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by Mike on 6 September 2021
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
Here's a quick summary of the tools described in this article.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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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