The Architect DM: Last Minute Planning

Charrette is a word that most likely means nothing to you, unless of course you studied Architecture or Design in school then it is a word that can mean quite a lot and the emotions it brings up vary widely from person to person. Charrette is a word used among architecture students to describe a design crunch/cramming session that derives from the French word for “cart”. The term became popular because schools in Paris would have carts pushed around to collect student’s drawings and it was not uncommon for students to continue working on their drawings for as long as possible by riding in the cart. For better or worse, the term has stuck through to this day and architecture students are still as bad as ever at finishing their projects before rigid deadlines.

One of the unforeseen outcomes of my experience with things like charrettes in school has been the ability to more efficiently plan for the RPG adventures that I run. The word charrette inspires a mix of emotions in most design students because it represents the insanely stressful periods of a project for many people but also because it invokes a bizarre sense of pride in our shared suffering, and it is not surprising that people are proud to emerge from a charrette with a praise-worthy design and presentation having survived the experience. This kind of experience is also well known to Dungeon Masters and Game Masters around the world.

Planning an Adventure or Studying for an Exam?

It’s one thing to experience anxiety and stress when going through design school, after all so much rests on your shoulders and counts on your performance in school, but I was extremely surprised when I found myself experiencing some of the same problems when I found myself approaching the day of an adventure and found myself needing to plan for my game. Today I’m not only going to talk about some of the best advice I received about getting through charrettes and lessons I learned in school, but I’m also going to share some specifics about how I’m applying all of this to the hobby of running for tabletop RPGs.

I’m sure that a large majority of students, especially in colleges or universities, have gone through similar experiences to what I’m talking about here. However, the reason I feel going through architecture/design charrettes is particularly applicable is because hours and hours are spent planning, designing, drawing, and critiquing a design with the last few days often being called the charrette that I introduced above. However, unlike most students who cram for exams then go in the day of and complete the exam and are done, the day that our designs were due we also had to pin our drawings up on the walls and then present our work to a jury of professionals (and the other students). This overall experience, I feel, is much closer to what DMs experience running a game than your standard study/exam experience most students have gone through.

Advice for Surviving Adventure Planning

The number one piece of advice I received in school and now give out to the struggling DMs/GMs out there is to get enough sleep before running your game. Sleep was often the first thing architecture students gave up in order to complete their projects, and more often than not their presentations were worse because they were obscenely tired on the day of. You will run the game better if you’ve slept at least 6 hours beforehand, though I would suggest getting a full 8 hours. You are, after all, performing when you DM and it’s always good to go into a performance or presentation well rested. On top of all of this, if you’re working late into the night on little sleep you’re almost certainly not working at peak proficiency and it would be smarter to get some sleep and then work more efficiently in the morning.

The second piece of advice is to eat a healthy meal beforehand, next to sleep deprivation running an adventure on an empty stomach can be one of the most detrimental things. I guarantee that you will run better adventures when you are well rested and well fed, and that’s a guarantee I don’t think you’ll get from many other people about their GMing advice.

Okay, No Duh – I’ve Slept and Eaten, Now What?!

Approaching the time that you’re set to run a game without adequate preparation can be an immensely stressful time for a DM. One of the best things you can do is first admit to yourself that you haven’t prepared enough, and then if you’re comfortable with the idea the second thing you can do is admit to your players that you haven’t prepared enough. The nice thing about running an RPG is that the only thing that really depends on it is you and your players and the act of having fun around the table.

Many DMs are acceptable of the idea of playing board games, video games, or card games if not enough players show up but I’d be willing to bet a lot of DMs are afraid of the idea of doing these things in the event of under-prepping for their game. If you’re not comfortable improvising the pieces of the adventure that you haven’t prepared, then you’ll be doing everyone at the table a favor by simply admitting it and suggesting a different game.

On the other hand, if you admit under-prepping the game to your players you may also be inviting an excellent opportunity for the players to help you out in the game and enter the wonderful world of collaborative storytelling. Invite the players to get into character and suggest missions they really want to go on, or to improvise together a side quest that the party can go on. The best thing you can do is be honest with yourself and with your players and possibly avoid running those adventures in all of our campaigns that simply fall flat or explode into ruin for one reason or another.

You Can’t Learn it in a Day

Ultimately you can’t learn how to prepare for an adventure at the last minute without going through trial and error with your game. Over the last three years I’ve run nearly 50 adventures of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons with varying degrees of preparation and improvisation across the entire spectrum. What I’ve found is that for the last year or so I’ve been able to prepare a nice, succinct amount of information that is made up mostly of the kinds of things that I have a harder time improvising when I’m at the table.

I will often only have a rough sketch of an encounter’s location or often nothing more than an idea of what it will look like because once I get to the table with my white board I can just draw it up. After several adventures I began to feel like my encounter locations needed something more so I started sketching them out beforehand more, but still leaving the specifics of it up in the air for me to improvise. The surprising result is that now as I’m drawing the location my players will sometimes make off-hand comments or suggestions and I am quite free to incorporate (/steal) their ideas as I see fit.

One of the biggest things I found difficult to improvise in my game are the important NPCs and their relationships to each other, to the plot, and to the party so I know that this is one of the most important things for me to plan out. I don’t have to get all of the details down, but for my last several adventures I’ve started planning simply by making a list of the important characters, locations, and goals associated with the adventure.

