Ask A Fox

How many Hours of Prep per Hour of play is Common?

Ppffftt…. Honestly if I am focused I try to do at least 2 hours of prep a week for each game, but that is a low number. Each hour of game play I do an hour - hour and a half of prep work depending on how much detail work I am trying to work out ahead of time. My prep list can be long with different things. That could be re-reading the module or “where we left off” notes. Prepping maps and making sure character tokens are good to go. Making sure I touch base with players every now and then is also important. I try not to over-prep what my players are going to do, I try to have a list with bullet points of possible things my players will encounter or do. I am not an improv only dm so I do as much pre- planning prep work as I can. Brand new DM’s, switching to a new system, switching to a new campaign, adding a new character, those things also factor in a new hour or two for prep. My shortest prep would be 2 hours, my longer preps go to 6-8 hours. If you are writing a game from scratch or doing homebrew more prep time will need to be accounted for.

How Much of your Game is Written by you Exclusively and How Much is Adapted?

It has been a while since I’ve done a fully homebrew game just because 100% homebrew takes a lot of time that I don’t currently have. I would say that I use about 50% of what I use is from a written campaign/adventure book or module and the other half is from my brain. Of the 50% I use from a written campaign/adventure book I do adapt a lot. I don’t think I have it in me to run something word for word ever. This Fall or next Spring I am going to build world building for a homebrew campaign and that will be all me, but that adds usually an extra 4 hours of prep time a week and I don’t have that at the moment to dedicate to making a good quality game.

What Piece of Media is Most Like Your Game?

Twitter. My players love to focus on memes, make great quotes, but ideas and what we’re doing can change as quickly as what is trending. Also random things can happen that we aren’t sure why it happened that we just let go and move on.

What Media Helps Build/Inspire Your Game?

Pinterest and Twitter: There are a lot of great TTRPG community members that come up with short prompts to help get the brain going on adventure or encounter ideas. There are a lot of TTRPG family members on Twitter that help build each other up on Twitter and have some great collab pieces that act as inspiration.

Books and movies: I used to read and watch movies a whole lot more than I currently get to do now. Sometimes there are some inspirations that come from texts or shows I have watched.

Honestly I get a lot of my ideas randomly. I usually need to keep a small notebook in my purse because I never know what things are going to strike me as inspiring or give me a TTRPG idea. Random things I listen to, things that I see, things my students say all can give me a good laugh and get me to have a "what if..." ttrpg moment.

What Themes and Emotional Beats are you Trying to Hit with your Campain's Story?

Well that depends on the campaign. Most of my one shots are horror or occult themed because it’s my favorite. Not all my campaigns will have the same thing. Saltmarsh is highly pirate/high seas adventure but has backgrounds with some political intrigue, a missing family (and hopefully reunion for the future), and a character that is wanting to fly under the radar that will shape the game and world differently than if I ran the adventures from just the book. Whereas my Thursday crew is doing Storm King's Thunder and hitting some rogue/underbelly city stuff, my Tuesday is going through The Tyranny of Dragons and has some very different and very humorous quirks getting played out.

I love working with player backstories and I try to give each player a chance to do a character arc. Sometimes I work on creating role play and encounters that may grip at players and have emotional impacts. My favorite emotional moment was with one of my Pathfinder campaigns. I had the group magically appear (it was Reign of Winter and the party was using Baba Yaga’s Hut. I may have dm controlled where it went) in the Mana Wastes, at the bottom of the stairs where one of my player’s entire family/culture was slaughtered. Having the whole party experience the heaviness of visiting the memorial and walking through where this player first started his whole adventure was quite emotional for everyone at the table. It was not what that particular player was expecting for his backstory arc but he was quite pleased and a lot of fantastic RP came from that emotional experience.

Hi! I'm a newer dm, wondering if I'm doing combat right, because my players breeze through. Is the ruffians hp 16, or 3d8 plus 3? And when they hit, it's 5 or 1d6 plus 2? Thanks!

Good question. All of the creatures you can decide to go with the given hit points (16 here) or roll the dice. If you have time or prepared ahead of time I like rolling the hit points so each enemy has a slight differentiation. The same thing with weapons, you can either do the 5 for quick combat or roll dice. The rolling of dice allows the weapons to do a variety of damage and opens roll play (high rolls were impressive hits, low damage rolls are slight cuts or the armor protected from the most damage). I personally always roll the dice for damage in combat and try to roll the dice for the hit points as well. The problem with using the same hit points for all the same creature is it can take away from the game. For example, if you have 5 goblins of only 7 hp it's really easy for players to figure out what that specific number is. If you instead roll the 2d6 hit points for each goblin the players will have more natural encounters with creatures 2 hp -challenging 12 hp. When I did my rolling I had (4, 5, 7, 9, and 7). With that number some players will still one shot some of the creatures but at least one will be more of a challenge.

** The question came with an image from Lost Mine of Phandelver.

What do you do with players who continuously call out or cancel last minute?

I had to implement a house table rule of if you miss three games (whether that is 3 games in a row or you have three last minute cancelations) you can not come to my table any more. This is part of the house table rules that my players know about and agree to when joining my campaigns. It was only two people at my original 5e table that needed this rule (one of them did end up needing a conversation and left my table). The problem with smaller tables is that the rest of the party doesn't always want to go on with out their missing party members and I disliked last minute canceling when 2/6 players didn't show up. Now I have a policy that if someone can't make it we reschedule 2 weeks ahead of time for a different date or we run a one shot instead so everyone can still get their ttrpg time in.

How do you create one-shots?

A good rule of thumb is every hour of gameplay is about 1-2 encounters worth of play. Make sure that you have a concise plot with a clear beginning and end goal and then fill the middle part with encounters that make sense to get there. Don’t focus on traveling between places and be ready to cut out pieces in the middle to adjust for time. The end needs to be satisfying and there should be a focus on the fun.

