March 16 2017

Sly Flourish


    Sly Flourish

  • Why I Love Madness

    As part of the work we did on the Lazy Dungeon Master's Workbook, I surveyed the Kickstarter backers of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and asked them which references, charts, and tables they found most and least useful while preparing and running their 5e games. The three madness charts trended towards the bottom of the list.

    I'm not completely surprised but a little sad at this. I love the madness charts. Ever since using them in Out of the Abyss, I've used madness here and there throughout my D&D games and always found them to be an enjoyable addition. Today I'm going to dig into why I love these charts so much and what they can bring to their game.

    Regardless of the results, I stuck the madness tables in there anyway. Hell, it's my book. Today I'll talk about why.

    (art by Walter Brocca)

    The Great Equalizer

    Madness is a strange effect. It isn't technically a status effect but when it hits a character, it acts very much like one. We don't know exactly what that effect will be should a character fail a madness check but it sure won't be good.

    When we have high power characters, it can be hard for us dungeon masters to challenge them all the time. Many times that's perfectly fine. It's fun to carve through all sorts of monsters when you're a high level and high power character. Since D&D isn't tuned around magical items, the items characters acquire push them outside of their expected power level and that feels great.

    Sometimes, however, particularly for really powerful monsters, we want to show the danger. We want players to be scared of things. If Demogorgon rises out of the black waters of Dark Lake, we don't want the characters to just start preparing their attacks and jumping in.

    That's where madness comes in. Some creatures are just too horrible to behold. Their very presence pushes the mortal mind outside of the bounds of sanity. The walls of reality crack and in seeps the horror of worlds beyond.

    It doesn't matter how many attacks a round you can dish out, a DC 24 Charisma saving throw will turn just about any fighter into a slug-eating buffoon, at least for a few seconds.

    The round a demon prince comes out and that aura of madness hits the characters, that's the most dangerous round in D&D. And that danger can be really fun.

    When To Use Madness

    Madness is an effect we should keep in our back pocket and not use all the time. The appearance of a demon prince or lord of hell is a great time to drop in madness. The arrival of a powerful entity of the Far Realm might be another. Should Slarkrethal the kraken rise from the depths of the seas, it's psionic wave will crash on them like water tearing down mountains.

    Other circumstances might also warrant a madness check. Opening up and gazing upon a book of terrible rituals, maybe the Book of Vile Darkness itself, could crack the minds of the strongest wizards. Staring into the shifting planes of a portal to an outer world might invoke madness. Some Fantastic Features containing the depths of evil and studied too rashly might drop waves of terror upon those who gaze upon them.

    Again, madness should be used infrequently but, when the situation is right, it's a powerful effect.

    Tuning Madness for Fun

    As written, madness might be too powerful. The biggest reasion is that it offers no saving throw at the end of a turn to get rid of the effect. We can easily add this end-of-next-turn saving throw when a character is hit with a short-term madness effect during combat.

    If the saving throw is too high, though, as it might be for characters who have poor charisma scores, this might not even help. A fighter is going to have a hell of a time beating a DC 24 Charisma save even if they get it at the end of any round. A number of spells can remove madness, as described in the Dungeon Master's Guide including calm emotions lesser restoration, remove curse, dispel evil and good, and greater restoration. We might also argue that damage done to the character can snap them out of their daze or at least give them advantage on the check.

    The Creativity and Improvisation of Madness Effects

    One of the reasons I love the madness effect so much is that it's full of flavor. While a stun is generally just a stun, madness carries such flavorful effects as "the character experiences an overpowering urge to eat something strange such as dirt, slime, or offal." Hard to beat that for flavor!

    Other status effects too have such flavor but it's tied to the way it hits the character. When a drow mage casts web on a character, we know more than just that the character is incapacitated. We know that they are cocooned in a magical sticky web, stuck to the wall or ground and gasping for breath. We might forget this when we're deep into the mechanics of the game but it behooves us to go there and remember what is really going on in the game's fiction.

    Likewise madness brings flavor to the game beyond its mechanical effects, which are substantial. Think about the source and describe what happens. One of my favorite questions is to ask the player to describe their happy place when they retreat into their own mind due to a madness effect. A player will describe a nice leatherbound book, sweet pipesmoke in the air, and the familiar softness of a leather chair in front of a warm fire while the rest of the party is being shredded by the tentacles and mental probes of a cyclopean titan risen from the depths. Oh what fun!

    Though we tend not to use it often, short-term madness is a wonderful flavorful effect to add into our games from time to time. The next time a character witnesses something outside the bounds of the mind, time to hit that madness chart.

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  • Our Ability Check Toolbox

    The more we focus on the story of D&D, the more ability checks become the main mechanic as characters interact with the world around them. Asking for checks and getting the results sounds easy. Ask the player for a roll, add the appropriate modifiers, and match it up against a DC. Simple.

    When we're running our game, though, it isn't always as easy as it sounds. It isn't always clear how we should call for checks, to whom, and how we should adjudicate the results. What if a player does a particularly good job roleplaying an encounter with an NPC but rolls poorly on their persuasion check? Is all that good roleplaying lost? What about when a character wants to examine a door, rolls a 2, and everyone else at the table wants to jump in and check the door as well?

    In today's article we're going to dig deep into how we use ability checks in the story of our D&D games.

    A Summary of Ability Check Options

    This is a big article so here's a summary.

    • Read up on the intent of ability checks in chapter 7 of the Player's Handbook and chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Freshen up regularly before you start changing how you run things.
    • Consider how randomness fits into the world and the situations in which we might call for an ability check. Does this check warrant a roll or is a passive ability check enough?
    • Roll secretly for a character's ability check when the character might not know if they succeeded or failed such as when searching for a trap.
    • Offer advantage on checks in which players roleplay particularly well or when an aspect of their character gives them an advantage in the situation.
    • Allow full table rolls if the circumstances allow for it. The highest roll learns the in-game results first.
    • If needed, curb full-table rolls by determining if only one character can reasonably perform the check or by accepting only the first roll.
    • Be prepared for an entire table to fail a check. Make sure it doesn't halt the game.
    • Ask for rolls only from those trained in a skill when a particular level of expertise is required such as decoding magical runes.
    • Ask players to describe how they aid an ally or guide them with guidance.
    • Build your own toolbox of methods for adjudicating ability checks.

    Understanding the Rules As Written

    Whenever we're going to dig deep into any mechanic in D&D, it's best to read the rules and understand their intent. In the case of ability checks, we have chapter 7 page 173 in the Player's Handbook and chapter 8 page 237 in of the Dungeon Master's Guide to give us the written rules and some solid advice on how best to use ability checks. If you're going to monkey around with ability checks or find that things get confusing at your game, spend a few minutes reading both of these sections to reinforce how the designers intended for ability checks to work.

    One thing of note, particularly for DMs who have played older versions of D&D, there are no skill checks. In the fifth edition of D&D, there are only ability checks. Skills are subjects in which characters are proficient and add to an ability modifier when the circumstances allow it. This sounds pedantic but the distinction matters, particularly in the vocabulary of the rules.

    These sections in the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide give us the basics of using ability checks including group checks, aiding another character, and using advantage and disadvantage based on the circumstance of the check. It's worth reading and refreshing ourselves on these rules regularly, particularly once we've seen how they actually play out for the group at the table.

    The Random Chances of the World Around Us

    The real world around is is constantly and continually moving based on random chance. Very likely the reason I am writing this and the reason you are reading it are based on very slim random occurrences that happened over our lives and the lives of our ancestors. When we interact with the world around us, random chance plays a big part in those interactions as well, even if we don't see it or choose not to.

    The same is true in the world of our D&D games. In the Dungeon Master's Guide, we're given the advice that we need not worry about asking for ability checks when the task being done is either so easy that it's almost assured or so hard that it's nearly impossible. There's another way to think about this, though, and it's by considering how much randomness exists in the situation itself.

    If the characters are talking to a town guard, maybe there's randomness in the response of that guard. Maybe he ate something bad earlier that day or got in a fight with his husband before work. Maybe we want to account for that potential random circumstance when our charismatic sorcerer decides to ask him about the secret tunnels beneath the ruined watchtower.

    But maybe we don't. Maybe, for the sake of the story, its just easier of the guard tells the characters what they want to know. Regardless of any digestive or domestic issues the guard has, he's still likely to tell a charismatic sorcerer about the tunnels. We don't need to roll for this.

    Page 236 of chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide has a whole section called "The Role of Dice" that discusses when DMs should consider rolling or ignoring dice. The section called "The Middle Path" likely offers the best option: use the dice when a bit of randomness makes sense for that situation or ignore it when the characters approach the situation in a way that makes failure unlikely.

    It's important for us to understand why there is a random component when it comes to interacting with the world overall. This randomness isn't there to take some excellent roleplaying and throw it away on a shitty roll. It's there to help the world feel as unpredictable as any realistic world would feel. It's also there to make the story more interesting. If everything were simply comparisons between static ability scores and difficulty classes, we could predict every interaction before it occurred (hello Leplace's Demon!). With the roll of the die, mysterious things happen and that's fun for both players and DMs alike.

    How we inject this randomness into our games and how we tweak it based on the context of the story takes some deeper understanding.

    Passive Checks

    There's a whole interesting discussion to have about passive checks; particularly how passive perception and passive insight work. Jeremy Crawford talked about this on a previous episode of Dragon Talk. Here's a clip from the episode where he goes into details.

    In short, passive scores (perception and insight) are always on as long as you're conscious. Players don't get to say that they're using it. Passive perception is intended to be the floor of a character's perception. They might not notice anything specific but they'll know something is going on. If a player rolls perception, they might roll lower than their passive perception but the passive perception is still going on. Anything they would see with that, they'd see anyway.