Above All Else: Don’t Panic

I really hope that the advice here is helpful for all of you DMs and GMs out there who find yourselves experiencing little moments of stress before running a game. The best thing I did for my ongoing campaign was going through the steps I’ve mentioned in this post by accepting when I was unprepared and being honest with myself and my players. Often it would be as simple as letting them know that I hadn’t planned adequately and then asking if they still wanted to play or not. If not, we’d play something else or just hang out, if so then they knew that it may not be the best adventure or on the best days some of my players would put effort towards helping out and making sure it was an enjoyable session.

If you experience these moments of stress, or freak out about under prepping your game on a regular basis, then please let me know what you think of everything I’ve said here and if it helps I absolutely want to hear about it!

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.


  1. Great post! Your comments about getting enough sleep and eating properly may sound silly to some, but they are so crucial to improve performance on just about anything.

    It’s a topic that hits home for me since I decided to give my blog the tagline, “Cramming before gaming nights just like everyone else.”

    DMing is more stressful to me than my day-to-day job, which involves working with mental health patients who present with issues ranging from PTSD, substance abuse and suidical ideation. My work life is well defined and I don’t feel the need to “perform” for my clients or co-workers. I just “do my job.”

    I don’t want to think about my DM role as a job. But it creates a different level of stress for me. Three to six other people are putting other weekend-night options on hold to spend a good five hours at the gaming table. I want to make those hours fun and interesting. I understand I’m not the only person responsible for having a “good game,” but I’ve been a player in games where the DM was obviously not invested. It felt like a waste of time. I don’t want players leaving a game and thinking, “Gee, that was a waste of time.”

    So I prepare, and I often do so at the last minute because I procrastinate in pretty much everything in my life. This included graduate school, trust me!! 🙂

    I’ve relaxed on my stress level, and last session acknowledged to myself, “This is the least prepared I’ve been for a session.” I ran an encounter from the Tomb of Horrors book and it worked out well. I’m getting more comfortable with practice.

    One thing I do question is telling the group, “I’m not prepared.” I would not feel comfortable doing that. I think you can achieve the same goal of collaborative storytelling without giving away the information that you have nothing else ready to go for the night. You can shepherd the PCs to a NPC and discuss quest options or leftover plot threads yet to be tied up. Perhaps one of the players has a backstory quest that hasn’t been touched in many sessions. Use that as an opportunity to see what that character wants to do next and then build a quick encounter or two from there.

    If a DM told me, “I didn’t prepare for tonight,” then I think part of my brain would groan and shut down. But maybe that’s just me?

    Sorry for the text bomb!

  2. Another thing to keep in mind is to make sure you have access to the standard damage and DC tables. Having those few things handy makes things so much easier. I know for instance, that the standard to hit modifier is level + 5 vs. AC and level + 3 vs NADs which makes it much easier to just toss in a few monsters whose stats I don’t have. Similarly knowing the average damage is level + 8 per at will attack goes a long way toward “fudging” your way through things when you need to.

    That being said, I sometimes think that my day job as a prosecutor helps me to be able to improvise as when I am in court I am constantly having to think on my feet. We always try to make it look as though everything that happens in court is completely expected, but we are constantly surprised and forced to roll with the punches so to speak.

  3. Another great post. I especially agree with the bit about knowing the relationships between the NPCs, players and locations. I’ve driven up to GM a game before with nothing at all planned and been able to wing it because I was familiar with how these pieces were all connected.

    Another thing I can’t do without at any time, even if I am prepared, is my trusty list of appropriately themed names. I am hopeless with coming up with names for NPCs on the spot.

    I’ll keep your suggestions in mind.

  4. A lot of good information here. I’m still in the phase of not knowing how much preparation is too much, and this post helps me focus in a bit.

  5. One thing about prep – winging it in 4e, if you’re used to prior editions, takes a while to learn, specifically for when it comes to creating engaging, challenging combat encounters.

    Why? Because you’re doing some likely vast amounts of unlearning of the old rules plus all the new learning and rules.

    For me, it’s taken up until about this year to feel comfortable winging a 4e combat encounter. All those rules, target numbers, and eyeballing (ever-elusive) true encounter difficulty on the fly in 4e takes a lot of effort and practice.

    I talked about Winging It in detail recently in Winging It in D&D: Is it Back?:

  6. I don’t know about 4E, but the best games I ever ran were usually on very little prep and a whole lot of winging-it. Overprep can lead to a stilted story that tends to falter quite a bit if it gets off the rails. Whereas if you are letting yourself go with the flow and creating things on the fly, the players feel like their actions are more relevant and meaningful.

    Of course this only works if you are good at such things and has little to do with whether or not you had a nap and a cheeseburger before the game. If you aren’t that great at thinking on your toes and creating content on the fly then more preparation prior might be better.

  7. If you can suffer through the “trials of learning”, I actually find “improv DnD” to be a bit more fun and less stressful for the DM. I don’t need to memorize stat blocks or someone else’s story… I only need to understand my own story, which IMHO is much easier. I also think improv DnD can be a rich setting-building exercise because it forces you to close your eyes, and describe the scene exactly as you visualize it in your mind… as if you were one of the party members looking on.