Sly Flourish

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    Sly Flourish

  • VideoConvert and Scale Published D&D Adventures

    With thousands of adventures written before the release of the 5th edition of D&D, we have a huge legacy of content we can use in our games. All it needs is some conversion.

    Luckily, converting adventures to 5th edition is easy enough to do. It mostly come down to replacing the monsters in the adventure with monster from the Monster Manual. Choose the one closest to the one described in the adventure and you're done. If a monster in the adventure doesn't have a 5th edition equivalent (and I'd be surprised, there are literally thousands of 5e monsters these days), take the mechanically closest monster you can find in 5e and reskin it into the one described in the adventure.

    1st and 2nd edition D&D adventures are likely easiest to convert over to 5th edition. They're style aligns closely to the adventure style found in 5th edition. If you're worried that battles are too hard once you've done the conversion, use the lazy encounter benchmark to check what a deadly encounter might look like. If things are easy, you may want to beef up boss battles, but you can likely leave the rest of it alone.

    What about scaling adventures up or down in level? This is a little tricker. Again, using the lazy encounter benchmark and monster dials, you can do a lot to change up the difficulty of an adventure.

    There's one area where leveling an adventure up or down can be a problem though, and it has nothing to do with mechanics, it has to do with theme.

    The Right Theme for the Right Tier

    In Tier Appropriate Adventure Locations I offer a list of the types of locations that make sense for characters of a given tier. When I describe choosing the monsters that makes sense for the situation, we don't choose monsters based on the level of the characters. Instead we choose quests, locations, and overall situations that make sense for the current status (level) of the characters. You don't ask 1st level characters to drop into Thanatos and kill Orcus. Nor do you ask 18th level characters to go down into Uncle Ed's cellars to take care of his giant rat problem. (I've often considered a quest in which Uncle Ed sends 18th level characters into his basement to take care of his Orcus problem.) Quests should match the character's capabilities and station in the world (often represented by level) and this all has to do with story, not mechanics. Here's a quick breakdown of what that looks like:

    • 1st level (tier 0). Small problems. Rats in the basement of the local inn.
    • 2nd to 4th level (tier 1). Local problems. Bandits, thieves, local evil mercenaries.
    • 5th to 10th level (tier 2). Regional problems. Evil kingdoms. Rampaging dragons. Invading undead armies.
    • 11th to 16th level (tier 3). Global problems. World-ending magic. Lichs. Ancient dragons. Invading planar beings. Evil moons.
    • 17th to 20th level (tier 4). Multiverse problems. Planar doomsday weapons. Demon princes. Archdevils. Archlichs. Invasions of the Nine Hells. Abyssal apocalypses.

    When you're scaling an adventure for the characters, ask if the theme of the adventure fits the level of the characters using the breakdown above. Is this the kind of job they should be doing? Are they too powerful and important to deal with such things? Are they too weak to take on a big job? Matching the theme of an adventure to the power of the characters matters.

    Can you change the entire theme of an adventure to fit the characters? Maybe, but that's probably not worth the effort. Better is to find an adventure that makes sense for the characters.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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  • VideoPause for a Minute

    Sometimes we need a way to quickly break character and check in with the players. This might be part of a set of safety tools to make sure everyone's ok with the content of our game at any given point or it might be a way to arbitrate the results of a decision by speaking to the players instead of the characters.

    The X-Card by John Stavropoulos is one of the more popular safety tools often used to indicate one's discomfort with a given situation in a non-confrontational way. It's popular enough that Roll20 integrated it directly into their game platform.

    The X-card is an excellent tool but it's not the easiest thing to incorporate in an online game. Instead, we can look to one of the elements of Beau Sheldon's script change. In particular the element of "pause". I call this "Pause for a Minute" and here's how it works:

    • At any point, any player or the DM can say "pause for a minute". All in-character and out-of-character conversations stop.
    • Whoever paused can either talk about their current thought, ask for a break, or ask to talk to the DM privately.
    • When the situation is resolved, the DM can say "game on" and the game returns.

    Players or DMs can call for a pause for any of the following reasons:

    • They're uncomfortable with something going on in-game.
    • They're not happy with a decision getting made by the characters.
    • They want to clarify that everyone else is ok with what they're doing.
    • The DM wants to ensure everyone's ok with the direction things are going.
    • They want to figure out where everyone is in the story or catch up after losing track.

    During a session zero DMs can discuss how to use "pause for a minute" and what it means for the DM and the players.

    For more on this topic, see the following:

    Not Just For Safety

    The most important use of "pause for a minute" is to make sure players and the DM are ok with the content or situations going on in a game. It gives everyone a way to say "hang on, I'm not digging this" and stop it before it cascades into something worse.

    But another use for "pause for a minute" is to ensure everyone's having a good time and on the same page. This is a great way to break out of the dreaded "it's what my character would do" situations. Pausing for a minute doesn't have to be matter of emotional safety; it can just be a way for the players to break away from the drives of their characters and make sure those drives align with the other characters and the game itself.

    "Pause for a minute" helps us deal with in-character conflicts like rogues stealing from the group or wizards fireballing their allies.

    "Pause for a minute. Rex, are you ok if Elfuel fireballs you to kill all the skeletons around you? Yes? Cool! Game on."

    Use It Frequently

    Because "pause for a minute" can be used for a wide range of situations, DMs should regularly use it to get players comfortable with using it themselves and to make sure players are good with the game.

