The Prep Economy


Should be playing D&D instead
OK guys, my own comment on high-magic vs. low-magic in the "2e: why you think it sucks..." thread got me thinking.

This is a lot of work on the prep side. Since time & effort are finite resources the more magic you have in your setting, the more will naturally be generic. For this reason, low-magic is a hell of a lot easier to handle. You want to come up with a name, history & legends surrounding every goddamned magic item in the inventory of that 12th-level fighter, the guy who goes toe-to-toe with dragons all day? What about all the items in that magic shop (especially knowing the PCs don't have enough money to buy all of them, and some amount of that prep is a guaranteed waste)?

I sure as hell don't. But I could do it for the stuff the party finds in my 1st-6th level game where "+1 or better to hit" is a rare and frightening monster ability.
Now we like to review modules here, or at least read reviews of modules. And 'what to spend your prep time on' is an of-discussed topic around the gaming sphere. For my part, I think I have absorbed the "best practises" fairly well, yet it still takes me way longer than I'd like to write things up. So forget about how to write things for your damned kickstarter for a second here (no offense to Prince, Malrex & others who may be doing a kickstarter), and think about your home games. How much time do y'all spend on prep? What kind of things do you find really valuable to prep, or a waste of time? I'm not talking about "what to write in your room keys" which Bryce obviously has covered, but rather - what elements do you focus your efforts on? Landscapes? Cool maps? NPCs? Practising your Goblin Voice? Calligraphic handouts?

I think that the Iron Triangle applies to DMing (Fast, Cheap, Good - pick two) but what other factors can be considered? Is there a "Unified Prep Field Theory" of what to spend your time on? I'm sure we could all afford to get better at this.

Here are a few links to get us started (I'm sure many of you have read these before):
Justin knows his stuff, and most of his site is great despite his excessive love of math.
People have mentioned this guy, I have no idea if he's any good. I'm not eager to buy his book though!
Courtney has his own take as always, and has already told me I'm wrong before we get off the ground!


So ... slow work day? Every day?
I start with a map.
I decide what criteria this map should meet; what it needs to meet my needs.
I tool around with some shapes and layers in Photoshop until I create an agreeable location map (one that checks enough boxes); in my case, my first map is drafted at the most zoomed-out scale, almost always at the continental level.
From there I dot around a few sites on a zoomed-in local map, to get some ideas of the adventuring sites the campaign will be working with. I knit these sites together historically, thematically, and through narrative to come up with an overarching "situation" for the world at large, and for generating possible scenario kick-offs.
I map the party's starting area, usually a village if it's their temporary base of operations, or a battlemap for an in medias res start. You can also just skip the map and make lists of people/places/things, forging links where needed.
I prepare a few small scenarios for my groups Session 0/1 game, usually something like a hostage standoff, a murder investigation, a burglary, or a lair raid. I make tactical maps - simplistic in style, and much faster to make - for any scenario on the horizon. Usually the key players in the scenario are NPCs I randomly think up, and make note of, throughout the week, and from the scenarios factions are born and interfaced.
Then I take all the components I have, extrapolate into larger-scale schemes, develop a coherent future timeline of events (barring player interference), and generate more scenarios and adventure sites and developments as they unfold in the play world organically through sessions of gaming.


8, 8, I forget what is for
Honestly, most of my prep time is spent making tools to reduce my prep time. Like my spreadsheet that spits out an Appendix "A" dungeon element (corridor, room, stairs, etc.), complete with monsters, treasure, traps and tricks (randomly generated using material from Hack and Slash), treasure, how the treasure is hidden, and red herrings and set dressing all with the push of a button. Or my spreadsheet that lets me list NPCs and will randomly suggest personalities, wants, points of "leverage" and relationships to other NPCs for the whole roster. I've been experimenting a lot with tools to map villages quickly, but haven't found anything I really like.

Other than that, I spend time drawing or placing maps in my VTT, and building macros for tokens so the game runs smoothly. And doing conversions from Basic and 1e to 4e. Not just modules, but monsters; if I use a module with a 1e hobgoblin, I need it to present the same level of danger to the characters that it would if I was running a 1e game. Most low level 4e monsters are kind of weak, as they are intended to be fought in larger numbers. Since the rooms in Basic/1e dungeons are already unrealistically small for the number of creatures living in them, this means I either redraw the map of toughen up the monsters. And it is easier to toughen up the monsters.

