March 16 2017

Sly Flourish


    Sly Flourish

  • Letters to New and Veteran Dungeon Masters

    We're in an amazing time for our hobby. The number of people playing D&D appears to be roughly doubling every two years. That's a lot of new Dungeons & Dragons dungeon masters coming into the hobby every day.

    Many of us have also been playing D&D for decades. We've been "holding the torch" as Grant Ellis says. We've played four or five versions of the game over the years and bring these decades of experience to the games we run.

    This mix of new and veteran dungeon masters can bring an incredible wealth of shared experiences from both new DMs and veterans alike.

    If we let it.

    In today's article, I offer two letters; one to new dungeon masters and one to veteran dungeon masters. My goal is to help bridge the years between new and old DMs so we can equally share our experiences and all learn from one another without the years becoming barriers between us.

    A Letter to New Dungeon Masters

    Welcome to one of the most amazing hobbies in existence. Dungeons & Dragons brings friends together to share amazing stories that rival anything we've read in books or seen on a screen. With the mixture of creative ideas from ourselves, our players, and the randomness of the dice, we will watch stories unfold that will stay with us the rest of our lives. We're going to build worlds together.

    This hobby can also be intimidating. We have to get past our inhibitions and become kids again. We have to be willing to play make-believe again. We have to be willing to make mistakes. We have to get past the fear that we'll look stupid in front of our friends. The smarter we get, the richer our imaginary worlds become, if we're willing to let go of the barriers our society has placed on us in their attempt to get us to "grow up".

    We don't have to be afraid. Millions of people of all ages now enjoy Dungeons & Dragons. Groups like the team at Critical Role show us that adults playing make-believe is as fun to watch as it is to play.

    It can also be intimidating when new players talk to people who have played D&D for decades. A lot of veterans in this hobby love to tell new players how long they've been playing. These stories might scare new dungeon masters, making them believe it takes decades before they'll be good at this game. Most of the time these veterans just love to have new people to share their old war-stories with. They love to talk about things like THAC0 and how hard Tomb of Horrors was back in '78. Its been a while since anyone cares to hear these stories so they're always looking for an ear.

    A few veterans, however, use their experience as a way to try to prop themselves up above new DMs. They're intimidated by all of the new people coming into the hobby. They're afraid it will change their game in ways they don't like. They fear their voice doesn't hold as much weight as it used to. They may use their years of experience as a goal post new DMs need to meet—one they can't meet since it's entirely based on longevity.

    Here's a secret. Those years of experience tell you nothing about how good a dungeon master they are. Those years of experience might even bind these experienced dungeon masters into old styles best left to decades past. Some experienced DMs have closed their minds to new ways of thinking about their game. They don't just ignore Critical Role, they actively speak against it. "That's not D&D" they'll say because it isn't the kind of D&D they're used to seeing and playing. They're shutting themselves off from the growth of the game.

    In this hobby, years of experience is no indicator of skill. You can be a great dungeon master in just a few months. We've never had better resources to become great DMs than we do right now. We can learn the basics, watch people play, ask questions, share our experiences, gather tools, and find people to play with all online. The hobby has never been easier to get into and easier to get better at than it is right now.

    You can be a great DM with just a dozen or so games under your belt. After about fifty games, you could be as good as any DM out there if you continually learn along the way.

    This path, of course, isn't the same for everyone. You'll have to find which tips and tricks help you the most yourself. If you're looking to begin, you might start here.

    You don't need years of experience to run great D&D games. Keep your eyes open. Continually learn. Share your experiences. Pay attention to the experiences of others. Do these things and you're well on your way to being a great dungeon master.

    You can do it.

    A Letter to Veteran Dungeon Masters

    D&D is changing. You and I have some decisions to make as the number of people in this hobby continues to grow. We can resent this growth or we can embrace it. I doubt many of us actively resent it but that doesn't mean we're not resenting it subconsciously. We have to push this resentment away and remember that every new DM entering this hobby makes the whole hobby better. Every new DM gives us new experiences we can learn from ourselves.

    This means welcoming new people into the hobby. It means teaching them the ropes and making it as easy as possible for them to see what this game has to offer. Put yourself in their shoes and teach them the things that will help them. They don't care about how hard multiclassing was back in 1st edition; they need to figure out what they need to run a game now.

    We can start by making it as easy as possible to bring new people into the hobby without using our years of experience as a barrier. Don't start a conversation by mentioning how long you've played D&D. Ask them about their own experiences. Listen to them before you talk. If they ask how long you've played, just say "a while". Don't push them away by digging a canyon of decades between you.

    Here's something even more important. You have as much to learn right now as you did years ago. New dungeon masters are coming from all sorts of places with all sorts of backgrounds and their own experiences. They'll have all sorts of new ideas we can learn from.

    We can learn as much from new dungeon masters as they can learn from us.

    Keep your mouth shut and watch them, whether it's in online discussions, in video, or in real life. Watch them, listen to them, and learn from them. See what they bring to the table.

    The growth of our hobby is as useful to us veterans as it is to new DMs. We can watch more DMs running games now than ever before. We can learn from more systems, sources, and adventures than ever before. We have many wonderful avenues to share our experiences and learn from other DMs however long they've been playing.

    We might think, with our decades of experience, that there is nothing new under the sun. We would be wrong. We can learn as much about how to run great games now as any new DM. Embrace the philosophy to always be learning and let your style improve as it never has before.

    You might be perfectly happy playing the way you've been playing over the years. Your group might be happy too. If that's the case, go with the gods. There's no obligation to change the way you play. Don't assume your way is the right way, though. There are many ways to enjoy this game.

    Even small tweaks can bring more joy to the games we run. Continuously running small experiments keeps our game fresh over the years. If you feel yourself resistant to change, take a step back to ask yourself why. What holds you back? You don't have to make huge leaps. Small experiments can go a long way.

    Learn From One Another

    Whether you have six months experience running D&D games or thirty years, we can all learn from one another. This hobby, more than ever, is filled with ways for us to share our experiences. We have more access to more material than we could ever digest. Run some games, watch some games, pick up some tips, listen to other DMs however long they've been playing, and run small experiments to make your game the best game it can be.

    Read more »
  • Running Waterdeep Dragon Heist Chapter 4: Dragon Season

    Waterdeep Dragon Heist's chapters alternate through many different playstyles. Chapter 1 runs much like any standard Dungeons & Dragons adventure with a strong start, a quest, some investigation and roleplaying, a dungeon, and a boss. Chapter 2 is a big sandbox in which the characters get involved with a bunch of factions and set up their own tavern and manor. Chapter 3 is an investigation and infiltration of a noble's manor which runs well as a situation-based encounter in which a situation is occurring at Gralhund Villa and the characters get to decide how to deal with it.

