Michael E. Shea, SlyFlourish.com.
Updated 8 May 2023
This document includes resources and guidelines for preparing and running 5e and other fantasy roleplaying games taken from several books written by Michael E. Shea and available at SlyFlourish.com. Much of this material is useful for any fantasy RPG but some is specific to the 5th edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Please attribute Michael E. Shea of SlyFlourish.com in any works derived from this document.
This work includes material taken from the System Reference Document 5.1 ("SRD 5.1") by Wizards of the Coast LLC and available at https://dnd.wizards.com/resources/systems-reference-document. The SRD 5.1 is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License available at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode.
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For a typical game session, the Lazy RPG Prep checklist looks like this:
Here's a brief summary of each of the steps.
Before we do anything else, it helps to spend a few minutes reviewing the player characters. What are their names? What do they want? What plays into their backgrounds? What do the players of these characters enjoy at the table?
You might not even write anything down during this step, but reviewing the characters helps wire them into your mind – and ensures that the rest of your preparation fits around them.
How a game starts is likely the most important piece of preparation we can do. Setting the stage for the session determines a great deal about how the rest of the game will go. When you define where a game session starts, you figure out what's going on, what the initial focus of the session is, and how you can get close to the action. When in doubt, start with a fight. Example strong starts can be found later in this document.
With a strong start in hand, we can then outline a short list of potential scenes that might unfold. This step exists mostly to make you feel as though you have a handle on the game before you start. However, as GMs, all of us must always be ready to throw our potential scenes away when the game goes in a different direction – as it often does. Usually, it's enough to come up with only a few words per scene, and to expect one or two scenes per hour of play. At other times, you might skip this step completely if you don't think you need it.
The next step is second only in importance to the strong start, and is one of the most powerful tools available to GMs. Secrets and clues are single short sentences that describe a clue, a piece of the story, or a piece of the world that the characters can discover during the game. You don't know exactly how the characters will discover these clues. As such, you'll want to keep these secrets and clues abstract from their place of discovery so that you can drop them into the game wherever it makes sense. This lets the game flow freely, while still allowing you to reveal important pieces of the story at any point where the characters might discover them. During this step, you might write down ten such secrets or clues. Example secrets and clues are offered later in this document.
Building evocative locations isn't easily improvised. As such, it's worth spending time writing out a handful of fantastic locations that the characters might discover and explore during the game. Each location can be thought of as a set, a room, or a backdrop for a single scene in your adventure.
Describe each location with a short evocative title such as "The Sunspire." Then write down three fantastic aspects for it, along the lines of: "Blazing beam of light shining to the heavens," "Moat of molten rock," or "Huge elven glyphs carved into ancient stone." Ultimately, whole dungeons can be built from a series of connected fantastic locations, with each location representing a large area or chamber. A specific location might not come up during the game for which you prepare it, but it will be ready for a later session as the characters explore.
During our preparation, we'll outline those NPCs (nonplayer characters) most critical to the adventure, focusing on a name and a connection to the adventure, then wrapping the NPC in a character archetype from popular fiction. Many other NPCs – maybe even most of them – can be improvised right at the table.
What monsters are the characters most likely to face? What monsters make sense for a specific location and situation? We're using the term "monster" loosely here, so as to include enemy NPCs as well as truly monstrous foes. Whatever type of enemy you need, reading through books of monsters can give you the fuel to choose the right creatures for the right situation.
Additionally, understanding the loose relationship between monster challenge rating and character level can help you understand how a battle might go. Most of the time, you can just list a number of monsters and improvise encounters based on what's happening in the adventure. For boss battles, you might have to do more work. See Lazy Combat Encounter Building for more information.
Players love magic items, and it's worthwhile to spend time preparing items they'll find interesting. This step also helps to directly impact the characters – by dropping an interesting part of the story literally into their hands. You can use a mixture of techniques to reward magic items, from selecting items randomly to selecting specific items based on the themes of the characters and the desires of the players. Magic items are also a great mechanism for delivering secrets and clues.
These steps and processes work just as well whether you interact with your players online or around the table. However you play, the Lazy RPG Prep checklist still works.
If you have very little time, reduce the checklist to the most important things you can prepare before it's time to run the game. Here are three example steps.
A strong start kicks your game off in the middle of the action. It helps the players to let go of the real world and fall into the story unfolding at the table. Depending on where your adventure takes place, you can use any of the following strong starts in your own game, whether running a single-session adventure or a longer campaign.
In a settlement, a strong start can make use of either combat or roleplaying.
A session that starts in a sewer can make use of numerous monsters and hazards.
Wilderness locations can involve either action or mystery in a strong start.
Subterranean adventures lend themselves to the widest possible range of strong starts.
Secrets and clues are short pieces of information the characters might discover during an adventure. Secrets and clues are initially written without regard to the method by which they might be discovered. Instead, we improvise their discovery as the characters engage with the adventure's locations and NPCs.
The following prompts don't create specific secrets and clues. Rather, the questions they ask are meant to inspire the creation of your own secrets for your campaign. Keep in mind that secrets are meant to serve you. Don't overthink them or worry about making them perfect. There's no wrong way to use secrets and clues as long as they help you run your game.
Use character secrets to tie the characters to the world around them. These sorts of secrets might be revealed by NPCs, old journals or letters, suddenly recalled memories, or prophetic dreams.
Use historical secrets to give the characters meaningful and useful information as they explore the setting of the campaign. Secrets of this kind should provide characters and players alike with bite-sized pieces of local or world history.
Historical secrets might be found as mosaics in ancient tombs, statues in old ruins, dusty tomes in ancient libraries, markings on strange weapons, or tales shared among elderly villagers.
Use NPC and villain secrets to reveal information about these NPCs to the characters, especially as a means of introducing villains before they face the characters.
Characters might learn NPC or villain secrets from a villain's herald or sidekick, rumors at a local pub, recovered journals, a minion's last words, captured letters, or town gossip.
Use plot and story secrets to teach characters about the larger events going on in the world, and to move the characters forward in the story of your campaign.
Characters might learn these secrets from quest-giving NPCs, notes found on defeated foes, dreams or portents from the gods, NPCs fleeing a disaster, arcane feedback from an object, or psychic projections.
Finding and maintaining a solid group for roleplaying gaming remains the most difficult task for many GMs. This section offers suggestions for finding players that fit well with your group, and for keeping that group going for years to come.
The first step to building an RPG group is finding players. Some of the most common ways to find players for a group include the following:
Before you invite a player to your gaming group, ensure that they're the right fit for your game and the other players. Start by asking a prospective player questions about their commitment, play style, and reaction to your style of play. Example questions might include the following:
Asking questions isn't about getting right or wrong answers. Rather, questions can help you identify players who will fit well into your game. They'll also help you determine if there are things a player desires that they're not going to find in your game.
