March 16 2017

Sly Flourish

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    Sly Flourish

  • The Grendleroot in Avernus

    Note, this article contains spoilers for Descent into Avernus.

    Fantastic Adventures, Ruins of the Grendleroot, my book of ten 5th edition underground adventures, is designed to fit into any fantasy RPG world. Here's a quote from the book:

    Blackclaw Mountain is designed to fit into just about any fantasy world, whether of your own design or part of a published campaign setting. The mountain can be a single peak in a large range, a lonely highland in a great plain, a pocket dimension, or a splinter between worlds. Drop Blackclaw Mountain into your world wherever it makes sense and won't disturb other parts of that world.

    Blackclaw Mountain is also potentially infinite in its depth. All the locations and adventures in this book are set up within the mountain, and as a self-contained fantasy environment, the mountain can be expanded however you wish. You can add in borders marking the entrances to other worlds, tunnels to vast cities, and the lairs of monsters of any type and size. If it can be found underground, you can add it to Blackclaw.

    The mountain is thus both a self-contained adventure location, easy to drop into any fantasy world, and an infinite portal opening up to a lifetime of stories. Use it as best fits the stories you and your players want to share.

    One of the Kickstarter backers of Ruins of the Grendleroot on Kickstarter asked how they could use Blackclaw Mountain in the D&D hardback adventure Descent into Avernus. This is a perfect exercise to show how flexible this mountain truly is.

    Placing Blackclaw Mountain

    As described, we can place Blackclaw Mountain just about anywhere in Avernus. It might appear as an obsidian mountain piercing out of the cracked hellish landscape. It might be part of an existing mountain range of charred rock in Avernus or an independent demonic spire piecing through the abyss and into this first layer of hell.

    Blackclaw Mountain as an incursion between the Abyss and the Nine Hells puts it in a really interesting spot for our tales to come. Devils can't get rid of it and demons use the mountain as a passageway from the abyss into hell.

    This pivot point can create great energy for those who can control it, and many powerful beings wish to do so. It's possible areas of Blackclaw, maybe even the city of Shadowreach itself, regularly switch hands between demons and devils. For those able to profit from the blood war, like the warlords in chapter 3 of Descent into Avernus, Blackclaw Mountain is a dangerous yet profitable location.

    The Grendleroot as Demonic Incursion

    The Grendleroot itself, the strange alien entity whose spires pierce through the caverns of Blackclaw, might be a demonic root, a sentient growth of the Abyss that pierced into Avernus. It may be the catalyst for the whole mountain itself and it continues to claw its way out into the hellish lands above. The Grendleroot might be the remains of a demon prince whose attempts to break through into hell from the Abyss transformed it into this sentient horror. It reaches still, though slowly, trying to claw its way free into the skies of the Abyss.

    The Black Star, the entity the Grendleroot calls out to, may be a more powerful demonic presence; maybe even an elder evil from the Far Realm. It might be Tharizdun, the chained god, trapped in the lowest levels of the Abyss.

    The History of Blackclaw Mountain in Avernus

    The history contained in Ruins of the Grendleroot is designed to be as reskinnable as the mountain itself. We can do so here when we place the mountain in Avernus.

    First, we can replace the Order of the White Sun, as described in chapter 2 of Ruins of the Grendleroot, with the Hellriders, the knights of Eltruel who followed Zariel into Avernus over a century ago. Zariel's fall works well as the moment the Hellriders abandoned Blackclaw Mountain and returned to Eltruel.

    As for the Magocracy of the Black Star, these archmages might be left mostly intact but with a more fiendish connection to the lords and dukes of hell. Each of the archmages may be tied to one of the lords of hell formed into a loose alliance in the city of Shadowreach where they practiced their terrible magics supported by an entire city of the damned.

    Other aspects of the history of Blackclaw Mountain can be likewise reskinned. The ancient red dragon Aravax Blackflame may instead be a demon prince who built their throne on this border between the Abyss and the Nine Hells defeated by the Magocracy.

    The abolethic city described in the history of Blackclaw and found in the adventure Chuul might instead be the lair of sibriexes (see Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes). These ancient keepers of forbidden lore may fit well as the mysterious caretakers who captured the Grendleroot. In our Descent into Avernus mashup the sibriexes may replace both the aboleths and the caretakers in Ruins of the Grendleroot. They could be the creators of the Grendleroot itself, having used the twisted alien entity to tear its way across the planes.

    Deepdelver's Enclave: A Protected Beacon of Hope in Hell

    Deepdelver's Enclave is designed to be a shining beacon in the darkness and it can continue to be so even if that darkness lies beneath the surface of Avernus. Perhaps it is too small for the demons and devils to care. Perhaps it is a sanctuary between the warlords who rule over Avernus's surface. Perhaps some other power protects it. It seems quite likely that Ayaan of Veyr, a rakshasa merchant in the Enclave, might either know of or be part of the force that protects the enclave.

    When the enclave does come under attack; as it often does in the beginning of many adventures and particularly in the adventure Fistful of Copper, we'll want to ensure that there's a logical reason for these protections to fall. Perhaps they are weakening for that time. Perhaps whoever keeps a protective eye on the Enclave has looked elsewhere for a short time. Whatever reason we create, we'll want to consider it up front and ensure it makes logical sense.

    The melting pot nature of Deepdelver's Enclave fits well into Avernus. We can think of it like a miniature version of Sigil in which both demons and devils walk the streets but no violence breaks out. The residents of Deepdelver's Enclave simply find the profit of delving into the depths of Blackclaw Mountain too inviting to ignore.

    Tuning the Adventures

    As for the adventures themselves, you'll want to reskin them to fit the fiendish nature of the new realm in which Blackclaw Mountain sits. This might be as easy as reskinning some of the monsters into more fiendish varieties. Temple of the Forgotten God may show what Avernus was like when it was meant to tempt mortals into hell with grand visions of idealistic lands. A Fistful of Copper may use small attacking bands of smaller demons and devils instead of orcs and hobgoblins. Many of the rest of the adventures likely need only small tweaks to fit them into an Avernus campaign.

    Setting Blackclaw Mountain in the Depths of Hell

    If we can take Blackclaw Mountain and fit it into the depths of hell, there's likely no fantasy world into which it cannot fit. Drop it in the Mournland of Eberron or in the mountains of Greyhawk. Plop it into the Spine of the World in the Forgotten Realms or under the scorched lands of Dark Sun. Blackclaw Mountain is designed to be your world within a world wherever you decide to plant it.

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  • Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 8: The Styes

    This article is one of a series of articles covering the hardback D&D adventure book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Other articles include:

    Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

    Building On the Tharizdun Campaign Arc

    Like Salvage Operation and Isle of the Abbey, The Styes was originally intended as a stand-alone adventure. If you are planning on running The Styes as a stand-alone adventure, you can likely run it as-is from the book and this article will be of limited use.

    If we're running it as part of a Saltmarsh campaign, however, we'll want to modify it to fit within a story arc that crosses all eight adventures. We'll do so in two ways. First, we're going to connect it to the idea of a great rift in an ancient abolethic city called the Endless Nadir that leads to the abyssal layer of Tharizdun. In our running of The Styes we'll focus on the aboleth who has become infatuated with Tharizdun and has created a cult of twisted monstrosities throughout the decrepit city.

    We can further connect this adventure with Chapter 7: Tammeraut's Fate by turning Syrgaul's connection to Orcus into a connection with Tharizdun. We can also bring the idea of the Endless Nadir from this adventure into Tammeraut's Fate. We'll discuss this more in our article focused on Tammeraut's Fate.

