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  • Lazy Magic Items

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    Here's a simple and lazy way to create unique magic items that fit well into the story, act as great vehicles for secrets and clues, excite players, and matter to characters.

    First, choose an item. Often this will be a weapon or piece of armor but it could be something else if it fits your goal.

    Second, think about the history of that item. Who built it? Where did it come from? You can use the tables on page 142 of the Dungeon Master's Guide or pages 13 and 14 of the Lazy DM's Workbook to fill in a history and creator of the item but often it works best if it's tied to the history and creators that make sense in your adventures and campaign world.

    Third, if it's a weapon or piece of armor, give it a +1 bonus. If the characters are above 10th level you might consider +2 or even +3 if you're very generous.

    Fourth, give the item the ability to let the character attuned to it cast a spell they can't otherwise cast. They can do so once and the ability recharges on the next dawn. If you want to choose randomly, page 14 of the Lazy DM's Workbook has a table of 50 random spells you can roll on. Or, instead, choose a spell from the [Player's Handbook] or any other 5e resource you trust that fits the item.

    Choose a DC or spell attack bonus that fits the power of the item; somewhere between +4 and +8 for the spell attack or DC 12 to 16 for the DC. Likewise, to change things up, you can change what type of action is required to cast the spell. Perhaps someone finds a knight's sword that can cast true strike as a bonus action instead of an action.

    You can also use this opportunity to choose spells that characters often don't take the time to prepare or cast. Many spells aren't ideal when compared to the others in their spell level but when they can be cast for free on an item they suddenly become useful again.

    Finally, give the item a cool name so it feels epic and unique in the world.

    As an example item, we have "Moon's Sliver". This is a rapier wielded by the drow swordmage priestess at the Temple of the Moon. Our heroic rogue finds the blade in the priestess's coffin as her mummified body hands it to him, knowing he is worthy of the blade. Moon's Sliver is a +1 rapier forged from beams of moonlight by the drow bladesmiths. When attuned, the character wielding the blade can use an action to cast the spell Moonbeam once with a DC of 13. The blade regains this feature at the next dawn.

    It takes hardly any effort to make magic items like this yet such items add a tremendous amount of flavor to the game and go well beyond a typical and boring +1 weapon or piece of armor.

    Use this technique to build fun and unique items in your own campaign and watch your players smile as their characters wield them in their adventures.

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  • VideoTroublesome Quest Models

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    Quest models are frameworks you can use to build interesting quests and adventures in your D&D games. There are a number of common and self-evident quest models we can use when building our own adventures. Here are a few examples:

    • Kill a boss
    • Recover an item
    • Rescue someone
    • Destroy a monument
    • Clear out monsters

    There are many others, some more complicated. I'm a big fan of the "heist" model in which the characters must steal something from a guarded place because it's built around a situation and lets the players choose their approach. It's perfect situation-based D&D. I'm also a huge fan of the Seven Samurai model in which the characters defend a village from marauders. You can change this model in lots of ways and still have an interesting adventure that, like the heist, is built around the approach of the characters.

    Some common models seem like good ideas, though, but often fall apart in play. These include:

    • Chases
    • Capture and escape
    • Solving predefined mysteries
    • All-or-nothing collection quests
    • Facing insurmountable bosses
    • Solving puzzles
    • Recovering stolen stuff
    • Dream sequences and flashbacks
    • Escaping villains
    • Betrayal
    • Subsystems

    We see quests like this often because they're so common in popular fiction. Chases, mysteries, escape from being captured; these are all common stories that should fall right into our D&D games, but why don't they work?

    All of them tend not to work for a few reasons:

    1. They assume the characters act a certain way.
    2. They often remove character agency.

    Many times these quests rely on the characters doing something in just the right way for the story to go forward. Sometimes, in order to ensure that the quest goes that way, the adventure forces them. You can run, but not too fast or you gain exhaustion. You can stay where you are but if you do, you'll be overwhelmed and killed off-screen. You can fight the adult blue dragon but if you do, she'll kill you with one blow.

    The tricky part is that sometimes these models can work. We see them often enough and they don't always fall flat, but, I argue, it's much harder to get these quests to work well than more open-ended quests with a greater opportunity for character agency and multiple paths.

    Often these troublesome quest models work fine if they happen organically. Yes, bosses can escape, but they may not. Yes, you might have to chase someone or something but you might catch up quickly or it might get away. You might end up facing an insurmountable villain early or they might take your stuff and you have to retrieve it. All of these things work much better if they happen as a course of the story. They fall apart, however, when they're the expectation and not the result of the character's actions.

    Better are resilient quests offering multiple options and paths. Think about how many ways the heist or village defense quests can go.

    Resilient quests offer meaningful choices and options to the players and work regardless of which choice they make. Brittle quest models fall apart if the characters don't act a certain way.

    Note that, for the sake of this article, I'm using the term "quests" loosely. In many cases these are more like encounters than quests. Sometimes they're full-length adventures, sometimes just a scene in a larger context. Forgive the misuse of the term quest when it doesn't fit.

    Here are some examples of brittle quests often requiring the characters to act a certain way or remove character agency to move the story forward.

    Chases

    Page 252 of the Dungeon Master's Guide includes rules for a chase, as does chapter 4 of Waterdeep Dragon Heist. How can this quest model be bad if they're baked into D&D? Let's look at a quote from Waterdeep Dragon Heist:

    The Stone of Golorr possesses an intelligent, alien intellect and has enough prescience to realize that the characters are destined to find it. The stone doesn't want to be found too easily, though.

