It took some time to work out exactly where we left off, and to figure out which versions of the kids' character sheets were the correct ones. For some reason when they level up or switch to a new character sheet format they don't throw out the old ones. Sophie says it's because the sheets themselves give her fond memories. That's nice and all, and I find it touching, but I'm not at all certain that it's worth the ensuing chaos when they can't figure out what their stats are.
Once we got all that squared away, I was under the gun to figure out what would happen next.
I have changed a lot as a game master over the last year. I haven't been running games with my kids during that time, but I have continued gaming with my adult group. I used to spend hours each week preparing encounters, but I've got so much other stuff going on in my life these days that I just don't have time for that level of prep. Therefore I have switched to a more improvisational style, but it's not as easy as I was hoping it would be. I feel constant pressure to stay ahead of the group with fresh ideas, and I actually lose sleep after a session when I realize that I should have run an encounter differently. This happens almost every session. The pressure is all internal, of course; my friends have been nothing but supportive. I'm just a bit of a perfectionist, and it goes against my every instinct to just wing it. Yet wing it I must.
That's what I did with the kids these past two sessions, and it seems to be working out okay. All I have to do is stay one encounter ahead of them, and if I get stuck, I reach into my bag of tricks. For example, one of the characters was exploring a hallway and rolled a natural 20 on her perception roll. I had no idea what, if anything, there was for her to perceive, but I let her actions and her high roll guide me. I figured her senses were sharp, so I thought maybe she might hear something. Something...scurrying behind the walls, maybe? They made a note of that, and when they found a door leading to that area, they started speculating about what might be making the noise. Now I'm thinking I'll put vermin in that room. I'll have to come up with something more interesting than that when they actually go in there, but it's a start. Maybe the vermin are eating something in there? It's all food for thought.
I also pulled out one of the puzzles for the music dungeon I was preparing for them. They're actually in the music dungeon now, but I never actually got around to building out the adventure. By that I mean, I never mapped it, never populated it with creatures, etc. So I'm just totally winging it. To this end I place doors everywhere because doors slow them down long enough for me to come up with what might be on the other side of them. They can't rush the doors because they know doors may be trapped. So while they were trying to decide what to do with one particular door, I scrambled to find my entry on this blog about the Tuning Room, and when they went to open the door, I was ready.
Finally, I have come to rely on tables like this one: Monster Statistics by CR. CR is basically the level of difficulty of a monster. Although this table is meant to be used for carefully creating a custom monster during prep time, I've been using it completely on the fly. I can make up whatever magical power or attacks I want these creatures that I spin out of thin air to have, and the table gives me the mechanical crunch for those powers based on how powerful I want the critter to be. I also have another table I printed out (but can't find online at the moment) that gives me the same kind of info for skills challenges.