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  • VideoThree of Five Keys: A Quest Design Pattern

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    Consider a quest where the door to the infamous Black Vault requires five gemstone keys and an evil wizard seeks these five keys to open it. In this scenario, the characters need only acquire one key to end the entire quest for the villain. Grab a key, throw it into the ocean, and the villain's whole quest is over.

    Flip the situation around and we still have the same problem. If the characters seek to open the door and the Cult of the Black Vault seeks to keep it closed, all the cult must do is destroy one key and the characters can't succeed.

    This is the problem with all-or-nothing collection quests. Any one item falling into the wrong hands can break the entire quest. These quest models are fragile.

    Instead, a slight change to this quest design makes the quest more flexible and provides a robust framework for stronger confrontations between villains and characters.

    What if the vault door required only three of five keys to open instead of all of them? Now, instead of needing to find only one key to stop the evil wizard, the characters have to find three of them. The chase is on as the characters and the Cult of the Black Vault hunt for keys all over the land.

    If you prefer a video on this topic, see my Three of Five Keys Youtube Video.

    Requiring the Majority of Keys

    We can fix collection quests like this by ensuring that the quest requires only the majority of items to complete the quest, not all of them. Maybe it's four of seven keys. Maybe it's five of nine. The more keys required, the longer the quest will take. Instead of an easy victory, characters may be traveling all over the world to acquire the majority of keys before the villains get them.

    Often such collection quests include a moment where either the villains or the characters need to steal keys from the other. Instead of this being a requirement (when all keys are needed), now the results of such a heist can go either way and the whole quest isn't over should one side or the other succeed.

    Requiring the majority of keys, instead of all of them, makes collection quests more robust and flexible. It gives us room for fun improvisation. Our carefully designed campaign won't fall apart when the characters get crafty and acquire a key we didn't expect. It gives us room to let the game go where it goes. We know that, whether a character or a villain acquires an item, more keys are needed to stop one side or the other.

    When running quests where a number of items are required to complete the quest, ensure only the majority of items (three of five keys, four of seven keys, etc) are needed so the quest isn't over if one key falls into the wrong hands. This powerful quest design pattern gives you a durable quest model with great flexibility and lots of opportunities for a fun chase across a fantastic land.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • The Dials of Monster Difficulty

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    When running Dungeons & Dragons we DMs have a number of dials we can turn to change the difficulty and challenge of any monster. Some dials work best when we turn them before the battle begins, others we can turn while combat is already underway. We can use these dials to change up the pacing of our game, making things more or less challenging depending on what works for the moment. These monster dials include:

    • The number of monsters
    • Each monster's hit points
    • The monster's number of attacks
    • The amount of damage a monster inflicts

    Turning these dials changes monsters significantly, giving us a lot of control over how dangerous any given monster is.

    Best of all, we don't have to spend a lot of time turning these dials. We can turn them up or down in our head, making them awesome tools for improvisational play.

    Let's look at each of these dials and see what effects it can have on our game.

    Tune the Number of Monsters

    Before a battle begins, we can decide how many monsters might be in that battle. We can start by asking ourselves what makes sense for the situation. Is it likely to be twenty hobgoblins in the mess hall or just four? Like many of our decisions in D&D, we start by asking ourselves what makes sense for the situation in-world. That isn't the final answer, though. We have another question to ask:

    What will make the game more fun right now? Sometimes the answer to this question is "more monsters". Othertimes it's "less monsters". If the characters have already recently fought in a big knock-down drag-out fight, maybe we want to go with less monsters. Not every battle needs to be a challenge. Run easy battles from time to time. They can offer a lot of interest and a lot more fun than you may realize.

    Start by asking what makes sense and then tune the number up or down to fit the pacing and energy of the game. If you need to, use the lazy encounter benchmark to see if the battle might be deadly.

    A battle may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than one quarter of the sum total of character levels, or one half if the characters are above fourth level.

    You can also turn this dial during combat if the in-world circumstances make sense. Another wave of monsters might follow the first, for example, or another group may stray off or get distracted. It's harder to turn this dial without the players seeing it though, and they'll know if you're adding monsters just to make things harder if it's too ham-fisted.

    Turn the Hit Point Dial

    As written, the hit points of a monster can fluctuate between the minimum and maximum allowed by the monster's hit dice. An ogre's stat block reads 59 (7d10 + 21). 59 is the average. An ogre can have anywhere from 28 to 91 and still be within range of its hit points. We can decide, during the game, how many hit points an ogre has within this range based on how we feel the battle is going. Will it help if the ogres present more of a threat? Turn the dial up and give them up to 91. Is it time for those ogres to go down? Turn the dial down to 21.

    If we're willing to break the rules even more, and I give you full permission to do so for the fun of your game, you can safely double a monster's hit point if you feel it works for the story and the pacing of the current situation or drop them down to 1 if it's time for the monsters to go away. While the hit point dial is safely turned within the range of a monster's hit dice, I think it's perfectly fine to turn the dial outside of the margins and increase a monster's hit points up to double their average or down to 1 when it suits the situation.

    Being willing to double a monster's hit points or reduce them to 1 is also much easier math than figuring out the minimum and maximum values of a monster's hit dice. When in doubt, be lazy.

    Change a monster's hit points up to double its average or down to 1 hit point based on what fits the story, pacing, and current situation.

    Turn the Number of Attacks Dial

    Sometimes it isn't just the hit points or damage that pushes monsters into the danger zone. Sometimes they need to do more stuff. Many monsters have a multiattack action. If we want to turn up the threat, we can give monsters an additional attack in that multi-attack action. If we overcalculated and things are too deadly, we can remove attacks, maybe knocking it down to just one.

