Good Dungeon Masters (DM) are prepared. “Being prepared” means something different to everyone. Even so, every DM can benefit from really knowing the facts of their homebrew campaign, one-shot, or pre-made module. I want to stress right out the gate that good preparation does not preclude clever improvisation. I argue that by establishing your facts you strengthen your ability to pivot and improv, even when (especially when!) the players want to try something you hadn’t conceived. Set yourself up for success session-to-session with mastery over your campaign’s core facts, and thus achieve flow.
There are two broad categories of facts. Facts you need to know and facts your players need to know. These tend to overlap. I write both types of facts in a sort of abstract, isolation. Most facts I jot down are standalone from a specific person, place, or time. I may tag them with an NPC’s name or some other modifier, but that’s more of a suggestion to myself than a hard rule. When it comes to quick facts and secrets, I don’t want them to be cluttered with a scenario or “if this, then that” instruction. That is the heart of this advice — facts and secrets are floating bits of information you weave in as you go!
Facts for the Dungeon Master
The facts that you, the DM, need to know are the foundation of your game. The players may never directly interface with this information, but your table will benefit from you knowing these facts. Confident in your knowledge, you’ll build a consistent narrative and have the tools to answer unexpected questions or fill in suddenly relevant details.
Your facts consist of NPC motivations, sources of conflicts, the BBEG’s master plan, relevant historical events, a rough timeline of future events, and immediately useful information for the current session. If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry. You don’t need to commit all of it to memory, especially if it’s coming out of a pre-made module and not your own brain. A few easily accessible key bullet points go a long way toward being prepared.
Example Dungeon Master facts
These are some of the facts I wrote down for my mini-campaign Sweet Dreams. They help me stay focused, even if the party may never learn this information.
- The former headmaster, James Oakscribe, was an elderly half-elf man. He was in good health when he allegedly passed away in his sleep.
- Enlightenment, an elderly tiefling priest of the Pantheon House church, is motivated to protect his temple and its revenue source. He seeks to renovate the old church and hire a second priest.
- The stronger a dreamward is (based on size and value of its gem) the more energy it can siphon before the gem cracks (rendering the ward useless).
- The BBEG’s goal is to break free, consume lots of energy to evolve, and return to where it originated from.
While a lot of these facts are for my own benefit, I use this knowledge to spin up related info for the party to discover. I can invent details on the fly as needed because I broadly understand the plot, motives, and people involved. I’m able to more easily maintain the flow of the session and the exchange of information between myself and the players. It will never be perfect, though. No matter how prepared you are there will still be moments where the gears grind to a halt and you scramble for a name, a detail, or even a very important reason for something you failed to prep.
Facts for the Players
Player facts are general information you actively want the players to discover through engaging with the game world. These can range from small details that help flesh out the narrative to huge secrets that impart crucial knowledge to the party. Identify what information will empower the players to make informed decisions for their characters. What key knowledge does the party need to know to progress toward achieving their goals? This is the purpose of organizing facts, secrets, and misinformation.
How the players learn this information is less important than you, the DM, having the information ready to share with them. On occasion, certain facts and secrets may only be accessible through one specific method of discovery. For narrative reasons, only this NPC knows that fact or only this room contains that secret. Used sparingly, it’s fine. But I encourage you to avoid tying important information to only one pre-defined source. Part of the reason we want to prepare our facts and secrets ahead of time is to allow ourselves the freedom to implement them wherever the party goes looking. Within reason.
Players can discover information through opportunities you present to them or through their own ingenuity and drive. The characters may already know some facts by virtue of inhabiting their world, and you simply need to convey that information to the players. Common knowledge and gossip can be learned from interacting with NPCs or eavesdropping; it’s easy to obtain and you should be forthcoming with it. Secrets are harder to come by. The characters can coerce NPCs, use magical charms, break into secure areas, and explore dangerous locations to unearth secrets. Many secrets require the party use their resources and skills to gain access to that information. In most cases, secrets should feel earned.
Example player facts
A sampling of general info and secrets my party has discovered in Sweet Dreams.
- Avelina Quill is the current headmaster of the Grand Archives.
- Avelina’s study is in the Roc’s Nest tower, the tallest tower of the archives. One way in and out.
- The sleepwalking curse began 6 months ago. It’s become more frequent since.
- Victims of sleepwalking are exhausted afterward. Multiple bouts of sleepwalking can lead to coma.
- Dreamwards allegedly protect against sleepwalking, according to the manufacturers from the Grand Archives.
- It appears dreamwards are only active when a gem is combined with a special wooden carving.