    If the characters obtain the stone earlier than expected, it proves uncooperative and tries to separate itself from the party as quickly as possible, refusing to share any knowledge with characters in the meantime.

    This is the problem with a chase. You need things to go just right to keep the chase going. What if the characters use misty step and grab the stone too early? The stone decides it doesn't want to be caught. Lame. What if the characters take a long rest before the chase begins? Does the chase stop until the characters start chasing it again?

    Forcing a chase is one of the worst forms of railroading. It requires characters to act exactly a certain way so they don't finish the chase too early or not at all.

    Fixing the chase. Chases, when they do occur, should happen naturally at the table, and not be planned ahead of time. Anytime you think a chase might happen, ask yourself if the chase will work if it ends quickly or never gets followed at all. The chase is a tool you can use when the situation happens spontaneously but planning one out usually ends in ways you can't plan for.

    Capture and Escape

    Another common story in fiction, escape seems like it should be a great story idea for our D&D games. The problem comes with the capture. Players, generally, hate losing and if you have to throw an overwhelming force at them to get them to lose, they'll hate that too. Worse, they may find a way to circumvent it or, even worse than that, half of them will find a way to avoid capture while the other half are captured. Good luck running that situation.

    Throwing an overwhelming force at your characters just to stick them in a jail cell isn't going to be as much fun as you think.

    Fixing Escape Quests. Escaping capture only works if the characters begin in captivity and, I'd argue, this only works well if the players know ahead of time that they'll begin captured. This, for example, is the way Out of the Abyss starts and I know if I ran it again, I'd ensure, during my session zero, that the players know they begin enslaved by the drow.

    Being captured as part of the ongoing story is a fine way to handle a potential total-party-kill, should it happen. Being captured isn't a problem if it happens organically during the game. Forcing the characters to be captured sucks.

    Solving Predefined Mysteries

    Mysteries, like the other quests here, have centuries of history in our fiction so surely they make for a fun D&D game, right?

    Not so much.

    Like chases, many mysteries assume the characters find the right clues at the right time to figure out the mystery only when the time is right. All too often the characters either figure it out right away or miss the vital clues completely. What happens during the rest of the adventure if a character figures it out and stabs the murderer in the first scene? What do you do with the other 3.5 hours of the adventure?

    Fixing the mystery. Like other solutions described in this article, a mystery can work well as long as you don't make assumptions about what the characters learn and when they'll learn it. Mysteries can work well as situations as long as how the characters find the right clues isn't pre-defined. Justin Alexander, for example, recommends the three clues style, in which you ensure that, for any vital piece of information, three clues exist. My own secrets and clues approach gives you ten secrets or clues that can drop into the game anywhere which will, eventually, lead to the discovery you want the characters to find. If your mystery depends on the characters finding the right things the right way at the right time, it's probably too brittle.

    All-or-Nothing Collection Quests

    The cult of the dragon needs the five dragon masks to summon Tiamat. The characters need the nine puzzle cubes to open the door to the Tomb of the Nine Gods. These seem like nice and clean quest models except for one big problem. What happens if the characters get just one of the masks and throws it into the ocean? What if the Red Wizards of Thay get one of the puzzle cubes and hide it in Szass Tam's fanny pack? You're screwed. Now you have to force some sort of heist, either by the characters or the villains depending on who needs it. All-or-nothing quests are brittle because just one item falling into the wrong hands ends the whole quest. It forces DM to contrive situations just so the quest can continue.

    Fixing the all-or-nothing quest. My solution to the all-or-nothing collection quest is the three of five collection quest model. If you need only the majority of items to succeed, now things get interesting. The opposing side must collect more than half to thwart the other side. It becomes a race with many different paths and many different options. You can see more about this in my three of five collection quest Youtube video.

    Facing Insurmountable Bosses

    Another common trope is the early face-off with the insurmountable foe. Hoard of the Dragon Queen commits this sin twice in the first chapter. The characters, 1st or 2nd level, find themselves face to face with an adult blue dragon. How exactly is that encounter supposed to go? Why wouldn't the dragon just kill them? What are the characters supposed to do? What options to they have? Groveling and hoping for a high persuasion check is about it.

    Big villains are rare so low level characters aren't likely to run into them. Best keep powerful bosses for powerful characters.

    Strahd is an exception. He loves to personally check out the fresh meat.

    Solving Puzzles

    A lot of DMs likely disagree with me on this one but I'm not a fan of puzzles. First, they're hard to prep; definitely not lazy. Second, they rarely make sense. Why would anyone spend the time and energy to protect something with a puzzle? Why not just put a good lock in place? Do they have to navigate their own bullshit puzzle every time they want to make a withdrawal?

    Puzzles also often fail in gameplay. Rarely are all players invested in a puzzle and those that aren't quickly grab onto their phones. Stick to the core mechanics and gameplay of D&D and leave puzzles aside.

    Recovering Stolen Stuff

    Likely every DM makes this mistake at least once in their lives. What better motivation for the characters than recovering their stolen gear? The problem is that loss aversion is real and players hate it when their stuff gets stolen. They also don't feel good even when they get it back. They feel like they're back where they started. Don't steal the characters' stuff.

    Dream Sequences and Flashbacks

    Another common quest model, why not show some history with a flashback or take the game into a new dimension with a dream sequence? The problem is that the characters usually end up where they started only three hours later. The characters don't get much from these. They don't really have agency. They can't change history. It's usually the longest lore dump ever. Skip dream sequences or flashbacks unless you have a really good reason and the characters have some agency over the situation.

