Never underestimate the value of a good list seeded with ideas or just evocative words. Inspirational tables include numbers for die rolls. I suspect the tables for traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws in the fifth edition Players Handbook developed more characters’ personalities, and therefor encouraged more role playing than anything in past Dungeons & Dragons history. And the table of trinkets on page 161 has probably been rolled against more than any other in the current game.
The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.” (For more on how M.T. Black creates, see his book The Anatomy of Adventure.)
Use the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity. I like to generate ideas by taking two notions that strike my interest, but that seem unrelated, and then inventing ways to put the two thoughts together. (See Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention and D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.) M.T. Black uses the same trick to create. “Some of my best adventures had their genesis through the amalgamation of two seemingly unrelated ideas. So very often in this business, the magic happens through an inspired combination.”
What’s the quickest source of random thoughts? Tables like ones for adventures starting on page 73 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide or for dungeons on page 292. You probably already have that book. Count it as number 10.
Random tables especially help give life to the parts of the game world that seem routine. Recently, I needed market square vendors colorful enough for roleplaying scenes. A few rolls on tables gave enough inspiration for me to imagine merchants that excited me.
For improvisation, random tables help me avoid the first thought that comes to mind—the thought process that lead to my introduction of a recurring NPC named Kendle Stick. Never again.
Books of this sort benefit from indexes that organize various tables. When I reference these documents from my tablet, I like hyperlinks from the lists of tables to the tables themselves. Alas, neither feature is common.
What are the best resources for DMs who want more inspiration than the Dungeon Master’s Guide can offer?
9. GM Gems: A Tome of Game Master Inspiration
$11.99. 84 pages.
GM Gems devotes most of its pages to creations like 6 memorable caravans (described in 3 pages) or 15 unusual holidays (spanning 5 pages). All these nuggets suggest adventure hooks and reward browsing. My favorite tables include Memorable NPC Frills and Empty Rooms Worth Describing. The list of smell words appeals to both writers and 8-year-olds.
Sample roll from Short Encounters for Short Attention Spans. 32: The party finds an enormous tome written in Draconic with the title “Indigestion: What Creatures to Avoid.”
8. The Mother of All Treasure Tables
$15.99. 162 Pages.
While I like the idea of giving characters unique and evocative loot rather than lists of coinage, the chore of imagining such hoards exhausts me. The authors of The Mother of All Treasure Tables did my homework. Tables inside list treasure parcels by values up to 50,000 gp and even epic treasure.
Sample roll from 50 Gold Pieces. 25: A wooden box [1 gp] is as long as a dagger but twice as wide, and is painted black. Inside you find a thin bed of red wax that is dimpled with dozens of small depressions. Five gems are pressed into the wax: an azurite, a piece of blue quartz, a chunk of lapis lazuli, a freshwater pearl and a moss agate [10 gp each]. [Total 51 gp]
7. 650 Fantasy City Encounter Seeds & Plots
Free. 65 pages.
This document features a single list of urban adventure seeds and scene ideas.
Sample roll. 599: The PCs come across a tavern where an artist is trying to trade one of his paintings for drinks. The painting is truly bad.
6. d30 Sandbox Companion
$4.95. 56 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.
The d30 Sandbox Companion presents a way to improvise a wilderness, sandbox adventure using the rarely seen 30-sided die. (Hint: Ask your phone to roll.) Surely author Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr. ranks as the world biggest fan of the die that just won’t stop rolling. Some of the most useful tables describe NPCs, shops and shopkeepers, and name taverns.
Sample rolls from NPC Background, Eccentricities, and Talents. 30: Baker 21: father was a noble, had title stripped after “incident” 8: hates their life 29: whistles incessantly 24: talent for reading body language.
5. Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game
$16.95. 338 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.
Masks presents 3 to 4 characters per page, with sub-headings for appearance, roleplaying, personality, motivation, and background. The book divides characters into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find NPCs by traits like “Charming” and “Merchant.”
4. Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to inspire Game Masters
$16.95. 316 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.
Eureka presents 2 adventure plots per page divided into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find plots using tags like “Intrigue,” “Combat-heavy,” and “Betrayal.”
3. Dungeon Dozen
$8. 225 pages. Indexed.
Tables in Dungeon Dozen range from the useful ones (Also in Residence at the Inn and What’s on the Guard Monster’s Mind?) to gonzo (Occupants of the Colossal UFO Anchored to the Mountaintop). Everything seems evocative enough to supercharge your imagination.
Sample roll from Even the Doors are Weird. 5: Randomly opens and closes with damaging force.
2. Tome of Adventure Design
$12.60. 308 pages. Indexed.
The 400-something tables Tome of Adventure Design starts with help outlining adventure plots and villains, venture to dungeon tricks and decoration, and finish in cities and crossing planes.
1. GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing, Urban Dressing, & Wilderness Dressing
$13.99 each; discounted in a bundle. Linked tables of contents.
The GM’s Miscellany series rates as the best of the random-table genre. These volumes mix inspirational tables and a dash of advice into collections focused on dungeon, urban, and wilderness environments. A bundle that includes print and PDF versions of all the volumes offers the best value.
GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing. 216 pages.
Sample roll from Mundane Chest Contents: Wizard’s Chests. 95: The charcoal-rubbed papers in this chest appear to be of gravestone etchings.
GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing. 178 pages.
Sample roll from Market Stalls: Hooks, Complications & Opportunities. 4: An irate young man complains that he was almost killed by his last purchase. When pressed he explains ludicrous extraordinary circumstances.
GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing II. 118 pages.
Sample roll from Decadent Town: Sights & Sounds. 80: At least a dozen footmen and attendants clear the street to make way for a woman reclining on an opulent litter.
GM’s Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing. 122 pages.
Sample roll from Desert: Minor Events. 88: Two small scorpions are engaged in their own duel for a dead beetle.