Achieve Flow with Prepared Facts

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.

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.

Handwritten notes on a desk, representing a Dungeon Master's campaign notes.
Photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash

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?”

Facts are flexible

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.

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