    Exception: a cool Inception-style dream heist might be a lot of fun. You might also use a dream sequence or flashback as a way to write history by the actions of the characters. Like the players deciding the location of the key items in i6 Ravenloft or Curse of Strahd, they might define things by their actions and choices in the past.

    Escaping Villains

    Like losing gear, watching villains run off too often sucks, particularly when the characters know there was no way to stop it from happening. It's one thing if a villain manages to escape on their own. It's something else when the DM forces the issue. Lichs and vampires have built-in escape options so they're an exception. Otherwise, forcing a villainous escape feels lame.

    Betrayal

    Here's another bad idea DMs often try once. When trusted NPCs betray the characters, you're breaking trust with the players. The same is true when one of the player characters betrays the rest of the party and the DM is in on it. It seems fun and exciting but it's really just lame. It breaks trust all around the table and that's not fun and won't lead the game in the right direction. Avoid betrayals.

    There are clear exceptions to this rule when the players know there's betrayal going on and it's all discussed and agreed upon in a session zero.

    Subsystems

    DMs often love tinkering with the mechanics in D&D. Why not have an entire vehicle sub-system or a whole mechanical subsystem for handling complex rituals? What about a system for running a bar or piloting an airship?

    The problem with subsystems is that often the mechanics don't work nearly as well as the rest of the game. Players don't want to learn them because they know they're temporary. You also don't really need them. Ability checks cover just about anything you need to do in the game. Anyone who remembers the Mako from Mass Effect knows what I'm talking about. The players are invested in their characters and the existing mechanics of D&D. Let them focus on that instead of having to learn new and buggy subsystems for things an ability check likely covers.

    Use Flexible Quest Models

    When you seek quest models to build your D&D adventures, seek those offering robust and flexible options for your adventures. Find those that build off of situation-based adventures in which the characters have meaningful options and multiple solutions. Use quest models where even you have no idea how they'll play out at the table. As for these troublesome quest models? Let them happen if that's how the story evolves but don't use them as an incoming assumption ahead of time.

    Keep flexible quest models in your bag of tricks and run awesome open-ended adventures with your friends. Play to see what happens.

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  • Running Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden Chapter 1

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    With an open-ended style, piles of potential quests, and little guidance to help DMs; chapter 1 of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden can be challenging to run. Today we're going to look at some tips and tricks for getting the most from Rime of the Frostmaiden's first massive chapter.

    This chapter assumes you have already run a session zero for Rime of the Frostmaiden to ensure your players and their characters are aimed in the right direction for this adventure. It also contains many spoilers for the book.

    Here's a quick summary of the tips in this article:

    • Begin in Bryn Shander and start with the Foaming Mugs quest. This gets the characters quickly to 2nd level.
    • Choose six or seven of the main quests to put in front of the characters. Expect they will complete four or five of them of them before reaching 4th or 5th level and heading into chapter 2.
    • Clear out quests the characters skip when they choose a different path. Keep two to three quests in front of the characters at any given time.
    • Move the drivers of the sacrifices to Auril from the speakers of Ten Towns to the Children of Auril, a cult growing in popularity throughout Ten Towns.

    Begin in Bryn Shander and run Foaming Mugs

    Bryn Shander is an excellent starting city for this adventure and the Foaming Mugs quest is one of the few quests that works well for 1st level characters. While you can choose any of the ten towns to begin, many of the quests are deadly to 1st level characters. Foaming Mugs, however, pits the characters against a bunch of goblins trying to steal dwarven iron ingots. As long as the goblin boss and polar bears don't get involved, they shouldn't have trouble completing the quest and getting to 2nd level.

    Choose Which Quests to Expose

    Let your own interests drive which quests you choose to reveal when running chapter 1. Don't expect to reveal them all. Chapter 1 has about three times more quests than the characters should accomplish before heading into chapter 2 and many sub-plots your characters could get involved in. It's easy to get bogged down in chapter 1.

    Before you start, decide which quests you want to put in front of the characters and which you cut. Plan on roughly five to seven quests and pull quests out of the list when the characters choose another path.

    Here's a potential list of quests you may want to run after Foaming Mugs:

    • A Beautiful Mine
    • The White Moose
    • The Mead Must Flow
    • Toil and Trouble
    • The Unseen

    Add new quests as the characters complete them and pull off quests the characters have skipped twice. You want no more than two or three active quests at a time.

    The starter quest, Cold-Hearted Killer, can be a mystery the characters unravel as they travel throughout the towns and complete other quests. I'd skip the Nature Spirits quest.

    You can move some of these quests if it works better. The White Moose quest, for example, may take place in the woods between Bryn Shander, Good Mead, and Dougan's Hole instead of Lonelywood. The Unseen quest can take place in Easthaven instead of Caer Konig. Move the quests closer to the characters if you want to save time traveling all over Ten Towns.

    Add the Children of Auril

    If the idea that the speakers of Ten Towns send their own citizens to die in the cold doesn't sit right with you, as it didn't with me, add a new antagonist called the Children of Auril. This cult, led by the cult fanatic, Father Lake, built a following across Ten Towns and it is they who demand the sacrifices. Given their popularity, the speakers are powerless to stop the cult, but the characters may not be. The Children may have built a new and mysterious temple in the old House of the Triad in Bryn Shander where they conduct terrible rituals in the chambers beneath the exposure of which would shatter the faith of their followers across the towns. This is a good way to redirect the concept of the sacrifices away from the city's government and to an entity the characters are free to hate.