    Sometimes monsters with additional abilities never have a chance to use those abilities if it's simply better for them to attack. The ankheg, for example, has a bite and web attack but can only choose one. This might be completely appropriate but if we want to get nasty, turn up the attack dial and let the ankheg do both in one turn. If we have a monster that can both multiattack and cast spells, let the monster drop one of its attacks from multiattack and cast a spell in its place.

    Increase or decrease the number of attacks or actions a monster can take to fit the situation, and pacing of the scene.

    Turn the Damage Dial

    Just like the hit point dial, the damage dial can follow the minimum or maximum amount of damage listed by the damage dice equation. If an ogre can hit for 2d8+4 it could hit for as little as 6 or as much as 20. It's rare that we want to turn this dial down, unless things got out of control, but we may want to turn it up if a monster just isn't posing much of a threat and such a threat is warranted for the situation.

    If we're using static monster damage, something I recommend, it's easy to turn the dial up and down on damage. Just change the amount. Maybe the ogre's doing 18 damage on a hit instead of the 13 average it normally does. Often adding 50% more damage works well. If, like most DMs, you use dice for damage, you can add 50% more dice to the attack when it's time to turn the damage dial up. Most of the time this means dropping in an extra weapon die; two at the most.

    Turning the damage dial can be tricky. We don't want our players to know we're turning the dials. If we use static damage, our players will know when we're changing it. If we use dice, we can throw in an extra die or two and likely never tip our hand.

    If we're using static damage, we can, instead, come up with a story-based reason that the damage goes up. Say the characters are fighting a helmed horror and having a hell of a time getting past it's 20 AC, we can describe how the fires within the horror start to burn hotter and hotter; beams of white light coming out of its eyes; as its blade blazes with white fire. Now it inflicts an extra d8 of fire damage on its attack); maybe even 2d8 if we really want to get nasty. At the same time, its armor begins to melt, dropping its AC down to 18 or even 16.

    If we know that a monster is hitting lower than we think is right for the situation, we can jam that damage dial into the red right from the beginning, maximizing its damage from the first hit or doubling the damage dice of the hit. This essentially gives the monster free critical hits all the time — obviously very nasty — but sometime's that's what fits the story.

    Turn up the damage dial by increasing the amount of static damage a monster inflicts on its attacks or adding one or more dice to it's damage dice.

    Grant Circumstantial Advantage

    When we have weak monsters attacking stronger characters, we might come up with a way to grant the monsters circumstantial advantage. Perhaps a monument nearby fills them with violent power. Perhaps cultists drank demonic blood and can now attack with advantage until they explode into demons. Perhaps the monsters have the high ground and are able to attack with advantage from their perfect angle.

    Use in-story circumstances to grant weaker monsters advantage on their attacks.

    Tweaking Attributes

    You can also, of course, take the path of tweaking attributes or giving monsters different armor to increase their AC. A particularly strong monster might have +2 to attack and damage. A heavily armored one might have an increase to AC based on its armor. There are lots of ways to change up monsters with just a few tweaks to its flavor.

    Giving Yourself Flexibility to Run a Fun Game

    We don't turn these dials to stick it to the characters (or the players). These dials give us the ability to change the pacing of the game so it's always the most fun. Perhaps we turn the dials to make things harder. Perhaps, instead, we turn the dials to give the characters a break after a long slog of battles. The tools that help us control pacing are vital for running a fun game and the ones we can use easily, like these monster dials, give us the improvisational aids we need to do so.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • 13 Tips to Speed Up D&D Combat

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    Though not nearly as big a problem as it was in previous editions, some DMs still find combat in the fifth edition of D&D takes too long for their or their players' liking. Today I'll offer a few tips to speed up combat. Not all tips work well for all groups, so choose those that work well for your and your group.

    Show Initiative

    Many times DMs keep track of initiative but don't show it to the players. Instead, make sure you share whatever initiative system you use so the players know what the order is and who is on deck. You can even put a player in charge of taking initiative instead of doing it yourself. Easy initiative cards are a great way to go.

    Use Side Initiative and Go Around the Table

    For shorter skirmishes, skip having each character roll initiative individually and go around the table instead. Have one player roll for the group with no modifiers versus the monster with no modifiers. Or, instead, let the circumstances decide whether monsters or characters go first and then go around the table. Alternate which direction you go so no one ends up last all the time.

    Use Average Monster Damage

    The Monster Manual lists average damage for every monster in the book as the default. Though only about one in ten surveyed DMs use static monster damage, it's an easy way to speed up combat, particularly when using a lot of monsters. Give it a try, at least for less important monsters.

    Run Theater of the Mind

    More than half of surveyed DMs use a 5-foot-per-square gridded battle map and miniatures or tokens for combat. This can be a lot of fun for big crunchy battles with lots of different monsters and interesting terrain. For quick skirmishes, try running combat in the theater of the mind or use a quick abstract battle map. Most battles don't need to be big knock down, drag out slug fests. Keep theater of the mind combat in your toolbox and use it for battles where positioning isn't nearly as important. It will speed up a lot of your battles.

    Use Fewer Monsters and Use Monsters of the Same Type

    Speed up combat by using fewer monsters and using monsters of the same type. It's much easier to run a fight against four ogres than it is to run a fight with two ogres, six goblins, and a hobgoblin war mage. Instead of trying to differentiate monsters with mechanics, differentiate monsters with your in-world descriptions. Describe the unique weapon each ogre wields or their own particular appearance, style, or mannerisms. Make battles unique by describing in-world differences instead of worrying about mechanics.

    Keep Battlegrounds Simple

    Simpler combat areas make for faster battles. The temptation to make every battleground interesting is strong, but sometimes a room without a lot of obstacles or a narrow hallway is all you need. Not every fight needs to be a tactical chess match. Sometimes you just surround an ogre and beat it into the ground.

