March 16 2017

Sly Flourish


    Sly Flourish

  • The Deadly Shift of Tomb of Annihilation

    Warning, this article contains spoilers for Tomb of Annihilation.

    Tomb of Annihilation is a fantastic D&D adventure. It's an adventure of high fantasy in an interesting environment (the jungles of Chult). It has awesome locations to explore, cool NPCs to meet, a powerhouse villain, and the deadliest dungeon published in the fifth edition hardback D&D adventures to date.

    Tomb of Annihilation isn't without its problems. For the most part, these problems are manageable. Let's take a moment to review two of these problems.

    First, as written, the death curse (the main driver of the adventure) has too much urgency tied to it. If this urgency isn't tweaked by the DM, the best course of action the characters can take is to run as fast as they can to the Tomb of the Nine Gods to stop the curse from quickly killing off oodles of rich and powerful people all over Faerun (hmmm). Luckily, this problem is easy to deal with. We discussed a few options for managing the death curse in the Urgency of the Death Curse by using it as an urgency dial instead of a fixed countdown timer. Simply forgo the hit point loss-per-day and describe the progression of the curse in a way that better fits the pacing of the game you want at the moment. If you want the characters to feel free to explore Chult, mention that the curse is little more than a concern at the moment. A rash, really. If you want them to laser in on Omu and the tomb beneath, explain how the powerful curse has escalated.

    The second problem comes with the many NPCs that can join the characters throughout the adventure. In most cases, these NPCs are just fine but in a few they can either overshadow the characters with their raw power (I'm looking at you Artus Cimber and Dragonbait) or they can end up steering the characters too far away and waste a lot of valuable time on errands that have nothing to do with the plot. We've discussed this problem in the article Handling Tag-Along NPCs. The best solution here is to be careful when introducing these NPCs, ensuring you have an exit plan for them, or skip them all together.

    Both of those problems are easily managed. There is a third problem, however, and one not so easily fixed. When the characters actually enter the Tomb of the Nine Gods, the whole atmosphere of the adventure changes. Instead of being a character-driven narrative story of exploration and intrigue, this adventure becomes a puzzle and deathtrap killfest. That's the problem we're going to talk about today.

    The Atmospheric Shift of the Tomb of the Nine Gods

    It surprises no one that this adventure's dungeon is actually deadly. We all knew it. It says so right in the beginning and if our players are paying attention at all, they'll know it's deadly too. But we say that a lot when it comes to challenges the characters face and most of the time they can pull out of the danger and survive anyway. If you're a soft DM like me, you can probably count on one hand the number of times characters have died in your D&D games. If you're harsher, actually killing characters often, and your players don't mind, maybe this isn't a problem for you.

    For some of us though this shift is a big problem. Here at Sly Flourish we take a "character first" approach to our D&D games. It's the first step in the preparation checklist in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. We follow the guidelines of Dungeon World and become fans of the characters. These characters have histories. They have arcs. We love them and we love watching them go on adventures. We don't love it when they get in a black box, a friend hits a button, and they're turned into dust. Literally. Well, I didn't love it.

    Death sometimes comes to characters in our character-driven games but often it's part of their character's arc. In this dungeon, though, their arcs can come crashing down with no warning at all. Again, maybe you're cool with this. Maybe so are your players. If that's the case, you need not change a thing.

    For many of us, though, it's a big change in the style of the game and one we need to manage.

    Telling Them Isn't Enough

    We might think that telling the players how deadly the dungeon is will be enough. We think they'll be ready for their characters to die. Sometimes this is the case. Sometimes they're even upset when they don't die. Often, however, the warning isn't enough. Hearing that a dungeon is deadly and actually watching your ninth level character get disintegrated are two very different things. Seeing a character actually die will feel very different to the player. Players might even say how much they love hard D&D adventures and love the threat of death—until it actually happens. At that point none of us know what to do.

    When I ran Tomb of Annihilation and my groups got to the Tomb of the Nine Gods, I had everyone roll up secondary characters whose backgrounds had brought them to the tomb over the past century. Making them former members of the Knights of the Yellow Banner gave them a connection to other dead Banner members throughout the adventure.

    Still, this wasn't enough. Even having secondary characters doesn't mean that shock and hurt will come when a beloved character gets cut in half by a giant grinning stone skull door.

    Many players just aren't prepared for a character's death. I know I'm not.

    Solution 1: Send in the B-Team

    One way to potentially fix this problem in the adventure is to send in two separate teams of characters. The first characters aren't given the job to stop the death curse, their job is to open the Tomb of the Nine Gods. When the tomb is open, it's up to another group of dungeon delvers to go inside. The nearby wreck of the Star Goddess could be one way that a bunch of dungeon delvers have come to the tomb. The Red Wizards might also have their own group of dungeon delvers ready to go into the tomb. Even Ras Nsi might send his own Yuan-ti Pureblood characters in there as part of a team intending to stop the death curse.

    These new dungeon delvers are the expendables. Our players know they might not last and that's ok. They've only had them since the beginning of the Tomb of the Nine Gods. If the die, they die.

    Still, it can be hard to put aside characters the players love. Opening the tomb doesn't feel like the end of the adventure. They want to stay with their main character and send them into the tomb. From a story perspective, why should the characters who traveled all this way send some other poor saps into the death trap? If they're heroic at all, sacrifice is part of that heroism. That won't matter to the player when their character is crushed under a big door but it makes sense and it would be disappointing to do it any other way. Thus, switching to new characters at the tomb's door isn't a perfect solution.

    Solution 2: Build the B-Team Switch In Early

    One way to ensure your players don't get stuck on the decision to send in their main characters or switch to an alt is to wire in that choice from the beginning. Instead of giving the characters the quest to seek the source of the death curse and end it. The quest can be to seek the Tomb of Annihilation and open it. Those who send the characters into the jungle will know that the heroes who find the tomb aren't the same ones who will enter the tomb. Those who enter the tomb are better suited for tomb-delving, not jungle explorations. The main characters can become patrons of these tomb-delvers instead of the tomb delvers themselves.

    If this switch is wired in from the beginning, players will feel less like they're abandoning their characters halfway through an adventure and understand that a character switch is built into the story. They'll know their other characters will be stepping out of the spotlight.

    This too is not an ideal solution but it might be the best way to make the transition from a deep character-driven exploration adventure to a deathtrap dungeon.

    Solution 3: Shaving Off the Sharp Edges

    Here's a solution many DMs will hate: shave off the rough edges. Much of what makes the Tomb of the Nine Gods deadly are the situations where characters who drop to zero hit points are outright killed instead of simply rolling death saves and requiring a heal.

    We can likely shave off the rough edges in a few different parts of the tomb to keep the characters alive, at least a little bit more alive, than they might be otherwise. We can still run a dangerous adventure where the players must make hard choices to stay alive without the direct threat of the one-button deaths that can be found in a lot of these chambers. The four elemental chambers are known to be quite deadly but they can be a little less so if we make it easier for players to navigate the puzzels as the characters flounder about.

