New to Sly Flourish? Start Here or subscribe to the newsletter.

This week Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is on sale for 30% off the hardcover and 50% off the PDF and eBook package! Don't miss it!

Using the Lazy DM's Eight Steps At the Table

by Mike on 10 June 2024

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master offers eight steps for game preparation to help GMs focus on the most valuable material one can prepare to help them improvise during their game. These steps include:

Not all steps make sense for all games or all GMs, of course. They hopefully help GMs focus on the critical aspects we often need to run our games.

But how do we actually use these steps at the table? Preparing them is one thing – how they manifest during the game is something else. Return discusses this topic too – and if you're having trouble, consider giving the book another read – but it doesn't focus on how we directly use these steps to run a game.

Prepping Dishes to Cook at the Table

I like to use the metaphor that using the eight steps during our game is like preparing ingredients ahead of time to cook at the table – like a big hibachi dinner. We don't cook the full meal and just plop it out. We have our dishes ready to improvise the meal as we go. It's not a perfect metaphor but it may help clarify that we prepare components to piece together during the game.

Preparing to Improvise

Often GMs prep scenes intended to be run one after the other. Each scene has all the components it needs to run like the location, NPCs, situation, monsters, and other stuff. This style doesn't lead towards the flexibility we often need when the players make a choice we didn't expect.

The eight steps don't help you build a procedural set of scenes run one after the other. Thus, the material you prepare doesn't fit perfectly into each scene of the game. Most of the steps give you materials you can drop in at the right time. Secrets, locations, NPCs, monsters, and treasure can come up at different times depending on how the game plays out. This lack of a clear procedural matchup between the eight steps and the scenes in the game we run can be hard to understand – but it's a feature, not a bug.

When do you typically use these steps at the table? Let's look at each step.

Review the Characters

This step often doesn't come into direct play at the table. Instead, this step helps you frame the rest of your prep around the characters. Reviewing the characters puts them into your mind so you can fill in secrets, NPCs, treasure and other components with direct character hooks. It helps you focus on the most important actors in the game – the characters.

Create a Strong Start

This step definitely has a clear place at the table. Once everyone's sitting around the table – after you've asked the players to catch everyone up on what happened last time (or you've done it yourself) – you jump into your strong start. Something happens. What is it? What can the characters do? What do they do? Make something happen and then put choices in front of the characters fast.

Outline potential scenes

Scenes are a catch-all for lots of different potential elements of our prep and our game. It could be a list of the five big scenes you plan to run or it could be a nest of scenes that might happen. It could be a strong start and a big catch-all like "explore Bittermold Keep". It might be a list of scenes and then three possible options you want to drop in at the end of the session.

Because it's a catch-all, outlining scenes could be used many different ways at the table. You might review it to know where to move to next after one scene is done. You might reference the three possible options for the next steps at the end of the game. It's mostly there to help you understand the framework of the game you're going to run – not help you run it directly.

Define Secrets and Clues

I often get feedback asking for better definitions on where to reveal secrets and clues but the answer really is "anywhere they make sense". During play, you may have them in your mind or in front of you in your notes. When the characters explore somewhere, discover something, talk to someone, or otherwise pick up a clue – that's the time to drop them in. Think of secrets like treasure you reward the characters for doing stuff.

Remember, you don't have to reveal all your secrets. I typically reveal half of the ten in a session. It's totally fine to only give out a few of them. Secrets serve you. You're under no obligation to use them or reveal them. They're there to help you fill in the lore of the game when it makes sense to do so. But it's still important to have enough secrets to fill in the blanks during the game. you may only give out half of your ten secrets but you don't know which half.

Develop Fantastic Locations

How you develop your fantastic locations and how you use them at the table depends on the kind of adventure you're going to run. A dungeon crawl with lots of rooms means you can focus on a map and add a few one- or two-word descriptions for each room. These short prompts give you something to riff off of when you're running the game. If your session focuses on a smaller number of more detailed locations, you probably want to fill them out with names and three notable features the characters can use.

At the table, you'll have the map in hand and use it to draw out or reveal rooms for a player-focused version of the map. Using maps at the table is its own challenge. However you use maps with your players, though, you'll still want your list of locations and notable features in front of you during the game. Use these maps and notes to help you fill out the room when the characters get there.

Outline Important NPCs

How you use this step depends on how much help you need when running an NPC at the table. Some GMs can get away with just a name. Other people need a list of appearances, mannerisms, goals, maybe even notable quotes they might say. I think it's worth getting better at improvising NPCs since you're likely to need to do it anyway. The most important aspect of an NPC you're going to need during prep and during play is the NPC's name. It's easy to forget names and they're really important. Write them down when they come up during your prep and write down new ones when they pop up during the game itself.

Like locations, you can reference your list of NPCs when it's time for them to step into the scene – using any of the notes you find useful to flesh them out as you describe them. During your prep, consider what you needed to run the NPC during the game and what you ignored. Now skip the stuff you ignored.

Choose Relevant Monsters

You'll find a trend here. How you use your list of monsters depends on the sort of game you're going to run, but most often it's a simple list of monsters you think you might need and either links to digital stat blocks or page numbers to monster stat blocks in the books you plan to run. During your prep you might also use your list of monsters to select miniatures or prepare digital tokens. A set of generic monster tokens is a fantastic aid for improvising combat encounters.

At the table, you decide which monsters and how many monsters make sense for the situation. Then you use your list and references to look up the stat blocks and run them at the table.

Select Treasure

During your prep you might outline some interesting treasure and magic items the characters might find. Write down these parcels of treasure including links or page numbers where needed.

During the game, you decide if a situation warrants the discovery of treasure and use your list to drop in the treasure that makes sense. You can split up treasure parcels if it doesn't make sense for so much money to be in one place or to pick particular magic items that suit the situation.

Little Dishes of Flexible Prep

The eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master intend to help you get your hands around the most important stuff you may need during the game. They're focused on things to help you improvise during the game. You're not planning the game when preparing them. You're not building a story. You're setting up little dishes of pre-cooked food so you can improvise the meal at the table. Each of these items, and each of the lists they contain, are intended to help you quickly reference the stuff that's hard to improvise without putting in so much detail that improvisation is hindered.

Prepare what you need to run an awesome game.

More Sly Flourish Stuff

Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Which Prep Steps for Which Situation and Nighthaven – Shadowdark Gloaming Session 31 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 RPG tips. Here are this week's tips:

Related Articles

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Subscribe to the weekly Sly Flourish newsletter and receive a free adventure generator PDF!

More from Sly Flourish

Sly Flourish's Books

Share this article by copying this link:

Have a question or want to contact me? Check out Sly Flourish's Frequently Asked Questions.

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.

This site uses affiliate links to Amazon and DriveThruRPG. Thanks for your support!