But honestly the conversions take less time than the mapping, and the mapping only takes a lot of time if the designer decides to add map-spoiling tricks, and I have to figure out how to make that work when the players are actually looking at the map.

Also, lost and lots of worldbuilding that no-one will ever see. But that isn't really prep. Except for the NPCs I build, those tend to get used (and used up).

EDIT: Also, I generally dislike Slyflourish's "Lazy DM" principles. I agree with the article you linked for Justin Alexander, and the one following it. And I agree with almost everything Courtney says (about gaming, anyway), and deeply regret that he deleted most of his blog.
Last edited:


So ... slow work day? Every day?
I just grab dice and sit at the table....usually I'm a player. :D

When I do DM lately, if it's a purchased adventure, I review it thoroughly.
If it's all new--like DP, I start with an idea and keep thinking about it--then do the map. The map helps me create the 'story' and by story I mean the why, what's of the adventure. I jot a few notes....then I wing it the first adventure until I see where or what the party wants to do...then I start fleshing things out.


8, 8, I forget what is for
I do it wrong---against all the advice. It's way more work than necessary, and a lot of it doesn't get explored/used. Almost nothing is automated. I am hopeless with random tables. I type it up in LaTeX. I obsess over the look of maps and key-formats---trying to get it right. It's always late---with big gaping holes and "to do" notes.

...and I love it.

It's a great hobby. I love looking back at where we've been and all crazy notions unexplored.

Someday, I imagine, all finished and polished, I'll print out copies, illustrated out the whazoo, and give it to my (adult) kids to remember the good times, answer all the lingering questions, and help them (maybe) play someday with their own kids--if and when they get the itch.


Should be playing D&D instead
What I meant was not "how do I D&D?" but rather "what do you guys spend your time on, and how does it translate to good times?"

As a trivial example: I look at many folks' contributions to "the vault - rare & unusual stuff for the taking" with great interest. I never come up with things like that. I don't spend much time writing up magic items, because I can always go on Goblin Punch or find somebody's pdf full of really cool stuff. I never create new monsters because there are SO MANY great ones out there.

I tend to spend the most time on maps, NPCs, factions, "fitting it all together" at a high level, and trying to create neat interactive bits for the players to mess with - sort of like the classic glowing pool of water you can drink from, ability score-altering fungi, magical crystals type shit.

Honestly, most of my prep time is spent making tools to reduce my prep time. Like my spreadsheet that spits out an Appendix "A" dungeon element (corridor, room, stairs, etc.), complete with monsters, treasure, traps and tricks (randomly generated using material from Hack and Slash), treasure, how the treasure is hidden, and red herrings and set dressing all with the push of a button. Or my spreadsheet that lets me list NPCs and will randomly suggest personalities, wants, points of "leverage" and relationships to other NPCs for the whole roster. I've been experimenting a lot with tools to map villages quickly, but haven't found anything I really like.
How useful do you find these things? Any chance of sharing this stuff with the rest of us so we can try it out?


So ... slow work day? Every day?
I wrote a long response, then deleted most of

Honestly, the only thing I find useful is:
1. the map with rough notes on it.
2. "Fitting it all together". In order for me to have a good time DMing and for it to translate to good times, I must have it 95% in my head so that I can keep engaged. I need to know the purpose (or understand that there isn't one) of why a party is going somewhere, some notes on what monsters are where, rough notes of magic items--sometimes just the title is enough to spark my memory of what it will do, just the important NPCs (2-3 of them--not even their personalities, I wing those) and then I let it flow and pick up pieces I need to know more about depending on the actions of the players.

95% me looking at my players and being engaged. 5% in the books--that's what translates to a good time for me and my players.

However, city adventures is a completely different animal for me.


Should be playing D&D instead
I dont think the triangle you described is totally right. I marked the stuff thats free. This is all stuff I like, just pick one thing and use that! Dump the stuff that does not work for you.

Only spend a bunch of time on prep if you enjoy it. If preping is ass for you, play the game The Quiet Year with your group and switch to DND and adventure there and only use at the table stuff in the bottom of this post. Build off in game stuff only when you need to.

