Chapter 12 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master describes ways to reduce the eight steps of RPG preparation down to the ones that matter the most for your game. This list changes depending on the type of game a DM runs and available material a DM has to run it.
Today we're going to look at which steps best fit common scenarios in which DMs often find themselves.
This list of steps is all-inclusive but we can often skip steps depending on what sort of game we're preparing. You can watch me do this all the time in my Lazy DM prep video series in which I use the eight steps to prepare for my own weekend D&D games but often cut steps out depending on the type of game I'm about to run.
Let's look at some common scenarios and see which steps best fit.
The Continuous Homebrew Campaign
Based on the results of the 2016 Dungeon Master Survey, this scenario is likely the most common. Most DMs run their own campaign worlds and their own adventures. It's also likely most DMs run continuing campaigns and not a series of single-session adventures.
Of all of the potential ways to play D&D, this one likely needs most, if not all the steps, each session. Since you don't have a pre-existing published adventure, you can't easily fall back on other tools that help you skip certain steps.
Sometimes, when you're in the middle of a campaign, you might already know what fantastic locations are coming up. You might also have an idea of what scenes might take place or you simply don't care and plan to let the game go wherever it goes.
Generally, though, you'll want to go through all eight steps.
In a recent Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign I ran, I ended up falling back to my own story and my own campaign. Unlike running published adventures, I needed all eight steps to help me fill out each session. I found the checklist helpful (one would hope I would!) but I did need to go through each step on it.
Even if you are playing in someone else's campaign world (and most DMs likely are not), this won't really help you skip steps for any given session. An overall campaign world means less work on the details of the world but all eight steps are still relevant for the next session you plan to run.
When running your own series of adventures in your own campaign world, you'll likely benefit from going through each of the eight steps while preparing for your next game.
The Continuous Published Adventure
Though likely not in the majority, many DMs run larger published campaign adventures such as the D&D hardback adventures for fifth edition. Like the continuous homebrew campaign, these stories continue from session to session. Unlike homebrew campaigns, we have a lot of material we can fall back on that help us skip some the steps.
Big published adventures require a lot of work, but that work is mostly up front when reading the adventure through to understand what's in it. We'll also want to review the adventure before each session to know what comes up next. That said, such early preparation helps us skip steps session to session because the published adventure includes much of what we need. In particular, we can often skip the following steps:
Scenes. We know what scenes are often coming up because they're listed in the adventure.
Fantastic locations. We're using the locations in the book so we don't need to think them up ourselves.
Important NPCs. We might still want to list the ones who matter to the characters but overall we don't need to come up with many NPCs from scratch because they're in the adventure itself.
Relevant monsters. Again, these are likely in the adventure so we can skip it.
Magic items. Also often rewarded in the adventure.
Some adventures, like Curse of Strahd, Storm King's Thunder, and Tomb of Annihilation have large open-ended chapters that require more prep from the steps above. When the adventure goes off the rails, it's up to us to fill them in with interesting scenes, locations, monsters, NPCs, and magic items. Most of the time, though, we can rely on the adventure to do that work for us.
This leaves us with the following steps we still need to do:
Review the characters. We still need to focus on the actual characters in the game and how the world is reacting to them.
Create a strong start. It still helps to start strong in our games, especially when we're in the middle of a published adventure.
Define secrets and clues. Often we can drag these out of the background of a published adventure but we still have to write them down. These secrets are still tremendously valuable when we're actually running the game, published or not.
Going from eight to three steps is a nice drop, however, which is why I highly recommend running published adventures. There's a lot of value packed into these books.
Homebrew Single-Session Games
Like the homebrew continuous games, we're going to need all eight steps when running a single-session homebrew adventure. In particular, scenes become more important because we know we're going to need to fit in a full story arc in one session. Timing also becomes critical so we need to know where we can cut the story down and still get to the ending on time.
Overall, we still need the full eight steps when running a single-session homebrew game. That said, these eight steps help put together an entire adventure for four hours of entertainment which is a pretty great return for the effort.
Published Single-Session Games
We'll often see published single-session games when running organized play games or running games at conventions. Above all, the best value we get when running such a game is to read it and understand it before we run it. Often, time is the most critical factor. Like the homebrew single-session game, we have to complete a full story arc in the allotted time which can be a real challenge.
Some single-session published adventures may not have the same quality of design, editing, and playtesting as the big hardcover published adventures so it's worth paying special attention while reading it to ensure it can fit into a single session. This is the work we must do up front but, like the published continuing game, we don't have to use all of the eight steps.
Here are the steps we can likely skip:
Review the characters. We often have no idea who the characters are so there's no real work to be done here.
Create a strong start. Often these adventures start how they start. We might replace the strong start if the published start sucks but generally we'll use what they have.
Develop fantastic locations. Already outlined in the adventure.
Outline important NPCs. Already outlined in the adventure.
Choose relevant monsters. Already outlined in the adventure.
Select magic item rewards. Already outlined in the adventure.
This leaves us with two steps to focus on when running a single-session published adventure:
Outline potential scenes. Because we know we're going to have to fit the adventure into a set amount of time, we want to have a solid understanding of the outline of the scenes and what we can cut if we need to get the time back on track. This step is vital for single-session published adventures when time is a factor.
Define secrets and clues. It's still helpful to know what the clues the characters can learn to get them from point A to point Z during a single-session published adventure.
Pilfering Published Material for a Mashup Game
Many DMs enjoy taking published material and smashing it into their own campaign arc. This provides a lot of the benefit of a published adventure but with the creative fun of a home campaign.
When we're looting other published material, we don't have to stick to the fixed structure of a published adventure. This gives us more flexibility to share our own story but it means more work too.
When we pilfer published material, we're most likely to steal locations and NPCs. We'll still have to go through the rest of the checklist to fill in the blanks we have in our campaign. Finding interesting fantastic locations, however, can be a big benefit so it's always worth stealing what we can.
Further Room to Customize
These are just a few potential scenarios DMs will likely have while preparing their D&D games. Your own specific circumstances will determine which steps are most useful to you. As you prepare and run your own games, consider which steps help you the most. Focus on those, reduce or remove the rest, and continually improve your system to run the best game possible.
A Different Sort of Chapter in a Different Sort of Adventure
Waterdeep Dragon Heist is already a different sort of adventure than we're used to but, at least in chapter 1, it still feels like a typical adventure. A quest is given, the characters conduct an investigation, they crawl a dungeon, and face a boss. That's the outline of thousands of D&D adventures and it works really well.
Chapter 2 in Waterdeep Dragon Heist is nothing like this. Chapter 2 is mostly a toolkit for two major activities: restoring Trollskull Manor and getting connected with factions. There's no central storyline in this chapter and it's possible the activities in this chapter will take many tendays, months, or even longer depending on how you run it.
Running this chapter is not easy. If you find yourself having trouble running this chapter, hopefully this article will help.
