Some while ago I made an Encounter Sheet with a basic questionnaire to help me think about the encounters I was making. Back then I was very unhappy that most of my encounters didn't matched up with the wants I had in my head: using more of the environment in combat and putting more tension in my games. I made a basic sheet that I could fill in that would tick all these checkboxes and some more. The following games were better games in my view. I had thought deeper and more serious about my encounters.
After working more than a year with this Encounter Prep document, I now decided to make a Session Prep document and also update my Encounter Prep with some new categories (NPC, and consequences).
Also noticing I have a Bachelor degree in Literary and Cultural Analysis that I wasn't using, I tried to put some of my favorite structuralist narratology tools in my document. I used the Actantial Model and the Semiotic Square of Greimas and pasted the 31 Russian fairy tale tropes of Vladimir Propp in there, to see if I can spice things up a bit in my games. I think all of these tools fit D&D real good. Then I made an easy questionnaire to fill in to uncover the story structure and help with improvising during the game (NPC names, things of interest to explore).
The prep document became 4 pages long, which is quite a bit, and should be printed double-sided to bring to the game. Here you can find the link to my google drive:
Session prep tools:
I feel like I should explain more about the tools I put in the first two pages of the document. The Actantial Model is maybe quite clear. It shows a story structure that can be filled in on lots of ways.
The sender is in D&D often the quest giver, and wants and knows about an object (could also be knowledge, or somewhat more broader as 'life' and 'death of a monster'). They send the subject (the party) on their way to get it. The object is the desire of the party, it's what they are on the quest for. They are helped by some things on their way (equipment, but also followers/NPC's) and are opposed by some powers (monsters, traps, puzzles, villains). If the party, the subject, gets the object, who will gain from it? The receiver. Probably the party a bit, as in a treasure reward, but also often the sender.
This will easily uncover which parts of the story are important and who is in which role of the story.
Then we have the Semiotic Square, which is more difficult to explain why it's in my Session prep document. It's a brainstorming tool for me, to see if you can give a fun twist to some of the tropes that are often used. For example, you could fill in Life in the top-left corner and Death in the top-right as a binary opposition. Things are getting interested as non-life can also be Undead in D&D, and non-death (things that never lived) can maybe be Constructs. Now, if I was to make a session about the fountain of life, I could make this square and think: Maybe I'll put a Lich there that is also searching for it (maybe to destroy the fountain?), but I'm also placing some Constructs (Golems) there that protect the Fountain from any visitors. In that way the Semiotic Square creates new connections to words I wouldn't have thought of before.
Another example would be: Cold opposite to Heat. Non-cold could be something with water and non-heat could be a heartless thing (with free poetic associations). So maybe I'm sending my party towards a cold landscape, where they find a heartless thing, a water elemental, that can use the geysers in the landscape to send scorching bolts to the players. This example leans a lot of association, but it works for me, and I would like to use it.
Then we have the 31 tropes of Vladimir Propp, who researched Russian Fairy Tales in the 1920's and reduced them to several tropes that came back every time. I think this is useful because some of the tropes are almost never seen in D&D and some are put in there a lot. Basically the stories body part always comes back, until the point where the villain is defeated. But it might be fun to do something with the other tropes too.
Encounter prep tools:
This is my Encounter Prep Document, which is much clearer than the tools in the session prep.
Map just gives some room to draw a small map, Location, obstacle and goal are quite easy to fill is. Location is the place of the encounter (A cave, the forge, bridge). Obstacle is what the party needs to overcome (monster, puzzle, trap) and goal is what they need to receive (a magical item, a chest, a door).
Damage, duration and distortion control are tools from Runehammer on Youtube, measured on a d6. It basically points out how much control you as a DM have on the damage, duration of the fight and the distortion that is happening during.
Treats, Threats and Timers are also a Runehammer tool, though I changed timer into Tension. There needs to be a tension to push the players, give them a Treat (treasure or something to help overcome the obstacle with) and it's nice if there is a Threat (a monster or something that pushes the party to the limit).
Then we have some room for one or more NPCs to be in the scene and write down the consequences of the party makes it or fails. Not every fail has to be death!
So far my session and encounter prep. Hope you enjoyed it, and continue reading my blog.