    Chapter 4 takes us down a new path; that of a chase. Chases are tricky in D&D, particularly if we try to define a scene as a chase up front and don't let the players decide how to actually approach the situation. As written, Urstel Floxin, an agent of the villain in the adventure (in my case it's the Cassalanters), grabs the Stone of Golorr (the MacGuffin of the adventure), and runs off. The characters traverse through eight separate scenes as they chase the stone through Waterdeep.

    There are a few problems with this. First, what if the characters short circuit the chase? What if they cast hold person on Urstel and grab up the stone in scene 1? One way to handle it is to just let them do so and keep going forward but that removes a big piece of the book. In the book the Stone of Golorr doesn't want to be found early but that feels artificial to me. What does the stone care about our chase?

    What if the characters don't follow Urstel right away. In that case either the whole scene waits for the characters to rest up which feels arbitrary, or Urstel zips off with the stone and the characters are left with no idea where it might have gone to.

    Both of these situations are more likely than actually going through the chase as written. It's also a big let-down if the characters chase the stone all over Waterdeep and end up not getting it.

    There's another way to run this chapter, though; one that follows more of the philosophy of chapter 3. Set it up as an investigation and let the players navigate the situation how they wish.

    The rest of this article describes an alternate way to run chapter 4.

    The Stone Gets Away

    In our version of events by the time the characters finish up with Gralhund Villa in chapter 3, the stone is already gone. We're going to arrange it that the characters don't really have a way to get ahold of the stone during the chase. Urstel is already a few steps ahead.

    We begin this setup by ensuring that Urstel escapes from Gralhund Villa and it takes some time for the characters find him. For example, Urstel Floxin could have used a teleporter in the cellar of Gralhund Villa and the characters need to spend hours figuring out where it led. They spend this time exploring Waterdeep, using arcana checks to triangulate where the teleporter ended up. When they find the location, the stone is already well on its way to its final destination.

    What Path Does the Stone Take Regardless of the Characters?

    When we're developing a situation like this, we can ask ourselves an important question. If the characters didn't get involved, what course of action would take place? In the Cassalanter scenario we use the summer encounter chain. If the characters don't get involved, the path of the stone's journey goes something like this:

    1. Urstel teleports to a mausoleum of the Cassalanters and gives the stone to some Cassalanter cultists.
    2. It turns out two of the four cultists are actually working for the Xanathar. They kill the other two and take the stone to the converted windmill to give it to Xanathar agents later that day.
    3. The Cassalanters have spine devil spies who see the ruse of the cultists. They kill cultists at the windmill and get the stone.
    4. The spined devils bring the stone to the Cassalanter butler, Willifort Crowelle, at his carriage in the alley.
    5. The three street kids dig a pit in the street and throw some canvas and dirt over the pit. Crowelle's carriage overturns and the kids steal the stone thinking it's some loot.
    6. Urstel Floxin, watching the path of the stone himself, sees that they lost control of it so he goes after the kids, wounds them, and takes the stone.
    7. Urstel Floxin takes the stone to the Cassalanters himself, something he had hoped to avoid so he wouldn't be seen going to the Cassalanter's villa.
    8. The Cassalanters now have the stone.

    This whole series of events probably takes a few hours. The characters might start their investigation of the path of the stone while it's still happening or afterwards. If it's afterwards they can still learn the path of the stone and find out that it's with the Cassalanters.

    You can change up your own series of events based on which season of Dragon Heist you're running. The big question to ask is "how does this series of events go if the characters don't get involved?"

    Turning a Chase Into an Investigation

    Now that we know what path the stone will take regardless of how the characters get involved, we can watch how they do get involved and see if it changes the path. If the stone is two or three steps ahead, the characters will have to move fast if they want to catch it, which isn't very likely. It is possible through scrying or invisible familiars they can watch it switching hands. Otherwise they'll have to look at clues, talk to witnesses, and gather the information they need to figure out where the stone went. Floxin and the Cassalanters were hoping to move the stone discreetly but when they get betrayed by their own cultists and robbed by three street urchins, they leave evidence behind that the characters can discover.

    It's even possible the characters manage to short circuit the chain of events themselves by getting really lucky, really smart, or both. If they do, they succeed in getting the stone and it's off to the vault of dragons. If they don't, it's time for something else.

    It's time for a heist.

    In the next article on running Waterdeep Dragon Heist we'll talk about using the lairs in chapter 5 to add in the heist to steal the Stone of Golorr.

    Read more »
  • Lazy Dungeon Master Adventure Prep Template

    One of the nice things about the eight steps for preparing a session of D&D from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is that it works with just about any tool you already like to use. If you're a pen-and-paper DM, you can just write it down. If use Microsoft OneNote, as many DMs do, you can build templates in OneNote for each session using the eight steps.

    I've recently been writing my session notes in text files as part of my Lazy DM Prep videos. I write them in Markdown so I can render them nicely on my phone. I actually wrote Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master using Markdown. It's a wonderful system-agnostic format that allows for a lot of rich markup without leaving behind the simplicity and cross-compatible nature of plain text.

    Below you can find a text-based Markdown template for the eight step process from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. For a more specific description of each of these steps, see the free sample from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, watch the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master videos, or [buy the book] and learn all about it.

    To use this template, select it and copy it into a new blank text file. Save it as "adventure_template.txt" in the directory where you keep your adventure notes for a particular campaign. Each time you get ready to write up new adventure notes, make a new copy of this template with a new filename. You can also update the template with regularly appearing notes such as reoccuring NPCs and your character notes which tend to be the same from session to session. Resist the urge to copy over previous secrets and other information. That stuff is better thrown away and rewritten between sessions.

    ## Characters

    **Name.** Description.

    **Name.** Description.

    **Name.** Description.

    **Name.** Description.

    ## Strong Start

    Description of your strong start.

    ## Scenes

    * Small scene description.

    ## Secrets and Clues

    * Secret description

    ## Fantastic Locations

    **Location**: aspect, aspect, aspect

    **Location**: aspect, aspect, aspect

    **Location**: aspect, aspect, aspect

    **Location**: aspect, aspect, aspect

    ## Important NPCs

    **Name.** Description

    **Name.** Description

    **Name.** Description

    **Name.** Description

    ## Potential Monsters

    * Name
    ## Potential Treasure

    * Description

    Here's an example of the template in action, this time formatted into HTML from the original Markdown version. These notes were for my first Shadow of the Demon Lord adventure but it can work just as well for D&D of course.