    Run Easier Battles

    Not every battle needs to be a perfectly balanced hard fight for the characters. Throw lots of low challenge monsters at the characters and let them have fun destroying them with powerful spells and attacks. Use the cleave rules from the Dungeon Master's Guide so melee attackers can cleave through opponents like Conan the Barbarian. Easy fights are a great way to have some fun and not take up a lot of time. Of course, consider running these easier fights off the grid to save some time.

    Run with Fewer Players

    It's not always possible to select the number of players in your game but, if you can, four players are generally ideal. With four players you get lots of synergy between characters but each character gets a good deal of screen time. This also makes battles much easier to manage than those with five or more players. Fewer players means fewer monsters so everything gets easier.

    Use Horde Guidelines for Lots of Monsters

    It's fun to run battles with dozens to hundreds of monsters and yet seems completely paralyzing to do so. Instead of running each monster independently use the Sly Flourish horde guidelines to run lots of monsters easily. Here they are for easy reference:

    1. Tally damage done to the horde instead of tracking damage done to individual monsters. Every time any monster in the horde takes damage equal to an individual monster's hit points, remove that monster. Round monster hit points to the nearest 5 or 10 to make life easy.
    2. Anytime a bunch of monsters in the horde attacks or makes a saving throw, assume one quarter of them succeed. Round up or down depending on the circumstances. If they have advantage, half succeed. If they have disadvantage, assume one in ten succeed or maybe they all fail.

    Determine Targets Randomly

    Instead of carefully choosing targets, roll to determine the character a monster attacks. If a lot of monsters are attacking at once spread it around to the whole group unless a character is specifically trying to stop it. It's a quick way to determine how the battle goes and requires zero thought from the DM.

    Reveal the Monster's AC

    Once the characters have attacked the monster a few times, reveal the AC of the monster so players can figure out if they hit or miss without having to consult you. You can even write it down and show it to them so they can reference it during the fight.

    Use Hit Point, Attack, and Damage Dials to Pace Combat

    Never feel like you have to run a fight using the averages for damage and hit points. To increase the threat but speed up the fight, you can decrease the hit points of the monsters and increase their damage. Now they're going down fast but are super scary when they hit.

    Hit points, damage, the number of attacks, and the number of monsters are all dials you can turn to keep the pace of a battle fast and exciting. Turn those dials during a fight for the fun of the game.

    Use "Combat Outs"

    Use alternative goals in combat other than the full-scale slaughter of one side or another. Give the characters goals that don't require them to kill every monster they see. These goals may be quick and dangerous, keeping the fun high but the length of the battle shorter. See Dave Chalker's article on the Combat Out for more.

    Don't Lose the Fiction

    Though we seek to strip things down as much as possible to keep combat fast, never lose the story. Start and end with the story. Describe what's happening in the world, not the mechanics at the table. It can be tempting to throw away all the flowery descriptions but it's those descriptions that make D&D a fantasy instead of simply a tactical wargame. Revel in the fiction and keep the mechanics fast so you and your friends can enjoy awesome battles against terrible foes.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • GM Intrusions and Complications in D&D

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    The excellent science fantasy RPG Numenera and its underlying system, the Cypher System, includes a mechanic known as the GM Intrusion. The Numenera supplement, Taking the Narrative by the Tail: GM Intrusions by Monte Cook, gives deeper insight into this mechanic for under a buck.

    Monte Cook describes the GM Intrusion this way:

    GM intrusions are the primary at-the-table tool for GMs to participate in helping to craft the story that the group is creating. In the same way that a player contributes by stating what her character will do as her action, a GM intrusion is the GM’s action. It’s the GM’s contribution to the ongoing events to make things more interesting.

    Numenera and the Cypher System refine this sort of interaction with a mechanic—the GM Intrusion—but we can take the idea and bring it right into our D&D games. We can even use D&D's inspiration mechanic as the carrot of a GM intrusion stick. Something in the world complicates the lives of the characters, maybe one character in particular, and they gain inspiration for their trouble.

    Adding Complications to Your D&D Game

    I'm not much of a fan of the term "intrusion". It seems so...intrusive. I prefer the term "complication". As Monte Cook describes in Taking the Narrative by the Tail, this is a technique GMs have been using for decades, we just didn't have a mechanic for it. It may be something you already bring to your games. Sometimes a complication just feels right and so you drop it in.

    Complications and Beats

    Complications fit well with the idea of "beats" from Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. Complications are downward beats, bad things happening to the characters, and we likely want another form of GM intrusion for an upward beat. Something nice that happens to the characters. That's a topic for another day.

    The Nuances of Downward Beats

    This is a bit of advanced DMing. Knowing how to bring in such complications so they enhance the fun of the game and don't just screw players is important. You don't want such complications to take away agency or just bone characters. You want such complications to move the story in new and fun directions. Think hard and watch reactions to see how such complications are taken in. Do they stay in character and seem genuinely excited about what will happen or do they get frustrated out of game? Knowing which complications to drop in when and how is a valuable skill that takes time to develop.

    Twenty Complications

    What do these complications look like? Here's a list of twenty example complications to inspire your own when you're running your game. You can see dozens of examples in Taking the Narrative by the Tail, making it well worth the buck.

    1. The main villain makes a surprise visit.
    2. That unoccupied garderobe turned out to be occupied after all.
    3. The local hobgoblins just began their infiltration defense drill practice.
    4. Something catches on fire.
    5. Mercenary reinforcements show up.
    6. The king's foppish advisor turns out to be an expert swashbuckler.
    7. The floor collapses.
    8. Someone has to sneeze.
    9. The evil prince keeps a pen of pet guard drakes.
    10. A parade of hooded monks turns the corner to walk through the middle of the street fight.
    11. Someone else is robbing the noble's manor at the same time.
    12. The king's daughter chooses right now to escape her overbearing father as the characters break into the castle.
    13. Of course there's a black pudding in the commode.
    14. Not the bees!
    15. That detailed trap was actually cover for another far more devious trap.
    16. Something is possessed.
    17. The guide has no idea where they're going and leads the characters into a trap.
    18. A strange magic item causes a wild magic surge.
    19. A sundered pillar causes a balcony to collapse.
    20. The boat starts sinking.