    We can use passive scores for just about anything if we want to but they're most likely to be used for these sort of "always on" skills. As mentioned above, if we feel like the random elements of a situation don't exist in a particular situation, we can opt for a static check on anything. If a rogue has +7 to stealth we can consider it having a general stealth of 17 if they're sneaking through a whole area and we don't want to roll on it all the time.

    We might use passive checks instead of rolls in the following circumstances:

    • When randomness isn't a meaningful factor in the situation.
    • When we'd normally have to make a large series of checks.
    • When a skill is "always on" as the characters explore. These skills might include Arcana, History, Insight, Investigation, Medicine, Nature, Perception, Religion, and Survival.

    DM Rolls and Hidden Checks

    There are times when the results of a situation might be a mystery to the characters regardless of a success or failure. The ability to detect a trap, for example, might be known or not regardless of the results of a roll. Yet when we ask a player to roll to detect a trap, they will know the result because they can see the result.

    Instead, we might ask for a character's Wisdom (Perception or Investigation) bonus and make a hidden roll to see how it goes. This gives some mystery to the results. If they detect the trap, they know it's there. If they did not detect a trap, though, it could be because there isn't one there or they missed it. That's exciting.

    There aren't many circumstances where we'd roll an ability check for a character and keep the results hidden but it can be useful and fun when it does happen. Here are a few circumstances when rolling a hidden check might be appropriate:

    • Detecting a trap
    • Negotiating with an NPC who hides their responses
    • Checking for secret doors or hidden compartments
    • Detecting whether a liquid is poison or not
    • Recognizing the traits of a monster

    This technique can be fun but should be used sparingly. It's almost always best for players to roll their own checks.

    Awesome Roleplaying, Poor Rolls

    Sometimes, and we can see this in a lot of streaming games like Critical Role, players do quite a bit of awesome roleplaying when interacting with an NPC. Sometimes, however, their character actually isn't particularly good at that type of interaction. The character has an awesome bit of dialog intimidating the goblin but has an intimidation bonus of -1.

    Sometimes we might ask for the check after such a narrative exposition and then see a terrible roll come up. All of us know, based on what was actually said, that it should have gone better than that.

    There are a couple of ways we can handle this. First of all, we're within the intention of the game to offer advantage to the player for a fine bit of roleplaying. We can even give them inspiration if they want to hang on to the advantage for another check.

    We can also lower the difficulty class on the fly based on the particular approach that was taken with the NPC. We might even use our shades of gray on the roll to turn a bad roll into an interesting divergent path in the situation.

    We might even let the roll go away completely and, based on the awesome roleplaying, determine that there's basically no way the interaction will go against the character when they take the approach they're taking. No matter what, we are not slaves to the dice. If the approach and the situation are stronger than random chance, we can judge it a success and move forward.

    Full Table Rolls

    Invariably we sometimes get into a situation where a character wants to spot something, announces their intention to look around an area, rolls a 2, and then the whole rest of the group jumps in and wants to make the same check.

    This can happen in both wide circumstances, like keeping an eye out for monsters while resting or something small like checking a door for traps. When the players see another player fail a check, they want to leap in to make the same check.

    The circumstances of such a roll matter a lot in how we adjudicate this. We might, in our minds, have a clear idea that only one character may see or miss seeing such an event only to realize that if everyone tries, someone is bound to make the check.

    If the task at hand is something only one character can reasonably do, we can simply veto the checks when the rest of the group wants to roll. We might argue that only that one chance could work and subsequent attempts won't succeed. Other times, however, we might shrug and go with the group check.

    Here are some circumstances when only one character can reasonably perform a check:

    • Detecting a trap
    • Disarming a trap
    • Picking a lock
    • Forging a document
    • Manipulating an object
    • Reading arcane energy off of an object
    • Climbing a wall

    And here are some example circumstances when a whole group can reasonably check.

    • Investigating a room
    • Scouting an area
    • Foraging for food
    • Forcing open a door
    • Studying a written document

    If we do find circumstances where the whole group can participate, we might instead call for a group check. See page 175 of the Player's Handbook for details. We use a group check when the whole group acts together and succeeds or fails together. The most common group check is the group stealth check to avoid being seen as a group travels through an area but we can use it in other circumstances too. In a group check, all participants roll for the check and more than half of them must succeed in order to succeed at the roll.

    If things seem too easy when the whole group would roll on a check, we can use the group check to even things out a bit.

    Full Table Failures

    Sometimes we want to pass some information to the characters and we ask for a full group check expecting that someone will pass. Sometimes, however, the dice work against all of us and no one succeeds. If the information was vital, we might find ourselves stuck in a corner of the story. We expected someone would pass. Now what?

    Even when we're calling for a group check in which only one member of the group must succeed, we must be ready to handle it if no one succeeds at all. In these circumstances it might be best to give the highest rolling player the required information and "fail forward" with a complication of some sort such as giving away their position or not noticing the arrival of another group of creatures before it's too late.

    Only Those Trained Can Succeed

    The fifth edition of D&D expects that all checks are "ability" checks, not "skill" checks. Thus, when a DM calls for a check, they ask for an ability like "give me a wisdom check" to notice something coming closer in the distant sky. We might also tag on a skill with it and say "give me a wisdom check and add your proficiency if you're trained in perception". I imagine most DMs skip this and go straight to "give me a perception check" and players know to roll flat wisdom if they aren't trained.

    One way to ensure that an entire group doesn't try a particularly narrow skill is to ask for only those trained in the skill to check. For example, understanding arcane runes protecting a vaulted door might require that it be checked only by those trained in Arcana. Understanding the intricate information stored in a religious text or recognizing the origin of a buried statue might require someone trained in Religion.

    Requiring proficiency in a particular skill goes outside the bounds of the intended D&D rules, but it is a good way to make those proficiencies count during the game. We might stack on other backgrounds, races, or classes onto this list as well. If the characters come across a mystical tome, maybe only those trained in Arcana or those able to cast spells can attempt to decode the book's secrets using their spellcasting ability score to understand it. Perhaps only someone trained in Religion can recognize the ancient buried statue except for dwarves who might recognize that the statue is of a dwarven deity lost long ago.

    Here are some example circumstances where we might only ask those who are trained to make a check:

    • When decoding powerful arcane runes
    • When investigating ancient religious artifacts
    • When picking a difficult lock
    • When hunting a deceptive beast through the jungles
    • When digging through formal histories for a particular nugget
    • When attempting to brew a particular poison
    • When seeking the particulars from the wounds found on a corpse

    Again, this method for ability checks goes outside the expected rules and, as Jeremy Crawford says, it should be used sparingly.

    Offering Advantage for Character Traits and Backgrounds

    It's always nice to reinforce a character's interactions with the world through that character's race, class, background, or any other trait of the character that gives the character an advantage in a particular situation. In these circumstances, we can give a character advantage for a particular check based on this trait.

    If the characters are examining an ancient fresco buried underneath centuries of moss, the high elf character might get advantage on the check since the fresco depicts elements of the ancient elven struggle between Corellon and Lolth.

    The Dungeon Master's Guide specifically discusses when to use advantage and disadvantage on ability checks. Page 239 includes circumstances when one or the other makes sense with one particularly interesting statement: "Consider granting advantage when circumstances not related to a creature's inherent capabilities provide it with an edge."

    When a rogue is disarming a trap or picking a lock, we don't give them advantage for being a rogue. Their proficiency is already wired into being a rogue. Picking locks and disarming traps is what rogues do. We already know that barbarians are particularly athletic, they don't get barbarous advantage for bending bars or lifting gates. They actually get it anyway if they're raging at those vexing bars.

    Backgrounds already offer skills so we might think of that as an inherent capability already but if the details of a background can aid a character beyond a skill proficiency, we can consider that enough to offer advantage on the check.

    Here are some examples where we might offer advantage on an ability check based on a particular trait of a character.

    • When a sailor is examining a wrecked ship
    • When a sage is reading through an old tome
    • When a dwarf is investigating the construction of an underground citadel
    • When an Warlock serving a Great Old One patron peers into a portal to the far realm
    • When an assassin investigates a potential poisoning

    Describing Aiding and Guidance

    The aid another action is a great way for two characters to work on a problem with one of them giving advantage to another. The most common problem I've seen with this is that the player of the aiding party grabs a d20 and rolls without thinking about the fact that they aren't the ones supposed to be rolling. If this happens, we can tell the partners that this second roll counts as the advantage roll and add whichever modifier is higher between the two characters.

    We can apply a small cost to this aid as well by asking the player to describe how they're aiding. This is a nice trick to get players into the story. It isn't enough for them to say "I'll aid them", the question is how they'll offer that aid. Fun stories can come from such questions.

    The same is true with the cleric's spell guidance which offers 1d4 to any ability check. When a cleric casts this spell, we can ask the player to describe what that aid looks like. Is it a holy light that fills in the nooks and crannies of a difficult lock? Is it a small glowing halo that surrounds the rogue as she talks her way past the town guards? Is it a tiny glowing light in the eyes of the wizard as she decodes the magical glyphs embedded in the wall?

    Getting players to answer these in-game story-focused questions is a great way to get them outside of their character sheet and into the world you're creating together.

    Ability Checks: The Primary Mechanic between Players and the World

    When we think about it, ability checks may be the biggest mechanic of D&D. In our more story-focused games, these ability checks guide nearly every challenging interaction between the characters and the world around them. The basic mechanic of ability checks; rolling a d20, adding a modifier, and matching against a difficulty class; seems so simple but how we actually implement these checks into the game can have a big impact in how the game is played and how it turns out.