    Some of the more deadly rooms and traps to watch include:

    • The onyx chest in Wongo's Tomb (room 16). Consider removing the instant death from the onyx chest.
    • The elemental cells before Shagambi's Tomb (rooms 47A-D). Give plenty of clues about how to navigate the cells.
    • Belchorzh the beholder (room 44). Play him sub-optimally. He's more interested in tormenting the characters than killing them. Get rid of the instant-deaths on his finger-of-death ray and his disintegrate ray. He wants to have fun, not turn them to ash. Maybe have those spells inflict permanent injuries instead of outright deaths.
    • The gargoyle guardians (room 45). Give the characters a chance to flee from the room or lower the gargoyle's hit points. Like the beholder, play them sub-optimally.
    • Any of the "if this damage reduces a character to 0 hit points, they die" effects. Ignore that line or add a permanent injury instead.
    • The devil onslaught in the Hall of the Golden Mastodon (room 67). Put in fewer devils, lower their hit points, or play them sub-optimally. Embrace it when the characters cast save-or-suck spells on them. The deal the Erinyes offers doesn't have to kill a character outright. Instead, they could sign a contract for their soul when they die, after the threat of the tomb is defeated.

    Frankly, this is my recommended method. People just don't like to see their characters instantly killed in my games. Maybe some do, but I haven't seen them.

    Solution 4: Run As Intended and Come What May

    Finally, you can ignore all of this and run the adventure as it is. I've seen a lot of discussions from DMs who have run the Tomb of the Nine Gods and described the dramatic shift in lethality. They talked a lot about how it hurt peoples' enjoyment of the game. That was the case in the two groups I ran it for as well.

    Tomb of Annihilation is close to the best D&D hardback adventure Wizards has released. This tonal shift from fantasy exploration to deathtrap hurts it. Otherwise, this is a nearly perfect adventure. The exploration is awesome. The setting is fantastic. The story is solid. The tomb, setting aside its lethality, is incredibly well designed. This adventure hits the exact level of focus I love in published adventures. I can deal with the warts regarding the urgency of the death curse and the issues bringing in problematic NPCs but the deadly shift of the adventure can kill a lot of fun after months of play if we're not careful. That's a hard problem to get past. Hopefully this article has given you some ideas how to deal with this shift so you and your players can get the most out of this otherwise fantastic adventure.

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  • Facing Insurmountable Foes

    In the beginning of Hoard of the Dragon Queen the characters face off against Lennithon, an adult blue dragon, when the characters are likely level 1. It doesn't take any powerful encounter building to realize this isn't a fight the characters can win.

    The same thing occurs in Tomb of Annihilation when the characters come into contact with Valindra Shadowmantle, a lich in service to Szass Tam of the Red Wizards of Thay. The characters are likely around level six at this point.

    Putting the characters in the presence of powerful villains is common in a lot of adventures, published or not. Sometimes it's fun for the characters to actually face the true villain of the adventure early on, such as meeting Strahd in the beginning of Curse of Strahd. Other times, like when Demogorgon steps out of the Dark Lake in Out of the Abyss it serves as a powerful backdrop for the plot of the adventure.

    There's a big problem with scenes like this, though: facing insurmountable foes removes player agency.

    (Cover to Volo's Guide to Monsters by Tyler Jacobson)

    When our characters face off against foes they can't beat, we've removed one of their options—combat. For some players, this is simply unfair. D&D games shouldn't pit characters against foes they can't beat. Many DMs who focus more on the story of D&D than the balance of encounters know that yes, sometimes the characters will face foes they can't beat. It depends on how things go.

    However they got there, when the characters face these foes and combat is off the table, the players might find themselves limited in the options from which they can choose. Sure, they can negotiate, but how good is the negotiation when one side can completely obliterate the other? How well has it worked out for the goblin the characters captured after slaughtering fifteen of its friends? That goblin doesn't have a lot of options to choose from.

    Neither do the characters when facing an adult blue dragon at level 1.

    So we come to an easy high-level piece of advice for situations like this: give the players options when facing insurmountable foes. If the story has worked itself into a position where the characters face an insurmountable foe, it's up to us DMs to make the options clear. It's up to us to return agency to the characters so they can actually make some meaningful choices.

    Agency Returned

    What agency we can give depends on the story, as does the encounter in the first place. Perhaps the characters have some information the villains need but do not have. Perhaps the characters know where something is that the villains must have. For example, maybe the characters know of the location of a number of puzzle cubes in Tomb of Annihilation that the villains desire.

    Perhaps the villains have a weakness the characters are aware of. For example, what if the characters know about a lich's phylactery or a vampire's coffin. Maybe they even have control of it, putting the two opposing sides on more even ground.

    We can also expand the options for the characters in a few other ways. Maybe the characters learn of a traitor in the enemy's forces that they can exploit. Maybe they learn how they can steal what they want instead of needing to negotiate for it directly. Maybe they learn that, buried deep within that ancient black obelisk, is a nalfeshnee just waiting to burst forth. Should something go terribly wrong, a good crack on the obelisk will complicate things for the villains.

    Example Character Angles

    So what sort of angles might the characters have when facing an insurmountable foe? Here are some general examples:

    • The characters have information the villain needs.
    • The characters have possession of something the villain wants.
    • The characters are aware of a traitor or weakness in the villain's forces.
    • The characters have something vital to the villain's well being.
    • The characters have a weapon that greatly threatens the villain.
    • The characters have a powerful ally that the villain fears.
    • The characters can bring the house down on top of the villain.
    • Disrupting the characters or their actions would throw the villain's own plans in disarray.
    • The villain needs the characters to perform some task that no one else is capable of doing.
    • The villain has enemies worse than the characters and need their help to defeat it.
    • The characters are able to steal what they need from the villain.
    • The villain isn't aware of the characters' presence.
    • The characters discover a weakness of their insurmountable enemy.

    If a villain is on the horizon in our games; if we think they're going to come into play and there will be a stand-off between the insurmountable villain and the characters; it helps if we lay out perhaps three angles the characters can capitalize on when that confrontation occurs.

    Bending the Story to Our Will

    When we're building out a D&D game from the story that unfolds, sometimes these situations appear and we don't have a good or easy approach to give that agency back. If we're letting scenes unfold how they unfold, we might not have any options prepared ahead of time. It might turn out, as the course of events takes place, that the characters find themselves face to face with an insurmountable foe.

    In cases like these, we have to remember that fun comes first, even before staying true to the continuity of a story. Stephen King fully expected to kill off Paul Sheldon in Misery until he realized that no one wants to read a novel only to have the main character killed off at the end. He must not have read No Country for Old Men yet (spoilers!). In any case, when it comes to our D&D game, no one will care if you stay true to the direction of the story if it's not fun for the players.

    Therefore, moments like this give us license to alter the world. This is a good time to stop for a minute and think about how we can give agency back to the players when they face an insurmountable foe. We can manipulate the world to give them an edge. We can reveal a weakness. We can reveal a nearby doomsday device. We can have the villain realize that an ally of the characters is too important to anger. This is one of those times where tweaking the reality of the story is ok because we're doing it specifically to make the game more fun. Like adding hit points to a boss monster that's dying too fast we can bend space and time for the sake of the fun of the game.

    Giving Characters Fair Warning

    If we're used to previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons, particularly third and fourth editions; we're probably used to focusing on balanced combat encounters. It is hard for us to break away from clear encounter-focused D&D adventures and letting the story take us in directions we weren't used to. As we get used to letting the story go where it goes, situations like facing an insurmountable foe can become more likely.

    As hard as it is for us to change our thought process when running fifth edition D&D games, so to might it be hard for our players. When the characters end up facing an insurmountable foe, it's up to us to telegraph the danger. We have to let them know that we don't expect they'll go toe to toe with a villain like this and kill it. They might very well die if they try. It's possible, even likely, that players will think they're getting manipulated. They'll think that it isn't fair that they're facing such powerful monsters. If there isn't a good story reason why they're facing such a foe, they might be right. The adult blue dragon in the first chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen felt like this to me. Why would an adult dragon need to go poke around at a village? Why not leave that to the cultists?