    Complications: The World's Action

    As Monte Cook describes, think of these complications as the actions of the world in the same way the players describe the actions of their characters. Sometimes the characters do something and the world responds. Other times, things just happen. Above all, these complications serve one goal—to make the story more interesting, more exciting, and more fun.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Running Session Zeros

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    Both Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and Tasha's Cauldron of Everything describe running a session zero for your D&D games. This article summarizes one approach for session zero sessions to help you baseline your D&D campaigns for both you and your players. While the books above go into more depth, hopefully this article gives you an idea of the basics.

    What Is a Session Zero?

    A session zero is a game session run before a larger campaign in which you and your players talk about the upcoming campaign before you actually run it. Session zeros are intended to get you and your players all on the same page about the game you plan to play, and the campaign you plan to experience. Some DMs go in with little prepared, maybe not even knowing what campaign the group will play. Others, like me, have a good idea what campaign we'll be playing and want to baseline the principals and story of the game with the players.

    Session zeros help everyone manage their expectations about what the game is and what it is not. It helps tie the characters to one another, to the world in which they exist, and to the main story of the campaign. It helps everyone understand what kind of game you'll be playing and helps define the boundaries of that game.

    Session zeros are a huge benefit when running longer campaigns.

    The Session Zero Checklist

    When you're running a session zero, here's a list of things you likely want to go over during the session.

    • The campaign world and it's defining characteristics.
    • The "six truths" of the campaign. What are the major defining characteristics of the world that the characters know but the players may not?
    • The main driver for the campaign. What are the characters trying to do?
    • Any major factions the characters might already know about.
    • Options for the characters' patrons. Tasha's Guide to Everything includes good sets of character patrons you can use directly or as an example.
    • Safety tools you'll use in the game. What sort of content can players expect and what can they do if the game heads into territory where they're uncomfortable? See my safety tools article or Monte Cook Games's free Consent in Gaming for ore.
    • Character creation guidelines. What sorts of characters will have the most fun in the campaign? What books can the players use to build their characters?
    • Character integration. What brings the characters together into a cohesive group? This is a great interactive part of the session that binds the characters together. Often tying them all to a single group patron is an easy way to do it.
    • Go over any house rules. Do you have any house rules that break away from the game? Now is the time to go over them. It may be things like how you run theater of the Mind combat for example.
    • If you need it, this is your time to talk about player etiquette, your rules on cheating, or any other behavioral issues you need to address head on. Nows the time.

    You may have other things you want to go over before your campaign begins. This is the time to do it.

    Session Zero Campaign One-pager

    When I prepare for a new campaign, I like to put together a single page campaign worksheet so my players can quickly internalize what I'm planning for the campaign. You can see my example campaign one-pagers below:

    I've designed these guides with the following principles.

    • They fit on one page so players will actually read them.
    • They tell the players what this campaign is about.
    • They describe what makes this campaign different from others.
    • They offer any group factions.
    • They offer guidance for building characters best suited for the campaign.
    • Describe content and safety tools.

    You can build your own one-page campaign guide from these principles and examples for your own campaigns.

    Session 0.5

    Once we've gotten past the main part of a session zero, I like to run a short session with the characters. I like to start strong and bring the characters right into the campaign with a fun short adventure and a good hook for what's to come. If the characters begin at 1st level (they almost always do in my campaigns), I like to give them a small challenge, some opportunity for roleplaying, and then level them to 2nd level before the real adventure begins.

    Setting Expectations

    When everyone's on the same page about a game and a campaign, campaigns run much smoother and everyone has a great time. If players come to the table without any expectations defined, they'll bring their own and a mismatch in expectations isn't fun for anyone.

    Take the time to plan and run a session zero before your next big game and get everyone off on a grand adventure leading off on the right foot.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Running D&D Combat with an Abstract Battle Map

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    We often break up D&D combat into two categories: combat on a 5 foot per square grid (which we'll refer to as "gridded combat"), and running combat with pure narration (often called "theater of the mind").

    In reality, there are many forms of combat that sit around and in-between these systems. There's text-based battle maps, zone-based combat, abstract distances like those found in 13th Age, combat using online tools like Roll 20 or Owlbear Rodeo, and combat run on fancy Dwarven Forge terrain. How we run combat can be completely unique to us and this is a powerful feature of D&D. We get to decide with our players how we want to play it.

    Today I'm going to offer one of my favorites: the abstract battle map.

    The abstract battle map is a rough visualization of what a combat area looks like. We can draw it on a sheet of paper or a dry-erase battle map. We can even represent it in text. We can use tokens or miniatures to represent characters and mosters as we choose, or we can just draw in circles or letters to represent characters and monsters like we're drawing a football play diagram.

    The abstract battle map shows important physical features like terrain, hazards, areas that provide cover, and other landmarks. It also shows the loose position of characters and monsters. Unlike gridded combat, the actual distances of the map aren't set in five foot squares. Instead, distances are a loose approximation and the map is mainly there to show relative positions.

    We can mix our abstract map with zone-based combat or more loose theater of the mind guidelines. My concept of text-based battle maps is one example of an abstract battle map you can do in a text channel while playing online.

    One of the biggest complaints DMs and players describe when discussing running D&D combat in the theater of the mind is a lack of shared understanding of the details of combat between DMs and players. The abstract map helps close that gap and does it without losing the freedom and imagination we enjoy when running combat in the theater of the mind.

