Sly Flourish

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    Sly Flourish

  • VideoUsing Advantage and Disadvantage in 5e

    "Advantage" and "disadvantage" are fantastic improvisational tools for 5e GMs. They give you incentives and discouragements to steer things towards the fun. Always remember that you have the ability to assign advantage and disadvantage in your toolbox to make the game more fun.

    Many situations in the game already apply advantage or disadvantage. Being invisible or being unable to see applies such effects. Attacking someone within 5 feet who is prone gives you advantage while shooting at them from range gives you disadvantage.

    Setting DCs and Offering Advantage or Disadvantage

    It's important to understand when to raise or lower a DC and when to use advantage and disadvantage. Here's my lazy rule of thumb: You set a DC for a given situation regardless of the character performing the action. Breaking down a door might be a DC 18 but it's a DC 18 for anyone. The DC doesn't change based on who's doing it.

    Advantage and disadvantage can change depending on who's performing the action. A circus performer might have a better chance at calming down an owlbear who used to work at the circus. Not only do they use their Wisdom bonus and add their proficiency with Animal Handling but their own special background makes them particularly good at this one specific thing. You might decide that their past experiences grants them advantage.

    DCs are fixed based on the situation – advantage and disadvantage are circumstantial to the characters performing the action.

    Advantageous Situations

    There are many other places we can offer advantage. Here are a few:

    Terrain features. High ground might give characters advantage against targets down below. Fighting in a big mud pit might provide disadvantage.

    Cinematic Action. Performing a fantastic acrobatic feat might provide advantage if you make the right check (see "Cinematic Advantage" for details).

    Superior knowledge. A character's background, upbringing, species, or some other part of their history might grant them advantage on particular ability checks alongside their skill proficiency.

    Incentives for Dangerous Choices. We can use advantage to incentivize players to draw characters into danger. Often we'd do this through inspiration, giving them inspiration for being willing to accept a risk they might not otherwise take but we might also offer direct advantage in the situation. Hugging the door isn't enough to get a great view of the arcane pillar but if they get right on top of it, they'd have advantage on the check.

    For superior roleplaying. Often we hear about the situation in which a player does an amazing job roleplaying a situation but rolls a 2 on their Charisma (Persuasion) check. We can offer a player advantage if they do a particularly great job attempting to convince the viceroy of their need to speak to the queen. If a player does an amazing job roleplaying, maybe they automatically succeed.

    Encouraging Teamwork. Lean in on characters helping one another by providing the character with the best overall bonus advantage as one or more other characters use the "help" action (see chapter 9 of the Player's Handbook) to help them succeed. Don't look for ways to stop two characters working on a problem – leap at the chance.

    Steering Away with Disadvantage

    We probably want to invoke disadvantage less often than we offer advantage. For every ten times we offer advantage, we may invoke disadvantage once. We can use disadvantage to steer characters away from things that clearly wouldn't work and we can declare it ahead of time. If a character is attempting something clearly too difficult, we might give it a high DC and disadvantage.

    Often we invoke disadvantage with the expectation that the character simply changes their mind. That's totally fine.

    Your GM's Helper

    Advantage and disadvantage are powerful and easy tools to shift the direction of the game. Give them freely and use them to steer the game towards the most fun.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Last Minute RPG Prep and Journey to the Marrow Tree – Shadowdark Gloaming Session 21 Lazy GM Prep.

    Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as RPG tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Watch out for the long monologue. Get to character decisions quickly.
    • Let players customize improvised home bases.
    • Make it clear when social chatter has stopped and the game has begun.
    • Clarify the need for player consensus on in-world conflicts.
    • Use table tools and notebooks you love to connect you to the joy of the game.
    • Have an easy way to take notes during the game.
    • A weird trans-dimensional home base is a great way to bring in irregular characters.

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  • VideoTell, Don't Show

    "Most readers are in trouble about half the time."

    • E.B. White

    In 1990, Elizabeth Newman at Stanford University earned her PhD with an experiment. She had one participant tap out the rhythm of a popular song with their fingers while the other participant tried to guess what it was.

    The tappers expected that 50% of the time respondents would be able to guess the song. It was actually 2.5%.

    We GMs build rich worlds in our heads. We think through complex situations. We imagine NPCs living their lives, villains moving through their plots, vast dungeons buried beneath ancient mountains, and monsters lurking in the depths.

    We do our best to describe these worlds and situations and adjudicate the results of the actions of the characters to our players. We love to imagine that the world we've built in our heads is the same one living in the heads of our players.

    It's not.

    Players understand about half of what we describe to them.

    For a video on this topic, watch my Tell, Don't Show YouTube video.

    A lot of the time, players don't really grab what's going on and we see this manifest in lots of ways.