Repairing the Manor
Much of this chapter will also revolve around repairing and funding the manor. It's up to you and your group to determine how much detail you want to expose in this venture. This event might be as simple as acquiring the funds to build up the inn once again. Maybe they hire an intermediary to do act as their agent in such matters, for a fee of course. Maybe your group really enjoys the detail of building out the inn. Some groups will love these details and some what to go off on adventures like they expect to. You'll have to gauge this yourself.
Choosing Factions and Quests
The rest of this chapter brings in seven factions that can potentially recruit the characters and send them off on a variety of missions. There are 28 such missions, none of which have anything to do with Raenar Neverember or the missing dragons.
I have two recommendations for these faction quests:
Choose one to three factions you want to introduce and ignore the rest. You might choose the Zhentarim, Bregan D'aerthe, and the Gray Hands as three interesting ones to drop into the game. You might choose three others. You likely don't want to introduce all seven of these factions. Pick the ones that fit the characters and the game and dump the rest.
Choose the faction missions which sound the most fun. There are tons of these faction missions and introducing them all can send the characters off on wild goose chases for weeks. Instead, pick a few that fit the current story of the characters and improvise any others you want to bring in.
Choose Your Own Adventures
This chapter is the perfect time to bring in your own small adventure seeds if you want. You can build these seeds from the backgrounds of your characters, inserting personal quests or group quests that focus on one particular character or another while they are busy fixing up the inn and dealing with the other issues going on. You can expand upon the rivalry between the new owners of Trollskull Manor and Emmek Frewn. Maybe it's your own little version of Patrick Swayze's Roadhouse. If you ever wanted to run some low level city adventures, this is a great time.
The Haunting of Trollskull Manor
For a more direct introduction to the chapter we can haunt Trollskull Manor, not just with Lief the poltergeist, but maybe with the hag mentioned in the manor's background. Back in Trollskull Manor's history, it was once owned by a hag who pretended to run it as an orphanage before she was routed by paladins of Helm.
What if that hag is still around?
This is our chance to add in some of our own mini-adventure. The two times I've run this chapter I added in a green hag named Auntie Potiti who had been routed from Trollskull Manor long ago but isn't fully gone. She still haunts the manor and adds all sorts of terrible discoveries including:
A giant closet that eats people.
Dead children that stomp around on upper floors or talk to the party.
A crazy big hag hand that comes out of a painting.
An illusion of a woman bathing in childrens' blood.
Paintings that depict the characters as young children hand in hand with the hag herself.
A glimpse of the hag's outdoor lair complete with catoblepas herds.
We can channel our best interpretations from It, Poltergeist, and The Shining to build out this our haunted manor. You might even replace it with your own version of Death House if you haven't run it before.
The hag might have a pet Banderhobb lurking in the cellar and the cellar itself might have a secret entrance into the Waterdeep sewers or even to Undermountain.
The goal of the party in this sequence is to survive the hauntings for one night and to route the hag. She will leave the manor but is still out there and may haunt the characters from time to time. Hags are fun.
The Mystery of Leif's Murder
Another interesting storyline to investigate in this chapter is Leif's murder. Perhaps the murderer was Leif's assistant, a young man at the time but old man now. Perhaps this assistant did so only after being fed lies by the rival innkeeper Emmek Frewn. Now the assistant is down at the dock wards, continually down on his luck. He has never forgiven himself for killing the only man who ever showed him kindness. It's up to the characters to find this killer and bring him to Leif, not so the ghost can kill the poor old man, but forgive him. In my game, one of the characters found out his name and used one of the paper bird messengers to summon him to the manor for a mysterious treasure. Smart!
If your group needs more structure and you want to throw a dungeon in the middle of this chapter, consider running Blue Alley by MT Black. This deathtrap alleyway is a fun way for the characters to engage with some wild traps and earn some valuable treasure to help them fund the reconstruction of Trollskull Manor. The dungeon can be unforgiving in some places so add in some valuable relics so the characters can earn more coin or acquire one or two nice powerful single-use magic items for their adventures to come.
Whenever you feel like the pacing of this chapter is getting to be too slow, it's time to drop in the fireball. Chapter 3 of Waterdeep Dragon Heist focuses on the aftermath of an explosion that rocks the alley. It's a strong start to the rest of the story of this adventure. You can drop in this event at any point while running chapter 2 so it's a great way to help you tune the pacing of the adventure. If you ever feel like things are getting stale or boring, drop in the fireball.
An Open but Challenging Chapter
Chapter 2 of Waterdeep Dragon Heist gives DMs a lot of freedom to bring in new elements to the story. It also gives players a new style of game. Instead of chasing leads, fighting bad guys, and delving into dungeons; they get to build up their own home base, meet interesting factions, and go off on small quests. It's a way for them to feel the living and breathing city of Waterdeep.
This wide open narrative can be equally challenging to run. Take some time, shrink the aperture, and build it into the chapter you want it to be.
Of all of the things required to run a great Dungeons & Dragons game none is harder than getting a group together regularly to play. Finding and maintaining a group is the biggest hurtle for D&D. In a previous article I wrote recommendations for finding and maintaining a D&D group. In today's article, we'll look at options for handling the game when players are missing. What do we do with their characters? Which options offer us the most flexibilty and ensure the most games? Which techniques are most likely to keep people at the table and which might push people away? We'll dig into all of this today.
To prepare for this conversation I asked on Twitter how DMs handle missing players in their own games and got about 250 replies. I spent some time digging through the results to try to gauge how DMs tend to handle missing players. The following typical ways came up often:
Simply ignore that they're missing and keep going on.
In the fiction, send the character off to engage in some other activity.
Let another player run the character.
Let the DM run the character.
Cancel the game until all or all-but-one player can make it.
About half let characters just fade into the background.
About one in four let someone else run the missing character.
About one in ten let the character go on a side quest.
About one in ten cancel the game.
Based on these results, here are my own thoughts, experiences, and recommendations.
Running a Game Comes First
Getting friends together regularly is worth more than the pure cohesion of the story. We love sharing these stories at the table but real life happens. It's hard for many of us to maintain a regular D&D schedule. Many people have other priorities in their lives, like it or not.
Thus, if someone misses a session we should do our best to keep the game going forward. This is why having six primary players and two on-call players can work so well. If you can manage to run a game with three or four players, it would take five to six people cancelling before you have to cancel a game. That puts the odds highly in favor of being able to run a regular game.
If we can somehow work the absence of the players's character into the story, that's a great way to go. Sometimes things line up well and they can serve the story even in their abscence. Maybe they get kidnapped. Maybe they go undercover for a while. Maybe they go hang out at the inn because of a bum knee acting up. Sometimes these side-treks work well in the story. Sometimes they're ham-fisted. Even ham-fisted, though, it's better than cancelling the game.
Maybe there's really no good in-fiction way to account for the character's absence. Even the good old "we stick them in a portable hole" trick might not even work. If that's the case, we can simply let it go.