    "Pause for a minute. Is everyone ok with Gor using animate dead on the dead drow warriors? Oh yeah, I forget you all had a zombie ogre carting around your loot for the last eleven months. Game on!"

    The more comfortable everyone is using "pause for a minute", the easier it becomes for someone to use it when it is a matter of emotional safety. As long as it's always respected — everyone breaks character and stops conversations to hear what the pausing player has to say — using it frequently only makes games better.

    Try It Out

    Some DMs find the whole concept of safety tools strange or somehow insulting. I urge you to keep an open mind. I didn't often use or integrate safety tools into my games and I regret it. It doesn't have to be a group of players you don't know. Someone you've known and gamed with for 20 years could be affected by something happening in-game and be upset by it. Do you really not want to offer an opportunity for someone to avoid feeling bad?

    Beyond that, a tool like "pause for a minute" just helps a game run smoother. It's a great way to step away from the characters and talk to your players. It's a great way to re-baseline and move forward with the awesome adventures to come.

    Add "pause for a minute" to your session zero or even talk about it with your players in the middle of the campaign. Tell them how to use it. Tell them what it's for. Use it to help steer your game in the right direction, and enjoy the tales you all share around the table.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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  • VideoImprovise D&D Monster Abilities

    From this moment forward, consider yourself given the freedom to change monsters as you see fit for the fun of your game.

    You, of course, had this freedom all along but I suspect some DMs feel like modifying monster stat blocks, particularly in the middle of a session, is "cheating".

    It's not.

    It takes experience to know what to add to a monster to make it interesting in the moment. It's not something a new DM can likely do without breaking something. But eventually we run enough monsters to have some back-pocket special abilities we can add to a monster. Maybe it's as simple as an extra attack. Maybe it's some elemental damage. Maybe it's a spell effect. I loved adding spell effects to armored flesh golems in my Tomb of Annihilation game. Every flesh golem was a unique horror.

    When should we consider such changes? Sometimes we want a monster to act more appropriately dangerous mechanically to fit its story. Sometimes we want to change up a monster the players are already used to seeing. Sometimes we want to change a boring encounter into a nail-biter. Sometimes we want to make a monster unique.

    What are some simple ways you can modify existing stat blocks? Here are a few. For DCs, make the DC 12 + 1/2 the CR of the monster.

    • Strength save or be knocked prone.
    • Strength save or be pushed back.
    • Super-fast movement that doesn't provoke opportunity attacks.
    • A ranged attack if they don't have one (use one of its melee attack stats but reflavor it).
    • An extra attack if they could use another.
    • Pack tactics.
    • A whirlwind or ground stomp attack that attacks adjacent enemies.
    • Constitution save or be poisoned until the end of the monster's next tur.
    • Elemental damage based on the monster's story to its weapon attack. Consider 3 (1d6) damage up to CR 5, 7 (2d6) at CR 5 to 10, 14 (4d6) at CR 11 to 16, 28 (8d6) at CR 17+.
    • A fire shield like damaging shield. Consider 4 (1d8) damage up to CR 4, 9 (2d8) at CR 5 to 10, 13 (3d8) at CR 11 to 16, 18 (4d8) at CR 17+. Flavor the damage based on the monster's story.
    • A spirit guardians like damage aura in which those who start within or enter it take damage. Consider 9 (2d8) damage up to CR 4, 13 (3d8) at CR 5 to 10, 18 (4d8) at CR 11 to 16, 27 (6d8) at CR 17+. Flavor the damage based on the monster's story.

    Of course, these new abilities should make sense for the monster and for the situation. Flavor these abilities in the fiction of the game. Telegraph them so players can see the monster's doing something different. Show the fire giant who sets its blade ablaze. Describe flails dripping with acid or assassins surrounded by the screaming spirits of their slain victims. Show the vampiric-touched ghoul who moves faster than the eye can see. Wrap your mechanical changes in interesting flavorful descriptions.

    Add these abilities when they make combat more interesting or tell a more interesting story. Don't add them to punish players, particularly to punish players for good ideas or good luck. And don't go overboard. One modification per monster is often enough. Bosses might have lots of things to do but a normal monster might just have a kicker effect on its normal attack.

    Become comfortable enough with the mechanics of D&D to be confident adding these sorts of changes. Once you start to get comfortable, once you see your players enjoying the change in tactics and mechanics, you'll know you're in the right place.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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  • VideoVillainous Titles

    Give cool titles to your villains.

    This is a trick I picked up from an excellent post on Reddit about stealing tricks from WWE and from playing Dark Souls and Elden Ring (the From Software developers absolutely nailed names)

    • Bertana, Singer of Souls
    • Avelyn, The Viper's Kiss
    • Thoas, Heroes' Fall
    • Thornheart, The King's Sword
    • Tiberius, The Black Blade
    • Adala, Winter's Touch
    • Vorug, The Poison Bloom
    • Gorzum, Chaos Born
    • Rydel, The Red Whisper
    • Zenoch, Spawn of the Black Pit

    Giving a villain a title defines them in your campaign, both for you and your players. While proper names are easily forgotten (by both you and your players), a name with a title sticks in our minds.

    Titles like these make villains important in the mind of players. They are someone. You're not just facing the troll Venog. You're facing Venog the Blight Bringer. You can almost feel the epic music queue up when they appear in the game.

