Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 11, 2021
Prep vs. Improv

I have been a Dungeon Master for D&D for 4 decades now. The feedback I get from my players is that they love my campaigns. However I always feel as if I could still do better and improve. One of the problems in learning how to DM is that while you can find lots of unstructured advice on YouTube and elsewhere, there is very little structured advice available. So I signed up for the Wizard of Adventure "epic adventure building plan". However, I soon realized that while that adventure building plan wasn't in any way bad, it was for a very different style of DM, and not really suited for my needs.

While of course any separation of things into two classes is fraught with borderline cases and exceptions, you can divide Dungeon Masters into two main classes: Prep vs. Improv. The Prep DMs spend much time preparing their adventures, and it shows: The adventures have prepared battle maps, miniatures or tokens for monsters, handouts and visuals aids. Improv DMs spend a lot less time preparing, and concentrate rather on creating worlds, campaign and adventure plots, with ideas jotted down as bullet points. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage of the prep method is that the result looks a lot nicer, and is better suited for players who like the tactical combat aspects of roleplaying games. The disadvantage is that if the DM spent hours to prepare a battle map and monsters for an epic encounter, that epic encounter is going to happen regardless of what the players are doing. The advantage of the improv method is more player agency; but you pay for that with gameplay details being much more sketchy. Works great for people who like "theatre of the mind" style of roleplaying, but that isn't everybody.

Now I have always been a prep kind of DM. Not only do I like tactical combat, battle maps, and miniatures; but also I consider preparing an adventure as being somewhat like "playing" D&D, and so I get more D&D time than just the twice a month sessions my group usually does. Furthermore, due to the pandemic, my usual role-playing club is closed, and me and my group are playing D&D on Roll20. A virtual tabletop platform like Roll20 is a lot more suitable for prepared D&D than it is for improvised D&D. While you could theoretically draw a battle map on the go and populate it with tokens, the system isn't really made for that, and setting things up on the fly takes some time, which causes pauses in the flow of the game.

The Wizard of Adventure plan is suited more for improv DMs. I am trying to learn something from it anyway, especially since it was a bit pricey. But it maybe isn't the best method if you are trying to run a well prepared game on Roll20.


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