    Foreshadow the Duergar

    Most of the quests in chapter 1 consist of helping the people of Ten Towns survive the endless night. There's always room to add secrets and clues that foreshadow later stories in the adventure but one quest has a strong connection holding more importance than the others: The Unseen. This quest reveals the weapon being built by Xardarok Sunblight that comes to play in chapters 3 and 4 of the adventure. It's important that the characters expose the duergar, learn of the plot, and get a lead on the location of Sunblight Fortress to head into those chapters.

    The good news is that you can move this quest's location to just about any city, including Easthaven, a much easier reach from Bryn Shander than Caer Konig.

    Remove the Duergar?

    You can also choose to remove the entire Sunblight threat completely. As a storyline it has little connection to the rest of the adventure and some later parts of, such as the dragon's attack on Ten Towns, may not run the way we want as written.

    Instead we can remove the duergar threat completely, skipping these quests in chapter 1 and focusing the adventure on Auril and the Netherese power beneath the ice. It's a big cut to make but it might better focus the adventure if that whole arc is something you don't dig.

    Running Cold Hearted Killer

    Early in the chapter, the characters learn of the murders taking place in Ten Towns. Instead of immediately being handed the identity of the killer, run this quest as a mystery in which the characters slowly put together a timeline of murders coinciding with Torgs traveling merchant caravan. Then, at the right time, the characters can face Sephek Kaltro and bring him to justice. This also helps ensure the characters don't face Sephek at 1st level which can be very deadly. Instead, if the characters are higher level by the time they face Sephek, consider giving him some icy ghouls who follow him around hidden in the shadows.

    Individual Quest Tips

    Here are a few quick tips for some of the quests in chapter 1. I haven't run them all so you'll find some quests missing.

    Foaming Mugs

    • Keep the goblin boss and polar bears out of the fight. Let the boss send in her minions while she flees.

    The Unseen

    • Give the duergar outpost a history, perhaps a fortress for dragonborn mercenaries in league with Akar Kessel over a century ago.

    Holed Up

    • Change the winter wolves to dire wolves so they don't wipe out low level characters. Add some regular wolves to spice things up.
    • Make the mammoth less violent towards the characters. Let them see the despair of the awakened mammoth in mourning for its frost giant companion who may have been killed by a heart attack (all that cholesterol from the whale blubber) instead of adventurers.
    • Seal off the passageway leading from area L1 to L3 so the characters have to travel through the lodge to reach the children instead of skipping all of it. Put a hole in the wall between areas L8 and L3 so the characters can reach it that way. Make the remorhaz hole impossible to find from the outside but a good way to escape from the inside.
    • Avoid the whole incest angle going on here. What was WOTC thinking?

    Toil and Trouble

    • If the characters are powerful enough, use buehr hag stats for Maud Chiselbone, removing her more powerful spells if needed.
    • Let Maud reveal secrets about Auril, Grimskalle, and other secrets for later chapters. She's old enought to know many of Auril's secrets.

    Town Hall Capers

    • Replace this quest with The Unseen to save the characters the trip to Caer Konig.

    The Mead Must Flow

    • If needed, have the verbeegs use only single attacks instead of double attacks so they don't wipe out the characters.

    The White Moose

    • Add an awakened small bunny herald (named Thuumper in my game) who loves to talk shit about how the white moose loves to disembowel adventurers. Let it lead the characters into traps and cause other mischief. Revel in its inevitable death.
    • Tie Ravasin to the Frost Maiden. Let her reveal secrets about Auril's presence in Icewind Dale and her desire to destroy ten towns and make Icewind Dale her silent throne.

    A Beautiful Mine

    • Make Janth Alwar a member of the Arcane Brotherhood or replace him with Nass Lantomir. Whichever ghost you choose remains a ghost due to their obsession to find the "power under the ice" which leads to the Netheril City, Ythryn.
    • Add another grell if one would be too easy. Let them float around in the central shaft to attack the characters when it will be the most fun.

    I have no useful feedback on the remaining quests, which I feel you can safely skip. Check out Bob Worldbuilder's Frostmaiden videos for details on these and other quests if you need.

    Let Your Own Stories Run Free

    Rime of the Frostmaiden's wide open structure gives you lots of room to add your own stories and stories connected to the backgrounds and drives of the characters. Feel free to add in these stories and tie the NPCs found throughout Ten Towns to the characters themselves. Be careful not to run too wild. It's easy to get stuck in this chapter for a long time with the characters stuck at 3rd or 4th level far longer than they should be.

    Onward to Chapter 2

    With their quests completed and safely at 4th level, it's time to begin chapter 2!

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  • Spread Boss Damage to the Minions

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    Players love to focus fire on bosses. It's a strong instinct that, unfortunately, tends to break the drama, excitement, and sense of danger of the fight. What fun is it if your lich boss dies in the first round?

    Here's a quick trick to protect your boss and push the players to change up their tactics: Let the boss shift the damage it takes to its minions.

    Let's say we have a cult fanatic guarding a portal to the realm of Xoriat along with a bunch of cultist minions. When the charaters kick in the door, they'll certainly focus their fire on the fanatic and, if you're not careful, they'll take him out in a single round.

    What if, every time the fanatic takes damage, he can route that damage to one of his cultist minions? Now if he gets blasted for 18 points with a guiding bolt, one of his cultists bursts apart in a blast of radiant energy and falls dead to the ground. This both protects the boss and shows the players that they may be better off carving through the minions which have a lower AC and are easier to hit and kill.

    Some monsters have this protection built in. A boss with a shield guardian can route half the damage they take to the guardian.

    We can make this even more effective by making it all damage instead of just half.

    This trick also scales well from 1st to 20th level. At lower levels it might be a bandit captain throwing damage off to her blood-sibling bandits through a dark ritual she had performed ahead of time. At 20th level it might be a lich transferring all damage to her four iron golems.