    Leaky. (Bryan) Goblin magician Witch. Medicine. Proprieter of Leaky's Potion Shop. Between the sections of town. Likes spoons. Connection to the Fey. Leakys potion shop.

    Smile Steel. (Sharon) Clockwork Priest Oracle. Teamster. Doctor. Follower of Astrid and the Church of the New God.

    Pthank the Pleasant. (Mike) Orc MagicianSpellbinder. Torturer and Wilderness Guide.

    Myab Shalin. (Michelle) Changling Rogue. Burgler. Engineer. Summer Court Fey connection.

    Bobwise. (Gregg) Orc warrior fighter. Working in the guard. Politics and Arms Trader. Merchant polition.

    Doogan. (Jorge). Dwarf Rogue. Charlatin and common teamster. Forger.

    Strong Start

    As the characters all cross by the well in the center of Grievings, the lowest district in Crossings, they come across a torn woman eating a man's body.


    • The characters witness the devouring of Bront Muddy Knees, a down-and-out soldier.
    • They meet Sergeant Alyse
    • They see a hired killer (Asys Brightfang) watching the Moore house.
    • They go into the well or into the Moore house
    • They find Father Gregory in the Black Vault

    Secrets and Clues

    • Father Gregory has gone missing. Word was sent to the church of the New God to let them know. They are sending someone.
    • Members of the Rude Boys have been watching the Moore House.
    • A week or so past, cloaked and hooded figures emerged from the Moore House.
    • The well in the center of Grievings used to produce fresh water but the water has gotten tained since the coming of the red star.
    • Shady characters have been lurking about in the ruined buildings.
    • Rumors say that the Black Hand of Azul, also called the City of Death, have come to Crossings.
    • The inquisition of the New God have begun to arrive from Seven Spires, their holy city. Some think they will purge villainy from Crossings. Other think they will raize it to the ground.
    • The mages from the Occlusion are always quiet but always watching. They have agents everywhere.
    • Caden Fen, a seller of oddities, has spoken about wanting to join the mages of the Occlusion. He believes they have learend how to live forever.
    • Someone saw four cloaked and hooded figures sock Father Gregory in the face and drag him into the Moore house about a week ago.

    Fantastic Locations

    The Moore House: collapsed roof, obscene and troubling graffiti, litter of drug abuse

    The Well: deep shaft in the ground, few trust the water within, bodies of the dead

    The Tunnels: Natural endless caverns deep under the city, deep shafts leading down into nothingness, elven carvings and statues crying black blood

    The Black Vault: Buried deep in the earth, maybe a thousand years old, covered with signs of the coming apocalypse, sacrificial altar upon which Father Gregory is being dissected while still alive

    The Occlusion: Twisted tower of impossible angles, blots out the sun, surrounded by terrain of wreckage

    The Faerie Spires: slender towers of white stone, impervious to damage, hum with secret calling to the fey

    Important NPCs

    Salas Wisewatcher. Spy of the Black Hand. Keeping an eye on things in the Crossings and in Grievings.

    Father Gregory. Follower of the new god. Worried about the portents and has sent word to the City of God.

    Caden Fen. Young and eager seller of oddities. Has a spellbook he got from a murdered hedge mage and wants to be a member of the Black Sun

    Sergeant Alyce Ironhand. Member of the Brown Cloaks who has been investigating disappearances. She grew up in Grievings and wants to help people there. She's beginning to realize the council doesn't give a shit.


    • Corpse Flower
    • Zombie
    • Cultist
    • Hired Killer
    • Rats
    • Organ filch


    Glimmer, an ancient elven dagger. You can use a triggered action when a creature gets a failure on an attack roll with a melee weapon to teleport to an open space within 1 yard of the triggering creature. You step through the Fey to reach your target.

    100 copper pieces

    I don't expect many people will directly use this template but hopefully it gives you a practical look what the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master actually look like in use. Like all of the advice on this site, customize it and use it as it best helps you in your own game.

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  • Running Waterdeep Dragon Heist Chapter 3: Fireball

    Note: This article contains spoilers for Waterdeep Dragon Heist.

    Chapter 3 of Waterdeep Dragon Heist may be the best chapter in the book. This chapter fits well into the model of adventure design proposed in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. It has the ultimate strong start: a fireball exploding in the street outside of Trollskull Manor. It also builds the adventure around the infiltration of a location: Gralhund Villa. These infiltration adventures give players lots of options and push us DMs to heavily improvise the reaction of the villains as the characters make their choices. In my mind, it's the ideal situation for a fantastic adventure.

    Bad Guys Have Bad Days Too

    Chapter 3 begins with a misunderstanding between two groups trying to accomplish the same thing. An agent of Raenar Neverember is bringing the Stone of Golorr to the characters. Agents of House Gralhund have been trailing the gnome and two different groups attack him at the same time. The first is the former Zhentarim assassin Urstul Floxin. The second is a nimblewright sent by the Gralhunds. If the Gralhunds had trusted Floxin to do his job, the characters might never have known that the gnome or the stone existed at all. Instead, the nimblewright screwed up and fireballed the gnome, causing a catastrophe and getting a lot of attention in Trollskull Alley.

    Bringing In the Xanathar's Thugs

    To complicate the situation we can drop in a handful of Xanathar thugs and warlocks who also happened to be tracking the gnome. Now when the fireball goes off we have a whole bunch of different groups chasing down the stone all at the same time. Floxin gets it first and flees the scene, sending in his own thugs to ward off the Xanathar thugs. That's when the characters get involved. They might track the nimblewright but Floxin is gone as is the stone. Only afterwards, when the situation has cleared up, do the characters learn that the former Zhent assassin got away with the stone.

    Tracking the Stone to Gralhund Villa

    The next part of the adventure has the characters learning about the Stone of Golorr from Raenar Neverember and hunting it down to Gralhund Villa. We might have dropped some clues about the Gralhunds already. In my game, the warehouse where Raenar Neverember was first kidnapped was actually leased by the Gralhunds as a front for the Cassalanters, the adventure's true villain in my game. This way when the characters hear about the Gralhunds, it isn't for the first time.

    The book offers some false leads that send the characters on wild goose chases but we can make life a little easier on the characters and drop in some secrets and clues that the Gralhunds are behind the theft of the stone and that it's now at their manor.

    Infiltrating Gralhund Villa

    When the characters arrive at Gralhund Villa we drop into a great infiltration adventure. We can read ahead on who is where in the villa and let the players decide how they're going to approach it. Urstul Floxin is arguing with the Gralhunds about their stupidity. If the characters overhear it, it will give them a clue that these bad guys have made some bad choices and that they're also working for someone else. It won't be their last bad choices either.