Letting It Go
Running the game is more important than maintaining a purely cohesive story. In the case where one or two players can't make it but we still have enough to run a game, we go forward anyway, even if it doesn't make perfect sense in the story. Those characters who don't make it? They fade back into the scenery. When they come back, they come back.
About half of polled DMs agreed with this idea and I'm glad to see it.
Most of us are adults. We have commitments we must keep. We recognize that the real world intruded on our fiction. That's ok. We can let the realism of our fantasy world fade a bit for the sake of getting together for a good game.
For DMs who run stories that are really wired to the characters this can be hard to do. All I can recommend is loosening your grip on the story a little bit to help support a more regular gaming schedule. In the end, it's worth it.
Running Characters for Missing Players
Many groups have someone else, either the DM or another player, run the missing players's character. This isn't an unworkable approach but it can cause a few problems. First, what if the player or DM running the character makes choices the main player of that character wouldn't make? What if the character dies? These situations might not be typical but if they come up they can cause problems.
You also have the problem of too many characters on the table compared to the players. Running characters as NPCs or having players running multiple characters can complicate the game and put too much spotlight time on the player running additional characters. A DMs life is usually hard enough that running an additional character adds an extra burden.
Instead, just let the character fade into the background and focus on the characters whose players are actually in attendance.
Making it Easy to Return
One consideration when dealing with a missing player is to make it easy and inviting for them to come back to the table. Over the years I've seen people suggest that missing players need to be somehow punished for not showing up. I'd recommend a "less stick" and "more carrot" approach. If you make it hard for players to come back to the table, you're increasing the chances that they won't come back at all.
Consider experience and leveling. One of the many advantages of using milestone experience instead of calculating experience points is that players who miss a game won't miss out on character progression at the same time. They'll know that even though they missed a game, their character will still keep up with the others in the group. This might, somehow, not seem fair, but consider that experience points and levels are arbitrary rewards anyway. Nothing prevents us from starting at higher levels if it works out for the story. If players miss out on a game and their character starts to fall behind the other characters, it becomes easier for them to simply stay away instead of returning and continually feeling like they're behind everyone else for the rest of a campaign.
Likewise, removing any other punishments for a player's absence makes it easier for the player to return and know they aren't somehow worse off for missing out.
Missing out on a D&D game is punishment enough, we don't have to compound it.
Keep the Game Running
Above all we should consider any structure or rule we have and test it against one goal: keeping the game running. Whatever rules you put in place for a player absence, ask yourself if it best serves the game. The most tight and cohesive story is no story at all if no one makes it to the table. Build a system to keep the game going and make it as easy and inviting as possible for players to keep coming to the table to play a great game of D&D.
DM's Deep Dive with Special Guest Wolfgang Baur! - YouTube
The rest of this article offers some notes from the episode.
Top Three Tips for Worldbuilding
Here are Wolfgang's top three tips for worldbuilding in D&D:
Know what you're trying to build. Pick a theme. Pick a seed. Pick a tone. Do you want gothic horror? Survival horror? Elfy fantasy? Choose your theme, write it down, and stick to that. This is particularly useful for shorter campaigns where you have a focused overall theme for the campaign.
Start small. For newer worldbuilders the urge is to build out everything. This can be deeply satisfying for the DM but our players just need a village. They need a hommlet. Start small. The focus on local concerns will resonate much more with your players than a big grand world. The five thousand years of history may be important to you but you can't expect your players to care until it matters to their characters.
Before you roll out a new campaign in a new world, make sure the players are on board with your setting. Have a pre-session zero discussion in which you pitch the campaign theme and pay particular attention to the body language of the players. Maybe your group of high fantasy heroic players aren't down with the dark gritty horror fantasy of Shadow of the Demon Lord.
Would we have had the Lord of the Rings if Tolkein hadn't farted around with elvish languages, 5,000 years of history, and a bunch of songs? A lot of the Silmarillion doesn't appear in Lord of the Rings but it was important to Tolkein.
If you care about your world, go for it, but don't expect your players to care.
Every poll Wolfgang ran back in the TSR days agreed with my own polls that DMs run their own campaign world. This has been true and will be true probably forever because DMs love building their own worlds.
Wolfgang recommends focusing on a region like the Sword Coast or Zobek for Midgard. Smaller worlds mean the players will actually be able to explore it. Hint at the ancient history.
Wolfgang thinks Keep on the Borderlands's popularity comes from its focus. Players want to know what is going on here and now but DMs love to go deep. Wolfgang had customers say that the 450 page book for Midgard was just a teaser for the world. How much more can he provide? Well, he has a whole Kingdom of the Ghouls Kickstarter in the works so probably quite a bit!
Choosing Between Homebrew and Published Campaign Worlds
How much time one has available will likely dictate whether DMs choose to build a homebrew campaign world or a published setting. Some DMs just don't have the time to build a campaign world so they take it out of the box and run with it. If you go with your own homebrew world, you have to worry about understanding traderoutes or governmental systems.
Players: "We just want to go to the old ruins on the hill."
DM: "But the town councils meeting..."
Players: "We don't really care about that."
Wolfgang's players aren't there to share Wolfgang's homebrewed stuff. They're there to play a game. The homebrew that matters is that which focuses on the characters. Build your homebrew from the hooks of the characters.
The spice on top of a campaign setting seems to resonate more to players than the in-depth stuff. The throw-away lines gather as much momentum as the carefully planned stuff.
Wolfgang's Highest Expectations for Midgard
Wolfgang's highest expectation for Midgard is that DMs will strip it for parts. He's perfectly happy for people to take the shadowfey and leylines and the bearfolk and put them into their own worlds.
Mash it up. Wolfgang is a big believer in mashing up material.
Beyond getting your players together to make sure they are on board with your campaign, maybe get them involved a bit in the world building. What's the name of the assassin's guild?
Bringing Published Campaigns to the Players
Wolfgang's primary points to give to the players:
Who's in charge?
What's going horribly wrong?
Who are the gods or religious powers involved?
Wolfgang likes to have conflicts between individuals versus the state. You might have a great base attack bonus but the court of the shadowfey doesn't give a shit.
Building campaign worlds from adventures means you build the world in a slow and incremental pace.
Focus your efforts on doing the most awesome and amazing adventure possible and your players will come back every week demanding more. If you focus your most limited prep time on genealogy and coats of arms, you're probably not putting time where it should be spent.
Your most important adventure is the next one.
Build the world from the history of a paladin's recovered sword.
"What are your thoughts on building cities?"
"Oh! I have thoughts about this!"
"I know, you gave me the question."
I crack myself up.
The history of fantasy RPGs is the history of cities. Greyhawk, Waterdeep, Sigil.
When you're building a city you have to know how normal people act. What do they drink? What's the government like? How do the laws work? Who handles the nightsoil?
You have to know something about history and society to build a credible city.
Questions From the Audience
"How do you find the sweet spot of having standard recognizable stuff with new stuff specific to your world?"
