Sly Flourish

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    Sly Flourish

  • My Top Advice for D&D DMs

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Hello friend!

    We're in the final days of the Kickstarter for the Lazy DM's Companion! The Lazy DM's Companion is a book of guidelines and inspirational generators, built around the lazy DM style, to help you prepare and run fantastic games for your friends and family. Take a look and check out the free 17 page preview with tools you can use right now!

    On to the article!

    I've spent the past decade running D&D games, talking to other DMs, writing articles, shooting videos, writing books, and designing adventures for both publication and running in my own games. I've spent much of this time collecting as much good advice as I could from the far reaches of the hobby.

    This article contains my top advice to DMs for running great D&D games. These ideas aren't original. They're also one level deeper than the surface-level advice of the "relax and have fun" variety. I aimed for practicality. They're often opinionated ideas. Some DMs no doubt run great games either ignoring these suggestions or going directly against them. As always, your mileage may vary.

    Let the story unfold at the table. The tales of our games don't happen when we prepare them but at the table itself. DMs bring the world, the situation, the quests, and the non-player characters to the table and then watch and react as the characters crash into them. We don't know what's going to happen. Expecting the game to go a certain way is the most common mistake DMs make and have made for nearly four decades. Instead, remember that the story unfolds at the table, and not before.

    Set up situations and let the characters navigate them. Instead of developing plots for our games, with directions we expect the characters to follow, develop situations in which the characters get involved. Think of this like a heist movie. There's a location, there's a goal, and there are inhabitants at the location. The situation changes as the characters choose their path and engage with the situation in whatever way they choose. Ensure there are multiple possible ways the characters can deal with the situation and don't let the whole situation hang on a single ability check.

    Be on the characters' side. DMs are not competitors to the players. We're facilitators for the game. It's our job to help the characters look awesome. We want to help them meet their intent. Players only understand about half of what we're describing and the characters are much more aware of what's going on than the players are. Remember that and help players avoid doing clearly stupid things because they don't grab the whole situation. Treat characters as the heroic experienced adventurers they are.

    Use tools and techniques that help you prepare to improvise. The tips, tricks, and tools that best serve us are the ones most easily used to help us improvise during the game. A blank dry-erase poster map is far more useful than one with a map printed on it. A set of general purpose tokens more easily serves the game than crates of pre-painted miniatures. The best tools are the ones you can keep directly in your head like knowing that difficulty checks are generally between 10 and 20 or that roughly one quarter of a mob of attacking skeletons are likely to hit or make their saving throws. Grab on to the most useful and simple tools you can to help you stay flexible during the game.

    Focus on your next game. We may have big ideas for a multi-year campaign but the only game we should worry about is the next one we're going to run. Don't worry about preparing the next six sessions of a game or spending hours building out your huge end-game dungeon. Worry about where your next game is going to start, what may happen during that session, where they are going to go, what they might find there, and what secrets and clues they might uncover while there. As huge as our campaigns may be, we only have to worry about having the material to fill in the specific hours of our very next session. Worry about that.

    Build your world, campaign, and adventures from the characters outwards. When developing your own campaign or game world, instead of starting with gods and histories and huge maps, focus the campaign down to what matters to the characters and what matters to the players. As much as you love your huge campaign world, your players love their characters and largely aren't paying attention to the larger world. What is the central theme of your campaign? What makes it unique among campaigns? Where do the characters start? What local locations might the characters be interested in? What three adventure locations lie just over the horizon, or just below the adventurer's feet? Focus your attention in the characters and what's around them before building out the larger world far outside their view.

    Pay attention to pacing. I've played in a lot of D&D games and the most common problem I see is with pacing. It is really hard not to get stuck in a scene with no way out and really easy to lose track of time and find yourself halfway through a planned session with twenty minutes left in the game. Track your time and find ways to continually move things forward. Get into the action. Drop monster hit points to 1 when it's time for a battle to end. Have minions turn to dust when the final boss is defeated. Always be ready to cut the middle of your adventure to get to the end.

    Focus on the fiction first and the mechanics second. It's easy to get lost in the dice and the mechanics of D&D's monsters and characters. The story comes first and the mechanics support that story. Instead of starting with the mechanics for things like a series of skill checks, puzzles, or combat encounter building; start by asking yourself what makes sense in the world itself and let that drive the mechanics to represent it.

    An Endless Evolving Hobby

    Dungeons & Dragons isn't like other games. It continually evolves and we evolve with it. We can make it whatever we want and learn entirely new ways to play it. Every tip we take in we can match up against what we know about the game and shift our style just a little bit to test it out and see how it goes. The DMs we are today are not the type of DMs we might have been years ago or the types of DMs we'll be years into the future. Above all, if we want to improve as DMs, it comes down to three words:

    Always be learning.

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  • VideoSelect the Right Accessories

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Hello friend!

    I'm currently running the Kickstarter for the Lazy DM's Companion! The Lazy DM's Companion* is a book of guidelines and inspirational generators, built around the lazy DM style, to help you prepare and run fantastic games for your friends and family. Take a look and check out the free 17 page preview with tools you can use right now!

    Now on to the article...

    On a scale of 1 to 10, how much better do you think your D&D game will improve if you pick up that new accessory you have your eye on?