    Grandfather Gralhund, a wight, is wandering around in the villa's courtyard as he does every night while the Gralhund children are playing with matches up in their rooms.

    To complicate the situation, a band of Xanathar spies and thugs might break into the compound the same time the characters get there with the same plan to steal the stone.

    Adding a Mini-Dungeon

    The Gralhunds are former worshippers of Tiamat so we might add a shrine to Tiamat in the basement. These chambers might include an old teleportation gate that Urstul Floxin can use to escape the villa before he's confronted by the characters. This will begin the chase in chapter 4 but with a different spin: instead of a chase, the characters have to track Urstul's movements through the city to find out where he's taking the Stone of Golorr. We'll talk more about converting the chase in chapter 4 into an investigation in our next article on the Waterdeep Dragon Heist.

    Some of the Gralhund's cultist friends might be hiding down in the shrine; cultist friends the characters will have to deal with when they get down there.

    Setting the Stage for Chapter 4

    With Gralhund Villa thoroughy infiltrated, the more arcane-focused characters in the party might use some Intelligence (Arcana) checks to find out where the portal went to. This location becomes the first step in the trail followed in chapter 4. More on that in the future article. In the mean time, enjoy the investigation and the infiltration in chapter 3. Think of it as an excellent model with an interesting hook and a lot of agency for the characters to choose the path they want to take. Of all of the models of adventures, infiltrations are one of the best.

    Read more »
  • On Writing Adventures

    I've recently been doing a lot of adventure writing, the results of which you can find in the Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot Kickstarter. As part of this project, I wanted to dig deep into what makes great adventures. So, as I did when writing Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, I hit the books (and the blogs) to collect as much of the best advice on adventure design that I could.

    Map from Temple of the Forgotten God, one of the adventures in Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    This article consolidates many of the sources I discovered and read on adventure design. In the article I describe the source and some of the key tips that stuck out to me.

    Chris Perkins on Writing Your Own Adventures. Chris has some excellent advice in this video and summary writeup. Here are a few key ideas:

    • Analyze existing adventures.
    • What motivates the characters to go on the adventure?
    • Adventures need three things: motivation, locations, and a villain.
    • Put a unique spin on a common idea.
    • Have a kickass map.
    • A little silliness is ok.

    D&D House Style Guide. This free set of documents from Wizards of the Coast includes the house styles the D&D team gives to freelancers. It includes a short paper on adventure writing. Here are a few key points:

    • Focus on the importance of the characters.
    • Include a solid credible threat.
    • Blend familiar tropes with clever twists.
    • Focus on the here and now. Omit verbose backstories.
    • Include meaningful decisions.
    • Include options for exploration, roleplaying, and combat.
    • Offer more than a DM can come up with themselves.
    • Include a great map.

    DM David on Will Doyle's Dungeon Designs. In this excellent article, David Hartlage discusses Will Doyle's advice for designing great dungeons including the Tomb of the Nine Gods in Tomb of Annihilation.

    • Show the final room first. Show the goal.
    • Cut the dungeon with a river, rift, or stairwell. Break through a linear dungeon with a feature that cuts through the whole thing.
    • Make the dungeon a puzzle.
    • Give the players goals that force exploration.
    • Give each level a distinctive theme.

    How to Write Modules that Don't Suck. This outline for a seminar at a convention by Goodman Games has a lot of fantastic advice in it. Goodman Games ended up extending it into a much longer ebook of the same title. The original is a golden summary of great ideas. Here are a few key pieces of advice:

    • Convey the fantastic.
    • Produce what home DMs can't produce.
    • Put new twists on classic ideas.
    • Include a hidden room with cool treasure.
    • Make levels distinct.
    • Include an intelligent ecology.
    • Exude atmosphere.

    Kobold's Guide to Game Design: Adventures. This book has a ton of excellent essays on writing adventures. Some of the key points include:

    • The DM is your audience. Write for them.
    • Give the DM the tools to make a fun game for players.
    • Small beats large. Keep it brief.
    • Don't bore yourself.
    • Read your work aloud.
    • Be specific.
    • You're doing the hard work DMs don't want to do.
    • If Conan doesn't care, neither should you.

    Merric Blackman's NPC Advice. Merric Blackman had some excellent NPC advice he posted to Twitter. Here are a few key ideas:

    • What do they want?
    • How do they respond to trickery, diplomacy, intimidation, or violence?
    • Present NPCs as they're intended to be used.
    • Important NPCs need more guidelines for DMs.
    • Don't force a DM to search for an NPC's information.
    • Limit the number of important NPCs.

    Wolfgang Baur's Adventure Writer Series includes a number of great articles, though they tend to focus on the third edition of D&D. The most relevant articles include Writing Your First Adventure, Structures and Plot, and Setting the Hook. Here are a few tips from these articles:

    • Avoid useless backstories.
    • Start strong.
    • Trim excess encounters.
    • Pick a motive: curiosity, survival, greed, heroism, loyalty, honor, or revenge.
    • Make hooks personal.

    Jaquaying the Dungeon. This article on the website the Alexandrian offers excellent advice for building exciting dungeons in our adventures. Here are some key concepts:

    • Include multiple entrances.
    • Include loops.
    • Include multiple level connections.
    • Offer secret and unusual paths.

    Writing With Style: An Editor's Advice for RPG Writers. This is an excellent resource from an RPG industry editor to RPG writers. There's so much good advice in this book that it is hard to summarize in a few bullet points. It's an excellent read all the way through.

    Designing Adventures Podcast Series. Shawn Merwin and Chris Sniezak have been running a series of podcasts on designing adventures. There's too many tips to list here but the podcasts are definitely worth a listen.

    Read more »
  • Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot Kickstarter

    Last week I launched the Kickstarter for Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot. You can learn all about it on the Kickstarter's page, of course, but for those of you who frequent Sly Flourish, I wanted to offer some deeper insight into the project.

    Over the past few years I've experimented with a few different products. After writing an article for Critical Hits on "What I Want from Published Adventures", I experimented with Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. This book offered twenty locations GMs could drop into their games abstracted from the story, monsters, NPCs, and other stuff we bring into our game. I love this product but it's not everyone's cup of tea. In particular, it purposefully didn't offer accurate maps because the design idea was that GMs would build their own maps. That might have been asking for too much heavy lifting.

    The original Fantastic Adventures came next and it hit the mark for a lot of of GMs. I designed that book to offer short focused adventures that made it easy for GMs to prepare them, run them, and drop them into their own campaign worlds. I think they worked well. The book gets lots of complements from people who give hard looks to published adventures. The book also sells well; about a couple of hundred copies a month.

    After spending a year writing Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and the Lazy DM's Workbook, I went back to the formula for Fantastic Adventures and played with it for a bit.

