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I will be DMing Storm King's Thunder in about two months. Me being a first-time DM and my players only having played a year ago or never before.
The special thing is that we will be in a flat for a week and plan to play as much D&D as we can during this time.
How do I best prepare for this?

I want to make use of the fact that Storm King's Thunder is quite sandboxy. It seems to me that usually when running sandbox campaigns, the DM has at the end of a session a good feeling of where the players will want to go next session and thus is able to prepare for that location. I will not have much time between sessions though, because we will be playing most of the time.

How can I prepare in advance without railroading too much?

I intend to have a few encounters ready which would fit anywhere. What else can I do?

Clarifications:

How much free time will you have between sessions? You say "not much" in the question, but that's a detail that seems more important than something that vague. – HellSaint

I assume that we will have a few hours per day when some of us are cooking or buying food or other neccessities. Also, we will probably not be playing before 10am or so. So I should be able to take an hour or two for preparation per day.

How worried are you about following the book as it is? – HellSaint

As a new DM, I feel like I wouldn't be very good at improvising everything. I hope that we will stick to the main story arc, but I'm fine with changing up things as neccessary or as fitting. If the players want to go and explore something, fine by me. I think it's easier for me to make the story compelling if I don't have to make one up on the fly.

What are you more worried about - preparing encounters, loots and these things or remembering the story, NPCs personalities and locations? – HellSaint

Encounters and loot, I can easily prepare in advance. I'm more concerned about NPC personalities, the story and most importantly about the possibility that players want to investigate something that I just couldn't have had the idea they would. E.g. if they react to a pillaged city by going to the next large city to inform them.

A final question: how much do you want to play specifically SKT? – HellSaint

I have bought the campaign book and like how open it is, that it offers many possibilities of roleplaying instead of just hack'n slash and that there seem to be many magic items. But I'm not too bound to SKT apart from my insecurities about improvising.

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I have not played nor DMed SKT. I have some experience with sandboxes, though, both homebrew and published. For published sandboxes, I would say most of my DMing time was with Curse of Strahd, so my advices might be a little off for SKT. I hope we get better campaign-specific answers.

For actually learning the content needed for a session from a published adventure, I would usually take roughly the same time as the session, e.g. 4 hours preparation for 4 hours session.

With your time restraint, it seems more like a 8 hour session for 2 hours preparation. From my experience, that is simply not enough time to learn what you need. It means you will need to learn it with a lot of antecedence. For that, some things I usually already do, but are even more important for you.

"Study" the campaign

That means read the whole campaign before starting play. Use whatever methods you usually use for learning things - make notes, simulate yourself speaking as an NPC, tell the story of the campaign to someone else that is not going to play.

By actually learning the campaign before the time, when you play it and have the 1-2 hours for "preparation" you mentioned, you can just review what you already know - remember some details and all that. You won't actually need to learn that again, just like you don't need to learn the combat rules because you already know them.

In particular, make sure you know well the main story. As you mention yourself, you want to stick to the main story arc. Then focus on learning that.


When I asked about strictly following the book, I was mostly thinking about NPCs, side quests and locations. It seems you major concern about following the book is with following the main story, so, about everything else

Don't worry too much.

If an NPC is described in the books as the funny, joking one, and then you forget it and play him as the grumpy and sad one, it is fine (unless he was like the Court Clown). If a location said the market is in the center of the city and you placed it in the east corner, it is fine (unless that distance is mechanically important somehow). If you should have given that important piece of information and you forgot... it might be fine. Worst case, players lose some time, hopefully still having fun.

Remember: the main goal of TTRPGs is to have fun, you and everyone else. This is a general concept that applies to essentially every RPG problem. Even though I told you to "study" the campaign, you are not playing it to pass a test. It's fine if you make mistakes. Your players probably will make mistakes as well. Have fun.


About my third question: the thing is, while loots and encounters are easy to prepare (as you yourself said and I agree), they are the things that actually need preparing. Creating a balanced encounter on the run without breaking completely the pace is a nearly impossible task. Make sure you have those actually prepared.

NPC personalities, locations and everything else are easier to improvise. You mention you don't feel secure for that. Well, first, read the section above. Second, read the first section. It won't be a problem when they want to go to the next large city because you already read about the next large city and you know the important locations and NPCs that will be there. You probably won't remember if that was the Stonehill Inn or the Blue Water Inn, but that's fine. You know there is an Inn with an important NPC that will give an important quest.


It might get overwhelming

As I said, I have not played SKT, but I do read the internet. Perkins puts the campaign at 100s of hours, Mearls concurs with 20-25 sessions of 6 hours for a total of 120-150 hours, and the Internet often states similar times of 100 to 200 hours.

