Welcome adventurer to part five of the Running Adventure Modules blog series. Over the course of five articles, we have covered all the tips and tricks a busy GM needs to run pre-written modules with little to no prep time!
When you are constantly rushing to prep games, it can be hard to think about the future, but trust me, there are a lot of little changes you can make right now that your future self will thank you for. With 30 seconds more effort now, you can save yourself hours of agony further down the road by adopting the tricks covered here.
One Notebook to Rule Them All
Ever scrawl some panicked session notes on the back of the nearest piece of mail? In the heat of the moment, have you ever written something critical on your hand only to unthinkingly scrub it away minutes later? Yeah, we’ve all been there. But busy GM, it is time to stop such practices and get yourself one all-encompassing place to keep your notes (for every game).
Establishing one sacred spot in which you keep all things will not only ensure you know where everything is, it will also create an incredible centralized source of information and inspiration. It may be tempting to keep buying shiny new notebooks or have a different notebook for each campaign, but the truth is, you are better off just using one place for every TTRPG note you take.
Re-use and Recycle
Every single note you take, regardless of which campaign, or heck, regardless of which TTRPG, may prove useful beyond the immediate session. There is a philosophy in creative work that breaks down to ‘don’t make something new if you don’t have to’ and that absolutely applies to GM prep work. There is no reason to spend precious extra minutes creating something new if you’ve already done the work in the past, and a lot more can be recycled than you think. Let’s run down the list:
Keep Beloved NPCs
If your players react strongly to an NPC (they love them or hate them), take note and bring them back in later sessions! Frequently, players will latch onto a unique NPC introduced in a module (whether you want them to or not) and unwittingly that character becomes a much bigger deal to the plot then they were ever meant to be.
If this happens to you, don’t fight it! You are at liberty to change around pre-written adventures, so the beloved NPC survives to fight another day or forms an everlasting bond with the characters. Having a collection of these familiar and interesting NPCs at your disposal allows you to plug them into future quests, replace lackluster NPCs in pre-written modules, and saves you from having to invent brand-new NPCs over and over again.
Sometimes you find the absolute perfect monster or prep a killer encounter—only for your players to kill it in a freak stroke of luck within one round. Sometimes you have a cut a session short, and you don’t get to use the monster in full. Sometimes the players decide to make peace instead of fight. You get the point.
When something like this happens, do not throw your prep work away! Save the monster and have your players fight it again at a later date through the power of re-skinning. Monster statistics are really just math, and there are dozens of things you can do to re-package that math in a way your players will never notice.
Describing a previously-seen monster in a new way is usually enough to make the encounter feel totally new (even if it’s not). So, keep such monsters waiting in the wings and just put on a different hat when you need a baddie in a hurry.
Save Stuff You Didn’t Use
Modules are chock full of delightful assets, some of which never see the light of play over the course of a single campaign. Chances are that a module you have already bought has something great to contribute to your next game. Even better—chances are that you already prepped something great from a module that you ended up not using, but absolutely could in a future game!
Through the power of re-skinning, you can drag and drop pretty much any mechanical element of a module into any other game (regardless of campaign setting). Here are just a few common mechanical goodies to keep an eye out for in modules you already own:
- Dungeon Rooms – Did your players turn left instead of right and missed an awesome room? No worries, just add a door wherever you like in a different dungeon and bam! The awesome old room has a new home. Like most of a module but it has a lackluster room? Just swap it out with another awesome room you have ready to rock.
- Random Encounter Tables – Modules are a gold mine of well-balanced easy to drop in random encounters. Typically, you’ll only use one to two random encounters from a table during the course of an adventure, so there are likely a bunch that you didn’t use! Save those encounters and whip them out next time you need a low-prep session or need to spice up a different module.
- Treasure – Most modules have some kind of ‘rewards’ section or adventurer incentives scattered throughout the book. Some of the heftier ones may even include an appendix of brand new magic items! Do not let these treasures go to waste. So what if your party didn’t find that hidden treasure cache when they were running through the module? Just jot down what it held, and you’ve got a reward ready to go next time you need to reward (or bribe) your adventurers.
- Cool Names – If you are anything like me, just thinking about having to come up with the perfect name on the fly probably causes you to start sweating. So don’t do it! Whenever you don’t use a NPC, location, spell, monster, etc. with a great name—write it down! Keeping lists of different types of names in your GM notes is an amazing way to ensure you always have something ready to go. Just make sure to cross out the ones you use as soon as you use them.
- Special Assets – I likely don’t need to say this, but if a module comes with neat extras like battle maps, location maps, music tracks, etc., absolutely hang onto them! If a module has the perfect ‘along the road’ battle map, no one will care if you use it again for a different battle later. Building a set of standard maps you use on the regular is not lazy, it’s just good sense when you want immersion on a budget—whether the budget is fiscally, or time based.
The Power of Copy/Paste
In earlier articles, I’ve talked about why busy GMs should consider switching to digital notes instead of keeping physical ones. Here’s another reason why.
Having digital notes makes it so much easier to save unused module content for future games! Unless you are buying those hefty campaign-long module books, you are almost certainly buying your modules in digital formats. Using copy/paste and snip tools to transfer sections of the digital modules you buy into your digital notes makes the whole process a breeze.
If you still insist on physical notes however, you aren’t completely out of luck. You can absolutely print out your purchased modules, get out the scissors, obtain a glue stick, and literally paste those random encounters you didn’t use into your physical GM notebook. Why not get crafty and save your busy self from copying everything by hand?
You Got This!
And that brings us to the end of the article and the Running Adventure Modules blog series. I hope you walk away from this feeling a little more equipped to be a great GM even if you have 0 free time. As our world gets more hectic by the day, it’s easy to feel like you are the only one falling behind. That’s simply not true.
Every GM, whether they admit it or not has been backed into a scheduling corner where they didn’t get as much time as they would like to prepare a session. We’ve all been there, so there is no need to panic. Keep working at mastering those modules (and your approach to them) and you’ll always have something fantastic ready to pull out of your back of tricks.
Thanks Celeste, for these blog entries. I have found them very useful and insightful. You sharing the fruits of your extensive experience is so valuable to me as a DM.