    The abstract battle map is very flexible. You can do it for ten cents with a sheet of paper and a pencil or for tens of thousands of dollars with a custom gaming table, 3d terrain, and custom miniatures. It fits whatever budget and materials you have for D&D.

    And here's a dirty secret for you. The faster, cheaper, and looser the abstract map, the more room it has for our imagination. The more detailed it gets, the less players listen to in-world descriptions and fill in the blanks with their own ideas. They'll rely on the map more and more, forgetting the smell of the caverns or the echoing sounds of a faraway waterfall. Some Xs and Os on a piece of paper helps players understand general positions and their imaginations fill in the other details.

    The abstract map is a bridge between full-featured tactical gridded combat and fully narrated theater of the mind combat. It gives our imagination the freedom to build fantastic scenes of high adventure in our head and still offers enough of a representation of the sitiuation so players feel empowered to make meaningful choices.

    Add the abstract map to your DM's toolbox.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • VideoSafety Tools

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    Safety tools provide simple rules to make sure everyone's comfortable and having a good time during our D&D games. There are a lot of different safety tools we can choose from to bring the right ones to our game. Today I'm going to focus on two: "lines and veils" and "pause for a second".

    For a video on this topic, see my Safety Tools Youtube Video.

    Quick Guide for My Preferred Safety Tools

    Here's a set of safety tools you can easily incorporate into your game to ensure you and your players have what you need to run a fun and comfortable game. Discuss these with your group during your session zero before your campaign has begun, and whenever a new player joins the group. These are intended to work both in-person and when playing online.

    • Give your players a list of potentially disturbing subject matter that may come up in the campaign you're planning. You can use the checklist in Monte Cook Games's free Consent in Gaming for an example list of potential topics. Discuss this list with your players during your session zero and ask if they have any problems with anything on the list.
    • Come up with a list of "lines" (topics that should never come up at all) and "veils" (topics to be handled off-screen or in the abstract) for your game. Discuss this list with your players and add any other lines or veils they come up with. Write down the additions and send the revised list out to your players.
    • Tell your players that anyone (including you) can say "pause for a second" any time during the game to break character and discuss the current situation out of character, including stating "I'm not comfortable with where this is going". The phrase "pause for a second" interrupts anything else going on in the game. It's used to break character and discuss or ask questions about anything going on in-game. Think of this as a verbal X card.

    Why We Need Safety Tools

    Humans are complicated creatures. We've all led unique lives and many of us have dealt with trauma from a wide range of potential sources, situations, or phobias. Whatever these experiences are, we don't need to bring them into our D&D games when we're all just hoping to sit around the table (virtual or physical) and have a few laughs with our friends.

    Our adventures aren't always G-rated affairs. As an example, when getting ready to run Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden I wrote down potentially traumatic themes in the adventure and had quite the list at the end including:

    • Darkness
    • Deadly Cold
    • Betrayal
    • Paranoia
    • Murder
    • Incest
    • Isolation
    • Cannibalism
    • Mental assault
    • Ritual sacrifice
    • Parasitic monsters
    • Child endangerment
    • Violence towards animals

    That's a hell of a list and I doubt everyone's fully comfortable with everything on that list. Incest? Seriously?

    If we're playing games with more extreme themes like Rime of the Frostmaiden and Descent into Avernus, safety tools are valuable tool to ensure we're steering the game towards a good time for everyone at our table.

    Not as Hard As You Think

    Safety tools don't need to be a big deal and any group can benefit from them. Even if you've been gaming with your friends for a long time and know them well, you never know if a topic will take a hard turn and adversely affect them. Even they might not realize how something will affect them until it happens. Why not offer a simple tool to give everyone the opportunity, without a big confrontation, to say that they're not happy with the current situation?

    There are many different types of safety tools. For more on tor topic see the TTRPG Safety Toolkit and Consent in Gaming. Today we're going to look at a couple of tools we can use together for both in-person and online games.

    Campaign Subjects and Themes

    When we're first considering a campaign, we can list the specific subjects or themes that some might find troubling. If you want an idea of the sort of things you may want to mention, check out the checklist in Consent in Gaming by Monte Cook Games. It's not perfect (it doesn't mention slavery for example) but it's a good start.

    Lines and Veils

    Lines and veils work alongside our list of themes mentioned above. Some players may have hard lines to avoid certain themes such as no sexual violence, no harm to children, or no character-driven torture or harm to animals. Some players may prefer to have themes "veiled" — keeping the details off-screen. Torture, slavery, sacrifice, and NPC-based harm to animals may be ok but only if they happen off screen. During the game, we don't dwell on veiled themes.

    When we're first sitting down to prepare our session zero, we can define our own list of lines and veils to begin with and let the players add to it during the session.

    Lines and veils are a two-way street. The GM can mention what's off limits for the table, what's veiled, and what potentially sensitive topics might come up in the campaign. Players can mention other topics that may not have been mentioned but could cause problems if they do.

    This need not be a long conversation but it's an important one — particularly if you're playing with players who might not know your style. Even if you do know your players very well, it's still a useful conversation to have.

    "Pause for a Second"

    Even after you have a solid list of potentially troubling topics and a good idea of your table's lines and veils; you still want another safety fallback. Not everyone knows what will bother them until it starts coming up during the game. We need a tool that lets players communicate their discomfort without causing a big confrontation.

    The X card by John Stavropoulos is the most popular safety tool of this sort. The GM puts a 3x5 card in front of each player with an X on it. If the game is going in a direction uncomfortable to a player, the player can tap the X card and let the GM know they're not comfortable.