    Sometimes it works best with a large number of weak minions, like cultists. Other times it works better with big meaty lieutenants like armored ogres, flesh golems, fire giant thralls, or other big brutes.

    We might even add targeted spells to this ability. If a character targets the boss with a spell, the boss can redirect the target to one of it's minions.

    We have to be careful that this doesn't railroad the battle too much. Too much of this and it can seem like the battle can only go one way. Consider carefully when you inject an ability like this. Use it sparingly.

    This damage transfer ability is an excellent and powerful tool to help steer boss battles away from a one-round murder festival. You may not want to use it all of the time but it's a handy tool to keep in your bag of tricks when you think it suits the situation.

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  • Run Meaningful Random Encounters

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

    We take it for granted that randomness is a core component of the game with ability checks, attack rolls, and the like, but don't always consider how randomness can affect larger parts of the story as well, like the scenes that take place.

    Nearly all D&D hardback adventures include robust random encounter tables with encounters for many environments and detailed descriptions of what the characters might find in the encounter. Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes random encounter tables broken down by environment. The Lazy DM's Workbook includes a random monster table by dungeon level based on the tables from the original Dungeon Master's Guide.

    For more on the idea of building entire adventures randomly, even at the table, see this article on the Casual and Improvisatory Nature of Early Traveller Play.

    Criticism of Random Encounters

    While many DMs enjoy random encounters, some DMs don't like them at all. Criticisms include random encounters taking away from the main story of an adventure and taking up valuable game time. These criticisms aren't wrong but there are ways we can incorporate random encounters that become part of the story rather than a distraction. We can steer how we use random encounters to stay true to the story, expand the world, and liven up the game for both our players and ourselves by introducing the unexpected.

    Cook At The Table

    Why use random encounters? Why not plan out every encounter the characters face so we can carefully tune them around the story? As we talked about in the article Randomness and Creativity, sometimes random elements make us more creative. We avoid stereotypes. We break out of our creative ruts. We push our minds towards new ideas we might not have seen otherwise. Just as attack rolls and saving throws change the outcome of a story, so can the dice help us generate entire scenes.

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

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

    Add a Backdrop

    When rolling for a random encounter, add an interesting backdrop to the encounter. Add a monument fitting the theme of your adventure. Come up with your own or roll randomly from a table of your own creation or the monuments tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook. Think of this like the background set of a play. What makes the location cool?

    Use Theater of the Mind

    Random combat encounters take time but they need not take a lot of time. When running a random combat encounter, skip the battle map and use theater of the mind or use a fast and loose abstract map with some generic monster tokens. Random encounters might not lead to combat anyway. The characters might sneak past, bluff past, or threaten their way through without drawing blood. If the swords do get drawn, stay in the narrative and keep it quick.

    What's Coming or What Came Before

    Instead of assuming the random encounter occurs right now, the roll might have revealed what was here before or what's coming afterwards. The characters might arrive at a location after a big creature or group of villains crossed the path. The characters can decide to follow them or leave them be and stay on their journey. Likewise, the characters might realize that something is stalking them and need to either set up an ambush of their own or shake the tail they've acquired.

    Drop in Secrets and Clues

    Random encounters are a great vehicle for secrets and clues. These discoveries tie the random encounter to the story of the game rather than making it a distraction. When this works well it feels like magic. Suddenly something we couldn't anticipate came true at the table and tied directly into the story.

    Don't be a Slave to the Dice

    Sometimes when you roll for a random encounter, the encounter that comes up doesn't make sense at all. Think about it for a moment but if you're stuck, roll again. Randomness and your creative brain work together, not separately. The dice help us break out of our current groove and think differently. If it really doesn't work out, roll again or let your eyes wander up and down the list of random encounters and pick one that makes sense.

    Play to See What Happens

    Running random encounters gives us a fun way to watch the game go in directions we never anticipated. By tying them to secrets and clues, running them as situations instead of forcing combat, and adding interesting backdrops; we create scenes never having been done before and all see where they go together. Add random encounters to your toolbox and play to see what happens.

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  • VideoRun Simple Adventures

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    As DMs, our drive and creativity often lead us to build big, complex adventures. Yet often the best stories come from simple adventures bursting with unique results as we play them at our table. Don't shy away from simple adventures with straight forward hooks and typical fantasy locations. Let the characters' actions complicate the situation.

    For more on this topic, see my three-minute YouTube video on Running Simple Adventures.

    Dragon of Icespire Peak, the adventure in the D&D Essentials Boxed Set, is noteworthy in many ways. It may be my favorite D&D adventure, up there with Curse of Strahd and Lost Mine of Phandelver. One of its great strengths is it's simplicity. Characters pick up jobs from a local job board, go on quests, complete them, and return home for a new one. It seems almost too simple, and for some groups it may be, but many enjoy this adventure not because of what it has in it but how it plays out at the table.

    The most interesting events in our game occur at the table, not when we plan our adventure. Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is built on this idea. We prepare what we need to let the game travel in interesting directions at the table. This is why we don't tie secrets and clues to specific locations, NPCs, or objects. We improvise their discovery during the game.

    We can plan deep and rich adventures with lots of details, intrigue, and complications; or we can run a simple classic adventure and let the complications happen at the table.