There IS a sweet spot. Wolfgang uses the boredom gauge. If he gets bored while writing about them, they probably need something unique. What is the twist or mashup for these guys?
If you're writing for a beginner audience or your players are new, don't spend a lot of time making new core races and what-not. The core stuff will be fine for them. If your audience is jaded and has been gaming for 20 years, it might be worth shaking things up with new races and classes and stuff.
"What kind of material are customers most interested in with campaign settings?"
Wolfgang finds that people are most interested in friction, hooks, and where stuff is blowing up. If you leave parts of the campaign setting unresolved, you're identifying a place where the game master can run with it.
People also love high fantasy and weirdness. Midgard was supposed to be low fantasy but then became high fantasy the more they injected it into the setting.
People love gods wandering the Western Wastes, ancient tombs, and broken leylines.
Give people the most exciting NPCs, flashpoints of danger, and the high weird.
You can't answer all the questions when building worlds. If you do so, you're doing it wrong.
Leave yourself room to breathe.
In Midgard, there's a lot blank. The far north and the Hyporboria hasn't been touched.
"How do you update canon?"
Wolfgang doesn't really update events in Midgard. Things happen really slowly in Midgard.
Things change in Midgard when adventures push it that way.
"How would you introduce world-changing events into an existing campaign world?"
You have to get your players buy-in for big change like this and then you can just drop them in. Spelljammer makes travel too easy. It's hard to change the rules half-way through a campaign.
Major shifts for the characters can make the players resent you. Don't change the rules on the players without their buy-in. Don't take their magic items. Give players a choice.
"What mistake with worldbuilding have you learned the most from?"
Advancing the timeline too quickly.
In one campaign world there is a beautiful and awesome part of the world that the characters can't really get to. Make sure things are exposed to the players.
"How important are connections between lands and nations?"
It's a mistake not to connect them! Connect your nations and societies. It's fuel for adventures. Trade, religious, and political connections are very useful for the story.
"If someone is new to Midgard, what's the elevator pitch?"
It's a dark world with strange magic full of leylines, shadowelves, and bearfolk. It takes European history and puts it in a blender with dark fantasy. There are over a hundred adventures for it for the past ten years. It has a little something for everyone.
Today we're going to focus on the campaign's conclusion: the battle against the atropal and the arrival of Acererak.
Story Versus Challenge
Almost everywhere else when running D&D games, I'd argue, we're better off focusing on the story instead of tuning the game to fit a particular mechanical challenge for the characters. When building encounters I recommend building encounters from the story and not to simply select monsters based on the particular level of the characters.
Boss fights are different. Boss fights and campaign closers have a particular feel for them, one that requires some mechanical attention.
Maybe this isn't always true. Maybe, even in boss fights, we're actually better off just letting the story go how it goes just like we do with the rest of the game. Maybe I'm not wise enough to let go completely. I want to see a solid challenge. I want to watch the characters struggle but end victorious. I want a continual feeling of fear and hope rolling through the battle. I want something as powerful as the end of Vox Machina.
As it stands now, though, when it comes to boss fights and campaign closers, I tune things around the characters and their capabilities to keep a continual feeling of hope and fear.
On the Atropal
The atropal encounter in Tomb of Annihilation can be swingy. The atropal a powerful creature with a lot of options—a lot of options to remember. It also has a huge vulnerability: radiant attacks. A paladin who smites the atropal can drop it very quickly. In some circumstances that may be just fine. They still have to deal with the Soul Monger itself and Acererak's arrival.
We can keep a handle on this dial if we want to. The average hit points of the atropal is 225 but its maximum hit points within its hit dice is 324. We can also ignore the radiant vulnerability if we think it's going to get nuked too quickly. Keeping a hand on the hit point dial is a good way to maintain a consistent challenge during a boss fight.
The atropal's necrotic aura is also worth remembering. The atropal floating around the room blocking healing and damaging characters by its mere presence is a big part of the fun. We can remember all of these special abilities if we grab a 3x5 card and write down the atropal's important actions and features so we don't forget it during the fight.
The atropal is also missing legendary resistances but we can always throw them back in if we think it will get knocked out of commission too easily. We can also turn its ability to summon a wraith into a bonus action so its dropping wraiths every round. When the atropal dies, so do the wraiths.
We might replace the atropal's wail with a maddening wail instead. I'm a huge fan of madness and gaining levels of exhaustion felt like it could be too much. This form of madness could be removed if, at the end of their turn, the character succeeds on their saving throw. Or, if they chose to, they can take 28 points of psychic damage at the beginning of their turn to break out of the maddening effect and get their full round of actions. This is a nice hard choice for players to make if they get stuck by this ability.
Most of the time we can focus its legendary actions on its ray of cold attack and increase the damage of this attack from 21 (6d6) to 28 (8d6).
The tentacle attacks from the soul monger are also important to remember and can do a lot of damage. Every turn the soul monger is attacked, it attacks with a tentacle. Thus, its attacks scale up nicely with the attacks of the characters. I gave the tentacle the ability to hit someone for damage and pick them up, threatening to drop them in the lava at the end of their next turn if they don't do something about it. This added a lot of interesting pressure on the characters to save one another before they're tossed into lava.
In this battle we can also tweak the pacing by considering the hit points of the soul monger itself and how many rods need to be broken to send it into the lava. If you have more than four characters, its probably fine to require two of the struts to break or even three if they're having an easy time of it. If they focus on the soul monger, we can increase its hit points as well.
Thus, we have a lot of dials we can turn in this combat to keep the pace nice and threatening without wiping out the characters in the last scene of a year-long campaign. Here are a few we might consider:
Tweak the hit points of the atropal and the soul monger.
Give the atropal legendary resistances and remove its radiant vulnerability.
Let the atropal summon a wraith as a bonus action.
Add a maddening wail that inflicts short-term madness. This can be removed by taking psychic damage.
Let the tentacles from the soul monger inflict damage and grab on a hit.
Don't forget about the atropal's necrotic aura.
It's hard to offer meaningful advice for running Acererak at the end of this campaign. What happens in this battle and how you end up handling it will depend very much on each individual campaign.
I ran this encounter twice for two different groups and it went completely different each time. Neither time did they face off and try to fight the archlich directly. Smart thinking on their part.
In my versions of this encounter, Acererak becomes aware that his creation is under attack. I foreshadowed his coming arrival, describing how he was interrupted while carving a billion-year-old temple out of a dead rock of a planet with some of his lich apprentices and his sphere of annihilation. He arrived in my game when both the soul monger and the atropal were killed.
At that point, both the discussions and the disintegrations began.
In one group, we had an ongoing story thread in which our warlock character, Ogechi, was slowly turning into a lich himself. He pulled the black key in the maze room and gained a powerful necrotic spell attack as a result, along with an arm that looked like a lich.