    • Players don't realize the danger of their situation.
    • Players miss a potential quest hook they'd be interested in.
    • Players misinterpret an NPC's motivation or mannerisms.
    • Players grab onto a piece of lore thinking it's a main quest when it's not.
    • Players go after a minor villain and ignore the major one.
    • Players make a poor choice on where to defend or where to rest.
    • Players miss an obvious safe path and follow a more dangerous one.
    • Players fully expect a trap when it's perfectly safe.
    • Players think a location is perfectly safe when it's obviously trapped.

    Don't Hold Your Cards Too Close

    Many DMs hold back information, thinking it's too much to tell players what's going on. They think it should be a surprise or the players need to say the right words to get the information they need. They think telling too much is leading the players or taking agency away from them.

    But, when we realize players aren't always grasping the situation, we should put those cards on the table. Explain the situation. Reiterate things we think we've already said. Repeat ourselves. Emphasize what's important to understand.

    The Players Are Not Their Characters

    The characters in our games are full-time adventurers. They have eyes and ears and fingers most of the time. They're there in the situation. Our players are not. Players aren’t adventurers. Their lives aren't on the line. They're busy people with lives and jobs and families sitting at our table for an evening of fun. They're not really seeing what's going on the same way their characters are. Don't assume players understand what's going on.

    Help players see what their characters see. If a player makes a bonehead decision, don't punish them for it. Reinforce what their character sees and what their character knows. Assume their character acts appropriately for their experience and their place in the world.

    Assume players aren't grabbing what you're describing and help them out.

    Tell, Don't Show

    Sometimes, instead of waxing colorful metaphors, just tell players what's going on. Here are some situations where it might make sense.

    • A monster is clearly out of the characters' league.
    • A monster is legendary and has legendary resistances.
    • What happened the turn before in combat impacts the situation surrounding the character now.
    • The characters exhausted all of the information they're going to get from an NPC.
    • The characters thoroughly checked a room for traps, secrets, and treasure.
    • A character will provoke an opportunity attack if they move.
    • The three paths that stand in front of the characters.
    • The characters' current goal in the area they're exploring.
    • The characters don't have the item they need to progress further.
    • The characters learned everything they can about a new magic item.
    • When the characters act on a misunderstanding or follow a red herring too far.

    Many of these things may seem obvious. You've given them the signs. You've seeded the secrets. And yet they're not grabbing on.

    Just tell them.

    Tell Them Colorfully

    We don't have to fully break character when we tell them what's going on. We can keep our flowery narrative. Here are some in-world ways to make it clear to the players what's going on:

    • Looking at Xartherex the Balor, you are confident that this foe is beyond any of you.
    • Behold! You face Hellmaw, the legendary ancient red dragon.
    • After a thorough search, you are confident you've learned everything you can in this room.
    • After careful study, you are confident you've learned everything you can about this magic sword.
    • Study as you might, you can't get your head around these runes. You think only another primer or a more learned sage can help you.
    • After a thorough examination, you don't believe spell, lock pick, or the mightiest hammer swing will break this massive door.

    Feel free to keep your language colorful and stay in the world but state clearly what the characters know, or should know, about the situation. Give players the information they need to have fun.

    Tell players what's going on.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Fantasy RPG Adventure Structures and Stuck Between a Gelatinous Cube and Two Air Elementals– Shadowdark Gloaming Session 20 Lazy GM Prep.

    Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as RPG tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Pool damage in one tally for large groups of monsters. Each time it has enough damage to kill a monster, remove the last monster hit.
    • Roll once for several attacks or saves for large numbers of monsters. Choose a number of rolls and divide total damage by the number of rolls.
    • For quick skirmishes, go around the table or alphabetically instead of rolling for initiative.
    • Ask players to describe new features to the group when they level up.
    • Let characters build their own safe haven for resting even in the darkest dungeons.
    • Feeling overwhelmed? Boil your next session down to its most necessary elements: a strong start, a map, some monsters, and some discoveries.
    • Improvise monsters with core stats and an interesting feature or two.

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  • VideoTune Monsters with Extra Attacks

    Not all monsters are created equal for their challenge rating. Some monsters don’t hit very hard at higher challenge ratings. Others hit well above their weight class.

    I’ve talked about the four dials of monster difficulty before:

    • The number of monsters in a battle
    • A monster's maximum hit points
    • The number of attacks the monster has
    • The amount of damage those attacks inflict

    We can tweak monsters, either before or during a fight, using these four dials. Has a battle overstayed its welcome and gotten boring? Drop those monster hit points. Is an otherwise fun and challenging battle becoming boring because it's too easy? Jack up that damage.

    If this topic is of high interest to you, please check out our book Forge of Foes with tons of great advice and tools to help you run monsters in your 5e games.