    Examples of Simple Adventures

    What do simple adventures look like? Here are ten example straight-forward quests you might use or that might inspire your own:

    • Collect the holy bell at the fallen monastery.
    • Rescue the old cobbler lost in forgotten sewers.
    • Defeat the elven warlord camping out at the ruined keep.
    • Route the bandits threatening the village from the old dwarven mines.
    • End the Black Sun cultist's ritual at the unhallowed megaliths.
    • Find the sword of Kavan buried in the decrepit crypts outside of town.
    • Root out the rat queen infesting the local inn with giant rats in the old cellars.
    • Hunt down the murderous beast lairing in the caves along the southern foothills.
    • Put the spirit of the red king to rest in the catacombs beneath the old church.
    • Slay the Lord of Pigs in the infested warrens deep in the western forest.

    Grab a Dyson Logos map, write down ten secrets and clues the characters might uncover in the location, throw in some monsters and treasure, and you have yourself a D&D game.

    Shaking Up the Cliche

    Sometimes a straight forward quest and adventure are all we need. Other times its worth shaking things up a little bit to make it unique. Here are ten ways we might shake up our otherwise common adventure:

    • Why are the villains right to do what they do?
    • Shake up the ancestries and origins of the quest givers and the enemies.
    • Add fantastic features: something huge, something old, something otherworldly.
    • A villain or henchman is related to one of the characters.
    • The antagonists are righteous to a fault.
    • Add a new theme to the monsters: fiery, cold, acidic, necrotic, radiant, electric, poisonous, etc.
    • Mix monster types: undead hellhounds, shadowy orcs, celestial werewolves.
    • Add factions to the monsters and villains. Can the characters pit one side against another?
    • Layer threats. Perhaps the villains are trying to escape something even worse.
    • Escalation. The whole event was far worse than it seems.

    Many times, however, we need not shake things up like this. A straight forward adventure will shake itself up as our mind runs off during the game.

    Hanging On to Classic D&D

    "Classic" D&D had adventurers delving deep into dungeons to find lost treasure and face terrible monsters. There's no reason we can't keep that purity in heart. While many have taken the game into tremendous depths of character and story, sometimes we just want to stab a giant rat with a sword. Run simple adventures.

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  • VideoTypes of Secrets

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Secrets and clues are the powerhouse step in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. They're the glue that ties our games together. They're the reward for exploration and discovery. They're the interface between the characters and the world.

    Secrets can be tricky, though, when you're just starting out. It's easy to over-think them. It may be easier to think about the types of secrets we can write up and go through these types when we're writing up the ten secrets for our next session. Some of these secret types include:

    • Character secrets
    • Location secrets
    • Historical secrets
    • NPC or villain secrets
    • Plot-revealing secrets
    • Adventure hooks

    Let's take a look.

    Character Secrets

    Review the characters is the first step from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master for a few reasons. Most importantly, it helps us remember that the characters are the center of the game and thus the rest of our prep circles around them. Secrets are no different. Character-driven secrets are a powerful way to draw the character (and the player) into the game. Here are a few character-driven secrets:

    • Atrabe's cousin became a high-ranking member of the Cult of the Dragon.
    • Arwin's medallion secretly contains the soul of her father.
    • Shift's brother, Lord Krash, became a prominent leader of the Emerald Claw.
    • Banner's swordsiblings from the Last War have become members of the Lord of Blades.
    • The illithid parasite within Shadow Hawk grows stronger and only the illithids can remove it.

    Character-driven secrets can tie characters to historical facts, NPCs, villains, items, or be self-contained.

    Location Secrets

    What information might the characters learn about the locations around them? These secrets can capture and reveal the history of the world by the physical locations the characters explore. Here are some example location-based secrets.

    • The Mournland is a twisted hellscape formed at the end of the Last War when a weapon of terrible power destroyed the entire nation of Cyre.
    • Clawrift once served as a vast artificers' laboratory in the city of Making until a terrible explosion bored a hole through its center.
    • Myre's End once served as retreat for the fey prince Blackhorn but now serves as his mausoleum.
    • The once mighty citadel of the Besilmer dwarves, Harrowholme has become a twisted temple to the demon prince Zuggtmoy.
    • The academy of Eberron, a magical academy of Cyre, now serves as the headquarters to the Night's Kiss assassins.

    Use secrets to give the characters and players insight into the locations in which they delve.

    Historical Secrets

    Vast histories of our campaign worlds usually don't stick in the minds of our players and no one wants to hear us read a history book for two hours. Secrets and clues help the characters (and players) learn the history of the world around them while they engage in their adventures. History and location-based secrets often overlap.

    • The Reghed tribes sometimes warred with and sometimes allied with the people of Ten Towns. One can never say how the tribes will react to their neighbors in Icewind Dale.
    • The goblin empire of the Dhakaani once wielded arcane power surpassing even the modern day magic of Khorvaire.
    • Once the Cult of the Dragon served ancient dragons by aiding their transformation into powerful dracolichs. Now the Cult of the Dragon seeks to draw Tiamat from Avernus.
    • Lord Degault Neverember once served as the Open Lord of Waterdeep but left Waterdeep in disgrace after failing to deal with the Dragon Cult threat and returned to his home city of Neverwinter.
    • Centuries ago, four heroes of the Desserin Valley built four citadels atop the dungeons they had explored, intending to defend against the evil that lay below.

    Add historical secrets to expose the world of the campaign to your players one sentence at a time.

    NPC and Villain Secrets

    In our dynamic D&D games, our NPCs and villains are living and (sometimes) breathing beings. They're doing things. They came from somewhere. NPC and villain secrets show their movement in the world otherwise invisible to the players. Here are some examples.