Take the time to meet one-on-one with a prospective player and talk to them about what they want from your game and what experiences they've had with other groups. Go with your gut judgment on whether each player you meet will be a good fit for your group.
If they seem like a good fit, invite a player to a single-session game or a short series of games at a different time than your regularly scheduled session, ideally with one or more regular players from your group. See how they fit in during an actual game. If they don't fit, you don't have to invite them to another game. But if they do feel like a good fit, you can invite them to your regular game and see how things go.
Decide on the minimum and maximum number of players for any given session. A minimum of three and maximum of six is often ideal. While seeking players, you might find some who can't commit to a regularly scheduled game, but who can come from time to time. Put these players on an "on-call" list so that if you have an open chair, you can ask them if they're able to fill it. Putting prospective new players on an on-call list is also a good way to see if they're a good fit for the group before they become a regular player.
Rather than attempting to schedule games from session to session, find a set day and time to run your games and stick to it. Run games every week if possible. Otherwise, try every other week at the same day and time. Choose regular, shorter games rather than longer, more infrequent games to help with scheduling.
Run the game as regularly as you can. Don't cancel games if one or two players can't make it. If you're able to play with as few as three and have a regular group of six, it should take four players canceling before you have to call off a game. The more consistent the game, the more likely that the players will make it a part of their regular schedule.
If you find that certain players are regularly missing the game, ask if they would prefer to be on your on-call list, and then seek a new player with better availability.
Don't worry about what happens to characters in-game when a player misses the session. If there is an easy way for the character to step out of the story, take it. Otherwise, just let the character fade into the background. Your players will understand why you're taking such liberties with the universe, and that in-world consistency isn't as important as making allowances for the realities of people's lives.
Session zero is a vital tool for getting players and GMs on the same page about a new campaign. A session zero takes place before the first session of a campaign. This special session gives you time to ensure that the players are on board with the themes of the campaign, and that their characters will integrate well together and with the adventures to come.
The following guidelines take you step-by-step through a session zero.
Before your session zero, write out and deliver a one-page campaign guide to your players. Include the following information:
Keep your campaign guide down to a single page so that the players can easily read and absorb it.
Once you and your players are sitting around the table or gathered online for session zero, start by describing the theme of the campaign and going over the details of the one-page campaign guide. Use this time to get the players excited for the campaign.
Discuss any potentially troubling themes of the campaign and its adventures, establishing hard lines and off-screen content you and your players have for the campaign. Write these things down. Discuss what tools you and your players can use to pause the game and break character whenever it becomes necessary to talk about the campaign's themes and content.
A group patron is any NPC tied to all of the characters, and who can help propel the characters forward in an adventure or campaign. Describe potential group patrons that the players can choose from in your campaign, and let them discuss which ones they like. Work toward a consensus where all players are happy with the chosen patron. Don't let this choice alienate any players.
Work with the players to develop their characters, reinforcing the themes of the campaign and establishing the character motivations that will work best to fit the characters into the campaign. Mention if any skills or backgrounds are an especially good fit for the campaign. All this work is to ensure that the characters are motivated to adventure together to solve the campaign's goal.
If desired, you can connect the characters together with individual relationships. Allow the players to roll on the following list, or to use it as inspiration for a unique relationship of their own devising.
Once the characters are built and your players are ready, you can run a short adventure at the end of session zero to introduce the characters to the campaign in a fast and exciting way. You might choose to run a single combat encounter with some added negotiation and exploration, after which the characters advance to 2nd level and are ready to fully engage with the story of the campaign.
Safety tools help ensure that you and your players are always comfortable with the subject matter of the games you run – especially when that subject matter involves potentially troubling tropes or themes. The safety tools presented in this section can be used individually or together to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the material in the game, even as that material evolves during play. You can choose which safety tools work well for you and your group, and discuss their use early in your game. Usually this means discussing safety tools during your campaign's session zero, or at the beginning of a single-session game.
When you discuss safety tools, describe potentially sensitive topics that might come up in an adventure or campaign. The following list presents a number of topics that are good to talk about, but this is not an exhaustive list.
Decide first what you are comfortable with as a GM before bringing a list of topics to your players. Add any topics you're not comfortable with to your own hard lines and off-screen content (see below).
When describing these topics, ensure that the players are comfortable with them. But also ensure that you identify which topics they are not comfortable with, so you can omit that material from your game.
The concept of hard lines and off-screen content allows you to set parameters for handling sensitive topics in your game. Once you've had a discussion with your players on those topics, talk about whether individual topics should be a hard line (material that should never come up) and which can be described vaguely and handled off-screen. For example, after discussion, you and your players might come up with something like the following:
Hard Lines: Sexual assault, non-consensual sexual contact or behavior, violence toward children, abuse toward children or animals, inter-character betrayal, character-driven torture, non-consensual violence or betrayal between characters
Off-screen Content: Consensual sex and sexual contact, torture, racism, slavery
Discuss hard lines and off-screen content in an open, nonjudgmental conversation with your players, and capture each player's individual hard lines and off-screen content along with your own.
"Pause for a second" is a verbal cue that players and GMs can use to interrupt the current in-world scene, have everyone break character, and discuss the current situation as players. It's specifically designed to work well with both online and in-person games.
This safety tool can "pause" the game to discuss any issues out of character and ensures all the players are comfortable with shifts in the game's story. To use it, you or any other player can say, "Pause for a second" to interrupt the current state of play and break character.
It can be used to edit content ("Pause for a second. I'm not comfortable beating a helpless character for information.") or to check in with the group ("Pause for a second. Are we okay making a deal with a vampire?").
As the GM, think about using "pause for a second" regularly, so as to break the stigma of using it only for the most extreme circumstances – which might cause players to avoid using it at all.
The following resources offer further options for RPG safety tools, and influenced the tools described above.
During your session zero of a new campaign, or if you're running a single-session one-shot game, consider establishing connections between the characters to help build a cohesive bond between them before the game begins. This can help prevent ham-fisted and convoluted attempts to build a story that connects the characters, when all the players already know perfectly well that they're coming together simply for the adventure.
This section presents two potential approaches to connecting characters. First, all the characters can be previously connected through a single organization, faction, or patron, using ideas from the Group Connections table. Alternatively, each character can establish a connection to one or more other characters through a personal relationship and history, using ideas from the Character Connections table. Players can work together to come up with these shared histories based on the overall themes of the campaign, or the group can randomly select potential relationships and tweak the results as desired.
For individual connections, each player can roll on the Character Connections table to establish a relationship with the character of the player on their right. Going once around the game table this way means that every character will have two relationships-one with the player on their right and one with the player on their left.
For single-session games, consider establishing a single group relationship for all the characters before the game begins. This relationship can directly tie into the story of the adventure, and will speed up the game by eliminating lengthy discussions about how the characters got together.
Spiral campaign development builds campaign worlds starting in the area immediately surrounding the characters, then spirals out, expanding the world as the characters experience it. This section offers suggestions and inspiration for building a spiral campaign.