    There's a huge range of accessories for our D&D hobby with a nearly limitless price tag. Not all of them help you and your players share fantastic stories around the table. As DMs, it's worth our time to think deep about which accessories help us share these tales and immerse ourselves in the fiction of the world and which offer little actual value or, even worse, get in the way.

    For a video on this topic, check out my YouTube video, the Best Tools are Free.

    On a scale of 1 to 10, how good is your game right now? Ask this of yourself. Ask it of your players.

    Now, as you add in that fancy new accessory, how good is your game now on a scale of 1 to 10? It's unlikely any accessory, at just about any price, moves the score up two whole points.

    For many players, going from pure theater of the mind combat to any sort of battle map moves their score up a couple of points. But going from a Pathfinder flip mat to a nice pre-printed map or a TV embedded in your dining room table? How much better is the game then? Maybe one point? Maybe less if it becomes harder to set up or takes longer to use.

    Maybe people enjoy D&D more when the technology is out of the way. When we play with just a handful of dice, some character sheets, and whatever we can find to represent the characters on a blank piece of graph paper.

    You need very little to run an awesome D&D game. Many things you can do to improve your game significantly cost nothing at all. Put the characters first in your campaign. Spend time thinking through the eyes of your villains. Build situations and let the characters choose how to navigate them. Sharpen your improvisation skills. Immerse yourself in great fiction.

    What tools provide the highest impact to your D&D game? Check out my Tools of the Lazy Dungeon Master article and Tools of the Lazy Dungeon Master YouTube Video for my suggestions.

    When you see a new accessory, particularly when you see one on the internet, step away from the FOMO and really ask yourself how much better it will make your game on a scale of 1 to 10. I bet it isn't as much as you think.

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  • Running Rime of the Frostmaiden Chapter 2

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Hello friend!

    I am currently running the Kickstarter for the Lazy DM's Companion! The Lazy DM's Companion is a book of guidelines and inspirational generators, built around the lazy DM style, to help you prepare and run fantastic games for your friends and family. Take a look and check out the free 17 page preview with tools you can use tonight!

    Now on to the article!

    This article is one in a series of articles covering the hardcover D&D adventure Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. The other articles include:

    Like those, this article contains spoilers for Rime of the Frostmaiden.

    The Sandbox Widens

    Chapter 2 takes the characters out of Ten Towns (finally) and into the larger frozen north of Icewind Dale. The chapter includes roughly thirteen locations the characters might visit for one reason or another as they get involved in the larger plots of the game.

    It's important to note that the characters may get involved in these locations while also getting involved in chapters 3, 4, and 5.

    Chapter 2 acts as a toolbox of locations instead of a clear thread of the the story. This open-ended structure is both a blessing and a curse.

    Bring Your Own Adventures

    The locations in chapter 2 largely require that you thread in your own quests and adventures to take the characters from place to place. It's unlikely the characters visit every one of these locations. Instead, just as you best do for chapter 1, choose the locations you like the best and tie them to the larger quests in the campaign.

    The quests for chapter 2, as written in the book, do little more than tell the characters about a location. In many cases, given the dangers found at those locations, the characters are better off ignoring them.

    Instead, you'll need to wire together your own network of hooks, quests, and goals that take the characters to the locations you want them to visit and tie in with the three main arcs of the remainder of the book: Ythrin, Auril, and Sunblight.

    The Keys of Rime of the Frostmaiden

    When we're networking together these locations, we can focus on the things the characters need to get to and through the three main arcs and locations of the campaign. I'm going to call these keys. Here are three keys:

    • The location of Sunblight Fortress
    • The location of Grimskalle
    • The location of Ythrin

    The locations of each of these three places become the keys the characters need to head towards that arc. Each of them may require multiple steps before the characters learn of the location or have what they need to get there. Here are three potential threads:

    Ythrin

    Goal. Stop the energy source feeding the Endless Night.

    Requirements

    • Find the location of Ythrin.
    • Find the location of the Caves of Hunger.
    • Acquire either the Summer Star at the Black Cabin or the horn of blasting at Jarlmoot to breach the Caves of Hunger.
    • Enter the Caves of Hunger.

    This offers multiple paths the characters can take to get to Ythrin itself depending on whether they go to the Black Cabin or Jarlmoot. The characters can learn of the Caves of Hunger from the gnolls at the Cackling Chasm, a location they might visit by way of the Id Ascendant (more on this below).

    Sunblight Fortress

    Goal. Stop the destruction caused by Xardorok Sunblight's weapon.

    Requirements

    • Learn of the Duergar threat.
    • Learn the location of Sunblight Fortress.
    • Enter the fortress.
    • Stop the chardalyn dragon.

    This quest line crosses chapter 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the book. The characters learn of the threat in chapter 1, learn the location of Sunblight Fortress in chapter 2, enter the fortress in chapter 3, and stop the dragon in chapter 4.

    In my own cut of this adventure, Xardorok launches the weapon just before the character face Xardorok in Sunblight Fortress itself rather than the minute they show up there. I'll talk about this in a future article.

    Grimskalle

    Goal. Travel to Grimskalle and acquire the Codicil of the White to end the spell causing the Endless Night. Note, in my telling of the adventure this is only one of two things required to end the night, the other being the need to seal off the source of the spell's power in Ythrin. This builds a stronger hook to delve into Ythrin and either can be done before the other.