No Prep, you need litterally everything? NPCs, Dungeons, Cities, Wilderness encounters, Factions? PEOPLE WANT TO PLAY IN 2 MINS OH GOD HELP Use this its underrated af:
Let the PCs mind or yours whatever, fill in the blanks, its why the wilderlands are so good

One of the unsung contributions Gary made is to empower you to make your own stuff.
Often making your own stuff takes less time and effort, because you know it.
No one can run it better than you, its yours.

The tools I find the best for prep (semi ranked):
Maze Rats Tables 3$ but yo this shit is gold, do it up, ask a question and roll
Goblin Punch: Dungeon Checklist Free!
Jeffs Gameblog: twenty quick questions for your campaign setting Free!
Tome of Adventure Design
Yoon Suin
Build and NPC from your mind hole - Pick a dude in your past people like but you hate - put him in fantasy as lvl 1 (What does he want, who likes them, who does he hate/ fear, give them a physical tick)
D30 Sandbox and D30 Dungeon
Book of Lairs by Adventure Conquer King
The GM half of The Black Hack
Hazard Die by Necropraxis Free!
Matt Finch City Encounters
The Perioulus Wilds (I know Dungeon World story games ack help - good stuff)
Gabors Nocturnal Table
Wilderlands of High Fantasy by Judges Guild and modern with Batt in the Attic
Nod by John Stater
City State of the Invincible Overlord
Dysons Free Maps (make sure they have loops) (Filling out his dysons delves 2 has been fun for me)
donjon; RPG Tools Free!
In Cörpathium Free! Make a town and put stuff on a messenger board (good for missions in a town or megadungeon C Cambell taught me this!)
The Dungeon Dozen Free!Use when you are stuck
One Page Dungeon by watabou Village Generator by watabou Similar to some don jon stuff, pick whatever works
Save vs. Total Party Kill - D&D; Web Apps
d4 Caltrops: OSE Encounter Activity Tables (See also his 100 wilderness hexes)

With that said... In play I am currently using, if stuff stops working its gone and changed
Started with S@W Whitebox - still use the monsters
PC said why cant I use plate and a halberd?
I said you know what, your right
Went to Knave and feels good
Added the Hazard Dice from necropraxis for encounters and Init
Usage Dice for torches and rations and such
Its 1 on 1 cause 2020
Crawfords Scarlet Heroes works well for duets and slots in with little to no mind space pain
Use the tables from Maze Rats with Finches daytime city encounters and Gabors Noctural (I find these things will allow you to improve whatever you need if the PCs decide to leave early)
death and dismemberment table
carousing tables (there are a ton)
XP for spelunking - scary places maps sold to cartography people in towns
xp for throwing parties/ spending fat stacks

Honestly the easiest prep is building off stuff in play.
Last edited:


Should be playing D&D instead
My go-to resources are:
Hexographer / Worldographer
d30 Sandbox Companion
d30 DM Companion
d4 Caltrops 100 Wilderness Hexes
Kellri's Encounters Reference
Trilemma's one page adventures
John Laviolette's Sub Hex Crawls
John Laviolette's Our Infernal Neighbours
Red Tide
The AD&D 1e DMG appendices
Courtney Campbell's Treasure
Courtney Campbell Tricks, Empty Rooms, and Basic Trap Design
This "Minor Arcana Generator" from Jeremy Strandberg

Mostly, I'm pulling from random tables in these - I have the ones I want printed off in a folder.

My prep focuses on creating:

1) An overland map covering the terrain for few weeks travel in any direction but minimally detailed (I use Hexographer for this)
2) A starting area with a list of NPCs and problems (I use Red Tide for this)
3) A single hex near to the starting area that I drill into in more detail (using Sub Hex Crawl)
4) A dungeon in that hex that I custom design intended to keep the PCs busy for 2-4 sessions
5) One or more random encounter grids that I use for stocking dungeons, building out rumours, and for overland encounters. I also usually build a trap grid at the same time and use it for stocking as well.
6) A rumour and lead table that links up the locations, monster, treasures, NPCs, problems, etc. and provides clear connections between them for the PCs to follow.

Almost any time I say "list" above (like with NPCs or rumours), I try to number it and match it to a die type so I can roll randomly on it as needed.