    Generating names like this often starts with a good fantasy name generator. This Dark Souls Name Generator gets the creative juices going. You can also draw titles from your mind when you write them down. What would others know them by? What deeds have they committed? What interesting effects do they bring to combat?

    When you say it out loud, does the name sound cool? Feel free to enjoy the campy nature of the name. As Clarksvillain DM on Twitter says, channel your inner five-year-old. Would you buy the action figure?

    A truly powerful villain may be known by many names. Their reputation might expand into multiple groups who give them multiple names. Endelyn Moongrave, one of the three hags of the Hourglass Coven in Wild Beyond the Witchlight has many titles including Bitter End, Creeping Lyn, and the Dame of Unhappy Endings. Players can enjoy drawing connections, tying multiple names and multiple reputations down to just one single villain. The more powerful a villain, the more titles they likely hold.

    Give your villains titles. Write those titles down in your prep notes. Watch their importance grow in the stories you share.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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  • VideoImmerse Yourself in D&D

    Playing a D&D game is a magical experience. Where else do we get to sit together with our friends and all share in an imaginary world of fantasy and wonder?

    This experience becomes stronger the more we immerse ourselves in the world.

    What helps immerse you in the D&D games you share with your friends?

    I took the question to Twitter, asking what most immersed players in the world of D&D. You can read the thread here.

    Common Trends for Immersion

    Common themes across the roughly 130 replies to the tweet including:

    • Music
    • Art
    • Maps
    • Props
    • No Phones
    • Character Agency
    • Clear Goals
    • Living Worlds
    • Senses; Smell, Taste, Touch
    • Using miniatures
    • Evocative in-world details
    • Closing one's eyes and thinking about the world in the first person
    • Good roleplay

    Yes, pot was also on the list but that's a topic for some other blog.

    Think First Person

    "If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it."

    • Willy Wonka

    If I was to offer the single best way for DMs and players to both get into D&D, it would be this:

    Close your eyes and imagine the world through the eyes of the characters.

    You can do this anywhere, anytime, and use it to think about your world as part of prep or to get deeper into your character. You can do it before bed. You can do it in a boring meeting. You can do it during a walk. Spend a moment to imagine the world, not from the clouds but as though you were standing right there.

    You can, of course, do this in-game as well. As a DM, you're probably not actually going to close your eyes, but you can do so during your prep and capture the details you note in your mind's eye.

    If you're a player and the DM begins to describe something. Stop for a minute, close your eyes, and let their voice build the image in your head. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What grabs your attention?

    Let yourself go there.

    Capture the Senses

    Many of the replies to my query surround one core concept: capturing the senses. We might do this with music, art, maps, and props.

    [Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master] covers these ideas in Chapter 13: Other High Value Preparation Activities. They're not critical to run a good game, thus not covered in the core eight steps of game prep in Return, but they came up often as ways to stay immersed in D&D.

    Want to immerse your players deeper into the world of your game?

    • Find good music.
    • Share great representative artwork.
    • Share overland maps, dungeon maps, and encounter maps with your players.
    • Use props to give players a physical tactile object to bind them to the world.

    A Topic Worth Pondering

    As a DM, thinking about how we can better immerse our players in the world is a topic worth thinking about. It's easy to get caught up in our own story, spend lots of time tuning combat encounters, or spend hours writing histories and theologies. Instead, think about how you can better immerse your players in the world itself.

    Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show: One D&D

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Last week I talked all about the latest Wizards of the Coast announcements including diving into the first playtest for the next D&D core books. Here's the episode!

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  • VideoRunning a Dungeon Crawl

    I love dungeons. Whenever I find the story of my campaigns leading to a dungeon, I feel a great sense of relief. Not everyone feels this way. Some DMs dread running dungeons.

    Different DMs approach dungeons differently. Some prefer a procedural turn-driven approach focusing on resource management such as food, lighting, encumbrance, and rests. Some see running dungeons as a fundamentally different experience than running other parts of the game like wilderness exploration, city investigations, or other types of scenes. I don't.

    To me, dungeon adventures are location-based situations like any other in D&D. They're not that different from infiltrating a lord's manor to steal a relic or tracking down a murderer in a city. The in-fiction situation drives the gameplay.

    That said, there are some common traits when running a dungeon worth considering. They include:

    • A dungeon is a focused location with fixed boundaries and meaningful choices.
    • A dungeon is a hostile place filled with traps and monsters.

    These differentiate a dungeon from walking through a city or traveling through safe woods.

    Define Your Dungeon

    When preparing a dungeon, we can ask ourselves a few questions:

    • What does the dungeon look like? What's the layout? I love using one of the thousand Dyson Logos maps to grab a map for nearly any situation.
    • Why are the characters going there? What's the goal? Dungeons are dangerous. You'd only go into one if you had a good reason.
    • Who's there? What creatures inhabit the dungeon? Are there multiple factions? Consider populating different sections with a mix of intelligent creatures wild monsters.
    • What is the dungeon's purpose? Who built it and why? What is it used for now? These questions bring richness and depth to our dungeons. Reveal the dungeon's history through secrets and clues the characters discover while exploring the dungeon.
    • What entrances does the dungeon have? Consider starting a dungeon with a choice right away. Do you want to try to get past the front guards or sneak in through the old sewers underneath? Multiple entrances, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, give players agency over their approach.
    • What's the situation in the dungeon? Are the intelligent inhabitants preparing for war? Are they sending out hunting parties? Do they wall off the monster-filled sewers below? Are they all hammered from festivities? What's happening in there? Make the dungeon a living place.