    Requirements

    • Learn of the mystery of Grimskalle Island.
    • Learn of the Codicil of the White.
    • Learn of Angajuk's Bell.
    • Acquire Angajuk's Bell at the Dark Duchess.
    • Use Angajuk's Bell to travel to Grimskalle Island.
    • Travel into Grimskalle and retrieve the Codicil of the White.

    This straight forward quest line primarily focuses on learning things but with a location arc between the Dark Duchess and Angajuk's Bell. How the characters learn of these locations could come from a few different sources including frost giants near Jarlmoot, Vaelish Gant at Revel's End, or other places.

    Other Potential Arcs

    We can tie together other locations if we desire as well, particularly locations tied to the characters' backgrounds. If any characters have a tie to mind flayers, it works really well to bring them to the Id Ascendant. We might include a quest where the newer-born illithids of the Id Ascendant, not nearly as mean as normal mind flayers, ask the characters to recover the Heart of the Id Ascendant, an illithid artifact stolen by nearby gnolls at the Cackling Chasm. The characters travel to the Chasm, kill the gnolls, and recover the item which lets the gnome mind flayers repair the Ascendant and travel off into the astral sea away from their elder brain masters.

    We can further tie the gnolls of the Cackling Chasm to the gnoll vampire, Tekeli-li. In my telling of the adventure, Tekeli-li was outcast from the gnolls of the Cackling Chasm as a runt and, starving, managed to find strange caves leading into the Reghed Glacier. There he found a black pool leaking from some twisted monstrosity. Starving, he drank it and turned into a vampire. Now he hunts his own kind as well as anything else, starving the gnolls of the Cackling Chasm for his own revenge. The gnolls know of Tekeli-li and the Caves of Hunger and can pass this information to the characters in different ways.

    Other locations like the Reghed Tribe Camp, Skytower Shelter, Revel's End, and Wyrmdoom Crag may come up if the characters are tied to them directly.

    The characters may learn about the Lost Spire from Dzaan's journals at Easthaven and their trek through the Spire may tell them of Ythrin, the source of its power, and its location buried deep under the Reghed Glacier.

    Building Your Own Campaign Arc

    As it stands, chapter 2 is a toolbox to build custom campaign arcs based on your characters, the locations you want to reveal, and the larger story of the game. Like chapter 1, chapter 2 takes work up front to build these threads. That's unfortunate; I would like better support in a $50 hardcover adventure; but with that work in place, we can take what we receive in Frostmaiden and turn it into an adventure customized for the game we want for ourselves and our players.

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  • Thinking Through the Eyes of our Villains

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Hello friend!

    I am currently running the Kickstarter for the Lazy DM's Companion! The Lazy DM's Companion is a book of guidelines and inspirational generators, built around the lazy DM style, to help you prepare and run fantastic games for your friends and family. Take a look and check out the free 17 page preview with tools you can use tonight!

    Now on to the article!

    Few preparation activities are as useful as thinking through the eyes of our villains. Instead of planning out a long storyline that may never happen the way we think or building a huge campaign world the details of which never hit our table; thinking through the eyes of our villains tells us how the world acts and reacts to the actions of the characters.

    Wherever and whenever we find ourselves with some extra time on our hands, we need simply gaze into the sky and say "what is my villain doing right now?"

    Asking ourselves what our villains are doing right now gives us an idea how the game evolves based on the current character-driven situation. We may have multiple villains, each with their own goals, motivations, backgrounds, and steps to achieve their goals. These steps act as a countdown clock to their final destination, each step visible to the characters to show them the progress.

    Example: Strahd von Zarovich

    Let's ponder one of the most popular D&D villains as an example — Strahd von Zarovich from Curse of Strahd. In the beginning of the adventure, Strahd is happy to terrorize Barovia, seek out Ireena, and draw the characters into his domain for a bit of fun and respite from the mundane world in which he is trapped. As the characters grow in power, he becomes more curious about them, eventually inviting them to dinner at Ravenloft. Later, he may become fearful of the characters and their power, sending in his legions to thwart them or setting up unwinnable situations to bring them back to the negotiating table. As the actions of the characters evolve in Ravenloft, so too does Strahd's reactions. How does Strahd feel about the characters right now and what does he do about it?

    Breaking Away from "What Will Happen"

    One of the most common DM mistakes is assuming the story is going to go a certain way. Maybe you have a good guess but you have five creative brains on the other side of the table who may take the story into entirely new directions.

    Far more useful than planning and plotting out a campaign or building detailed worlds beyond the sight of the characters is to prepare to improvise. Internalize the backgrounds, motivations, behaviors, and actions of the villains and prepare to improvise as the characters go in directions you never expected.

    Next time you find yourself itching to prepare your game, ask yourself what the villains in the world are doing right now and watch the world come alive for you and your players.

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  • VideoTen Ways to Use Index Cards

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    The all-mighty index card may be one of the cheapest and most versatile tools in our [DM's toolkit]. Index cards have been a staple tool for DMs for decades; probably since the beginning of the game.

    In this article I offer ten ways you can use index cards in your D&D games.