To set up a new campaign like this usually takes around 20-30 hours of prep. Once it's going, it's much easier - I'm usually designing new adventure locations using the existing procedural generators and resources that have been developed and then a small amount of polishing to make them fit. I'd say 3-4 hours a week, detailing at least one new adventure location substantial enough to fill a session or two and filling in rumours and leads (so 8 hours of prep total for a biweekly campaign). I find filling out notes eats up the greatest amount of time (I tend to use Excel spreadsheets for each location and index cards for individual elements).

I'm mostly using either Into the Depths or Openquest to run this kind of campaign.


Should be playing D&D instead
This is great. I have some of those resources (ktrey's 100 wilderness hexes are almost singlehandedly propping up my West Marches game...), but I'll check out the rest of them. Thanks!!


8, 8, I forget what is for
I love Courtney's stuff. I incorporated most of his tables into a spreadsheet that spits out random tricks and traps when I need them.


Should be playing D&D instead
Just ordered ToAD, but I can't find City Encounters on the web --- is it superseded by ToAD?
Sweet let me know how the tome does for you!

The tome is more for adventure prep. Have 30 minutes and no idea what to do? Ask questions and roll notes onto an index card.

Gabor gave the tome the monacle of excellence for reference.

BTW Melan, how have you used the tome? Did any ideas spark themselves into your home game and/or published materials?

City encounters is a true at the table resource in all its glory.

PC: We got to the next biggest city
DM: *starts sweating

Matt Finch appears on the back of a giant eagle with City Encounters suddenly you can tell them what they see in terse evocative gold that spins into an adventure and favorite NPC.

No prep needed true gold.

I got it on LuLu. If its no longer there reach out to Mythmyre Games they will likely sell it to you direct or send a PDF !


So ... slow work day? Every day?
Yeah, city encounters is very different than toad. Think DMG city random encounters list on steroids. Very cool.

I'm not sure why its hard to find now. I was a supporter of his podcast when he started it, and he sent the PDF out to everyone, but I can't find it for sale in the usual places.


Should be playing D&D instead
Yeah, city encounters is very different than toad. Think DMG city random encounters list on steroids. Very cool.

I'm not sure why its hard to find now. I was a supporter of his podcast when he started it, and he sent the PDF out to everyone, but I can't find it for sale in the usual places.
I don't know why Finch isn't selling it anymore. A little birdie showed me the PDF but even that was a feat, I had to ask around some. Leechers, PM me with an email address if your ratio is good.


8, 8, I forget what is for
Well, a setback for both would be an encounter, or inclement weather. Maybe still winds for ships.

Percep for water would be wreckage, bodies, abandoned ships or lifeboats, a sail in the distance, animals that are found only near land/far out to sea, or an island; for air it would mostly be things spotted on the ground. Maybe disgruntled crew, signifying the possibility of mutiny.

Fatigue would be use of water, rations or materials required for ship maintenance. An outbreak of disease, like scurvy. Reduction in morale.

Locality would be shifts in weather, mostly. Or entering the territory of a different maritime/surface or aquatic/aerial power.

Expiration - end storm, end of still winds, end of particularly favourable winds, end of other advantages.

Advantage - favourable winds increase speed, expiration of negative effects, spot island when running out of fresh water, running into school/flock of valuable fish/birds.


Should be playing D&D instead
Deleted from Dropbox but the whole text is here on the blog.

What would you say for the six catagories for Ship travel @squeen ?


8, 8, I forget what is for
Hmm...ship travel. I haven't done that yet. I've established a port-town in my campaign called, oh-so-cleverly (not!), Seaside, that is constantly being referred to when it comes to trade and distant rumors---but the party hasn't traveled there. It is the biggest city on the continent, and the gateway to ocean a d v e n t u r e !

So, my wild stab would be:
  1. Setback.......Big Storm/Encounter (use some other tables)
  2. Fatigue.......No winds (reduced travel rate + exhaustion if rowing is possible)
  3. out of food/water/sail-cloth etc.
  4. change
  5. Percept.......sight land, ship, or sea creature in distance
  6. Advantage.....wind at your back, move at 1.5x speed
If and when we do get to sea-travel, I really want to include Chainsaw's Lost Treasure of Atlantis. There are a few AS&S formating hiccups (as Bryce points out and I totally agree with), but otherwise it is exactly the type of product I hope to produce some day. Clean beautiful maps. Complex topology that begs to be explored. Crazy factions. Gonzo tech. I absolutely love it. Chainsaw is my D&D brother by another mother.