    Connecting with the Scarlet Brotherhood

    We can also connect The Styes with the larger arc of the Scarlet Brotherhood. In this arc, Mr. Dory, the main antagonist in The Styes is a Scarlet Brotherhood agent and leader for their activity on the southern coast. Skerrin Wavechaser, the butler of the Saltmarsh councilor Anders Solmor, might actually work for Mr. Dory. If the characters have figured out that Skerrin is an agent of the Scarlet Brotherhood, he might make his escape to the Styes and the characters might follow him here.

    In secret, even to the Scarlet Brotherhood, Mr. Dory might no longer serve the Brotherhood and instead serves the aboleth under the city of the Styes.

    The Murder

    The Styes follows a series of dark murders all tied back to a man, recently executed, who claims to have no knowledge of his dark deeds. An investigation leads to one of the four councilmembers of the Styes, Mr. Dory, who, in turn, is connected to the aboleth responsible for much evil in this dark city.

    We can run this murder investigation as-is and still tie into a larger storyline. The murder can get some of the key players in front of the characters and take them to the locations that matter. It's a solid focused thread that can bring the characters into the larger plots going on in the Styes.

    Read Your Lovecraft

    The Styes feels like it was lifted right out of HP Lovecraft's story The Shadow Over Innsmouth. This story is definitely worth the read when running this adventure. It will load up your brain with inspiration, themes, and setting for the adventure, particularly the idea of a city fallen to a dark religious cult and the physical transformation of humans into fish people.

    In our running of the adventure, the Styes can be a dark mirror to the city of Saltmarsh. Where Saltmarsh weathered the fall of the sea princes to the kingdom of Keoland, the Styes never recovered. The pirates and the support they had in the Styes fell and those remaining sought out what comfort they could in the dark shadows of the cold depths. In this case, that was the call of Tharizdun and its prophet, the aboleth Sgothgah.

    Play up this dark and nasty atmosphere. The people of the Styes are a sickly looking lot with weird pale clammy skin that shows their thick black veins. The people of the Styes will smile at the characters and point to their foreheads as though they have three eyes instead of two (the sign of Sgothgah the aboleth).

    All of the temples to other gods have fallen into decay. No religions appear above the water here in the Styes. Below, however, lies the temple of Tharizdun.

    Running the Aboleth as a False Hydra

    There's one major storyline I wish I had done in the two instances in which I ran The Styes. This Goblin Punch article on the False Hydra is the inspiration for this idea.

    Sgothgah the aboleth is slowly transforming the people of the Styes into his willing servants: sea spawns, deep scions, skum, and kraken priests. As he does so, they not only lose their bodies but their minds as well. As they lose sense of self, Sgothgah's psychic energies further steal their very existance out of the minds of those who knew the creature. A brother transformed becomes forgotten by their own family as they turn into a deep spawn and swim into the black depths.

    For example, Mr. Dory may have once had a son. This son is known to the people of the Styes and even as far as Saltmarsh. Let's say Sgothgah transforms Mr. Dory's son into a sea spawn. When this takes place, no one remembers Mr. Dory's son anymore. Even the characters no longer remember the son. There might be a portrait of the son but no one knows who it is. Maybe it was some visitor who came by years ago. People are more than happy to fill in these lost memories.

    As the characters travel around the Styes, they start to see people disappearing all around them and their own memories begin to change.

    This is a great chance to play the meta. When a player asks about an NPC who has become transformed by Sgothgah, we tell them that their character has no memory of such a person. When they ask around town, no one recognizes who they're talking about. Even the characters don't remember but the players remember and know something weird is going on. That priest, Father Refrum? Nope, I don't know any priest like that. The temple's been abandoned for years.

    If you're not getting it, read this Reddit thread on running a False Hydra. I've not run it myself yet but the next time I'm running an aboleth, I'm definitely trying this out. I wish I had done so in The Styes.

    Adding In Lamp's Light Sanitarium

    The Styes includes an investigative location called Hopene'er Asylum. We can, if we desire, replace this with the excellent adventure location Lamp's Light Sanitarium. This campaign adventure can fill out this location in the Styes with one of sinister horror and suspense. If you want to fill out the Styes, consider adding in this campaign adventure.

    The Temple of Tharizdun

    If you're not satisfied with the old wrecked boat as the lair of the aboleth, you might consider adding in a deep half-submerged temple to Tharizdun that has been here under the Styes for hundreds of thousands of years. This Dyson map can work well for the lair and final encounter with Sgothgah. To make the battle more challenging, you might add a number of chuuls along with the aboleth into a chamber that made reaching the aboleth difficult. The aboleth might also have access to the spells of a priest including a spirit weapon and spiritual guardians to make the life of characters even more difficult.

    Your Moment for Seaside Horror

    The Styes is a perfect adventure to focus on ancient seaside psychological horror. As an homage to Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth, we can fill our running of The Styes with the mysterious transformation of a people into sea creatures who worship a being beyond mortal minds. By running the aboleth as a memory-stealing terror we can shake up not only the characters but the players as well. What will they think when their own characters begin to lose their memories?

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  • VideoGetting Started with Dungeons & Dragons

    This article is intended for someone who is interested in Dungeons & Dragons but has no idea where to start. My intent is to get you on the right path to enjoy D&D.

    If you are a veteran to D&D, consider sending this article to your friends who have not yet started playing.

    The D&D Basic Rules are the best place to start learning about D&D. This free, legal, and official PDF has enough material in it to play D&D for a long time without spending any money at all.

    If you know nothing about D&D, the first few pages of the D&D Basic Rules tells you just about everything you need to know about playing D&D.

    There are a lot of other great resources for D&D that cost nothing or next to nothing as well but the D&D Basic Rules are the best place to start. Within it you'll find the rules to the game, character creation rules, rules for DMs, and monsters to include in your adventures.

    Watch What D&D Looks Like

    If you want to get a better idea what D&D looks like in play, take a look at the following D&D liveplay videos. Many of these have high production values but they still give you a good idea what it looks like to play D&D. Each video is about two to three hours long.

    Your First Purchases

    If you're ready to jump into D&D, start with the D&D Starter Set. This inexpensive boxed set includes all of the rules you need to play, a set of dice, and an excellent adventure for beginning characters called Lost Mine of Phandelver. Here are some articles for starting strong at your first D&D game and tips for running Lost Mine of Phandelver.

    You might also pick up the D&D Essentials Kit. This boxed set includes another adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak, designed specifically for new DMs and includes rules for running D&D with just one player and one DM. If you're running this adventure, read my guide for running Dragon of Icespire Peak before you get started. The adventure has some rough spots for 1st level characters in it.

    Both of these boxed sets can work well together, filling out the area around Phandalin with a host of quests and adventures the players can choose from.

    Getting a Group Together

    You can play D&D with as few as a single dungeon master and a single player but one DM and around four players is more common. Finding and maintaining a D&D group is likely the hardest part of running a D&D game. Read my article on finding and maintaining a D&D group for advice on finding the right players and keeping your game going week after week.

    The Core Books

    At this point, if you and your friends are enjoying D&D, it's time to dig into the D&D core books. There are three D&D core books: the Player's Handbook for players, and the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual for dungeon masters.

    With just these three books in hand you have enough material for years of play. You don't need any other books or accessories to play D&D for the rest of your lives. Instead of physical books you also can buy books on D&D Beyond and share them with your group online.

    D&D has a number of other books that add new monsters, races, class abilities, and campaign worlds. These include:

    These books are entirely optional. You can go a long way with just the three core books. That said, each of the above books has additional material both in mechanics and lore to grow your game.

    Wizards of the Coast also publishes a number of large campaign adventures. These big adventures can take a group over a year to complete and do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Many DMs prefer to run their own adventures in their own world, however. You can read all about these published adventures at my guide for published D&D adventures.

    Other Accessories

    Dice. If you're looking for more dice for you and your friends, I recommend Easy Roller Dice, a sponsor of Sly Flourish. You can pick up a bunch of sets for not a lot of money.