    When the story does support a confrontation against an insurmountable foe, we have to make it clear to the players that the foe is indeed insurmountable and also telegraph the other options available to them. If they're a combat focused group of players, we may really need to make it clear what other angles they have available. If we took combat away as an option, what was that option replaced with? If the answer is nothing, we've probably railroaded the story too much. The characters really don't have a choice other than 100% capitulation. That's not our job. Our job is always to put fun choices in front of the players.

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  • Storytelling with Spells: Fireball

    This is the first in a new series of articles that focuses on how particular spells in D&D can tell stories all by themselves. The core D&D books are full of fantastic ideas for stories but sometimes its easy for us DMs to focus too much on the mechanics to think about what they mean in the worlds we share.

    Each spell has its own particular story to it, it's own way that it alters the universe in some way that might have effects both small and profound. Consider the humble prestidigitation spell, a cantrip that keeps things clean. Imagine a whole business built by hedge mages, failed wizards, and sorcerer outcasts who make a living keeping things clean with this spell on its own. It's the world's best dry cleaning service. This simple spell can lead to a whole place ("Percy's Palace of Prestidigitation") that might find its way as a storefront in a game we run. We might even tie another story into it. Maybe that aged wizard who supposedly failed out of the academy isn't as frail as he appears, he's just been in hiding for the last two hundred years.

    Spells can each tell an interesting story and we're going to explore this idea in articles to come where we look at a particular spell and the stories that might evolve from it when we look at them under a new lens.

    Today we'll do so with the spell fireball.

    Fireball is an incredibly common and popular spell. It's been in every edition of D&D since the 1970s. Fireball is one of the most basic spells we can imagine too. Players love it because it's so simple. You point a finger and things explode. But there's a story in there too. A story with many facets.

    A Story Driven by a Fireball

    The D&D adventure Waterdeep Dragon Heist has a whole chapter built around a fireball. The chapter is actually called "Fireball". Things are perfectly smooth in Trollskull alley, everyone's going about their business, and then boom. The world is in chaos.

    We don't think much about a fireball but such an explosive spell can change lives in a city setting. A fireball in a crowded street is an event of great note, as it is in this adventure. It begins a great mystery. Who cast it? Who was in it? What did people see? Will it happen again? A single fireball like this can drive a whole story forward, bringing danger and mystery to an otherwise peaceful day.

    Imagine a royal ball in which the characters are trying to uncover the assassin who plots to kill the local lord. What if that very assassin, to cover her escape, draws a bead from her necklace of fireballs and blows up half of the ball. Now the characters have to make a hard choice of chasing their quarry or saving the people who remain alive in the burning ballroom.

    The Sign of a True Wizard

    We can use fireballs in other ways in our story as well. If the characters are exploring a chamber and find a room with singed walls and dozens of dead charred goblins, they'll know what might have done it and they know what sort of being they might face. Not everyone can cast a fireball in the first place. Such a sign is a clear indicator that a wizard is near, and not just an apprentice but a seasoned mage.

    The fact that fireballs are third-level spells cast by fifth-level NPCs means something important on its own. If we assume a rarity to wizards the higher they go up in level, fireball-casting wizards are not all that common. Even cult fanatics can't typically cast them. These are the spells of true and powerful villains.

    Environment-Changing Spells

    Fireballs can also do more than just blow up rooms full of kobolds too. We often forget how these spells can change the environment. A fireball cast inside a building or tavern will likely set it ablaze or blow it apart. We might watch buildings explode outward from a mage battle taking place within it. A fireball in a sealed area might suck out all of the oxygen and make the whole area difficult to breathe in or difficult to see through. In the right environment, fireballs can completely change a situation.

    We can't forget about the noise either. Fireballs aren't quiet. Spellcasters who cast it are going to be heard and those who hear it may come running or might run away. The noise created by a fireball can dramatically change a situation in many ways.

    An Explosive Shift in the World

    Though a common, popular, and relatively simple spell, when used as a vehicle for the story, a fireball can cause a dramatic shift in a campaign. As we saw in Dragon Heist, it can be the catalyst for an entire arc of a campaign. The more we think beyond the mechanics; the more we look at how spells affect the world, the more those stories can drive the direction of our shared stories.

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  • VideoPlaying Dungeons & Dragons On A Budget

    One of the interesting things about Dungeons & Dragons is the incredibly wide range for its potential costs. The cost to play D&D can go anywhere from free to potentially thousands of dollars (look at Joe Magenello's dungeon if you don't believe me).

    I expect most people spend one to two hundred bucks for the three core books including the Player's Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master's Guide and maybe some secondary books like Xanathar's Guide to Everything, Volo's Guide to Monsters, and published adventures such as Curse of Strahd or Tomb of Annihilation. Some probably spend a few bucks on dice and a flip mat.

    Then there are areas where the D&D hobby can get really pricey. The first is miniatures. We might drop $50 for a good set of player character miniatures at first but if we start to fill out our set of monsters, we're looking at hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars until we have a "full collection". Secret tip: there IS no full collection of miniatures. No one ever has enough of that one monster they need at the time.

    Pathfinder Pawns, Arcknight's Flat Plastic Miniatures, Printable Heroes, and Trash Mob Minis can save us from this financial runaway train by giving us a lot of two dimensional miniatures for a lot less than it would cost us to get fully 3d plastic minis. The occasional Reaper Bones Kickstarters can get us a large pile of unpainted miniatures for less than we'd pay for them individually but even then we're going to be missing out on a few. They've been running these Kickstarters roughly once a year.

    Another area where the sky is the limit when it comes to costs is in three dimensional terrain. My favorite is Dwarven Forge, the Ferrari of D&D terrain. Having quite an investment in it myself, I can attest to its incredible quality and "wow" factor. There are other terrain options as well such as card board 3d terrain, 3d printed terrain, and other options. As I mentioned, the price of this stuff knows no bounds. The average pledge for the latest Dwarven Forge Kickstarter was $1,000.

    Luckily, the true joy of D&D is in sharing stories with our friends. Miniatures and terrain are really cool but they're not necessary for us to run some fantastic adventures. In fact, the more accessories we have, the more they can sometimes get in the way of that story. We'll talk about this more later.

    Playing D&D For Free

    How could someone go about playing D&D for free? There's actually an answer to that question. While Wizards of the Coast sells the core D&D books, they also give away D&D rules online. This includes a D&D Basic Rules and the Dungeons & Dragons System Reference Document. While these PDFs omit much of what you can find in the actual core books, they have enough to run a D&D game. The D&D Beyond website also offers these rules for free in the same interface used for the digital version of all of the other D&D books. One need not spend a dime to use these rules.

    Online Resources for Campaigns and Adventures

    What about campaigns and adventures? According to our 2016 Dungeon Master Survey, most DMs run their own campaigns in their own worlds and with their own adventures. If we follow these folks, we too don't need to buy expensive adventures and campaign worlds. We can spend some time thinking about our world and writing down what works.

    If we do want to play in a world like the Forgotten Realms, we can use the excellent Forgotten Realms Wiki as our own sourcebook complete with a search and hyperlinks to connect it all together better than a big book.