    Adding or reducing the number of attacks a monster has is an easy and powerful way to change the difficulty of a monster. We don't have to do any complicated math or calculations in our head for this modification. We don't have to roll more damage dice. Instead, we just have a monster attack again or have it make one less attack.

    This "number of attacks" dial has a big impact. If a monster only has one attack and you give it two – you're doubling its potential damage output. If a monster attacks three times but you only have it attack twice, you're removing 50% of its damaging threat. It's a big dial but it's an easy one to turn and create a big effect.

    Normalizing the Action Economy

    We might turn the "number of attacks" dial to account for a big delta in the action economy. Four characters versus a single monster has a big sway in the action economy – the number of actions (attacks) the characters have versus the number of attacks the monster has.

    In a case like this example, giving the monster more attacks helps even out that delta. We probably don't want to have the monster make all of its attacks against a single target, though, instead spreading them out to other members of the group.

    Reducing the Threat

    Likewise, if a particular monster proves too deadly for a group, it can attack less. Just because Agdon Longscarf can make two branding iron attacks doesn't mean he has to every round. Maybe he does so if he's surrounded. Maybe he does a jaunty dance instead of that second attack. Monsters don't always behave optimally.

    Fixing Sub-Par Monsters

    Often higher CR monsters hit below their challenge rating. I think this is due to overweighting the extra abilities these monsters have. I argue these monsters need those extra abilities to challenge higher level characters. The result of these overweighted abilities is a reduction in damage. It's not uncommon to find lower challenge monsters hitting at 10 damage per challenge rating (the thug hits at 20 per CR!) but higher challenge monsters hit for 5 or 6 damage per CR. Their extra abilities don't make up for that drop in damage.

    If a monster isn't holding up its end of the fight, give it another attack.

    Think About Why You're Doing It

    It's important to know why you're adding or subtracting attacks. Are you really adding to the fun of the game or just making yourself feel better? I like to imagine the dials have resistance to them. They like to spring to the average. They need force to move. We don't just move them willy nilly. We need a good reason. What are some good reasons?

    • A monster is significantly outclassed in the action economy.
    • A monster hits below the challenge it represents in the fiction of the game.
    • A big boss is really only threatening one character instead of almost all of them.
    • The amount of damage the monster inflicts is boring.
    • A lower challenge monster faces higher level characters and would otherwise be completely useless without more attacks.
    • We want to increase the threat without making battles longer.

    Why shouldn't we give a monster more attacks?

    • We're mad at the players.
    • We want to punish the characters.
    • We're sad our monster rolled so many failed attacks.

    An Easy Tool for the Toolbox

    Of all of the dials of monster difficulty, adding or removing an attack to a monster's arsenal might be the easiest to implement and have a significant impact on the situation. Keep this tool handy and use it to tune your game for the most fun at the table.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    I also posted a YouTube video on the Tomb of Kytheros – Shadowdark Gloaming Session 19 Lazy GM Prep.

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as RPG tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Keep the situation dynamic in big battles. Change up the tactics and environment.
    • Roleplay villains in combat. What do they say? How do they react to the characters?
    • More monsters are a bigger threat than big monsters.
    • Boss monsters almost always have allies.
    • Intelligent magic items are tag-along NPCs who don’t take up the spotlight.
    • Did a character die? Give their player an NPC to control.
    • Set up hard set piece battles with lots of monsters and then lean in on cool character ideas.

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  • VideoLazy Monster Damage – Subtract 3, Add 1d6

    This tip is a trick I first heard attributed to Chris Perkins. I've used it a lot and love it. First, I'm a huge proponent of using static monster damage. It's fast, easy, and moves the game forward at a good clip. It's super lazy.

    Some don't like how static damage is so, well, static. So here's a trick to add variance without a lot of work.

    Subtract 3 from the static damage of a monster and add 1d6.

    It adds just enough variance to make the damage feel different but needs only a single d6 and the math is easy.

    What About Critical Hits?

    For critical hits, double the static damage, subtract 3, and add 1d6. Sure, crits hit harder than usual but monsters can use the love.

    Ignore for Lower Dice Damage

    You really only need this trick if rolling monster damage uses two or more dice. If it's a single die and a modifier then subtracting 3 and adding 1d6 isn't making things easier. When a monster inflicts two or more dice worth of damage – often on a multi-attack – rolling all those dice slows things down.

    That said, if you want to use a d6 for everything, you can still subtract 3 and add 1d6 to every static damage value you come across.

    Give it a try!

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Building Fantastic Monuments in D&D and 5e Combat and a Forge of Foes Deep Dive.

    Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Expect single monsters to be taken out with a single ability above 7th level.
    • What did this location used to be?
    • The enemy of their enemy may be their friend.
    • Be very careful taking agency away from a character.
    • Go around the table for quick initiative during small battles.
    • Use a d6 as an oracle die to determine things like guard patrols or other random events.
    • Ask players to discuss new abilities when they level up. Write them down.

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  • VideoReplacing 5e's Inspiration with Luck

    In the Tales of the Valiant 5e RPG and their Project Black Flag system reference document, Kobold Press introduces us to the Luck mechanic – a direct replacement for the standard 5e "Inspiration" mechanic. Here's how it works.

    The Luck System

    • Every time a character misses an attack or a saving throw, they gain one luck point.
    • They can only hold up to five luck points. If they gain a sixth luck point, they roll 1d4 and that's how many luck points they have now.
    • They can spend one luck point to get +1 to a D20 roll after they roll.
    • They can spend three luck points to re-roll a d20 check.

    GMs can award luck points for good roleplaying, brave behavior, and other times we might award inspiration but players will primarily gain luck with missed attacks and saving throws (not ability checks.)

    I've used this luck mechanic in my 5e games for a while now and I love it. It takes the burden off of the GM to award inspiration, something I often forget. For players, it takes the edge off of the disappointment of rolling a missed attack or saving throw. It's an entire system managed primarily by players and yet we GMs can still offer luck points to incentivize heroic deeds. We can also use luck points as bargaining chips with players when they want to do something risky but are worried about consequences of failure.

    Introducing Luck

    If we do decide to bring in luck, or any other new mechanics into our game, it behooves us to have a conversation with our players about it. Ask them if it's something they're interested in. Maybe give it a trial run and see if people like it before using it regularly.

    Expanding 5e's Mechanics

    Luck is one of the many new mechanics we're seeing designers bring into the larger 5e space. Because it's encapsulated, we can remove inspiration and replace it with luck and nothing else needs to change.

    I think we're going to see a lot of cool ideas like this one come out over 2024 and I'm excited to see them. Not every variant needs to work for all groups – you may not like the luck mechanic, and that's fine. But you might like some other mechanic like Level Up Advanced 5e's "Strife" condition or its use of "Supply" for exploration and resting. You might like the way exhaustion worked in the early 2024 D&D playtest where each level of exhaustion was -1 to D20 checks.

    With all of these variants and sub-systems coming out, we can build the version of 5e we want for our own table. None of them need be the same. If it works for you and your group – it works.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Blocking Rooms in Owlbear Rodeo and Mummy on the Bridge.

    Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Write out a loose outline of scenes even if you know they could go off track.
    • Prep NPCs with appearance, mannerisms, and motivations. What do they want? What would they be doing if the characters aren't around?
    • Avoid chains of hard combat. Throw in easy fights, conversations, and elements of exploration.
    • What can the characters learn in your next game?
    • Use maps and minis for conversations. Use theater of the mind for combat.
    • Let characters knock bad guys into their own traps and make your players love you forever.
    • Put choices and options in front of your players near the end of a session so you know what to prep next.

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    Buy Sly Flourish's Books

    Have a question or want to contact me? Check out Sly Flourish's Frequently Asked Questions.

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  • VideoMy Favorite TTRPG Products of 2023

    Over 2023 I've been lucky to look at a lot of various tabletop roleplaying game products and I wanted to give you a list of my favorite five for 2023.

    First, I have some disclaimers. I didn't see everything published and I didn't even read everything I've received. I'll likely find new gems in all the stuff I've picked up the further I get into them. Second, this list is just my opinion. If you disagree, that's totally cool. If you have favorite products not on this list, that's also cool. We each get to decide what we love.

    Without further waffling, here are my favorite five RPG products of 2023.

    Shadowdark RPG

    Wow. Shadowdark. This book nails its intentions of "old school style, new school sensibilities." Anyone familiar with 5th edition D&D can easily understand the stripped-down mechanics of Shadowdark but its style of play is very different from 5e. Shadowdark is grim. It's dark. Characters die...a lot. The characters struggle with inventory. They struggle with travel. But they mostly struggle to stay in the light. I've been running a regular Shadowdark RPG for seventeen weeks now and my players and I love it. I ran it with the original I6 Ravenloft and thought it fit perfectly with the classic 1st edition D&D adventure. Shadowdark is an opinionated RPG. It's not about clean character arcs, deep background stories, or character growth over a campaign. It's about diving into dangerous holes in the ground and finding treasure before you're murdered by a bugbear.

