by Mike Shea on 6 September 2011
Note: Since writing this article, I have published a new ebook on this topic called The Lazy Dungeon Master. If you enjoy this article, please take a look at the book.
Good dungeon masters know where best to spend their time when preparing a game. Custom building monster stat blocks, designing intrictate skill challenges, and developing huge encounter areas take a lot of time and don't necessarily need to. Worse, they might force your game down one particular path instead of giving your players the freedom to explore. Today we're going to look at three tools you can use to build encounters with almost no preparation time: poster maps, reskinned monsters, and the DM Cheat Sheet.
Published poster maps give you interesting and beautiful maps designed by artists and designers to make for a fun encounter. Poster maps are easier to set up than dungeon tiles, easy to carry around, and aesthetically pleasing to use. You can stick twenty of them in a plastic folder and keep them on hand durign your game. When the time is right and your party stumbles into an encounter, pull out the right map, throw it on the table, and have at it.
Pick up as many poster maps as you can. Take care of them and spend time going through them so you know what you have available as your game progresses. Try to make your portfolio of maps as diverse as possible by including maps of wildernesses, caves, dungeons, and city streets. You can pick these maps up from either Fantastic Locations adventures, Paizo Flip Maps, or older 4th Edition adventures.
At Gencon 2011, Wizards announced a new $12 map pack containing three double-sided poster maps. This should be a great way to build up a portfolio of good-looking poster maps for a low price.
When using poster maps at the table, invest in a clear polycarbonate sheet from Home Depot. A 24" by 36" polycarbonate sheet runs about $20 to $30, keeps your maps protected, and feels great as a play surface. It's worth every penny.
Poster maps require no preparation and, when you have a good portfolio of them, gives you a huge amount of flexibility at the table. For the money, aesthetics, and convenience, they can't be beat.
DMs love to build monsters. We love to spend hours tweaking them and getting their powers just right. Doing so, however, is mostly a waste of energy. Instead, learn the valuable art of re-skinning. In short, take whatever monster design you have in mind, from a cyborg assassin to a pimped out priest of Orcus. and wrap them around the mechanics of a monster of the right type and level from any monster in the most recent monster books: Monster Vault, Monster Vault 2: Threats to the Nentir Vale, Monster Manual 3, or the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. Level creatures up or down a few levels by adding or subtracting 1 per level to all attacks, defenses, and damage and adding or subtracting 10 from their hit points per level.
Learning how to reskin monsters will save you hours of design work and let you focus your attention on the story you want to tell.
So you have maps and you have monsters but what about environmental effects, traps, hazards, and skill challenges? Easy. Keep a copy of the Dungeon Master Cheat Sheet handy. Print it out, stick it in a clear plastic sheet protector, and keep it on hand during your game. Want to add a dart trap to a corridor? Look up the appropriate level and make it happen. Want to create a small skill challenge around a negotiation with a store clerk? Use the DC per level chart and wing it. Need to figure out how much damage a level 25 character should take for sticking his hand into a bowl of acid? Use the damage per level chart and let them have it.
This single chart can run an entire D&D campaign if you use it right. You don't have to go that far, necessarily, but keeping it on hand saves you a ton of time building things that you can really just run in your head.
Saving time and energy isn't the only benefit of these tools. Being a lazy DM also give your game a lot more room to breathe. Your players are free to explore the areas they want and you never have to worry about having the right encounter ready to run. Instead of worrying about each specific battle, spend your time figuring out the NPCs of your world and what plots are going on in the story. Leave the maps, the monsters, and the mechanics to these three simple tools.