    There are numerous free resources for DMs to run great games beyond campaign specific material. The suite of Donjon tools gives us a host of dynamically created material including names, treasure, monster encounters, dungeons, adventure seeds, and more. It's a great place to spark ideas in our minds as we build out our own adventures. A nearly infinite supply of dungeon maps and artwork are just a Google search away. They work well for both inspiration for DMs as well as visuals to show players.

    Wizards of the Coast has released a couple of adventures for free as well. Death House is one of my personal favorites, though themed specifically for Ravenloft and the Curse of Strahd published adventure. Wizards also released the first part of Princes of the Apocalypse for free which contains enough material to get characters to level 5 including a fight against some cultists of the elemental prince of air. It's more universal than Death House and easier to plop into your own campaign world. A Great Upheaval, the first chapter of Storm King's Thunder is likewise available for free.


    We're going to assume of the sake of this article that one can acquire something to write with and something to write on. Go raid a horsetrack for small pencils and a library for scrap paper if you need. For drawing out maps and descriptions of combat, we can use Theater of the Mind combat to save us a ton of money on miniatures and maps. According to the 2016 survey we mentioned earlier, about 40% of dungeon masters use either abstract maps or theater of the mind when running D&D combat so you won't be alone. Not only is it much cheaper than maps, minis, and terrain but it also gives us nearly infinite flexibility in our descriptions and in letting the game take turns we didn't expect when preparing for our game.

    There are a number of online dice roller apps that can save us a few bucks buying dice but this probably isn't realistic. Instead, for the $12 of a D&D Starter Set we can get a set of dice, a set of pregens, a solid rulebook, and a wonderful D&D adventure. Sure, it isn't free, but its a low cost investment for the best entrypoint into D&D available. The maps and monsters contained in the starter set can keep a campaign going for months.

    I'm a huge fan of the Pathfinder Flip Mat. It's cheap, lightweight, and super-usable in our gaming kit. That and a couple of dry-erase markers can build just about anything we can imagine for under $20. It's a great investment for our DM kit.

    If you want to play D&D online, you can play for free at Roll20. They have the entire 5e D&D SRD rules in place there and access to lots of official D&D sourcebooks and adventures if you do eventually want to pay for it.

    Pooling Resources with D&D Beyond

    "My rule of thumb is that in a group of 6, 3-4 don't spend any money. But they enable a group to form & play. Free players enable spenders. Even if no one at a table is spending, there's huge benefits in simply making more D&D players and DMs."

    - Mike Mearls, D&D Design and Development Lead

    Being a game focused on a group of players, it makes more sense that the players might pool their resources together to get what they need. For example, a group can pool together to pick up a subscription to D&D Beyond and the core books through the D&D Beyond Marketplace. A single DM subscription can share all of its books with up to eighteen players in three campaigns. These digital books are often on sale and, when the cost is split up, they can be very cheap for each player.

    A Focus on the Fun

    There's another big advantage to keeping our D&D kits small: flexibility. The less stuff we have to run our games, the more we can focus on the game itself and the fun to be had with our players. Maps, terrain, miniatures, and all sorts of accessories look great but there's an overhead with them beyond money. They take up physical and mental space. They take up time. Instead, we can keep our materials down to the thinnest possible and focus on the fun of the game.

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  • Adventure Hooks

    In an interview on D&D Beyond, legendary adventure writer Chris Perkins describes the requirements for a solid adventure:

    • Good villains and monsters.
    • A location for the adventure to take place.
    • A clear reason for the characters to take part.

    It's this last one we're going to talk about today. Getting the characters involved in the adventure is likely the most important part. Why do they care? Why put themselves at risk? When running Tomb of Annihilation recently, I threw in a dream sequence so horrible that the whole group nearly abandoned the idea of stopping the death curse to return to the safety of Port Nyanzaru and leave the world's woes to someone else. That's not a great way to motivate them.

    There are many possible motivations that drive characters to adventure. Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master's Guide includes three tables full of adventure hooks for both overland adventures, dungeon adventures, and general adventures as well. They're worth a read. In fact, I'd recommend going back and flipping through the Dungeon Master's Guide every couple of months just to remember all of the awesome stuff that's in it.

    I also culled a number of potential motivations from a Twitter discussion on the topic which you can see below.

    • Recover lost artifact
    • Stop a villains evil plot
    • Rescue someone
    • Hunt someone down
    • Recover lost lore
    • Prevent someone else from finding lost lore
    • Release someone imprisoned
    • Keep someone imprisoned
    • Imprison someone
    • Recover a powerful weapon
    • Clear out monsters
    • Destroy dangerous artifact
    • Sanctify unholy site
    • Escape
    • Prevent war
    • Uncover treachery
    • Riches
    • Fame
    • Protect someone
    • Cure someone
    • Uncover mystery
    • Solve murder
    • Prevent apocalypse
    • Restore artifact
    • Fulfill prophecy
    • Get gold
    • Return gold to owners
    • Give gold to needy
    • Prevent gold going to villany
    • Get rid of gold
    • Hide gold
    • Prove innocence
    • Peculiar inheritance
    • Missing friend or relative
    • Trailblaze a new trade route
    • Escort settlers
    • Survive another day
    • Save the lands ruler
    • Murder the lands ruler
    • Owe someone a favor
    • Castaways
    • Research
    • On the lam
    • Stop a terrible ritual
    • Lift curse
    • Researching an invention
    • Overthrow a corrupt power structure
    • Help a new ruler come to power
    • Negotiate a trade deal
    • Exchange prisoners
    • Change the past
    • Find a way home

    These are all just models for the motivation an adventure might contain. We'll have to tune these for our particuar adventure and the characters within it. In fact, let's talk about characters for a moment.

    Character-Driven Adventure Hooks

    One of the easiest ways to sink in an adventure hook is to make it part of the character. There are a couple of ways to do this. The easiest is to tie in the hook during character creation. For single-session D&D games, like convention games, we can tie in adventure hooks right into the pregenerated characters. If players are making their own characters, we can give them a list of potential character hooks that tie them into the adventure or campaign as well. The earlier we tie in these hooks into character creation, the more these hooks will matter to the players.

    We need look no further than the pregenerated characters for the D&D Starter Set. These characters have ties right into Lost Mine of Phandelver that give each of them a reason to care about what is going on in the town of Phandalin.

    We can also flip this whole idea around and build an adventure from the backgrounds of the characters. Likely you'll still want to bring up a theme from your campaign's session zero but the players might build in interesting hooks into their characters that you didn't expect. You can use these hooks to build out connections to existing adventures or build entirely new adventures from those hooks alone.

    The important part is ensuring that the characters have a reason to go on this adventure.

    Anytime you're pondering the adventure you're going to run, ask yourself "why the characters care?"

    Read more »
  • Running Omu

    The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure Tomb of Annihilation has an interesting and wonderous structure. It begins as a city adventure in Port Nyanzaru, expands out into a large overland exploration sandbox as the characters travel through Chult, narrows down to the exploration of the city of Omu and a potential trek into the Fane of the Night Serpent, and then drills down deep into the dungeon crawl to beat all dungeon crawls, the Tomb of the Nine Gods.

    In today's article we're going to focus on the characters' exploration of the city of Omu. How can we dungeon masters get the most out of running this section of the book? Let's find out.

    A Refined Sandbox

    When the characters journey to Omu they will be going from a large sandbox—the journey through Chult—into a more refined sandbox style adventure. Like Chult itself, Omu has a nice defined boundary to it but multiple ways characters can travel within and through it. To begin with, they can enter from either the south-west corner (a grand staircase) or the north east (down a large waterfall) so even their entry into Omu is their own.