    Flee Mortals

    MCDM's monster book exploded on Kickstarter and the results do not disappoint. Flee Mortals is what I like to call an opinionated RPG book. It wants to do certain things a certain way and it focuses on those things. Monsters in Flee Mortals all have unique and interesting things they do. Many of them can replace monsters you'd typically find in a core 5e monster book but not all of them. I don't really think of it as a replacement to a core monster book the way I think of the A5e Monstrous Menagerie. It has the best examples of Matt Coleville's "action oriented" monsters and a unique style for creating and running minions. I'm clearly biased in my opinions of Flee Mortals – I had the awesome opportunity to write the vampires in here along with consulting on the book's encounter building guidelines.

    Uncharted Journeys

    Cubicle 7 got a lot of praise for the exploration system they put into the Adventures of Middle Earth roleplaying game. They took that experience and put it into the more world-neutral Uncharted Journeys. This thick book focuses on creating and detailing exploration scenes, encounters, and journeys. It has a section on the four roles characters can take while exploring but the bulk of the book focuses on the details of various regions and tables of potential encounters for different types of beats like "a chance meeting", "monster hunt", and "a place to rest." It's a big book with a lot of ideas so it's best used to help you fill out scenes during prep – not during play. With hundreds of different potential scenes, there's a lot to dig into in this book.

    Zobeck Clockwork City

    Zobeck Clockwork City is a book put together from the previous material Kobold Press published on the city of Zobeck from their Midgard campaign, stretching back to earlier Pathfinder material and including stuff from Warlock magazine. It's an awesome city sourcebook adding life and depth to this central city in the world of Midgard. If you're planning on running Midgard and beginning your campaign in Zobeck, this book is an excellent resource to fill it out.

    Tome of Beasts 1, 2023 Edition

    Kobold Press revised their first book of monsters and updated them into the new style we're seeing for 5th edition monsters. But, more importantly for me, the new book is printed on beautiful glossy paper instead of the more rough matte paper of the original book. The old paper didn't carry darker colors nearly as well as the new one. The new monster designs are great, but if you have the old one, you don't need to buy the new one unless you really want to. If you don't have it, however, Tome of Beasts 2023 is an excellent book of monsters.

    Just the Tip of the Iceberg

    Our hobby is rich with awesome products, these days. I don't think there's ever been a better time to enjoy the full breadth of what the TTRPG hobby has to offer. Keep yourself open to RPG material from lots of different publishers. These five products are only a small sample. Keep your eyes open and enjoy the wealth of materials so many creators have to offer.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Use the Lazy DM 8 Steps At the Table and Vault of Shune – Shadowdark Gloaming Session 17 Lazy GM Prep.

    Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Find ways to get the characters into the room. Hallway fights are boring.
    • Build a series of rooms together as one big multi-dimensional encounter.
    • Use GM rulebooks and sourcebooks from many different 5e publishers.
    • The Trials and Treasure book from Level Up Advanced 5e is a fantastic drop-in replacement for the DMG.
    • Give characters the chance to craft interesting magic items.
    • Build environments that showcase character abilities.
    • Build your own game from your favorite components behind the GM screen.

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  • VideoBathe Your World in Lore

    Lore matters. The histories and backgrounds of the worlds we run in our RPGs makes them unique among all others. We don't need to write a thousand pages of lore for our world but we need enough lore continually flowing during our game to make our world and our campaign stand apart from every other fantasy world out there. The lazy trick is to take lore from published settings. If you're making your own world, be ready to keep digging ever deeper into the lore of your world: gods, history, people, factions, and empires. Continually reveal these facts of your world through secrets and clues as the characters explore the world around them.

    Setting Our Games Apart

    Without the lore in our games, each game would feel very similar. You delve in dungeons. You walk across dangerous lands. You have hard conversations with people. You pick up treasure. You fight monsters. What keeps us going week after week, year after year, for decades?

    The story. The lore.

    It's not just a dungeon – it's a lost laboratory of the shadowy Netherese. It's not just a ruined tower – it's a ruined watchtower of Thrakus the Witch King. It's not just another noble fop – it's Artinias Faine, whose bloodline goes back over fifty generations to the empire of Vorigan.

    Lore Matters

    When we talk about spiral campaign development we talk about focusing worldbuilding around the characters and their location. You don't need a full pantheon of gods, fifty thousand years of history, and a detailed atlas of the twelve empires ruling across the world.

    Or do you?

    Well, not really, but it sure helps to have enough details to set your world and your campaign apart from every other generic fantasy world out there. This is why secrets and clues are so powerful – you can take a bunch of lore and break it down to ten one-sentence bits you can drop into your game wherever you need it.

    Embrace Published Settings

    In a previous article I talked about running homebrew adventures in published settings and I think using lore from published settings is the most valuable lazy way to ensure your world is set apart. Your typical adventures of dungeon delving, overland exploration, and NPC interaction feel completely different if you're running them in Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, Midgard, or the Gloaming. The setting makes our adventures unique and published settings have already done the heavy lifting. They have the pantheon, the history, the people, and the empires all written up and ready for you to break down into secrets and clues the characters discover in the game.