    The result is Ruins of the Grendleroot, a book of ten adventures set in a single big mountain filled with ancient chambers, ruins, tunnels, catacombs, vaults, and lairs. It's a mountain of infinite possibilities for adventure centered around Deepdelver's Enclave, an outpost of explorers and adventures who just plain love digging down into all of those ruins.

    Like Fantastic Adventures, each adventure is intended to run on its own. Unlike the original, five of these can actually be run in a series around a single miniature campaign arc. I wanted to add a little more theme to these adventures than the original had, and, if we meet the stretch goals, I'll add an entire history that GMs can pilfer from as they run these adventures.

    Originally I had intended to build Ruins of the Grendleroot around randomness. Much like the tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook I thought it would act more like an adventure toolkit, something like Shadows over Driftchapel by Absolute Tabletop. After testing the idea out with some trusted advisors, however, it turned out that, like Fantastic Locations, it asked too much of the GM to build adventures out of the components without a hint. Thus, you'll find more refined adventures in this book but lots of advice for how to twist it and turn it around to fit your own story.

    I am really excited for Ruins of the Grendleroot. So far it's the hardest project I've worked on with the most moving parts. The artwork, editing, and design are going to be awesome. I can't want to get it into your hands.

    If you have the means, I hope you will give it your support.

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  • The Old Man and the Bowl

    Leavold Goldenfingers worked his magic. Across the icy rocks of his home, high up in the Spine of the World, the sound of his tiny hammer clinking on the golden bowl echoed across the mountains. His knobby fingers fixed the rubies in place. They ached as he pressed the gems carefully into place feeling them set perfectly in the rim of the golden bowl. In a few tendays, each of the dozen rubies would be in place and then he could start etching the glyphs on the inside of the soft gold bowl, a bowl only he could make. A bowl that would, one day, serve a feast to heroes.

    Leavold looked out over the rocky landscape of his home, the home he had lived in for nearly all of his eighty five years. He grew up here. He learned the crafting of the bowls from his father as he had planned to teach his sons.

    Tears came to his eyes. For sixteen winters his son had watched him work, studying his art. Leavold told him of the heroes who purchased his bowls and used the divine food they served to push back the evils of the world. His son would smirk at these fantastic stories but soon he came to believe them. He believed them too much.

    Leavold's son left to find his own way in the world, a world of adventure, discovery, and heroism. He only found the end of a gnoll's spear in his belly, setting in an infection that killed him a tenday later. His son's friend came to tell Leavold. They held eachother and wept together.

    The next day Leavold continued to craft his bowl. He was the only one in the world capable of making such a fine bowl. With his arthritic fingers aching and sad memories in his eyes, he would continue to make them, one at a time, six moons passing before each was complete, until the day he died.

    The Troubles of Heroes' Feast

    There are a few troublesome spells in the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. One of them, in my opinion, is Heroes' Feast. This sixth-level cleric spell is powerful enough that many players will choose to cast it every day they can, giving its substantial benefits to all of the characters in the party every morning. Many of the spell's abilities are just fine. The hit point maximum and bonus hit points are great. Advantage on Wisdom saves is powerful but not game-breaking. Curing diseases and poisons is solid.

    Then we come to its more difficult bonus: immunity to fear and poison. On the surface this doesn't seem like a big deal but many high challenge creatures are built around the damage they inflict with poison and the status effects they impose with both poison and fear. With every character in a party immune to these effects, certain monsters become much easier. This might be fine, but many of these monsters are intended to be truly powerful threats.

    Let's consider the ancient green dragon. This challenge 22 monster inflicts most of its damage with its horrendous 77 point breath weapon, a weapon that is completely avoided with Heroes' Feast. Another of the dragon's powerful weapons, it's Frightful Presence is also negated by the same spell on all characters. This could potentially cut the ancient green dragon's challenge in half with a single spell.

    The same is true with many other monsters. Yuan-ti rely on poison for the bulk of their damage. All of the high-challenge dragons use Frightful Presence as do many other monsters. Some of the most powerful monsters in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes rely on fear or poison for a good piece of their challenge including Baphomet, Moloch, Geryon (who uses both), and Hutijin.

    The Fun of Breaking the Game

    One of the core designs of the fifth edition of D&D is that certain spells, feats, and magic items can "break" the game. They go outside of the math that exists between characters and monsters. When the designers build a monster, like a green dragon or Geryon, they don't factor in spells like heroes' feast. They want those spells to shine in situations where it has an effect. Being able to go out of your way to make yourself immune to the breath weapon of a green dragon is a pretty cool part of the story.

    Heroes' feast is so good, though, that many clerics and druids, when they have it, will cast it every day. Like mage armor for wizards, the whole party will get together every morning and spend an hour enjoying an amazing meal prepared by their priest.

    There are lots of ways we DMs could screw with the power of heroes' feast if we wanted to. We could nerf it directly and make it resist poison instead of full immunity. We could have it give characters advantage on poison and fear saving throws instead of full immunity. That would solve all of the problems I have with it. Sure, it's powerful, but a green dragon's breath weapon still does something.

    We could go the other direction as well and convert monsters' abilities to something other than poison or fear. We can't get away with this for green dragons, known for their poisonous breath, but we can for devil lords and others by converting poison damage to acid damage and converting fear checks to madness checks. This is probably worth doing when monsters are intended to provide a powerful challenge to parties (like Geryon or Baphomet).

    The Scarcity of 1,000 gp Bowls

    Another way to handle this is pure economics. Heroes' feast requires a 1,000 gp gem-encrusted bowl. Granted, by the time characters are high enough level to cast heroes' feast, they are also often high enough level to buy as many 1,000 gp bowls as they want. But who is going to sell those to them? Who has 1,000 gp bowls just sitting around in a stack like plasticware at a Walmart? The cost of a bowl like this speaks to its scarcity. There probably aren't a lot of bowls like this. Even if one has the 1,000 gp, finding those bowls might be a quest unto itself. Maybe the head of a temple gives an adventurer a bowl as a reward. Maybe they find one in an ancient tomb of a dragon priestess. Maybe there's an old man in the mountains who has made these bowls for 75 years but it takes him six months to make one and he only has two available.

    We can prevent the over-proliferation of heroes' feast by limiting the component required to cast it. The characters can still decide when it's time to sit down and enjoy that fine meal before stepping into the ancient fortress of Coldsteel in the layer of hell known as Stygia.

    This technique is a fun one because it helps balance a spell like heroes' feast within the story of the game. Acquiring bowls suitable for heroes' feast becomes it's own story.

