I have not been behind a DM screen since my group’s final session a few months ago. There are certainly aspects of gaming on a regular basis that I miss. Creating a world and watching players inhabit that domain and make it their own is a great source of joy. On the other hand - I must be honest and say I do not miss the hours of mental and physical preparation to run each new session, which was often fueled by a combination of desperation and anxiety!
Writing this blog over the past two years has been a method of teaching myself to be a better DM. By organizing my thoughts on any given topic, it forces me to think about how and why I am doing any given thing while sitting at the table with the players. If my thoughts have helped someone else as they go along their journey as a DM, then that makes me happy. But I never set out to create a comprehensive tome to instruct DMs on how to run gaming sessions without investing tireless hours on preparation.
Mike Shea has done such a thing with Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master.
As the name implies, Mike instructs DMs on how to become lazier. Below, I review his book and discuss why his strategies and guidelines for game preparation and management are worthy of your time. I end with a brief interview with Mike Shea and Jimi Bonogofsky, the talented artist who created the cover art and one of the winners of this year’s Iddy The Lich Art Contest.
The Lazy Dungeon Master
For those unfamiliar with Mike Shea (who are you people?), he has been posting tips for D&D 4th Edition through his blog, Sly Flourish, and publishing official articles for Wizards of the Coast. He is also hosting approximately 37 podcasts (rough estimate) including Critical Hits and The Tome Show. He has played, written and spoken about D&D a great deal. His book is not simply shaped by his personal opinions; it is informed by communication with game designers and other experienced DMs and something near and dear to my heart – data.
Layout. Mike Shea’s third book is 97 pages and composed of 23 chapters and three appendices. The book stems from a single hypothesis – less preparation by the DM may result in a more enjoyable D&D game for all players including the DM. The belief that DMs overwork, over prepare and stress out over details that may never enhance the quality of their game is presented to the reader in a conversational tone.
A criticism of Mike’s earlier books is that they were not formatted well enough. The Lazy Dungeon Master does not suffer this flaw. The book features terrific cover and a stylish blue font for chapter headings. The black text is easy to read and the page numbers are smartly displayed on one or two d10s in the bottom-right corner of the page. The spacing between chapters is not consistent as some chapters will start in the middle of a page and others begin at the top of a page; it can be a bit distracting if you have very strong beliefs about the uniformity of formatting. Outside of the cover art, the book is all text and devoid of graphics.
Content. The book begins by acknowledging the fact that many DMs may recoil at the idea of being lazy. We have all likely played in campaigns that were run by a DM who was not motivated to be in seat running the show – and those sessions are not ones we recall fondly. Mike describes why being lazy is hard and advocates for DMs to – as any fan of Duck Tales might remember - work smarter, not harder.
Mike walks the reader through his Five-Minute Adventure Preparation with specific nuts-and-bolts advice on developing plot seeds, branching adventure paths and character-driven stories. He encourages DMs to steal inspiration from everywhere and reskin rather than develop an original massive world. He provides specific strategies for world building through player-character relationships, delegation within the gaming group and improving improvisation.
I do not want to dive into the specifics of any one section – as Mike obviously spent a great deal of time working on the text - but I have included a brief excerpt from Chapter 6 to illustrate the style:
Of the three areas upon which to focus your energy, the first lies in understanding where your adventure begins. As with the rest of your preparation, you should focus on what matters most and eliminate the rest. This means keeping your beginning as small as it needs to be with only the details required to start things off and give your players enough to let the story unfold at the table.
The rest of the chapter offers an example of both a poor and a good beginning for an adventure. It focuses the DM on vital aspects of starting an adventure, which can be extrapolated to starting any session at any point during a campaign.
Tools. The book includes numerous tools to prepare for sessions but an additional feature is found in Appendix A. The appendix has 10 random tables to help inspire DMs; the tables are structured around the roll of a d20 and categories include Adventure Seeds, Movie-Inspired Quests, Encounter Terrain Effects, Combat Outs and Things That Never Should Have Been Found. The Combat Outs Table is quite useful as one of the common issues with D&D 4th Edition is the length of combat encounters. The table gives the DM 20 ways to end combat encounters other than both sides fighting until one side is dead. At the very least, DMs should experiment with combat outs and the table provides inspiration for utilizing combats to serve the narrative of an adventure in addition to letting the players bash on some monsters.