That might be too much for you to learn and remember. In a week, you probably won't even finish the campaign, even if you play 8 hours a day for 7 days, that's still half the stated expected time. That means you don't need to actually learn everything, in particular the end-game.

Unfortunately, without having played the specific campaign, I can't offer further advice on exactly what chapters/sections are the most important for you, and what chapters are likely to not get played in your gaming week.

By the way, my question about playing another campaign was just to make sure. In particular, I would personally suggest playing something that you could finish during that week, i.e., a ~50 hours campaign. That's not a too important suggestion, though.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks! I am aware that there's no way we could finish the campaign in this week - I expect to maybe get to level 5, which would be the first chapter of SKT. \$\endgroup\$ – lucidbrot Jun 13 '18 at 20:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I wish this answer addressed some of the off-book issues that come up with running many days of long sessions: scheduling breaks, keeping one's creative juices flowing on day 3/hour 20 (!), the relative importance of system mastery when playing "compressed," &c. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jun 13 '18 at 20:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60: Sounds like the beginnings of your own quality answer! ;) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 13 '18 at 20:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 Indeed, I focused fully in the "gaming" aspects. If I would address the points you mention, I would probably add another answer myself, as I feel this one is already loaded and has a clear focus. As V2Blast said, and I agree, if you are willing, I'd love to see another answer on that. As well as one with campaign-specific details. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 13 '18 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ As always, I would love to know reasons for random downvoting. (Welp, if it has a reason it's not random, but well) \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 14 '18 at 0:07
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In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Remember this quote, and you will survive your first sandbox campaign!

Congratulations on performing your first time as DM for a group. Good idea to use a campaign book. The material is mostly there for you, and it has been tested for balance and excitement.

The only concern is with any sandbox environment, and that is preparing for the unknown and unexpected. Below are some tips to keep in mind, but there are others that provide hours of help on the subject. Here's a short video from Matt Mercer on preparing that would help.

If you have only 2 hours for a ~8 hour session, follow some guidelines to how you plan:

  1. Keep pen and paper ready! When you do have to provide extra material that is not in the campaign guide, such as the name of a npc or town, make sure you record it. Also, any decisions that you or the players have made which you feel will be brought up again, make sure you record it! On your next planning session, that information will be valuable in determining how to proceed with the next session.

  2. Don't plan to create concrete, fixed material. For example, don't flesh out every npc or town/dungeon that you think that the players could run into as side quests. Instead, refer to tables and lists to have a bunch of information to dynamically build on the spot. For example, make a list of npc names, or pull them from online. Have this list available so that if you need to think of a name on the fly, simply pull from that list and go from there.

Also keep in mind that a short research mission into the internet can help to find the tables that you want and/or need. Here's one that helps with making NPCs.

  1. Use the Dungeon Master Guide The DMG has most of the tables that you'll need to use on the fly to dynamically create content. This includes something simple as characteristics of a NPC, all the way to making an impromptu adventure if you find yourself in the need of a side quest.

    4.Study the campaign material This is important, but also note that it is not number one on this list. Yes, you're going to DM for Storm King's Thunder, but since it is a sandbox, know that you will not likely need all of the material. Especially right away. In your week up to the marathon, focus on the main story flow. Then, use your planning time before sessions to look at the extra material and quests that will likely come up soon. Again, focus on how the extra material is connected to the main story. Even if the players want to go into material that you haven't researched extensively, having an understanding on how it ties to the main story will help provide a compass.

    5.Plot hooks Finally, planning plot hooks will be the best way to keep the party focused, and guide them back to the campaign if they start to stray. The campaign material will provide several already, and you can use those to model additional ones if you feel they will be necessary in your planning for the next session.

Always remember the key golden rule: Have fun. Lastly, if you ever find yourself having trouble following the golden rule, don't be afraid to take an extra break!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your opening quote is gold. (Having written a few plans of the sort Ike was talking about, painful truth is true). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 14 '18 at 2:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ ^ Any one who has DM'ed a couple of times will know this pain. I myself wrote an adventure where the party just exited dwarven roads in the mountains. They had two choices: One road north to one kingdom, one road south to another kingdom. You know what my party choose? To go straight ahead into hundreds of leagues of uncharted forest... The sandbox struggle = real \$\endgroup\$ – as.beaulieu Jun 14 '18 at 3:37
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Now that this week is over, another few insights from myself in addition to the other answers.

My Background

I've not played much before and never DM'd. But I have watched a few hundred hours of D&D streams (High Rollers, Heroes & Halfwits), as well as Matt Colville's Youtube Playlist "Running the Game".
I'm not recommending any new DM with only two months or so left before playing to start this way, but since I had that knowledge beforehand, I already knew the rules and how the game works. If nobody in your group has ever played, including you, then it's probably very helpful to listen to some podcast of experienced players, just to get a feel for it.

