Several weeks ago, the RPG Athenaeum published this post, which focused on ways that players could help streamline game play. When that post was published, this writer believed that considerable attention had already been paid to dungeon master (DM) preparation on other sites, but that little had been said about how players might help maximize the effectiveness of session time.
Upon further reflection, though, it became apparent to this writer that there is one facet of DM preparation that isn’t often described: approaching game preparation with a critical eye toward saving session time.
This post isn’t going to address obvious time-saving elements, like having a working kowledge of the rules and having read, reviewed and understood the encounters planned for the evening. Instead, its focus will be upon a handful of small changes in the way many DMs prepare that can add up to more hours spent adventuring, which is why everyone meets in the first place.
The first and biggest time-waster this writer has seen involves battle maps. The battle maps packaged with published adventures save time for the encounters they depict, but no published adventure provides battle maps for all of its encounters, so the DM must still produce maps for use during the game. From watching D&D games played at the local gaming store, it seems that the three most popular ways of producing a battle maps are drawing map features on a vinyl grid map with wet-erase markers, drawing features on gridded paper (the easel-pad sort used for business presentations) or by making use of D&D Dungeon Tiles.
In all of the sessions this writer observed, the DM would begin each encounter by setting up the map. Whether the DM was drawing out the map or hunting through a box of dungeon tiles to find the appropriate pieces, map creation usually occupied between 15 and 25 minutes. Usually, the players would use the time spent on map preparation to visit the lavatory, smoke cigarettes, or get beverages and snacks – and there is nothing inherently wrong with that – but this writer began to wonder: how much playing time could be saved if the DM prepared those maps in advance?
After obtaining a second vinyl mat and a pad of gridded paper and drawing maps in advance, this writer found out during his own game: about 40 minutes per two-encounter session. Obtaining a few more sets of frequently-used dungeon tiles and dividing them into separate plastic bags before a game could probably save a similar amount of time.
Another time-eater crops up during combat. After preparing the map, most DMs opened the Monster Manual to the appropriate pages and wrote the monsters’ hit point totals on a sheet of scratch paper (often, they needed to bookmark multiple pages in the book for different monsters, and had to flip between the pages numerous times during every game round). Next, they asked for the players to roll initiative, and they rolled for the monsters, duly recording the monsters’ initiative counts next to their hit points on the paper. Could any session time be saved there?
The answer was yes. There a numerous free, fan-generated computer applications that can produce “monster cards” that approximate the statistics blocks in the monster manual. Examples can be found at the Kingworks Creative Blog and the Tools for DMs Google Group. By printing out monster cards in advance on standard paper, writing out a hit point total for every monster present directly on the cards, pre-rolling and recording monster initiative and sorting the monster cards into initiative order, about another 25 minutes of session time were saved.
More time seemed to be wasted in locating miniatures for the combat. The DMs observed in the local gaming shop typically brought painted metal miniatures in padded cases, and pre-painted plastic miniatures were brought loose in boxes or bags. After setting up the map and monster stats, most DMs selected their miniatures from their collection and carfully placed them exactly where their adventure keys indicated, occupying about another five minutes per encounter, or 10 per session. By arriving a few minutes early, grouping the miniatures by encounter and setting them aside, and marking exact monster placement on the pre-drawn maps, that time was trimmed out of the session.
Although the periods of saved time were approximate, they do serve to illustrate a point: by adding the few steps described above to a DM’s game preparation, as much as one and a quarter hours can be saved from a two-encounter session: 40 minutes by preparing maps in advance, 25 for creating and preparing monster cards, and another 10 by pre-grouping miniatures. That is sufficient time to run a third encounter, roughly within the time frame that once held only two.
The first session in which this writer made use of these time-saving activities was met with a mix of surpsise and gratitude. One player, upon hearing that the maps were pre-drawn and initiative was pre-rolled, jokingly asked if this writer had pre-determined the outcome of the battle and asked if his hero had fought bravely; he withdrew his comment later, after realizing how quickly that extra encounter per session would multiply. With more session time spent on actual play, he could expect his hero to gain a level every third session instead of every fifth session.
Of course, you might already employ some or all of the suggestions just described, in which case you are well ahead of many game masters. If you’ve not tried to employ these suggestions, they will make significant changes in your group’s progress; if you know of other time-savers mentioned here, please consider describing them in a comment to this post, so that all readers might benefit.