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Tools of the Lazy Dungeon Master

by Mike on 18 September 2017

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 provide the most valuable for a flexible game? The answer to these questions vary between DMs but we are likely to find some common ground.

Today we're going to focus on one of these questions, what tools help us best 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

A Lazy DM Tool Checklist

Here's a quick summary of the tools described in this article.

The Tools to Help You Improvise At The Table

When we consider what tools we want in our kit it helps us to know what purpose they serve. Sure, they help us run the game but, in particular, they help us run the game as it expands in front of us. The less flexible our tools, the less they'll help us when the game goes in directions we didn't expect. You'll note that the tools we have here fit that purpose. Flexibility.

3x5 Cards

It's rare to find a DM who isn't completely in love with 3x5 cards. They're probably the cheapest and most powerful physical tool in our toolkit. We can use 3x5 cards for all kinds of things. Here are just a few things we can write down on 3x5 cards:

The list goes on and on. Grab a pack of a thousand for under $6 and you're good for a long time.

Pathfinder Flip Mat

For more than a decade the humble Pathfinder Flip Mat has served 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 3x5 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 character 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 your game.

Names, Relics, Monuments, Maps: The Lazy DM's Workbook

I designed the Lazy DM's Workbook to be you're companion for improvisational tools that sat by your side when you run your D&D games. The Workbook contains a number of useful tools to help you run games including:

This short book, best purchased in print or even spiral bound which you can do at a local printer, is a fantastic resource to help you improvise and run your games.

The Monster Manual

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 3x5 cards to bookmark the pages you're likely to need when you run your game. The core monster manual is the 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

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.

Character and Monster Tokens or Miniatures

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.

Companies like Arc Knight and Geek Tank Games sell flat miniatures for a cheaper price than full plastic pre-painted miniatures but, like normal miniatures, you never know if you have the right number of the right ones at any given time.

My favorite lazy 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.

Another solution is to print and paste your own 2d standup miniatures. I love Printable Heroes miniatures which are significantly cheaper than other miniature options and give you the flexibility to print as many as you need. A good color printer with photo-grade paper can print out some beautiful miniatures that would otherwise cost you a lot of money to buy. 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.

My number one recommendation are lazy monster tokens. They're cheap, easy to make, easy to carry around and store, and can represent just about any combat encounter we can imagine.

Digital Tools

During the 2020 pandemic, I had to go from a full slate of in-person games to running my games entirely digitally. This article focused on purely in-person physical tools we can use 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:

Lazy Tools for Improvisational Games

The tools described here fall under specific criteria. They need to be cheap enough that most of us can afford them. They need to be easy and quick to use and support a game that can go in lots of different directions. 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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