    The X card can feel strange for a group that isn't used to it. Instead, there's an easier verbal version I think fits better into our typical gameplay from a system called Script Change by Beau Sheldon.

    Script Change offers up that we can say "pause", "fast forward", "rewind", or "frame by frame" to change the pacing of the current scene. That's all good but I think "pause" is the most important piece and we can work it into a simple bit of natural language thusly:

    "Pause for a second"

    This is the verbal way of tapping the X card. It's a way for players or GMs to stop what's going on in-game and pop out of character to make sure things are going in the right direction or steer the direction.

    While this phrase is in natural language, GMs should clearly define it during a session zero so everyone knows that when someone says it, we all need to break out of character and pay attention to what the person asking for a pause is saying.

    This also works very well in online games where not everyone might see someone holding up an X card or typing it into a chat. "Pause for a second" should immediately interrupt whatever else is going on.

    The person calling for the pause can bring up what they need, the others agree, and the game moves forward. Here are a few examples:

    "Pause for a second. Let's skip the details on the sacrifice."

    "Pause for a second. Can the spiders be something else?"

    "Pause for a second. I don't need the details of the sex scene, can we skip forward?"

    "Pause for a second. I'm not comfortable beating this goblin for information."

    "Pause for a second. I'd like to slow down and make sure we're all cool with the decisions we're making."

    Like the X card, the person asking for the pause need not explain why they're asking. It's important that the group respect the privacy of the person asking and recognize that they simply don't want something or want to steer the game away from certain subject matter.

    "Pause for a second" can be used for numerous purposes. If the characters are having a conflict about what to do with a potentially dangerous magic item, we can say "Pause for a second. Out of character, are you ok destroying the item if the others vote that way? Do we need to do something else?" Not everything needs to be about big traumatic experiences, we can normalize its use by ensuring everyone's on the same page in lots of circumstances. This makes it less confrontational when someone does use it to check in on a potentially traumatic situation.

    Safety Tools: A Simple Technique to Keep Things Fun

    Safety tools are an easy way to ensure everyone around the table is having a good time. They're not overbearing. They only take a little time to implement, and they put in place some powerful tools to make sure the players behind the characters are having a great time. Find the right tools to bring to your own game to ensure you and your players are having a great time sharing tales of high adventure.

    Other Resources

    The topic of safety tools has exploded in the last few years. Here are some of the resources I found most valuable while researching this topic.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Run Easy Battles

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    Run easy battles.

    Easy battles are a wonderful tool for D&D DMs. They add upward beats to your game when you need them. They open up interesting options for players who can now choose multiple ways to deal with easily defeated foes. They let players show off how their skills and powers have grown without much worry of the threat. They open up the story in ways no one can predict.

    Easy battles are also a great way to inject some theater of the mind combat into a game that otherwise focuses on a gridded battle map and tokens or miniatures. Many DMs who rely exclusively on gridded map and tokens often complain that easy battles take up too much time. If you're going to bother setting up a battle map and tokens, why not make it a hard battle? If the battle is hard, it surely needs the minute tactics of a five foot grid, right? This feeds into a downward spiral. Every battle is hard because it's a waste of time to run easy battles on a battle map and people require a battle map because every battle is hard and tactical agency is important. Break the cycle with some easy theater of the mind fights.

    Too many hard battles leads towards hopelessness and frustration. It's a continual string of downward beats, even when they win, because they only win by the skin of their teeth. Players don't get to show off their abilities to destroy easy foes because monsters keep going up in power at the same rate.

    Here are a few tips to introduce some easy battles into your game:

    • Add zone-based, abstract, or theater of the mind combat as options in your game for easier battles.
    • Let the story dictate what monsters lurk around in an area.
    • Oscillate between easy and hard fights to maintain an exciting pace in your game. Maybe it's two sleepy orcs or twelve armored ogres depending on the circumstances.
    • Worry less about draining the characters' resources. Let the story drive what challenges the characters face.

    Building Situations, Not Encounters

    I've written before about building situations, not encounters and the importance of letting encounters occur organicaly when you're running the game. We can build encounters from two variables: what's happening in the world and what's fun at the game. We start by asking ourselves "what makes sense given the current situation" and then modify this by asking "what will be fun right now?". It might make sense for an entire army of hobgoblins to show up but if the characters have already faced large amounts of foes, maybe it's more fun for only two hobgoblins to show up; the two sent off on latrine duty.

    Our goal isn't to burn down resources or run some ideal number of easy and hard encounters in an adventuring day. Our job is to set the stage for the world and let it react to the characters. We do this by starting with the story and then modifying it for the fun of the game.

    Upward and Downward Beats

    Excitement and energy in a game come from oscillating upward and downward beats; an idea described in Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. Easy battles are an easy way to inject an upward beat. Players don't get stressed out when their 11th level characters teleport into the garderobe of a fortress only to find a single troll sitting on the commode. That's an upward beat. Facing ten armored war trolls swinging weapons dripping in acid, that's stressful. That's a downward beat. It may turn into an upward beat if the characters succeed but with the resources drained it's still going to feel like a struggle. Too many battles like that in a row feels hopeless. It feels like a slog. Throw in a good share of easy fights and let the players have fun choosing how to kick them into orbit.

    Play to See What Happens

    Easy fights are great fun for DMs because we don't know how the players will choose to deal with them. Sometimes a fight against a troll sitting on a commode may be the most exciting one if that troll could yell and summon a whole ziggurat of war trolls on the party. Battles against weaker foes have many more options for the characters than battles against hard foes. Generally speaking, when facing a powerful force, your only option is to unload everything you have and kill them. When facing two sleepy orcs, however? Now the options open up.