- The Dream Eater existed 200+ years ago, causing the sleepwalking curse then as it does now. It was sealed in a prison dimension in the Grand Archives, behind the “Door of the Watchful Dragon.”
Much of this information came from the players seeking out NPCs, asking questions of said NPCs, searching for books with knowledge, searching said books for specific details, and personally investigating the dreamwards.
Facts in Action
There are a few instances in Sweet Dreams where organized facts kept the game moving smoothly. These two examples are long-winded so feel free to jump ahead.
“What’s your research paper about?”
The party encountered an upset dragonborn woman at a local restaurant in Var-City, just outside the Grand Archives. She was irate about losing her access to the high-clearance sections of the archives. The party, eavesdropping on her conversation, interjected to ask what had happened. She explained the access was necessary to finish research for the paper she was writing, but now she couldn’t continue her research. The whole point of this little encounter was to drive home that the Grand Archives was getting real stingy with who could access what.
And then the party asks a question I hadn’t anticipated, “what’s your research paper about?” I understood where the question was coming from. They thought this woman had been researching something related to sleepwalking and the Dream Eater. Truth be told, I hadn’t even considered what her research was about. With barely a moment to think I said the topic was “on the magical properties of gems and their capacity to heal.”
I already knew that gems were an important aspect of the campaign. The magic effect dormant in gems (that are applied to a dreamward) trigger sleepwalking and then siphon energy from the sleepwalking victims. The size and value of the gems determine their effectiveness. I wanted the party to know more about their importance, too. So the scholar was researching magical healing properties of crystals. This led to a line of additional questioning that helped the players get a better sense of just what gems can do and their significance to the campaign, all through the lens of an upset dragonborn woman unable to finish her research. The players being inquisitive led to this new information and that information flowed from me easily because I had established core facts.
Facts are flexible
After deceiving a group of hostile scholars the party escaped via an elevator lift. The first floor they stopped on had a hallway and a door with a window. Annika, the party ranger, looks through the window and sees a large reading room. An old half-orc is up on a ladder managing book inventory when suddenly a flock of books fly off the shelf. The animated swarm flitters about the room and the half-orc struggles to maintain his balance on the ladder. These books were intended to be a trivial encounter and a way to make friends with the librarian.
The party found the books particularly off-putting and said, “on to the next floor!” and they left. At this point I had already revealed to them the map (a lovely piece by Cze and Peku) in AboveVTT and the half-orc’s token. The encounter was intended as an opportunity for the party to find an ally in the Grand Archives and get some straight-forward answers to their questions. The half-orc was Brax, an elderly librarian that had gotten lost in the archives 40-years-ago and stumbled into a job there when he met the former headmaster.
Undeterred, I had another Cze and Peku map from the same set handy and I knew that Brax’s information could be moved to another loveable NPC. It seemed the party wasn’t looking for a fight, so when they arrived on the next floor they found a serene planetarium room. Seemingly empty. After settling in they noticed an owl perched way up above. Eventually, after goofy antics, the owl revealed itself to be a friendly polymorphed sage. His personality, race, and history were different from Brax. He was an elderly human who had been working in the archives for a very long time.
The information in his head, however, matched pretty closely to what Brax would have been able to offer the party. They had a pleasant chat, he answered their questions to the best of his ability, and they made a new friend. It was more important to me that the party had the freedom to choose where they went rather than letting myself get hung up on specifically who, what, where, and when something should happen.
Tips for Preparing Facts
Jot down overarching campaign facts on a cheat-sheet and keep it close every session. Use whatever note-taking tool suits you best. Format your notes to your liking so the information is easy to digest while you’re in DMing frenzy. When you need to get more granular for a specific session, build a new list of facts to have on hand for quick reference to get through the session.
Your list of facts is dynamic and growing. Throughout the game, your players will create situations where you have to invent new information based on what you’ve already established. When that happens, remember to write it down! Sometimes players will say something that you like more than your original idea. Unlike in reality, your game facts are mutable. Feel free to change up what you had planned if it makes sense. Do you like your player’s interpretation better? Use it!
Keep in mind that while the antagonists might want to keep their secrets, you the DM are rooting for the party to uncover information. The transfer of information between DM and players is vital to a successful game! Be on the lookout for opportunities to sprinkle in facts and secrets. Stay agile. Be ready to pivot in response to how the party seeks out information. Was that secret treasure map supposed to be on the second mate’s dead body but the players skipped over it and now they’re searching the captain’s quarters? Whad’ya know! A secret treasure map is there!
Coming soon! For a more thorough examination of this topic I will later go into greater depth regarding facts, secrets, and misinformation. I plan to include a working example with a simple premise to build facts around.