One thing I've been asked about a lot when designing sessions for my social skills group is how I plan things. There's a lot of different schools of thought, and I see a lot of people using the lazy DM guide model, but the system I use is a bit (lot) more complex, and as such I've labeled it the Roll for Kindness method (for Goal-Oriented Session Planning.) The benefit to its complexity is that it tailors the game for each player, and given that the group is a social skills group, I want to make sure they are meeting their specific goals. This thought clashes with a lot of mental health background people who want more emergent and organic development, but given my teaching background and focus on curriculum design, it comes naturally to me to plan out goals and really focus towards that.
And despite this being a lot more work, I've found that it has saved my groups at times. Sometimes, when the group chemistry is really struggling and youth are just not engaging in a positive way, I've found that having a set plan for each youth to engage with can bring them in and help them become part of the group.
Without further ado, here is how I plan sessions:
I start by identifying the plot outline for the entire session, primarily around what narrative I want to see happen, or if it's more of an open world session, I identify that's what's happening, and maybe include a few events that are going to happen in the world anyway, regardless if the players interact with it or not. Then, I focus on the overall goals for the session. This should be something like "Group will be able to sit through a session without screaming at each other or making rude comments, and should be able to work as a team to successfully break into the Duke's manor." Once that's done, I break things down into their components for the group, starting with behavioral goal, role playing goal, plot goal, and mechanical goals.
This scaffolded goal system allows for interplay between all the different elements in a RPG, starting with the behavioral goal for the table, which is where I try to identify what behaviors I'd like to see happening at the table, usually oriented towards the kids interacting with each other in positive ways or perspective taking. Then, I focus on the role playing goal, which outlines the NPC and player interactions I'm going to create in the world to facilitate play. Then, further down, is the plot goal, which outlines how the plot will inform the role playing opportunities, and the final phase is the mechanical goal, which includes any game mechanics I want to see happen, although this is often left blank.
Once I've done that, I have a full story outlined that uses behavioral goals at the table level to inform the plot, role playing, and mechanical elements of play. Then, after that, I begin the individual goal creation, doing the same thing for each player- including a behavioral goal, a role playing goal, a plot goal, and a mechanical goal.
By doing that, I ensure that I've given each player a bit of thought and planning to make sure there is something that they can interact with that can help them grow and develop. Furthermore, this creates some really great opportunities to let kids showcase themselves, and create stories that they can share with their parents (which generally results in high retention rates.)
And by doing so, I've been able to run some absolutely wonderful groups where each youth feels like they are being given something individualized, but also fitting into the table as a whole.
This system is usable for non-social skills groups as well, and I've used it a number of times with my friends, with the one alteration that there are no overt behavioral goals, just plot and role playing goals that I'd like to see each player have. It creates a lot more granularity in planning, and by seeing the behavior>RP>plot>mechanic scaffolding, you can really make sure all these elements play into each other in a really unique and cool way.
Anyway, hope this helps with session planning! Feel free to give me any feedback on twitter at @rollforkindness, and feel free to check out a sample session plan below!
Session date: next Tuesday
Plot outline: The party enters the Duke's manor, only to find it in ruins. As they explore, they find more and more evidence that the Duke was not the one who ordered the attacks on the village, and that there have been bandits living in the manor, claiming to be the Duke's envoys. Further evidence shows that the Duke is being held hostage in the dungeon below. As they explore, the bandits return from a raid, and begin exploring the manor for the intruders.
Warm up question: What is your character's dream house like? What is your dream house like?
Evaluation Tool: Co-facilitator will observe
Overall Session Goals: Group should be able to engage in clue gathering and work together to formulate a theory as to what has happened with the Duke, then escape from the bandits as they begin to explore the manor.
Behavioral Goal: Want to see the group actively communicating their plans and thoughts to each other, not to me.
Facilitation notes: Will facilitate this by asking the group to come up with a plan for exploring the manor, rather than asking each youth what they are planning on doing.
Roleplaying Goal: I want the kids to stay in character and think about how their character might react in such scenarios.
Facilitation notes: Include a lot of descriptions on how creepy and decrepit the manor has become, allowing a lot of room for the characters to become apprehensive.
Plot goal: The players will discover that the manor has been trashed by bandits and is being used as their base of operations to pose as the baron and order various caravans to go into the woods, where the bandits are attacking them. Once the bandits arrive, the party should realize that the only option is to retreat into the dungeon below the manor.
Facilitation notes: Make sure that there is plenty of awareness that the dungeon is an option to retreat into. Alternately, if the players try to fight the bandits or get caught, they end up in the dungeon anyway, under different circumstances. In any case, this sets up next session, which is them exploring the dungeon and saving the Duke.
Mechanical goal: Instead of investigation checks, allow the players to describe what they are looking for and help them create the narrative through heavy description. If they want more vague notions of what's going on, use perception/insight checks.
Facilitation notes: Make sure to include the map of the manor, and a lot of descriptions of how the bandits have ruined everything, from slashing paintings, letting rot set in, spilled food and drink, etc. The dungeon entrance should be obvious, but still require some degree of sleuthing to find.
Expected Outcome: The party will end up in the dungeon and be ready for the dungeon session next week.
Possible Pitfalls: If the students do not want to investigate, this could be more challenging, perhaps just allow for some ambient exploration that helps draw them to an investigation mindset.
Secrets: In the baron's bedroom, there is a hidden chamber under his bed with a jewel worth 200 gp.
Loot: A +1 dagger in the sun room, 2 potions of healing in the kitchen
Behavioral Goal: Will be able to engage with the group and work on finding his voice.
Roleplaying Goal: He has the secret finding goggles which can locate hidden passages, which should become handy and allow him to point out the hidden passages between room 3 and 6 and the dungeon entrance.
Plot goal: One of the portraits on the walls is heavily damaged, but he can make out his grandfather standing next to the Duke in it, further proof that his grandfather was not who he claimed to be.
Mechanical goal: Gets advantage on any perception checks from the goggles.
Notes: Give him all kinds of bonuses and encouragement to discover things, so long as he is interacting with the group.