    Staying One Step Ahead

    But maybe you're stubborn and want to run your own world. You don't have to write a 400 page sourcebook to do so. You can start small – keeping the focus on what the characters find around them. You don't need all the gods, just the ones the characters follow or the gods followed by those individuals and groups who oppose the characters. You don't need a world history, just the history of the local town and the dungeon below it.

    Focusing on just the stuff around the characters keeps you one step ahead without needing to overprep. Each session you'll want new pieces of the world you might reveal that slowly teaches them (and you!) what this world has to offer and what makes it unique among fantasy worlds.

    Don't Forget the Importance of Lore

    Lore is easy to forget. We get caught up in the game's mechanics, the stories of our individual sessions, the actions of the characters, and all the rest. It's lore, however, that makes our adventures truly unique and noteworthy in the sea of fantastic worlds in which we surround ourselves.

    Bathe your game in lore.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Balancing Encounters with Waves of Combatants and A Troll Named Barborog – Shadowdark Session 16 Prep.

    Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Build complex combat encounters with two or three complementary monster types.
    • Use simple stat blocks for lieutenants of more complicated boss monsters.
    • Use environmental effects that either side can turn to their advantage.
    • Focus on the flavor of spells more than their mechanics.
    • When your players come up with something awesome, lean into it.
    • Print maps, write simple descriptions.
    • What would be going on at this location if the characters weren't around?

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  • VideoAlternative Standard Arrays for 5e Ability Scores

    Here's an easy house rule to help players more easily select ability scores when building characters in 5e games.

    Instead of using a mixture of point-buy systems and either racial or background-based ability bonuses, suggest the two following standard arrays, applying them to the player's abilities of choice. These standard arrays already include any potential racial or background bonus:

    16 (+3), 14 (+2), 14 (+2), 12 (+1), 12 (+1), 8 (-1)

    or

    16 (+3), 14 (+2), 14 (+2), 12 (+1), 10 (+0), 10 (+0)

    These standard arrays work for whatever flavor of 5e you happen to be playing including the 2014 D&D Player's Handbook, Tales of the Valiant, or Level Up Advanced 5e. Each of these 5e variants has their own ways to handle ability scores and bonuses but they're all close enough to these standard arrays that any differences don't really matter.

    Experienced players who want to get into the weeds can use the ability point-buy rules of your chosen 5e flavor and apply additional bonuses based on whatever ability bonus points the system provides.

    New players, and players who just want to get on with their adventures, may find these all-in standard arrays much easier to understand and apply without needing to worry about any complex point-buy systems and ability bonuses from other parts of character creation.

    Add these standard arrays to your session zero guide to help players more quickly build their characters.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Music for RPGs and Owlbear Rodeo for Lazy GMs.

    Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Never forget — your goal is to have a great time laughing and sharing stories with your friends.
    • Keep things simple. Focus on prepping a fun session for your friends.
    • We each get to decide what D&D is to us. Don't be afraid to make it your own.
    • Focus characters around factions for deadlier games so character motivations continue even when characters die.
    • Don't let others determine your happiness with your games.
    • Boil your next game to the essentials and build up from there.
    • Ask questions. Write down answers.
    • Read your sourcebooks.

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  • VideoHard Conversations

    Whether we like it or not, whether it's fair or not, GMs often find themselves in the position of needing to have hard conversations with people. Maybe it's a player who isn't fitting in well with the group. Maybe it's someone upset with the way the game is going. There's lots of reasons but beyond just running the game, we often find ourselves in the position of managing the group. Group Management is hard for anyone – not just GMs. But when we find ourselves in this situation, it's best to have some ideas for how to handle it.

    Address the Problem, Not the Person

    First, we need to understand the problem. What's really going on? What are all the sides and views? Focus on the problem, not the people. If we attack the person, we're not going to get anywhere. It's not our job to fix people. It's our job to get our game running in a fun direction. What are the behaviors and the circumstances causing problems? Address those issues directly.

    Don't attack the behavior of the person themselves. Focus on the situation and its causes affecting the game at the table. Look at the situation objectively and separate it from the individuals. Certainly people are responsible for their actions at the table but it's the situation you're trying to correct, not the person.

    Know Your Goal

    What do you want your hard conversation to accomplish? Maybe write down your goals and objectives and the things you need to reach them. What are you aiming for with your hard conversation? Are you trying to modify behavior? Are you trying to have a player demand less of the spotlight? Are you trying to avoid arguments during the game? Are you trying to give quiet players more attention? Are you trying to make sure you're having fun at the table too? Write down, review, and try to really understand the goal of your hard conversation. What would it look like if it all worked out?

