How Do YOU GM Smart?

I love GMing, but that doesn’t mean I love every aspect of GMing. Frankly some parts of the job—I’m looking at you “session prep”—suck.

I’m always looking for ways to improve my GMing. Essentially, I want to reduce the amount of time I spend prepping for the session while making the session itself more awesome. I also want to be a better GM during the session.

YOU Give the Advice

I spend a lot of time on this blog giving GM advice. This week, I thought it would be fun to ask for your tips and tricks. How do you get through session prep quickly? What tricks do you use to make your games run smoothly? Let me—and everyone else who read this article—know, in the comments below!

Help me make my game easier to prepare and run, and more awesome to experience!

(If I get enough comments, I’ll compile them into another blog post so everyone can easily benefit from the accumulated GM Wisdom of my readers).


Published by


Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

24 thoughts on “How Do YOU GM Smart?”

  1. We play our sessions once a month. Giving us a full month to prep. But to help reduce the scope of what I need to prep, I prompt the players (via our group texts) in the build-up to the session with tidbits and story hooks. That way I hope their attention is a little more focused the story at hand and do not veer off on tangents that I am unprepared for.

  2. 1. Get a plan from your players at the end of every session, know their intentions so that you can plan accordingly.
    2. If you think of something, write it down so that you can dump an interesting scenario or challenge in their path no matter where they’re headed.
    3. Know your world so intimately so that any questions can be answered, every direction has content, and anything they mention or ask that you haven’t prepared for, you can adlib reasonably well (just make sure to write that down too).
    4. Steal often, steal smart.

  3. I like to prepare A6-sized cards before the session, folded in half and containing an NPC / opponent’s picture on one half and their statistics on the other. I fold these over my DM screen when the character meets the PCs. The players can easily recognize and visualise the NPC, and I have easy access to their stats when needed – and it takes up none of the precious space behind my screen.

    1. That’s a fancy idea. I might give it a try myself. Makes it maybe more personal to the players as well.

    2. I agree, this is a great idea. For the NPC pictures themselves, do you have a favorite source of artwork, or do you create it yourself? I’m certainly no artist, and stick-figure portraits probably aren’t going to get the job done.

      Also, weren’t you the individual that wrote the recent post about using scratch-off, laminated maps? That was also an ingenious technique!

      1. Hi Eric,
        For our current campaign (Curse of Strahd), I use the art from the book, on the Ravenloft wiki, and whatever else I can find (I’m no gifted artist either). I then use Powerpoint to paste the pictures and stats in an A4-sized presentation. Then it’s just a matter of printing out and cutting up.
        And thanks for your kind words – I indeed came up with the scratch-off maps a few weeks back. I’m so fond of using them myself that I simply had to share. Creighton was kind enough to allow me to do so here.
        Happy gaming!


  4. I like to prepare blocks of text with the results of things like Knowledge or Decipher Script checks – anything that a PC would know only by making a check. Then, if a PC succeeds, I can copy/paste that text block to them in a private message and they can be the one to tell it to the rest of the party. Makes the players feel more important and gives them a little extra reward for doing well on a check.

  5. 1. Prepare the encounters in one spreadsheet. Have the monsters listed with all the needed tidbits on (HP, AC and notes on special info) and also the PCs. So you’ll be always ready to start with initiative and have everything available.
    2. Make a spreadsheet or Evernote or Word doc or whatever with ideas you come up on the fly everyday. You’ll be able to come up with something every time you are in a rough spot (and this includes in game and out of game situations).
    3. Always think about the big picture. It might help if you have a doc or post-it or whatever with listed story lines and campaign goals.
    4. Take quick notes in the session about stuff you find interesting, even minor ones. Even the smallest thing might spark a new adventure!
    5. Use tables. Either make your own or use pregens from other sources.
    6. Always have the PCs’ character sheets available. You can either tailor encounters according to their specific powers and weaknesses as also keep track of special things they might have in their possession. Finally, their traits alone can be hooks for more adventures.
    7. Don’t be afraid to steal ideas. Use whatever resource available, from TV shows, movies to published modules.
    8. Don’t be afraid to improvise. Even if your idea is stupid, use it. If you have used points (1) to (7), it most certainly didn’t.
    9. Finally, after each session make random notes about how it went. Make a quick evaluation of ideas, mechanics, whatever you used. Make a quick evaluation about your GMing. This instantly makes you a better GM than the one you were at the previous session.

  6. Microsoft One-Note! Learned this from How to be a great game master, but it is the best tool a gm has not just for note taking but for world building. You can make big tabs, such as a continent, but then you can make smaller more specialized ones within the tab such as plants, towns and dungeons. If you are not using this I highly recommend you go check it out.

  7. This idea as inspired by Donald Featherstone’s campaign journals. I grab a notebook of graph paper. The last two pages become my gm screen. I can draw the dungeon right on the page, add wandering monster tables and short notes. If rooms require more descriptions or longer treasure lists, the following pages can be used.