    Side tip: When creating sandbox adventures, include two entrances. If you, as the DM, don't know how the characters will enter a dungeon or other area, you're a lot less likely to railroad them overall.

    Design two entrances.

    Once in the city, the characters can choose how they want to approach the city and accomplish their goals. They won't be the only ones.

    The Fronts of Omu

    Here at Sly Flourish we like to steal the concept of "fronts" from the game Dungeon World. A front is a driver of the story of our game. It's an actor, often a creature but sometimes an environment or even a whole planet, that has its own goals and leaves indicators to the characters. These indicators are called grim portents. They show the progression of a front as it heads towards its goal.

    In the city of Omu, we have two main fronts working alongside the characters. The first is the Red Wizards of Thay. Like the characters, they are trying to acquire the puzzle cubes from the nine trickster gods to get access to the tomb of the nine gods. The Red Wizards might be sending mercenary forces out to the various tombs to collect what cubes they can.

    The second front are the yuan-ti from the Fane of the Night Serpent. Their leader, Ras Nsi, seeks the cubes as well because the death curse is eating away at him. His second, a nightmare speaker named Fenthasa, might not have the same goal as Ras Nsi and this can become a fun complication for the characters to explore.

    Both of these factions offer opportunities for conflict within Omu but they offer something more interesting too. Their goals are not necessarily in opposition to the characters. The Red Wizards, led by Valindra Shadowmantle, seek to end the death curse but they also want to learn about the Soul Monger. It is possible the characters can work out a deal with them instead of just fighting them.

    Likewise, Ras Nsi might be willing to work out a deal with the characters since he too wants to stop the death curse. Of course, Fenthasa might not like that idea which gives us multiple factions within the yuan-ti to work through. If the characters are willing to kill Ras Nsi, Fenthasa might be more willing to work with them.

    This offers up an interesting observation for our D&D games. When we have fronts with motivations that can be potentially turned to fit the motivations of the characters, we can build in ways that the characters can use all three pillars to interact with these fronts. In this case, we can see how the characters might use subterfuge, stealth, careful conversations, or violence to work with these fronts. The characters have lots of potential paths and options to take when dealing with this front that aren't just combat. That's awesome.

    Give players the option to interact with fronts using roleplaying, exploration, and combat.

    The Other Actors in Omu

    Beyond the Red Wizards and the yuan-ti, there are other actors in Omu that can come into play and bring some fun with them. The big one, both figuratively and literally, is the King of Feathers. This epic t-rex can be a continuing threat in Omu for the characters. In my game, I modified him a bit. First, I gave him legendary actions so he can have one action between characters' turns. I also gave him legendary resistances as well. I increased his hit points to 200. Finally, I gave him some psionic abilities unique in Chult. He had misty step and invisibility as actions he could take. This let him disappear from combat, shift to a new spot, and attack with advantage. As the characters traveled through Omu they learned more about his abilities and how dangerous he was. When finally faced, he was a real powerhouse villain.

    Other actors include the three tabaxi hunters: Bag of Nails, Copper Bell, and Hooded Lantern. These are wonderful NPCs whose history, backgrounds, and motivations you can change for your own game. In one of the two Tomb of Annihilation games I ran, Bag of Nails was a fellow assassin to one of the characters who served Prince Jessamine in Port Nyanzaru. In another, the three taxabi were former companions of the taxabi rogue player character. Reskinning NPCs like these is a great way to bring some relevant stories to the characters as they explore Omu.

    There are lots of other actors in Omu worth bringing up such as the kobolds in service of Acererak and the strange vegepigmies conducting a grung sacrifice at the lava pit. Read fully through the chapter and highlight the encounters you want to bring up in your game.

    Gathering the Cubes

    The primary goal of the characters in Omu is to acquire the nine cubes required to open up the doorway to the Tomb of the Nine Gods. Each of the nine cubes rest in one of the nine shrines to each of the Trickster Gods.

    As the adventure states, the characters need not be the ones to collect all nine cubes. The Red Wizards may have recovered some. The yuan-ti might have some. Other random adventurers may have some.

    This is a great opportunity to ensure that the characters interact with these other groups and they get to choose how. Maybe it's negotiation. Maybe it's theft. Maybe it's blinding violence.

    You can choose how many of the cubes have already been recovered or decide that, as the characters uncover one cube the other fronts acquire another. One good way to choose this is to read through each of the shrines in the adventure and if any of them don't resonate with you as a DM, you can make that one a shrine whose cube has already been pilfered. How may cubes have been recovered also shortens the time spent in Omu so it's a nice dial to turn if you want things to move forward faster. You'll have to ensure the characters learn that the cubes have been recovered before they waste a lot of time trying to get them.

    The Ruins of Omu

    As the characters travel through Omu, it's likely they'll want to explore some of the notable ruins of Omu, either to take a rest, escape a pursuer, or just take in some of the dead culture of Omu.

    Here is a list of twenty notable ruins the characters might encounter while exploring Omu. If you're not running Tomb of Annihilation, you can use this same list for other ruined cities as well.

    The Collapsed Cellar. A floor of one of the buildings has collapsed into a strange cellar. The cellar contains a small shrine to a trickster god (roll to randomly determine the trickster god), a sacrificial stone, and scrawlings in old Omuan begging for the life of a sick child.

    The Ashen Family. This ruin contains bodies of ash still standing with looks of horror on their face. An ashen body of a mother cradles her doomed child. All of them appear to have been hit with a disintegrate spell.

    The Noble Treasure Vault. A house of nobility has trapped bronze door in the cellar guarded by two animated armors. The door has two DC 15 glyphs of warding including a fear glyph and another glyph that animates the statues. If the trap is defeated, the adventurers find the noble house's treasury. The treasury includes 832 cp, 3490 sp, 2087 gp, 28 pp, 2 x Chalcedony (50 gp), Citrine (50 gp), Jasper (50 gp), 3 x Moonstone (50 gp), 5 x Sardonyx (50 gp), 3 x Zircon (50 gp), Potion of Resistance (thunder) (uncommon, dmg 188), Spell Scroll (Sleet Storm) (uncommon, dmg 200), Potion of Water Breathing (uncommon, dmg 188), and a Rope of Climbing (uncommon, dmg 197) Use the treasure tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide to determine the treasure instead if you prefer.

    Desecrated Shrine to Ubtao. This ruin contains a shrine to the god Ubtao. The statue's head has been removed and lies in the corner covered in rubbish. Dark sigils have been etched into the statue's surface. Examining the glyphs begins to fill the examiner's visions with the people of Omu destroying effigies of Ubtao after he turned his back on them two centuries ago. The cacophony of blasphemy fills the investigator's head with madness. The character must make a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw or suffer a short-term madness effect.

    The Crystal of Calling. The basement of this ruined building contains an arcane circle. In the center of the circle is a large violet cracked crystal. A DC 14 Intelligence (Arcana) check reveals that the crystal was used by arcane spellcasters to call across the multiverse to help find a god who would save them from their downfall. Any creature that touches the crystal can see visions of the Omuians using the crystal to call out across the Astral Sea and then later witnessing the arrival of Acererak.

    Access to Underground Sewers. Deep cracks in the basement of one of the ruins reveals access to narrow sewer passages that lead to various areas of Omu including the palace, the flooded rivers to the east, the amphitheater, and the enclave to the south-west. Traveling through the sewers has a chance to encounter monsters. Use the random encounter table for level 1 to 4 swamp monsters in [Xanathar's Guide to Everything] re-rolling if the monsters make no sense for Omu.