    A Flip Mat. Being able to draw what a location looks like can be very useful, particularly for combat. This Pathfinder Flip Mat is my personal favorite. It's cheap, lightweight, easy to pack, and limitless in its flexibility.

    Tokens and Miniatures. You'll see a lot of D&D games that use miniatures for characters and monsters. Miniature collecting and painting is its own limitless hobby. Miniatures aren't required to play D&D. There are many cheap options for representing characters and monsters on the table to help you show positioning in combat. These cheap tokens represent both monsters and characters and can be put together for under $30. For more information on tokens and miniatures, see my New DM's Guide to Miniatures.

    There's a huge array of other accessories for running D&D games. Some are good, many will complicate your game without making it any better. You don't need anything more than the core books and some dice to enjoy D&D for the rest of your life. Don't get overwhelmed. Start small and add in the accessories you need to make your game great.

    The Beginning of Limitless Worlds

    Endless adventures await you should you continue your journey into Dungeons & Dragons. Once you've gotten started, check out my Start Here page for a selection of the top articles from this site to help you along your path. Grab your walking stick, tighten up your boots, and lets explore new worlds together.

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  • VideoSpending a Whole Day Preparing a D&D Game

    When I think about D&D game prep, often I think about how to streamline it and reduce it to the elements that bring the best value to our game. This is the core idea behind Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. How can you get more out of your game by preparing less?

    In Return we boil down game preparation into eight optional steps including the following:

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

    You don't have to use the steps if they aren't needed. We talked before about choosing the right steps given various gaming situations. We can reduce this checklist when we let other products, like published adventures, do some of the heavy lifting for us.

    All of this is to help streamline game prep. We're all busy. We all have a lot of demands on our time. We don't often have more than 30 minutes to an hour to prepare for our D&D game.

    But what if we did?

    What if we had a full day to prepare for our D&D game? What if, on one magical day, we had no other commitments. We had no other demands on our time. And, on this ideal day, what if we managed to avoid the temptations to spend our time on video games, TV, movies, or the internet?

    If we were able to spend a whole day preparing for our D&D game, where would we spend it?

    Why This Matters

    This feels like an unrealistic question to ask and some might not understand why it's valuable at all to ask it.

    It matters because it helps us take a step back from the continual refinement of game prep that boils it down to 30 minutes and lets us ask ourselves what else might matter. If we had the time, what else might we bring to the game that can make a big difference?

    This new angle on game prep—what if we had a full day uninterrupted to prepare for D&D—helps us look at the whole topic in a new way. We don't know what we'll find there. What other useful D&D prep activities might we discover? That's why it matters.

    Twitter's Responses

    I asked the question on Twitter to see what other people thought. My first take on the question ("What would you do if you had a whole day to prep your D&D game?") came back with almost all joke replies. Play video games, procrastinate, panic, etc. A more refined version of the question ("Ideally, what would you want to do if you had a full day to prep your D&D game?") came back with much better responses. I received about 220 replies which I stuck through some text processing to see what common topics came up. Here were the answers:

    map (70), npc (51), player (47), encounter (41), prep (36), character (29), note (27), prop (22), music (21), monster (19), mini (18), handout (18), plot (17), world (17), campaign (16), story (16), adventure (16), pc (14), draw (12), combat (11), terrain (10), location (10), background (8), read (8), puzzle (8), hook (8)

    The most common single response was working on maps, which I thought was interesting. NPCs, encounters, characters, all were high on the list too. Props, music, handouts, terrain, puzzles; all great ideas. If we had the time, we know where we might put it.

    Mike's Day of D&D Prep

    On a particular Sunday, when I might otherwise be busy writing D&D stuff or running my regular D&D game, I found myself with this hypothetical day in reality. My game got canceled. My other commitments were taken care of. I had a full day with nothing on the agenda that I had to do. I could have easily filled it up with things, but this was the perfect chance to actually see what it would be like to spend a whole day on a D&D game.

    It also came at a very good time. I had just finished up two campaigns and a bunch of Ruins of the Grendleroot playtests and both of my groups were about to start Ghosts of Saltmarsh. There seemed like no better time to spend a day preparing for D&D like at the beginning of a pair of new D&D campaigns. So I cleared off the rest of the schedule and wrote out a checklist. On Sunday, I began my day of D&D prep for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

    Other than taking an hour to talk about my full day of D&D prep on my Twitch show and spending some time wiring some power cables under my gaming table, I spent the whole day doing stuff related to Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

    Here was the checklist I followed:

    • Prepare maps
    • Read the adventure
    • Read the appendices
    • Consider character backgrounds & hooks to each adventure
    • Review and make handouts
    • Collect miniatures for next few sessions
    • Ponder NPCs and their actions
    • Build a campaign soundtrack
    • Get a prop lantern

    So how did it work out? Not so bad and I did learn a few things. Some of the things on the checklist I never got around to. I never got a prop lantern. I stuck to the Assassin's Creed Black Flag soundtrack for my campaign soundtrack but never actually used it. I only picked out miniatures for the first full adventure but they're were all nice and organized.

    Printing Maps (two hours)

    One of the biggest things I did during the day was get all of the Ghosts of Saltmarsh maps printed at Staples using their blueprint printing service. I was able to get about fourteen maps for $50. Some of them are obnoxiously huge, 36" by 48" and still only cost $7.50. If I had to do it again I wouldn't get any map bigger than 24" x 36" which ran about $3.75. I'd also print the 10 foot per square maps using 18" x 24" because they aren't battlemap scale anyway and the smaller format is easier to handle on a table. 18" x 24" maps ran under two bucks a piece; an amazing deal.

    Getting all of the files off of D&D Beyond and into the Staples print center web page took about an hour and driving there and back took another hour. So that was a good piece of time spent on something that my players will definitely notice.

    In the end, though, I barely used these maps. I tended to use them for the first couple of adventures but by the time I ran the Final Enemy, I stopped using them. I was customizing the dungeons too much to bother with a large fixed map. While blueprint mapping worked great, particularly for Dysonlogo maps, I don't know that I'd bother with it again. I can just draw them out on a dry-erase map when I want them.

    Reading the Adventure with the Characters in Mind (three hours)

    I think the most valuable thing we can do when we have a lot of time is to read the adventure we're running (assuming we're running a published adventure) while thinking about how we can tie the characters into those adventures. This means spending time reading over our characters' backgrounds and then reading through the adventure thoroughly to see how those backgrounds can tie back in. While we read it we can jot down some possible character connections. Here are some examples:

    • Huron the water genasi served aboard the Emperor of the Waves. He was thrown overboard and awoke amidst the ship's ruins.
    • Umber the sea elf fighter was on a ship in which Lowrin Solmor, father of Anders Solmor, was killed. He is still very loyal to the Solmor family.
    • Jamras the triton warlock has been hunting for a dark power supposedly rising in the south. He has a coin with a swirling pattern on it that means something important.
    • One of the characters will know that the Sea Prince Syrgaul sailed on a warship called the Tammeraut. The Tammeraut was sunk ten years ago.
    • The water dwelling members of the party know about a rift in the sea floor that none of the aquatic races will go near known as the Endless Nadir.

    These interconnections between the characters and the adventures can have a strong impact in the game. When the players see why their characters would get involved in an adventure they have a much stronger connection with the story than if their characters is essentially running independently from the plotline.

    Gathering Miniatures (one hour)

    These days I'm much more of a theater of the mind DM. I'll occasionally ask a player to grab one of my miniature boxes and fish out some minis for a fight but I find that the flexibility of theater-of-the-mind combat frees up the story to go in any direction it wants to go.

    My players still love miniatures, though, so spending some time to grab up all of the potential miniatures I'd need to run the first chapter of Saltmarsh seemed like a good use of time. That took about an hour. That includes digging out multiple miniatures for each of the characters so the players can choose the one they like.