Start off by describing the central theme of your campaign in a single sentence. This campaign pitch becomes the main focus of the campaign, and might be given to the players during your session zero so they can build their characters around it. Use the following campaign pitches as a starting point for a campaign, or as inspiration for pitches of your own.
Once you have your pitch, identify six truths that set your campaign apart from others, then share them with your players. Here are six example truths for a campaign built around the coming of the Black Moon from above.
Spiral campaigns begin in a central location, often a small settlement from which the characters set out to explore neighboring lands. A village always works well as a starting location, but there are many alternatives.
Campaign fronts are the external motivators in a campaign. Like a battlefront (from which they're named), a front is a point of conflict that advances and retreats as the campaign develops. Fronts are often villains, but might also be external forces such as natural disasters or grim fate. Campaigns might have up to three fronts at any given time, including any of the following.
As the campaign spirals outward, the characters will become aware of local adventuring locations. Drop three such adventure locations into the areas close by the starting location. And if you need help filling out an adventure location, look to later sections of this document.
Quest templates are general-purpose designs around which you can build specific quests for your own game, using adventure archetypes that have been standard for more than forty years in RPGs. This section offers ten quest templates you can customize for your own adventures. If generating a random adventure, just roll a d10 to determine which quest template to use, then fill in the details of the quest with your own ideas or by making use of the adventure generators found later in this document.
In this simple quest design, the characters are hired or conscripted to hunt down a particular monster or villain in a location, then permanently end their threat. The boss might be protected by lieutenants or other minions.
The characters are charged with finding an item, whether they have to steal it or hunt for it in a dangerous location. The item might be protected by a boss monster and could have many different purposes, such as opening a portal to another location, removing a curse, compelling servants to return it to its rightful owner, and so on. In a variant of this quest, the characters can be charged with returning an object to a location rather than seeking one.
In this common quest, the characters are sent to a location in order to rescue someone-a captured spy, a wayward prince, a missing child, and so forth. In a variant of this quest, the characters must escort someone to a location, defending them every step of the way.
In this variant of the "Kill the Boss" quest, the characters hunt down multiple sub-bosses or lieutenants, either eliminating, capturing, or converting them as the story demands. Each of these lieutenants might reside in different parts of a single location (a dungeon, a headquarters, and so forth) or at multiple locations across the land. Dealing with an appropriate number of lieutenants might lead to a final "Kill the Boss" quest.
With this variant of the "Find Something" quest, the characters enter a hostile location to destroy a particular object-an ancient evil obelisk, the catalyst of a dark ritual, a weapon of great power, and so forth.
The characters have to obtain an object from a location where the challenge is more about intrigue than the dangers of a "Find Something" quest. Players must first plan their approach, then engage in the heist. Stealth and subterfuge are often required, and you should be ready to let the characters "fail forward" so that a single bad ability check doesn't ruin the entire plan. Likewise, the location should have multiple entry and exit paths such as sewers and rooftops in addition to a main entrance.
In this simple quest template, the characters enter a hostile location and clear it of any dangers. A dwarf clan might need their ancestral mines emptied of monsters, a local lord might want to take over a haunted keep, and so forth. This quest focuses on the characters exploring an entire location to ensure that the danger has been dealt with, as opposed to taking on just a single known foe.
This quest template works for both small adventures and large campaigns, and sees the characters hunting for a number of keys before another group can get them first. This quest works best if it requires a majority of keys instead of all the keys. That way, no one side can thwart the other by possessing only one key. A setup where the characters search for three of five keys, four of seven keys, or five of nine keys works well. These keys might be hidden in a single dungeon for a small adventure, or spread across the entire multiverse for a huge campaign.
The characters must defend a location from oncoming enemies. As with the "Steal Something" quest, the players will spend time preparing for the quest, shoring up their defenses and perhaps positioning NPC groups to handle parts of the defense under their direction. Though it's tempting to run this sort of scenario as a large-scale mass battle, that kind of combat is best handled "off-screen" while you focus the spotlight on the characters and their individual roles in the defense.
In this quest template, the characters must end an ongoing ritual. Doing so usually requires the disruption of multiple components, such as destroying glyph-marked pillars or corrupting magic pools. Suitable rituals might include those dedicated to opening or closing a gate, summoning a fiend, resurrecting a dead god, and so forth. In a variant of this quest template, the characters must defend those performing a ritual against other forces that seek to stop it.
For any given task or challenge, ask yourself how hard it is to accomplish. Then assign a DC from 10 (easy) to 20 (very hard). If a task is trivial, don't bother asking for a roll. Rather, the characters automatically succeed. Likewise, reserve DCs above 20 for superhuman challenges.
Decide on a challenge rating (CR) for the source of the damage, from CR 1 (low challenge) to CR 20 (very high challenge). Then roll a number of damage dice of a particular kind, as follows:
This challenge rating can be thought of as roughly equivalent to the average level of a group of characters. However, don't automatically choose a challenge rating based on the level of the characters. Rather, the level of the challenge might be higher or lower than the characters, depending on the situation.
Whenever you need to improvise Armor Class, attack modifiers, saving throw DCs, or other combat statistics for a creature, trap, object, or obstacle, use the following guidelines based on its challenge rating:
When improvising statistics for traps and other objects that deal damage and can be attacked to destroy them, estimate the object's CR by comparing it to various creatures that produce the same sorts of effects in combat.
The following tricks can also help make it easier for you to improvise during your game:
Choose monsters that make sense for the location, the situation, and the story. Don't worry about whether an encounter is "balanced" – except to determine if it might be deadly. An encounter might be deadly if the total of all the monsters' challenge ratings is greater than one quarter of the total of all the characters' levels, or one half of the characters' levels if the characters are 5th level or higher.
If an encounter might be deadly, warn the players – and make sure the characters have a chance to escape. A more detailed version of the benchmark can be found in Lazy Combat Encounter Building for 5e later in this document.
When running large numbers of creatures, instead of rolling independent attack rolls or saving throws, assume that one-quarter of those rolls succeed. Increase or decrease that number depending on the situation (for example, if many creatures in the horde have advantage or disadvantage). Additionally, instead of tracking individual hit points for a horde, you can tally the damage done to the entire horde when any of its creatures are hit. Every time the tally becomes equal to or higher than the hit points of any individual creature in the horde, remove a creature from the horde and reset the tally. Round monster hit points to the nearest 5 or 10 to make things easier. A more detailed version of these guidelines can be found in "Running Hordes" later in this document.
You can never have enough names on hand while improvising your game. Here are a few you can use whenever an NPC, location, business, or other part of your game needs a name.