    Read the rules, see how they play out at your own table, and build a toolbox of methods for calling for and using ability checks in your own game. Let these checks act as the chaotic vehicles for the awesome stories that unfold at your table.

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  • VideoThe Hunger: A Level 1 to 20 Gnoll Campaign

    Reading Volo's Guide to Monsters, along with the Monster Manual is a fantastic way to fill our head with D&D lore that helps us plan our games and improvise while we're running them. If you get nothing else out of this article, consider how much value you can get by reading these books cover to cover to steep yourself in D&D lore.

    Reading the section on gnolls in Volo's Guide got my head spinning around the idea of a full level 1 to 20 fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign built around gnolls. I had in my head an image of a hyena twitching in the remains of a half-digested corpse of a villager (gory, I know). As the characters watch in horror, the hyena starts to twist and break like the best scene in American Werewolf in London. The party witnesses the full transformation (or maybe partial transformation if they decide to blast it to pieces before it finishes) of a hyena into a gnoll.

    A whirlwind of events would take them from that single scene all the way into the Death Dells where they will hunt—or be hunted by— Yeenoghu the demon prince of gnolls and the most powerful minions on Yeenoghu's home plane of existence in the Abyss.

    Can we build an entire campaign around this central pillar? I believe we can! Of course it won't JUST be gnolls. We'd have lots of side threads going on too, but building a full level 1 to 20 campaign arc focused on Yeenoghu's Hunger sounds like a lot of fun to me, so let's dig in.

    The Campaign Elevator Pitch

    Following the steps in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master for building new campaigns, we start with a central theme for the campaign. The shorter the better, so here is my campaign pitch in three words:

    End Yeenoghu's hunger.

    That's simple but it's a good central pillar around which to build the campaign. It's a quest the characters can get early on in the adventure and work towards all throughout their characters' levels.

    Six Truths of the Hunger

    Next we come to the campaign's six truths. What sets this campaign apart from others? Here we list the six things that make this campaign unique among campaigns. These are truths we will share with the players so they know what to build their characters around.

    • A blood moon rises in the sky each night and has for a full month with no sign of stopping.

    • Signs of a twisted new cult have begun to appear. Some whisper of cannibalism.

    • Trade between smaller villages and towns have begun to cease. Some say entire villages have been found slaughtered and devoured.

    • Hobgoblins from a warband known as the Black Fist have sprung up in greater numbers.

    • Cities of the lands have begun to close their borders and seal their walls. Even they do not know exactly why.

    • A great black and green storm swirls over the mountains of Shattered Teeth. Sages say the very atmosphere over the mountains has changed.

    This is going to be a campaign of overland exploration and dungeon delving and will have all three pillars of play. We can reinforce to the players that they will will want to build players with the following goal:

    "My character wants to work with their fellow adventurers to find the source of the bloody hunger that grips the land and end it."

    The Fronts

    We don't have to build out an entire campaign from end to end here, but we will outline the major story drivers of the campaign. We've borrowed the idea of Fronts from the excellent RPG, Dungeon World.

    • Front: Yeenoghu and the gnoll hordes
    • Goal: Devour all humanity in the world.
    • First Grim Portent: Packs of gnolls in great number stop trade between the major cities of the land.
    • Second Grim Portent: Yeenoghu and his gnoll hordes attack a smaller settlement.
    • Third Grim Portent: Yeenoghu and his greater horde attack one of the larger cities.

    • Front: The Cult of the Hunger

    • Goal: Pave the way for Yeenoghu's cleansing.
    • First Grim Portent: The cult grows larger as it recruits from disenfranchised towns on the outskirts of major cities.
    • Second Grim Portent: The cult steals the powerful Tome of Savagery from the greatest library of the land and uses it to open a second portal to Yeenoghu's realm, the Death Dells.
    • Third Grim Portent: The Cult of Hunger assassinates the leaders of a major city and sends its armies into chaos.

    • Front: The Black Fist hobgoblin mercenary army

    • Goal: Let the gnoll horde weaken the defenses of the cities and then sweep in and take over.
    • First Grim Portent: The Black Fist hobgoblin army takes over a ruined castle within striking distance of two major settlements.
    • Second Grim Portent: Black Fist scouts track Yeenoghu's trail of destruction.
    • Third Grim Portent: The Black Fist stands outside of a major city, waiting until both sides are weakened before sweeping in and taking it over.

    We hold these fronts loosely. New fronts might pop up and old fronts might change drastically. Volo's Guide includes a wonderful section on hobgoblins as well as gnolls so we can add them as a third party that might end up as allies of the, enemies, or both for the characters and their goals.

    When it comes to the selection of monsters we might choose or this campaign, Volo's Guide has an excellent section on the Anatomy of a Warband and on Gnoll Allies that works as a great checklist of potential monsters we can sprinkle throughout our campaign.

    A Loose 1 to 20 Outline

    While we don't need anything more than the above to run a decent start to a campaign, it might be fun to write a loose outline of the places the characters might visit and the events that might occur as they go through the campaign. I picked twenty such places and events, one for each level of the game. I have no illusion that these will all get used at exactly the right level but it gives me a loose outline of ideas I can go through when running adventures. I am happy to throw any or all of these away as the campaign progresses.

    Level 1: The Dying Hyena. The party encounters a dying hyena that turns into a gnoll in front of their eyes. More hyenas howl in the distance.

    Level 2: Slaughter at the Village of Nix. The party sees the slaughter of the village of Nix and hunts down those that committed the act.

    Level 3: The Charnal Pit. The party witnesses the gnoll's feast at the charnel pit outside of Nix.

    Level 4: Assault on Fort Kellum. The party arrives at Fort Kellum to see it under assault by the gnolls.

    Level 5: The Dead Gate. The characters explore the ruins of a planar gate previously used by Yeenoghu four hundred years ago and the ruins of dwarves and deep gnomes that surround it.

    Level 6: Citadel Gallax. The party explores, infiltrates, or is invited into a ruined citadel now rebuilt by the Black Fist hobgoblin warband.

    Level 7: The Tower of Fangs. The party faces the cult of Hunger at one of its temples and discovers their dark portents.

    Level 8: Mountain of Broken Teeth. The party backtracks to the Mountains of Broken Teeth where Yeenoghu first came to the world.

    Level 9: The First Portal. The party finds and close the portal Yeenoghu used to enter the prime plane.

    Level 10: Dragonspear Castle. The party goes to Dragonspear Castle where the Black Fist warband wages war against a huge gnoll army.

    Level 11: The Temple of the Hunger. The party faces the cult of Hunger and its high priest to recover the Book of Savagry.

    Level 12: The Demon Rift. The party discovers and must close a rift spilling out scores of maw demons like an infected wound in the world.

    Level 13: The Hunters at the Twisted Shrine. At a long-forgotten shrine, the party must survive an assault by a war band of gnolls specifically born and bred to hunt them down and slay them.

    Level 14: The Assault on Baldur's Gate. The party arrives at Baldur's Gate to find Yeenoghu and his army waging an assault on the city.

    Level 15: The Prince of Savagery. The party faces Yeenoghu and his army in order to save Baldur's Gate.

    Level 16: The Gateway. The party faces Yeenoghu's gatekeepers and enters the gateway to the Death Dells.

    Level 17: The Death Dells. The party begins their exploration into Yeenoghu's Abyssal plane.

    Level 18: The Maw. The party travels through a huge sinkhole consisting of the rotten corpse of a single huge maw demon.

    Level 19: The Hunting Grounds. A twisted maze of brambles surrounds Yeenghu's lair in which the mightiest gnolls of the demon prince eternally hunt their prey.

    Level 20: Yeenoghu. The party faces the Prince of Savagery on his throne of corpses.

    A Loose Outline and a Fun Exercise

    When we sit down to plan a campaign like this, we need not plan too far. Things are going to go off the rails from the very first session and that's what makes these games so much fun. We can, however, get our minds working by thinking about what might happen and have some fun diving deep into the lore of the game to see where our minds go. Such exercises keep our minds limber and keep us ready to run some great games even if we never get around to running a campaign like this.

    When you think of your own campaign, where does your mind go?

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  • Handling Tag-Along NPCs

    In the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Out of the Abyss, the party has the potential of grouping with a number of NPCs as they all attempt to escape from their captors in the depths of the underdark. In Storm King's Thunder, the party can be accompanied by Harshnag, a powerful frost giant wielding an incredibly powerful magical axe. Finally, in Tomb of Annihilation, the characters have the potential of grouping with assassins, a Couatl, or an artifact-donning hero and his lizard companion wielding a holy avenger.

    Some DMs may not have any problem handling these tag-along NPCs in a game. These NPCs find their place in a group and work their way into the story as it unfolds. Other DMs, myself included, have trouble with tag-along NPCs. Here's why.

    First, tag-along NPCs make our lives harder as DMs. Running a whole world is already hard work, even for the lazy. Adding tag-along NPCs gives us a whole other set of variables to handle.

    Tag-along NPCs also make combat take longer since there's another character in the mix. Sometimes we can hand this off to one of the players but not if the NPC has a secret identity. If you hand Dragonbait over to a player, I bet that sword is getting traded.

    These tag-along NPCs also skew the balance of power in a group. Challenges that the party might have had a hard time with suddenly got easier. That extra NPC adds to the overall synergy to the party and that synergy is a huge power boost. If we want to challenge the characters, we're going to have to account for it.

    Probably the worst offense of tag-along NPCs is that they draw the spotlight off of the characters. Our attention should be on the characters and how they interact with the world around them. Now we have this new character that doesn't belong to anyone but who also takes some of that spotlight away. This gets exacerbated if the NPC overshadows the characters in power, like Artus Cimber, Dragonbait, or Harshnag.

