Sly Flourish

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    Sly Flourish

  • VideoSeven Fantastic Tools to Play RPGs Online

    More people than ever play RPGs online. Over the past few years the suite of tools to play RPGs has grown and improved as well. Today we're going to look at one "stack" of tools to run awesome games online. There are many such stacks, and some tools containing almost all of the features below in a single tool. This stack doesn't contain the most popular tools you can find but I recommend it none the less. It's a fantastic suite for the lazy dungeon master.

    Game Prep: Notion

    I've been using Notion for more than two years now and love it for campaign planning. If you've used Microsoft OneNote, this will seem familiar. Notion lets you set up a suite of interlinked pages with text, pictures, and other embedded items organized however you want to organize it. I've built a Notion template for Lazy DM prep and have used it for more than three hundred game sessions and I continue to love it. You can read my article on using Notion for Campaign Prep for more details.

    If you're looking for something less commercial, less locked-in and more expandible; check out Obsidian. It's equally popular for RPG campaign prep.

    Communications: Discord

    Discord is an extremely common platform for communications with text, audio, and video. Over the past few years its audio and video functions greatly improved. You can set up a server for your game, with an audio and video "room" for the actual game and text channels for things like dice rolls, sharing pictures, and keeping a persistent game log. I have a Discord server you can clone to create your own RPG-focused Discord server and an article describing how to use Discord for online D&D games for more information.

    Virtual Tabletop: Owlbear Rodeo

    You can go far just sharing pictures of maps or art over Discord but if you want to actually move tokens around a map, Owlbear Rodeo is my favorite virtual tabletop. It's extremely lightweight with no game rules built into the platform. It's fast enough that I can prep a map in the middle of a game. It doesn't have the heavyweight features of bigger VTTs like Foundry, Fantasy Grounds, or Roll 20; but you and your players will love the speed and ease of use. Here's an article about using Owlbear Rodeo and a video on Owlbear Rodeo and how I set up all of Castle Ravenloft in Owlbear Rodeo in ten minutes.

    Maps: Dyson Logos

    As a lazy DM, I always recommend finding a good map instead of making your own. If you ever need a dungeon or overland map, my favorite maps are those by Dyson of Dysonlogos. There's over a thousand maps, mostly dungeons but some overland maps, we can repurpose for so many different locations. I've used them for Eberron, Midgard, Forgotten Realms, and Numenera. Because they're lightweight on theme, you can easily reskin them. The same map can be used for an ancient tomb or the ruins of an old tech power generator. Dyson maps, of course, work very well in Owlbear Rodeo.

    Tokens: Token Stamp

    Google's image search mixed with Token Stamp by RollAdvantage lets you build virtual tabletop tokens for just about anything in a few seconds. I often use it to build tokens in the middle of the game when I need one. I'm able to google for an image, take a screen shot, import it into Token Stamp, dump out the token, and import it into Owlbear Rodeo in about a minute.

    Making custom tokens in Token Stamp lets you pick a particular style you like and stick with it. I, myself, like big face-focused tokens instead of full-body shots that are harder to recognize. Token Stamp lets me stay with that style whatever monster I need.

    Music Sharing: Kenku.fm

    A good musical backdrop can add a lot of atmosphere to a game but sharing music online can be tricky. The fine people at Owlbear Rodeo built a music sharing application called Kenku.FM. With Kenku you can share music through Discord as though it's another member of your audio channel. Setting it up is tricky, requiring that you set up your own Kenku bot in Discord to allow the streaming. The folks at Kenku have a good instruction page to walk you through the process. You'll want to warn your players that they can control the volume level of the Kenku service themselves by right-clicking the Kenku member of the audio channel and setting their own preferred volume.

    Kenku lets you stream anything you can find over the web including Tabletop Audio, YouTube, and others. If you can hear it over the web, you can stream it to Discord.

    For an advanced trick, let one of your players manage the Kenku service and DJ your game for you.

    Rules and PDF Sharing - Google Drive

    If you're playing D&D, [D&D Beyond] is the most likely way you'll want to share material with your players. However, if you're using third party material or playing other RPGs, there's a great way to legally share PDFs with your players using Google Drive. Upload the PDF you want to share to Google Drive and share it specifically with your friends in your group identified as "viewers". Before you exit the window, click the little gear icon on the upper right corner of the share window and un-check the option for "Viewers and commenters can see the option to download, print, and copy". This way your players can view the PDF through Google Drive but can't download their own copy or print it out. It's the digital equivalent of handing a book around a table and far safer (and more legal) than sharing the PDF directly with your friends. Here's more about restricting sharing on Google Drive.

    Build Your Own Stack

    The above tools are my own personal and recommended stack of software but it's far from the only one. Each of us can decide which tools serve us best. Choose the tools that help you and your friends enjoy the most of this game we love so much.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on the Cure to the OGL Blues and Scarlet Citadel Session 12 – Lazy GM Prep.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

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

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patreons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    D&D Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last D&D game and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's D&D tips:

    • Occasionally run big multi-wave battles where the characters defend a ruined keep or fortified town or some defensible position.
    • Add a starving vampire trapped in an oubliette and see how the characters respond.
    • Bathe monuments in interesting lore, religions, and histories of the region.
    • Ask your players what character options they're excited to use.
    • Let any player (and yourself) use "pause for a minute" to break character and clarify things as players around the table.
    • Write down page numbers in your prep notes.
    • Use a mixture of theater of the mind, abstract combat, and big tactical encounters. Don't limit yourself to just one style of combat.

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  • Top Ten Notable 5e Products for 2022

    Over on the Lazy D&D Talk Show I spotlight 5e products — primarily third party products but also those published by Wizards of the Coast.