First Names: Shum, Agtos, Edbert, Josiane, Olaugh, Rosaline, Pearson, Boyle, Typhon, Satyros, Ronald, Brice, Wilford, Circe, Surbag, Kayla, Latona, Cecily, Shuzug, Moth, Dolly, Minerva, Prutha, Esmour, Tristan, Lake, Stewart, Hebub, Lanos, Ingram, Orvist, Daud, Metope
Last Names/Organization Names: Lionstone, Treeson, Oakhelm, Gentleheart, Whitesong, Starharp, Nightchaser, Shadowstinger, Catclaw, Faeriebound, Leafwing, Goldrock, Darkslicer, Gravewalker, Rainbright, Needleflinger, Goosechaser, Steelclaw, Scalerazor, Glasscutter, Ironhouse, Eboncloud. More names can be found in the "NPC Generator" section later in this document.
Award inspiration to each character at the beginning of a session. This takes some of the weight off of needing to remember to reward inspiration during the game. You can still award it again during the game if players have used it.
Index cards can be used to track initiative in two potential ways. First, fold them over into "table tents" and number them from 1 to 9. Then hand them out to the players in the order of their characters' initiative. Alternatively, write the characters' names on one side of the card and put character info useful for you on the other. Fold them over the top of your GM screen, then set them out in initiative order each time combat begins.
You can reduce the size of huge handfuls of dice by removing pairs of dice from the pile and adding their average as a static number. For every two dice you remove, just add the maximum value on a single die plus one to the static bonus. So 2d4 becomes 5, 2d6 becomes 7, 2d8 becomes 9, 2d10 becomes 11, and 2d12 becomes 13. This way, rolling 8d6 can instead become 2d6 + 21 or 8d8 can become 2d8 + 27.
Continually calling for checks in the middle of the narrative can disrupt the flow of the story. Instead, keep the characters' passive Perception, passive Insight, and passive Investigation scores in front of you on a cheat sheet or on index cards. Then use those passive scores to describe what the characters see or experience while exploring the scene.
During rests, ask the players to tell a story of their character or describe how their character feels about what's been going on in the campaign. This can help players dig into their characters' thoughts and expose those thoughts to you and the other players. Players might want to describe their characters' conversations while on watch in the same manner.
For simple battles, use a passive initiative score for monsters, equal to 10 plus the monster's Dexterity bonus. This typically puts monsters in the middle of the initiative order, rather than risking them being too high or too low.
Every few games, take time to ask each player for their "stars and wishes" – a concept described on the Gauntlet RPG blog. Ask each player two questions:
The answers to these questions can help you understand exactly what your players are getting from the game, and can give you ideas for how the game might unfold in the future.
Throughout the game, offer players advantage on checks or attacks if they're willing to undertake high-action moves. For example, a character might leap up and swing from a chandelier to stab at a foe down below. Call for an ability check, granting advantage on the character's next attack with a successful check. But on a failed check, the character's move goes awry and they fall. Most characters will focus on moves that use ability checks they're good at, making success more likely than failure. A slight chance of failure can make winning advantage feel that much sweeter, but keep failure conditions fairly minor so that going for cinematic advantage doesn't seem too risky to the players.
The following tricks make excellent additions to every GM's toolbox:
When building encounters, start by choosing the type and number of monsters that make sense for the situation. Then use the following guidelines to compare the challenge rating of the monsters, the level of the characters, and the ratio of monsters to characters. If the quantity of monsters or their challenge rating is beyond the indicated guidelines, the encounter might be deadly. Be especially careful with potentially deadly encounters when the characters are 1st level.
Finally, tune encounters by adjusting the number of monsters, increasing or decreasing hit points, or making named or unique monsters more powerful.
Hit Points: Standard monster hit points are an average of the monster's HD range. You can increase or decrease hit points within that range to model particularly weak or particularly strong monsters. To make a fight easier, you can also treat monsters as "instant minions," ignoring their usual hit points and letting a single attack kill them. Having a few enemies die quickly can turn the tide in favor of the characters and keep a battle from feeling stale.
Named Monsters: Adding an extra attack or maximizing damage can make a named monster or unique foe more challenging. Named monsters can also be given legendary actions or the Legendary Resistance feature to make the fight more interesting.
This section helps you build and improvise dynamic combat encounters based on the fiction of the game.
Good combat encounters begin with the story. Instead of building combat encounters as fixed components of the game, let combat encounters evolve naturally from the story taking place at the table.
Begin by asking the following question: What monsters make sense given the current location and situation? Then let that question guide you in the creation of a list of monsters and NPCs that might show up at a given location, and in what quantity.
Instead of predefining scenes as combat, roleplaying, or exploration, let the characters' approach determine what happens. Maybe they fight the guards at the gatehouse. Maybe they sneak past. Maybe they try to play the part of hired mercenaries. But let whatever happens come from the choices of the players.
Gauging the level of challenge in an encounter often comes down to comparing the amount of damage a monster can deal to the hit points of the characters. Hit points vary widely between classes, but you can use the following formula to estimate an average character's hit points at a given level: (Level × 7) + 3.
By giving you a rough estimation of how tough characters of a given level are, this formula can help you gauge how dangerous a specific monster will be, as well as judging the potential deadliness of traps, hazards, and other effects that deal damage.
Assuming that your chosen monsters aren't dealing damage that easily overwhelms the characters' hit points, you can usually not worry about an encounter's difficulty – unless the encounter is potentially deadly. You can gauge an encounter's potential deadliness with the following benchmark:
An encounter might be deadly if the total of all the monsters' challenge ratings is greater than one quarter of the total of all the characters' levels, or one half of their levels if the characters are 5th level or higher.
To use this benchmark for characters of 1st through 4th level, add up the challenge ratings of all monsters in the encounter. Then add up the levels of all of the characters and divide that number by 4. If the challenge level summation is greater than the sum of character levels divided by 4, the encounter might be deadly. If the characters are above 5th level, use the same process but divide the total character levels by 2 instead of 4.
Each time the characters gain a new level, calculate this deadly benchmark score and jot it down in your preparation notes so you have it on hand. If you find that the characters in your game often have an easy time with potentially deadly encounters, treat the characters as though they are one or more levels higher. This will raise the benchmark at which an encounter might become deadly, making the calculation more accurate.
This benchmark assumes multiple monsters, and doesn't work well for gauging combat against a single monster. For legendary monsters-those with legendary actions and possibly lair actions-an encounter is generally deadly if the monster's challenge rating is 5 or more higher than the characters' average level.
No chart, table, or equation works perfectly to judge encounter balance at any given level, because no such system can take into account the wide range of options that can affect combat. Any individual character's effective power in a fight can go well beyond what's expected for their given level, especially at higher levels. And other factors that can affect a character's power might include any of the following:
So use the benchmarks for determining whether an encounter might be deadly as a starting point. Then trust that you'll be better able to gauge what your characters can handle in combat the more you see them in action during the game.
As characters reach 11th level and higher, the deadly encounter benchmark becomes less useful for accurately representing a deadly encounter. Depending on the capabilities of those higher-level characters, monsters might pose even less of a threat than their challenge rating denotes. As such, you can further adjust the deadly encounter benchmark to account for this power with the following optional guideline:
At 11th level and higher, an encounter might be deadly if the total of all the monsters' challenge ratings is greater than three quarters of the total of all the characters' levels, or if it is equal to the total of their levels if the characters are 17th level or higher.