    Season 8 of Adventurer's League

    Wizards of the Coast saw a problem like this one when looking at the Adventurer's League. After seven seasons of adventures and dungeon delving, high level characters in the Adventurer's League, like characters in home games, had plenty of gold to spend on bowls for Heroes' Feast. WOTC modified the adventurers league by severely limiting gold rewards in Adventurer's League games. This is fraught with all sorts of problems, well documented by Navy DM, DM David, and Merric Blackman, but it does take care of the Heroes' Feast problem. You really have to want those buffs to spend the 1,000 gp to cast it.

    I don't Have a Problem. You Have a Problem!

    Maybe you're reading this and thinking "Why are you nerfing Heroes' Feast like this? Let the players have their fun!" That's a perfectly acceptable reaction to these ideas. If your group is having a good time and you, the DM, don't care, don't worry about any of this. If you feel like the removal of poison and fear isn't a big deal, go with the gods. If, however, you feel like the challenge of certain high challenge monsters gets too easily avoided with a single casting of heroes' feast, consider following the money and make the bowls scarce.

    The old man gazes over the frost-cracked rocks outside his home. A lifetime seems to swim in his eyes. Though often haunted by the ghosts of his memories, he still finds solace in his craft. Wincing as his arthritic knuckles crack, he begins his work again.

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  • D&D Tips from the 2018 D&D Open: Gangs of Waterdeep

    In the summer of 2018 at Origins, Wizards of the Coast and the D&D Adventurer's League ran the D&D Open, a multi-table competition-based D&D adventure called "Gangs of Waterdeep" as a preview to their Waterdeep Dragon Heist adventure. This adventure was writtin by Shawn Merwin, James Introcaso, and Will Doyle.

    The adventure is considered "competitive" but the competitive aspect was limited to a point-based system in which only one table out of about fifty could actually win. The competitive nature wasn't the interesting part of this adventure; the interesting part was the style and format. Today we're going to look at some design tips we can learn from the design of the D&D Open Gangs of Waterdeep adventure.

    Warning, this article contains minor spoilers for Gangs of Waterdeep.

    Build Situations, Not Encounters

    Gangs of Waterdeep mastered the art of building situations instead of encounters. The whole adventure was broken up into 60 to 90 minute segments that each focused on a heist. These could be break-ins, infiltrations, hijacks, and other heist-like situations. Before each of these larger events, the DMs gave players information they could discover and time to prepare themselves for the situation. Then the operation began. Maybe characters would fight their way through it. Maybe they would sneak. Maybe they would like or bluff. How the players chose to approach the situation was up to them and it was up to the DM to adjudicate how it worked out.

    These larger scenes are different from the typical way we might plan out our Dungeons & Dragons games with specific exploration, roleplay, or combat scenes with pre-determined starts and conclusions. These larger situations are exciting because our options are nearly unlimited and the outcomes can be completely different from anything anyone can expect.

    The next time you're planning out a D&D game, build a larger situation and let the characters choose how they interact with that situation.

    Add Planning and Execution Timers

    When we set up situations and give the players time to discuss how they're going to go about it, we can add timers to keep it to a reasonable amount. If a scenario is likely to take about an hour, we can let the players know that they have fifteen minutes to plan the job before it begins. It helps to have an in-game reason for such a limitation.

    One reason to put such a limit on the planning is that the players really don't have all the information about the situation and their plan is very likely to change when more information gets revealed. The longer the planning goes on, the more planning will be thrown away when things go sideways. Limiting the planning session gives players some time to prepare but wastes little time when things don't go as they expect. In some circumstances you want to give players all the time they want to plan an approach towards a situation, like deciding how to get onto a pirate ship and steal a specific treasure they hold. It's always best to watch the body language of the group and see if the planning is going overboard, however.

    Let the Players Choose the Gameplay Pillar

    When we build out situations, we don't determine how the scene will go. We don't decide ahead of time that a scene will involve combat, exploration, or roleplaying. We can let the players decide how to approach it, both as they plan and as the scene takes place during the game. This can be great fun for both players and DMs since no one knows how a scene is going to go. It can help us to explain this to the players before the game so they aren't looking to us for clues to "solve" the scene. It also helps if we're prepared to run some of our combat in the theater of the mind so that we can seamlessly transition between roleplaying, exploration, combat, and back again without a big break in the flow of the narrative. If we have to set up a battle map and miniatures for just one of those scenes, it can slow down everything else instead of giving us easy transitions in and out of combat. Of course, if combat does occur between a good number of different monster types in a complicated area, a battle map or even a loose sketch, can help everyone understand who is where and what is going on.

    Choose Monsters that Make Sense

    Gangs of Waterdeep broke away from the typical Adventurer's League style of building level-appropriate challenges for the characters. Typically Adventurer's League encounters are built around a character's level. This can result in fighting a weird hodgepodge of unlikely creatures for the situiation like four swashbucklers and three master thieves breaking into a dress shop to justify a level 8 battle.

    Instead, we can choose the right monsters for the story regardless of the level of the characters. If the characters run into a band of thieves on the streets, those thieves are likely bandits. Maybe their street boss is a bandit captain.

    It's ok to run combat encounters that are wildly in favor of the characters if it makes sense for the situiation. There's no reason you can't have a group of sixth level characters fight five bandits if that's what makes sense. In Gangs of Waterdeep our gang of level five characters fought three cultists at one point. Could they have been cult fanatics? Maybe, but plain cultists makes a lot more sense.

    The only time we might want to be careful is if a battle might be deadly. Then it's worth checking out the math to make sure we won't accidently kill the whole party.

    Use Props and Costumes

    Props and costumes can add a whole new tacticle and visual feeling to the game. Dressing up as guards, wearing hoods, and otherwise changing our appearance for the game can draw in another level of immersion. So can other props we can use at the table like rustic notes, maps, physical props, and other objects. A puzzle box or cube can become a staple in a long-time campaign, something we hold throughout our adventures. A heart-shaped gem or black coin we can hold in our hand can represent the phylactery of a villain or the trapped soul of a companion. Look for props everywhere, particularly costume shops or hobby shops, and drop them into your game to add a new layer to the story.

    Add New Gameplay Elements

    From time to time it can be fun to add a new gameplay element to our normal D&D game. Using a big Jenga tower to represent the psionic battle between two opponents can be fun. We can use mastermind puzzles, Caesar cyphers, or strimko puzzles to represent the puzzles our characters find in-game. Keep in mind that these puzzles don't work for those who are visually impared so be ready to toss them aside if players can't take part in them. It's usually easy to change a puzzle into a series of skill checks if players either aren't figuring them out, don't care about them, or are physically unable to take part.