    How do we handle it when tag-along NPCs become a burden to a game? Many DMs discussed the problem and potential solutions in a Twitter thread on the topic. The following includes ideas they discussed as well as some of my own.

    Don't Let them Tag Along in the First Place

    If we know these tag-along NPCs might show up in our adventure, we can head them off before they actually join the characters. Maybe we just don't have them show up at all. What is their reason not to join the party? I hinted at Artus Cimber and Dragonbait in my Tomb of Annihilation game but never pulled the thread on them and never had them show up. Maybe I would have if they came up in a random roll of the dice but maybe I'd simply roll again. This is certainly likely after hearing how difficult these high-level NPCs can be when they join a game.

    The easiest way to deal with tag-along NPCs is simply not to. Don't let them become tag-along NPCs.

    Have an Exit Strategy

    If an NPC does join the party, it always helps to have an exit plan for the NPC. When will the NPC leave the group? What circumstances will lead to their departure? How do you steer things to ensure that circumstance actually takes place?

    Harshnag in Storm King's Thunder had an exit plan; getting crushed under a million tons of ice in the Eye of the All Father. I don't know that Artus Ember and Dragonbait had much of an exit plan but they might come to either fear the characters or fear for the characters and head out during the night. The various NPCs in Out of the Abyss might eventually betray the characters or leave for other reasons. The guides in Tomb of Annihilation might get sick or might have another tangential agenda that leads them away from the party.

    Keep your options open when considering how to get an NPC to leave the party and be ready to enact it if you find the NPC is overstaying their welcome.

    Limit Their Utility

    What the NPCs do while their with the party can also make a huge difference in how things play out. If an NPC agrees up front to stay out of combat, that makes things easier. This works best if the NPC clearly isn't much of a combatant to begin with. It's harder when you see a lizard with a holy avenger sword who's standing back while you fight ancient crocodiles by yourself. There are few reasons why a combat-focused NPC wouldn't fight but, if there's a good reason within the context of the story, that can work out. Lets pretend Jarlaxle joined the group. He has a clear reason to disappear every time things get dangerous even though he's a hell of a combatant. It's a lot less likely Drizzt would stay out of a fight, though.

    Instead, we have another way we can keep them out of the way.

    Make them Background Scenery

    One way we can have a combat-focused NPC in a party and still not causing much trouble is to make them part of the background. If the party is facing three ogres, maybe they're actually facing four and our combat-focused NPC is taking care of the fourth. We pull these two combatants out of the actual battle and simply describe the battle taking place between them in the narrative. No dice need be thrown, no damage needs be tallied; we just make it part of the scenery going on while the main battle takes place in the foreground.

    This has limits, though. This style will likely get stale if you do it over and over. This problem points back to getting them out of the party as soon as you can so it doesn't get that stale.

    Let Players Run Them

    In the case of an NPC who isn't seriously outclassing the rest of the party, let one of the players—maybe the player with the simplest character—run the NPC. You can give them a copy of the stat block, maybe taking a picture of it with their phone, and let them run the NPC on their same initiative. This is usually quick since monster stat blocks aren't terribly difficult.

    If the NPC has a secret identity, say like Eku from Tomb of Annihilation secretly being a Couatl, you can instead give the player the stat block for the NPC they're pretending to be, say a spy or a veteran. These characters are likely to pull their punches anyway so as not to expose their true selves and that can be accounted for in the false statblock. It also keeps their power under control.

    Be Aware of the Spotlight

    Beyond adding extra power to the characters that might make potentially challenging situations trivial, NPCs in the party can have a tendency of pulling the spotlight away from the other characters. No one wants to watch DMs play with themselves. This can get tricky if the NPC is clearly the right person for a particular job, either because of what they know or the skills they happen to have. Why wouldn't the NPC who already knows the king be the one to negotiate for the party? This is something you'll want to noodle through before it starts to happen in your game. The spotlight should always be on the characters and tag-along NPCs should always be in the background. We might have to fudge the story a little bit to get them there but its important enough that it's worth bending the story to make it happen.

    Player-Provided Tag-Along NPCs

    So far we've been talking about NPCs in the adventure who, through the purposes of the story, end up tagging along with the group. Sometimes, however, players will bring their own tag-along NPCs as part of their characters. Maybe they hired a hireling or maybe they summoned a pet. Maybe they have their own simulacrum walking around with them or some sort of intelligent pet. This is a slightly different situation because you can't simply route the NPC out of the group. If a character's NPC starts to hog too much of the spotlight, it might be worth having an out-of-game conversation with the player to determine how you can ensure their NPC isn't stealing the joy from the rest of the table. Mabye that shield guardian of theirs wanders off unexpectedly. Maybe that hireling quits. Maybe the simulacrum goes back to protect the characters' airship.

    Other times these player-provided tag-along NPCs aren't that much of a problem. You can always account for them when determining the challenge of a fight if a challenge is what you seek by adding one or two monsters to balance them out. They also often make juicy targets.

    One nice house rule you might incorporate is the rule of mutually-assured destruction for tag-along NPCs. This works well for delicate pets and familiars. If a character's NPC doesn't come out in a fight, you won't target them; even with area of effect spells. This helps them keep their delicate NPCs without worrying about them getting killed in every fireball that happens to target the party.

    Just Say No

    Many of these problems and potential solutions go away if, when you have the chance, you simply forgo having tag-along NPCs at all. If an adventure calls for an NPC to follow the party, consider whether it really needs to happen and, if it does, how they will exit out again. Be particularly careful with high power NPCs like Artus Cimber, Dragonbait, and Harshnag. They can completely unbalance an adventure if they stick around too much.

    The easiest thing is to simply avoid such NPCs. That's what us lazy dungeon masters do.

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  • Running Ravenloft

    Note: This article has been updated since its original version published in November 2012.

    Published in 1983, the classic D&D adventure I6 Ravenloft, was ranked in 2004 by Dungeon magazine as the second greatest adventure of all time. Five years before its publication, Tracy and Laura Hickman ran the classic D&D module every Halloween. Ravenloft contains one of the best open-ended randomly determined adventures produced for Dungeons & Dragons and it's perfect for a Halloween one-shot game.

    With the release of Curse of Strahd, we have a fully updated 5th edition D&D version of Ravenloft. Though intended for a long campaign, we're going to strip Curse of Strahd down to a single five-hour game for 8th level characters perfect for us to run on or around Halloween every year.

    Let's take a look at how to run Curse of Strahd in a single session Halloween-themed adventure.

    The Party's Goals

    We'll start by stripping down the goals of this adventure to one single goal: Kill Strahd. Expanding this a bit, we're killing Strahd to prevent him from enthralling Ireena Kolyana and making her his dark bride.

    To help them kill Strahd, the characters must seek out three powerful artifacts hidden within the castle. These three artifacts include the Sun Sword, the Icon of Ravenloft, and the Tome of Strahd.

    You'll notice that we replaced the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind with the Icon of Ravenloft because the Icon's abilities better fit with the theme of the game. A paralyzed Strahd isn't much fun. That means the Icon of Ravenloft does not sit on the altar in room K15. We can replace this with a large bowl of clear water suitable to restore the vitality of the party once, giving them the equivalent of a short or long rest depending on how hard a time the characters are having.

    We're also going to add a trait the Tome of Strahd that helps streamline this adventure. If Strahd is defeated, the Tome of Strahd can be burned to destroy him within his coffin regardless of where the characters are when they set it ablaze. In truth, this is the only item the characters actually need assuming they can defeat Strahd without the Sun Sword or the Icon.


    Ireena accompanies the group into Ravenloft. She isn't putting up with his stalkerish ways and is taking the fight right to him. Ireena is a veteran and can be controlled by a volunteer player who is already running a simple character.

    Alternatively one of the players can play Ireena. She is human but otherwise can be any class the players choose and is the same level as the rest of the party.

    Ravenloft Character Bonds

    We're going to keep the bonds between characters very simple. Instead of a whole slew of interconnecting bonds, every character has the following bond for this one-shot adventure:

    By blood or by deed you and your companions are sworn to aid and protect Ireena from the devil Strahd.

    Now every character has a built-in motivation to group together, go to Ravenloft with Ireena, and destroy the vampire once and for all.

    Intro: The Carriage Ride to Ravenoft and the Drawing

    When the characters begin the adventure, read or summarize the following:

    The ornate black carriage roars along the narrow winding road that leads to Castle Ravenloft. As you peer out one window, you watch rocks from the road fall one thousand feet to the river below. Looking ahead you see the carriage master, his cowled face turned your way and staring at you with invisible eyes shrouded under his tattered leather tricorn hat. Reaching back impossibly far with an arm too long for his body, he gently pushes you back into the carriage and locks the door.

    A raspy laughter rattles the glyphed coins that make up Madame Eva's veil. Sitting across from you, she draws an ancient worn deck of cards from her colored robes and begins to place them on the small table in the center of the inside of the carriage.

    We will be using the simplified fortune drawing described in James Introcaso's Guide to Running Curse of Strahd as a one-shot adventure with one minor exception: we're going to skip the ally and just stick to the three artifacts and Strahd's location. Remove all but the following cards from the common cards in the Tarokka deck:

    • Paladin (2 of Swords/Spades)
    • Mercenary (4 of Swords/Spades)
    • Berserker (6 of Swords/Spades)
    • Dictator (8 of Swords/Spades)
    • Warrior (Master of Swords/10 of Spades)
    • Transmuter (1 of Stars/Ace of Clubs)
    • Evoker (6 of Stars/Clubs)
    • Necromancer (8 of Stars/Clubs)
    • Swashbuckler (1 of Coins/Ace of Diamonds)
    • Merchant (4 of Coins/Diamonds)
    • Guild Member (5 of Coins/Diamonds)
    • Miser (9 of Coins/Diamonds)
    • Shepherd (4 of Glyphs/Hearts)
    • Anarchist (6 of Glyphs/Hearts)
    • Priest (Master of Glyphs/10 of Hearts)

    Ireena places out four cards, three from the common deck (one for each artifact) and one from the high deck which represents Strahd's location. With those cards placed, the adventure is ready to begin.