    Ideal Preparation List

    If time weren't a factor, where might we spend the time? Given my own experiences, here's the list I'd choose:

    The Eight Steps. Going through the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is still the most useful way to spend time that I can offer. With more time available we can expand some of these steps out into longer activities. We can expand out on our character reviews, NPC development, and secrets and clues. We can dig deep into our villains, their goals, and the things they'll do to reach those goals. We can map out potential treasure rewards for each of the characters over the course of a campaign. We can take each of the eight steps that apply to the type of game we're running and expand on them as much as we wish.

    Handouts. Great handouts bring the players into the story of the game. It's one thing to describe a letter one of the characters finds. It's something else to hold that letter in your hand. Great handouts take time. We need to write them and edit them down so they're the kind of thing our players will actually read. Secret maps, clues to puzzles, cyphers between villains; great handouts hit new senses and wake up new parts of the brains of our players. Printing out notes on copper resume paper with cool fantasy fonts is an easy way to make a handout look great. Making handouts takes time but if we happen to have the time, they're worth it.

    Maps. Who am I to argue with all of the Twitter responses talking about preparing maps? Maybe this means gathering a bunch of Dyson maps and printing them out using the Staples blueprint print center or maybe it means drawing maps. Maps help bring players into the world. They help make the world more real. That's a valuable use of time.

    Miniatures. Finding the right miniatures and preparing them ahead of time can also make a nice difference. It's one thing to describe a monster and show a picture of it in the Monster Manual and something else to drop the right miniature on the table. For most people, getting the right miniature can be too costly, regardless of time. Printing out paper miniatures or digging up artwork and building tokens is more cost effective, though still requires some time. Buying and painting miniatures to represent the characters takes time but is a worthwhile activity given how long those minis will sit on the table. Using painted miniatures for player characters and tokens for monsters is a good cost-effective mix.

    Terrain. I'm a huge fan of Dwarven Forge. When the situation calls for it, building out cool Dwarven Forge layouts makes the game world even more solid. As cool as it is, building out wonderful 3d dioramas won't make as much of a difference as spending time thinking about the characters and how to better integrate them into the story but if one has the means and the time, they definitely make a great game even better.

    Music. I like to have some background music going while I run my games. Instead of spending a lot of time on specific tracks and playlists, I set up three general playlists: D&D Relaxed, D&D Sinister, and D&D Combat. I pick songs from a variety of video game soundtracks including Darkest Dungeon, the Witcher 3, Skyrim, Horizon Zero Dawn, Divinity Original Sin 2, and various Assassin's Creed soundtracks. I'll split the songs up among those three playlists and play them out during the game. It takes about an hour initially but one can use the same playlists for years.

    The Diminishing Returns of D&D Prep

    Having spent an entire day prepping for D&D I found that such time led to diminishing returns. This isn't a surprise. The whole philosophy of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is that less prep can lead to a better game. It was still interesting to see it in practice. I got some value out of the time I spent preparing for my Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign but much of the value comes from spending thirty minutes on the checklist. It's worth the time to think about where our time is best spent preparing for our D&D games. We may never have a full day to prepare for our D&D game and that's just fine. Really, all we need is thirty minutes.

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  • Combining the D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit

    Many agree that the best way to get started in D&D is with the D&D Starter Set. With a low price, excellent adventure, and all the materials you need to run a game in a single box; it's hard to recommend anything else. I still consider the Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, one of the best D&D adventures with its clear focus on the small town of Phandalin and a nice sandbox full of places to explore, people to meet, and threats to face.

    The recently released D&D Essentials Kit adds another alternative. Like the Starter Set, it's designed for new players although not necessarily new DMs. It comes with a wider range of materials including a larger set of dice, a deck of cards, full-color maps, character creation rules, and sidekick rules. Like the Starter Set, the Essentials Kit is a bargain for the price.

    You can read my guides for both Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak here on Sly Flourish.

    But which boxed set should you get if you're new to D&D?

    I'd still start with the Starter Set. It's slightly cheaper and, in my opinion, the adventures are better tuned for the characters.

    But as an alternative, why not both?

    The D&D Starter Set and the D&D Essentials Kit work really well together. In this article we'll look at how to join up these two products to get the best out of both.

    A Central Story with a Host of Sidequests

    When combining the storylines of Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak we have the main storyline of Lost Mine of Phandelver and the series of individual quests from Dragon of Icespire Peak. The characters can begin with chapter 1 of Lost Mine of Phandelver, Goblin Arrows. When they arrive back at Phandalin, they find the quests from Dragon of Icespire Peak nailed to the town's quest board. The characters (and players) are free to continue following the main quest line in Phandelver or choose one of the job board quests from Icespire as they wish.

    While the characters follow one path or the other, we can drop in secrets and clues that point to other quests from both Phandelver and Icespire. They may learn of the secret plot of the Black Spider while spending time on the dwarven excavation or meeting the gnomes of Gnomengarde. They may hear of the displaced orcs and the rise of the anchorites of Talos in Neverwinter Wood while exploring Thundertree or Cragmaw Castle in Phandelver. The green dragon in Thundertree may be a rival of the white dragon in Icespire Keep. The cult of the dragon in Thundertree may be recruiting both of these dragons. There's lots of ways to join up these two adventures and running them together gives the players a huge range of options to choose their path.

    Not So Lazy Work

    Joining these two adventures together will not make a DM's life easier. You'll need to read both adventures to get ideas how to join the two together. You'll need to bring in hooks from both adventures into the paths of the characters as they explore each of them. There will be a lot of moving parts; parts that make the world feel rich and full and real, but all of those moving parts will make your campaign more complicated. In the end, however, it can be well worth the effort.

    One concern is how we handle leveling. You may want to level more slowly than you might otherwise if the characters are spending a lot of time on side quests. Otherwise the characters will out-level the quests in both adventures before either of them are done. You'll still want to level out of 1st level quickly but once you're at second level, leveling every couple of adventures is probably just fine. As an alternative you can level up as fast as you like and simply let some of the quests become obsolete before the characters have had a chance to engage with them.

    Joining the Toolkits

    Both the D&D Starter Set and the Essentials Kit include more than just the two adventures. The pregenerated characters from the Starter Set, which you can download right here, make it easy for new players to get into the game if they don't have the experience to make a new character. For players interested in building characters, the Essentials Kit includes all of the rules needed to create characters with the four basic races and five classes including a couple of different class builds for each class.

    The two books together also include a large menagerie of monsters. Only a few monsters are replicated across both boxes. Together they provide a huge range of monsters from 1st to 5th level that you can use to run your own adventures for years without buying another book. The Starter Set has a wider selection of more basic monsters while the Essentials Kit fills out this list with stranger monsters like ochre jellies, wererats, and evil half-orc shapeshifting druids.

    Both books also include a wonderful selection of maps and locations you can reskin to fit your own homebrew adventures.

    The maps, DM screen, and cards from the Essentials Kit work just as well when running the Starter Set material.

    Running Lost Mine of Phandelver One-on-One

    One fabulous feature of the D&D Essentials Kit are the rules that let you play D&D with one DM and one player using sidekicks. Sidekicks are stripped down NPCs that run alongside player characters to shore up any deficiencies and help even out the odds in combat.

    Though Lost Mine of Phandelver doesn't include any rules for scaling combat for less than four characters, we can use some handy guidelines to help us tune down battles when running Phandelver one-on-one. Here's a quick reference:

    • Reduce the number of monsters the character faces. Be careful when including more monsters than the number of characters.
    • Reduce the hit points of monsters as needed.
    • Reduce the number of attacks and damage of monsters as needed.
    • Give the character relics, scrolls, potions, and magic items to off-set their gaps.
    • Be wary of monster spells or effects that can, with a single stroke, remove the character from combat.

    Being able to run these adventures with a single DM and single player adds a tremendous amount of flexibility. Joining Essentials sidekicks with the Starter Set is a powerful combination.