    Design Your Dungeon

    I love using pre-made maps from established cartographers like Dyson Logos but if you're interested in designing your own dungeon maps, check out Justin Alexander's articles on Jaquaying the Dungeon. The second article in particular gets into the juicy details of what makes great map design. These include:

    • Multiple entrances
    • Loopbacks
    • Secret doors, passages, and rooms
    • An asymmetric design that rewards exploration
    • Elevation changes
    • If it's multi-level, multiple ways to reach those levels

    Justin goes into more features of these fun dungeon designs in the articles linked above.

    Fill Out Your Dungeon

    Now it's time to fill in the details of the various rooms. This might be a list of interesting features we can drop into rooms while the characters explore, or we might key features to particular rooms. The overall purpose (both past and present) often define the individual rooms we drop in.

    When stuck for ideas, use Appendix A: Random Dungeons in the Dungeon Master's Guide for inspiration. It has tables of rooms tied to many dungeon types. You can also generate monuments when you're stuck for ideas or use the tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook and Lazy DM's Companion to fill things out.

    Ensure your dungeon has a number of secret doors, secret tunnels, and secret rooms to discover. Finding a secret door and a hallway that bypasses the main halls is always fun. Finding secrets are powerful upward beats in dungeon adventures.

    We don't have to tie individual creatures to each chamber. Instead, improvise which creatures inhabit which rooms based on the evolving situation in the dungeon and the pacing of the game.

    Run easy encounters when the characters have had a hard go of it.

    Add Discoverable Traps

    Fun traps are discovered traps. While certainly characters might trigger traps, it's more fun to find, understand, and disarm traps than it is to get shot in the eye with a poison dart.

    Add traps that make sense for the situation but don't be afraid to have the characters find, disarm, and avoid many of these. Justin Alexander recommends that, for every ten single-fire traps, the characters should discover nine of them.

    For some fun trap ideas, see the traps page in the Lazy DM's Workbook.

    For more on finding, investigating, and disarming traps, see the Flow of Trap Detection.

    Running the Dungeon Crawl

    When it comes time to actually run a dungeon, a few steps help define how characters approach the dungeon. These include:

    • Clarify the goal. Why are the characters going into this dungeon?
    • Choose an entrance. How will the characters get into the dungeon? Which path will they take and why?
    • Choose a marching order. Who goes first? Clarify that the front two characters can use their passive Perceptions but not the back rows.
    • Choose an approach. Do the characters want to try to sneak in? Are they going to kick in the front door?
    • Choose lighting. Is the dungeon completely dark or well-lit? If its dark, do the characters want to use light? Remember that characters with darkvision are still are at disadvantage on Perception checks in total darkness.

    With those choices clarified, it's time to delve into the dark. And how do we run that dungeon? The same way we run the rest of D&D:

    • The DM describes the situation.
    • The players describes what they want their characters to do.
    • The DM determines if this is challenging. If so, they ask for an ability check against a DC determined by the DM.
    • The DM adjudicates and describes the results.

    See Our Ability Check Toolbox for more information on how to run all the different types of ability checks that can happen in a dungeon (and everywhere else).

    Mapping the Dungeon

    How do you show the characters' progress through a dungeon? If you're running online, sharing screenshots of your dungeon map or using a virtual tabletop like Owlbear Rodeo works well even if combat isn't the focus.

    For in-person play there's no perfect solution but many different options. Here are some in-person options for drawing or displaying dungeon maps:

    • Project images or a virtual tabletop to a screen everyone can see.
    • Draw the map ahead of time on 1 inch square poster paper or the gridded back side of cheap wrapping paper.
    • Make a rough sketch of the map on a sheet of paper.
    • Print out a big map as a blueprint at a local printer (often for very cheap).
    • Print individual sections of a dungeon on paper and show them in sequence.
    • Draw out the map on a wet-erase or dry-erase poster map.

    Timing, Turns, and Resources

    Some DMs, when they run dungeon crawls, want to focus more on timing, turns, and resources. Time should be carefully tracked. Moving through a dungeon should require turns. Resources should be spent as the characters travel through the dungeon. That's a fine way to play if you and your players want to play that way. This style isn't for me, though. I prefer to focus on the bigger story taking place in the dungeon.

    For timing, consider flexing the time in and out as the story demands. Focus on timing when it matters and skip over it when it doesn't.

    Cantrips like light and the many class features and spells producing food and water mean we don't typically need to track such resources. D&D 5e does support weight and encumbrance but I argue this isn't the most exciting part of the story we share. In games like Out of the Abyss tracking resource and encumbrance might be fun for the initial survival-aspect of the campaign but soon, when it becomes trivial for the characters to manage resources like this, we can widen our focus to the bigger problems surround the characters.

    You may disagree, of course. If you have a style of grittier turn-based dungeon crawling that you and your players prefer, go with the gods. If you're looking for such systems, consider looking at Old School Essentials or Five Torches Deep. Both have systems you can modify and bring into your D&D 5e games if you desire.

    Managing Rests

    Managing rests in a dungeon is a resource worth paying attention to. Rests, both short and long, are big deals. Where can characters make these rests? Can they make them at all?