Research. Appendix B of the book presents the data collected from Mike’s attempt to measure how DMs prepare for gaming sessions. His survey, which was completed by over 800 DMs during the spring and summer of 2012, asked DMs to describe how much time they spent on a variety of tasks such as world building, combat-encounter design and props/handouts. The data are presented in a clean table and merits and flaws of the data are discussed. The results demonstrate that DMs are routinely spending two or more hours preparing for each session. The data Mike collected sets a broad foundation for him to advocate for Five-Minute Adventure Preparation (Chapter 5). The book is not just a collection of opinions and beliefs, it is driven by data related to how DMs use their time.
Interviews. Readers of my site know that I enjoy a good interview, and Mike presents a formal Q&A with 10 DMs who are extremely active in the D&D community and many who have worked professional with Wizards of the Coast and other companies. First-hand tips on session preparation are offered by DMs such as Teos Abadia, Dave “The Game” Chalker, Tracy Hurley, Matt James and Steve Townshend. Mike was also kind enough to include me in his Q&A. While my responses may not be the best – they are the longest! The interviews alone are worth your time as Mike asks these prominent DMs how they go about the business of running games for their players.
References. Throughout the book, Mike refers to other resources that also feature wonderful advice for DMs. The resources are collected in four pages in alphabetical order and contain a wealth of useful information including official articles from Wizards of the Coast, podcast interviews with designers and selected posts from a variety of blogs.
Value. The Lazy Dungeon Master can be purchased for $5.99. Given all of the content I described above, I believe this is a fair cost for the book. Imagine all of the other nonsense you will spend five or six dollars are in the coming days – surely some of that will be better spent learning how to become a better and less stressed dungeon master!
Mike Shea on Combating the Junior Jinx
After reading through the final product, I communicated with Mike about his journey as an author and taking on his third book as a lone author.
You have now written three books filled with suggestions for dungeon masters. What have been some of the toughest lessons learned about the process of publishing a book since you first wrote Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips?
There have been a few. Dungeon Master Tips did very well for a self-published book. My costs were very low on that book and I had no idea how it would sell. Since July 2012 it sold 1,200 copies. That’s not a best seller but I’m pretty happy to have reached that many people.
Though it did well, I wanted something a bit more far-reaching into the community. I wanted the book to be more than one guy’s opinion of game preparation. A main difference between this book and the two previous was the attention I paid to be inclusive of the experiences of other dungeon masters. There are a ton of references, a survey of over 900 DMs, and interviews with twelve of the top DMs I know on the topic of game preparation.
Another thing I learned is the importance of a professional design. Knowing HTML means I can hack together the ebook versions of these books but I have little artistic talent and no experience with professional page design. Unlike my previous two books, I hired a freelance page designer, Erik Nowak, to do the internal design. He did a fantastic job and I think it makes it much more of a professional role-playing product. I also had a new artist for this one, Jimi Bonogofsky who you introduced me to. She did a fantastic job on the cover.
Ebook publishing is still a bit of alchemy. It gets better every year. Each time I do one of these I write up my experiences on my own personal blog. I plan to do so with this one in a week or so. The tools to build an ebook aren’t great. There are lots of little tweaky bits, lots of pit falls. I still don’t think I got the table of contents to ever work right on the Kindle version of Running Epic Games but it works on The Lazy Dungeon Master now! The techie in me loves to mess with that stuff, though.
I wouldn’t say there were any other tough lessons. It gets easier every time I do it and I absolutely love doing it. We’re living in an amazing time where some guy like me can write a book, publish it, and get it out to over a thousand people without some suit in an office somewhere deciding its ok. I love that.
How does The Lazy Dungeon Master compare to your earlier books?