    Continuing On Beyond the Boxes

    When your players have completed the adventures in both boxes, you can move on to the additional digital adventures included with your purchase of the Essentials Kit. These adventures include Storm Lord's Wrath, Sleeping Dragon's Wake, and Divine Contention, all of which you can find here which take characters from 6th to 13th level. That's quite a campaign!

    Building an Expanded Campaign around Phandalin

    Joining the D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit together helps you build out Phandalin in a way that neither boxed set does on their own. The world becomes richer, the options wider and more varied. The two boxes together create a powerful toolkit for DMs who want to run their own low-level adventures. Without needing another product you can run adventures using these two boxed sets for years to come.

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  • VideoRunning Episodic Games

    I'm a huge fan of serials. Shows like True Detective put a limit on the overall story but give that story enough room to breathe and fill out across many episodes. The game Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert Schwalb builds itself around this episodic structure as the core of the game. Characters are intended to level each session across eleven sessions that make up an entire Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign. This builds a strict structure around the campaign. Some may find it too restrictive but others, like myself, enjoy having this fixed structure to build around.

    We can take this same episodic approach with our Dungeons & Dragons games. Often, when running large hardback adventures, we let the game go however it goes. It begins where it left off previously and it ends wherever it ends as time allows. This can be a fine and relaxing way to play, one that doesn't push a lot of adventure time management onto the DM's already long list of required activities. When running a campaign adventure like Tomb of Annihilation, we can let it go as long as it needs to go.

    There can be some fun in building a more focused episodic structure to our campaigns, one in which the each session has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Such a campaign might have a fixed number of "episodes" until the end of the campaign. It works well if you know that your group has a limited number of sessions already. It also works well if your game is somewhat irregular but each session is still long enough to fit in a whole adventure. Four hours is a good benchmark.

    Planning Out the Serial Campaign

    When following the concepts in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master we focus our attention on the next session and have, at best, a loose outline for the rest of a campaign. This works well if we have no real time limits on each session or on the campaign as a whole. When we're running a focused episodic campaign, like an eleven-session Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign, we'll need more structure than that.

    It doesn't have to be much more structure, however. If we look at the level 1 to 20 gnoll campaign outline we only need a one-line description for each session beyond the next one and a general idea how the story is going to go. We still focus our attention on the next game but we have a more fixed and focused outline to work from.

    Here's an example for my Shadow of the Demon Lord game but it can work just as easily for a D&D game. The overall goal of this campaign is to stop the coming of the Demon Lord by destroying the four anchors that pull him into the world. Each anchor is an object or being of great power and requires a single item to destroy it (known as a "breaker"). Here's the eleven session campaign outline:

    • Rescue Father Gregory from the Black Vault beneath Crossings
    • "Rescue" Candace Dreen from the thugs who kidnapped her (turns out she's a demon).
    • Break into the Dreen mansion to recover notes from the demonologist Moore.
    • Recover the first Breaker: the Sword of Stars
    • Recover the second Breaker: the Shard of Night
    • Recover the third Breaker: the Blackfire Wand
    • Recover the fourth Breaker: the Bone of the Innocent
    • Destroy the first Anchor: the Demon Prince
    • Destroy the second Anchor: the White Princess
    • Destroy the third Anchor: the Black Sun Manuscript
    • Destroy the fourth Anchor: The Eye of the Demon Lord

    You can see the clear structure of this campaign. Because it breaks out into two groups of four objectives, the characters can accomplish each of these four objectives in whatever order they want. I only flesh out these individual adventures when I'm getting ready to run the session. It's enough to have the outline to work off of and know I have a clear direction for the campaign.

    Sometimes it behooves us to expose this structure to the players. In the outline above, the players learned the general structure for the campaign in session three. They know they'll need to recover four breakers to destroy four anchors. They know each session will cover one of these events. They'll be as committed as we are to follow the structure of the campaign.

    Maybe our campaign doesn't actually end up this way and the outline changes. That's ok. Sometimes the best stories take a hard left turn and become something very different. We can be cool with that and it might actually end up being a better game. It still has to fit within the structure, however, so when that hard left turn happens, it's time to rebuild the outline and not let the story get out of hand.

    Building In Flexibility

    Because each adventure is intended to fit within a game session and because adventures have a tendency to go off the rails we have to build in a fair bit of flexibility into them. We may have to dramatically shorten our adventure or pad it out to fit within the session depending on how things go. Most of the time we'll need to shorten it up. It's rare when we don't have enough material to fill out a session and much more likely that we have too much.

    Our first goal is to have the end in mind always. We need to know what the final conclusion of the adventure will be and be prepared to push the adventure to that conclusion as fast as possible if needed. If we're running an adventure based on the rescue of Father Gregory from the Black Vault, we have to be ready to get the characters to the Black Vault, find Father Gregory, and face the harvester that's carving him up within the last 30 to 45 minutes of the game. We can use our tricks to time and pace each adventure with moving keys and moving MacGuffins.

    Managing time becomes crucial in such short episodic adventures so we need to be thinking about that conclusion every thirty minutes ensuring that its headed towards that conclusion quickly. Clues become much easier to discover later in a game. Dungeons become smaller. Piles of monsters in the way suddenly disappear. The very next room the characters enter just so happens to be the Black Vault.

    There are a few ways we can build in this flexibility into our games. Here are two:

    First, we can shrink the dungeon. If we're using a map for our dungeon, say the catacombs map from the Lazy DM's Workbook, we can collapse hallways and cut off rooms until a twelve-room dungeon becomes a five-room dungeon.

    Second, we can cut encounters. Scenes, particularly combat scenes, all take up a lot of time in our games. When we're building out our single-session adventure we can build-in flexibility by being ready to cut scenes when we need. Maybe those wights never burst out of the sarcophagi as the characters make their way to the dead general's crypt. Maybe instead of having to negotiate with a ghost to get into the lower tomb, the characters learn some interesting lore from a fresco on the wall and find the door already open. We always want enough encounters to fill out the game but we should be ready to cut whatever we need to cut to get to the ending on time.

    Character Montages Between Sessions

    Because each of our games is a self-contained story, we can throw in some downtime in between each session. At the beginning of each session we can go around the table and ask what each character has been up to for this period of downtime. We can shrink or extend this downtime as it fits the story. Maybe it's only one day. Maybe it's a tenday. Maybe it's a month. A lot of interesting things can happen to the characters in this downtime and some of it may move the story into new and interesting directions. Players can have clear ideas of what their character did and learned during the downtime which is a great way to drop in some secrets and clues. Other players might not have anything particular in mind so maybe they roll on the carousing table from Xanathar's Guide to Everything. Let your players know that you'll be asking about their downtime and they may come up with some interesting ideas between sessions. This is a fun way to play D&D away from the table as well as on it.

    Leveling Every Session

    In an episode of the DM's Deep Dive, Mike Mearls mentioned that he felt that characters typically leveled too slowly. He went so far as to recommend leveling characters every session to see how it felt. Many DMs didn't like that idea, often describing that they felt players wouldn't have enough time to understand their characters' new abilities.

    A short-run episodic campaign, however, might be just the time to try out faster leveling. Experienced players won't have much trouble understanding the new abilities of their characters and as long as as each episode happens close to the others, say weekly, players will watch their characters grow level by level each session.

    A six-session, ten-session, or even twenty-session episodic campaign might be just the way to enjoy the feeling of a full D&D campaign without having to play for two years to complete it.

    One Alternative Style of Play

    Episodic D&D games isn't a new wonderful way to play D&D. It is one possible way we can run our games when the story and situation is right. I very much enjoyed my eleven episode Shadow of the Demon Lord game but it isn't likely to be my preferred style. The relaxed nature of an ongoing campaign means I don't have to worry about tying up every loose end at the end of a session. I don't have to have an eleven-episode outline for the whole campaign. I can run multiple villains, multiple stories, and multiple hooks and see where the characters want to go.