    I suggest that the characters can rest when it makes sense for the story and situation (as in everything else in D&D). If they find a room they can safely secure, staying out of the eyes of the monsters wandering around, they can likely rest. If they try to take a rest in a four-way intersection in the middle of a well-populated dungeon, some villain is going to notice. Consider reinforcing the following general principal of dungeon delving to players before they enter the dungeon:

    Rests are difficult in this dungeon. Short rests are easier than long rests. Be careful with your resources, you don't know where you'll be able to find a long rest in this place. Plan accordingly.

    This leaves me the option to determine when and where rests can occur safely. As a DM, I don't want to be handcuffed by hard rules about resting in dungeons. If it improves the fun of the game to give the characters an option for a long rest, I want the freedom to add it.

    How can we improvise safe locations to rest? Here are some examples.

    • A collapsed wall reveals a healing font.
    • A glyphed urn contains a magical portal to a restful demiplane.
    • An empty section of the dungeon hasn't been touched in centuries.
    • The characters fall into a fresco depicting a restful room.
    • The characters find a scroll with a tiny hut spell on it.
    • A cracked stopwatch allows an eight-hour time stop before breaking.
    • A trickster faerie invites the characters for a quick stay in the feywild.
    • An enterprising goblin takes the characters to a hidden safe chamber for a price.
    • A chalice filled with blue liquid offers the equivalent of eight hours of rest when ingested.
    • The characters find a long-hidden saferoom beneath the tiles of the floor.

    Short and long rests are part of the pacing and upward and downward beats of our game. Don't limit yourself out of these tools.

    For more on this topic see Upward and Downward Beats of a Dungeon Crawl.

    Principles of the Dungeon Crawl

    With these details out of the way, let's consider some opinionated principles for running dungeon crawls. Many of these are in response to replies to a Tweet asking for the hardest parts of running dungeons.

    Focus on the fun parts. Choose what parts of a dungeon crawl work for you and your group. Focus on the parts that bring the most fun to the game. Agree on these things with your players. If some part of the process stops being interesting, skip it and move on.

    Avoid "gotchas". Avoid unpleasant surprises the characters would have seen but players did not. The players are not their characters. They don't see the situation in front of them the same way their characters would. Work with your players to help them understand the challenges in front of the characters. If a player makes a mistake they'd have avoided in the world, let them roll it back.

    Plan some upward beats. Dungeons in particular seem like a hard place to add upward beats. Plan out some potential upward beats and add them when they're useful. Here are ten example upward beats for dungeon exploration:

    • Finding an abandoned pack with useful items.
    • Discovering a secret on a moss-covered mural.
    • Finding a blessed spring healing the equivalent of a potion of greater healing.
    • Finding a hollow statue filled with treasure.
    • Getting the drop on unaware enemies.
    • Finding a secret passage filled with sprung traps and bones.
    • Finding a map to the dungeon.
    • Facing weak yet overconfident foes.
    • Finding a portal leading to a nearby friendly town.
    • Discovering a passage shortcutting a huge swath of the dungeon.
    • Finding a fortified location the characters can use as an internal home base.

    Add friendly encounters. The most obvious upward beat is to meet friendly NPCs. Even if you happen to be trudging through an ancient dungeon there are opportunities to meet NPCs. Here are ten ways to introduce a friendly NPC in a dungeon:

    • A friendly ghost
    • An intelligent magic item
    • A talking statue
    • A petrified adventurer holding a scroll of stone to flesh.
    • An awakened animal
    • A possessed spellbook
    • An escaped prisoner
    • A magic mouth
    • A dreamscape angel
    • A turncoat monster

    Mix easy and hard encounters. Oscillate between upward and downward beats by adding or removing monsters from encounters. An encounter with only one or two monsters is far easier than one with six to eight (depending on the monsters of course). The number of monsters in an encounter is an easy dial for upward or downward beats, even in published adventures. You are never bound to run the exact monsters you planned or found written in a published adventure.

    Don't Worry About Puzzles. If you're a fan of puzzles, find them easy to incorporate, and your players love them — enjoy. If you struggle with puzzles, don't worry about them. Think of the whole dungeon as a puzzle. The overall situation in the dungeon is it's own puzzle.

    Let Checks Fail Incrementally. Don't let a single failed skill check blow a whole dungeon delve. Just because the characters blow a stealth check doesn't mean everything in the dungeon heard them. Give the characters degrees of failure before the dungeon's inhabitants become aware of them. Perhaps it takes four failures before the guards become fully aware of the characters' infiltration.

    On Megadungeons

    I have little advice to offer for running megadungeons. For many, dungeon crawls themselves are megadungeons — big multi-floor dungeons with hundreds to thousands of rooms.

    My only advice is to clarify the goals, change up the environments, and shift the inhabitants to make each level or section of the dungeon unique and interesting enough. At some point, a mega-dungeon becomes its own world in the campaign of your adventure. Give characters a home base from which they explore and to which they return. Let them travel through familiar sections to reach the un-familiar. Let them enter and exit the dungeon as they need. Keep the drives and directions clear.