    Looking back, here are the top ten 5e products that caught my attention over 2022. This is just my view, of course. There are many products I never got a chance to look at and many products you may love more than the ones I outline below. Like everything I produce, hang on to this list with a loose grip.

    These are also listed in alphabetical order — not in order by quality or preference.

    Crown of the Oathbreaker by Elderbrain

    Elderbrain, the publisher of Crown of the Oathbreaker used a survey of over 2,000 respondents to guide the construction of this massive 917 page hardcover and PDF adventure book. Both versions include extra digital books with player options, location gazetteers, maps, and more. It's a dark fantasy adventure with a focus on twisted histories of former noble families, fallen celestials, and other grim figures. The art is fantastic and the layout is excellent. A steal at $25 digitally and $75 for a digital and physical version.

    Dungeons of Drakkenheim by the Dungeon Dudes and Ghostfire Gaming

    A collaboration between the Dungeon Dudes and Ghostfire Gaming, Dungeons of Drakkenheim is an excellent campaign adventure for dungeon masters by dungeon masters. It's built by DMs who know what DMs need to run the campaign. The story is a mixture of dark political intrigue and horror-themed dungeon delving — definitely a dark fantasty focused adventure. The quality of the book is excellent with grim artwork, a solid design, and lots of accessories should you choose to buy them and run it.

    GMs Miscellany Dungeon Dressing for 5e by Raging Swan Press

    Raging Swan puts out amazing books of inspirational tables and tools to help us fill out our fantasy RPGs. The GM's Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing for 5e is the 5e version of the more system-agnostic Dungeon Dressing book but includes pre-rolled 5e-compatible treasure parcels and other 5e focused material. It's an excellent book from an excellent publisher and well worth a DM's money to help fuel ideas for future adventures.

    Level Up 5e Monstrous Menagerie

    A drop-in replacement for the standard Monster Manual, the Monstrous Menagerie is one of the three core books of the Level Up Advanced 5e RPG system. Developed by Paul Hughes of the Blog of Holding, the mathematics behind the monsters in the Menagerie is top-notch — far better balanced than what you'll find in the Monster Manual. The monster design leans towards complexity, so if you prefer simpler monsters, this might not be for you. Advancements like epic monsters gives you true powerhouse boss monsters sure to put your heroes on their toes. This book is absolutely packed with awesome monsters and gets my personal award for best 5e product of 2022 even though it came out in late 2021.

    Path of the Planebreaker by Monte Cook Games

    Monte Cook Games's take on worlds like Planescape and, to a smaller degree, Spelljammer; Path of the Planebreaker gives us a high-fantasy sourcebook with dozens of worlds the characters can explore along the path of a multi-planar moon crashing through the cosmos. Monte Cook Games's products are always exceptionally produced with amazing high-fantasy artwork, an excellent physical design and layout, and a wonderful approach towards indexing and cross-referencing that I wish every book included. My only complaint is that 5e design, both for monsters and magic items isn't MCG's strength. Often monster design is head-scratchingly bad and requires a lot of work if you want to use it. Easier is taking their story concepts and wrapping them around monster stat blocks from other producers. Regardless, Path of the Planebreaker is an awesome book with an awesome theme and one I highly recommend.

    Planegea by Atlas Games

    A massive 380 page sourcebook set in the stone age, Planegea shows us how far we can take 5e's design into campaigns and worlds beyond those published by Wizards of the Coast alone. Another "for GMs by GMs" sourcebook, Planegea includes awesome reskins of existing classes and races, a wonderful awe-inspiring setting, and tremendous artwork and design. If you're looking for a very different setting in which to run your 5e games, definitely give Planegea a look.

    Southlands Worldbook by Kobold Press

    Set in the south of Kobold Press's massive Midgard setting, the 300+ page Southlands Worldbook includes ancient tombs, powerful villains, old gods, detailed cities of intrigue, and vast histories. With a clear inspiration from our real-world middle east and Africa, three cultural consultants helped steer the Southlands Worldbook from potentially problematic topics such as racism and colonialism. The book's descriptions of slavery, however, warrant a solid discussion during a session zero. The Southlands Worldbook is an awesome spotlight and deep dive into a major region of Midgard — one that can lead to years of campaigns and adventures.

    Tal-Dorei Reborn by Darrington Press

    The latest refresh of the Tal-Dorei setting popularized by Critical Role, Tal-Dorei Reborn is an amazing and beautiful sourcebook of Matt Mercer's fantastic setting. The nearly 300 page sourcebook is packed with incredible artwork and a modern world design ripe for adventures. Clearly this book appeals more towards fans of Critical Role. It's a wonderful gift for a Critter whether or not they play D&D but for DMs it offers a wealth of ideas to either harvest into your own world or a whole world you yourself can set your adventures.

    Tome of Beasts 3 by Kobold Press

    Probably my favorite monster book to date, Tome of Beasts 3 is packed with fantastic monsters using the latest 5e design style of Monsters of the Multiverse. Unlike Multiverse, high challenge monsters in Tome of Beasts 3 have real teeth to challenge high level characters. A new set of NPC stat blocks offers tremendous reskinning potential and the rest of the 418 page book is packed with more than 400 monsters to drop into your 5e game and scare even the most grizzled veterans who can describe every feature of a shambling mound.

    Venture Maidens Campaign Guide

    Written by Celeste Conowich and developed for the Venture Maidens liveplay game, the Venture Maidens campaign guide builds a high fantasy world of epic quests in a land where the borders of the world grow thin. The Venture Maidens Campaign Sourcebook includes all new character creation and mechanics for following the epic quests held in the hearts of our heroic characters. The book expands out into some excellent gamemaster suggestions sure to improve any game. It's a beautiful book encapsulating a wonderful realm of high fantasy and the heroes who walk within it.