Mental Preparation

First of all, realize that you cannot really fuck this up. As long as you're somewhat prepared, your players will be understanding if you need to look something up.
Also, realize that unpredicted things will happen and that the players share part of the storytelling. I expected there to be way more unexpected player behaviour though.

Actual Preparation

Get the stat blocks together
I was reading through the campaign book and whenever a creature appeared, I pasted its stat block from the monster manual onto some A4 sheet together with all the other stat blocks for the same location. (I could share my preparation for SKT, but this is useful in general: I almost never had to look up things in the Monster Manual.

Bring a Laptop
I bought the hardcover book for easy reading, but I also brought a laptop with me, with a PDF version on it. It makes looking things up easy if you can just ctrl+F your search term. Also, the PDF allowed me to continue reading while commuting by train.
OneNote proved itself useful as a note-taking tool, since it allows you to search even the text in pasted images.
WiFi was valuable, but not essential if you already have open what you need. In my case, mostly donjon and roll20 website pages for the weapons overview and some rules I knew I would have to look up again.

Create Player Characters in advance
At first I didn't plan to do this, but my players suggested to do that, and it's an amazing idea:

  • You have time to incorporate them into the world
  • You can tell them some knowledge or secrets about the setting that their characters would know, but that are not essential, and that immerse them more.

    Monk from Waterdeep
    Your hometown used to be protected by the "Force Gray", but only when the government saw no better solution. Since they were known for collateral damages, people usually took the appearance of the frost giant Harshnag, their most recognizable member, as an indicator that the area was about to become a warzone.

    Waterdeep is ruled by the Masked Lords, whom nobody else knows the identity of. Their public face is the Open Lord, currently a Lady called [...]

    You get the gist. I wrote such a text with 3-4 things for every player, Mixing random trivia with reasons for them to join up or to be heading towards the place where the campaign starts, and with things that might later come up and would be more impressive if they already knew about it.

  • It can take the players way longer to create a character than anticipated. It took my players two days of sitting together, instead of the anticipated 3-4 hours (including explaining the game).
  • It gives them time to think about how their character is supposed to be. And that makes the game more than just playing strategically. This is something they mentioned when I asked afterwards what they enjoyed most.

Have a session zero
Know in advance what to discuss there. Most importantly for people you already know well seems to be to set their expectations for the game.
I told them for example that they must create a character that wants to adventure and to teamwork, and also that it is very possible that a character dies and that there can be things that are stronger than them.
"If you die because I misbalanced something, I'll somehow try to safe you. If you die because you're stupid, that's not my problem."

Set everything up as a test run
Does your GM screen stand on its own? Do you have enough space for your dice, your book, your laptop and a paper for taking notes?

Think about Maps
If you're in the same situation as I was, you won't have a printer available. Do you need to preprint some maps? Which places are suitable for theater-of-the-mind play (which my players preferred!)?
I have printed a bunch of generic maps from the internet, but not used a single one.

As we're already talking about the missing printer: Bring spare character sheets in case some get theirs dirty.

Make sure the players are prepared
The first fight, the party was almost wiped (none actually died) because the druid procrastinated thinking about their spells and thus they didn't have healing ready. (Sure, that wasn't the only reason. But it bothered me. Next time, I'll check that in advance.)

Have a few generic encounters ready
I prepared a few puzzles and wilderness encounters that I can throw in anytime if the players get so far off-track that I have nothing prepared. Haven't used those yet, but it provides peace of mind.

SKT specifically

There's a nice guide and a similar guide on the dmsguild which helped me immensely: Firstly I read those to get an overview, secondly I started reading the campaign book page by page.
We haven't finished chapter one in this week that we were playing, so I never had to take some time to prepare more than what I already had. Which is everything up to the start of chapter four - that is definitely overkill. But if you have the time, reading as much as you can of the campaign allows you to improvise, figure out motives for the NPCs and have stuff ready in case the players go somewhere else.

SKT's set-up is great since every location on the map has a short description. I showed my players a spoiler-free version of the map in the book (which I found on reddit) which increased the sense of "This is open-world." by much!

The "Week"

If you're in the same situation as I and have a week of holiday set aside to play with friends, here's how our time in that week was used:

First day
We arrived at about 17:00 and had to go buy some food. Did not play much then.

Usual day
We slept in and played from ~12:00 to ~00:00. Some days we started earlier or stayed up longer.
Keep in mind that it takes time to cook, eat, and maybe go out for a drink in the evening or go shopping again when food/snacks go out.

Last day
We had to clean the rented house and hop on the train before midday, so we didn't play then.
Playing in the train was an idea that came up, but would have been very difficult unless I as the DM would have improv'd everything - not enough space for all my stuff.

In between, one friend was occupied with other stuff for a day. So in the end, we only actually played on 5 days, and not much on one of them.

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