    If you see a short focused campaign in your future, however, the episodic campaign may be just the fit. Add it to your DMing toolkit.

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  • VideoYour Most Important Game

    Your most important Dungeons & Dragons game is the next one you're going to run.

    This might be blindingly obvious or it might be completely alien to you. We DMs have big dreams. We have big plans. We plan out entire 1 to 20 campaigns before we've had our session zero. We love to build out campaign worlds for years before our characters step outside of their single town. We think about future boss monsters. We think about future combat encounters. We think about big twists that may take place in the story.

    None of that really matters. It's all ethereal until it hits the table. Your future four-year campaign doesn't exist until its over.

    All that matters is your next game.

    Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master spends a lot of time on individual game preparation for this reason. It's useful to think about the big truths in a campaign world. It's fun to think about the villains, where they're going, and what they're doing. We like to be able to describe a campaign with a clear elevator pitch. But, in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master we don't spend a lot of time on building large campaign arcs because, deep down, they don't matter. Only the next game matters. The results for each eight steps matter.

    How are we going to make our next game the best game we can? What can we stick into it that will really blow the players away? Who are the characters? What is our strong start? What scenes might occur? What secrets will they uncover? What locations will they explore? Who will they meet? What monsters will they face? What treasure might they uncover? That's what we should focus on.

    What can we do to make our next game awesome? Is it handouts? Is it a cool location map? Is it some evocative 3D terrain? Is it a character's hook we can finally reel in?

    Our DM's mind wanders. When we're given permission to build entire universes in our head, it's hard not to let our minds rush outward. We can build planet-sized dungeons. We can establish histories that go back millions of years. We can build entire pantheons of gods. How can we not give our minds the freedom to do so?

    We can, but not at the expense of our game. None of those things become real until they play out at our game and things only really play out in the next session we run. Until then, nothing else matters. Nothing else exists.

    The more we detail future adventures our minds, the more we might lose sight of what comes next. If we're ever struggling to know what to do, how to prepare, and how to fit it such preparation into our busy lives, it is freeing to recognize that the only game we need to worry about is the next one we're going to run.

    Focus on your next game.

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  • Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 6: The Final Enemy

    This article is one of a series of articles covering the hardback D&D adventure book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Other articles include:

    Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

    The End of a Trilogy

    The Final Enemy is the last adventure of the trilogy focused on the sahuagin threat which began in The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and continued on in Danger at Dunwater. In The Final Enemy the characters travel to the former lizardfolk island, assess the threat of the sahuagin, and perhaps end the threat the sahuagin hold over Saltmarsh before their attack begins.

    Like the other two adventures in this series, The Final Enemy is an excellent sandbox adventure in which we lay out the situation and the goals and the characters are left to their own devices to succeed in that goal. How they choose to approach the sahuagin-invaded island will dictate how the sahuagin react. This is perfect situational D&D. We put the situation out in front of the players and we figure out how that situation changes as they interact with it. We may be as surprised as the players how things turn out. It's a wonderful way to play D&D.

    Clarify the Goals

    Because this adventure is so open-ended, it's important to clarify the adventure's goals to the players. You don't want a situation in which they're deep in the lair and then turn to one another and say "why are we here again?".

    We can simplify the goals down to the following, which are clarified well in the adventure under "mission goals". I'm adding one of my own which I think is important for the rest of the adventure.

    • Determine the size and strength of the sahuagin force.
    • Find important locations within the fortress.
    • Identify defenses.
    • Identify the sahuagin leadership (this one I added).

    It's possible the characters may find a way to stop the sahuagin attack before it even starts by killing the leadership of the sahuagin and removing any desire from the remaining sahuagin to attack the coast. They might accomplish this by killing the baron and high priestess in area 42, killing the baroness in area 45, and killing the avatar of Sekolah in area 37.

    With these heads of the sahuagin removed, the rest will gather up in small packs and flee into the ocean.

    Change Up the Number and Type of Sahuagin

    Depending on how the adventure is going when you're running it, feel free to change up the numbers and types of sahuagin the characters encounter. Instead of patrols of eight sahuagin, feel free to include just two normal sahuagin wandering through the caves (see two thugs in the woods. Mixing up the number of sahuagin can change up the pace and feeling of the game. Too many battles against six to twelve powerful sahuagin can get boring and stale. Changing up the situations so that the characters can use stealth, subterfuge, intimidation, or deception to get past them as well as combat can make the adventure a lot more interesting.

    Returning to Saltmarsh

    Given that the characters may not end the threat their first time through the sahuagin fortress, you'll have to figure out what happens when the characters leave and the threat remains. One possibility is that, discovering the infiltration, the sahuagin launch an attack against Saltmarsh. They may send in three killer whales each mounted by a sahuagin waveshaper and protected by a small force of sahuagin on shell sharks. These waveshapers slam the coast of Saltmarsh with huge waves that destroy ships and hammer the coast. The characters can deal with a number of situations during this attack such as a coastal sahuagin flanking attack, drowning sailors in the sea, collapsing buildings, or attacking the waveshapers themselves. This can be a fun large battle the characters can get involved in. We need not make this complicated. Describe the larger battle going on while the characters deal with their specific battles or situations.

    During this attack the characters may have a chance to eliminate heads of the sahuagin threat and leave a much reduced force back at the sahuagin fortress. When they return to the fortress they can hunt down the remaining heads of the sahuagin and end the threat completely.

    Tying Into a Larger Story

    One unanswered question in this adventure is how to tie it together with the other adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. We may connect the sahuagin to the Endless Nadir described in The Styes. The sahuagin may have fled from the ancient aboleth city as a rift tore open into the lower layers of the abyss. The characters may learn this from the sahuagin themselves, from murals on the wall, or perhaps an intelligent trident of fish command possessed by a marid (one with family connections to any water genasi in the group perhaps). This thread ties the sahuagin to the larger threat of an ocean poisoned by the realm of the Elder Elemental Eye.

    A Great Sandbox Adventure

    The Final Enemy is an excellent sandbox adventure in which the characters choose their approach to assess and perhaps destroy the threat of the sahuagin against Saltmarsh. Stay flexible with the encounters they face and let the story play out as the characters delve deep into this dangerous lair.

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  • Building Legendary D&D Monsters in your Head

    Here at Sly Flourish I believe firmly in helping DMs develop the tools change up our game without having to spend a lot of time or carry around a lot of extra books. This means learning how to do a lot of the prep and improvisation work of D&D in our heads. For example, my encounter building guidelines are intended to give DMs some rules of thumb to quickly gauge whether an encounter might be inadvertently deadly.

    We have other tricks we can use to improvise the challenge of a combat encounter without resorting to any charts, tables, tools, or anything else. We can increase or reduce a monster's hit points, damage, or the number of monsters in a battle to easily change the threat of the battle. We can do all of these while a battle is taking place. If this feels like cheating to you, consider hanging onto the game with a looser grip. As long as your drive is to make the game as exciting as you can, you have full authority to make these sorts of changes.

    We have other simple tools we can keep in our heads that help us run a fun D&D game. We can grant advantage or impose disadvantage as we improvise the situations, actions, motivations, backgrounds, and specialties of the characters. "Bless, roll an Intelligence (Religion) check to see if you recognize some of the symbols on this altar. Roll with advantage because the voice of the planetar in your sun blade whispers ancient secrets to you,".

    Improvising difficulty classes (DCs) is probably the most-used and easily-implemented improvisation techniques in D&D. If there is a reasonable chance for failure in any situation, choose a difficulty based on the situation on a number between 10 (moderately easy) and 20 (really hard). That's the challenge the characters must beat.