    Tremendous Books Bringing Life to D&D for Years to Come

    Looking over these ten books I'm amazed by the amount of material we have for this game we love. Though we sit less than two years away from a new version of the game, we still have tons of settings, campaigns, and monsters to fill out our 5e games as long as we want them to run. Because may of these books focus on settings and campaigns, we can be sure to find value in them regardless of which system we choose to run.

    Pick up one of these books, sit back, and fall into another world.

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  • Feedback to WOTC on the OGL 1.2 Draft

    Wizards of the Coast released a new draft of their "Open" Gaming License version 1.2 including releasing the core mechanics of the original 5e System Resource Document version 5.1 under a Creative Commons license. That's pretty great but it's still not as good as what we had and expected to keep with the OGL 1.0a.

    Today they opened a survey for feedback and now is our opportunity to provide that feedback.

    Most of us aren't lawyers or have any background (or interest) in contracts like this. So I've talked to a lot of people, including lawyers, to try to get a consensus of these licenses and the feedback we can provide to WOTC.

    Thus, here's the feedback I plan to provide:

    Don't attempt to "deauthorize" the OGL 1.0a. The best way to begin to repair the D&D brand is to not attempt to "deauthorize" the OGL 1.0a. It's not even clear it's legal to do so and it certainly goes against WOTC's original intent of the agreement we shared. WOTC's using a one-word loophole in ways several attorneys say is questionable or even unlawful.

    Further, "deauthorizing" the OGL 1.0a has tremendous downstream consequences for publishers who trusted WOTC and used the OGL to share their own material downstream. If the OGL 1.0a is deauthorized, it means they can't share the material they intended to through the OGL 1.0a.

    Don't attempt to deauthorize the OGL 1.0a.

    Release lists of the names of species, spells, magic items, and monsters in the 5.1 SRD under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. WOTC releasing anything under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 is a huge step forward. It's a well used and well trusted license. In WOTC's OGL 1.2 draft they state their plan to release the core mechanics of 5e except for classes, species, monsters, magic items, and spells.

    Include the lists of names of species, monsters, magic items, and spells. This is very likely material we could use anyway under copyright law but it helps if we know that WOTC agreed. Releasing these lists under the CC BY 4.0 helps considerably when writing 5e compatible adventures and campaigns.

    Even better? Release the entire 5.1 SRD under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license.

    Use independent third party arbitration for hateful content. There's no way WOTC should have the sole right to decide what is hateful content. WOTC themselves had trouble with this within the past four months. There's no way WOTC should have full authority over what is hateful and no way that a licensed publisher should have no recourse to defend themselves. The world also changes. Material considered obscene years ago is now embraced and vice versa. This is such a complicated topic it's probably best removed completely.

    Add "Royalty Free". The current draft OGL 1.2 does not describe itself as a "royalty free" license. The license should declare itself to be "royalty free".

    Make it Truly Irrevocable. As written, the OGL 1.2 redefines irrevocable to mean that the license can't be revoked when applied to a product but not that the license itself can't be revoked. This license, on its own and applied to their system resource documents, should be irrevocable. This is the whole reason we're in this problem to begin with. I, for one, never want to have this conversation again.

    Rewrite the termination clause. As written, the termination clause in the OGL 1.2 is far too wide. Who determines if a licensee has infringed on WOTC's intellectual property? How is that arbitrated? This whole statement over-reaches and can be used by WOTC to penalize just about any creator if they want to.

    Rewrite the severability clause. As written, the severability clause in 9(d) almost certainly gives WOTC the ability to invalidate the license. Given that WOTC intends to attempt to deauthorize the OGL 1.0a on a technicality, I have no faith WOTC won't try it again here.

    State that if any provision is ruled illegal or unenforceable, the remainder of the license's provisions remain in effect. Also if the agreement or any provision is ruled illegal or unenforceable in a specific jurisdiction (e.g. country or state) the license and those provisions remain in effect for all other jurisdictions where they have not been ruled illegal or unenforceable.

    Other feedback:

    Section 3(a) - Strike language prohibiting creators from seeking injunctive relief.

    Section 6(e) - Strike or rewrite to account for international laws. A creator in the US can't be expected to abide by laws in other countries and vice versa.

    Section 7(b)(ii) - Expand time to cure to 180 days and better define what actions are sufficient to cure a breach.

    Not Covering the VTT Stuff

    This feedback doesn't cover the VTT policies described in the OGL 1.2 draft which are significant. See the feedback provided by Foundry for a better understanding of how this affects virtual tabletops.

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  • You, Me, and the D&D Open Game License

    On 5 January 2023, Linda Codega of Gizmodo described a new leaked version of WOTC's Open Game License. This new license heavily impairs third party publication of D&D compatible material. Worse, it attempts to "deauthorize" the current (and actually open) Open Game License almost all third party publishers of D&D-compatible material used for over twenty years. It's a complete fiasco. No, not the fun one.

    Wizards of the Coast released a statement walking back royalties but saying nothing about the worst parts of the license: revocation of the 20 year old OGL 1.0a, requirements to register products, and the ability to change or terminate the agreement at their will.

    For more details of the OGL situation; what it is, what it means, and what you can do about it; check out my Thoughts on the OGL.

    But what does the OGL horror show mean for you and me?

    D&D is Still Ours

    I still love D&D. I'm hurt by WOTC's decision to cause so much stress and harm to the creators who pour so much of their time, money, passion, and energy into making this game so great. It's been an awful couple of weeks.