    Altar to Dendar the Night Serpent. The ruins of this building contain a carving depicting a massive serpent eating its own tail surrounding a globe that looks like Toril. The rotting remains of a female dwarf lie on a bloody stone altar, her ritually dissected innards in a series of clay pots surrounding the altar.

    Abandoned Red Wizard Refuge. This ruin contains the remnants of a campsite for roughly one dozen people. The signs of a conflict litter the area including the bodies of Thayan mercenaries, mercenaries of Port Nyanzaru, and dead yuan-ti purebloods. A cracked silver mirror with arcane glyphs surrounding its edge used for scrying remains in the area. The broken mirror is worth 200 gold pieces.

    Ruin of Grasping Vines. Thick yellow throned vines fill this ruined house seeming to come from a central stalk in the center that throbs like a heartbeat. The stalk itself (a yellow musk creeper with double the normal hit points and a reach of 15 feet) grows from the ruins of the basement below and only there can it be truly destroyed. The remains of a dead adventuring party lay within the ruins possessing a Philter of Love (uncommon, dmg 184), a Potion of Animal Friendship (uncommon, dmg 187), and two Potions of Growth (uncommon, dmg 187). 1d2+1 yellow musk zombies rise from the thick vines when someone enters.

    The Trapped Incubus. The characters fall into a ruined pleasure den where an incubus has been trapped for nearly a century within a summoning circle. The incubus begs for its release and will give the characters a clue about Acererak's arrival and the building of the Tomb of the Nine Gods in return for his freedom.

    Your Own Mini-Campaign

    Tomb of Annihilation is an amazing adventure for a bunch of reasons but one of them is because it contains all sorts of sandboxes within sandboxes. Omu is itself a full sandbox adventure packed within Chult, a much larger sandbox adventure. And, of course, Omu leads to the Tomb of the Nine Gods which is its own evil sandbox.

    Above all, keep the options open and let the characters interact with the forbidden city however they wish.

    Read more »
  • D&D's Nastier Specials

    I love the roleplaying game 13th Age by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. Written as a love-letter to D&D by two designers who worked on two different editions of D&D, 13th Age has some of my favorite rules for running great roleplaying games. Like Dungeon World, it's a RPG that often gets pilfered for great ideas DMs can bring into our own games like the "one unique thing", the escalation Die, and their method of abstract combat.

    I also love the monster design of 13th Age. As a simplified version of 4th Edition D&D's monster design, monsters in 13th Age are easy to use and are some of the most well-balanced monsters in any d20 game I've played.

    It also has a really cool feature that, like the others mentioned above, we might pilfer and use in our 5th edition D&D games: the nastier special.

    Many monsters in 13th Age include a way to beef them up to build a really tough challenge if the GM wants one. Here's an example for the Hezrou:

    The fifth edition of D&D doesn't have clear dials like this we can use to change the threat of a monster. The system, however, is flexible enough that we can come up with our own, often improvising them right on the spot if we want. Once we have some experience built up, if something feels right, we can drop in our nastier specials without any work at all.

    We've talked before about building stronger encounters and how to improve boss fights. This article goes hand-in-hand with both of those.

    A List of Nastier Specials

    The following is a list of a few potential nastier specials we might add to our monsters. My hope is that these are simple enough that we can keep them in our head and use them when the time feels right for it. We shouldn't need to write them down. Above all, these specials need to make sense within the story. Why are these specials in place? We're not doing it to be mean to our players, we're doing it to add fuel to the fire of the story.

    Maximize damage. One of the easiest ways to dramatically increase the threat of a monster is to maximize its damage output. Monsters suddenly start hitting for a lot more, sometimes nearly twice as hard, when their damage is maximized. Are you worried that your high level characters are going to kill Tiamat when they face her? Not if she's breathing for 156 damage as a legendary action! Ok, that's an extreme example, but you get the idea. If you really want a monster to be dangerous bordering on lethal, max it's damage output.

    Add extra attacks. Along with or instead of increasing damage, we can give a monster extra attacks. Maybe it attacks faster than others of its ilk. Maybe it's hastened. Maybe it has more appendages available for such attacks. More attacks increases the number of times a monster will hit so you can spread its damage around to multiple targets instead of hammering on one target all the time. This is a good nastier special when a creature is fighting by itself against a full party of adventurers.

    Maximize or double its hit points. Bigger nastier versions of a monster could have significantly more hit points than the average listed in the Monster Manual. We are free to change these hit points as much as we think fits the story within the range of the hit dice. We can also just ignore it and double a monster's hit points if there's a good reason. One dirty trick that helps us maintain pacing is to keep in mind the maximum hit points a monster might have and, if it fits the story and the pacing, change those hit points during the fight so a monster sticks around a little longer or drops at the right moment. Yes, it's cheating, but it's for the good of the pace of the game.

    Add Legendary Actions and Resistances. We can make any monster a legendary foe by giving it legendary actions and resistances. Typically legendary actions will let a monster attack or move up to three times between its opponents turns. Keep in mind that the power of a legendary version of a monster will be much stronger than it otherwise would be. Legendary resistances also help monsters, particularly monsters fighting alone, to break out of nasty save or suck effects like hypnotic pattern or dominate monster. Again, these should be used sparingly and only when they make sense within the fiction of the story. Why are these monsters legendary?

    Damage shields. The spell fire shield is powerful on its own but it's really powerful if it's on a monster that everyone is going to hit. Put it on a dragon and that dragon becomes a lot more dangerous. We don't need to stick to fire or cold either. We can add any element we want to the damage shield. A lich might have a necrotic damage shield or a demon might excrete poison or acid. We can also increase the damage on this, maximizing it to 16 or more if we think it's right. Note that this is particularly hard on monks who attack about seventy times a round and will take damage every time.

    Give Monsters Spell-Like Abilities. If you're looking for a nastier special, look no further than the hundreds of spells at our disposal in the Player's Handbook. These spells aren't just for player characters. We DMs can build entire stories around the spells found in that book. And they make fantastic ways to customize monsters. Spiritual weapon, shield, misty step, wall of fire; the list of useful spells for monsters goes on and on. We can reskin and reflavor these spells to fit the theme of the monster as well. A powerful devil might invoke a wall of screaming souls that acts very much like a wall of fire except it does psychic damage instead of fire damage.

    We can make these spells more useful by making them part of a monster's attack action instead of using up a whole action for the spell. A drow spellblade might be able to hurl a lightning bolt right after slashing with its own lightning-enhanced scimitar, for example.

    We can also give monsters spells that might not otherwise be in our game, like spells from third-party publishers. Unlike giving them to characters and potentially changing the face of our game permanently, a monster with a spell like this will only hit the table once and then be gone. My current favorite monsterous spells are the Blasphemies of Bor Bwalsch by D&D writer and creator of Shadow of the Demon Lord Rob Schwalb. They're awful spells that are perfect for lichs, vampires, demons, devils, hags, and any other hideous spell casters.

    Give Monsters Exotic Potions. Monsters don't always have to have access to spells to gain some interesting new abilities. Instead we can give intelligent monsters access to potions or scrolls with some interesting and dangerous abilities. Potions of displacement could give a monster the same trait as a displacer beast. Potions of greater invisibility could give an assassin a seriously dangerous edge. Potions of giant strength can turn monsters or NPCs into mountain-crushing horrors. It makes sense that powerful NPCs like the gladiator or champion would have access to a potion like this. A champion with a potion of storm giant strength is a true foe to be feared. It doesn't hurt if the characters get access to reserve potions like this so they can gain the same benefit even if it's only for a few minutes.