I always end up overwriting with too many ideas. Sometimes your game play can turn into 2 or 3 shot games if your players are willing to continue, but that is also a conversation that you need to have prior to running the game.

As for coming up with themes or ideas I enjoy. Many of my one shots have horror or occult themes as they are my favorite to create. There are also posts on Pinterest and Instagram of images that strike my imagination, game hook ideas where I write the story based on a sentence or question, or if there was a video game/movie/book that I got inspired from I sometimes write one shots based on those as well.

What do you do to prepare before a session?

Each DM you ask will come up with their own ritual of things that they will do. I personally like to listen to lofi/instrumental fantasy music and go over a few things. 1. I review what happened in the last session and look at the map if it's still up. I tend to not prep digital maps until the day of for my long going campaigns so it can help refresh my memory. 2. I review quickly the chapter of the module that we are in and any notes that I may have taken to remind me of connections, homebrew character arcs or other important things. 4. I set up the maps for the game if I can prep them ahead of time. 4. I update any character info on my glyph character cards (ac, passive perception, spell dc, etc) to make sure that I have the most up to date info so I'm not wasting time asking them what their ac is every round. 5. I make up weather if they are doing trips across land and create a d6 chart of possible encounters that they have (1 of the options being nothing happens).6. I try to identify a good cliff hanger/ natural end points for when our session time has come to the end to make sure that we have a satisfying end with something to look forward to for the next game.

What are your thoughts on experience system vs. group leveling?

I do a mix of both with 5th edition. I have lots of players at my table so traditional splitting the experience equally amongst the players doesn't give them the same xp that the modules say they should be getting by the end of a chapter. I do still give the experience at the end of each session that they ended but when they do major events or encounter bbeg or do a series of tasks then I do feel better with saying you all reached level X please set your xp to this number. With Pathfinder I use the experience system since the group size didn't have as much as an effect.

What advice would you give a new DM with new to the game players?

Have fun!! When teaching new players what I like to do is a session zero which goes over character building together and basic rules. If time allows at the end of that session zero we do a pre- game where players get a small "Help wanted" board and they get to pick one job they want to do as a team. This session zero job isn't for xp rather to test out mechanics for new players, make sure players work well together and for players to have a test run on their character. If there is something wonky with a character build or if they notice that something in their gear/spell list isn't just right it gives them a chance to fix it before that first session of the real campaign. The idea of help wanted board is that it gives your party about an hour or two of play to do exploration, combat, and some roleplay time. As a DM it is a chance to see how your players are going to roleplay their characters and what weapons/spells they like to utilize. It allows you to prepare encounters and customize things to better fit your players.

Do you recommend a Session Zero?

I 100% support and recommend a session zero. It is such an important time for a DM to make sure their players are ready and properly prepared for a campaign, its a time for players to make characters that complement each other and to make sure that there are no surprises (like an unplanned party of all sorcerers) when the first session arrives. It's when I give an introduction to the campaign, give players my expectations and for them to discuss what they want out of the game.

What was the first character you ever played?

There are two answers for this. The first character I played was a halfling nick-named "Stubs". It was DM Bork's character that I took over when I first started playing AD&D with his family. He was a Thief/Cleric. My first character that I created was a half-elf druid named Vulpe. She had a really cool owl familiar named Moonie that was great for scouting and sending messages.

What is your feelings on familiars? Are they too op?

No, I don't think they are to overpowered. If they are done right they can be an amazing boon to have. I think the problem is a lot of people treat familiars like they are a second playable character rather than a link or extension to the character that has the familiar. As a DM, I would not recommend having a familiar based character until you are well versed in the Table Top RPG you are a part of. It can be twice the work running characters and familiars but if done correctly can be quite fun.

My 5e groups have had two players with familiars. The druid used her pseudodragon familiar to the groups advantage using the limited telepathy for scouting and keen senses for looking for specific things. The wizard in another group used his find familiar spell to his advantage using the weasel and spider forms to be excellent scouts and help solve puzzles (sometimes not even on purpose).

A main thing to remember is familiars are supposed to be something precious to a character, an extension/friend/companion. Familiars are not necessarily built to be a tank for your character. They take damage just like everyone else and I have seen familiars get ripped to shreds or killed due to poor playing.

What do you do about murder hobos?

I have played at the table and dm'd for a fair amount of murder hobos. Unless you are with a group where everyone has agreed to that type of play and only that type of play it can really wreck the story and fun time of everyone else at the table. The first step is to have an honest conversation with everyone privately about what they want out of the story/game. If everyone wants to murder hobo, then its best to keep your fun rp and puzzles for other groups. If there is only one or two murder hobos then sitting with them and talking strategies of how they can utilize their character to still smash stuff without loosing the other important things of the game. If they don't change after a few games (I gave mine 3) then the conversation of having that player leave the group should happen. It is hard, especially if you are playing with friends, but it is important that everyone at the table is having fun, because that is what ttrpg is about.

How did you become a DM?

The first time I became a DM was for Pathfinder First Edition. DM Bork was looking to switch from dm to player side and I wanted to take up the mantle. I honestly wasn't interested in running D&D and I liked all of the extra options and choices that Pathfinder had. I started with a small group of players from Bork's family and went from there. Next I started asking my friends if they would be interested.

D&D 5e has a completely different story. DM Bork was a part of an online group as a player and having lots of fun with his fellow characters. After a month of poor choices by their DM and the players planning on quitting I offered to adopt their group and let them keep playing. I went out and bought my first Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide from a game shop and that started my first weekly gaming group with 5th edition. Three years later half of that group still is with us for another campaign and I now run 3 bi weekly 5e groups.