    Enjoying Dungeon Adventures

    Whether it's two rooms connected by an overt and secret hall or a sprawling multi-leveled megadungeon buried beneath the city, dungeons offer DMs a fixed focused setting and yet still provides options and agency to the characters exploring them. Find your favorite system and tools for building and running dungeons and enjoy the stories they bring to the table.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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  • VideoWhat I'd Love from the Next Iteration of D&D

    I love 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Many have complaints, some justified, and some making mountains out of mole hills. But none can ignore how successful D&D 5th edition has been over the past eight years. This, no doubt, is due to many factors but the solidity of 5th edition as a ruleset certainly made it both accessible and continually interesting for millions of players all over the world. 5th edition hits the sweet spot of being both easy enough to learn and offers enough interesting options to keep people playing for years.

    It is from my love of this game that I offer these desires for the next iteration of D&D. I recognize that my own desires come from just one of millions of people who love this game. I make no sweeping statements that my opinions are any more valid than any other fan of this game.

    I humbly offer my requests none the less.

    Make 5.5 Fully 5e Compatible

    I want the next iteration to be as fully compatible with 5th edition as it can. There are millions of 5th edition books in the world — more than any other version of D&D. What an incredible waste it would be if those books become obsolete. I want Monsters of the Multiverse to work with the new version of D&D. I want Tasha's Cauldron of Everything to work with it. I want Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel to work with it. Keep 5.5 fully backward compatible. When an adventure calls for a veteran, I want a compatible veteran coming out of the new Monster Manual and know it still works just fine.

    Include Easier Encounter Building

    Encounter building in the current 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide is both complex and inaccurate. The two-table system of experience point values and multipliers for the number of monsters creates a constantly tweaking system that doesn't provide an accurate measure of an easy, medium, hard, or deadly encounter when done and is simply too hard to do.

    Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a much improved chart-based system but still one too complex to easily figure out and one that doesn't provide a clear picture of combat difficulty.

    Better, faster, easier, and looser encounter building guidelines could help DMs quickly measure encounters built either before or during the game. Building a reasonably balanced encounter should be easy and fun.

    Include "Theater of the Mind" Guidelines for Combat

    The Dungeon Master's Guide and Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes pages of optional rules for gridded play and hardly any guidelines for running games using the theater of the mind or an abstract map for combat. Yet some of the most popular streaming game DMs, including games run by Wizards of the Coast dungeon masters run combat the "theater of the mind". While shared experiences among DMs in the community can help, clear guidance and suggestions in the core books could offer DMs a wider range of ways to run combat.

    I certainly don't see this as a replacement to gridded play but instead an alternative option — a widening of the options to support lots of styles of play. Including guidelines for both gridded combat and theater of the mind combat further improves the accessibility of the game for both those with trouble visualizing combat in their heads (aphantasia) and those who physically cannot see a battle map (sight-limited or blindness).

    Strengthen High-CR Monsters

    High CR monsters are often weak for their challenge rating when compared to lower CR monsters. They often don't do enough damage to threaten high level characters.

    WOTC's CR calculations overweight abilities high CR monsters require to challenge high level characters. This ends up reducing their effective damage at their CR.

    A wolf at level 1 is significantly more dangerous than a balor at level 19. Recent attempts to increase the threat of higher CR monsters in Monsters of the Multiverse wasn't enough. While mid-CR monsters in MotM often increased their damage output, this didn't keep up at higher CRs.

    Make balors as deadly as wolves.

    Fix Certain Spells and Abilities

    Certain spells and abilities prove problematic in play. Spells like force cage circumvent a legendary monster's ability to hold its own against high level characters. Spells like banish and polymorph can instantly remove most non-legendary threats from the game with a single casting, resulting in the equivalent of hundreds of points of damage with a single cast. The poison immunity of Heroes feast reduces the effective difficulty of a huge swath of monsters for everyone in a group for a whole day. Replace spells like conjure animals with the much-improved summon spells from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything so such spells don't give one player nine turns in a round.

    Rebalance spells and abilities to ensure no single one changes how a DM needs to run the game.

    Include Tasha Upgrades

    Tasha's Cauldron of Everything includes many excellent quality-of-life changes such as flexibile attribute allocation, replacing abilities on level-ups, and more. I hope and expect many of these changes make their way into 5.5.

    Provide Less Problematic Race Descriptions

    It wouldn't surprise me if one of the main reasons for a refresh of 5th edition is to cover problematic race descriptions like the racial essentialism of goblins and orcs in the Monster Manual. Other fans offer much better advice on this than I and I support such changes for a wider, richer, more interesting, and more inclusive game.

    Update the System Resource Document under the Open Gaming License

    As a producer of 5th edition material, the Open Gaming License helps me publish material any DM can use to make their game better. While I can still publish under the current 5th edition System Resource Document (SRD) (and will do so should it not be updated), a new SRD would help further connect the widespread community of 5th edition publishers to this new edition of D&D. The OGL and SRD helps bring D&D to the whole community and ensure it lasts the ages. Please update the SRD with new changes and continue to support third party publishers who love this game as much as you do.

    Leave the Rest Be

    I see posts all the time asking for radical changes. No classes! No more ability scores! No spells! No vancian casting! It goes on and on. A game trying to meet these big changes isn't D&D. Such desires are fine — there are so many awesome RPGs out there, but D&D isn't D&D if you strip everything out of it that made it D&D.

    Whatever changes you make to D&D, remember its core roots and embrace how successful 5th edition has been so far. Very little needs changing to make the game enjoyable and successful for another ten years as it has for the past eight.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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  • VideoBuild Resilient Campaigns

    What if your campaign jumped 14 months into the future in the middle of a session? Would you be able to keep going or would your campaign shatter under such a change?