    A Solid Adventure Design

    The Gangs of Waterdeep adventure models an excellent design for adventures overall. Its focus on developing interesting situations that the characters can explore in many different ways gives a freedom we don't often find in published adventures. It focuses on the story by putting thematically appropriate monsters in the right spots regardless of whether it's an "appropriate" challenge to the party. It times both planning and execution of the scenes in the adventure, keeping the tension high without removing the agency of the players' decisions. It included some excellent props and costumes to help bring another layer of depth to the game. It also included a fun new gameplay type, one that worked in parallel to the rest of the adventure, that proved to be a fun event all to itself. Gangs of Waterdeep was an excellent model for the adventures we can run at our own game table.

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  • VideoChoosing the Right Steps from the Lazy DM Checklist

    Chapter 12 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master describes ways to reduce the eight steps of RPG preparation down to the ones that matter the most for your game. This list changes depending on the type of game a DM runs and available material a DM has to run it.

    Today we're going to look at which steps best fit common scenarios in which DMs often find themselves.

    If you are not familiar with the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master you can read this PDF preview of the book or watch these videos including this 8-step summary video to better understand the eight steps. For a quick summary, the steps include:

    • Review the characters
    • Create a strong start
    • Outline potential scenes
    • Define secrets and clues
    • Develop fantastic locations
    • Outline important NPCs
    • Choose relevant monsters
    • Select magic item rewards

    This list of steps is all-inclusive but we can often skip steps depending on what sort of game we're preparing. You can watch me do this all the time in my Lazy DM prep video series in which I use the eight steps to prepare for my own weekend D&D games but often cut steps out depending on the type of game I'm about to run.

    Let's look at some common scenarios and see which steps best fit.

    The Continuous Homebrew Campaign

    Based on the results of the 2016 Dungeon Master Survey, this scenario is likely the most common. Most DMs run their own campaign worlds and their own adventures. It's also likely most DMs run continuing campaigns and not a series of single-session adventures.

    Of all of the potential ways to play D&D, this one likely needs most, if not all the steps, each session. Since you don't have a pre-existing published adventure, you can't easily fall back on other tools that help you skip certain steps.

    Sometimes, when you're in the middle of a campaign, you might already know what fantastic locations are coming up. You might also have an idea of what scenes might take place or you simply don't care and plan to let the game go wherever it goes.

    Generally, though, you'll want to go through all eight steps.

    In a recent Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign I ran, I ended up falling back to my own story and my own campaign. Unlike running published adventures, I needed all eight steps to help me fill out each session. I found the checklist helpful (one would hope I would!) but I did need to go through each step on it.

    Even if you are playing in someone else's campaign world (and most DMs likely are not), this won't really help you skip steps for any given session. An overall campaign world means less work on the details of the world but all eight steps are still relevant for the next session you plan to run.

    When running your own series of adventures in your own campaign world, you'll likely benefit from going through each of the eight steps while preparing for your next game.

    The Continuous Published Adventure

    Though likely not in the majority, many DMs run larger published campaign adventures such as the D&D hardback adventures for fifth edition. Like the continuous homebrew campaign, these stories continue from session to session. Unlike homebrew campaigns, we have a lot of material we can fall back on that help us skip some the steps.

    Big published adventures require a lot of work, but that work is mostly up front when reading the adventure through to understand what's in it. We'll also want to review the adventure before each session to know what comes up next. That said, such early preparation helps us skip steps session to session because the published adventure includes much of what we need. In particular, we can often skip the following steps:

    • Scenes. We know what scenes are often coming up because they're listed in the adventure.
    • Fantastic locations. We're using the locations in the book so we don't need to think them up ourselves.
    • Important NPCs. We might still want to list the ones who matter to the characters but overall we don't need to come up with many NPCs from scratch because they're in the adventure itself.
    • Relevant monsters. Again, these are likely in the adventure so we can skip it.
    • Magic items. Also often rewarded in the adventure.

    Some adventures, like Curse of Strahd, Storm King's Thunder, and Tomb of Annihilation have large open-ended chapters that require more prep from the steps above. When the adventure goes off the rails, it's up to us to fill them in with interesting scenes, locations, monsters, NPCs, and magic items. Most of the time, though, we can rely on the adventure to do that work for us.

    This leaves us with the following steps we still need to do:

    • Review the characters. We still need to focus on the actual characters in the game and how the world is reacting to them.
    • Create a strong start. It still helps to start strong in our games, especially when we're in the middle of a published adventure.
    • Define secrets and clues. Often we can drag these out of the background of a published adventure but we still have to write them down. These secrets are still tremendously valuable when we're actually running the game, published or not.

    Going from eight to three steps is a nice drop, however, which is why I highly recommend running published adventures. There's a lot of value packed into these books.

    Homebrew Single-Session Games

    Like the homebrew continuous games, we're going to need all eight steps when running a single-session homebrew adventure. In particular, scenes become more important because we know we're going to need to fit in a full story arc in one session. Timing also becomes critical so we need to know where we can cut the story down and still get to the ending on time.

    Overall, we still need the full eight steps when running a single-session homebrew game. That said, these eight steps help put together an entire adventure for four hours of entertainment which is a pretty great return for the effort.

    Published Single-Session Games

    We'll often see published single-session games when running organized play games or running games at conventions. Above all, the best value we get when running such a game is to read it and understand it before we run it. Often, time is the most critical factor. Like the homebrew single-session game, we have to complete a full story arc in the allotted time which can be a real challenge.

    Some single-session published adventures may not have the same quality of design, editing, and playtesting as the big hardcover published adventures so it's worth paying special attention while reading it to ensure it can fit into a single session. This is the work we must do up front but, like the published continuing game, we don't have to use all of the eight steps.

    Here are the steps we can likely skip:

    • Review the characters. We often have no idea who the characters are so there's no real work to be done here.
    • Create a strong start. Often these adventures start how they start. We might replace the strong start if the published start sucks but generally we'll use what they have.
    • Develop fantastic locations. Already outlined in the adventure.
    • Outline important NPCs. Already outlined in the adventure.
    • Choose relevant monsters. Already outlined in the adventure.
    • Select magic item rewards. Already outlined in the adventure.

    This leaves us with two steps to focus on when running a single-session published adventure:

    • Outline potential scenes. Because we know we're going to have to fit the adventure into a set amount of time, we want to have a solid understanding of the outline of the scenes and what we can cut if we need to get the time back on track. This step is vital for single-session published adventures when time is a factor.
    • Define secrets and clues. It's still helpful to know what the clues the characters can learn to get them from point A to point Z during a single-session published adventure.

    Pilfering Published Material for a Mashup Game

    Many DMs enjoy taking published material and smashing it into their own campaign arc. This provides a lot of the benefit of a published adventure but with the creative fun of a home campaign.