  8. I use a lot of Software (Syrinscape and Realmworks mainly), but what really saves me a lot of time is that I prepare black plastic Cards with the names of the characters and NPCs/Monster. That way when we have a fight, I have everyone roll for initiative and just place the Cards in the order of the initiative (noting the ini-value on the Card). It makes Combat alot faster!

  9. Just like improv, always say ‘yes.’ With the caveat, ‘unless it breaks the plot.’ Even then its fairly easy to say ‘yes, but….’

  10. We run very sandbox-y so I try to prep general elements that can plug in anywhere…

    *3-4 pertinent clues/hooks to push things along if need be
    *3-4 encounters worth of creatures/mooks/baddies
    *a few initiative rolls for the baddies
    *a few NPCs with tags (motivations, destinations, etc)
    *a few vessels/vehicles/buildings if appropriate (new town or Starport for instance)
    *several rolls on Mythic-style interpretive tables for improvising situations, reactions, etc
    *check the ripples: is anything in the larger world happening that will affect the session?… probably so I prep a little of that or at least make some notes

    Takes about half an hr and usually is more than enough to get up and running right away and keep things humming along.

    1. I like this! Half an hour of prep like this nets you a lot of play time at the table – and it saves time that would be wasted looking things up during the game.

  11. All of the well thought out answers basically the same thing. Clearly we are all of a like mind. So I would just say for an in depth answer read the comments by Em.Ti. and for the short version read the comment by Joel Smith but if you take anything away from this discussion it would be what they both list as number 1: Preparation. That is the most important thing. As a bonus I would also suggest that you follow Joel Smith’s number 4: Steal often, steal smart.

  12. I also do down time, purchasing, crafting, etc and in-between story arc actions and such using FB group or Private Messaging. I prefer to roll the random encounters in advance and write some descriptive text usually using pre-written scenics, like those from Raging Swan. If i have the time I will pre-roll initiative for the opponents and pre-roll certain perception checks so that I can just describe what happens smoothly.

  13. As a pastor, I understand the importance of self care, that is, giving myself time and space to breath and relax. As a DM, I totally missed that lesson for a lot of years.

    The two most important lessons I learned/tactics I developed for DMing smart stem from the need to care for myself and the recognition that it’s my hobby -my space to relax and have fun- too.

    First, when it was time to switch campaigns, I used to ask the question “What do you (the players) want to play?” This often lead me to run games I wasn’t interested in running or even playing. Then one of the members of my group said, “Run what you want to run.” That dimple change “Here’s what I want to run” instead of “What do you want me to run”, kept my energy and interest up.

    Second, I din’t run all the time. I step make and make sure others run what they want to run too. It gives me space to breath, time to plot the next game and time to get excited about the story I want to tell.

  14. Prep is key. The adventure should be challenging in either a mechanical [read: traps] or encounters [old foes in new clothes or new beasts altogether}.
    Know the flyer[s] goals and spice the adventure with enough [spice] to keep their interest.
    Expect the unexpected but be prepared to meet it with a twist of your own.
    Rules-Laywers are to be met with Terrasque-level appellate-judge rule judgement
    And if the Bard requests “Autumnal” mead, just say “Dilly, dilly” and get it over with


  15. Do I GM smart? Well, I suppose that would depend on who you ask, lol.
    In the longest group I ever referred for I was told I was a great story teller. But rules wise my style was pretty laissez-faire. I actually don’t do alot of prep, and when I do alot of prep my games tend to drag a bit. I’m better at “off the cuff” game mastering.

  16. Love it! We d something similar but ask the player to respond. That gets them even more involved and also let’s them be a part of building the world. It could be “what was your impression of an NPC or setting?” or “What are you doing in this ‘downtime’ between action?”

  17. I normally don’t “hate” adventure prep”; however, there are times I dislike it more than others. Very occasionally, I put pen to paper (yes, I’m that old that I still use those archaic tools) and the adventure writes itself, and two hours later I have a fully written and statted out with any needed maps drawn with my trusty graph/hex paper.
    Then, there’s the rest of the time….
    Sometimes, there’s times I draw a complete blank, and no amount of flipping through my notebook filled with adventure starters, pregens, old adventures, or my bookcase gets the grease cleared out of my brain….
    When that happens, I look past Dungeons and Dragons for the answer. There is an infinite amount of material around us every day that we can use to design adventures.
    I saw flipping through the television and came across a popular movie about a man’s daughter who was kidnapped from under her bed. I thought about it, twisted things around, and the next thing I know, I had an adventure where a resistance group from within the castke kidnapped the teenage daughter of a minor noble.
    I was talking with a friend about a search party we were involved with in the 80’s that involved a young girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom and killed. That turned into dark elves kidnapping townsfolk to use as slaves.
    The song “Stairway to Heaven” became an adventure called “Stairway to the Gods” where the party had to look for and explore the story of an ancient Tower of Babel set up.
    Every one of these adventures started from a decidedly non-medieval story.

Leave a Reply to Max Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.