    This happened to me in my Numenera game. In the middle of a fight, one of the characters activated a "mystery box" and, on a random roll, teleported himself and all of his companions 14 months into the future.

    Did I panic? On yeah. But I also loved the idea. I had to make it work.

    Luckily, the way I structure my campaigns supports such wild jumps. I don't build campaigns from the expected actions of the characters. I think of the world as an organic and evolving place. I build campaigns from the villains outward — from their goals and the quests they undertake to accomplish those goals. I knew who these villains were. I knew what they wanted. I knew where they were going to go.

    So I moved those agendas ahead 14 months. In ten minutes I jotted down the big changes occurring over the past 14 months. The whole campaign changed. And it was awesome.

    What Is a Resilient Campaign?

    A resilient campaign can shift, evolve, and continue on even when major changes occur based on the actions of the characters and the reactions of the world around them.

    We build resilient campaigns by ensuring we don't have too tight a grip on the longer story of the campaign. We don't write out detailed plans for future adventures. We don't build the campaign arc assuming one path or set of choices the characters make. The characters can make lots of big choices leading in many potential directions.

    We might write out a rough outline for the campaign. We might have some big ideas for things we want to run in the future, but we don't fill them out because we don't know if they'll happen or, if they do, that they'll happen the way we think. We leave ourselves room to change things depending on how they go.

    Instead of building big campaign arcs focus your attention on other areas:

    Villains. Focus on the three big villains of the campaign. What are their goals? What do they want? Where do they think they're going? What steps are they or their minions undertaking to accomplish those goals.

    The Next Adventure. After that, focus on your very next adventure. Where does it start? In what locations will it take place? What NPCs and monsters might be there? What secrets and clues might the characters uncover? What treasure might they acquire? And what adventures might our next session lead to next? This comes right out of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

    Test Your Campaign's Resilience

    How do we know if our campaign is resilient? We can test it. Ask yourself the following questions:

    • If the characters jumped one year in the future, what would the campaign look like?
    • Can your campaign accept a major random change? If you rolled up a new villain from some random tables like those found in the Lazy DM's Companion, how easily could they be integrated?
    • Could your campaign move smoothly if the characters discovered a major secret early? Does your campaign hinge on keeping information out of the characters' hands?
    • If the characters suddenly faced the main villain and killed them, where would your campaign go then?

    Set Opportunities for Big Changes

    What if, instead of just ensuring the resilience of our campaign, you actually built in potential big changes you can't control? What if you give your characters the equivalent of a nuclear bomb without defining when or where they use it? What if you set up a scene where the characters meet the main villain without knowing if it turns into a fight or a conversation? What if the characters find a powerful relic able to teleport them to an alternate plane of existence or shift forward or backward in time? What if the characters face an opportunity to either forge an alliance or make a new enemy with a super-powerful entity like a trapped demon, a jailed vampire, a forgotten lich, or a fallen celestial?

    Asking ourselves "what if" is a tremendously powerful question for testing the resilience of our campaigns or even pushing them in new directions.

    Building Stories No One Can Predict

    Resilient campaigns offer tremendous opportunity to share stories with our players with no defined expectations. It's scary, but it's also awesome. Resilient campaigns build fertile ground for epic campaigns everyone's sure to remember for years to come.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

    Each week I record an episode of the Lazy D&D Talk Show in which I talk about all things D&D. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:

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  • VideoAdd Dreadful Incursions to Wild Beyond the Witchlight

    Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft is one of my favorite 5th edition D&D books. I think it's really well put together and it packs tons of setting material for many different worlds all in one book. You can watch my spotlight on Van Richten's Guide on the Lazy D&D Talk Show for a deeper look.

    When I decided to run Wild Beyond the Witchlight I was intrigued by the idea that characters can get through the whole adventure without engaging in any combat but I also thought — what fun is that?

    Then I had an idea. How could I mix in the cool Domains of Dread from Van Richten's Guide into Wild Beyond the Witchlight? Thus, the idea of Dreadful Incursions tore itself open.

    Note, this article contains spoilers for Wild Beyond the Witchlight.

    If you want to watch a bunch of videos where I talk about mashing up Dreadful Incursions from Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft with Wild Beyond the Witchlight check out my Wild Beyond the Witchlight YouTube Video Playlist.

    So how does this idea work in the story of the campaign?

    From Wild Beyond the Witchlight we know the freezing of Zybilna caused instability in Prismeer. The land is tearing itself apart, split in three lands separated by an uncrossable mist. Sound a lot like the mists of the Domains of Dread!

    What if Zybilna's influence didn't just keep Prismeer together but also kept the Domains of Dread at bay? If you know Zybilna's true origin, it makes sense that one of her former jobs might have been keeping the Domains of Dread intact and aligned perhaps in some ancient pact with the Dark Powers. With her disappearance, these worlds get disjointed and start to bleed into Prismeer.

    What Is a Dreadful Incursion

    With Zybilna's inaction, various Domains of Dread collide with Prismeer. When they collide, rifts tear open between these domains and Prismeer. Sometimes these incursions might be small, a portal opened for only a few seconds (say 18 to 24 seconds — three rounds of combat) while some horror or horrors crawls out from its world into Prismeer where the characters must beat it back.