    If you're interested in a video on this topic, see my YouTube video on Ten Uses for Index Cards in D&D.

    DM Screen Initiative Cards

    Take your index cards, cut them horizontally, fold them in half, and write down your characters' name on one side and your choice character details on the other. Drape them over the edge of your DM screen and use them for table-visible initiative. Write down useful info like passive Perception, Insight, and Investigation, trained skills, or other info to help you streamline your play.

    Initiative Table Tents

    Alternatively, fold your index cards in half, forming them into table tents, and number them from 1 to 10. When the characters roll for initiative, hand them out from lowest to highest in the order of initiative, keeping cards in front of the DM for the monsters' place in the initiative. This is extremely flexible, works well for one-shot games, and doesn't need to be updated when new characters join the group.

    Quest Cards

    When a new quest drops in front of the characters, write down the quest, the goal, and any notes and hand it to the players. This makes it easy for them to track the quests they have in front of them and gives them a place to keep their notes for that quest.

    Magic Item Cards

    When you're handing out magic item rewards, write down the name and details of the item on an index card and then hand it to the player who receives the reward. This makes it easy to keep track of magic items and makes the item feel more "real" to the player who receives it.

    Secrets and Clues

    Using the powerhouse step from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, write down secrets and clues on index cards and hand them to the players when their characters discover the clue. For more complicated games of detailed intrigue, such clues help the players piece together the larger story, even if its out of order. Alternatively, write down our own ten secrets and clues on the front and back of an index card as part of your game prep.

    Combat Zones

    The excellent RPG Fate Condensed describes using index cards to identify zones and "aspects" during gameplay. We can take this idea and drop it right into our D&D games. When using zone-based combat treat each index card as its own zone in a larger combat area and write down the notable character-usable features of that zone on the card so players remember them during the battle. A large throne room might include three such zones, each represented by its own index card: a hall of cracked statues, a dais with burning braziers, and a gilded arcane throne. Moving from one zone to another takes a move and spells and effects typically affect creatures in a single zone. There's actually an entire RPG based on this idea called Index Card RPG worth checking out.

    X Cards

    Index cards are the default tool for X cards, the most popular of safety tools. Give each player an index card with a large X drawn on it. During the game, if any player is uncomfortable with the direction the game is going, they can touch or hold up the X card and move the story beyond the situation or take a break to discuss the situation out of character.

    NPC Notes

    During prep, write down the details of NPCs on an index card. Use them yourself or hand them to your players so they can keep track of NPCs. You can also use index cards for companion characters complete with stat blocks.

    Secret Notes to Players

    Sometimes you want to give information to just one player. Write it down and hand it to them. If you don't want to telegraph that you're giving info to just one player, write a bunch of notes, some meaningless, and give them to a bunch of players at once ensuring the player receiving the vital information gets the right card.

    Modified Monster Stat Blocks

    If you're making modifications to a default monster stat block, jot down those modifications onto an index card and keep it with the monster stat block in your Monster Manual. Some DMs like to write down the whole stat block but that can be a lot of work if the stat block is long.

    A Flexible Tool for Improvisational D&D

    The index card is a near-perfect flexible tool that reinforces the style of improvisational play. We don't know exactly how our games will go and having a blank card able to fill in such a wide range of situations fits perfectly. It's a great example of the kind of tools that help us run great D&D games. Stick a stack of index cards into your DM kit today.

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  • Recovering From a Bad Game

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    Not all D&D games go well. Games can go wrong for many reasons and often each reason needs its own approach to get past it. Today, however, we're going to offer some general advice for handling the situation when a game goes bad.

    For some research on this topic I took to Twitter and asked people how they recovered from bad games. You can see the Twitter thread here. The thread contains some good suggestions and I have a few suggestions of my own. These aren't a universal cure but they might help us aim in the right direction when we need a boost after a bad game.

    For a deeper look into this topic, watch my episode of the [DM's Deep Dive with Dr. Megan Connell]. Dr. Connell has some fantastic advice on how to get past bad games.

    The rest of this article offers suggestions from the Twitter thread, my conversation with Dr. Connell, and some thoughts of my own.

    Relax and Get some Distance

    When a game goes sideways it's easy to get wound up into it. We might feel like our favorite hobby, potentially a big part of our lives, is completely falling apart. It's hard to recognize that this is a small bump in a long road of great stories shared with our friends and family.

    Take a deep breath. Take a few of them. Whatever happened to cause your bad game, take a break.

    It's almost never a good idea to try to solve the situation while you're still in the clutch of heated emotions unless you have to. If a game went bad, don't try to fix it right away. Give it a day or so. Get your thoughts together. Get past the initial emotionally charged moment. Give yourself time. Take a break and spend some time on another hobby. Take a walk. Anything helping you get out of the center of the emotionally charged situation can help.

    Obviously, if a situation requires an immediate response, take that response. Violations of safety tools, for example, require quick intervention. If you can, take a step back and get your thoughts together.

    Look at it Analytically

    Once you've gotten some distance, take time to look at the problem analytically. What went wrong? What were the precursors? Once you're not in the middle of the situation you can get a better perspective of the problem. Maybe it wasn't as big as you thought it was. Maybe the problem you thought you had was actually caused by something else. Did you make a mistake? If so, don't try to avoid it. Understand it. Study the situation, your reaction, your feelings, and the reaction and feelings of your players after you've taken a step back. This helps you better understand what happened and what you might do to fix it.