    Strahd's Invitation

    The characters arrive at Castle Ravenloft under the invitation of Strahd as described in the book. Instead of an illusion of Strahd playing the grand organ, it is Strahd himself. As they dine, Strahd lays out the rules of his "game" which, in short is the following:

    "Defeat me and you save Ireena. Perish and she is mine."

    In his unfathomable cruelty he asks Ireena a simple question:

    "Give yourself to me now, my love, and you can save their lives."

    Ireena looks to the party for guidance. If she appears as though she will give herself to Strahd, he turns to them and asks:

    "and you would allow this?".

    Should they choose to hand her over, Strahd looks very disappointed.

    "They are obviously not worth your affection. Let them rot in this castle. Let you walk with them and see the results of their cowardice first hand."

    Strahd then departs from the dinner as the room grows cold.

    Should the characters decide to confront Strahd there and then, Strahd is accompanied by two vampire spawns and has an additional spawn for every character above four. They're not likely to survive.

    Recover the Three Artifacts Before Facing Strahd

    The party must find all three artifacts before facing Strahd. 45 minutes before the end of the game, Strahd attacks the characters wherever they are and with whatever they have. If the party does not have the Tome of Strahd, they cannot defeat the vampire. Depending on how difficult you want the fight, he might come with his three brides, each a vampire spawn. One of these vampire brides has the casting capabilities of a mage. One has the fighting capabilities of a veteran, and one has the capabilities of an assassin without the poison.

    Strahd's Interjections

    Throughout the session, Strahd might decide to jump into a situation to harass the party if they have been having too easy a time. Strahd will arrive in his hybrid bat form or his hybrid wolf form, poke at the party, and then leave. Each time Strahd arrives, his entrance is foreshadowed by his children of the night.

    Facing Strahd von Zarovich

    45 minute before the end of the game, Strahd arrives and unleashes his full power. Take a few minutes to read Strahd's full entry in the book before the game to remember all of his intricacies.

    If we want to run Strahd on "hard mode" if the characters have been having too easy a time of it, we can use our "nastier specials" from our Running Strahd article. This includes the following:

    Use the following changes to increase Strahd's difficulty:

    • 200 hit points
    • 19 AC (mage armor from a scroll)
    • Unarmed strike does 11 (2d10) bludgeoning and 21 (6d6) necrotic damage.
    • Bite does 9 (2d8) piercing and 14 (4d6) necrotic.
    • Switch out the following spells: shield instead of comprehend languages, counterspell instead of nondetection, lightning bolt instead of fireball, and dispel magic instead of nondetection.
    • Add Beguiling Gaze.

    Beguiling Gaze. As a bonus action, the vampire fixes its gaze on a creature it can see within 30 feet of it. If the target can see the vampire, the target must succeed on a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or the vampire has advantage on attack rolls against the target. The effect lasts until the target takes damage or until the start of the vampires next turn. For that time, the affected creature is also a willing target for the vampires bite attack. A creature that cant be charmed is immune to this effect. A creature that successfully saves against the vampires gaze is immune to it for 1 hour.

    A Halloween Tradition

    With Curse of Strahd in hand and our streamlined plans in place, we can make Castle Ravenloft our very own Halloween tradition. Give it a try!

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  • A New Dungeon Master's Guide For Building Encounters

    Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the sixth in a six-part series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games. The full list of articles includes:

    In this article we're going to dig deep into one of the most challenging aspects of running a D&D game: building combat encounters.

    This article goes hand-in-hand with my original article on Building Encounters in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. That article contains charts and tables to help you choose the right number of monsters for a given situation.

    Here's a quick summary of this article's approach towards encounter building:

    • Let encounters develop from the story, the situation, and the actions of the characters. We don't have to pre-define encounters as "combat", "roleplaying", or "exploration". We only have to set up the situations and let the players decide how to interact with them.
    • Choose the type and number of monsters that make sense given the situation. Sometimes this might be two sleepy guards at a cave entrance. Other times it might be an entire hobgoblin warband. Give the characters openings to take different approaches towards the scene.
    • Keep an eye out for unexpectedly deadly encounters. Understand the loose relationship between monster challenge ratings and character levels. Remember that fewer monsters are generally easier than lots of monsters. Use a tool like the tables in Xanathar's Guide to Everything if you're not sure. In particular, be nice to level 1 characters. They're really squishy.
    • Adjust the encounter as needed during the game. Vary hit points within the hit-dice range. Increase or decrease damage. Add or remove monsters.
    • Mix up encounters to keep things fresh. Add interesting terrain or fantastic features. Throw a mixture of easy and hard encounters at the characters. Use waves of monsters.

    We're going to dig into all of these things throughout the article.

    Develop Encounters from the Story

    Dungeons & Dragons breaks down scenes into three different types of gameplay: NPC interaction and roleplaying, exploration, and combat. In the vernacular of D&D, all of these types of scenes are considered "encounters".

    We don't have to define any scene as being a roleplay scene, an exploration scene, or a combat scene ahead of time. Instead, we can set up the situation and let the players choose how to approach it. Maybe they attack the bugbear leader of the goblins directly. Maybe they try to bargain with them. Maybe they sneak up the garbage chute and try to listen in to the bugbear's plans. We don't necessarily know what choices the players will make when they leap into an encounter and not knowing is half the fun.

    It's common to break up our game into a set number of roleplay encounters, exploration encounters, and combat encounters but consider setting those categories aside and simply developing situations. These situations have interesting things going on in them that the characters can get involved with, but we don't have to know how they will interact with it. Sure, some scenes lean one way or another. When a horde of goblins attacks a wagon filled with friendly farming families (FFFs), the player characters are not going to go investigate rocks. Many times, however, we DMs can simply set the stage and let the players act within the scene as they want. That's a big part of the fun of D&D.

    Choose Monsters that Fit the Situation

    As we described earlier, the story and situation drives what encounters takes place. The same is true when we select monsters. Choose the monsters that fit the situation. A hobgoblin war camp might realistically have twenty-five hobgoblins and fifty goblins in it. They might not all charge the characters at once but that's the size of the war camp. A single hobgoblin patrol might consist of six hobgoblins and a captain. A war party might consist of twenty goblins, twelve hobgoblins, two hobgoblin captains, and a hobgoblin warlord.

    We don't try to balance this war camp with the characters. This is the size of the war camp, the patrol, and the war party regardless of the characters. How the characters decide to deal with a small patrol or approach the war party is up to them.

    Sometimes the characters might corner off two hobgoblins who went to examine an old dwarven statue. Other times the characters might find themselves overwhelmed with two dozen hobgoblins and two captains riding on scarred worgs. The story drives the encounter.

    Determining Deadly Encounters

    Most DMs want to have a vague idea of how difficult an encounter will be. A group of level 17 characters won't have much of a problem blowing this war camp off the face of Faerun but a group of level 4 characters running up against an entire war party at once could be deadly.

    Before an encounter turns to combat, it helps if we know it's rough potential difficulty. Doing so helps us steer the situation and offer other options to the players before it becomes a surprise total-party-kill (TPKs). Understanding encounter difficulty is tricky and can cause real problems for new DMs. Most commonly, a new DM will pit the characters against monsters that are way too hard and inadvertently kill the characters.

    Accidental TPKs are much more likely to happen at level 1 than any other level in D&D. Anyone who thinks a battle between a group of level 18 characters against Tiamat will be rough hasn't seen what happens when level 1 characters fight too many rat swarms.

    Above all else, be gentle with level 1 characters. However squishy you think they are, they're squishier. If you want to throw some monsters at your level 1 characters, choose fewer monsters than characters (maybe one for every two characters) and make sure they have a challenge of 1/4 or less. Even two or three challenge 1/2 thugs can wipe the floor with level 1 characters. Be nice to these poor young adventurers and you'll have 19 more levels of delightful pain to inflict.

    The Dungeon Master's Guide has detailed instructions for building encounters at various difficulties. These are the guidelines that Wizards of the Coast themselves use to design monsters and balance combat encounters. I suggest that you ignore these guidelines. They're too complicated, take a lot of time, and don't usually give us the results we're after anyway.

    In a wonderful episode of Dragon Talk, lead D&D Designer and rules sage Jeremy Crawford goes into detail on these rules and explains that the main goal isn't to "balance" encounters but to help DMs gauge the difficulty of a combat encounter, particularly if it's deadly. The math in the Dungeon Master's Guide can give us this rough gauge but so can a number of other easier methods. I'm going to offer three different methods for determining whether an encounter is deadly or not and you are free to choose the method you like the best. Two of these methods use the same underlying math of the Dungeon Master's Guide but are easier to use.

    First, Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a much-improved set of guidelines and tables for determining encounter difficulty. Instead of attempting to calculate encounter balance based on experience budgets, difficulty, and the number of monsters, Xanathar's Guide includes charts we can reference to determine the equivalent number of monsters to characters at a given character level and monster challenge rating.

    Second, I'll offer some rules-of-thumb you can keep in your head to give you a rough idea of whether an encounter is deadly or not. This takes a little work to memorize but once it's wired into your head, you'll need no other tool or chart to gauge an encounter's difficulty. This method compares the challenge rating of monsters to the levels of characters.