    • The Daughters of Sora Kell never leave their ziggurats in the depths of Droaam and yet they've been sighted in the city of Making within the Mournland.
    • Iymrith protects herself with a tribe of desert dwellers who worshiped her as a god for centuries.
    • The Xanathar sent his best hunters and assassins into the streets of Waterdeep seeking an artifact said to be the key to a half-million gold dragons (the coin, not the beasts).
    • Acererak the archlich found the dead husk of an unborn god in the darkest reaches of the astral sea and now hopes to bring it back to live with the sacrifice of million souls.
    • House Xorlarrin never forgets a slight. They have sent the Night's Kiss assassins to Ten Towns to hunt down Shadow Hawk and bring his head back to Menzorberranzan.

    Use NPC and villain secrets to show players the history and movement of the NPCs in the world.

    Adventure Hooks

    The eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master don't include adventure hooks. Secrets and clues are one great place to add adventure hooks into our prep notes. These might take the place of rumors the characters hear or plots driven by their enemies. Here are some examples.

    • Within the ruined city of Eston lies a half-machine half-god able to make the journey across the Mournland to the city of Making.
    • The Daughters of Sora Kell, the armies of the Lord of Blades, and a powerful wizard of the Aurum all seek the weapon lost and buried in the center of Making.
    • An old woman is the lone survivor of a village atop a bluff in eastern Chult. This wise woman is one of the few in Chult who know the location of the lost city of Omu.
    • Two adventurers went to the mansion outside of Saltmarsh, the body of one of them washed ashore, her hands bound and armaments removed.
    • Only Madame Eva of the Vistani knows how the devil Strahd might one day be destroyed.

    Use secrets and clues to drop adventure hooks in front of the characters.

    And Many More

    These are but a few of the most popular types of secrets and clues. Above all, remember that secrets and clues serve you. Use them however you will to give you the lore you need when the opportunity arises in your next game.

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  • Talking To Your Players

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    In the Edition Wars podcast covering the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide, the hosts and guests of the show discussed the importance of talking to your players, and how hard that can be sometimes. Saying "just talk to your players" puts a lot of weight on the word "just", stated Brandes Stoddard.

    How do we talk to our players? How do we get feedback for our game? How do we make sure the game we're running is the kind of game our players want to play?

    Running a Session Zero

    Session zeros, now mentioned in many books and articles, including my own book, Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and Wizards of the Coast's Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, help ensure you and your players are on the same page about the campaign you're about to run. Any campaign can benefit from running a session zero. Here's my article on session zeros for details.

    Adding New Members to the Group

    When adding new members to our group, take the time to really talk to them about what they want from a game and what sort of game you plan to run. You're goal isn't to sell your game but to make sure it's a good fit for them and that they will be a good fit for the group. What type of game do you run? What sorts of things do you do in your games that some players may not like? For me, I make it clear that I run lots of battles in the theater of the mind, with less of a focus on tactical combat than the evolving story. That's not for all players. Read more in my article in finding and maintaining a D&D group for more.

    Incorporating Safety Tools

    Before your game begins and during the game itself, it's important to have safety tools in place. I prefer a mix of "lines and veils" and some sort of verbal X card. These tools help ensure that the content you and your players bring to the game has clear boundaries up front but also has a way to pause the game and take stock out of character to make sure everyone's having fun. Read more in my article on safety tools.

    Getting Feedback on your Game

    It can be particularly hard to get direct feedback on your game once you're in the middle of a campaign. If you ask players general questions like "how do you like the game?" you're likely to get shrugs and "great!" or the like. Most of the time players are happy playing and aren't thinking about it too hard. That's fine, but it doesn't give us much for feedback.

    If we want good feedback we have to ask specific questions.

    Stars and Wishes

    Stars and wishes comes from Lu Quade and is described in this article on the Gauntlet. Stars and wishes are designed to draw out positive feedback on a session, adventure, or campaign by asking each player two questions:

    Stars. What are the things you liked best in our adventures so far? What did you love?

    Wishes. What are you looking forward to in our future games?

    Because you're asking each player these questions, you'll get insights into what they loved and likely what they did not, at least by omission if they don't bring it up themselves. You'll also hear what they want to see in future sessions, very valuable information for planning things out in the future.

    What Happened in the Last Game?

    I always like to start off the beginning of the session by asking the players to describe what happened in our last game. Often it takes them a bit to re-sync with what happened but I get good insight into what parts of the game they remember, what mattered to them, and what might safely fade into the shadows. This technique isn't for everyone. You may be more comfortable with your own recap or perhaps start the recap and let them fill in the blanks.

    What Does Your Character Think About This?

    In Your Best Game Ever, Monte Cook brings up another question we might add to the mix to learn more about the characters in our games. After a significant milestone in our game we can ask each player to describe how their character feels about the current situation. How does their character feel in the world right now? Like stars and wishes, this gives us a great deal of information we can file away for future sessions and gives us a peek into the mind of the player driving that character, showing us what they're paying attention to.

    What Does Your Character Want?

    Another good question to ask is what the players want for their characters. This probably works best one-on-one and isn't so critical that it can't be done over email or in Discord. Ask for just a few sentences in case the player wants to come back with six pages of backstory and ideas unless you're not bothered by that. Take note of what they want and try to give it to them if you can.

    Be Specific

    Whatever questions you use to get feedback from your players, be specific about it and focus it on them and their experiences. Here are some example questions you might ask:

    • How do you feel about the whole storyline with the cult of Auril?
    • How do you feel about the balance of combat to roleplaying in our last session?
    • What's your hope and dream for the storyline
    • How do you feel about the mysterious affliction that lets you read minds?
    • Do you like easier battles? Hard battles? A mix?
    • How did you feel about the challenge of that big fight with the demon? Too easy? Too hard?
    • Where would you like to see your character's relationship with your estranged parents end up?
    • What's your ideal outcome dealing with the Xanathar assassins who are hunting you?
    • Where do you want to see your character's business end up and how can you keep that going while still going on adventures with the rest of the group?
    • How do you like the Temple of the Moon that you guys acquired? What else do you want to do with it?