    But I love D&D anyway. WOTC can't take D&D away from us. We own the books. We own our dice. We own our ideas. We can always play D&D. Maybe that D&D is 5th edition. Maybe it's Old School Essentials or Numenera or Shadow of the Demon Lord.

    It's all still D&D to me.

    You don't have to quit playing D&D. The custodians of the D&D brand have made good choices and bad choices for 50 years. 5th edition was a great new direction that brought D&D to the height of its popularity. The potential release of this new OGL is clearly terrible, alienating tens of thousands of D&D's biggest voices and biggest fans.

    But we can still play D&D.

    If you want to use this opportunity to help third party publishers and try some other RPGs out, now's a great time. Here's a list of some awesome RPGs — some similar to D&D and some quite different.

    Many of these systems offer free previews to give you an idea what they're like.

    If you want to keep running 5th edition, here are my favorite third-party 5e products over 2022.

    We can play a whole lot of D&D without needing WOTC's permission.

    What About Sly Flourish?

    I'm not sure how this affects Sly Flourish yet. So far, not much. I'll continue offering advice to help you run your games, D&D or otherwise. I'll still talk about D&D but I'll probably focus more on advice suitable for any fantasy RPG.

    My books and the material on the Sly Flourish Patreon are all pretty system agnostic. Pivoting away from the OGL won't be hard.

    The Lazy D&D Talk Show might change. I'll probably cover other RPGs more than I have and keep my focus on third party products you might not have heard of. I'll probably stop promoting WOTC books if they're not interested in others even existing.

    I'm Here For You

    I always focus my drive and attention on you, the GMs running games for your friends and family. You're the cornerstone of this hobby, whatever system you run and whatever products you use to support it. Big companies don't matter. Brands don't matter. You matter. Your game matters. I want to make it as easy as possible for you to run awesome games. I'm not veering from that purpose. WOTC chose their path — one of greed and hubris and condescension for their best customers, biggest supporters, and greatest fans. My path is not theirs and neither must it be yours. Your game matters. Not theirs. Whether you use their system or not. It's your game. And I'm here to help you run it.

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  • Three Tips for Being a Great D&D Player

    Regularly on the Sly Flourish Patreon I get a question from DMs who find themselves in the player seat. There are many variants but it almost always comes out to:

    "How can I be a good player?"

    I offer three tips for any D&D player, DM or not, on how to be a great player. These come from my own experiences on both sides of the table and from hundreds (thousands) of conversations, posts, videos, and other sources of feedback on the topic.

    Take Notes

    By far, one of the best things you can do to be a great player is take notes. Whether it's by hand in a notebook or a note in your Notion notebook, taking notes keeps you engaged with the game. It lets you ask the right questions to your DM. It lets you share information with your fellow players. It gives you a diary of events so you can look back fondly on the details of your campaigns years later. Even if other players are likewise taking notes, there's no reason you can't take notes too.

    Seriously, take notes.

    Build a Character Around the Campaign

    If you really want to help your DM out, build your character around the theme and story of the campaign. Before you fill out your character's backstory — thinking all about who your character is, where they came from, and what they want to do — talk to your DM about the campaign. Read your DM's campaign notes and descriptions. Play a game of "what if" with your DM, riffing back and forth with them until you have a character you love who's also wired into the story of the campaign. Even if you're already in the campaign, leave some blanks in your character's backstory to add new elements or new histories as you learn more about the story of the campaign itself.

    Build a Supporting Character for the Group

    I got this one from DM David and it's awesome. Instead of building a stand-alone character, build one intended to support the group. You can do this both mechanically and in the story of the game. Choose a class like bard or cleric and choose spells and abilities that boost up other classes. You'll make friends for life regularly casting haste on your paladin.

    You can also support the group in the story of the game too. Listen to the stories of the other characters and see how you might fit in with a supporting role in that story. Talk to them about it. Think about how you might be connected. During the game, boost them up as they tell their own part of the tale. Be Robin or Alfred to their Batman.

    Be a Part of the Group

    It's easy to focus on your own character in a D&D game. You have a big pile of mechanics in front of you. You have a big story in your head. You want to focus on all that stuff but you're also at the table with a bunch of other people who feel the same way. The DM has a story they want to tell. Each of the players has a character they want to portray. Above all, work with these people. Learn their stories. Boost their characters. Take notes and share them. Support the story expanding at the table.

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  • VideoSandwich Mechanics with Story

    Sometimes, when we're elbow-deep in the mechanics of our game, it's easy to forget that we're sharing a story. The more complicated the mechanics, the more tools or systems we use, the more we forget to stop for a second and imagine what's happening in the world.

    When running your game, try sandwiching your mechanics with in-world descriptions. Begin by describing the situation going on in the world, then the mechanical situation or effect, and then the result back in the fiction of the world again.

    You can often do this in one sentence. Here's a damage description for example.

    "The ogre slams his club into you for 12 points of damage as your arm buckles under the blow."

    Other more complicated situations might look like this.

    "Bitter End hurls out a blast of lighting tearing through Aury, Intimidating Cake, and Tarch. Each of you need to make DC 15 dexterity saving throws taking 28 damage on a failure or 14 on a miss as the lighting blast hammers through you and into the back wall, racing along conduits of metal embedded in the wall."

    Some DMs feel like such descriptions waste time. Combat can already take a long time, let's not bog it down with flowery narrative, they argue.

    But this narrative is the point of the story. It's the result of the mechanics, not something to be tossed aside.

    You might extend these descriptions to the beginning and end of each turn as well, narrating what's going on for each character from their point of view before their turn begins. This gives you a chance to reinforce things the player may have forgotten but the character surely hasn't.