    Easy Battles: A Useful DM Tool

    Add easy battles to your DM toolbox. Easy battles add upward beats to your game when you need them, give the players the chance to show off their power, and let the story of your game go in new and interesting directions.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Ending Campaigns

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    At some point our D&D campaigns come to an end, hopefully by a point in the story and not due to real-life events. Today we'll talk about how to run awesome endings for our D&D campaigns.

    Kitchen Sink Final Battles

    Often the best conclusion we can have in our D&D games is a nice big final fight. Whether it's Tiamat, Iymrith, Strahd, or Acererak; good final battles close campaigns in a strong way.

    Building great final battles is hard. That's why Scott Fitzgerald Gray, James Introcaso, and I partnered up to write Fantastic Lairs which gives you twenty three big bad boss fights for your D&D games.

    There are a few other things we can do to make our boss fights awesome:

    Run waves of monsters. Monster waves are a great way to hit characters hard and is particularly useful when challenging high level characters. Throw waves of monsters before the boss shows up. This lets the boss show up at their own time and in their own way so the characters can't overprepare and kill them in one shot. The pace of the waves is also under your control.

    Make the environment awesome. Split the battle across two sides of a portal to hell. Center it around a massive arcane gate about to explode. Set your battle on a huge crashing airship or in a room with a huge soul-eating machine hanging above a massive pool of lava. Make the environment of your final battle awesome. Give it some interesting mechanical effects that affect both characters and monsters alike.

    Keep your hands on the dials. Balancing boss battles so you get perfect edge-of-the-seat excitement out of your players is hard to do. Luckily we DMs have some dials we can turn during combat to change things up. Adding waves of monsters or increasing their pace is one big dial. Adding or removing monsters is another. Increasing or decreasing hit points is a third. Adding or removing attacks or damage is another. We can tweak all of these things behind the screen, making sure that the threat keeps things exciting.

    You can find more tips in our Collected Experiences Running Boss Fights.

    Give Them What They Want

    Fun stories surprise us with twists and turns but those twists and turns rarely serve well during the ending of a story. I wrote about this before in Breaking Endings where we looked at the ending of the TV show Breaking Bad. While the ending of that show broke many of the rules set by the rest of the show, it gave us what we wanted. A nice satisfying ending. Not all shows treat us so well.

    While you might be inclined to add some crazy twists and turns to your campaign's conclusion, ask yourself if that's really what the players want. You can even ask them what they want and then give it to them. Make the ending memorable and satisfying.

    One Year Later

    I love time-jumps in stories. It's always awesome to fill in the blanks when time skips ahead and we don't know what happened in between.

    One of my favorite tricks for ending a campaign is to ask the players where they see their characters one year after the final conclusion of the campaign. Often the stories I receive are the most interesting in the campaign. This is a way to fully hand the story over to the players. You have no new direction for the campaign at this point so you don't have to steer them at all. The characters can get married and settle down on a farm. They can become warlords in a far-away land or professors at a prestigious new arcane college. They can unite factions or start a warforged circus to soften the hardships between warforged and other humanoids.

    I've asked for "one year later" stories from my players in a half-dozen campaigns now and I've never been disappointed. One-year-later stories are wonderful.

    Teos Abadia takes this a step further by asking for stories 10 to 100 years later. Let the players take it as far as they want.

    A Bookend to a Fantastic Tale

    We want our campaign endings to be fun, memorable, and satisfying. Most often we're in danger of over-thinking it. Ask your players what they want, build in a fun climactic encounter, and ask them to talk about their characters one year after the ending. Sit back and listen to the end of a fantastic tale.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Gems of the D&D Dungeon Master's Guide

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    The Dungeon Master's Guide is an under-appreciated and undervalued tome of useful information and tools for D&D Dungeon Masters. Today we're going to look at some of the the Dungeon Master's Guide' hidden gems.

    How to Read the Dungeon Master's Guide

    The organization of the Dungeon Master's Guide is puzzling and, I'd argue, not the best way to parse the job of being a dungeon master. Instead of reading it front to back, I suggest starting with part 2, followed by part 3, and then part 1. This puts adventure building ahead of worldbuilding and content about the outer planes; useful information best left to the end of the book.

    DM Advice

    The DMG contains lots of useful advice for dungeon masters spread widely throughout the book. Here are some of its most useful gems:

    Core Assumptions (Chapter 1, "The Big Picture", pg 9). Useful to understand what a default D&D world looks like. Your own world may vary from this but it's useful to understand what a default world looks like in D&D and how it works with the default mechanics, spells, and magic items of the rest of the game.

    Start Small (Chapter 1, "Creating a Campaign", pg 25). Good advice buried in a worldbuilding section; this section helps DMs recognize that the most important parts of a campaign are the parts surrounding the characters.

    Chapter 2: Creating a Multiverse (pg 43-68). While not directly practical in most D&D campaigns, the flavor of the multiverse can fill in the details of many ancient tombs or wizard towers. The imagery and iconography of the planes can teach the players a lot about what lurks outside of their known world.

    Mapping a Wilderness (Chapter 5, pg 108). This section actually offers excellent advice for running pointcrawls without ever using the term.

    Useful DM Tools and Inspiration

    Starting at Higher Levels (Chapter 1, "Tiers of Play", pg 38). How much gold should characters have if they start at a higher level? How many magic items in a high-magic campaign? This table has you covered.

    Dungeon Hazards (Chapter 5, "Mapping a Dungeon", pg 105). Brown molds, green slime, and webs all help fill dungeons with interesting terrain we might otherwise forget.

    Airborne and Waterborne Vehicles (Chapter 5, "Unusual Environments", "The Sea", pg 118). Are the characters looking to buy a sailing ship or airship? This section has the basics covered.

    Traps and damage (Chapter 5, "Traps", pg 121). The core rules for building your own traps. Mix it with the random trap generator on page 297.