When Acererak showed up, he wasn't so quick to kill Ogechi since this warlock proved to be a potential apprentice. All Ogechi had to do was sign an infernal contract scribed by one of Acererak's succubus lawyers. One of the other characters, the bard Tharmond, secretly charmed the succubus who forged Acererak's own signature on the contract, thus freeing Ogechi without Acererak knowing it. They then convinced the succubus to tell Acererak to return to his former work and they would take care of things here.
While this is going on, Acererak is hurling his sphere of annihilation (which has a terribly low DC and is easily avoided) at one of the other characters who is tossing phylacteries into the lava. He eventually lost the save and got disintegrated only to have the trickster god within him restore him only to be disintegrated AGAIN and so on. That was weird.
A couple of characters got a couple of hits on Acereak but eventually he left knowing he had a new apprentice with a tattoo key to open up the doors of the world of the night serpent.
So there was no real fight against Acererak.
My other game took a similar turn. In this campaign, Acererak discovered that one of the characters carried a dagger that acted as a key to open up the doors to the lair of the Night Serpent. He was willing to spare their insect lives if they handed over the dagger. They did, but, at the last second, threw it into his sphere of annihilation and ran for the portal. Thus they escaped into the jungle with an archlich's dark gaze upon them.
One way to handle this encounter is to ask yourself what the characters have that Acererak may want as much as he wanted the soul monger and the atropal. If you can throw this in earlier in the campaign, all the better.
Other than this, I have little good advice on running the encounter with Acererak. It's a strange fight to face a monster this powerful in the final scene of the game.
Skipping the Final Puzzles
In both of my games I ended up skipping the final rooms of the lowest floor. I felt that, after the fight against the atropal and Acererak, it was time to be done. Your results may vary, of course.
One Year Later...
One trick I've learned for ending a campaign, one that has served me very well, is asking the players to describe where their characters are one year after the end of the story. Some of the best stories I hear in the entire campaign come from these one-year-out montages. The bard, Tharmond, started a hit play in Waterdeep called the Tomb of Annihilation. The paladin who sold his soul to Grimfinger the Erinyes, built a temple to Torm on the edge of the Anauroch desert doing his best to serve his god before his soul belonged to a devil. The restored druid Warryn transformed himself into the new King of Feathers hunting undead in the jungles of Chult. The cursed warlock, Ogechi, went to the doors of the night serpent with Fenthasa, just as she predicted, and murdered her at the door, which she did not predict.
In my other game, Shelby, our tortle ranger returned home to his tribe on the coast of Chult. Tysabri returned to the graves of her parents. Truth and Sirzek returned to Sirzek's tribal home in the Spine of the World to restore honor to his tribe. Feski wrote a best-selling book on her adventures in Chult, nearly knocking Volo's Guide off the best seller's list. Fromash the lizardfolk death cleric built a new temple to a benevolent god of death in the city of Omu and helped the city return to its former glory.
If you get nothing else from this article, ask your players what happens to their characters one year after the end of the campaign. They almost always have ideas and they're almost always way more awesome than you can think up.
An Incredible and Strange Feeling
Over the past few years I've finished a handful of large campaigns. I finished a four-year campaign battling against Orcus the God of Death. I finished one-year campaigns for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, two Curse of Strahd campaigns, two Storm King's Thunder campaigns. Now I've completed two Tomb of Annihilation campaigns. I am very lucky to have run them.
"A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone."
- Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones
Over the past year, this topic has shown up in lots of other articles here at Sly Flourish and many of my DM tips on Twitter as well. For some, this seems completely obvious. For others, it can come as a surprise. This big tip?
Read the books.
One might be surprised by the fact that some haven't read their D&D books all the way through. I admit, only recently have I finished reading them all the way through. That is not something I'm proud of.
This isn't a tip just for new DMs. This is a tip for all of us. New or old. DMs or players. All of us can draw a great deal out of this game if we take the time to dig into our D&D books and enjoy what they have to offer.
New DMs, Read the Starter Set Books
If you're new to D&D, start with the D&D Starter Set. The D&D Starter Set is the best way to get into D&D for a low cost and begin to digest what D&D has to offer. Instead of suddenly finding yourself with over a thousand pages of material from the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual, the Starter Set comes with only two books. A main rulebook and the adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver. It also includes a set of pregen characters which means you don't have to suddenly know every ability of every race and class found in the Player's Handbook.
The value of the Starter Set cannot be overstated. The adventure, as written, is awesome, but it also includes a great set of monsters that you can use for your own low-level adventures. The maps in Phandelver also span the range of maps you might drop into your own campaigns including a bandit lair, goblin caves, ruined castle, ruined village, and dwarven mines. These maps are reskinnable for your own adventures as you need them.
Because the Starter Set books are relatively slim, it won't take you forever to read them and understand how D&D works. Thus, when you begin, start with these books before trying to tackle the full set of core books.
A Reading List for Dungeon Masters
As you get more experienced, or if you are experienced already, it's time to get into the core books. While it's definitely worthwhile to read all three books cover to cover, you can triage your reading to the parts of highest direct value while running your games. Here's a reading list:
Player's Handbook. Read the intro, chapters 7, 8, 9, 10, and the appendicies. You can skip over the chapters on races, classes, backgrounds, equipment, customization options, and spells for now. They're definitely worth reading but your players can also dig into these chapters and tell you what you need to know to run a game. Again, you'll want to read these eventually.
Dungeon Master's Guide. You'll want to give this whole book a solid skim read. You might not have to read it cover to cover right away but you should at least know what you have in your hands. There's tons of fantastic stuff in this book but it does you no good if you don't know that you have it. When you can, read it through. This is also a book worth re-reading every year or so to remind yourself what is in it. Many times you might think of an option or sub-system for running your game only to find that it's already in the DMG.
Monster Manual. This book is also worth reading all the way through but you can focus primiarly on monsters you're likely to use in your campaign. Start with low challenge monsters and work your way up to the ones likely to show up in future adventures. The monster book is packed with awesome adventure and campaign hooks so worry less about the stat blocks and more on the lore of monsters. We can come up with hundreds of campaign ideas from this book alone.
Volo's Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. When you're able, read these all the way through as well. Like the Monster Manual, they're packed with adventure and campaign ideas. Unlike the Monster Manual they spend lots of time focused on specific monsters like hags, mind flayers, beholders, and githyanki. Read them. Enjoy them. Let them seep into your DM's mind castle.
Xanathar's Guide to Everything. Like the DMG, this book is packed with great ideas for DMs, both from a mechanics standpoint and from the lore of the game. In an episode of Dragon Talk, Jeremy Crawford mentioned that the design of spells in Xanathar's (and those in the Player's Handbook as well) are designed not just to give toys to players but for the DM to weave into the story. Spells like Druid's Grove and Mighty Fortress are as interesting to witness from powerful NPCs as they are when cast by a player character.