    Third, you can just wing it. The more experienced you get with D&D; the monsters, the mechanics, and the capabilities of the characters; the easier it will be for you to judge the difficulty of an encounter on your own. There is, of course, a lot of variance during a fight, but as you run games you'll become better at judging the difficulty without any sort of forumlas or tables. Many experienced DMs ignore any sort of encounter balance rules and take an estimated guess at the difficulty of any given encounter.

    Comparing Challenge Rating to Character Level

    It's important that we understand what the challenge rating of a monster represents. According to the Monster Manual, a group of four characters should be able to defeat a monster with a challenge rating equal to the level of the characters. Thus, a group of level 2 characters should be able to defeat a challenge 2 ogre.

    If we reverse-engineer the encounter building math used in the Dungeon Master's Guide, we can figure out a few other relationships between challenge rating and character level. These comparisons assume a fight that is not quite deadly, but close.

    A single monster is roughly equal in power to a single character if its challenge rating is roughly 1/4 of the character's level. This increases to 1/2 if the character is above level 4.

    A single monster is roughly equal in power to two characters if its challenge rating is 1/2 of the character's level. This increases to 3/4 if the character is above level 4.

    Two monsters are roughly equal in power to a single character if the monsters' challenge rating is roughly equal to 1/10 of the character's level. This increases to 1/4 if the character is above level 4.

    Here's a small table that might help. This comes from the upcoming Lazy DM's Workook, the Kickstarter stretch goal for Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

    Any encounters above these amounts, in the quantity of monsters and the challenge ratings of monsters compared to the level of the characters, will be potentially deadly.

    This system can't give you a perfectly accurate view of how a battle will go, however. Too many variables determine the difficulty of a combat encounter. These variables include the experience of the players, the synergy of the character classes, how many battles the characters have already encountered, what spells the characters have, what magic items the characters have, the environment they're fighting in, and, of course, the roll of the dice.

    Thus, any guidelines you decide to use to help you understand encounter difficulty won't be perfectly accurate. Instead, you'll have to judge for yourself by seeing how the characters fair against various types of fights throughout an adventure or a campaign. Sometimes you'll need to ease back and make battles easier. Other times you'll need to increase the number of monsters to challenge the characters.

    The more experience you get under your belt running combat in D&D and the better you understand the capabilities of the characters, the easier it becomes to see what the characters can handle and adjust accordingly.

    Adjusting Encounter Difficulty on the Fly

    There's a dirty secret among DMs. We're all cheats and liars. We do, however, cheat and lie for the fun of the game and the enjoyment of the players. We can, for example, vary the hit points of a monster depending on how the battle is going. If the battle is becoming a slog or is simply too hard, we can reduce the number of hit points a monster has. If the characters are carving through monsters too easily, we might increase them to add to the challenge. As long as we're varying hit points within the hit dice range of a monster, we're technically not cheating.

    For example, an ogre has an average of 59 hit points and its hit dice are 7d10 + 21. Thus, any ogre could have between 28 and 91 hit points. A bigger brute might have 90 hit points but the weaker ones might only have 40. We don't have to make these changes ahead of time. We can change their hit points during the battle to keep up the high energy pace of the game.

    We can likewise tweak the damage of a monster. Like hit points, we're given an average amount of damage and a damage equation. If we want, we can increase the damage the monster inflicts up to the maximum of that dice range and still be within the rules. Likewise, a hit might be less if we find that the monsters are inflicting way more damage than we expected.

    Finally, we can add or remove monsters to tune a fight. Maybe six more hobgoblins rush in when they hear their fellow soldiers being attacked. Maybe two of the hobgoblins flee to get help or become distracted by a third party.

    All three of these techniques give us dials we can turn to change the difficulty of a fight while it's happening. We don't want to do this sort of thing all the time, but the options are there if things aren't going well and the game's fun factor is dropping.

    Add Interesting Terrain and Fantastic Features

    Six hobgoblins in an open field isn't that interesting. Four hobgoblins and their four worg mounts camping out around an ancient dwarven archway is more interesting, particularly if that archway is swirling with eldritch energy.

    When we're developing the scenes in our adventure, we can add texture by throwing in interesting terrain or fantastic features. Chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide includes two tables of monuments and weird locales we can use as inspiration for some fantastic features to include in our combat encounters. Appendix A of the Dungeon Master's Guide also includes similar tables for dungeon features. Describing them can give our players ideas about how to use these features in combat which makes the whole battle more dynamic and exciting.

    Features like this add an element of exploration and mystery to our scenes.

    Final Thoughts on Building Great Encounters

    Building great encounters is a skill, like improvisation, that gets better the more we do it. It's a skill we can improve on for the rest of our lives. By keeping some general guidelines in mind and experimenting from scene to scene, we can learn what works well, what does not, and what things we want to try out in the future.

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  • Giving Characters Hard Choices

    Dungeons & Dragons is a game full of choices. From running campaigns to running characters, from steering world-shaking events to choosing an approach while having a conversation with a merchant, players and DMs make all sorts of choices when playing D&D.

    Choices are also the root of what makes D&D fun. How should the characters interact with an NPC? How will they accomplish their goal? Who gets the fancy new magic sword? All of these choices, and the consequences of them, bring life to the game.

    Sometimes, though, the best choices aren't easily made. Sometimes all of the options are reasonable and other times, all of them are fraught with consequences. Today we're going to look at these hard choices and see how we can make the most of them in our D&D games.

    Which Front to Face

    In the campaign building advice in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, I recommend using Fronts from Dungeon World as a way to see what major movers and shakers are changing the face of the world. When these fronts all become visible to the characters, the characters will have to make a hard choice about which front they want to stop.

    For example, in the D&D adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard, the characters have three potential factions they have to deal with: the ice witch Hedrun, Akar Kessel the undead mage, and Valish Gant the schemer of the Arcane Brotherhood. When the characters navigate this adventure, they must decide which of these three villains they wish to thwart knowing that the other paths will move forward unhindered.

    If we're not careful, these always-moving fronts can be frustrating for players. While focusing on one villain, the characters find they're two steps back with the other two. If the players begin to feel screwed no matter which direction they go, perhaps slow down on the progression of the other fronts.

    Making Deals

    "You can hit four enemies with your fireball, or eight if you're willing to hit the fighter and rogue..."

    One of the fun design elements of the excellent RPG 13th Age is how it includes deals made between players and the GM. A fireball in 13th Age can hit 1d3 enemies in a group or, if you cast it recklessly, an extra 1d3 enemies, but it will hit any of your friends engaged with those enemies. That's a great way to get fireballs to work well without a grid.

    Making deals are a great way to put hard choices in front of players. Do you want advantage on your next attack? All you have to do is swing from that chandelier up above? A failure, of course, could result in a nasty fall.

    Advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration are three currencies we DMs always have on hand to sweeten deals and put hard choices in front of the characters. Waving an inspiration token at a player is a great way to get them to accept some risk when things would otherwise feel too safe.

    Here are some example deals we can put in front of our players:

    • Turn a failed ability check into a success but at a cost.
    • Give the character advantage on their next check by putting themselves in a risky position.
    • Give a character additional targets in a spell's area but only by putting something else in that area at risk.
    • Giving a single-use ability or power but with a chance of corruption, damage, or arcane feedback.
    • Give a character some vital information but only by guaranteeing the safety of someone the characters desperately want to slay.

    The Curse You Don't Want to Get Rid Of

    What if a fungus-cursed hydra bites one of the characters and that character contracts some sort of hideous disease? That's not a hard choice. Go find the nearest caster of cure disease or greater restoration and get that thing cleaned up!

    But what if this infection did something to the character, something interesting. What if this character could start to see through other plants? What if it gave them access to new powers they could cultivate such as entangle, spike growth, and grasping vine? What if the strange infected would knit itself closed with tendrils of vines and roots? What if, on their death, they are returned in their original form but inside they're all plant stuff, a physical vessel sworn to Zuggtmoy?

    Simple curses are easy. Characters certainly want to get rid of them and will do so. If we turn those curses into hard choices, though, maybe they'll live with the curse.

    Maybe an abolith is willing to impart the vast knowledge of the abolithic sovereignty to your character, giving them a history as old as the millennia and current intelligence all over the Sword Coast? What if all it cost was the character's own mental independence? Hmmm.

    Choosing Villainous Factions

    Often, when we're prepping our D&D games, it's hard for us to see villainous organizations as anything other than a big pile of monsters for the characters to kill. If the characters go into a thieves' den, it might end up being room after room of bandits getting slaughtered.

    One way we can turn monstrous lairs into opportunities for roleplaying and hard choices is to ensure there are multiple factions within the band of monsters or among the villainous organization. This way the characters can work within or against these factions. If both factions are purely hostile to the characters then it might end up as a slaughterfest anyway so we'll need to ensure the factions have reason to talk to the characters and vice versa.

    For example, in Tomb of Annihilation, the characters can go into the Fane of the Night Serpent. There are two factions in there; those loyal to Ras Nsi and those loyal to Fenthasa. Ras Nsi has no intent at going into the Tomb of the Nine Gods to stop the Soul Monger so he has a reason to talk to the party: convince them to go into the tomb itself and stop the Soul Monger. Fenthasa might have another goal. She wants Ras Nsi dead and the obsidian dagger from the Tomb returned to her. She might aid a party willing to end Ras Nsi and return to her the dagger within the tomb.

    Now, instead of the characters just going in and slaughtering all the yuan-ti, they might get involved in the rift between two factions and have to choose which faction they want to support.