    The next time you're running your game, sandwich your mechanical descriptions with the narrative of the story happening in the world. It's a great way to remind everyone, yourself included, that our game is more than just dice rolls and math — we're creating worlds together.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on How Many Hit Points should a Monster Have and Chronicles of Eberron by Keith Baker.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

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

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patreons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    D&D Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last D&D game and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's D&D tips:

    • Set up musical playlists based on relaxing scenes, sinister and suspenseful scenes, and action-packed combat.
    • Don't forget what makes this game great -- spending time with our friends and family creating awesome stories together.
    • Spend extra prep time on the characters; their gear, their hooks in the campaign, and the secrets they haven't yet discovered.
    • Keep a set of generic tokens (either physical or for online VTTs) handy for improvised combat scenes.
    • Common D&D tropes become unique and fantastic with the lore we wrap around them.
    • Bathe in the lore of big world sourcebooks. Take the ideas you love and drop them into your own campaign.
    • Customize your campaigns with a focus on particular character options.

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  • VideoA Simpler Checklist for Jaquays-style Dungeon Maps

    Good dungeon designs include loops, multiple paths, multiple entrances, an asymmetrical design, secret doors, and short cuts. Keep these concepts in mind when choosing dungeon maps for your own games.

    For a video on this topic, see Jaquays-Style Design for D&D Dungeons and Overland Travel.

    Justin Alexander at The Alexandrian has an excellent series of articles describing and breaking down the "Jaquays-style" map. The concept comes from the D&D cartographer Jennell Jaquays who did the maps for a number of early D&D adventures. Justin breaks down the principles of Jaquays's maps into a large list of concepts including:

    • Loops
    • Mutliple level connections
    • Discontinuous Level connections
    • Secrets and unusual paths
    • Sub-levels
    • Divided levels
    • Nested dungeons
    • Minor elevation shifts
    • Midpoint entry
    • Non-Euclidian geometry
    • Extradimentional space

    Not every Jaquays-style map includes all these features. These concepts focus on large multi-level maps. For smaller maps, we might focus on:

    • Non-linear asymmetric layouts
    • Multiple ways to enter the dungeon
    • Looping paths throughout the dungeon
    • Multiple paths to get from the beginning to the end
    • Secret hallways and chambers to discover
    • Short cuts to loop back or skip rooms

    We might use these concepts to draw our own maps except...

    We Don't Need to Draw Maps Anymore

    With so many maps available online, there's little need to draw our own. If you like doing it, go with the gods, but I doubt you'll come up with an idea so unique that Dyson hasn't already done something close in Dyson's 1,000+ maps. If you're lazy, it's far easier to grab a map and reconstitute it for your game than it is to draw one from scratch.

    A list of good map criteria doesn't just help you draw your own, it helps you identify good maps from bad.

    An Example Bad Map — Isle of the Abbey

    In 2019 I ran Ghosts of Saltmarsh and loved it except for one adventure: The Isle of the Abbey. I ran this adventure twice for two different groups and it sucked both times. After studying its design, I started to figure out why. You can read my suggestions for running Isle of the Abby to learn more. It wasn't just the design of the dungeon that sucked, but that was a big part of it. Let's look at the map for Isle of the Abbey.

    First, this dungeon has one entrance and it leads straight into a big room with eight other rooms one door away. There's no other entrance a group might use to sneak into this place and no way the occupants in those other rooms won't hear you if you start a scrape in the main room.

    Even if, somehow, you didn't alert the occupants in the adjacent rooms, going door to door to see what's behind them is boring. Jaquays-style dungeons are designed the way they are because it's entertaining to explore them. They surprise you and delight you when you figure them out. This is why the level design in Dark Souls is so interesting. It's a delight to realize that, after hours of crawling through the ruins of Lordran, a single elevator takes you to your home base.

    Continuing with Isle of the Abby, after we clear out the eight rooms surrounding the central room in the first half of the dungeon, we're treated again to a single doorway to get into the rest of the dungeon known as the Winding Way. The Winding Way appears to have some elements we're looking for. It has loops, it's asymmetrical, and it has secret doors. In many cases, though, the loops are too tight. Having a hallway bend around itself in a 15 foot square isn't a loop. It's boring and uselessly complex. This part of the map could be a lot better if it was bigger and more spread out. It could also do with less traps. Winding your way around a long hallway only to find a dead end with a crossbow trap at the end isn't fun. This whole dungeon is a series of downward beats without any upward beats to offset it.

    The intent of examining and contrasting Jaquays-style maps with maps like this isn't to turn you into an expert map designer but to help you identify good maps from bad. Luckily for us, Dyson knows their stuff when it comes to map design so we're unlikely to find a truly bad map; only one that likely doesn't fit our need.

    Keeping an Eye Out for Great Dungeon Design

    By keeping Jaquays-style dungeon design principles in mind, we can better select dungeon maps. Fun dungeon maps include an asymmetric design, multiple entrances, loops, multiple paths, secret doors, and shortcuts. Keep these criteria in mind while hunting down maps for your next D&D game.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on How Many Encounters per Adventuring Day and Session 10 of Lazy DM Prep for Scarlet Citadel.

    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:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

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    D&D Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last D&D game and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's D&D tips:

    • Revel in the joy of playing a game with your friends and family. It's a rare and wonderful thing.
    • Instead of building a combat encounter, think about what the enemies what and what the characters might learn from them.
    • Push well-rested characters with waves of combatants.
    • Give players options for magic items. A strand of the witch queen's hair might weave a ring of fire resistance, a suit of resistant armor, or a flametongue blade.
    • Develop battles you know are going to happen and prepare to improvise those that may happen.
    • What fantastic feature defines the town or city the characters visit?
    • What locations in a town are most likely to interest the characters?