    Talk To Your Players

    Once you've gotten some distance and looked at the problem from the outside, talk openly with your players. This might work in a group or it might work better in a one-on-one conversation. As much as we feel comfortable with texting and email to discuss things like this; face to face is often a better way to approach the conversations. It isn't always comfortable but we get a lot more information in a face-to-face conversation than we do in email or texts.

    If you made a mistake, admit it. Talk about it. Don't get defensive. These are your friends we're talking about. It's much easier to get past situations like this if all the cards are on the table.

    If our problem was tied to one of our players, talking to that player alone in a non-judgmental way can help. Focus the conversation on the situation and the outcome. Don't make it personal. What outcome would you like? How can the situation be better?

    If it wasn't a problem with one of the players, maybe the problem was with the game itself. Maybe your players seemed bored or frustrated. This might be better as a group conversation. What went wrong? What previous games did they enjoy? What would they like to see more of? These last two are my favorite questions to ask at the end of any game. What did they love and what do they want more of? These questions work just as well for "bad" games as they do for good ones. Instead of focusing on the features of games that went bad, steer the conversation either to the areas the players enjoyed or previous games that seemed to work.

    Talk to your players and really listen to what they have to say. Don't just wait for your turn to talk. Maybe a character died in a particularly gruesome way (I'm looking at you, obsidian coffin in Tomb of the Nine Gods). What would have been a better way to handle that situation? Your players may have better ideas about how to handle it than you do. Listen to them and find out.

    Get Back in the Saddle

    Once we've dealt with the immediacy of the issue and hopefully corrected our course, it's time to get back to the table. Keep the next game simple, focusing on the things that make D&D games great. Keep the storyline straight forward. Read up on the characters. Come up with a strong start to the next game. Plan out some interesting locations and some fun scenes that take place there. Throw a few fun monsters at them. Getting back to the basics helps us remember what makes this game so great to begin with.

    The bad game we had will seem a lot less bad once we run a few good games after it.

    Sometimes It's Best to Move On

    Depending on the problem that came up, a hard solution might be to step away. Whether it's burning out on DMing or the wrong personalities at the table, sometimes the best solution is a clean break. This is hopefully a last resort saved only for extreme circumstances. If this happens, it's time to get back to square one and start building a new great D&D group so we can get back to the joy of our game.

    Continuing to Share Our Tales of High Adventure

    Bad games happen. We don't like them and, given that we're dealing with six personalities around our table, our games can get complicated and emotions can run high. These aren't easy situations to deal with. People problems are always hard to deal with. Hopefully we can get past it by taking a step back, taking a deep breath, thinking about the problems analytically, addressing the problems and solutions with our friends, and getting back behind the screen. Above all, our goal is to have fun sharing tales of high adventures with our friends and loved ones. If we can hang onto that, there are few problems we can't surmount as we share our tales of high adventure.

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  • VideoTools of the Lazy Dungeon Master

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    This article was updated from the original posted September 2017.

    Prepare what matters to our game.

    That's the core mantra of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. It's an easy statement to say but can be hard to appreciate and implement. Where should we focus our time? What should we toss aside? What tools provide the most value for a flexible game? The answer to these questions vary between DMs but we are likely to find some common ground.

    Let's look at tools. What tools help us best run our best D&D games?

    If you prefer a video, check out my Tools of the Lazy Dungeon Master YouTube video.

    "When art critics get together they talk about form and structure and meaning. When artists get together they talk about where we can buy cheap turpentine."

    - Pablo Picasso

    A Lazy DM Tool Checklist

    Here's a quick summary of the tools described in this article.

    • Index Cards
    • Pathfinder Flip Mat
    • Lazy DM Cheat Sheet
    • The Lazy DM's Workbook
    • NPC Portrait Cards
    • The Monster Manual
    • Character and Monster Tokens

    The Tools to Help You Improvise At The Table

    When we consider the tools we want on hand to run our D&D games, it helps to know how these tools serve us. Most importantly, these tools should help us improvise as the game moves in directions we didn't expect. The more flexible the tools, the more they'll help us run a fun and fluid game. The tools in this article all fit the ideal of flexibility.

    Index Cards

    It's rare to find a DM who isn't completely in love with index cards. They're probably the cheapest and most powerful physical tool in our toolkit. We can use index cards for all kinds of things and here are just a few:

    • Character info
    • NPC info
    • Magic item details to hand to the players
    • Initiative tents or lists
    • Combat zones for abstract maps
    • Monster hit point tracking
    • Quest cards
    • Weird symbols or sigils the characters discover
    • Small maps

    Here's my YouTube video on the value of index cards for D&D for more.

    The list goes on and on. Grab a pack of a thousand for about $7 and you're good for a long time.

    Pathfinder Flip Mat

    For more than a decade the humble Pathfinder Flip Mat serves well at my table. You can use wet or dry erase markers on it and fold it up and stick it in your DM kit. For it's size, weight, cost, and flexibility it's an amazing value. Drawing maps is the obvious use for a flip mat but there's a lot more we can do with it. Like index cards we can draw all sorts of things on it including isometric or side-view maps, zones for abstract combat, initiative lists, weird symbols the characters see, and more.