Read Published Adventures
If you're running one of the published D&D adventures (Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation are my two favorites) it helps significantly to read through these adventures cover to cover before we run them. Reading the full adventure means knowing which secrets and clues to put in front of the players from session to session. It means knowing how to tie the adventures together. It helps inspire you to hack it yourself into the adventure you want it to be for you and your group.
It takes time to read through a full published adventure but the return is worth the effort.
A Reading List for Players
If you're playing D&D but you're not the DM, you're reading list isn't as large but can still give you a great deal of enjoyment out of the game if you take the time.
Player's Handbook. Read the chapter on your race and your class. Read the spells your class has access to for level 1 and the next couple of levels above your current level. Take note of spell components and describe them when you're playing your character.
If your race is one of the races from Volo's Guide or Mordenkainen's, it's worth digging deep into your race's background and history. Learning how the elves are connected to Corellon or how the halflings see their gods as extended family members with legendary exploits can enrich your character to the full.
Players likely spend a lot of their time focused on the mechanics of their class but getting into the story and lore of their race, class, and background can make the whole game much more enjoyable.
Read to Inspire, Not to Memorize
When we're digging into these books, our goal isn't to memorize every single rule in them. Our goal is to let the worlds of D&D flow over and through us so we can drop into it when we're running the game. That sounds pretty hippy but it works. The more we digest this game and the worlds it encapsulates, the easier it is to help us improvise when we're running our game and our ability to improvise may very well be the most important skill DMs can have.
Even if it doesn't help us memorize every aspect of the game, reading through the books will let us know what's there so we know what we have and where to find it when we need it during the game.
We don't read these books to memorize them. We read them to let them inspire us.
Read On the Go
Finding large solid blocks of time in our days is, for many of us, quite hard. Being able to sit on our nice couch with good lighting and read our books for a solid hour may be impossible for a lot of us. Yet, as busy as we are, we find time to surf through Facebook or get enraged by the news or get lost in cat mischief on Reddit. With D&D Beyond it's just as easy to read a bit of our core books as it is to read anything else on the web. Having the core books on our phones means we can read part of it whenever we have free moment. Keep your current book in your browser window and maybe skip the social media for a bit while you read up on Merfolk. Every monster description is about as long as a Facebook post already so it's not a stretch to read one monster block at a time all throughout the day.
Know the Rules Before You Break the Rules
We DMs are often a super-creative bunch. D&D becomes our outlet to share the stories we've had bottled up in our heads all our lives. We're also likely to have a different game in our head than the ones in the books so we immediately want to start tweaking and twisting and cutting and pasting all sorts of new house rules. I see this come up often on Facebook: "What if we got rid of charisma scores?" or "I'm going to completely redo the fighter class" and the like.
This isn't inherently bad but we should be cautious until we actually know what we're talking about. Of course, in our own games, we can experiment however we want but it helps if we actually know the rules before we break the rules. Before you start rebuilding your own fantastic 5e game, maybe read what the designers have put in there already.
The Hardest Step for the Lazy Dungeon Master
We're all about cutting corners here on Sly Flourish to get the most value out of our game for the least effort. Value, return over effort, is our ultimate goal. Reading over a thousand pages of rules isn't effortless. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work. Hopefully this article gave you an idea where to start. As much time as it takes, the value we gain by reading these books is well worth the effort. For that reason, reading the books is a core staple for the way of the Lazy Dungeon Master.
1. Summary of the Eight Steps of D&D Prep from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master - YouTube
These videos don't cover everything in the book. If you want that, you're still better off buying the book itself but the videos will give you a good deep look into the process and the material you'll find in the book itself.
If you read deeply into Tomb of Annihilation and Dungeon of the Mad Mage, you'll notice that Wizards of the Coast has avoided a common problem in older adventures. Older adventures often focused on rooms full of monsters that reacted to the characters in basically one way—by attacking them.
The fifth edition of D&D focuses on three pillars of play: exploration, roleplaying, combat. While previous versions of D&D arguably focused more on combat than the other two pillars, 5e has definitely shifted more towards roleplaying and exploration as at least equal partners to combat.
When we're thinking about and preparing for our D&D games, we might break down the scenes we plan to run by the scene's type. We might think of it as a roleplay scene, an exploration scene, or a combat scene. Previously on this blog I brought up the idea of an adventure template with prescribed scene types to maintain the beats at the right time. I no longer believe such a template serves our game. I believe that we should build situations, not scenes. We should build situations that allow for all of the three pillars and let the players choose how they want to interact with it.
Examples in Published Adventures
In Tomb of Annihilation there is a den of scum and villainy in the forbidden city of Omu called the Fane of the Night Serpent. This temple to a dark and terrible elder evil is a clear example of a location that seems ripe for combat. Yet, as written, the characters have many different ways they can interact with it. We learn of many interesting personality quirks between Ras Nsi, the leader of the Fane and his second-in-command, Fenthasa the Nightmare Speaker. Other interesting social connections include Ras Nsi's bodyguard and the bodyguard's love for one of Ras Nsi's concubines.
The physical construction of the Fane also offers options for exploration. The doors have cut-outs at the bottom allowing the passage of snakes or those in snake form. A druid with shape shift could likely slide on in and spy on the whole den. There are also multiple entrances into the Fane and lots of ways to travel within it. There are lots of things to discover and many secrets to uncover.
The Fane is built so that characters (and players) can choose how they want to approach it. Do they want to pretend to be prisoners? Do they want to sneak in the back? Do they want to talk their way into Ras Nsi's throne room? Do they want to kick in the front door and start cutting down snake people? All of these are viable options.
In Dungeon of the Mad Mage, nearly all of the 23 levels of the dungeon includes multiple factions that interact with one another in different ways. Instead of each level being a monster closet slaughterfest, the characters can work with or against these factions as they see fit.
This idea extends through many recently published adventures. Instead of rooms full of monsters to fight, there are factions at work with goals that may run parallel or perpendicular to the goals of the characters. Combat is still an option but it is often only one of many.
Expanding Your Scenes
We can use these examples to help us build our own situations when preparing and running our games. Whenever we're putting together a scene or situation in one of our games, we can ensure that the scene allows for multiple solutions instead of just one.
One great way to ensure there are opportunities for roleplaying are to add factions to your enemies. This might be subordinates who secretly hate their leader. It might be two warring factions. Factions, even more than two, are excellent tilled earth for your characters to plant seeds of intrigue instead of just slitting throats the whole time.
We can also ensure our scenes have something to discover in it. This might be interesting murals, tapestries, or frescoes on the wall that someone can investigate with history or religion. We can layer the scene with all sorts of stuff the characters can investigate. If we've prepared some secrets and clues you can drop in these secrets whenever a character successfully investigates some interesting part of the area.
Bored guards and lots of shadows make for some great stealthy work. Because group stealth can be hard and a wrong move can alert an entire castle, we might go a bit easier on the characters if they choose subterfuge instead of combat by helping them fail forward on unlucky rolls. A failed group stealth check doesn't lead to an alert but it means the group gets split up as sleepy guards walk through or that they collapse into the sewers beneath the castle.
