There’s a lot of time wasted with DMing that could be put to better use. The most important rule I’ve learned is not to over plan. Sitting around for hours planning for every contingency or possibility is futile, so why even bother? Don’t. But preparation is needed BADLY in places where enough research isn’t enough, and that’s what I’ll discuss here.
* Read the entire adventure once (or write it) long before you’ll run it. This serves many purposes. You can foreshadow the upcoming events you know will transpire, and it will allow you to alter the story about things dependant on what the party had done up to the time the adventurer is run. Reading it in advance is necessary because you’re going to want to read it again just a day or two before you run it. Familiarity with the adventure, where the important parts are, and the story line is VITAL to running a smooth game. As you read the story, have in mind some of the reactions your players will have based on who their characters are. Change things to customize the adventure to their interest level. If this means changing the religion or race of an NPC, so be it. If it changes the final scene from a large cavern to a forest clearing, so be it. The adventure should be built with the players in mind, not the other way around. Be reasonable. This advice does not mean “don’t throw something at the PC’s if they don’t have the skill to overcome it“. Not everyone’s perfect. But give them more than one way to solve a problem. Make notes in the adventure if you have to.
* Pull out a 3x5 index card. Have it with you as you do your second reading of the adventure. As names of important people, places and things come up, write them down, possibly grouping them together. If your adventure has a town with 20 named folks, only the mayor, blacksmith and tavern owner need be mentioned (and the name of the town & tavern). When you’re done, a good card should be easily read at a quick glance, possibly with page numbers on where to reference that name in the adventure (don’t be afraid to use the back side!). Being able to roll names off your tongue with a quick glance instead of flipping pages is the sign of a pro.
* Do Combat Stat Sheets! Story is easy. You don’t have to roll for initiative, keep track of positioning of foes & friends, or track numbers. Combat is TOUGH if you’re not prepared. Tough on you as you frantically look things up and tough on your players if you don’t have the answers to the scores of questions they will ask. When combat comes, you want to be able to spring it suddenly on the players with “roll for initiative!” not “hold on now while I look this stuff up...”
1) A sheet to track individual initiative through the rounds.
2) A sheet with the combat statistics of every conceivable participant opposing the
players. i.e. if a baatezu has the capability of summoning in another type of creature to
help it, get that creature’s stats ready too, even if it doesn’t make an appearance.
3) A list of spells, items, skills, and tricks and traps your monsters/NPC’s might
pull off, or referenced page numbers in the game books.
4) A clear roster sheet to track the accurate hit points of damage the character’s foes
Label miniature figures, and track them accordingly. Have this sheet done in advance.
* Get the miniature figures and /or props ready or know right where to get them. If you don’t use either, know the scene so well that it’s in your minds’ eye to describe. Most of my games don’t have “random encounters” suddenly decided with a die roll. Every encounter is planned (even if I‘m not sure where I‘ll use it, thus the illusion of intermediate danger). Random encounters usually are impossible to predict, and hardly do anything to further the story and are hell to get ready for due to the complexity of running a smooth combat. Having the setting and miniature props ready keeps the action fast and furious.
* Make notes on handouts that will be needed in the adventure and have them ready for the players as the game progresses. They’re fun, and even more so if they’re ready!
* Prepare player questions that the players should answer in character. After everyone has settled in at the table there’s a dozen different ways to bluntly announce “okay, let’s stop discussing movies and start the game”. So instead just ease into it, ask each player their own question to answer in character to help everyone get into their role. The questions can be anything like about a character’s family to what their favorite weapon looks like to asking them to prioritize their goals from a small list you provide. The answers usually reveal more about a character helping everyone to “see” them as well as give you some interesting idea hooks for future adventures! Simple answers, short answers, interesting retrospect and interesting in-depth answers are all cool, but the idea is to spend about one minute per player, and right afterwards recap the last session and get under way, now that everyone’s in their character’s mindset!