This sets up encounters of a much greater challenge than the baseline benchmark, but it might work more accurately for higher-powered characters.
The following guidelines can help Gamemasters run combat in the "theater of the mind," without the need for a gridded battle map or miniatures. This style of combat takes the emphasis away from tactical features such as distance, range, and the specific size of areas of effect. Instead, it focuses on the in-game action, the intent of the characters, and what happens in the story.
This style of combat works just like any other scene in your game. On each player's turn, you describe the current situation, the players describe their intent, and you adjudicate what happens as a result.
Theater-of-the-mind combat requires that the players trust you as the Gamemaster, knowing that you'll describe the situation and adjudicate the results of the characters' actions fairly. As the GM, you'll earn this trust by favoring the players whenever possible, and by focusing on sharing an action-packed story.
Running theater-of-the-mind combat removes agency from the players. It takes away their ability to control every aspect of how their characters move and what they do. As the GM, you can mitigate this by asking each player for their intent each turn, then helping them meet that intent. For example, a player who says "I move close to the orcs" potentially leaves too many possibilities open. So encourage the player to focus their intent more – perhaps along the lines of, "I want to position myself so that at least two orcs are within the reach of my glaive."
When playing in the theater of the mind, both you and the players must worry less about the mechanical details of the game. Instead, everyone will focus on the action and the story.
At the beginning of combat, you describe the situation, features, distances, and arrangements of the creatures in the area. Assuming a moderately sized combat area, any creature can generally move within 5 feet of any other creature, and every creature is within range of every other creature making ranged attacks. You'll make it clear whenever this isn't true, such as when an enemy is farther away or behind a front line of protective allies.
Characters with fast movement might have opportunities to move places other characters can't.
On each player's turn, they describe how they intend to position themselves. Examples of movement in the theater of the mind might include moving next to an ally, moving next to two enemies, or staying out of reach while attacking with a polearm.
If a creature is within an enemy's reach, it will likely provoke an opportunity attack if it tries to move away from that enemy. Creatures able to disengage can do so and avoid opportunity attacks.
As you describe the features of the area, make a note of which ones can provide cover to the characters or their enemies, and how much cover.
The following guidelines offer a rough baseline for determining the number of targets that fall within an area of effect. The circumstances of a battle can increase or decrease this number. For example, for larger monsters or monsters that are more spread out, an area of effect might target only half the normal number of creatures. For smaller monsters or monsters that are packed close together, an area of effect might include up to double the normal number of targets.
Abilities like the evoker's Sculpt Spells feature can increase the number of affected enemies, usually by one or two. Likewise, an area of effect that targets both the characters and their enemies might affect more total targets – including an effect created by a character or monster willing to put allies in harm's way. If a spellcaster character wishes to place allies within an area of effect, you and the players should negotiate this before the spell is cast.
When first describing the combat encounter, describe notable locations, objects, environmental features, and terrain features. Write these down and keep them in front of the players if it helps them visualize the battlefield. Let the players know that they can interact with these environmental features, through such actions as swinging from magical chandeliers, climbing up obsidian cliffs to advantageous positions, or hiding behind ruined statues. If any feature or effect creates difficult terrain, let the players know how this might affect them, such as requiring that they use the Dash action to get out of the area.
Avoid biases – whether perceived or actual – by randomly selecting targets when it isn't clear which character a monster would attack. Rolling randomly for targets in the open can help build trust between you and the players, letting them know that the GM isn't picking on anyone. Monsters aren't idiots, though. If it's clear that a monster would attack a particular character, such as a wizard concentrating on a dangerous spell, the monster will do so. When this happens, just describe why the monster chose that particular character, so the players understand.
Ask each player to describe the physical traits of a monster their character is attacking. This helps identify the monster, opens up all the players' imaginations to the battle, and helps everyone know which monster is which using in-story descriptions. Write these physical traits down on a 3×5 index card or on a dry-erase flip mat so everyone can see which monsters are in play.
Theater-of-the-mind combat can go stale if you don't continually reinforce the story of what's happening. Go big with your descriptions of the location and the action. Ask players to describe their attacks and killing blows. Between turns, describe the current situation using in-story language. These descriptions are vital to keeping the scene interesting.
This section offers abbreviated guidelines for running "theater of the mind" combat – no maps or miniatures, making use only of narrative and your players' imaginations. Share these guidelines with your players so that everyone has a common understanding of how this style of playing out combat works at the table.
Round-by-round combat played in the theater-of-the-mind style is built around three core principles:
A GM running a theater-of-the-mind game should keep the following points in mind:
Players in a theater-of-the-mind game should keep the following points in mind:
A GM running a theater-of-the-mind game should keep the following points in mind:
Add theater of the mind to your collection of ways to run combat, including abstract maps, zone-based combat (described later in this document), gridded combat, or 3D terrain. Choose the right style of combat for the pace and complexity of the scene. Keep each approach as a tool in your GM's toolbox to help you share exciting tales of action and high adventure.
Zone-based combat can help GMs run fast, dynamic, and high-action combat without worrying about all the details of tactical combat played out on a grid. It supports multiple combat styles, including pure narrative theater-of-the-mind combat, quickly drawn abstract sketches, or miniatures used with detailed maps or 3D terrain. Using zone-based combat means you have to worry less about the details of a 5-foot-per-square grid and can focus more on big heroic action. Zone-based combat simply requires that the GM and the players work together with the shared goal of creating fantastic stories of high adventure.
The following guidelines establish the broad strokes of zone-based combat:
Many spells and features have areas of effect. GMs can use the following guidelines to adjudicate which targets are hit by such effects. These guidelines break out general descriptions of the size of an area of effect, how many creatures are typically affected in that area using zone-based combat, and examples of common spells and class features that use that size:
GMs can adjudicate and adjust these numbers based on the current situation. For example, an area containing a horde of monsters might double the potential number of monsters affected. Whatever the circumstances, though, a GM should always adjudicate in favor of the characters.
Zone-based combat doesn't account for a wide range of features that make use of specific distances. In those cases, it's up to the GM to work with a player's intent to help them make use of those features. In all cases, the GM should ask what the player wants to do, then help them figure out how to do it.
Balancing combat encounters is notoriously difficult. Different groups of characters can bring very different capabilities to each battle, even at the same level. However, because monsters as they are typically presented are the average of their type, you can adjust the averages to subtly or dramatically change the difficulty of a given monster or group of monsters. By turning these "difficulty dials" for monsters, you can easily shift the tone of combat even in the middle of a battle.
Hit points given for monsters are the average of their Hit Dice. This means you can adjust hit points within the minimum and maximum of a monster's Hit Dice formula based on the individual story for that particular monster, the current pacing of the battle, or both.