When building for the three pillars, we can keep a little checklist to help us ensure we're building around the three pillars:
Is there a way to sneak around?
Are there NPCs to talk to?
Are there factions within the monsters and villains to exploit?
Are there areas to explore and things to learn there?
Are there things to fight without bringing the whole place down on top of them?
Are there different ways to get into and explore the area?
These aren't perfect but they're a good start.
Understanding the Goal
One way we can keep our scenes open to all of the possible options characters bring to the table is to focus on the goal. If the goal is "kill everything in the dungeon" that will probably force combat. But if the goals are more specific like "steal the bowl used in the dark ritual" or "remove the enchantment possessing the king", it lends itself to other alternative paths.
In the 4th edition D&D days, Dave the Game talked about the "early out", a way to make overly long battles go faster. Instead of having a goal of killing everything in a battle, the goal was something else. It might be "stop the ritual" or "blow up the bridge" or "close the portal". The goal went beyond simple slaughter.
That same idea can be expanded to situations in our fifth edition D&D game. What is the characters' goal in the situation? What do the characters need to do? Can we foresee ways to accomplish that goal that aren't just killing things?
When we think about building scenes for our games, it's easy to fall in the trap of overpreparation. As written in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master we might get more out of our game by preparing less. It's important that we set up scenes that allow for many different approaches but we don't have to plan for every one of them. Instead, we can place in the components that help ensure there are options available for the characters to choose from.
A while back I asked newer DMs on Twitter to describe the hard parts they encountered when running running D&D games. I got back a lot of interesting responses many of which focused on learning the rules, finding players, how to prepare for a game, and learning how to improvise. A few people brought up the difficulty in gaining the confidence to run D&D games. Since we've yet to cover this topic on Sly Flourish, I thought we would do so now.
Confidence is a hard to muster in many situations but it can be particularly hard when running Dungeons & Dragons games. We're already not necessarily confident creatures but when running a game of high fantasy in front of our friends, it can feel like we're in a room full of adults playing make-believe (which is, of course, exactly what we're doing). All our lives we're pushed to act like adults. Its hard to be confident and grab on to the imagination of a child again.
Yet DMs break past these confidence barriers and run some fantastic games every day. Today we're going to offer some tips and tricks to help muster up the confidence required to run some great D&D games.
How do DMs Get the Confidence to Run Games?
Much like the question on the hard parts of running D&D games, I took to Twitter to ask how DMs got the confidence up to run D&D games. I got more than two hundred responses to this question. I took these results and categorized them into a handful of common themes. The top results included the following:
I did it because no other DMs were available.
I had a supportive group of friends or family.
I gained confidence through continual practice.
My drive to tell a story outweighed my nervousness.
There were many other answers as well but those above got mentioned repeatedly, with the top two getting nearly five times as many responses as others.
We're not going to focus on the results above in the rest of this article but we will use them to help guide our discussion on how DMs might get the confidence they need to run great D&D games.
Surround Yourself with Allies
D&D works when everyone around the table trusts one another. This means, first and foremost, bringing the right people to the table that you trust and that want to enjoy a fun game. Assuming that you have the right people at the table, your next goal is to build an environment of trust by removing our competitive nature from the game. Everyone at our D&D table has the same goal—to witness a great story. Focusing on the story instead of worrying continually about challenge and mechanics is a good way to break down the walls. Enjoy the successes of the characters, not the monsters. Let players narrate parts of the story as it plays out. Say yes.
If we have surrounded ourselves with people supportive of our time in the DM's seat and we build an environment focused on collaborative storytelling, we'll get the support we'll need to feel confident as we run the game.
Above all, everyone we bring to the table is there to have a good time. We all want to get together and play games with our friends. Our players aren't here to make fun of us or pick holes in our understanding of the rules. They want to share a story together as people have done for tens of thousands of years. There is little greater joy in our lives beyond sharing stories with some friends and a handful of dice.
Fake It Until You Make It
Going all the way back to Aristotle, the idea that to be virtuous, we must act virtuous works just as well with the confidence we need to run our D&D games. We might not feel confident, but if we did, what would that look like? How would we act then? What if we pretended to be confident? This essentially has us diving into our games with both feet, waving our arms and trying out our silly voices even if we totally suck at them. Who cares?
In the 1920s, Alfred Adler, a disciple of Sigmund Freud, developed a therapeutic technique that he called "acting as if". This strategy gave his clients an opportunity to practice alternatives to dysfunctional behaviors. Adler's method is still used today and is often described as "role play".
Holy shit! Role playing! That's what we're trying to do already! So maybe we're nesting our roleplaying a bit, first roleplaying that we're actually fully competent and confident DMs who then roleplay the NPCs, villains, and monsters in our game. Every layer of our roleplaying, however, buries our self doubt a little more.
Faking it until we make it also helps us actually make it the more games we run. The more games we run the easier it gets.
Avoid the Resistance
Author Steven Prescott wrote a book about writing called The War of Art. In it he describes "The Resistance" as anything, real or imaginary, that gets in the way of creating art. DMing is one such form of art and the Resistance continually gets us to doubt ourselves and our ability to run a good game. If we can see this shadowy demon for what it is, we can recognize when it's sinking its claws into us and realize that it is simply getting in the way of us running great games.
When we hear voices in our head saying things like "it's too hard" or "I'm not good enough" or "I'll never be Matt Mercer", that's the voice of the Resistance and it's there to always keep us from making art. Put it aside, run a game, and then run another one.
Learn from the Best
Many people worked up the confidence to run D&D games by watching excellent dungeon masters run their own games online. This is a relatively new way to learn about this hobby, one we've only had for the past few years in the past few decades. Yet it is also likely responsible for doubling the amount of people playing D&D.
In particular, the Critical Role series by Matt Mercer and Dice, Camera, Action by Chris Perkins are excellent examples of D&D run by masterful DMs. The D&D advice videos by Matt Colville also come up often as sources for DM advice and as examples to help new DMs get into the seat. Even for veteran DMs, watching other DMs practice the craft can teach us a lot about how we might better run our own games. Will our style mimic these DMs? No. Will our games look like these? Maybe not. Can we learn from them? Hells yes.
Grab On to the Story
Losing ourselves in the fiction is an excellent way to forget about the stress of running a game. Many DMs said that they began DMing because they had stories to share. When we lose ourselves in the stories, when we go there, we'll forget how nervous we are and just run with it. When DMing goes well, we're in the flow. We lose track of time. We're fully engaged with the game. I can't speak for everyone but when I'm running a good D&D game, there isn't any other place I want to be.
Thinking Clinically About Our Games
Sometimes our games don't go well. Maybe people didn't have such a good time. Maybe we didn't have such a good time. It's easy to fall into despair, thinking we're horrible DMs and taking ourselves out of the chair. Instead, we can take a step back, look at the details of the game, and work on the specifics. Maybe we didn't suck as bad as we thought but we mis-matched the expectations we had with those of the players. Maybe we got too wound up in a battle and shut down a player's idea when we should have let it work.