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  • VideoExperiences Running Wild Beyond the Witchlight

    I had the distinct pleasure of running the Wizards of the Coast hardcover adventure Wild Beyond the Witchlight for my home group and I loved it. I don't think I really understand what an adventure brings to the table until I run it and wanted to share these experiences and offer a few tips for making the most of it.

    If you prefer videos, here's a YouTube playlist with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of Wild Beyond the Witchlight.

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

    Modify What You Want

    Moreso than other hardcover adventures, I didn't feel like I needed to modify much of Wild Beyond the Witchlight. I changed it plenty, but the changes I made were ones I wanted to make; not ones I felt like I had to make. This, to me, is the difference between a good adventure and a bad one — how much do I have to change an adventure to make it playable instead of changing what I want to change just to customize it for my group.

    The only exception to this might be chapter 5: Palace of Heart's Desire which I describe later.

    Let the Characters Drive the Adventure

    From the first session zero of our campaign, my Wild Beyond the Witchlight game focused on the characters. I changed NPCs. I shifted plots around. I wanted the story to focus on the characters, their drives, their motivations, and their lost things. This carried through the whole adventure and paid big dividends in the end.

    For example, in chapter 1, the characters met a bunch of kids who wanted to get into the carnival but didn't have tickets. The characters gave their tickets to the kids who later also got pulled into Prismeer and replaced the Getaway Gang. This gave strong NPC connections from the first session that paid off to the end.

    The story of Witchlight is loose enough to give you lots of opportunities to build it around the backgrounds, drives, and motivations of the characters.

    Consider Dreadful Incursions

    As written, every combat encounter in Witchlight is optional. This might be a fun change of pace from other combat-heavy adventures but you and your players may miss it. One option, which worked well in my game, is the inclusion of "Dreadful Incursions". I talk about these in my Dreadful Incursions article but the gist is that the domains of dread from Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft are leaking into Prismeer due to Zybilna's absence. These domains bleed in as either an encounter, a dungeon, or maybe whole realms through the mists between the lands of Prismeer. Twisted horrors from these domains cause havoc in the land of whimsy and wonder. As a DM, you get to decide how much or how little to use these dreadful incursions and can use them to add another layer to the story along with some combat encounters without moral consequence.

    Choose Your NPCs

    Witchlight is packed with NPCs. You don't have to use them all. Choose the NPCs you like and focus on those. Drop a few NPCs in front of the characters and see which ones the players enjoy. Keep those in mind, bringing them back into the story as it evolves instead of introducing tons of new NPCs. Regularly ask your players which NPCs they're digging and which they'd like to see more of so you know which ones to focus on.

    Streamlining the Palace

    Reading this Reddit thread clued me in to some strange organization of the Palace of Heart's Desire. Instead of what's written in the adventure, I skipped 90% of the palace when my characters arrived. I was ready to get to the big conclusion so I had the characters fight the jabberwock out in the gardens, see the main villain of my campaign kill the other main villain in area 31, and then fight the main villain (the Dark Lord Vladeska Drakov of Falkovnia in my campaign) in area 22. While I ended up skipping a huge amount of this chapter, I didn't feel robbed and the conclusion was a fun one for my players.

    Don't be afraid to make huge cuts to your published material for the fun of your game.

    A Fine Adventure of Whimsy and Wonder

    I loved Wild Beyond the Witchlight. The feeling of high fantasy with a good deal of humor was a perfect break from Rime of the Frostmaiden and Descent into Avernus. Though I added in a dark streak with Dreadful Incursions, the overall theme of the adventure still brought a smile to my face and those of my players.

    I highly recommend Wild Beyond the Witchlight.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Jaquays-Style Design for D&D Dungeons and Overland Travel and Scarlet Citadel Session 9 – Lazy D&D DM Prep.

    Last Week's Lazy D&D Talk Show Topics

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    Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patreons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    D&D Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last D&D game and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's D&D tips:

    • Write a secret and clue built around each character. What bit of lore ties each character into the next game?
    • Let the characters find interesting ways to avoid combat.
    • Make every magic item unique. Each one is a vehicle for a secret, clue, or piece of lore.
    • Don't forget about those tag-along NPCs!
    • Kick yourself out of a creative rut with random tables.
    • Sharpen your tools and clean your toolbox. What works for your game and what can you discard?
    • Think about what ties your characters into the world, not what you think they'll do in the next session.

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  • VideoBuilding Stronger Friendships through D&D

    Keotep, a Patron of Sly Flourish asks:

    Online tools, like Discord, create amazing opportunities to meet and play D&D with many new people from literally everywhere. Do you have any top tips on building online D&D friendships?

    I truly believe that, not only is D&D important, but that D&D saves lives. Friendships are critical to our health — as critical as exercise and more critical than career advancement.

    D&D is a fantastic way for us to build and reinforce friendships. It gives us a catalyst to get together regularly, break away from other real-world commitments, and get together to play.

    2020 and 2021 saw many of us physically isolated. For many, playing D&D online became the way we continue with the hobby. Playing online helped maintain friendships around D&D even when we couldn't get together physically.

    But it's hard to build deep friendships online. While social media makes us feel more connected, the bonds we create there are often weaker than those we make in-person.

    So how can we build new friendships online and strengthen those bonds? I offer my own thoughts in this article.

    If you're looking to build a group, read my article on Finding and Maintaining a D&D Group.

    Prioritize Friendships

    Pay active attention to your friendships. Deep friendships can sometimes just happen but in today's disconnected world and constant state of busyness, it can be hard. We can start by making it a conscious activity to build, develop, and maintain friendships. This means doing something, every day, to build and strengthen a friendship. Just like exercise. What can we do?