    Laying the Pathfinder Flip Mat in front of you is like having a horizontal white board you can use throughout your whole game. It's an amazing and versatile tool for D&D games.

    The Lazy DM's Cheat Sheet

    I've built dozens of different cheat sheets over the years and the current Lazy DM's Cheat Sheet is my favorite. Print it out on nice copper resume paper, cut it down a bit, and laminate it and you have an awesome dry-erasable board on one side and a host of improvisational tools on the other.

    Names, Relics, Monuments, Maps: The Lazy DM's Workbook

    I designed the Lazy DM's Workbook to be your improvisational companion sitting by your side when running D&D games. The Workbook contains several useful tools to help you run games including:

    • 5e Reference Tables. A set of 5e reference tables to look up mechanics quickly.
    • Random Names. Likely the most useful improvisational tool a DM can have on hand.
    • Random Monuments. A generator to build interesting backdrops for scenes and encounters.
    • Random Items. Tables to generate unique single-use or permanent magic items.
    • Random Dungeon Monster Tables. Tables to build random encounters for your game when it's time to throw a beast or two at the characters.
    • Lazy Lairs. Ten maps and descriptions for common locations the characters might discover including a castle, docks, sewer, catacomb, cave, cellar, dungeon, mine, temple, and tower.

    This short book, best purchased in print or even spiral bound at a local printer, is a fantastic resource to help you improvise and run your games.

    NPC Face Cards

    Inkwell Ideas sells an assortment of NPC face cards you can use to show your players when they run into an NPC. Along with random names, face cards like this are a great way to improvise NPCs. When the characters enter a bar and you want to highlight a particular patron, flip through the deck and find the first one that makes sense. Drop them on the table and you have a new visual representation of that NPC.

    The Monster Manual

    A lot of DMs like to copy down stat blocks onto cards, print them out, or otherwise manipulate stat blocks for monsters. This has never been my style. Instead, I think it's easier to grab your actual monster book of choice, often the Monster Manual, and use index cards to bookmark the pages I'm likely to need. The core Monster Manual is likely the most useful single book of monsters and, when you embrace reskinning, gives you a nearly unlimited menagerie of monsters to throw at the characters.

    Keep your Monster Manual on hand and you'll never be without a threat.

    The Dungeon Master's Guide

    The Dungeon Master's Guide gets a bad rap and one, I believe, is undeserved. While many have quibbles about it, it does contain a wealth of useful and interesting tables to help us think about our adventures. It's particularly useful while planning out an adventure or campaign, giving useful advice and inspiration for building out our games. For more details, see my Gems of the Dungeon Master's Guide article.

    Character and Monster Tokens or Miniatures

    Finding the right tokens or miniatures for lazy dungeon mastering is a hard problem. Pre-painted plastic miniatures offer the best representation at the table but suffer from a high expense and never seeming to have the right number of the right miniatures to fit our needs. Simply drawing representations of characters and monsters using a dry-erase marker on a flip mat remains the cheapest and most flexible option. Think of it like drawing out football plays.

    My favorite solution are lazy monster tokens. You can make a set of about 30 tokens to represent nearly any monster and even player tokens for about $30 in materials short of a printer. You can likewise find crafters on Etsy selling monster tokens like this for cheap. Generic tokens have a big advantage in price, size, and flexibility. A token with a skull on it can represent everything from a skeleton to a death knight.

    For a video on this topic see my YouTube video on building lazy monster tokens.

    Another solution is to print and paste your own 2d standup miniatures. I love Printable Heroes miniatures. Use a good color printer with photo-grade paper and print out beautiful 2d miniatures. They're not as flexible as the generic monster tokens though. You'd still have to print and prep the minis you think you'll need.

    Digital Tools

    During the 2020 pandemic, I had to go from a full slate of in-person games to running my games entirely online. This article focused on physical tools but some digital tools are excellent. In particular I found Notion, D&D Beyond, Discord, and Owlbear Rodeo served as an excellent stack for me to prepare and run my games. You can learn more here:

    Lazy Tools for Improvisational Games

    The tools described here fall under specific requirements. They need to be cheap enough that most of us can afford them. They need to be easy and quick to use. They need to support games that shift directions regularly. When building your own list of tools for lazy dungeon mastering, aim for the tools that, like the core lazy DM philosophy, help you run better games by doing less.

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  • VideoReinforce Cooperative Character Motivations

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Even the best players sometimes build characters that just don't get along with the rest of the group. The idea of a complicated character filling the role of the reluctant hero seems great initially but at the table it can end up being a pain in the ass.

    If you'd rather watch a video on this topic you can see my YouTube video on reinforcing cooperative character motivation.

    Before the session zero of any of my campaigns I like to give out a one-page campaign guide such as my Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign guide, my Eberron campaign guide, and my Descent into Avernus campaign guide as examples. In each of these I like to reinforce two things: the connection between the character and the story of the adventure and the cooperative connection between the character and the rest of the group.

    It works well to do this before the players start building characters. That way we slide in before they start thinking of their character as the lone wolf druid or the mercenary fighter who only cares about money or the shifty rogue who likes stealing from the group's wizard.