Likewise, when we're playing in games, we can look at what is working well and what is going poorly. It's probably easier to do the latter. When games go well we're not likely thinking about why, we're just enjoying it. The tips and tricks we pick up from both good and bad games can help us polish our own.
We can learn from all of these experiences. If we see the path of DMing as a continual lifelong journey of learning and discovery, not a state we're going to one-day find ourselves in, these speed bumps won't turn into brick walls. We can take feedback one piece at a time and make our next game a little better than the previous.
Step back from the emotions we feel, study them, study the situation, and make small changes to your game.
Watch, Learn, and Do
When we look at what has helped DMs gain the confidence to run games along with the sorts of things that help people build confidence in all aspects of life, we can come to some simple advice. Yet many times the best advice (eat less, exercise more) is easier said than done. Still, when we focus on it and remember where it came from, such simple advice can sometimes push us in the right direction.
Watch people play D&D. Learn from other DMs. Think about their advice. Watch them run games. And then do it. Run games. Act as if. Grab on to the story and the fiction of the game. Become a kid again. Run some D&D.
Waterdeep Dragon Heist is a different kind of adventure than other hardback adventures. This is a more focused adventure in two ways: it only takes characters up to level five and it takes place almost entirely within the city of Waterdeep. Thus, running this adventure is likewise different than other adventures. In this article, and additional articles in this series, we'll go over Waterdeep Dragon Heist chapter by chapter to look at some interesting ways to run it.
The adventure begins in the most popular public house in the Forgotten Realms, the Yawning Portal. The tavern gets its name from the huge gaping maw that leads hundreds of feet down to the bowels of Undermountain.
So obviously we want this portal to come into play.
As written, Dragon Heist has a nice strong start. The characters meet up with none other than Volotham Geddarm, the author and explorer. While they converse, a couple of factions get into a fight in the brawl before a nest of stirges and a troll come out of the gaping portal into the inn itself.
This sets up a nice multi-stage fight in a cool environment. If you can get a hold of it, the fourth-edition D&D Halls of Undermountain included an awesome Yawning Portal poster map. That's not easy to get so you might instead grab a digital Yawning Portal map by Elven Tower and either print it as a poster or display it on a tablet. Otherwise you can draw it out on a dry-erase battle map.
This battle is the first time we can see some of the factions come into play. You might change things up to reinforce one faction over another. For example, when running the summer scenario with the Cassalanters as the villains, you might have a devil come out of the pit. I chose a Merrigon devil summoned from the nine hells to protect the Cassalanters that, somehow, ended up coming out of the yawning portal and causing a fuss. It's a very hard monster for first level characters so help them out with some NPC buffs like magic weapon and some heals.
The NPCs in the tavern are the first ones our characters will meet so give them some flavor and have them come back later on in the campaign.
Level Them Up to Level 2
Be nice at the end of this scene and level up your characters to level 2. It's earlier than the book dictates but first level can be a drag both in limited abilities and in limited hit points. First level characters can drop fast so get them to level two and let them enjoy themselves in the rest of the chapter.
Using Waterdeep: City Encounters
The minute the characters start heading out into Waterdeep, it's time to whip out our copy of Waterdeep: City Encounters. This excellent book, designed by Will Doyle and many of the DM's Guild Adepts has seventeen pages of random events taking place in the city streets, from accidentally getting hit with the contents of a chamber pot to finding a dead body flayed by the cult of Loviatar. This book is packed with awesome events you can roll on right during your game, twist to suit the situation, and drop it right into the story. You can get either the PDF or the print-on-demand softcover version so you can bring it right along with your copy of the main adventure. It's a wonderful accessory and I cannot recommend it enough.
Adding the Fantastic to the Zhentarim Hideout
Skipping ahead in the chapter we come to the infiltration of the Zhentarim hideout. There are a few ways we might tweak this encounter. First, it might not even BE a Zhentarim hideout. If we're running the summer Cassalanter-based game we might turn it into an old warehouse owned by the Gralhund family as a front for the Cassalanters. This ties in the whole idea of old money and old blood from previous aristocratic Cult of the Dragon worshipers who changed their allegiance to Asmodeus when Tiamat fell.
To add to that, we can make the whole warehouse more exciting if we drop in a skeletal dragon in the center. This fallen dracolich might be a part of a fantastic collection by the Gralhunds that still exudes some horrid essence. When a creature first sees the skeletal dragon it must make a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for 1 minute. A creature can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success. If a creature's saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the creature is immune to this effect for the next 24 hours. This can add a bit of fun to the encounter.
You'll also want to play up the kenku's mimicry. Having them repeat phrases of the characters or speak with the voices of their previous victims can be a lot of fun. You might also replace one or two of the kenkus with hired thugs. The characters can watch the thugs arguing with the kenkus who simply repeat back whatever the thugs say. The mimicry of the kenku is one of their interesting traits, don't forget about it.
Dealing with the Watch
After they're through dealing with the kenkus and save Raenar Neverember, it's time for the watch to burst in. From a roleplay perspective, I like to think of Sergeant Stagat, the watch commander for the dock district, like Sergeant Dignam from the Departed. 100% raw confrontation and four letter words (keep an eye on your audience in your friendly local game shop). Good times.
This is a good chance for a verbal confrontation that the characters can't simply fight their way out of. It's also a good time to give them a copy of the Code Legal.
Navigating the Sewers
Once the characters move onwards, it's into the sewers they go. There's a period of time between the characters entering the sewers and actually getting to the Xanathar hideout which you can handle in a brief description or you can drop in a fun random encounter here. I threw in two ghoulish crocodiles to foreshadow some hag fun I want to throw into my Dragon Heist game. If you have some other plot thread you're going to weave in, this is a good time to foreshadow it.
I had a bit of trouble recognizing the transition from the gazer scene to the hideout. The text mentions a ladder that goes up into a tavern but the three-way intersection continues to lead on to the hideout. Really you just want the characters to get to the hideout.
The Xanathar guild hideout runs well as written. Have some fun roleplaying with the goblins. This doesn't have to be a pure slaughterfest.
As an apprentice, Grum'shar is a bit weak. I gave him about 20 hit points and that worked out pretty well.
Returning to the Yawning Portal
With Grum'shar dead and Floon rescued, it's time to head back to the Yawning Portal and get that sweet gold Volo promised! But it appears he's a little short and instead has a property to pass along—Trollskull Manor!
This is a great time to print out a copy of the Trollskull deed and drop it on the table! If the characters try to muscle money out of Volo, he might use the distraction of a bunch of flying snakes and a giant bat coming out of the portal to make his daring escape.
With the deed in hand, it's time to move on to chapter 2. We'll cover chapter 2 in a future article.