    Building Your Toolkit of Nastier Specials

    All of these are just examples of the sorts of ways you can tune monsters to be something interesting and unique. New armor, magic weapons, potions, scrolls, and spell-like-abilities are ways to change monsters within the fiction. Simple mechanical effects like increasing it points, increasing damage, and adding attacks are easy to implement and turn a normal monster into a brute.

    Build your own mental list of nastier specials that make sense for the situation and are relatively easy to implement. With a good set of nastier specials you can turn the hundreds of monsters in the Monster Manual into tens of thousands of monsters your players will remember their whole lives.

    Read more »
  • Easier Initiative Cards

    Note, this article has been updated since the original written in 2012.

    Many DMs like to use tent cards hanging over a DM screen to run initiative and this is a fantastic way to do it. There are a few small businesses out there who sell very nice tent cards for characters and monsters to use this way and custom character cards look great when printed nicely.

    There's a lazier way, though. It's one I've been using for the past six years or so and, though it isn't nearly as beautiful and elegant, it's fast and easy. It requires very little preparation, no upkeep, and you don't need a DM screen to use it.

    I first learned of this technique from Teos Abadia (Alphastream on twitter) who learned it from Paul Ellison, one of his long-time players back during the Living Greyhawk days. I've since had the opportunity to meet and play with Pual at a couple of gaming conventions. His fan-dance larping is second to none.

    But I digress. Here's how these easier initiative cards work.

    Easier Initiative Cards

    Preparing the Cards

    Take nine or so 3x5 note cards and fold each one in vertically in half. Then number them on both sides with the biggest black marker you can find, numbering them from 1 to 9. When you're done, you should have a set of folded 3x5 tent cards numbered 1 to 9 written on both sides.

    Rolling for Initiative

    When it comes time for initiative, have everyone roll their initiative result and then hand out the cards, with the highest initiative winnner starting at 1 and counting down. Each player puts their initiative card in front of them at the table. Now everyone can see who goes in what order.

    Monsters too get their own initiative card which goes in front of the DM. The nine cards will cover six players and up to three different monsters. Any more than that and you have far bigger problems than how to handle initiative.

    When you begin combat, look around the table to see who has card 1. After that person takes his or her turn, look for the next card down the list and so on.

    At the end of the battle, have the players throw in their initiative cards to prepare for the next battle.

    Delegating Initiative

    One way to make your life easier and help keep your players' attention on the game is to delegate the handling of initiative. At the beginning of your game, ask for a volunteer to handle initiative. If no one is forthcoming, ask someone in particular to help you. With the initiative cards in the player's possession, he or she can call for rolls and pass out the cards. This makes it easier for you to roll monster initiatives and give your scores to the delegated lord of initiative. It also spreads around responsibility for the management of the game which has side benefits as well. Players may be less competitive with the DM when they're helping to manage things outside of their character.

    No DM Screen Needed

    Unlike previous initiative card systems, this one requires no DM screen. Some DMs, myself included, now forgo the screen to keep dice rolls open and knock down the physical barrier between DMs and players. Letting go of your DM screen also keeps your DM kit small.

    Caring for your cards

    To keep your cards always standing upright (*snort*), use a binder clip to bind them together when not in use. Make sure to bind them in the folded position, not flattened, so they'll hold their shape over time. If treated right, this single set of cards could last the rest of your life. These cards are an excellent accessory to throw into your DM walk-away kit.

    Read more »
  • Generating Enhanced Tomb Guardians

    There is only one real wandering monster in the Tomb of the Nine Gods in Tomb of Annihilation, the Tomb Guardian. These armored flesh golems are no joke but they can get stale if we run them again and again.

    Today we'll offer a generator to create enhanced tomb guardians. Each of these still uses the default statistics for the flesh golem with an armor class of 18 for the armor bolted onto its body, though some might be more dexterous and wearing leather armor but we can still give them an AC of 18. Each of them is also empowered beyond the normal tomb guardian as Withers enhances his creations, all with different races, with enchanted weapons and armor.

    A Random Enhanced Tomb Guardian Generator

    Here are twenty randomly generated enhanced tomb guardians. Reload the page for a new set.

    var guardian = {origin:[""], weapon:[""], element:[""], spell:[""]}; guardian.origin = [ "dragonborn", "dwarven", "elven", "abyssal", "orcish", "dark elven", "demonic", "human", "gorilla", "ogre", "giant", "hobgoblin" ]; guardian.element = [ "flaming", "icy", "electrical", "thunderous", "poisonous", "necrotic", "acidic", "forceful", "psychic", "radiant", ]; guardian.attack = [ "dagger", "mace", "spear", "battleaxe", "flail", "longsword", "morningstar", "scimitar", "shortsword", "warhammer", "spiked gauntlet", "spiked chain" ]; guardian.spell = [ "shield", "lightning bolt", "fireball", "spirit guardians", "cloudkill", "sleep", "fire shield", "cone of cold", "improved invisibility", "haste", "globe of invulnerability", "glyph of warding" ]; function GuardianGenerator(origin, element, attack, spell) { function shuffle(o){ //v1.0 for(var j, x, i = o.length; i; j = Math.floor(Math.random() * i), x = o[--i], o[i] = o[j], o[j] = x); }; this.generate = function(length, targetDiv, write_out){ var output_list = []; for(var i = 0; i < length; i++){ shuffle(origin); shuffle(element); shuffle(attack); shuffle(spell); output_list.push("A " + origin[0] + " tomb guardian armed with a " + element[0] + " " + attack[0] + " and a " + element[1] + " " + attack[1] + " empowered with a " + spell[0] + " spell.") } if(targetDiv && write_out) $("div#" + targetDiv).html("
    • "+output_list.join("
    • ")+"
    "); } } $(document).ready(function() { var count = 20; var output = true; var guardianGenerator = new GuardianGenerator(guardian.origin, guardian.element, guardian.attack, guardian.spell); guardianGenerator.generate(count, "guardianlist", output); $("#reload").bind("click",function(){ trapGenerator.generate(count, "guardianlist", output); }); });

    Each enhanced tomb guardian uses the statistics of a flesh golem with an armor class of 18. Enhanced tomb guardians add 7 (2d6) damage onto each weapon attack of the damage type defined by descriptors on the weapons. You can use the proper dice for each weapon, doubling the normal dice and adding the flesh golem's strength bonus, or, if you're lazy, you can just use the default damage the flesh golem already inflicts plus the bonus damage.

    The spells the enhanced tomb guardian can cast do not require any components and are cast at 5th level. They have a DC of 15 and a +7 spell attack bonus. Spells with a duration are cast before combat begins and the enhanced tomb guardian does not need to concentrate to keep a spell going.

    Want to build your own enhanced tomb guardians at the table? Use the tables below to roll for your tomb guardians.


    What creature or creatures make up the tomb guardian? Roll 1d12 and consult the following:

    1. Dragonborn
    2. Dwarven
    3. Elven
    4. Abyssal
    5. Orcish
    6. Dark Elven
    7. Demonic
    8. Human
    9. Gorilla
    10. Ogre
    11. Giant
    12. Hobgoblin


    Roll 1d12 twice on this list to determine what weapons the tomb guardian wields.