    We can distill down this idea to it's simplest form by presenting the players with a single clear motivation they should bake into their characters:

    "You're character works in cooperation with the group to accomplish X" where X is whatever the story of the campaign dictates. In Rime of the Frostmaiden it's helping the people of Ten Towns survive the endless night. In Descent into Avernus it's to serve the city of Elturel and honor the Hellriders.

    Then, during character creation, you can ask the players to describe what motivates their character to work with the group. This changes the dynamic consideribly. Sometimes you'll get a blank stare as they realize they didn't even think about the group when building their character but it's better to tackle that now instead of when you're deep into your campaign.

    The next time you're starting a new campaign or introducing a new character into an existing campaign, work with the player first to reinforce the motivation of their character to cooperate with the group. It saves a lot of problems down the line and gets us away from the cardinal sin of D&D, "It's what my character would do!".

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  • VideoImprovising Colville-style Action Oriented Monsters in D&D

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Back in 2019 Matt Colville posted a YouTube video describing Action Oriented Monsters. The basic concept is that boss monsters typically don't have the tools or action economy to deal with a full party of adventurers. This is often true even for legendary monsters but it mostly offers a framework for a non-legendary monster to threaten a whole group and bring more drama to a combat encounter.

    In a Twitch stream on 18 February 2021, Colville described his general philosophy on what made an action oriented monster which I'll summarize here:

    First, action-oriented monsters are intended to hold their own against a group of characters.

    Second, action oriented monsters have "villain actions" which act like legendary actions except that, on top of their typical array of actions, bonus actions, and reactions; they have additional boss actions. Often these actions can be spell-like abilities but aren't as complicated as spells. The intent is to build a highly usable and effective boss monster that isn't overly complicated to run.

    These boss actions are keyed to the rounds of a battle which often mirror the dramatic arc of a story. These beats follow the typically predictable flow of combat and often follow these three steps:

    • First round, move into an effective position.
    • Second round, get out of a bad position and avoid being ganged up on. Sometimes this changes the battlefield.
    • Third round, the boss is about to die so make the characters regret ever tangling with the boss. Explode.

    I like to break these down into simpler single-word ideas:

    1. Position
    2. Escape
    3. Explode

    Action oriented monsters also often have boosted hit points (think about that monster dial).

    In the original video Matt describes a goblin boss that summons goblins, lets them move around the battlefield without provoking, and lets them get a sudden burst of attacks near the end of the fight. For an action-oriented Ankheg he describes it burrowing underground, pulling characters underground, and then spraying acid like a big sprinkler near the end of the battle.

    Building Action-Oriented Monsters on the Fly

    As a lazy dungeon master I like tools and frameworks I can keep in my head and apply right at the table when I need them. I think we can build such a framework for action-oriented monsters as well; something beyond just bumping up hit points, attacks, and damage like we do with our dials of monster difficulty. What does this improvisational action-oriented template look like?

    1. Double or triple the hit points of the monster as needed. Keep your hand on the HP dial if it's too much.
    2. Give the monster initial mobility. How can this monster get into a good initial position?
    3. Give the monster mid-battle mobility. How can it escape from being pinned down? Can it roar and send everyone flying back? Can it bash its way out? Can it beat its wings and soar into the air? Can it turn into a shadow and zip away? How you flavor this for the monster is the tricky part so get creative.
    4. What is the monster's final burst? Can it attack all creatures in range? Can it explode into fire, ice, poison, or necrotic damage, damaging everyone around it? Does it have one big spell it can cast for free? Again, the flavor of the monster determines how it explodes.
    5. We may want to fall back to standard legendary monster abilities like legendary resistance and legendary actions to avoid getting pinned down with debilitating spells or effects and give it some extra actions in the middle the characters' turns. Adding legendary resistances takes little work and legendary actions can often be either a move that doesn't provoke, a single weapon attack, or a low-level spell.

    Building an Action-Oriented Vampire Spawn

    I love vampires but there really isn't a great low-level vampire boss in the Monster Manual. The vampire spawn is solid but clearly isn't action oriented. What if we want to quickly make a low-level vampire boss? Here are some quick modifications we can make to a standard vampire spawn to make it a worthy boss for characters of 4th to 6th level.

    • Turn the vampire's hit point dial up to 120.
    • When this vampire chooses to grapple a target with its claw attack, it still inflicts its claw damage.
    • On rounds 1 and 2, the vampire spawn can burst into a cloud of bats, flies, shadowy tendrils, or some other form that lets it move its speed without provoking opportunity attacks.
    • On round 3 of combat, the vampire can burst into its cloud-form, flying around the battlefield and attacking each character with a claws attack. If it successfully grapples one of the characters with this attack, it can follow up with a bite attack on one of these creatures.

    It takes a little work and a little practice to apply changes like these to a monster on the fly but with a short checklist and some imagination, it isn't impossible.

    • Increase hit points.
    • Give the boss initial mobility on round 1.
    • Give the boss mobility to escape on round 2.
    • Let the boss explode in round 3.
    • Add legendary actions or resistances as needed.

