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[personal profile] jack
Especially for a one-shot or a new party, strive to have the first few minutes include (a) some kind of positive choice by the PCs to establish them as making choices, not just doing what you say and (b) include a FLASHING NEON OBVIOUS HOOK SAYING "HERO'S GO HERE" so the players have an immediate goal/challenge to work towards. I keep trying to make this much much more obvious and still falling short.

Remember pcs and npcs may have ranged attacks, make sure encounter is sensible if so.

If a PC has helped or angered an NPC organisation, note it down, it may not be anything, but it might be a useful hook later.

This is a big different-style-for-different people, but for me, when I'm thinking for 5e or 3.5e, plan a variety of encounters some of which will be bypassed or won in one lucky action, don't try and make each separate combat equally difficult. (Many people play the opposite, that each combat should be a separate winnable tactical challenge.)

Understand what players are likely to want, not in terms of free gifts, but in terms of what they want to achieve with their character.

Don't usually fudge things after they're already in play. If one lucky roll can wipe out the the monsters or the party, it can be too obvious if you adjust it on the fly. But do design flexible encounters that can be included or not, so if the first half is harder/easier than expected, you can rejig the overall difficulty to be about what you wanted by including or leaving out some of the encounters later.

In general plan lots of small things, and only include what fits well at the time. Make up locations, NPCs, backstory, history, cool NPC speeches, cool environmental effects... so they're there when you want to use them or when the players ask. But don't commit yourself to what you'll include on the spot, trust yourself what to pull in or leave out as it comes up, or what to replace with a better idea.

On a smaller scale, the same for objects, NPCs, locations, etc. Sketch a bunch of detail, and tell the players *some* of it, and more as needed. Just make sure you clearly separate some scene-setting with a nice clear understanding of "there's a big ogre here" :)

Likewise, don't plan a linear sequence of events, plan a physical layout or a political situation, plan at least one "obvious" path through, with an end the players will get to eventually, drop them in, and let things happen. They'll generally explore *most* of it, and whatever happens last can be the finale, if it's what you expected or not. It usually falls into place as a reasonable story for the session, and fits a lot better because the players feel like their choices were right, not like they were just guessing what you intended.

And feel free to plan some set pieces of a dramatic showdown in the ballroom. But if the players get horribly sidetracked and then blunder into the BBEG on the rooftop instead, don't try to force it, cannibalise the relevant parts to the new rooftop encounter, and save any other cool ideas for another time.
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