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The Eight Steps of the Lazy DM – 2023 Review

by Mike on 23 October 2023

Since 2018, Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master has helped thousands of GMs improve their tabletop roleplaying games and focus on what matters most for their games. The core of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is the eight steps for game prep offering a flexible and modular outline to help GMs

Today we're going to review the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master for those who haven't yet seen them and offer a refresher for those who have used them over the past five years.

The free Lazy GM's Resource Document includes descriptions of the eight steps and many examples along with other material from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, and the Lazy DM's Companion. It's available to read, copy, or use, even commercially, under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Give it a look if you want to dig further or include these ideas in your own work.

And now the steps.

Step 1: Review the Characters

In the first step, we focus our attention on the players' characters. The characters are the single interface between players and the world we're sharing together. We spend this part of our prep remembering who they are, what they want, and what connections they have to the world. It's the first of the eight steps so we can keep them firmly in mind while running through the other seven steps.

One fantastic way to work the characters into your prep is to ask yourself

"What hook can I include in the next session to draw this character into the game?"

and do this for each character in the game.

Step 2: Create a Strong Start

The strong start draws players out of the real world and into the game. The key driver for the strong start is "something happens." Maybe the characters get attacked (a typical but potentially overused favorite). Maybe they meet a long-lost NPC. Maybe there's a festival in town. Maybe a sinkhole opens up in the road leading to the depths below. Something happens, and it draws players into the world. The strong start often leads to the hook to draw the characters into the adventure if there isn't one already.

Step 3: Outline Potential Scenes

This step is entirely designed to help GMs feel good about their prep. It sets the potential boundaries for the session. The key question is "what scenes might occur in this session?" These scenes might be in a linear sequence or potential branches based on the choices or actions of the characters. They might be small and focused scenes or big plans like "explore level 3 of the Scarlet Citadel." Your outline of scenes should be small and brief – just a few short sentences in a list. Don't overdo it. Keep it brief and flexible and be ready to throw these scenes away if they don't actually come up in the game.

Step 4: Define Secrets and Clues

This is the heart of the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Whatever steps you decide on for your prep, "secrets and clues" may be the main one you want to include.

These secrets and clues have a few criteria that make them powerful:

This last point is tricky to understand and critical to their value in our prep. You decide which secrets the characters uncover during the game itself. Maybe they learn it from an NPC. Maybe they learn it by examining a fresco on the wall. Maybe a secret comes to them in a divine vision. The Lazy GM's Resource Document includes ten different ways secrets might be discovered in four different categories.

Originally I recommended starting with a fresh slate of ten secrets every time you prep. Recently, many GMs, including myself, find it easier to review your last session's secrets and bring forward any secrets that have yet to be uncovered and are still relevant to the game.

Step 5: Develop Fantastic Locations

Fantastic locations serve as the backdrop to the scenes we run. What locations might come up during the game? Locations might be small, like the master bedroom in a manor or a prison cell in a dungeon. They might be large backdrops for a scene like the dank alleyways of a city or an ancient fountain in the plaza at midnight. We decide how much detail we need for a location based on how important it might be in the game. For some locations, all we need is a name like "bloody torture chamber" or "master bedroom of shattered mirrors."

We usually want enough of a description to help us improvise locations during the game but we often don't need more than a sentence. If we think a location is going to be the backdrop to a big set-piece battle, we might add one to three fantastic features to a location so it looks like this:

Those "aspects" of a location gives the characters something to mess with during a scene.

If you're running a large dungeon, you might not need anything more than the titles of the rooms in a list. If you're running a published adventure, you might not need anything at all.

Step 6: Outline Important NPCs

In this step, we write down the names and any important notes for NPCs that might come up in our next session. These NPCs could be people the characters might meet, villains they might face, or even intelligent magic items the characters carry.

Often the hardest part of preparing NPCs is remembering their names. Writing down their names might be all we need. We might want to build NPCs from characters in popular fiction so we have an instant set of mannerisms, dialects, and appearances. More detailed NPCs might have goals and quests they follow to accomplish those goals. To keep your NPCs fresh, switch their genders and appearances. If you can, grab artwork to show your players what the NPCs look like.

Step 7: Choose Relevant Monsters

What monsters might the characters face in the next session? Typically, GMs prep whole scenes with locations and monsters together. In these eight steps, we separate out our list of monsters so we can drop them in anywhere. We may still build big set-piece boss battles by combining monsters with locations (and secrets, NPCs, and treasure) but most of the time we just list potential monsters. This gives us the freedom to improvise combat encounters based on the situation in the game's world and the pacing of the game itself.

When we're looking at the locations the characters might explore, what monsters make sense for those locations? During the game we use upward and downward beats and the dials of monster difficulty to help us build fun and engaging combat encounters.

When thinking about what monsters might make sense for the next session, it helps to write down the lazy encounter benchmark so we know where the line is between a potentially challenging encounter and a potentially deadly one.

For boss battles or big set-piece battles, we might go with the more traditional way of setting up a detailed location with a specific set of monsters. This method works well when a big battle might be our strong start.

Step 8: Select Treasure and Magic Item Rewards

Players love getting loot. Thus, it's worth our time to consider what loot they might discover. We can use two different methods to select loot:

We can mix these two methods. Sometimes we select specific magic items useful for particular characters. Other times we roll randomly to see what they get. There are many different ways to roll for random loot including tables in the Lazy DM's Companion, the Dungeon Master's Guide, or using a variety of online tools like Donjon's treasure generator.

Choose Your Own Style

The eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master are intended to be modular. You can choose different steps depending on whether you're running homebrew or published material or whether you're running a single-session game or a long campaign. You may have other steps you find vital to your prep not included here or find that some of these steps don't serve you and are easily skipped. That's perfect. That's how the Lazy DM style is supposed to work.

Focus on what matters and omit what doesn't.

More Sly Flourish Stuff

Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Minimum Viable Prep and Bittermold Keep – Shadowdark Gloaming Session 8 Lazy GM Prep.

Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

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

Patreon Questions and Answers

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

RPG Tips

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

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This work is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license. It allows reusers to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the material in any medium or format, for noncommercial purposes only by including the following statement in the new work:

This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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