    • Call a friend on the phone or in voice chat.
    • Make a list of your friends. See who you haven't talked to in a while. Then call them.
    • Schedule a one-on-one game with a friend.
    • If you're not avoiding physical meetups, ask someone to grab a coffee.
    • Schedule games with two or three people who haven't played before.

    Help People

    Volunteering is a fantastic way to meet people in a friendly and giving way. There are lots of ways to volunteer in the world of D&D including signing up to run games for online conventions, helping organize such conventions, or hanging out in Discord channels with the specific intent of helping solve peoples' problems. It's possible to meet other people who also like helping people. The friendships formed between those who regularly run or organize games for the Adventurer's League come up often. The AL organizers are a tight-knit group who have formed their own community.

    It's really easy to fall into the pit of cynicism when dealing with people online. Put your cynicism away and become an ambassador for the hobby. Bring new people in. Be positive. Don't debate or argue. Run games for them. Find and befriend others who do likewise.

    Track Casual Friends

    When meeting people online, it's easy to lose track of them. When you meet someone in a game you enjoyed playing with, make a note of them somewhere. Write their username (and real name if you got it) somewhere so you'll remember it. Send them a note a day later and thank them for the chance to play with them. Maybe ask to join together in future games or offer to run a game for them sometime. Send a note to check in later, see how they're doing or bring up an interesting bit of news. Check to see if they're playing in other online conversations. If they're not getting back to you or you get the sense they're not as into the connection as you are, that's fine. Let it go.

    Remember the people you enjoyed meeting. However you choose to do it, take note of them so you'll have the chance to meet them again.

    Take the First Step

    Building and reinforcing friendships can feel weird sometimes. It feels invasive for us to reach out to someone we're just getting to know. But it can be worth it to create a closer bond. Build up the courage to take that first step and reach out. Be aware that reaching out may result in no real connection and that's ok. It's still worth doing. Send a note to them. Ask them how they liked whatever game you played with them. Find a specific topic to bring up. See how the conversation goes.

    Talk To Them

    It's really hard to build meaningful friendships in just text chat. It can happen but there's a lot getting missed. Find a way to chat voice and, ideally, video. We're physical creatures and we build a stronger relationships with those we see and hear. Texting and online chats seem easy and comfortable but they're not building a strong bond. Really talking and seeing someone builds a stronger bond.

    Playing games online together is a great catalyst for this. We want to use audio and video when playing online. It's easy to feel self-conscious about it and it takes courage to take that step of putting ourselves out there but it helps.

    Run Games

    Player's lament how hard it is to find a good group. That goes away when you become a DM and run your own games. Now, especially online, many players are looking to play games. Finding the players who gel with you and your style may be hard. Find out other tricks for building a great group in my article Finding and Maintaining a D&D Group.

    Don't Be That Guy

    Speaking to my fellow men here, building friendships isn't about seeking a romantic partner. Women often feel over pursued by men in situations like this. Many men often engage with woman stating they want to be friends, then get angry if the woman isn't interested in a romantic partnership. Be clear and genuine about wanting to build friendships. Don't reach out to people as a friend if what you're really looking for is a romantic partner. Don't be a creep.

    Take the Effort

    Take the effort to meet people, re-connect with people, and build stronger friendships. In today's world we're ever more connected and yet easily overcome by loneliness. Building friendships is important. It's worth our time as much as eating right and exercising. Give friendships the attention they deserves. Our lives will be better for it.

    Special thanks to Dr. Megan Connell and Dr. Michael Mallen for their help with this article.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Empire of the Ghouls Chapter 2 Tips and Game Prep and Seven Fantastic Tools to Play D&D Online.

    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:

    Patreon Questions and Answers

    Also on the Talk Show, I answer some of the questions I get on the monthly Sly Flourish Patreon questions and answer thread. Here are last week's questions and answers:

    D&D Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last D&D game and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's D&D tips:

    • What choices can the characters make in each scene in your next game?
    • What lore can the character learn about in your next dungeon crawl?
    • What's the history of that new magic item the characters picked up?
    • Who inhabited this lair before the characters showed up? Who before that?
    • What non-hostile NPC frequents this dark lair?
    • Why are the monsters here? What do they do when they're not busy eating characters?
    • What traps did this dungeon's occupants set up? Who else ran into them?

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  • VideoWhat Does Challenge Rating Mean in D&D 5e?

    If you take nothing else from this article, consider this:

    A monster's challenge rating is a loose approximation of a monster's difficulty. Many factors not included in challenge ratings often affect the difficulty of a battle. Use the lazy encounter benchmark and dials of monster difficulty to build and run fun encounters and don't be afraid to run easy battles sometimes.

    The 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons uses "challenge rating" (hereby referred to as CR) as a measure of the challenge of a monster. Every stat block for a monster or NPC has a challenge rating. Here's the description from the front pages of the Monster Manual.

    A monster’s challenge rating tells you how great a threat the monster is, according to the encounter-building guidelines in chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Those guidelines specify the numbers of adventurers of a certain level that should be able to defeat a monster of a particular challenge rating without suffering any deaths. An appropriately equipped and well-rested party of four adventurers should be able to defeat a monster that has a challenge rating equal to its level without suffering any deaths. For example, a party of four 3rd-level characters should find a monster with a challenge rating of 3 to be a worthy challenge, but not a deadly one.

    Monsters that are significantly weaker than 1st-level characters have a challenge rating lower than 1. Monsters with a challenge rating of 0 are insignificant except in large numbers; those with no effective attacks are worth no experience points, while those that have attacks are worth 10 XP each.

