There are a lot of great and not so great feelings after you’ve had a good night of D&D; joy, anger, sadness, excitement, frustration, and more. Yet, here it is, the day after a session where I have GMed (or DMed if you prefer); and my main feeling is shellshock. My brain feels fried (poor brian). I may have fallen asleep faster, but I’m more tired. I struggle recalling the events of the night before, except for the most notable. It’s as if it were a GM hangover (and I don’t drink alcohol). There are things to do though! I need to be ready for the next session a mere seven days away. I need to discuss any questions or concerns the players may have brought up. Heck, I need to make sure I’ve got enough time to prep throughout the week… At least that’s what it all feels like. A sudden rush of, “I’m already behind and I haven’t even started yet.” This exact feeling is what sends a lot of new, even seasoned, GMs away from mastering. It can be hard, but, with my help it can be eased up. Let me show you how I deal with the ol’ GM shellshock.
Why do you feel this shellshock? I look at it like this (mostly due to spending over 10,000 hours in the computer repair industry…). There isn’t a lot that separates tabletop gaming from computer gaming. Players must interface with a computer, or servers, through some form of software. From there they issue commands, which are then processed, and then given a result back. In tabletop gaming, players are doing the same thing, the system you play is the software, and you as a GM are the computer (or servers if you Co-GM). You store the information, save the game, process commands, troubleshoot, debug, and much more. Often times, I feel physically hotter during a session as my brain cranks up its processing power to handle all that ends up coming at me. At the end of the night, I’m about ready to crash. I get home, enjoy a cool drink and snack, and wind down for the night. All the notes, pretty much everything, are cast aside as my brain sponges up the events of the night. This feeling alone is tough as nails as a new GM, because you’re often paranoid about how you did, if everything still makes sense, rules questions, and much more. As a seasoned DM, it’s all about what is next and what questions I want to answer for the players.
So, how do I handle this? Don’t rush. Yes, your next game is probably only seven days away by now, but that is an entire 168 hours of time between now and then. You only need about four to six of those hours to get ready for your next game. I try not to spend more than two hours over the expected play time on building the next session. My games run about four or five hours long, so I spend about four or six hours building them. Yes there are exceptions, and you’ll know those when they come. For me, it’s holiday gatherings, or epic BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) encounters. So, relax. Let yourself catch up.
Don’t immediately go over your notes. Instead, open up a word processor, or notebook, and set aside just one page for your next session. This sucker will be your go to guide, we don’t want it to go past a page because we don’t want to be flipping through stuff during our sessions when we don’t need to. I like to use Google Drive (Docs) because it’s fast, free, and cloud storage; so I can log in and add or edit at any time between my devices. Go ahead and write what you remember from the night before. The things you remember, are probably exactly what your players remember first as well. Your notes will help you later. Right now we just want to get our brain into gear and recall the major stuff. No need to be descriptive or lengthy, this is for your eyes only. I learned of this from the mighty Chris Perkins’ article ‘Act I, II, & III‘. So you may want to check that out after this, as he makes several good points as well.
Now you can pull open those notes, go ahead and just read through them. Some of them might not be as important as you thought; but those notes that you do want to discuss, add them to the document. Don’t worry about organization now, just get the stuff in there.
We need to see what characters had a time to shine, and who didn’t. We don’t want to leave people out, but in larger groups it’s hard to let everyone have an equal time in the spotlight through every session. We want to balance things by giving everyone some time, and spread it out through adventures. So go over your characters’ interests, highlight those who didn’t get mentioned a lot; or didn’t really do a lot. Some nights this may be fairly evenly balanced, more often than not, in my group, we have two who do really well, and three that had a good time but just didn’t do as much.
In my Eberron campaign I have to make sure the assassin/rogue, Vice, has some sneaking about to do and something that allows her to come in and out of hiding as needed. The fighter, Phange, was a slave. The wizard, Raina, and her archer sister, Midna, helped free Phange in Xen’Drik. They have recently witnessed a shift in power in the depths of Sharn, the Cogs, that has lead to halflings and gnomes being taken into prison camps and being used as slaves. Judas, our cleric of an evil diety, has done business with House Lyrandar; and seeks to find schematics to a prototype airship. All of these separate stories are linked into one arching story that consistently draws the party together; they have the freedom to split up and do what they want, but eventually it answers a bigger question and they’re able to return into the main story. In this case, the rivalry of House Orien and House Lyrandar; and how this rivalry is changing the balance of power in the City of Sharn. There is also the menacing threat that looms overhead and in the, perhaps, distant future. A black and purple dragon by the name of Adraxa is thought to be after the party. She was a Dracolich, now it is unknown as to what she is, after two phylacterys were destroyed. One of the phylacterys were brought to destruction thanks to the players.
Questions and Answers
Don’t answer every note or question at once, unless you’re ready to deal with a fried brain. I mark down three things that I would like to answer during the next session. Good things come in three. A lot of people use the three act rule, beginning, climax, conclusion. I don’t, it’s just not my cup of tea. I do three dramatic questions (thanks Angry DM!) for the session. If you’ve never done this, it’s probably best to have an idea of where you want to go in the form of a few answers to these questions. I don’t normally write answers for them; it’s just how I like to handle things, but they are the core of the night. Those three questions turn into an encounter of some sort no matter what; the players can role play through it, fight, whatever they want. I rarely write a defined answer to a question (I’ll get to that in another article). Keep this in mind, encounters are not always fights, they are simply a point of conflict. There are encounters where not a single dice hits the table.
There it is, your page is has what you need on it. Questions, maybe answers, notes, all the seeds of the next session, and done in only a few minutes to an hour. So now we need to organize things. I organize things much like Chris Perkins suggested. Start with a brief synopsis something like “Previously”, “Last Time”, “Last Week”, etc… This serves as a reminder of what happened when we last gathered, I read it aloud to the players, and it lets everyone know that the game night has officially started. From there I move on to “This Time” or “This Week”. This isn’t read to the players, instead it’s a simple collection of information. First, notable NPCs, those that I know the players may rely on, some information about them and their mannerisms. Then I go ahead and bold my three dramatic questions for the night, and give some extra information; if you have answers to these questions (even potential answers) it’s a good idea to post them there as well. Finally, “Next Time” or “Next Week” (also not read to the players). Take note of what tonight’s outcome could be. Draw the most obvious conclusions. Don’t force everyone to go this route; it’s just the most obvious conclusion for the night. Chances are it could be entirely wrong, but it should help you as a GM to keep the goal in sight. I often use it as a simple guide, normally a success to do stuff or a failure to do stuff. My result is this, taken from my most recent actual notes. (My players should avert their eyes now. Metagame = Death!):
If you’ve done all of this through spare time throughout the week, you’ve already got your next session planned. From here, you can get the stats you need for any encounters you may have. Draw some maps up and enjoy the rest of your free time. This doesn’t get rid of GM shellshock, but it sure helps deal with it, lessen it, and mitigate the effects of it.
Happy gaming, see you next time Space Cowboy… Check out our weekly poll below!