    Other incursions might be larger. A twisted dungeon from Hazlan might bleed into Prismeer, where arcane runoff and swarms of gremishkas prowl in the shadows. The characters might pass through the haunted House of Griffin Hill to make their way through a blocked passageway beneath the mountains of Yon.

    When the characters travel through the mists between the three domains of Prismeer they might walk through or fly over a Domain of Dread.

    Dreadful incursions give us a chance to run fun dark combat encounters with the flavor of one of the worlds from Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. And we can do so guilt free. Our players won't feel like they're picking the worst solution fighting a bunch of zombie plague spreaders.

    When adding incursions, roll on the "Domain of Dread" table at the beginning of the "Other Domains of Dread" section in chapter 3 of Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft to choose a random domain. Use the result to flavor an encounter, a dungeon, or a whole adventure; adding rich details to push the imaginations of our players.

    Anchors

    Objects from these other domains might connect a Domain of Dread to Prismeer, chaining the two together, and need to be destroyed or modified to break the connection and close the incursion. This anchor might be an object from the domain in question or an object from Prismeer lost in a Domain of Dread.

    You can use the "Horror Trinkets" from the end of chapter 1 in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft or the "Feywild Trinkets" in the beginning of Wild Beyond the Witchlight to pick such an item. Consider adding a random powerful spell to the item the characters can use one time.

    Other more powerful magic items might also bleed through from a Domain of Dread into Prismeer. More powerful anchors, permanent magic items the characters recover, might require a quest to break the connection but one that still lets them keep their cool loot.

    The unicorn horn, an important key on Wild Beyond the Witchlight might get lost in a domain itself, say the nightmare scape Bluetspur where it rests in the hand of a mind flayer vampire with little understanding of this strange object.

    A Dark Lord Sees an Escape

    To take things further, one of the dread lords of a Domain of Dread may become aware of these incursions and seek it to escape their torment. Perhaps Vladeska Drakov of Falkovnia becomes aware of the incursions and plots her escape, sending her blood raven knights into Prismeer to find a stable incursion so she can escape the torment of her zombie-infested lands. In the end, the characters might face her on the very throne of Zybilna where the dark lord of Falkovnia nearly turns all of Prismeer into a new Domain of Dread.

    A Contrast Dial of Light and Dark

    The whimsy and wonder of Wild Beyond the Witchlight is joyous to behold. Adding the Domains of Dread from Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft creates a wonderful contrast. On one side you have bullywugs in frocks and top hats rowing small boats in a calm pond saying "good day to you fine folk". On the other you have the howling winds of Klorr where a dead world tears itself apart. Adding Domains of Dread to Wild Beyond the Witchlght creates a fun juxtaposition and a great way to shake up the atmosphere of both corners of the multiverse.

    You also have great control over how such incursions affect the theme of your campaign. You decide if and when to drop in an incursion into Prismeer. You decide if it's a big incursion or a small one. You decide whether the darkness is too dark for the whimsy and wonder of Witchlight and turn it off. You decide if you want to add a new arch villain making their way into the lands of Prismeer. You decide how hard and how often to collide the Domains of Dread with Prismeer. It's a wonderful dial to have on the campaign.

    If you want to add a fun combat-filled contrast of horror and dread to the whimsy and wonder of Wild Beyond the Witchlight, give Dread Incursions a try.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

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  • Watch the Time

    "The key to becoming a great GM, more than anything else, is an understanding of pacing." - Monte Cook, Your Best Game Ever

    Understanding the pace of your game may be the most important skill you bring to your game. There's many different ways to improve your pacing but we're lazy here so we're going to go with the biggest easiest one:

    Use a clock.

    Keep a clock in front of you when you run your games. If you need to, use a stopwatch or an alarm to keep track of the big blocks of time in your game session. Look at the material you want to run in the session, think about how much time it takes, and, during the game, track whether things are happening on time or whether things have gotten away from you. Take a break half-way through to re-adjust your material to fit the time you have left. Cut from the middle if you need, to reach your game's big conclusion. Ending early is much better than ending late.

    Flow, Your Friend and Enemy

    When DMing D&D games, we're often in a state of "flow". We're all-on. We're deep in the game. We're watching the players, thinking about the characters, and building worlds as they explore it. We're running monsters, putting ourselves in the eyes of our villains, and leaping into the shoes of our NPCs. We're busy, and it's a great type of busy. This state of flow, in which we're fully engaged in running the game, has many traits but one common one is losing track of time. That's not helpful when running a game on a schedule.

    So we must account for this, and the best way is to use an external tool to help us do so. A timer, a stopwatch, or a clock works well. If you're good at keeping an eye on the clock, that may be all you need. If you find yourself missing it, set a timer to go off every 45 minutes or an hour (set it quietly enough that only you can hear it).

    During your prep, think about how long various scenes might take and use your time estimates to see if you're on track during the game itself. Sometimes, in an ongoing campaign, it isn't a very big deal if you don't hit every scene. For one-shot games on a schedule, losing track of time can be disastrous.

    Trust Your Tools

    Humans are imperfect organisms. Some have a good sense of time and some don't. Tools, like a stopwatch, help us stay on time no matter our state of flow or the shifting in our perception of time. Understanding timing and pacing can be critical to run an awesome game. Grab a timer and watch the clock when running your next game.

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