    Improvising Legendary Monsters

    Now we come to the subject of this article; building legendary monsters the lazy way. Much of the time we can use an existing legendary monster from the Monster Manual. Probably 19 times out of 20, this suits us just fine. Sometimes, however, we want to take a normal monster and make it a legendary one. Let's take the Avatar of Sekolah for example. The Avatar is a giant two-headed shark summoned by the priestesses of the sahuagin. There's actually a stat block for this shark in Ghosts of Saltmarsh but I wanted something more straight forward and dangerous.

    We start with the giant shark stat block in the Monster Manual. The first thing we can do to make this thing legendary is to increase its hit points—200 sounds good. Again, no need to write anything down. We just keep this in mind. Now we get on to the legendary parts. First, we give it three legendary actions. These might be used for an additional attack, a move, or some other activity that makes sense. In the case of the Avatar of Sekolah, we'll give it an extra bite attack as part of its attack action to account for its second head (oh yeah, it has two heads). We can also give it an extra bite attack for the cost of two legendary actions and a free movement without provoking attacks of opportunity as a single legendary action. This gives it some mobility and a way to threaten back-line combatants. Finally we give it three uses of legendary resistance to break out of save-or-suck abilities.

    All of these things can be done in our head. We don't need to write them down. This lets us turn any monster into a legendary monster without having to do any real work at all.

    Announcing Legendary Monsters

    Because it might not be clear that the characters are about to face a legendary monster, it can help to announce to them that they are about to face a legendary foe. I like to say "you believe you are about to face a legendary foe" while wiggling my eyebrows. This gives the players some opportunity to shift their tactics and they won't be too unpleasantly surprised to find their save-or-suck spells getting ignored and the monster they're facing hitting them between turns. Some DMs believe this information should be held behind the screen. I don't mind revealing it and I've never seen it detract from the fun of the game.

    When in doubt, lean towards revealing too much.

    Don't Overdo It

    Just because we have easy tools to build legendary monsters doesn't mean we should use it often. Legendary monsters are truly special beings. A legendary monster is more than just a stronger variant of an existing monster, it's a unique variant. If we want a stronger monster, more hit points, more attacks, and more damage will often do the trick without giving them legendary actions or legendary resistances. Legendary monsters are special. Our players should never question why this creature is legendary. One mere look at it and the story surrounding it should be enough to mark its legendary stature.

    Worry Less About Challenge Ratings

    One argument about building such legendary foes is that these changes increase the challenge rating of the creature and we don't know how far. My simple response is "It doesn't matter". Challenge ratings are a loose guideline at best. What we know of the capabilities of the characters matters much more. Given that we're taking a single creature and making it legendary means we're likely only running that one creature. This puts it at a distinct disadvantage against four to six characters already. It's challenge rating may be two or three higher than the original but really, who's counting? If you double the hit points of a creature and give it legendary actions and resistances, you can probably count it as two or three copies of the base creature.

    Better yet, don't get hung up on the math; it doesn't work that well anyway.

    Building a D&D Toolbox We Keep in Our Heads

    The best tools in D&D are the ones we have in front of us. Even better are those we need not have on hand at all but can keep in our heads. The ability to build legendary monsters without having to write a single thing down is a powerful tool in our toolbox. We can turn any creature into a creature of legend—a creature whose name will be recorded in ancient texts and fantastic stories. Keep these guidelines in mind when you wish to build your own legendary foe.

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  • Balancing D&D Combat for One-on-One Play

    The D&D Essentials Kit includes the first-ever official rules for running D&D with just one player and one DM. This is a whole new style of playing D&D, although some, such as the fine folks behind D&D Duet, have been playing this way for a while and I imagine other groups have played this way for years. Like running combat without a map or minis, some folks think it is completely impossible while others have done it for years without issue.

    Being able to play D&D one-on-one has tremendous advantages. It's much easier to find a group when you only need one other player. Games can go quicker and the story can go further in each session with a single player than with a larger group. The story of the game can focus on that one particular character. The story, maybe the whole world itself, can be built around this single main character. The list of advantages goes on and on. With the right tools and principals in mind for running one-on-one D&D, we might even run a single character through a published campaign adventure such as Curse of Strahd, Tomb of Annihilation, or Tyranny of Dragons.

    Most of the steps we use to prepare and run our D&D games changes little when we run for a single player. We can still use all the steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master if we choose. The first step, reviewing the characters, becomes much easier and can also have a greater impact on the remaining seven steps. Running the adventure and the story can work just as well with one character (and a sidekick—more on this soon) as it can for four.

    One area of D&D, however, requires careful tuning when we run for fewer than four characters—combat.

    Combat encounters and monster design in the 5th edition of D&D generally expects four characters. Beyond their raw capabilities, there's a synergy between four characters that one character alone doesn't possess. Simply removing monsters from a combat encounter isn't enough to ensure a battle will run smoothly in a one-on-one D&D game. We DMs have to keep some concepts continually in mind to ensure our one-on-one D&D game plays smoothly.

    The goal of this article is to give you the tools to run any D&D adventure, including the official D&D hardback adventures, with just one DM and one player.

    The D&D Essentials Kit includes a major aid for running one-on-one D&D—sidekicks. These lower-powered and mechanically simple NPCs are intended to work side-by-side with the main character in a one-on-one game. Sidekicks help bring some of the synergy back when running with only one player but it's still a far cry from four full characters.

    A Quick Checklist for Running One-on-One Combat in D&D

    Use the following guidelines to help you tune combat encounters when running a game for a single character and a sidekick. This articles goes into each of these guidelines further on.

    • Reduce the number of monsters the character faces. Be careful when including more monsters than the number of characters including sidekicks.
    • Reduce the hit points of monsters as needed.
    • Reduce the number of attacks and damage of monsters as needed.
    • Remove legendary actions, lair actions, and legendary resistance from legendary monsters. Tune them to suit the battle.
    • Give the character relics, scrolls, potions, and magic items to off-set their gaps.
    • Be wary of monster spells or effects that can, with a single stroke, remove the character from combat.
    • Run larger battles off-screen. Describe groups of allied NPCs facing off against large groups of monsters.

    On Sidekicks

    Sidekicks, first released in this Unearthed Arcana Sidekick document and then later published in the D&D Essentials Kit, are a big boon for running one-on-one D&D games. Sidekicks help fill in the gaps a single character will have when facing the world in a D&D game. A fighter character, for example, can have a healer sidekick who keeps them healthy. A wizard character can have a defender sidekick who protects the wizard from powerful foes. Sidekicks have skills, abilities, and spells that aid the character as they face challenges ahead. During the game, sidekicks can regularly use the "help" action to give the character advantage on most checks when needed.

    The D&D Essentials adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak, includes rules to level sidekicks up to 6th level while the three supplementary adventures available on D&D Beyond offer rules to take sidekicks up to 12th level. If this isn't enough, or you don't have access to these adventures, you can use the Unearthed Arcana Sidekick guidelines to create sidekicks up to 20th level starting with a baseline NPC stat block. One advantage of the UA sidekick rules is that you can apply them to any stat block in the Monster Manual. Thus, a character can have a town guard, a pet spider, or a flying snake that gains levels as they do.

    Tuning Combat Encounters

    With a character and sidekick prepared, it's up to us DMs to tune combat encounters to support one-on-one play. It isn't enough to simply reduce the number of monsters, although that's a big part of the equation. We have to remember the lost synergy a single character has when compared to a party of four.

    In previous articles we've talked about how to increase the challenge of monsters in D&D combat. This mostly fell into three simple steps: increase monsters, increase their hit points, and increase their damage. These are three big dials we DMs control that can dramatically change the difficulty of a combat encounter. Likewise, when we're running one-on-one D&D games, we can turn these dials the other way, reducing the number of monsters, reducing their hit points, and reducing their damage. That's most of what we need to do when running combat one-on-one in D&D.