    These factions might be rivals within a group or subordinates who no longer want to work with their superior. Any rift like this is an opportunity for the characters to get involved and a hard choice for them to make. Which faction, if any, will they support?

    Here are some examples of factions within villainous groups:

    • Each of two rival factions want to usurp the other.
    • A subordinate secretly plots against their master.
    • Two monstrous groups are separated by a valley and neither group can get the upper hand on the other without the characters' help.
    • A powerful leader actually wants to leave the gang they're in.
    • A spy for a rival group has infiltrated a villainous group.
    • The characters possess an item that makes a faction in a villainous group covet and worship them.

    What Would Make Them Choose Differently?

    Whenever we want to throw a hard choice in front of the characters, we can, when the choice in front of the characters seems inevitable, we can ask ourselves "what would make them choose differently?"

    For example, if the yuan-ti want to open a huge door into the realm of the Night Serpent and they need one of the characters to actually open the door, what would convince them to do so? How could the yuan-ti convince the characters that opening the door is the better option? Maybe only the Night Serpent can stop the horror Acererak feeds in the depth of the Tomb of the Nine Gods. Maybe the only way to stop the Night Serpent is to face it. Maybe something the character loves more than mortal life lies beyond those gates.

    When a choice seems too easy, what might steer the characters to choose a different way?

    A Game of Choices

    D&D is a game full of choices, some of them small and some as big as the multiverse. One of our jobs as dungeon masters is to put meaningful and interesting choice in front of the characters whenever the pace of the adventure calls for it. Without putting too much decision fatigue on them, we can insert hard choices so the players can see the true impact of the choices they make. Use hard choices to make your game unique and fun.

    Special thanks to Taylor on Twitter for the suggestion to write this article.

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  • A New DM's Guide to Miniatures

    Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the fifth of a series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games. The full list of articles includes:

    In a previous article we talked about the tools we need to run our D&D games. We glossed over one giant topic, however, the topic of miniatures.

    When we say "miniatures" we're really talking about the physical objects we use to represent the characters and monsters in our D&D games. The options are vast.

    Groups don't actually need to use anything to represent monsters or characters in Dungeons & Dragons. We can use a gameplay style known as the "theater of the mind". When running D&D in the theater of the mind, the DM describes the situation, clarifies it from the questions of the players, listens to what the players want their characters to do, and describes the outcome. It is the same for combat as it is for exploration or roleplay.

    Ever since D&D game out forty years ago, however, players and DMs have often used some sort of miniature to represent their characters or monsters. Back then it was often lead or pewter war game miniatures, sometimes painted and sometimes not. The use of miniatures has evolved in the four decades since, but even today there is no perfect solution for representing monsters and characters at the table. We have a wide range of options, from no cost at all to thousands of dollars, but none of these options are perfect.

    No matter which of the paths we take or products we buy for D&D miniatures, we'll always make tradeoffs. Sometimes it's money, sometimes it's time, sometimes it's physical space, sometimes it's the flexibility of our game. Even if we spend thousands of dollars on miniatures, as some veteran DMs have, finding the right miniature can take too long to make it useful when running a game. No matter how many miniatures we own, we still will not have exactly the right one or exactly the right number for every battle. While no perfect solution exists, we can mix and match a few ideas together to design our own personal best-case solution for representing characters and monsters in combat.

    The Free Options and the Theater of the Mind

    As mentioned, we can describe combat and use the occasional paper sketch to help players visualize what is going on. This method is fast, free, and doesn't break the flow of the game from scene to scene.

    Running combat in the theater of the mind means we can run any sort of battle we want. With a zero cost comes infinite flexibility. We can run a battle atop a massive titan's skull surrounded by a thousand screaming ghouls if we want to. We can run a ship battle in the depths of the astral sea fighting against a pair of githyanki warships. Whatever sort of battle we can imagine, we can run. Even if we do choose to use miniatures, keeping this gameplay style in our toolkit gives us the option when we want it.

    Combat in the theater of the mind isn't for everyone. When battles get complicated, some representation of the characters and monsters helps. We can start by representing them with whatever we have on hand. Game pieces from other games, dice, coins, glass beads, LEGOs, and a any roughly one-inch-square object can serve as tokens for characters and monsters. This is a fine option when starting to play D&D that may serve you well for your entire D&D career. Even if you do end up getting more miniatures and better representations, keeping some generic tokens on hand can help set up an improvised battle and save you a lot of time.

    Low Cost Do-It-Yourself Options

    Some crafty DMs learned how to print paper versions their own miniatures either as tokens or as stand-ups. This is a low-cost solution but does take time to build them out. Enrique Bertran, the Newbie DM, wrote a popular guide to making tokens with print-outs, a one-inch hole punch, a washer, and some glue. More recently he posted a great trick of making one token per monster type and then using generic tokens to represent the rest of those monsters. These hand-made tokens are a wonderful and scalable solution that won't break the bank.

    The folks over at Alea Tools have a wonderful suggestion for making tokens out of old Magic the Gathering cards. They suggest punching out the card art you like with a one-inch punch, and sticking adhesive one-inch epoxy stickers to the top to make it feel like a hard plastic token. I spent a weekend making about one hundred such tokens and the look and feel great. The epoxy stickers, originally designed for bottle cap necklaces, work just as well on printed artwork like in NewbieDM's solution above. The one-inch punch and epoxy stickers can make just about anything into a great usable D&D token for pennies. A few generic tokens made this way can also augment our miniatures collection by representing additional monsters whose miniatures we don't own.

    Many other creators have published PDFs of tokens and stand-up paper miniatures. Trash Mob Minis and Printable Heroes are two such creators. These print-out miniatures require your time and the right equipment, which can get expensive if you don't already have it, but offer a nice pocketbook-friendly solution that gives you the exact type and number of miniatures you want.

    Pawns and Flat Plastic Miniatures

    For those who would rather save time and are willing to spend more money, we come to cardboard pawns. The most popular of these are the Pathfinder Pawns Bestiary collection which offers a large number of cardboard stand-up monster tokens for a low price. Though designed for Pathfinder, these tokens work just as well for D&D.

    Other producers like Arcknight Games have come up with flat plastic miniatures that cost more but, in my opinion, look much better on a table and pack light since they're considerably flatter than cardboard stand-ups (full disclosure, I have a curated set of Flat Plastic Miniatures available through Arcknight Games).

    These flat stand-up miniatures are a great way to build a large collection of monster representations without breaking the bank.

    The Wide World of Plastic Miniatures

    We now come to the large topic of plastic miniatures which come both painted and unpainted. Pre-painted miniatures often come in random booster boxes while specific unpainted miniatures can usually be purchased in non-random blister packs. Some sets of individual painted miniatures exist for heroes which is a great way to build up a small collection of hero miniatures without resorting to random selections.

    Unpainted miniatures can be used as-is or painted. Painting miniatures, of course, adds the cost of paints, brushes, and other painting accessories on top of the time it takes to paint them. Painting miniatures is a fun hobby all on its own but it isn't for everyone. Backing the occasional Kickstarter by Reaper for unpainted "Bones" miniatures is one way to get a large collection of miniatures for a relatively low cost-per-mini.

    Pre-painted plastic miniatures are, by far, the most common solution. Wizards of the Coast and their partner, WizKids, released thousands of miniatures over the past fifteen years. They've almost always been in randomly assorted packs but the price per miniature has changed dramatically over the years, and not in the direction we'd hope for. DMs collecting for many years might have large collections but building one today costs more than it did ten to fifteen years ago. If random boosters aren't your bag, you can buy miniatures on the secondary market but the cost per mini will be about $3 to $4 per mini on the low-end. Miniatures for our heroes and boss monsters might be worth it but it's probably not worth getting a warband of twelve orcs together for $36.

    An Evolving Marketplace

    The world of tokens, stand-ups, and miniatures continually changes. New ideas, like printable paper stand-up miniatures, pop up quickly and become very popular while older solutions like cardboard tokens or cheap pre-painted miniatures tend to fall out of production. Sometimes one can buy cardboard stand-ups easily and other times they're out of print and selling for four times the cost. This all points to the same core truth of miniatures: no miniature solution is perfect.


    If you thought miniatures were the end of the D&D money sink, you are mistaken. The top of the line D&D accessories include 3D terrain to go with all of those miniatures. These fantasy terrain arrangements look absolutely stunning, showing off full three-dimensional maps and areas including dungeons, cities, towns, and castles. The most popular vendor for these accessories is the venerable Dwarven Forge and their creator Stefan Pokorny. These are the setups that everyone drools over on Pinterest and Twitter. Matt Mercer uses Dwarven Forge on Critical Role.

    The costs for these elements of terrain are as high as the sets are beautiful. A table-sized representation of a complicated castle or dungeon can run thousands of dollars.

    There is also a hidden cost with this terrain. The time to set up such an arrangement leaves little flexibility for the game to go anywhere else. If you set up a castle, the characters are definitely going to that castle. Likewise, the terrain takes up a lot of space to store and time to set up. I am a huge fan of Dwarven Forge and own many sets myself, but it is not a requirement to run a great D&D game.

    For now, admire the pictures people put on the web but stick to your blank battle-mat for a lightweight, cost-effective, and flexible alternative.

    Some Final Recommendations

    Given the imperfection of the D&D miniature market, I have no clear solution but a few recommendations.

    First of all, even if we don't use it all the time, running combat using the "theater of the mind" offers us infinite flexibility and no cost. Even if we do have a collection of miniatures, we don't have to use them all the time. Keeping this style of play in our DM toolbox keeps our game fast and flexible.