For example, an average ogre has 59 hit points from 7d10 + 21 Hit Dice. This means a weak ogre might have as few as 28 hit points, while a particularly strong ogre might have 91. This lets you easily set up fights in which minion ogres might have fewer hit points while boss ogres have more. (As an even lazier rule of thumb, you can halve or double a monster's average hit points to give you a weaker or stronger version of that monster.)
You can turn this dial before a battle begins or even during the battle itself. If a battle drags, reduce the hit points of a monster to get it out of the fight earlier. If a battle feels like it will be over too quickly, increase the monster's hit points to make it hold up longer. Start with average hit points, and then turn the hit point dial one way or the other whenever doing so can make the game more fun.
The "number of monsters in a battle" dial alters combat challenge the most dramatically of all the dials – but because it's so clearly visible to players, this dial is also sometimes difficult to change during a fight.
If circumstances allow for it, some monsters might flee or automatically fall depending on the events of a fight. Undead might break if their necromancer master is killed, and many intelligent creatures will flee a fight they can't win. Other times, more monsters might enter the fray in a second wave if the first wave isn't standing up to the characters.
When developing a combat encounter in which you think you might turn this dial, consider beforehand how monsters might leave the battle or how other monsters might join the fight as reinforcements in a realistic way.
Increasing the amount of damage a monster deals on each attack increases the monster's threat and can make a dull fight more fun. In the same way, decreasing monster damage can help prevent a fight from becoming overwhelming if the characters are having trouble.
The static damage value noted in a monster's stat block represents the average of the damage formula for the monster's attack. If you use average damage, you can adjust the damage based on that formula. For example, an ogre deals 13 (2d8 + 4) bludgeoning damage with their greatclub attack, so you can set this damage at anywhere from 6 to 20 and still be within the range of what you might roll.
If you're a GM who rolls for damage, you can also turn the damage dial up by adding one or more additional damage dice. If you like, you can have an in-game reason for this increase. Perhaps an ogre sets its club on fire to deal an additional 4 (1d8) or 7 (2d6) fire damage. Or a particularly dangerous vampire with an unholy sword might deal an extra 27 (6d8) necrotic damage if you so choose. Adding these kinds of effects to a monster's attack is an excellent way of increasing a monster's threat in a way the players can clearly understand – and it has no upper limit.
Increasing or decreasing the number of attacks a monster makes has a larger effect on its threat than increasing its damage. You can increase a monster's number of attacks if it's badly threatened by the characters, just as you can reduce its attacks if the characters are having an easy time. An angry ogre left alone after its friends have fallen to the heroes might start swinging its club twice per Attack action instead of just once. Single creatures facing an entire party of adventurers often benefit from increasing their number of attacks.
You can turn any or all of these dials to tune a combat encounter and bring the most excitement to your game. Don't turn the dials just to make every battle harder, though. Sometimes cutting through great swaths of easy monsters is exactly the sort of situation players love.
Turning several dials together can change combat dramatically, helping to keep things feeling fresh. For example, a group of starving ogres might be weakened (lowering the hit point dial) but also frenzied in combat (turning up the attack dial). By adjusting these dials when designing encounters and during your game, you can keep the pacing of combat exciting and fun.
This section helps you more easily run battles in which the characters face large numbers of monsters.
To accommodate running horde combat, we change the rules for running monsters in two ways: adjusting how we track damage done to monsters in a horde, and how we adjudicate attack rolls and saving throws for the horde. You can use these approaches individually or together when running large numbers of monsters.
Pooling damage means that instead of tracking the damage dealt to individual monsters, you track damage dealt to the horde as a whole. Add up the damage of each attack, regardless of which monster in the horde is hit. Then every time the total of damage taken is higher than the hit points of a single monster in the horde, remove the last monster hit and reset the damage dealt to zero.
If enough damage is dealt with a single attack to kill multiple monsters, remove that number of monsters, subtracting their hit points from the damage dealt until there isn't enough damage remaining to kill another monster.
To make this math even easier, you can round each monster's hit points to the nearest 5 or 10.
If the horde is hit by a damage-dealing area effect (including spells), remove any creatures that took damage equal to or greater than their hit points after determining their saving throw results. If the damage isn't enough to kill a single monster, tally up the total damage done and remove monsters one at a time, subtracting their hit points from the damage until all damage is accounted for.
For even easier adjudication, you can simply remove any monsters that fail their saving throws, without worrying about their hit points.
The circumstances of the encounter dictate how many members of the horde can attack the characters. Unless the circumstances dictate otherwise, assume the horde evenly spreads its attacks across all characters. If certain characters step ahead of the rest of the party or block choke points that prevent the horde from reaching other characters, you can redirect the horde's attacks to the characters stepping forward.
Whenever rolling individual attacks or saving throws would be a burden, assume that one quarter of attacks or saving throws rolled by the horde succeed. Round up or down depending on the circumstances, such as when determining how many attacks succeed against characters with wildly different ACs.
If all the creatures in a horde have advantage on an attack or saving throw, increase the number of successful attacks or saving throws to one half. If the horde has disadvantage, reduce the number to one in ten.
If any member of the horde is affected by an effect that leaves them incapacitated, remove them from play.
If you prefer to roll dice, roll twice when a group of monsters all make attacks or saving throws. On each success, one quarter of the monster attacks or saving throws succeed. If both rolls fail, no attacks or saving throws succeed.
Adjudicate the number of creatures caught up in an area of effect based on the circumstances, but leaning toward more creatures rather than fewer. You can use the following as a baseline for the number of tightly packed creatures in a horde that are affected in a given area:
The guidelines in this section replace the madness rules found in other books. The concept of "madness" has long been used to malign and marginalize complex psychological symptoms and the individuals coping with them.
This new approach works with explicitly supernatural hindrances to break away from those stereotypes.
These effects represent dire reactions to a character witnessing something so alien and horrific that it has a lasting effect. You can use these descriptions to replace the more general frightened, stunned, or incapacitated conditions as desired.
When amplifying a sense of stress or horror in a game, ensure that you have the players' permission ahead of time and that proper safety tools (referenced earlier in this document) are in place.
Some things are beyond the ability of the mortal mind to comprehend. When witnessing alien or horrific entities, locations, and events, even the most powerful heroes might find their ability to process what unfolds around them shut down, forcing them to make a stress check. Such a check might be warranted by any of the following situations:
Whenever a character witnesses a potential stress event, you can ask for a Charisma saving throw with a DC based on the severity of the event, from DC 10 (easy) to DC 20 (hard). On a failed save, the character suffers a roleplaying effect from the Stress Effects list. Make sure you review the effects on the table during session zero to ensure they don't cross any players' lines of comfort.