There are a few big changes. First, as I mentioned, I wanted to include and reference the experiences of many DMs, not just me. The Lazy Dungeon Master focuses on a somewhat controversial idea – the idea that the less we prepare the better our game might be. I wanted to spend a fair bit of time researching that idea, running it on my own, and seeing what other experienced DMs have to say. More than once while I wrote this book I would stop and say “holy cow, this is a huge mistake. No one can run a game like this.” Then I’d read an article by Chris Perkins or Ed Greenwood that would describe the exact concept I was writing about as the way they run their games and I would realize that I wasn’t completely full of crap.
We’re between versions at the moment and that makes writing a D&D book difficult. This concept of simplified preparation, however, is system agnostic. This means I can write and publish a book between versions of D&D that is useful to anyone who plays D&D (or even any RPG I bet). I spent some time discussing these ideas with a friend of mine who plays Pathfinder just to make sure ideas like monster-reskinning works across versions. So the fact that this book is system agnostic is a big difference from previous books.
What has been the early response to the book?
So far so good! Right now I’ve mainly reached people who already know my work and, hopefully, already like the sorts of things I have to say. I haven’t read any real reviews yet. I’m pretty proud of the book, though. I use the techniques in it and I’m hoping that, even if people don’t throw all their preparation plans away, they will find something useful in it. I also kept the price low ($6), another great benefit of self-publishing, so people who didn’t agree with it wouldn’t feel like they lost a lot of money on it.
Now that you’ve accomplished a Hat Trick (hockey term) of books, what’s next for Number 4?
Good question! I’ve considered rewriting Dungeon Master Tips once D&D Next gets a little closer to completion. It’s still heavily 4e focused but about half of it stands up across editions. That might be a bit complicated. I’ve also toyed with the idea of writing an adventure the way I want them to be written: as a collection of components that a DM can use however they wish to tell the story they want to tell. Traditional sequential adventures really don’t help me a lot as a DM and, for a long time, I’ve wanted to try a different way. I don’t know if either of those two ideas will turn into something. It’s fun to dream, though. Right now, I plan on taking a bit of a break and talking to folks about The Lazy Dungeon Master.
Jimi Bonogofsky on Bringing The Lazy Dungeon Master to Life
Before closing the review, I caught up with Jimi, the illustrator for the cover art to learn about her design process and satisfaction with the book.
Could you describe the process of creating the cover for the book both in terms of content and design?
Often when I do freelance work, my clients have a vague idea in mind, but they generally know more of what they don’t want as opposed to what they do. So working with Mike Shea, who gave me a very specific vision of what he had in mind, was extremely helpful. I started with Google image searches, absorbing ways that others have interpreted the different creatures – Balor demons, succubi, and undead humanoids. I then began exploring the characters in my own way, filling about five pages in my sketchbook (love my moleskine!). That’s my favourite step.
The trickiest was the Lazy DM. An “undead fat guy” seemed at first to be irreconcilable differences. I decided to rely more on colour and a few facial features to get across that undead vibe. Once the concept sketches got approved, I started defining the linework a little more, putting everyone together in the right layout in Photoshop. I put a lot of thought into the colour study after that. I wanted to retain the warmth and darkness of the source image I had been given, focusing on reds and oranges. The trouble with using a lot of the same colours is that eventually no one aspect really stands out. I decided to use a pop of a cooler colour (purple; also complimentary to the gold of the throne) to contrast the warm tones and make the DM stand out more.
After I was happy with the colour study, I painted the final piece in watercolours (while watching season two of My Little Pony) and did some minor touch-ups in Photoshop. I showed Mike each step along the way, and I usually factor in two or three rounds of changes, but each step was approved without any edits! It was a lovely change of pace.
What was the most rewarding aspect of working on the project?
I don’t want to sound like a fan girl here, but honestly the most rewarding aspect of working on this project was getting a chance to work with Mike. It’s kinda fun to work with someone whose blog you follow and whose books you’ve bought. And I don’t mean that in a stalker-ish way! It was a great experience, and I’m glad I got the chance to be involved. Oh, and as a new DM myself (and one prone to over preparing), “The Lazy Dungeon Master” has already helped me at my table.