    Players love to have nice miniatures for their characters. Character miniatures can show their marching order when heading down a hallway, who is on watch, and a variety of other non-combat situations on top of their obvious representation in combat. They're also just plain fun to play with. Investing in a good set of character miniatures, either as full miniatures or stand-up tokens, can help bring the characters to life.

    As far as monsters go, sticking with cheap representations of monsters with whatever objects you have on hand is just fine. Hand-made tokens are fast, flexible, easy to transport, and cheap. Plastic and card-board stand-up miniatures give us a large collection of monsters for a reasonable cost. Painted or unpainted miniatures look great at the table but the costs are high. Choose which ever of these options best fits your budget and the type of game you want to run.

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  • Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set: Running Phandelver

    The Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set includes an adventure that exemplifies the pace and feeling of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

    As the introductory adventure to the fifth edition of D&D, Lost Mine of Phandelver is likely the most-played adventure of D&D 5e. It's also one of the best. In this article we'll discuss tips and tricks for getting the most out of running this wonderful D&D adventure.

    If this is your first time running Dungeons & Dragons, you may want Starting Strong at your First D&D Game.

    Battle Against Venomfang

    Use the Pregen Backgrounds

    The backgrounds included with the pre-generated characters in Phandelver are written to hook characters into this adventure. Even if your players bring custom-built characters from the Player's Handbook, you may want to recommend that they choose backgrounds from the Starter Set pre-generated characters to better tie them to the story. You can email these pre-generated characters to your players before your game so they can use them as the seeds when building their own custom characters.

    When your players have chosen backgrounds, read them over and write them down, perhaps on a campaign worksheet. These backgrounds can help you choose which hooks to highlight in the rest of the adventure. The town of Phandalin is packed with quests, many of which are tied to these character backgrounds. Instead of piling quests on them that may or may not be relevant, only expose the hooks that tie to the backgrounds of the characters.

    Start Strong

    Lost Mine of Phandelver begins with a goblin ambush against a caravan protected by the characters. Before the battle begins, this is a good chance to help you tie the characters together, if they aren't already with some loaded questions:

    • Athrund, how did Celvak save your life previously?
    • Teraman, who among the Red Brand bandits do you and Yeshta hunt and why?
    • Gormun, what debt do you and Uthar owe to the Rockbottom brothers?

    Questions like this help tie charaters together early and move some of the storytelling over to the players. You can use Fiasco-style relationships to get all the characters tied together if you have the time. You might also have all of the characters tied to a single faction such as the Harpers, Lord's Alliance, Zhentarim, Order of the Gauntlet, or Emerald Enclave. This is a built-in group connection and ties them to a specific NPC in the town of Phandalin when they arrive.

    Now on to the battle!

    The first thing to remember in this battle is that level 1 characters are extremely fragile. It would suck for new D&D players to start their D&D experience with a total-party kill (TPK) so be careful.

    This first battle is a great chance to try your hand at Theater of the Mind combat instead of using maps and minis. It will get both you and your players used to battles that don't use a grid or miniatures. It's good practice and will help you with many of the other battles in this adventure.

    You'll also want to stick to the static damage output of goblins at level 1 to ensure you avoid any major damage spikes that drop characters in a single hit. Dropping on the first shot is a lousy way to experience a new edition of D&D.

    If you want to complicate the battle, add an NPC driver of the cart the party can protect. Use your handy random name generator and whip up a character archetype from your most recent favorite movie or TV show. Have the goblins harass this poor soul to give the characters something else to protect than their own hides.

    Get Them to Level 2 Fast

    Level 1 is brutal in the fifth edition of D&D. You may want to get your characters to second level as soon as you can, even as early as the middle of the Cragmaw Hideout. There's also nothing stopping you from starting them at second level. Those extra hit points and hit dice of healing will help them significantly when facing off against the foes in the first chapter of this adventure. You can level them to third level when the story dictates it normally and everything works out well after that.

    Hone Your Lazy Dungeon Master Skills

    Lost Mine of Phandelver is a series of small sandboxes stacked together. This is a fantastic opportunity to practice the art of the lazy dungeon master. Part 1, the Cragmaw Hideout, is a great dungeon sandbox with multiple paths and multiple ways to defeat its enemies. Instead of pushing the players down one particular path, relish in their discussions about which way to go and improvise as they take their chosen path.

    You'll likely want to avoid any elaborate battle maps for this dungeon and instead use a blank flip mat to draw out rough locations as the players choose a direction. If you pre-build parts of the dungeon, you're more likely to consciously or subconsciously lead them that way. Instead, relax and let them choose whatever path they want.

    You will also want to consider how the goblins react to the approach taken by the characters. It's a great time to see through the eyes of the goblins. As the characters invade their secret headquarters, the goblins act as they would in reaction to this.

    Part 2 and part 3 of the adventure expand the sandbox considerably. There are tons of things to do both inside and outside Phandalin. Feel free to let the group decide whether to stay inside the town and deal with the Redbrands or to leave the city and deal with some of the interesting locations found in part 3. The characters should be free to leave and return to Phandalin as they choose, though the plots of the Redbrands may escalate if not taken care of.

    Part 4 returns us to a sandbox dungeon delve. Again, give your players the freedom to choose whatever path they want to explore the dungeon. Wave Echo Cave is big so don't feel like the characters have to explore every nook and cranny. If it starts to get stale, cut off certain passages or remove redundant monsters to keep the pace moving well. If they happen to go straight to the boss, let them do so.

    Weave In the Dopplegangers

    There are two dopplegangers in this adventure, Vhalak and Vyerith. Both of them work for the Black Spider and are written in at specific locations in the adventure. Both of these, however, make for fantastic reoccurring villains you might bring on early in the adventure. Give characters the feeling of being watched. Let them see shifting shadowy figures lurking in the background. Maybe one of them actually attacks the characters if the timing is right. These two foes should be smart villains who won't engage if they don't have an escape plan, so don't let them simply walk in and get killed. If the characters do manage to kill one of them early, they might see them again as the second doppleganger changes its shape to match the first one.

    These two dopplegangers are your chance to add in a whole new variable to the villains in the adventure. Make use of them.

    Watch Out for Venomfang

    There is one single villain in Phandelver that stands a significant chance of wiping out the characters—the green dragon Venomfang. When you introduce Venomfang, make it clear that the characters face a significant foe. Give them plenty of chances to realize that a simple stand-up fight might not be the right way to go. There are also many opportunities available to aim Venomfang at other enemies than the characters through subtle manipulation of Venomfang and the cult who courts him.

    A Useful D&D Kit

    Beyond the adventure itself, the books in the D&D Starter Set are extremely useful. They're a perfect companion to your DM kit, containing maps, rules, adventures, and monster stat blocks to run many adventures outside of the pages. The pre-gen character sheets are also extremely useful, mainly for their ability to level up from 1 to 5 right on the sheet. The various maps of the locations in Phandelver also fit very common locations in many adventures such as ruined castles, rogue dens, ruined villages, monster-infested caves, and dwarven mines. We can easily repurpose these locations to fit our own adventures. While this Starter Set gives us roughly a 12 hour adventure, we could make adventures for hundreds of hours with the materials we have inside.

    At $20 MSRP, the Starter Set is a real bargain.

    A Fantastic Adventure to Start your D&D Campaign

    Phandelver is a great adventure full of opportunities for you to relax, play loose, and let the story evolve from the choices of the players and the actions of the characters. Take your time, understand the material, go with the flow, and get ready to spend a bunch of hours having fun with your friends.

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  • Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

    Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the spiritual successor to the Lazy Dungeon Master is now available for purchase! Currently you can buy the ebook package which includes the PDF and ePub version of the book. The softcover and hardcover versions of the book are due for release in early October 2018.

    It's been five years since the release of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Back then, D&D was transitioning between fourth and the fifth edition. Even written during this transition the book did extremely well and the ideas in it still resonate with GMs today.

    After Fantastic Adventures, I went back through the original book to see what worked well, what fell short, and what needed to be refined. I studied dozens of gamemaster books for many different fantasy roleplaying games and books of advice for running great fantasy RPGs. I watched tons of Youtube videos by folks like Matt Mercer, Matt Colville, and others. I poured over forums and websites and blogs that talk about how to run great D&D games. I went back over the six thousand responses to the 2016 Dungeon Master Survey and dozens of Facebook and Twitter polls. I dug deep to see how we actually prepare and run our games.

    Then I took a month off from everything and wrote the first draft of the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. In February I launched the Kickstarter for the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and the support blew the doors off of any of my expectations. I was able to finance not just the full production of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master but a full Lazy DM's Workbook to go even deeper into helping GMs run great fifth edition games. That book is due out in late fall or early winter 2018.

    I kept the price of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master low—$8 for the ebook package—to help as many GMs as possible get it into their hands. The smashing success of the Kickstarter let me bring on industry titans like Scott Fitzgerald Gray for editing, Marc Radle for art direction and layout, Jack Kaiser for two incredible covers, and Pedro Potier for the internal artwork.

    There's a two-chapter sample of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master so you can see what you're getting and this sample also acts as a crash course in the new lazy DM's checklist so it's usable on its own. Give it a look and see if it's the style for you.

    I've also recently taken to Twitch to broadcast myself preparing for my weekly Tomb of Annihilation game using the new Lazy DM's checklist. If you want to see the steps in action, take a look at the Youtube archive of previous Lazy DM prep videos.

    I've poured decades of experiences running D&D games into Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. I poured centuries of experiences from other GMs into this book as well. Everything that I've focused on when helping GMs run great roleplaying games I polished and put into this book. If you like what I've been doing on this site over the past ten years, this book is the refined culmination of everything I have to offer.

    I hope you love it as much as I do and I thank you for your support.

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