    When we're looting other published material, we don't have to stick to the fixed structure of a published adventure. This gives us more flexibility to share our own story but it means more work too.

    When we pilfer published material, we're most likely to steal locations and NPCs. We'll still have to go through the rest of the checklist to fill in the blanks we have in our campaign. Finding interesting fantastic locations, however, can be a big benefit so it's always worth stealing what we can.

    Further Room to Customize

    These are just a few potential scenarios DMs will likely have while preparing their D&D games. Your own specific circumstances will determine which steps are most useful to you. As you prepare and run your own games, consider which steps help you the most. Focus on those, reduce or remove the rest, and continually improve your system to run the best game possible.

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  • Running Waterdeep Dragon Heist Chapter 2: Trollskull Alley

    This is the third in a series of articles on running Waterdeep Dragon Heist. The other articles include:

    A Different Sort of Chapter in a Different Sort of Adventure

    Waterdeep Dragon Heist is already a different sort of adventure than we're used to but, at least in chapter 1, it still feels like a typical adventure. A quest is given, the characters conduct an investigation, they crawl a dungeon, and face a boss. That's the outline of thousands of D&D adventures and it works really well.

    Chapter 2 in Waterdeep Dragon Heist is nothing like this. Chapter 2 is mostly a toolkit for two major activities: restoring Trollskull Manor and getting connected with factions. There's no central storyline in this chapter and it's possible the activities in this chapter will take many tendays, months, or even longer depending on how you run it.

    Running this chapter is not easy. If you find yourself having trouble running this chapter, hopefully this article will help.

    Repairing the Manor

    Much of this chapter will also revolve around repairing and funding the manor. It's up to you and your group to determine how much detail you want to expose in this venture. This event might be as simple as acquiring the funds to build up the inn once again. Maybe they hire an intermediary to do act as their agent in such matters, for a fee of course. Maybe your group really enjoys the detail of building out the inn. Some groups will love these details and some what to go off on adventures like they expect to. You'll have to gauge this yourself.

    Choosing Factions and Quests

    The rest of this chapter brings in seven factions that can potentially recruit the characters and send them off on a variety of missions. There are 28 such missions, none of which have anything to do with Raenar Neverember or the missing dragons.

    I have two recommendations for these faction quests:

    1. Choose one to three factions you want to introduce and ignore the rest. You might choose the Zhentarim, Bregan D'aerthe, and the Gray Hands as three interesting ones to drop into the game. You might choose three others. You likely don't want to introduce all seven of these factions. Pick the ones that fit the characters and the game and dump the rest.

    2. Choose the faction missions which sound the most fun. There are tons of these faction missions and introducing them all can send the characters off on wild goose chases for weeks. Instead, pick a few that fit the current story of the characters and improvise any others you want to bring in.

    Choose Your Own Adventures

    This chapter is the perfect time to bring in your own small adventure seeds if you want. You can build these seeds from the backgrounds of your characters, inserting personal quests or group quests that focus on one particular character or another while they are busy fixing up the inn and dealing with the other issues going on. You can expand upon the rivalry between the new owners of Trollskull Manor and Emmek Frewn. Maybe it's your own little version of Patrick Swayze's Roadhouse. If you ever wanted to run some low level city adventures, this is a great time.

    The Haunting of Trollskull Manor

    For a more direct introduction to the chapter we can haunt Trollskull Manor, not just with Lief the poltergeist, but maybe with the hag mentioned in the manor's background. Back in Trollskull Manor's history, it was once owned by a hag who pretended to run it as an orphanage before she was routed by paladins of Helm.

    What if that hag is still around?

    This is our chance to add in some of our own mini-adventure. The two times I've run this chapter I added in a green hag named Auntie Potiti who had been routed from Trollskull Manor long ago but isn't fully gone. She still haunts the manor and adds all sorts of terrible discoveries including:

    • A giant closet that eats people.
    • Dead children that stomp around on upper floors or talk to the party.
    • A crazy big hag hand that comes out of a painting.
    • An illusion of a woman bathing in childrens' blood.
    • Paintings that depict the characters as young children hand in hand with the hag herself.
    • A glimpse of the hag's outdoor lair complete with catoblepas herds.

    We can channel our best interpretations from It, Poltergeist, and The Shining to build out this our haunted manor. You might even replace it with your own version of Death House if you haven't run it before.

    The hag might have a pet Banderhobb lurking in the cellar and the cellar itself might have a secret entrance into the Waterdeep sewers or even to Undermountain.

    The goal of the party in this sequence is to survive the hauntings for one night and to route the hag. She will leave the manor but is still out there and may haunt the characters from time to time. Hags are fun.

    The Mystery of Leif's Murder

    Another interesting storyline to investigate in this chapter is Leif's murder. Perhaps the murderer was Leif's assistant, a young man at the time but old man now. Perhaps this assistant did so only after being fed lies by the rival innkeeper Emmek Frewn. Now the assistant is down at the dock wards, continually down on his luck. He has never forgiven himself for killing the only man who ever showed him kindness. It's up to the characters to find this killer and bring him to Leif, not so the ghost can kill the poor old man, but forgive him. In my game, one of the characters found out his name and used one of the paper bird messengers to summon him to the manor for a mysterious treasure. Smart!

    Blue Alley

    If your group needs more structure and you want to throw a dungeon in the middle of this chapter, consider running Blue Alley by MT Black. This deathtrap alleyway is a fun way for the characters to engage with some wild traps and earn some valuable treasure to help them fund the reconstruction of Trollskull Manor. The dungeon can be unforgiving in some places so add in some valuable relics so the characters can earn more coin or acquire one or two nice powerful single-use magic items for their adventures to come.


    Whenever you feel like the pacing of this chapter is getting to be too slow, it's time to drop in the fireball. Chapter 3 of Waterdeep Dragon Heist focuses on the aftermath of an explosion that rocks the alley. It's a strong start to the rest of the story of this adventure. You can drop in this event at any point while running chapter 2 so it's a great way to help you tune the pacing of the adventure. If you ever feel like things are getting stale or boring, drop in the fireball.

    An Open but Challenging Chapter

    Chapter 2 of Waterdeep Dragon Heist gives DMs a lot of freedom to bring in new elements to the story. It also gives players a new style of game. Instead of chasing leads, fighting bad guys, and delving into dungeons; they get to build up their own home base, meet interesting factions, and go off on small quests. It's a way for them to feel the living and breathing city of Waterdeep.

    This wide open narrative can be equally challenging to run. Take some time, shrink the aperture, and build it into the chapter you want it to be.

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