You determine how long the effect lasts and can add mechanical hindrances inspired by the effect at your discretion. Alternatively, you can add the following mechanical effect:
On a failed save, the character becomes stunned for 1 minute. The character can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of their turns and whenever they take damage, ending the effect on themself on a success. If the character's saving throw is successful or if the effect ends for it, the character is immune to this effect for the next 24 hours. A character can also choose to break this effect at the start of their turn by taking 4 (1d8) psychic damage per two character levels. A lesser restoration or equivalent effect likewise negates a stress effect.
(You can also apply this mechanism for breaking an effect by taking psychic damage to characters who are frightened, stunned, or incapacitated.)
GMs and players can work together to determine whether stress effects have longer-term ramifications. Any such long-term results should reflect not just the character and the situation, but also the players' desires.
Be mindful to avoid terms such as "madness" or "crazy" to describe the long-term effects of stressful encounters. Consider instead the otherworldly nature of the situation and effect, and focus on how the character might respond to such a stressful experience.
Special thanks to Dr. Megan Connell and Dr. Michael Mallen for their feedback on this section.
The tables in this section can help you generate a core fantasy adventure based on the traditional concept of getting hired by a patron or other NPC to take on a quest in a specific location. Often these adventures take place in small settlements surrounded by ancient ruins and monstrous lairs on the edge of civilization.
Use these tables together to generate and inspire full adventures, or use individual tables to fill in the details of other adventures you create or play. This generator (and specifically, the Dungeon Monsters table and the Treasure table) is set up for characters of 1st to 4th level, but can be easily modified for higher-level adventures.
Use these tables to generate a patron or NPC for your adventure, applying an NPC stat block to create villains, hirelings, rivals, or heralds.
Any quests the characters are asked to fulfill might be distilled down to one of the following starting points.
The location of the quest might also contain specific monuments or items tied to the adventure's goals.
Locations, monuments, or items can be flavored by determining their condition, description, and origin.
Use this list when you need to define the purpose of a chamber in a dungeon, keep, or similar site. Reflavor any chamber to suit the theme of the adventure.
Add useful discoveries such as the following to your adventure, to create upward beats in the characters' story.
You can add monsters and other foes to your adventure by consulting the following list. Roll a d8 for easy monsters, roll a d12 to expand the range into hard monsters, or roll a d20 to also include dangerous monsters. If you decide to use a monster as a boss monster, give it double hit points and let it take an extra action each turn.
For foes such as bandits and cultists, you can also roll for ancestry on the NPC creation lists if those foes having a common origin makes sense for your narrative.
Add traps as they make sense for the adventure. At 1st through 4th level, traps often have a DC of 13, and deal 7 (2d6) damage for easy traps or 11 (2d10) damage for hard traps.
This list lets you add treasure to the adventure as appropriate. Roll a d10 to determine monetary treasure, or a d20 for monetary and magical treasure.
Some commonly discovered relics might grant a single- use spell, while less common magic items might allow their wielder to cast a spell daily. Use the list of common spells below or choose specialized spells to create unique magic item rewards.
NPCs bring our game worlds to life. You can use the generator in this section to quickly build NPCs to drop into your game, rolling on the tables below to generate baseline characteristics. To really bring the NPC to life, you can then model their personality and roleplaying off characters from your favorite books, TV shows, or movies, switching up gender and other traits to make them feel fresh.
Osborne, Halstein, Rycheld, Symond, Sysley, Tansa, Levi, Beneger, Hailey, Jayce, Vesta, Savannah, Avelin, Claudia, Sighard, Timothy, Somerhild, Radolf, Denston, Judithe, Nireus, Sulen, Teukros, Cullive, Arnald, Guinevere, Madison, Stella, Edmund, Goddard, Paul, Gerland, Eupalamos, Sebastian, Anthonette, Lowell, Dauid, Halia, Colton, Bellinda, Roger, Chase, Pulmia, Sadie, Leofwen, Hildegard, Thelexion, Latisha, Raffe, Sydnee, Nicholas, Lausus, Johannes, Derkos, Boyle, Hudson, Meryll, Peter, Godebert, Randwulf, Aegipan, Bryde, Josiah, Sabra, Hilda, Lapithes, Reothine, Jeger, Sybaris, Cared, Clifton, Annabel, Kaylee, Neale, Bayard, Albin, Maronne, Jocelyn, Isemeine, Toril, Aisa, Franny, Turstin, Chulisa, Samantha, Poine, Sanche, Maya, Nicholina, Margry, Drew, Parnell, Taran, Cunovin, Ryan, Caroline, Halisera, Florens, Tantalos, Wynefreede
Brightwhisper, Redspur, Hollyfang, Goosewalker, Goldbane, Ebondazer, Emeraldstorm, Monsterthumb, Goblinchaser, Thornhelm, Lionfall, Swordbuckle, Earthdancer, Graywillow, Cloudlover, Sharpwhisker, Glasscleaver, Macebound, Icebrood, Fireheart, Angelbright, Anvilcloud, Heromaker, Lightblade, Shieldrazor, Whitetail, Spiderhunter, Shadowblood, Doombrissle, Bronzestone, Moongazer, Catfinger, Lawknocker, Rainsoother, Swiftcaller, Mudteeth, Wyrmriver, Dragonknee, Flamestar, Millhand
Use the following table to choose a random ancestry for your NPC.
An NPC's worldview can help determine how they initially react to the characters, adjusted by how the characters approach them. Improvise DCs for social interaction ability checks based on that approach, with checks usually ranging between DC 10 (easy) and DC 20 (very hard). A default of DC 12 is usually a good choice.
NPCs will often be most easily remembered by the players based on some unique aspect of their appearance or manners.
Assign a profession to your NPC to add color to their stat block. The commoner is the default stat block for NPCs of this type.
Piles of coins, shining gems, and powerful relics hidden away in the depths of the world await adventurers brave enough to seek them. This section offers a simple set of tables and guidelines that let you quickly reward treasure for your fantasy RPG, and which work well alongside the more detailed treasure rules of the game.
Use the following gold parcels to quickly reward adventuring groups based on the characters' average level. Reward four such parcels each level, or add parcels together to create larger rewards.
|Level||Gold per Parcel|
|1st - 4th||100 gp (3d6 × 10 gp)|
|5th - 10th||1,300 gp (3d8 × 100 gp)|
|11th - 16th||7,000 gp (2d6 × 1,000 gp)|
|17th - 20th||70,000 gp (2d6 × 10,000 gp)|
This earned wealth can take the form of coins, gemstones, jewelry, and art objects as desired. You can also adjust the numbers slightly to keep hoards from looking too uniform. For example, you might turn two 1,300 gp parcels into 1,145 gp and 1,422 gp.
As desired, you can augment monetary treasure with consumable magic items from the following table.
Rather than standard consumable items, you can also award powerful single-use magic items generated using the Spells table from the "Core Adventure Generator" included in this document. You can also use the Condition, Description, and Origin table in that section to give an item a unique flavor.