    Recognize Your Own Bias

    All of us approach situations from an angle. None of us has objective truth. There are many variables we're not seeing. We are not the people we're talking to. We don't walk in their shoes. So we know that what we're seeing is our own observations and our own feelings. It's best to conduct the conversation recognizing this view. This is where the idea of stating how you feel and what you're seeing is better than dropping "truths". People often simplify this idea to statements like "sometimes I feel like X" where X is the problem going on. It's cliche but it can work.

    Handle It One-on-One

    You might be tempted to have such hard conversations in a group but public confrontation is almost always a bad idea. Handle hard conversations one-on-one. Step away from the group. Talk in a separate channel if you're online or in a separate room if you're in person. Have such conversations either in person, with face-to-face video, or in an audio call. We're always tempted to have such conversations in text or email because it's much easier but it's almost always the wrong way to handle it. It's hard but direct conversations are best.

    Be Honest and Direct

    Given your own recognition that what you're saying isn't objective truth, it's still best to be as honest and direct as you can. Tell them what's going on. Be specific. Tell them what needs to happen for the game to continue and what happens if it doesn't work out.

    If you're dealing with a situation and, after you've done your deep dive into the cause, recognize that the only way forward is for a member to leave the group, it may be best to just go your separate ways.

    "I'm sorry but having you in this game isn't working out. I'm afraid I have to ask you to leave the group."

    It's easy, in the stress of the situation, to fill the air with lots of words, get into arguments, and so forth but it's often best to just say it and move on. Let them say what they're going to say but stand firm if you really think it's not going to work out.

    No one likes being kicked out of a group. As social animals, we have hundreds of thousands of years of evolution fighting against leaving a group. That's all going to come up with situations like this. Defensiveness, anger, remorse, bargaining; all of it may come up but, if you feel it's not going to work out, best to just focus on the goal and move on.

    Handle Big Problems Right Away

    Sometimes things can get really nasty during a game. As a GM, unfortunately, it's your responsibility to shut down harmful behavior fast. These behaviors might include racism, misogyny, sexual harassment, violations of safety tools, or anything that hurts the game or the players playing it. You don't have time to step back and ponder the matter. You need to handle it right away. Pause the game. Talk to people one-on-one. Do your best to keep your own emotions out of the situation. But, above all, handle the situation as best you can at the moment before more damage is done. It’s not easy to do but it’s important.

    An Unfair but Necessary Job

    It's not fair that GMs get put in this position but we're often in it. It's our game. We're the ones invested enough to bring everyone together. Anytime people get together there can be conflicts. Taking as objective a view as we can and trying to get to a solution we can all live with is the best we can do. We won't be perfect but maybe we can resolve issues with as little damage as possible.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Lazy Magic Items and Deadly Bridges – Shadowdark Gloaming Session 15 Lazy GM Prep.

    Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Mix up small improvised encounters with big set-piece battles.
    • Don’t worry about saving time — focus on appropriate pacing.
    • Steal ideas from movies, books, TV shows, and video games.
    • Reveal information in the second person. What do the characters discover?
    • Use initiative when characters split up. Keep the spotlight moving.
    • Avoid linear maps. Give players meaningful options. Steer them towards the fun.
    • Never forget — your goal is to have a great time laughing and sharing stories with your friends.

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    Buy Sly Flourish's Books

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  • VideoD&D Beyond, Wizards of the Coast, 5e, and You

    Wizards of the Coast continues to expand D&D Beyond's dominance in 5e tabletop roleplaying games and they've proven they don't always act in the interests of the larger 5e tabletop roleplaying hobby. It's up to us to ensure our handle on the 5e TTRPG hobby remains strong and beyond the whims of any single company.

    We can do two things to strengthen our hobby:

    1. Show WOTC how they can better support the larger 5e TTRPG hobby.
    2. Make our own use of 5e products resilient to the whims of any one company.

    Don't let D&D Beyond determine your happiness with 5e.

    In addition to this post, you can watch my YouTube Talk Show on the subject or listen to me, Jessica Hancock, and Russ Morrissey talk about it on the Unofficial Tabletop Podcast.

    WOTC Built a Resilient 5e

    Earlier this year, after the OGL fiasco, Wizards of the Coast released the 5.1 SRD into the Creative Commons. This made the core concepts of D&D available to 5e publishers big and small. Not only can people write 5e compatible materials, but they can write D&D-style games with all of the nomenclature of D&D and not worry about getting sued.

    They also released the 5.1 SRD in French, Spanish, Italian, and German. By doing so, they helped creators all over the world build 5e products in languages other than English.

    Download these documents and save them on your hard drive so they'll be available forever.

