by Mike Shea on 18 September 2017
This article has been updated from the original written on 6 September 2011
Prepare what matters to our game.
That's the core mantra for the way of the Lazy Dungeon Master. It's an easy statement to say, but harder to appreciate and implement. Where should we focus our time? What should we toss aside? 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.
Today we're going to focus on one of these questions, which tools help us best prepare and run our D&D games?
"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
When we think about the best tools to help us run a good D&D game it helps us to think about what has the greatest impact. Here's a list of a few main things that make our game great:
The tools we choose should help us focus on these things quickly and easily. Ideally we can bring many of them to the table to help us cook up a game right on the spot. What tools exactly help us do that? Let's start at the top.
Often the best story threads in our game are those derived from 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 us keep track of these threads and interests of the characters as well as the names of NPCs, locations, and other things that guide our story. A few random names and maybe some quick reference rules and guidelines can help as well.
During the Fantastic Locations Kickstarter we developed a single page 5e Campaign Worksheet specifically designed around these ideas. Beyond serving as a good reference during the game, it also helps remind us to focus on the characters.
Our favorite tabletop accessory remains the Pathfinder Flip Mat. This fold-up tabletop whiteboard can be used for so much more than just a gridded battle map. We can use it to track initiative. We can sketch out a weird symbol the characters might observe. We can draw a side-view of Castle Ravenloft for a sense of scale. Having a big dry-erasable mat in front of us during the game makes it frictionless to draw out things we can't easily describe.
The internet is packed with excellent random generators for D&D. Our favorite source is the donjon which has random generators for just about anything you can imagine. We've also built quite a few random generators here on Sly Flourish including names, ancient monuments, magical relics, and complicated traps. These random generators can do a lot of heavy lifting when we need some quick inspiration.
One of the best lazy DM tools is also one of the oldest—the Monster Manual. Besides obvious uses, monster manuals can help prime us with ideas for our game. The stories tied to the monsters in these books fuel our inspiration. Many times we can come up with an entire story by just mining the background of a particular creature.
Second, monster stat blocks are always useful for reskinning. We need only rewrap the flavor of any creature in our mind with the mechanics of a monster's stat block in the book that matches the intent closely enough. We 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 we can wrap our own creatures.
When it comes to pure mechanics, monster books are likely to hold the most. The more we use them at our table, the more time we save having to worry about coming up with our own.
The Dungeon Master's Guide is an oft overlooked source for exellent lazy dungeon mastering. It's packed with useful tables that we can use for random inspiration while we prepare or right at the table. We might spend a lot of time with our nose buried in the Monster Manual, but the DMG is a gem we should return to often.
While not often cited as a lazy dungeon master aid, published adventures give us professionally designed material we can scrape and re-use in our own games. Dungeon maps, room descriptions, colorful NPCs, and town locations are all often published in old adventures. The DM's Guild is packed with four decades of excellent adventures we can mine for ideas, maps, dungeons, and the like. Converting them over to 5e is also relatively simple. A few basic rules of thumb—like knowing how to judge difficulty checks and replacing monsters with the most appropriate ones from the Monster Manual—is about all we need to run classic adventures right from the source material.
Finding the right miniature for the moment is always a struggle in D&D. Managing miniatures, even after you manage to find them and buy them, can take up a lot of time and, if we're on the road, limits the flexibiliy we have to pull out random monsters if we don't happen to have the miniature. Arcknight Games has a line of Flat Plastic Miniatures that give us a wide range of monsters in a form easy enough to pack up in our DM Go Bag. They're cheaper than regular miniatures and pack lighter than typical cardboard pawns. Right now they're my favorite way to get monsters onto the table in a game on the road.
What we choose NOT to add to our lazy DM kit is just as important as what we 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 our choice of random lists. Pick just the best monster manual to keep on hand during our game. Streamline our campaign worksheet and choose only the most helpful mechanics cheat sheets. When we have it ready, we'll have a clean package of tools to help we build fantastic worlds woven with deep evolving story threads. Start building our lazy toolkit today!