    Frameworks to Tell Dramatic Stories

    The more tools we have in our toolbox to quickly and easily change up the mechanics of our game, the easier it is to tune our game to tell dramatic and exciting stories as they unfold. Our goal is never to punish the characters but to bring the right excitement and danger at the right time.

    Take some time to imagine how you would quickly build an action-oriented monster. Try it with a big brute like an ogre, a sly lurker like a spy or assassin, and a powerful spellcaster like a mage, archmage, or lich. If you can whip up abilities for those three, you're likely to have what you need to build them at the table.

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  • VideoPrepare a D&D Game in 15 Minutes

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    The original Lazy Dungeon Master offered recommendations for "five minute game prep". Looking back, I oversold this idea. I don't think it's realistic to fully a prep a game in only five minutes. I find it takes me about 30 minutes to comfortably prepare for a game using the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

    That said, I think it's reasonable to ask where one would put their effort if they only had fifteen minutes to prepare. That's tight but doable. Let's look at one way to prepare for a game in only fifteen minutes.

    For a video on this topic, check out my Preparing for your D&D Game in 15 Minutes YouTube video.

    Pick Three Steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

    The kind of game you're running dictates which steps are likely to help you the most. I've covered this topic before in Choosing the Right Steps from the Lazy DM Checklist.

    For the sake of this article, we'll assume we're running something like a single-session homebrew adventure. Thus, we'll break down our fifteen minute prep into three steps:

    • Prepare a strong start
    • Outline three to five adventure locations
    • Write down ten secrets and clues

    Even these steps will be tight in 15 minutes. Secrets and clues are powerful but not always easy. I could easily spend five minutes staring at the ceiling trying to think up my final three secrets and clues. Some days they come easy, some days they're a struggle. Still, this is a reasonable model and not far off from the original steps in the original Lazy Dungeon Master.

    First Five Minutes: The Strong Start

    First we can ask ourselves how our game begins. What initial scene will draw the players into the game? What happens around the characters at the beginning of the game? If we're lucky, we might have an idea for this right away. If we're not, we might be starting from scratch. When in doubt, a monster comes to town.

    Second Five Minutes: Three to Five Fantastic Locations

    What three to five fantastic locations might the characters discover in the next game? Think of these as scene backdrops. What sets the stage of a scene? We're going to abbreviate the normal "three aspect" style of defining what makes a location special and stick to just one. Give it a cool name. "Bridge of Teeth", "The Gaping Maw", "Statue of the Fallen King", something like that. A good evocative name is all you need for a location — something that inspires your own ideas and seeds your brain when it's time to fill it out during the game.

    Much of what we're doing in this fifteen minute prep is seeding what we need to improvise during the game. Good evocative location names do that.

    If you're having trouble, grab some random tables like the monuments table in the Lazy DM's Workbook or the Dungeon & Exotic Locations, Monuments, and Weird Locales tables in chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Random tables are a great fast way to shake your brain out of a rut and inspire some ideas for locations.

    If you have extra time, maybe grab a map from Dyson Logos to go along with your locations. A good map can often fill in multiple sessions.

    Third Five Minutes: Secrets and Clues

    With our final five minutes we'll hammer out some secrets and clues — up to ten if we can. This is going to be a stretch so don't overthink it. Grab onto easy ones if you need to. Seed your mind with the question "what interesting thing can the characters discover in this session?". You can start by breaking them down into particular types of secrets that may help you grab them more easily. These types include:

    • Character secrets
    • Villain secrets
    • Story secrets
    • NPC secrets
    • Location secrets

    When breaking them down by these types it's a little easier to come up with two or three per type and call it a day.

    Tools for Improvisation

    It's vital we have the right tools on hand to improvise during our game. For monsters, the Monster Manual is hard to beat. Understanding what types of monsters might fit the locations or story we're running will help us pick them. The monsters by challenge rating in the Dungeon Master's Guide and the monsters by ecology in Xanathar's Guide to Everything can help us pick monsters during the game itself.

    For NPCs, we're best off with a good list of random names. According to many DMs, this is the number one most valuable improvisational tool for D&D. Beyond that we can improvise their view of the world, their motives, their appearances, and their mannerisms. If you need, grab a character from popular fiction, switch the gender, and you're ready to go.

    The Dungeon Master's Guide random treasure tables can help you fill in treasure as you need. You can jump straight to the table you want for either consumable magic items or permanent magic items. Most of the time tables B for consumables and table F for permanent magic items serve you well throughout the game. There are also piles of random treasure tools on the web. Here's my favorite random treasure tool when you don't want to roll on the book.

    The Lazy DM's Workbook is designed to be at your side when you're running the game to help you improvise as much as possible. It has tables for NPC names, items, monuments, town events, and monsters. It also has ten "lazy lairs" to give you ten commonly used locations with maps, tags, and descriptions when you need a location quick.

    With the Lazy DM's Workbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master's Guide on hand, I'd argue you have what you need at the table to run a great game.

    Creativity from Constraint

    Prepping an entire session of D&D in fifteen minutes sounds like a horror show but sometimes the best horror shows lead to the most creative work. Consider the story of the Klon Concert in which pianist Keith Jarrett turned a horrible piano into one of the most popular jazz piano albums of all time. With constraint comes creativity. See what kind of prep you can get done in 15 minutes and what sort of game it produces at your table.

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