    Some monsters present a greater challenge than even a typical 20th-level party can handle. These monsters have a challenge rating of 21 or higher and are specifically designed to test player skill.

    I've highlighted a couple of key sentences. The first highlighted sentence is the one we should pay the most attention to. A monster should be a worthy challenge — but not a deadly challenge — for four characters of an equal level to the CR of the monster.

    That's not a terrible rule of thumb, but it's not terribly useful. Many factors go into whether a particular battle is going to be challenging beyond just the challenge rating of a monster and the levels of the characters. These factors include

    • How many monsters there are in the battle compared to characters
    • Who wins initiative
    • How well rested the characters are
    • What spells the characters have access to
    • What magic items the characters have
    • The environment in which the battle occurs
    • How well the characters work together

    and more.

    What's important to note from the CR description above is that a single monster is roughly equivalent to four characters of an equal level to their challenge rating. That doesn't help us understand how multiple monsters work out, though. Which is why the Dungeon Master's Guide has it's crazy two-dial system for figuring out combat difficulty — a system both overly complicated and inaccurate in its results.

    Challenge rating is a loose guide at best. Not only does monster difficulty vary significantly within a given challenge rating but monster difficulty also changes as challenge ratings go up. CR 1/2 creatures, for example, are much more deadly to 1st level characters than CR 5 monsters are for 10th level characters.

    An Average of Multiple Statistics

    Challenge rating is an aggregate score of several statistics in a monster's stat block. A monster's challenge rating is the average of two measurements: offensive challenge and defensive challenge. Each of these two categories have various characteristics, measurements, and weights affecting their final calculation. You can find a full breakdown of these characteristics and measurements in the "Creating a Monster" section of chapter 9 in the Dungeon Master's Guide.

    Sometimes these weighted characteristics dramatically change a monster's challenge rating but might not come into play in an actual battle. Other times, particular characteristics are overweighted, giving a monster a greater challenge rating than the actual threat it brings to a battle.

    I often complain that high challenge monsters aren't nearly the threat that lower challenge monsters when compared to appropriately leveled characters. I argue that the characteristics of higher challenge monsters are weighed too heavily — high CR monsters need those abilities to challenge high level characters. An example is "legendary resistance" which counts as increasing the hit points of a monster but the whole reason a monster has "legendary resistance" is because it's going to be a huge target of "save or suck" spells. It needs those resistances because of the role legendary monsters play in the game. That's one example of many.

    It's not important to break down every characteristic to see why a monster landed at the challenge rating it did. Instead, note the most important conclusion of this article:

    Challenge rating is, at best, a loose approximation of the difficulty of a monster.

    How do you make sure high CR monsters fight at their challenge rating? Bump up their damage.

    Tools for Encounter Measurements

    Two online tools help calculate encounter difficulty using the math from the Dungeon Master's Guide: Kobold Plus Fight Club and the D&D Beyond Encounter Builder. Both use the DMG math which, as noted, isn't particularly accurate in a vacuum. I'd argue "hard" encounters by these calculations aren't actually hard above level 7 or so given what characters bring to the table.

    CR Guidelines to Keep In Mind

    If you're looking for easy measurements of combat challenge you can keep in your head, consider the lazy encounter benchmark. This benchmark doesn't break down "easy", "medium", "hard", or "deadly" levels. Instead, it focuses on identifying potentially deadly encounters. Encounters below that benchmark are easier and things above it are harder. Here's the benchmark:

    An encounter might be deadly if the total of monster challenge ratings is greater than 1/4th of the total of character levels, or 1/2 if the characters are above 5th level.

    These are loose measures at best. Due to all of the factors described earlier in this article, this comparison is only a loose gauge. Various circumstances and criteria change an encounter's difficulty dramatically.

    The Higher the Level, the Swingier Things Get

    High level characters have so many resources at their disposal that combat gets even less predictable. In the original Monster Manual description above I highlighted the section talking about CR 20+ monsters being significant challenges for 20th level characters. That's certainly not been my experience. I've watched high level characters eat through challenges far greater than a single CR 20 monster.

    So What Does CR Mean Again?

    Returning to the main question, what does CR actually mean?

    Challenge rating is a loose approximation of the difficulty of a particular monster compared to the level of the characters. Only when combining it with some encounter building math can we figure out its true relationship to the characters and those results are, at best, a loose approximation of encounter difficulty. Many factors go into the difficulty of a battle and thus it's up to each of us DMs to gauge each encounter and the potential difficulty it brings to the table.

    What can you do with challenge ratings? Use the lazy encounter benchmark to gauge a potentially deadly encounter and use the dials of monster difficulty to tune monsters to suit the situation and pacing of the game.

    More Sly Flourish Stuff

    This week I posted a couple of YouTube videos including the Lazy D&D Talk Show and Session 7 of my Scarlet Citadel Lazy DM Prep.

    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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    D&D Tips

    Each week I think about what I learned in my last D&D game and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's D&D tips:

    • Leave blanks in your story and setting. Fill them in as the campaign moves forward.
    • Don't get too wrapped in the zeitgeist of D&D. Focus on what helps you and your friends enjoy the game around the table.
    • It's easy to get overwhelmed with how awesome this game is. Remember it's just a game and focus on what will make it fun at your next session.
    • Build overland travel like a dungeon with paths and locations instead of hallways and chambers.
    • Increase the detail of a location only when you know the characters are going there.
    • Add interesting side locations to your overland travel. Fill them with interesting lore and treasure to discover.
    • Playing D&D one-on-one is a fantastic way to focus the campaign around a single character and much easier to schedule. Give it a try.

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