Permanent magic items can be included with treasure as desired, with the uncommon items on the following table suitable for characters of all levels. Choose specific weapons and armor that fit the proficiencies and desires of the characters. You can use the Condition, Description, and Origin table from the core adventure generator to give such items additional flavor.
Use these lists to generate simple or complex traps, incorporating multiple features, plus energy damage or conditions.
To generate a simple trap, just roll on the Type list and the Trigger table. For a more dangerous trap, add an effect from the Flavor table to put a unique twist on the damage or impose a debilitating condition. For a really devious trap, you can roll on the Flavor table and Type table twice, combining features into deadly combinations such as 'sleep-inducing bolos and thunderous crushing pillars, triggered by an onyx demon's skull.'
|1st - 4th||5 (1d10)||11 (2d10)||22 (4d10)|
|5th - 10th||11 (2d10)||22 (4d10)||55 (10d10)|
|11-16th||22 (4d10)||55 (10d10)||99 (18d10)|
|17th - 20th||55 (10d10)||99 (18d10)||132 (24d10)|
|Trap Danger||Save DC||Attack Bonus|
|Setback||10 - 11||+3 to +5|
|Dangerous||12 - 15||+6 to +8|
|Deadly||16 - 20||+9 to +12|
Filling the various chambers and locations in your game with interesting features is always a challenge – and can be even more difficult to improvise. The following four "Monuments" lists can help you generate fantastic features with a number of potential effects. You don't need to roll on every table each time you want to generate a feature. Sometimes, just establishing the condition and the type of a feature is enough to give you a starting point. Then you can let the story or even the background of one of the characters guide the feature's additional elements.
The following lists allow you to generate useful relics and objects, from mundane discoveries to powerful magical artifacts. If you want to come up with an interesting magic weapon, for example, you might roll on the Item Condition, Item Origin, Weapon, and Spell Effect tables. If you just want a weird mundane item, roll on the Item Condition, Item Origin, and Mundane Item tables without adding any effect.
Some strange relics might allow a single use of a powerful magical spell. Roll on the Item Condition, Item Origin, Mundane Item, and Spell Effect table to generate a unique single-use magical relic.
Also included is a table noting the four types of healing potions and how many hit points each potion restores.
|d20||Potion of||Rarity||HP Regained|
|1 - 12||Healing||Common||2d4 + 2|
|13 - 16||Greater healing||Uncommon||4d4 + 4|
|17 - 19||Superior healing||Rare||8d4 + 8|
|20||Supreme healing||Very rare||10d4 + 20|
Whenever the characters enter a new town or start a new session there, adding some detail and context to the setting can help bring things to life. These "Town Events" lists help determine what might be going on in a town, how the townsfolk are currently feeling, what the weather is, and what mundane or fantastic event might be taking place.
The following tables let you randomly select monsters based on "dungeon level." Although these charts are built for old-school dungeon delving, you can use them to generate randomly encountered monsters in just about any setting - a ruin, an old church, caves, catacombs, an old wizard's tower, or some other forgotten lair.
To use these tables, first decide what dungeon level the characters are on. This might correspond to the level of the characters but it doesn't have to. If 2nd-level characters decide to descend to dungeon level 5, so be it.
Once you have a dungeon level selected, roll a d20 and look across to see which monster table you should use. For example, if the characters are on dungeon level 4 and you roll a 12, you'll use monster table 3. Then go to the indicated monster table and roll a d20 again, to determine which monster might show up. Using the above example, consulting monster table 3 and rolling a 3 gives a result of 'Ghoul.' Instead of using dungeon levels, you can just jump to whichever monster table feels right for the circumstances. If you know you're looking for a monster with a challenge rating of 4 or 5, just roll on Monster Table 6. You can also use these tables to quickly look up monsters at particular challenge ratings. Even if you absolutely hate random encounters, you can use the tables to generate encounter ideas you might never think of otherwise.
There are a few ways to choose the number of monsters in an encounter. First, think about what makes sense. Ghouls travel in packs, but a rug of smothering is probably found alone. You might roll dice to determine the number of monsters-for example, 3d6 ghouls. You might also choose to have one monster leading others-a pack of ghouls led by a ghast, for example.
Before the number of monsters is set, you can gauge whether your intended encounter is deadly or not by using the "5e Quick Encounter Building" section of this document.
These rules let you play a solo game of 5e using lists in this document. With these guidelines, a single character explores a dungeon to complete quests. Let your imagination take over as you fill in the story and details of the quest, location, and adventure.
This scenario begins at 1st level, and your character gains a level after each successful quest.
First, build a quest-giving NPC by rolling for behavior and ancestry in the "Core Adventure Generators" section of this document. Choose a name and any other details from the "NPC Generator" section.
Next, roll on the Quests in "Core Adventure Generators". Determine the location by rolling on the Condition, Description, Origin, and Location table.
Choose a map for the location from your favorite online source of maps or any other maps you have on hand. Choose a map that fits the location. Maps with fifteen or more rooms work best for adventures created with these guidelines.
You can then fill in additional quest details from the other tables in "Core Adventure Generators". Examples include required keys, monuments, villains, lieutenants, and other quest goals.
Choose a starting room on the map that makes sense.
Each time you enter a chamber, roll to determine what you find there.
Each time your roll comes up 4, 5, 6, or 7, indicated by "QP" below, your quest progresses one step. You might acquire a needed key or face a villain's lieutenant. You decide what type of progress you make.
On your fourth roll of quest progress, you reach the final challenge of the quest. If you succeed, you have completed the quest and gain a new level.
Roll for the trap type on the Traps and Hazards table in the "Core Adventure Generators" section. Then make a DC 12 Wisdom (Perception) check to locate the trap or hazard. Roll the most applicable ability check or saving throw vs DC 12 to avoid the trap or hazard. Failure on either roll results in 1d6 damage per character level of a type appropriate for the trap.
Roll for a random monster on the Monster table in the "Random Dungeon Monsters" section, selecting a dungeon level equal to your character level.
Assume the monster starts 25 feet away from you. Roll for initiative, with the monster using a static initiative score of 10 + the monster's Dexterity bonus. Adjudicate combat as you desire, assuming the monster acts as they would given their fiction.
Each monster encounter includes a helpful, neutral, or harmful monument. Generate monuments using the Locations, Monuments, and Items table, and the Condition, Description, and Origin table in the "Core Adventure Generators" section.
Roll a d6 to determine the effect of the monument.
Helpful monuments provide this benefit to your character. Harmful monuments provide this benefit to monsters. For neutral monuments, your character can roll a DC 12 Intelligence (Arcana or Religion) check. On a success, your character gains the benefit. On a failure, the monster gains the benefit.
When you defeat a monster or enter a chamber with unguarded treasure, roll on the following list:
For consumable and permanent items, roll on the tables in the "Treasure Generator" section or a random treasure table of your choice. You can replace any consumable magic item with a potion of healing. You can replace any permanent magic item with a +1 weapon of your choice.