    Releasing 5e into the Creative Commons makes the larger landscape of 5e publishing extremely strong. Any of us can publish products compatible with 5e (not just the 2014 D&D but all other 5e compatible products and systems) without needing anyone's permission.

    That's great for print products and static digital products like PDFs.

    But the landscape for digital tools is changing.

    Growing Their Walled Garden

    WOTC's expansion of D&D Beyond, including adding products from other 5e publishers, gives WOTC further control over the larger 5th edition TTRPG hobby – the very control they hoped to acquire when attempting to violate their own contract by deauthorizing the Open Gaming License. That failed, and, in return, the 5.1 SRD is now under a Creative Commons License.

    Digital play of 5e continues to grow. Just shy of 40% of the 3,300 GMs and players I surveyed on YouTube regularly use D&D Beyond (yes, I know such polls are flawed but polls do give us a sense of what trends are emerging). The more players and GMs depend on D&D Beyond to run 5e games, the more they depend on WOTC to dictate what that game is and how it's played. If you're reliant on D&D Beyond,

    • you're stuck with whatever options are available in D&D Beyond and don't have access to nearly all 5e material published by other publishers.
    • players often expect that everything in D&D Beyond is "official" and anything else is not.
    • you're stuck with their version of 5e, not any of the others like Level Up Advanced 5e or Tales of the Valiant.
    • WOTC can change material on D&D Beyond without notice and with no way to roll back to previous versions.
    • the more you buy there, the harder it is to jump to a competitor.
    • you must live with it even as WOTC changes their business model however they want.
    • WOTC can shut it down at any time, for any reason, and you lose everything you "bought". This isn't hypothetical. They shut down the 4th edition D&D character builder ten years ago.

    What Can WOTC Do?

    WOTC greatly strengthened the 5e hobby by releasing the 5.1 SRD into the Creative Commons. Here's how WOTC can further strengthen the hobby.

    • Let us download PDFs of our purchased material on D&D Beyond. WOTC is one of very few publishers who doesn't offer PDFs of its books.
    • Let us import structured versions of subclasses, spells, items, and monsters from other sources into our D&D Beyond homebrew collections. This access would allow the community to offer open content in a structured format we can import directly into Beyond.
    • Give us an official API to export structured versions of characters, class features, spells, items, and monsters we paid for so we can use them in other tools if we want to.
    • Continue to release D&D products on Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds.
    • Release D&D products on Foundry, Shard, Demiplane, and other character builders and VTTs as they come up.
    • Continue to make physical books the primary product of D&D.
    • Follow through on your promise to release the 3.5 SRD into the Creative Commons and release updated 2024 D&D material into the Creative Commons.

    Make Your Hold on the Hobby Resilient

    WOTC may or may not follow through on any of these things but there are things we can do to strengthen the resilience of our 5e TTRPG hobby.

    • Buy physical books and PDFs from other 5e publishers on their own store even if they're on D&D Beyond.
    • Back Kickstarters. Help fund the development of new 5e products from independent publishers.
    • Offer character options to players from other 5e publishers.
    • Try other online tools such as Shard, Demiplane, Foundry, Fantasy Grounds, and Roll 20.
    • Steer players towards using pencil and paper character sheets. Tug on their nostalgia for a disconnected analog game.
    • Try other systems like Shadowdark RPG, Numenera, 13th Age, Shadow of the Demon Lord. You don't have to leave 5e forever but try some other games every so often.
    • If you're a techie, get your hands dirty converting open gaming content into structured data formats so more tools can use them. Join Open5e and their Discord server to see how you can help.

    WOTC's Role in the 5e Community

    WOTC is in the unique position to bring more people into the hobby. I want them to spread the word of D&D far and wide. I want D&D postage stamps. I want movies. I want critically acclaimed, popular AAA video games. I want them to bring in every person they can into this hobby, show them how the game is played, and show them the value it can have in our lives.

    I want them to bring those people into the larger community and show them that there's more. There are other options, other monster books, other sourcebooks, other adventures – thousands of products published by hundreds of publishers – all in support of this larger hobby we love.

    These games enrich our lives. They saves lives. I want us all, WOTC included, to make this hobby as strong as it can be.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Running Monsters in Dynamic Situations and Saving Barborog – Shadowdark Gloaming Session 14 Lazy GM Prep

    Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    RPG Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:

    • Continually expand and contract the aperture of your lens to keep the focus on the fun parts of the game.
    • Know the capabilities of the characters. Showcase their strengths.
    • You're the architect of your game. The books and rules are tools you can use or discard to serve that game.
    • Use paper character sheets.
    • Buy physical books.
    • Support independent publishers.
    • Don't let your game depend on any digital tool.

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