect attacks. If a flameskull drops a fireball on your party of level 4s with 30-ish health, they are going to have a bad time. According to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, that is a medium encounter for four level 4s.
- Current State. A rested party is a lot more deadly than one that has gone through the abyss. You need to factor in two components. How many encounters will happen that adventuring day? And at what point is this encounter most likely to occur? You can’t predict how the party will expend their resources. Nor should you. They make choices and live with the consequences. But on a holistic level, the daily budget of experience points should make sense.
Time for Playtesting
You don’t have time to actually play through every (or most) encounters. But you should be able to look at your party’s damage output, and obvious abilities that they have at their disposal. If those options give them a fair chance, run it. Otherwise, rethink it. If you are unsure, you can always use “waves” of combatants. Maybe your not sure if eight orcs is too many for the party. Start with five in the area. If the PCs are winning easily, have the reinforcements arrive, otherwise, run it with the five. Playtesting is part art and part science. There are lots of resources that can help you do some quick playtesting. This is meant to be a quick overview, rather than a deep dive.
One last word on combat testing. Sometimes, you place a monster(s) in front of the party that are much stronger than them. There is nothing wrong with doing this. It can make your world seem more realistic. Rather than having everything exactly balanced for a party as they level up through the game. If you chose to go this route, make sure your players understand this. I recommend telling them outright in session zero. But also, within the world you can show them how powerful the creatures are. Or telegraph the shear number of them. A party of level 5 might think they can beat a single fire giant. But a band of 8 fire giants? That’s sending a message. Remember, as the DM, you have to provide the players with the information. They then get to make the choices and live with the consequences (good or bad).
The social and exploration pillars of Dungeons and Dragons are less defined than combat. Yet, there are elements you can still review with your playtester mindset. Look at any traps, skill checks, or environmental hazards the players will contend with in their adventure. Here are a few elements to consider:
- Check your difficulty classes (DCs). Are you making certain checks too difficult or too easy? You set DCs for everything from persuading a character, to evading a lightning trap.
- Check the mechanics of your traps and hazards. Do the hazards make sense? Is the consequences appropriate with what you had in mind? Can the PCs interact with the hazard? Or is it a hit point tax?
- Evaluate spells and other “auto-wins” the PCs have access to. Does a single spell negate an encounter, trap, or hazard? Is that a problem? Sometimes it is, sometimes its fine. When it comes to spell review, you are looking for ones that stop the adventure dead in its tracks. If a single zone of truth spell can end your murder mystery, its time to go back to the drawing board. If the players are clever and use their resources to bypass parts of the adventure, then that should be acceptable. They are making a choice to use their resources now instead of later at a critical moment. Players like to feel smart when they “solve” something in the adventure. And you should celebrate them for it. But, you want to be more discerning when it comes to the climax of your adventure. If your players end your villain with a single action, then you had an oversight. Your players will be ecstatic and remember the story forever. But as a DM, you will might feel disappointed (at least in the short term).
- Is critical information locked behind skill checks? If the players need to find the evil vizier’s note about his plot to kill the prince, it better not be behind an investigation check. What do you do when your players need that information, but they failed the skill check? Make sure that vital information to the adventure is freely available to the players. Items/information that are not vital and offer a benefit to the players can be hidden behind skill checks. The player will a high perception skill feels great when they notice the secret door.
When to Playtest
Playtesting is the second most important phase of your review. But it is also the most-time intensive. Focus on the content review first, and then determine if you have time to playtest or not. You might have enough time to proofread, but not playtest. That’s okay.
Playtesting can take a lot of time. You may not have enough time to do a thorough job. So here’s what I’d recommend:
- Check your combats. Make sure your aren’t going to blow the party out of the water. Make sure they have chances to rest or retreat (with consequences if necessary).
- Look for auto-wins. Specifically with the climax of the story. Small auto-wins are fine if they come at a cost to the players.
- Check for information bottlenecks.
- Review hazard mechanics.
- Check your DCs. These are easiest to adjust mid-session. Which is why they are last.
The adventure review is the last part of your adventure organization. This final step gives yourself the seal of approval and will boost the quality of your game. It is a step that many DMs skip, and I think that’s an error. Try to budget your time so you can do some sort of review of your adventure.
At this point, you are ready to run your adventure! The cycle begins again as soon as you need new material. Try to evaluate your design and organization process. What worked? What didn’t? Learn and adapt. That’s how you will grow as a DM. You’ll gain experience and confidence as you do it more often. That will help you create your own style and improve your efficiency. With a solid organizational blueprint, you are ready to start creating!
Feature Art Credit: Ede László