What is the ideal balance between planning out an entire session of playing, complete with music scoring and conversation detailing, and winging the entire thing?

As an example, I'll cite one of the last sessions I DMed, some time ago. My group (three players) was sent from a major city to a somewhat closeby druidic circle to question them on the situation that was at hand (that is irrelevant to this question). As they traveled, around the fourth day or so, they found a cave. It was early night, so they couldn't see inside the cave much. They felt a rumble underground, and were intrigued. I had planned for most of the session, involving a giant purple worm, outside it's habitat. Since they players had a knack for investigation, and were quite curious, I was sure they'd go in the cave. However, they did not.

They went to the druidic circle, vowing to seek the cave after they returned from the circle. From this point, I was forced to improvise pretty much 80% of the session, since I had only mental notes on this part of the story. Turns out, when I asked, this was the session they enjoyed the most. It even gave me more time to further plan out the cave, and then THAT ended up being the session they enjoyed the most (I had the worm be possessed by a spoooooky parasitic fungus, related to the campaign's BBEG - a D&D Blighter [Anti-Druid of sorts]).

Rambling aside, what would you consider is the ideal balance between huge binders full of notes for each session and doing an improv every time?

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site Aroldo. Subjective questions like this one are a delicate matter in stackexchange sites. It is hard to get definite and clear answers to such questions. I'd suggest you read the FAQ and the blog post "Good subjective, bad subjective" and then revise your question to be more specific about the kind of balance you're seeking. Remember, this format isn't good for polling for ideas or opinion. You'd get higher quality answers if you asked about how to achieve the balance you want \$\endgroup\$
    – edgerunner
    Dec 3, 2012 at 14:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this will be impossible to answer 'correctly' as different GMs favour different approaches. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Dec 3, 2012 at 14:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi Arnoldol, welcome to RPG.Stackexchange.com. I've closed your question pending revisions, as @edgerunner and Phil suggested. \$\endgroup\$
    – C. Ross
    Dec 3, 2012 at 14:41

2 Answers 2


Light preparation is the better choice in my experience. The more overly detailed your notes are, the greater the chance you'll be disappointed when your players skip all that nifty material in favor of something you didn't detail at all.

In my opinion, it's better to have a little information about everything than to have lots of information on that one place you're sure the PCs will visit next. The goal here would be to have enough data on any given NPC and place to allow you to visualize how they react to the PCs and to each other, so that you can properly improvise those interactions when they come up.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Agreed (partly), but, for instance, I was 100% sure the PCs would at least investigate the cave for some while - they did not. I had to go on ideas, and not planning, for the rest of the day. While I do tend to agree with you, I can't see how prepared I should have been in this case. Should I plan out (lightly) up to three, four sessions ahead, for all possible branches? \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2012 at 14:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ That was my point - sorry I didn't convey it properly the first time. No matter how sure you are that your players will go in a certain direction, they still might go somewhere else. So it's better to have some light notes on everything than a lot of notes on one thing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Bira
    Jan 9, 2013 at 15:12

In my opinion, storyline goes first; so you have to make sure that you know your story well. Decide on what the major events will be beforehand, and have some minor ones ready to throw in for flavour.

Next most important is having a map of your players' surroundings. At least know where things are, and how many days of travel (e.g. on foot, horseback, ship) lie between locations. I think its a good idea to make those known to my players. In most cases, it's common knowledge for most characters (unless they're somewhere they don't know, of course), and it all helps to visualize the world.

Monsters, loot, et cetera can always be improvised on, if need be.

To make sure you always have enough detail to use, just make a list of more generic things you may need. Think up some standard monsters with specific traits (E.g. A one-legged orc, a blind dragon, a bat-crazy wizard on the loose).

I also prefer having a list of random NPC names. Not every innkeeper the PCs meet can be called Bob, right? ;)

Lists of other standard stuff is always handy to have lying around, e.g. tavern names (and interior maps), guilds, lords/arch-mages/other public figures, and so on...

This way, all preparation can be used and recycled at will, without any loss.

Hope this helps!

  • \$\begingroup\$ A list of names is a good idea - I really like it, and find myself at a loss when creating new NPCs because I always get stumped on names. This is sure to help. Same for tavern names (names in general!). \$\endgroup\$ Dec 3, 2012 at 14:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site Tjeerd, as I said in my comment in the question, this is an opinion based answer, answering the question asking for opinion. Please revise your answer once Aroldo fixes his question. \$\endgroup\$
    – edgerunner
    Dec 3, 2012 at 14:50

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