    Downtime Activities (Chapter 6, pg 127-131). Excellent additions to the downtime activities offered in the Player's Handbook. You can expand these further with the downtime activities in Xanathar's Guide to Everything.

    Epic boons (Chapter 7, 231-232). Looking to give your characters a nice powerful boost without a physical item? Epic boons are your answer.

    Advantage and Disadvantage (Chapter 8, "Using Ability Scores", pg 239). A great section that goes beyond the basics of advantage and disadvantage. Instead it shows DMs how to use these powerful tools to improvise situations in any given scene.

    Inspiration (Chapter 8, "Using Ability Scores", pg 240-241). I often hear complaints about inspiration. This section offers many different ways you can handle giving out inspiration, some of which you can use together.

    Tracking Initiative (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 247). Lots of options for tracking and recording initiative for new DMs.

    Tracking Monster Hit Points (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 247). Includes my favorite method of assigning an interesting in-world physical characteristic to monsters to help identify them.

    Bloodied rule (Chapter 8, "Combat", "Tracking Monster Hit Points", pg 248). Yes, "bloodied" exists in 5e! While it isn't a mechanical condition anymore, you can still describe a creature being bloodied and this section tells you how.

    Monsters and Critical Hits (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 248). Describes how to handle a monster's critical hit when using average damage; a common question.

    Improvising Damage (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 249). An excellent set of tables to help you improvise damage from a falling bookcase to tumbling into a vortex into the elemental plane of fire.

    Adjudicating Areas of Effect (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 249). Guidelines for running areas of effect using the "theater of the mind". One of my favorite sections. See running Theater of the Mind combat for more.

    Handling Mobs (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 250). A table to determine how many monsters might successfully hit (or make a saving throw) given the monster's attack bonus (or save bonus) and the target's armor class (or save DC). It's missing a discussion on pooling damage across a large number of monsters but it still gets us close to being able to fight an unlimited number of monsters. See horde rules for more.

    Ability Options (Chapter 9, pg 263-264). Looking to simplify D&D's skill system? This section has lots of options including background or class based proficiency bonuses. I doubt anyone uses these optional rules but they could make for a much simpler version of D&D in which you get your proficiency bonus to attribute checks based on your character's class or background.

    Hero points (Chapter 9, "Ability Options", pg 264). A mechanic used in the Eberron Oracle of War campaign that stacks on top of inspiration. If you want another way to boost characters, here's an answer.

    Initiative Variants (Chapter 9, "Combat Options", pg 270). Lots of alternative methods for running initiative.

    Acton Options (Chapter 9, "Combat Options", pg 271). A favorite of many; this section describes optional combat actions characters might take including disarming, tumbling, or climbing up on monsters. Lots of neat options a DM might use given the circumstances of a battle.

    Cleaving Through Creatures (Chapter 9, "Combat Options", pg 272). A great way to make a melee character feel like Conan, cleaving options let damage carry over from one slain enemy into another. A great circumstantial rule when fighting lots of monsters.

    Monster Features (Chapter 9, "Creating a Monster", pg 280-281). A huge list of monster features you can apply to custom monsters of your choice. Goes hand-in-hand with the Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating table on page 274.

    NPC Features (Chapter 9, "Creating a Monster", pg 282). An overlooked table that offers options to build variant NPCs of different races. The skeleton and zombie ones in particular give you a huge range of undead versions of existing monsters. Mix these with the race-less NPCs in the Monster Manual. A few more of them would have really helped.

    Monsters with Classes (Chapter 9, "Creating a Monster", pg 283). Want to give a fire giant a few classes of barbarian? This section tells you how to add character class features to your monsters to shake things up.

    Maps (Appendix C, pg 310-315). A wonderful selection of about ten maps including one I designed myself for Vault of the Dracolich! If you ever need a town, cave, or dungeon map, this section has what you need.

    Awesome Random Tables to Inspire Your Game

    The DMG is also packed with great tables to inspire your game. Easily overlooked, these tables can help you build truly fantastic adventures and campaigns. Next time you're starting to prep your game, give some of these tables a roll and see what comes up.

    • World-shaking Events (Chapter 1, "Campaign Events", pg 27-32)
    • Dungeon and Wilderness Goals (Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", pg 73)
    • All the adventure building tables in Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", page 74 and 75.
    • Event-based Goals (Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", pg 76)
    • Framing Events (Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", pg 79)
    • Villain Schemes and Methods (Chapter 4, "Villains", pg 94-95)
    • Dungeon & Exotic Locations (Chapter 5, "Dungeons", pg 99)
    • Dungeon Origin Details (Chapter 5, "Dungeons", pg 100-101)
    • Monuments & Weird Locales (Chapter 5, "Mapping a Wilderness", pg 108-109)
    • Current Calamity (Chapter 5, "Settlement", pg 112)
    • Tavern Name Generator (Chapter 5, "Settlement", pg 113)
    • Carousing (Chapter 6, "Downtime Activities", pg 128)
    • Magic item special features (Chapter 7, "Magic Items", pg 142-143)
    • Magic Item Table B (rare consumables) and F (uncommon permanent magic items) (Chapter 7, "Magic Items", pg 144 and 146)
    • Madness Effects (short term) (Chapter 8, "Madness", pg 259)
    • Chamber Purpose (Appendix A, "Stocking a Dungeon", pg 292-295)
    • Random traps (Appendix A, "Stocking a Dungeon", pg 297)
    • Random tricks (Appendix A, "Stocking a Dungeon", pg 298)

    The DMG: Your D&D Toolbox

    Easily overlooked, the Dungeon Master's Guide is a fantastic resource to help you fine tune your game and inspire your own games. Every six months or so, pull it out and skim it page by page to remind yourself what you can find within its pages. Inside you'll find limitless inspiration for your own fantastic adventures.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

    Read more »

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