    Specific questions are a key to great feedback.

    The Magic Item Wish List

    An easy question to ask, one reinforced in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, is the loose magic item wish list. Ask your players to describe the kinds of items their characters are interested in rather than specific magic items. You can mix in loot from this wish list along with randomly generated loot sure to surprise them as they adventure.

    A Continuing Effort

    Getting good feedback from our players is critical to running a great game and it isn't easy. You're more likely to get a shrug and a nod than a good detailed analysis of your game. That's ok. Asking the right questions can help you get useful feedback to help drive the game continually towards the enjoyment of everyone at the table.

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  • Choose Monsters Based on the Story

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Here's a one-line encounter building rule for you:

    Choose the number and type of monsters that make sense for the story, the situation, and the world.

    Many DMs build encounters by looking at the characters, their levels, and their overall power and then select monsters to challenge those characters. I argue this takes things backwards. The world doesn't conform to the level of the characters. The world is the world and it has exactly as many monsters of various types as it is supposed to, including monsters far weaker than the characters and a few far stronger.

    This idea joins two other topics together: building situations and the lazy encounter benchmark. If you haven't read those articles, you may want to when you're done with this one.

    Instead of balancing combat encounters around the characters, focus instead on running adventures appropriate for the station and power of those characters. We've talked about this before in tier-appropriate adventure locations. 1st level characters shouldn't likely be knocking on the door of a fire giant citadel and 18th level characters aren't likely hired to clean out a warren of kobolds. The quests fit the characters. The world does not.

    Once the characters choose a quest appropriate to their capabilities, let go of worrying about encounter balance and instead focus on what makes sense for the location.

    What would that location look like if the characters never showed up?

    There's some diametrical thinking with D&D around this idea. When we're preparing our games we put the characters first in our mind. This is step one of the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master — intended to put the characters into our minds as we build out the rest of our adventure.

    However, we also want to let go of the characters when we're filling out a location full of monsters. The lair is the lair regardless of the characters. How does it work on its own?

    Too often DMs focus on how powerful the characters are and ignore everything else. When we review the characters, we're looking for backstories, hooks, plots, and desires we can tie into our adventure — not whether a character is level 8 with great weapon master. Many DMs ignore the backstory and focus on developing carefully calculated encounters for each room in a dungeon intended to challenge the party. Instead, focus on the story for both the characters and the monsters they might face.

    Upward and Downward Beats with a Loose List of Inhabitants

    In step seven of the eight steps (Chapter 9 in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master), we list the monsters that might show up in our session. There's a reason we don't tie monsters to locations most of the time. The situation is dynamic. It can change based on what's happening in the world and how the pacing of our game feels. Have the characters had a lot of great luck sneaking around the hobgoblin fortress? Maybe the next room is filled with veterans practicing their phalanx maneuvers. Have the characters been having a hard go of it with a lot of bad rolls? Maybe they find two hobgoblins passed out over a table full of cards. The situation is dynamic in these locations and we can decide during the game what sort of pacing will be the most fun for the moment.

    Is it Deadly?

    The only time we need to worry about the difficulty of an encounter is if it might be inadvertently deadly. We can check this quickly with the following guideline:

    An encounter may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge levels is greater than one quarter of the sum total of character levels, or half of character levels if the characters are above 4th level.

    This is close enough to the standard encounter building guidelines to serve us without needing an online tool or a bunch of reference tables. Of course, many factors change the difficulty of a battle beyond just level and challenge rating including the situation of the fight, environmental effects, magic items, player skill, character synergy, and others; but the benchmark is still a handy gauge to let you know if things are edging towards deadly. This is a loose guideline, not a hard rule, intended to be used after you've already built the encounter from the situation in the world. No encounter building system is accurate anyway so this is as good as any.

    If they are walking into a deadly encounter, warn them. Their characters can probably tell things are dire even if the players can't. Give them a fair warning that "this foe is beyond you" so they can make an informed choice.

    Always Consider the Story

    The urge to focus on mechanics is strong but it's the story that matters. Just as our D&D games start and end in the fiction, so should our prep. What's happening in the world? What makes sense? What creatures would be lurking around here? Think about things from inside the world first and then examine the mechanics to bring it alive at the table.

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  • VideoVideo Collaboration with Johnn Four

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    Johnn Four from Roleplaying Tips and I partnered up to do a series of four YouTube videos to help GMs run awesome RPGs! You can get the first video on "Situations and the Five Room Dungeon", no strings attached, at the following URL:

    https://youtu.be/L0xYZZoxVY0

    You can get the next video in the series on the topic of "RPG Map Designs" by signing up on the following page:

    https://www.roleplayingtips.com/lazy-gms/

    This subscribes you to both my weekly newsletter and Johnn Four's weekly newsletter. Don't worry if you've already subscribed to one or both, you will still get the video and won't be subscribed twice.

    The third video in the series is on "Running Heists and Capers" and is available to patrons of Sly Flourish's Patreon page which you can find here:

    https://www.patreon.com/slyflourish

    And the four video on "Running Mysteries" is available to patrons of Johnn Four's Patreon which you can find at:

    https://www.patreon.com/johnnfour/

    Johnn and I hope you love these videos as much as we loved putting them together! Thanks for checking them out!

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