by Mike Shea on 26 May 2014
This article has been updated from the original written on 6 September 2011
Refine your game preparation on the elements most important to your game and you'll have a game that's easier to run and more fun for both you and your players. That's the core maxim of the Lazy Dungeon Master in a nutshell. It's an easy statement to say, but harder to appreciate and implement. Where should we focus our time? What should we leave blank? What tools are the most valuable for a flexible game? The answer to these questions will vary for every DM but we are likely to find some common ground.
In this article we're going to look at some of the tools that offer the greatest value at the table. They're easy to use, keep your preparation focused, and help build deep and rich D&D games right at the table.
When we think about the best tools to help us run a good D&D game, we have to think about what really matters to us and our players at the table. Here are a few things we might consider:
The tools we should choose should help us build these things quickly and easily. Ideally we can bring the tools we need right to the table and cook up the whole adventure on the spot. Developing grand histories, writing out complicated NPC backgrounds, and statting out our own monsters from the ground up may not be nearly as valuable for the time and energy we spend.
When considering useful tools, let's begin with tools to help tie PCs to the world.
Often the best story threads in our game are those handed to you by players through the backgrounds and motivations of their characters. Keeping track of all of these threads can be a pain in the ass, though. A good campaign worksheet can help you keep track of all of the threads and interests of the PCs as well as the names of NPCs, locations, and other things that guide your story. Having this on hand during the game, jotting down your notes, and then reviewing it between games is a great way to know what matters to the game and seeds your brain with ideas about where things might go.
Because every game is different, you'll probably want to design one of these yourself. A horizontal page in Word with about four columns is a good place to start. Put down the PCs, their backgrounds, themes, and interests, the NPCs and ties, major story threads, fantastic adventure locations, and anything else that helps you keep track of the story. More than a page and you've probably written too much.
One of the best lazy DM tools is also one of the oldest—the venerable Monster Manual. Each game system has its own, some huge and some very thin. Depending on your style of play, paper copies may work better than digital although digital monster manuals let you snapshot just the pages you need and sort through them in a photo viewer.
Besides obvious uses, monster manuals have a few uses that really aid the lazy DM. First, they help you fire up ideas. Good monster manuals have story seeds wired right into every monster description. When you're stuck for an idea, you can usually skim through a monster book and get an idea for an encounter or adventure with hardly anything else needed.
Second, monster stat blocks are always useful for reskinning. Simply rewrap the flavor of any creature you can think of around the mechanics of a monster stat block that behaves close enough to the vision you have of the creature. Take the image of a powerful ogre fire mage and wrap it around the mechanics of a red dragon, for example. You can almost strip away all of the flavor of the monsters in a monster manual and just think of it as a pile of monstrous skeletons around which you can wrap your own creatures.
When it comes to pure mechanics, monster books are likely to hold the most. The more you use them at your table, the more time you save having to worry about coming up with your own.
Since the original Dungeon Master Screens, GMs have always wanted quick reference charts they can use at the table to keep their game running smooth. Now you can find cheat sheets for just about every system you can think of. Though D&D editions from version 1 to version 3.5 haven't always had consistent ways to articulate monster power at any given level, 4th Edition simplified and streamlined the math. This results in an easy to use 4th Edition Cheat Sheet to help you determine monster stats at just about any level. The back pages in the 13th Age core book and the baseline stats for monsters on page 254 give you all you need to improvise during your 13th Age game. You can download a 13th Age Campaign Cheat Sheet as well. There is also a Fate Core Cheat Sheet and good cheat sheets contained in the Dungeon World Sheets when running those systems.
Whatever system you choose, a single page reference of the rules you'll need to look up the most will help you improvise during the game and keep the game running smooth.
Random lists are a great way to generate ideas, either by giving your mind something to skim for ideas or to actually roll against. The right mix of random tables can build out entire rooms, entire dungeons, or even entire adventures with just a few dice rolls. The best currently published source of random tables I've found comes from the Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide. It has over 115 tables of all different sorts, from random monster encounters to the names of bars and inns. Even if you don't play Pathfinder, it's a great source for generating ideas.
The Lazy DM Cheat Sheet is another source of random tables for your game. It's designed to fit on two sides of a single sheet of paper and give you enough inspiration to flesh out an entire game should the need arise.
Of course, one of the best types of random lists are lists of NPC names. Yet Another Fantasy Name Generator is a great resource for generating random NPC names. Just remember to write them down on your campaign worksheet as they come up during your game so you'll remember to bring them in later.
If you're looking for a source of hundreds of random names, traps, and mundane magic items, consider downloading and printing the random names, traps, and magic items PDF.
While not directly useful as a lazy DM aid, published adventures are excellent sources of professionally designed materials you can scrape and re-use in your own games. Dungeon maps, room descriptions, colorful NPCs, and town locations are all often published in old adventures. The website D&D Classics is a great source of old-school D&D adventures running about $5 a pop. When you have them in hand, make sure you read up on converting adventures. As a source for large detailed dungeons, it's hard to beat pre-published adventures.
Poster maps are probably the most efficient way to display a detailed tactical area without having to do a lot of work. The best choice in poster maps right now are Paizo Flip Maps. At about $10 to $20 a pack, you get some highly reusable yet detailed battle-spaces for your games. Follow a tip from Dave the Game and start with your maps first to get an idea for the type of adventure you might want to run.
A blank poster map is one of the more valuable aids in this area as well. Put a large acryllic sheet over it to flatten it out and it makes for a fantastic and flexible play surface for your game.
There's another aid that some GMs are finding quite useful to draw out the imaginations of players—Rory's Story Cubes. These childrens' imagination toys have various pictures on every side of the dice. Rolling three or four of them together can fire off the imagination into building an interesting background for a previously unknown NPC. Keeping some story dice on your table can be a great way to get your players to begin adding their own parts of the story to the whole.
Start with this simple exercise. When the PCs defeat a humanoid foe, give them some story dice, have them roll them, and then have them describe the background of the foe. What they come up with may be a pile of humorous bullshit but it might just fire off a thread to weave back into the adventure.
Giving your players some story dice and having them work in strange tales is a great way to get the players to think outside of their character sheets. It gives them a way to think and build into the larger story going on. It also gives you a break for a minute or so as you shift the creative load to your players for a little bit.
What you choose NOT to add to your lazy DM kit is just as important as what you throw in. Like keeping our DM brain attic clean, the tools we pick should all add to the fun of our game, otherwise they're getting in the way. Trim down your choice of random lists. Pick just the best monster manual to keep on hand during your game. Streamline your campaign worksheet and choose only the most helpful mechanics cheat sheets. When you have it ready, you'll have a clean package of tools to help you build fantastic worlds woven with deep evolving story threads. Start building your lazy toolkit today!