    Selecting the Number of Monsters

    The number one variable in combat difficulty is the number of monsters the characters face. In a one-on-one game, we should pay careful attention to how many monsters our character will face, particularly when there are potentially more monsters than characters. We can use our encounter building guidelines to get a rough gauge for the appropriate challenge rating for a character to face at a given level. We can use the following rough guide to gauge whether a fight might be deadly. In general, a character should rarely face more than the following:

    For a 1st level character

    • One creature of challenge 1/4 or less

    For a 2nd to 4th level character

    • One creature of a CR 1/4 of the characters level.
    • Two creatures of a CR 1/10th of the characters level.

    For a 5th to 20th level character.

    • One creature of a CR 1/2 of the characters level.
    • Two creatures of a CR 1/4 of the characters level.
    • Four creatures of a CR 1/10th of the characters level.

    Generally speaking, except in rare circumstances based on the story, should the character face more than four opponents. Four opponents puts a single character at a great disadvantage, particularly when they don't have the synergy of the rest of the party.

    Note that, in general, we'll ignore the sidekick when selecting the number of monsters. Sidekicks, while helpful, aren't as powerful as characters.

    For more info on these ideas, Jonathan and Beth at D&D Duets have an excellent article on scaling D&D encounters for one-on-one play.

    Reducing Hit Points and Damage

    Two other dials help us control the difficulty of combat in D&D: hit points and damage output. We can increase or decrease hit points as needed to increase or decrease how long a monster takes to defeat within the range of a monster's listed hit dice range. Typically, when facing more characters, we might increase a monster's hit points to keep it around longer. When running D&D for only one character, however, we likely want to reduce a monster's hit points as needed. You'll need to play this by ear as you run combat. If things are taking too long, consider reducing the monster's hit points on the fly. If things are going smoothly, the monster's average hit points might be fine.

    Likewise, a creature's damage, including extra attacks, are often intended for use when facing four or more characters. When we're running only one character, we may want to either reduce the damage of an attack or reduce the number of attacks a monster can make.

    Let's look at ogres as an example. In the D&D adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak, the characters may face off against two ogres and a number of orcs in the Shrine of Savras. When running for a single character (as I did with Newbie DM) we can start by reducing the number of ogres down to one. One ogre is a significant challenge for a 3rd level character, even with a sidekick, and it's very dangerous when you throw one or two orcs in as well.

    A standard ogre has 59 hit points. A really tough ogre could have as many as 91 hit points. A weaker one could have as few as 28. We'll stick to 30 hit points for our one-on-one ogre. An average ogre hits for 13 with a greatclub. A powerful ogre may hit for as much as 20. A weaker ogre may hit for as little as 6. We'll call it 8. If we want to roll dice for damage, we'll convert this to 1d6 + 5. This ogre is still dangerous for a single 3rd level character but it won't knock them out with two hits.

    If we're looking at orcs, we might switch their greataxes out for regular battle axes, reducing their damage from 9 to 7 or even handaxes for 6.

    We don't have to plan this out ahead of time. We can make these changes as they're needed during the game itself. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

    Keeping our hand on the dials for the number of monsters, their hit points, and the damage they put out can help us ensure we're providing the right challenge for the character in our one-on-one D&D game.

    Tuning Legendary Monsters

    Legendary monsters are built specifically to handle battles against four or more characters. They accomplish this (at varying degrees of success) by including legendary actions, legendary resistances, and lair actions.

    Tuning a legendary monster for a battle against a single character and a companion character is mostly a matter of rolling back these advantages. When we're running a legendary monster against a single character and their companion, we can remove the monster's legendary actions, legendary resistances, and lair actions. This brings the monster's damage output and number of actions back in relative balance with a single character and a companion.

    Depending on how challenging the fight is, we might have to further modify the legendary monster to bring it in line by the character. We might, for example, need to reduce its hit points to put it more in line with the damage output of the character and their companion. We might need to reduce its damage as well, even after removing legendary actions.

    Handling Save-Or-Suck Effects

    Save or suck effects are effects that severely debilitate or remove combatants from combat. Spells such as dominate monster, sleep, or hypnotic pattern all count as save-or-suck abilities (some, like sleep, don't even give you a save). Monster effects like a banshee's wail, a vampire's charm, or about half of a beholder's eye rays all count as "save-or-suck" abilities.

    These abilities may remove the threat of a single character in a group when a group of characters face a monster but in a one-on-one game, they may completely remove the threat of the entire party all at once.

    We have to be particularly careful running monsters who have save-or-suck abilities against the characters in a one-on-one game. We can simply remove these abilities, focusing on actions that inflict damage or create less debilitating effects. We might slightly modify these abilities to account for their potential danger. We can, for example, remove debilitating effects after a single round instead of requiring a saving throw. Above all we need to be aware of the problem before it becomes one.

    Such effects may steer the story in an interesting direction, however. A character charmed by a vampire might take the story in a totally different direction. This shift in the story may make for great entertainment but it could ruin a game if a player's solo character gets killed by a bad save against a single beholder eye ray.

    Keep an eye out for save-or-suck effects and adjudicate them understanding that they were likely intended for a party of four, not a party of one.

    Adding Relics, Scrolls, and Potions

    A single character in a D&D game is likely to have major mechanical deficiencies when compared to a full group. Fighters, for example, may not have any good way to handle a larger number of smaller monsters. The companion character is intended to off-set these deficiencies but that only goes so far. We may need other ways to shore up these deficiencies.

    Healing is an obvious potential gap. If, for some reason, neither the character nor their companion have a magical way to heal; we'll want to add in a good number of healing potions and other potential magic items to offset this.

    Area-of-effect spells may be a problem as well. A single fighter and a cleric might be good facing a smaller number of foes but fireball might be a big help that they're not going to ever get. A necklace of fireballs is a great magic item for a fighter to help offset their lack of area-of-effect spells.

    We can drop in lots of relics into our games to give more utility to the character and their companion. We can choose some of these randomly or we can select a few that we think help off-set the mechanical gaps the character may have when facing a world that expects a mix of four such characters.

    Handling Big Battles Off-Screen

    Earlier we talked about running a single character through a big campaign adventure like Tyranny of Dragons. What would it be like for a single character and a sidekick to face Tiamat? First off, we'll remove Tiamat's legendary actions and legendary resistances. We'll move her breath weapon from a legendary action to a normal action. It wouldn't make sense that she can't breathe.

    We might give our characters some handy ways to deal with those breath weapons through various potions of resistance or other relics that might help offset her devastating power.

    We can probably tweak her stat block in other ways, selectively forgetting about her regeneration and divine word ability. She still has a boatload of hit points and a high AC.

    When we have a foe like this, we might consider running some of the battle off-screen. Perhaps the alliance of metallic dragons fighting against Tiamat has already faced her, cutting down her hit points and maybe even disabling a couple of her heads before the character gets involved. Perhaps a group of allied archmages has blasted the queen of dragons, disrupting her regenerating before being incinerated by her dragon's breath, which has yet to recharge.

    When we see the story heading towards an area where a single character and sidekick simply can't stand up to a larger foe or force, we can move some of the situation off-screen. If the characters, for example, find themselves about to face forty orcs, we might have a force of allies take on the bulk of these orcs while our hero and their sidekick face the orc leader and her two henchmen. This gives us the feeling of the larger battle without worrying about our character being overwhelmed.

    Expanding the World of D&D

    Being able to run D&D with just a single player and a single DM dramatically expands our ability to play D&D. It brings D&D to entire groups of people who would otherwise not be able to get four to six of their friends together at any given time. Being able to run D&D one-on-one while still running the hardcover D&D adventures means we can share epic tales of high adventure in which heroes face tremendous world-ending foes. With a handful of simple tricks to tune such adventures we can share tales of high adventure with just a single DM and a single player.

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