    1. Dagger
    2. Mace
    3. Spear
    4. Battleaxe
    5. Flail
    6. Longsword
    7. Morningstar
    8. Scimitar
    9. Shortsword
    10. Warhammer
    11. Spiked Gauntlet
    12. Spiked Chain


    Some tomb guardians might have an elemental bond. Roll 1d4, on a 4, roll 1d10 on this table to determine what elemental condition it might have. If Withers feels like the characters are having too easy a time, he might send more tomb guardians with these bonds.

    1. Fire
    2. Cold
    3. Necrotic
    4. Poison
    5. Acidic
    6. Thunderous
    7. Lightning
    8. Radiant
    9. Force
    10. Psychic


    Withers has implanted spells on some tomb guardians as well. If the characters are having an easy time, he might send these spellbound tomb guardians to thwart the party.

    1. Shield
    2. Lightning Bolt
    3. Fireball
    4. Spirit Guardians
    5. Cloudkill
    6. Sleep
    7. Burning Hands
    8. Cone of Cold
    9. Improved Invisibility
    10. Haste
    11. Globe of Invulnerability
    12. Glyph of Warding

    Adding Flavor to Tomb Guardians

    These enhanced tomb guardians are intended to change up the threat the characters face when facing one of these thematic tomb guardians. We add these interesting abilities not to punish our players (that's Acererak's job) but to keep things interesting. Each time our players see one of these enhanced tomb guardians coming for them, they'll know they're going to be facing something unique and chaotic.

    Read more »
  • Running Meaningful Random Encounters

    In a previous article on Sly Flourish we talked about the value of randomness and creativity in D&D and breaking conventional thought with random tables. Randomness is obviously a big part of the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons. We're rolling dice all the time while the story unfolds during the game. We might even think of the die, and randomness in general, as an additional player in the game, one who steers the direction of the game in ways we could not have expected.

    So we all take it for granted that randomness is a core component of the game (ability checks, attack rolls, and the like), but we might not consider how randomness can affect larger parts of the story as well, like the potential scenes that take place.

    Random encounters go back to the beginning of D&D. Against the Giants and Descent into the Depths both published in 1978 included wandering monster tables that made these adventures feel alive and unpredictable. Even the DM didn't know where things were necessarily going to go.

    Nearly all of the fifth edition D&D hardback adventures include robust random encounter tables with encounters for many environments and detailed descriptions of what the characters might find in the encounter. Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a bunch of random encounter tables based on environments that we can use for our own adventures. I've also included a set of random dungeon encounters in the Lazy DM's Workbook.

    Criticism of Random Encounters

    While many DMs are fine with random encounters, some DMs don't like them at all. Criticisms against random encounters include, generally, two main themes: they take away from the main story of an adventure and they take up valuable game time. These criticisms aren't necessarily wrong but there are ways we can incorporate random encounters that make them an interesting and exciting part of the story instead of a distraction. We can steer how we use random encounters to stay true to the story, expand the world, and liven up the game for both our players and ourselves by introducing the unexpected. Today we'll look at some of the ways to get the most out of random encounters in our D&D games.

    Cooking At The Table

    Why would we want to use random encounters at all? Why not plan out all the encounters that the characters will face so we can tune them very carefully around the story? As we talked about in the article Randomness and Creativity we recognize that sometimes random elements can make us more creative. We'll avoid stereotypes. We'll push our minds towards new ideas we might not have seen otherwise. Just as the dice we roll for a character affects the outcome of a story, so can the dice help us see what scenes might take place.

    Rolling for random encounters is a bit like cooking at the table instead of in the kitchen. We have the ingredients all set up for us but a couple of die rolls might change things up in ways we didn't expect.

    For some DMs, this is scary. We like to have control over the game and might even feel like that control is critical to ensure the game will be fun. Sometimes, though, we have to just let go. For others, though, it can be a great way to sharpen our ability to improvise right at the table. We don't roll random encounters to divert the story of the game. We roll random encounters to find new and interesting ways to expand that story.

    Use Theater of the Mind

    The fact that random encounters add time to our games is hard to get past. If our games are already constrained, random encounters are likely the first thing to go. One way we can manage the time is to skip the battle map and handle the scene all in our conversations. First off, the random encounter might not end in combat anyway. Characters might sneak by, negotiate their way past, or find some other way to get out of the situation without drawing a sword. If we pull out a mat, we're telegraphing to our players that combat is the likely way out. If we keep it aside, the players might try other ways to navigate the scene.

    If it does come to combat, we can stay with our narrative approach by running combat in the theater of the mind. This keeps things moving fast and keeps the players in the story instead of worrying about tactical positioning. Even if you use the grid for big battles, running smaller battles in the theater of the mind is a great approach to keep on hand, particularly for random encounters.

    Situations and Undefined Scenes

    When we introduce a random encounter, it works well when we think of it as a situation the characters are going to get involved in. We don't have to consider what type of scene it is: exploration, roleplaying, or combat. Instead, we can focus on the fiction. Even if it's a horrible monster, the characters might find another way out of the situation than sword and spell. The less we define an encounter, the more freedom the players have to navigate it. This works well for the whole game, really, but it works particularly well for random encounters.

    Tying Secrets and Clues to Random Encounters

    I'm a huge fan of secrets and clues as an improvisational aid and preparation technique. It's the cornerstone of the checklist in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. The keys to a great secret and clue is that it's relatively short, it matters to the characters, and we don't know how it will come up during the game.

    Random encounters are a great way to use those secrets and clues we prepared. Often we can reveal a valuable clue through a random encounter. When this works well it feels like magic. Suddenly something we couldn't anticipate came true at the table and tied directly into the story. We had a secret but didn't know where it would come up. We have an encounter we didn't expect but rolled the dice and there it is. Put the two together and we have the very example of how the story unfolds at the table.

    Don't be a Slave to the Dice

    Sometimes you roll the dice for a random encounter and it just doesn't work out. You either roll an encounter that already happened or that just doesn't make sense for the situation. We need not accept such weird answers. It helps to take a moment and really think about how it might make sense. The dice, after all, are helping us break out of our current creative shell and think differently. If it really doesn't work out, roll again or let your eyes wander up and down the list of random encounters and pick one that makes sense.

    The Right Tool for the Right Job

    There are circumstances when random encounters really don't fit well at all. If you're running a single-session time-focused game, like a convention Adventurer's League game, you probably don't want to throw in a random encounter. I don't think many Adventurer's League adventures include random encounters for this very reason.

    If you're running a homebrew single-session adventure, however, you can account for the extra time within the structure of the adventure. If the characters are navigating an old crypt to find the remains of the Blood Prince, you might account for a random encounter within the tomb as they seek the villain.

    Avoid Building Your Own Random Encounter Lists

    Here's a bit of a controversial statement. As DMs, I don't think its a valuable use of our time to come up with our own random encounter lists. Instead, we can just come up with encounters. Leave the random encounter lists to publishers and random encounter generators. Game designers get paid to make large lists of random encounters, knowing that many of them will not get used by any single player but that, overall, they will have a high impact on the games played among many groups.

    When we DMs write out random encounter lists, we're not likely to use it very often and thus a lot of our effort is wasted. Our time is better spent designing actual situations we know the characters will face and using random encounter lists to help us think outside of our own mind a little bit. Others may likely argue against this, and that's fine, but consider how much impact the whole random encounter list you write affects your actual game and decide if it's worth the time or if that time is better spent elsewhere. That is, after all, the number one lesson of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

    Prepare what matters.

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