Tag Archives: Mike Shea

Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk

When I run games as a dungeon master, I typically use a DM screen, but I see the appeal of skipping it. Many DMs feel that screens create an unnecessary divide that feels adversarial. By this mindset, everyone at the table ranks a storyteller in a collaboration. When I have minimal notes, I’ll set my screen aside and join the team.

Also, I roll in the open, in front of the screen. Dropping the screen would eliminate a bothersome obstruction between me and my dice tray.

As a dungeon master, I want players to feel they earned their victories thanks to smart play, and not to worry that they owe a win to fudged rolls. As for defeats, I like the dice to carry the blame. By rolling in the open, players know I’m not fudging to spare them, to pick on them, or to protect some narrative I planned for. Key die rolls can also add drama. I like when a tense moment brings players to their feet, and when everyone at the table watches to see the outcome of a roll. In one memorable moment, I reminded a player that his movement would provoke a pair of attacks, but he laughed off the risk. I rolled a pair of natural 20s and the table burst out laughing. If I had rolled behind the screen and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would have fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.

Despite the annoyance, I use the screen because of the basilisk. Let me explain. When I play with DMs who skip the screen and sets out their papers, I don’t want to spoil bits of the adventure, so I avoid looking at their preparation. But a DM’s maps and notes always draw my eye. They become the basilisk, something in plain view that forces me to constantly avert my gaze. Surely, many players easily ignore the basilisk, but I’m not the only one who struggles against it. I’ve heard others voice similar feelings.

In addition to walling off the basilisk, my DM screen shows tables and rules I often forget. After five years of fifth edition, I know exactly what I never remember. Every session, I reference descriptions of the game’s conditions. Also, I usually write the names of characters and locations on an index card and clip that to the screen. Plus, the screen gives me a visible place to drape initiative tents.

Despite my preference for a screen, standard-sized screens stand too tall for my taste. I prefer the 6-inch tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog Games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I fill the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I need most at the table. For the player side, I add artwork.

You can download a PDF version of my screen, minus the art.

This update adopts a look that echoes the design of published 5th-edition screens. The PDF includes more pages than you need. Choose which pages suit you best. Some inserts feature information like the table showing levels and experience points, which suits the players more than the DM. Add those to the side that faces the players.

The tables for encounter building, improvised challenges, and mobs of monsters appear thanks to Mike Shea. His Lazy DM’s Workbook includes versions of all these tools along with a wealth of other references, guides, and maps.

The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985

This list of the 10 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures since 1985, draws from ratings, reviews, and appraisals from D&D fans, and then uses my completely unscientific aggregation of opinions to rank the 10 entries. The list only includes adventures printed as stand-alone titles under the D&D or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons brands. For more on why I chose to rank adventures published after 1985, see Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

10. The Gates of Firestorm Peak
The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 5-8. The adventure that introduced the Far Realm to D&D starts as a well-crafted dungeon crawl, and then builds into an unsettling confrontation with Lovecraftian monstrosities. See the full review.

9. Tomb of Annihilation
Tomb of Annihilation (2017) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Chris Perkins. Will Doyle, and Steve Winter for levels 1-11. Tomb of Annihilation mixes the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, with the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, with a deathtrap dungeon inspired by Tomb of Horrors. Every one of those influences appears on the Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list of 30 greatest adventures, and the mix plays better than any of them. See the full review.

8. Sunless Citadel
The Sunless Citadel (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 1-3. As the introductory adventure to third edition, Sunless Citadel delivers the monsters, treasures, and even the dragon that new players expect from D&D, but the adventure serves much more than D&D comfort food. Start with a deeply evocative location: a castle dropped into a rift by some cataclysm. Add a lost dragon wyrmling, a tainted tree at the heart of the ruin, a fresh humanoid monster, and one of D&D’s most unforgettable characters, Meepo. See the full review.

7. Vault of the Dracolich
Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters. Vault of the Dracolich rates for its outstanding execution of a multi-table adventure. By design, a team of dungeon masters runs several tables of players who explore different parts of a dungeon at the same time. As the adventure runs, groups can interact, briefly gathering, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. The event ends with all the groups fighting a climactic battle. See the full review.

6. Madness at Gardmore Abbey
Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt with Creighton Broadhurst and Steve Townshend for levels 6-8. Madness at Gardmore Abbey combines the best qualities of fourth edition’s encounter design with a sandbox of adventure locations, villains, and a single powerful thread that binds them all together. That thread comes from the scattered cards of a Deck of Many Things, perhaps the most irresistible artifact in D&D. See the full review.

5. Dead Gods
Dead Gods (1997) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Monte Cook for levels 6-9.
Dead Gods boasts more than the best title of any D&D adventure, it features the most audacious storytelling. For example, in one chapter, players create temporary characters to play out past events. The adventure spans the planes, ending in a climax that brings the party to the astral plane where they battle atop the 4-mile-long corpse of the demon lord to stop the creature’s resurrection. See the full review.

4. Curse of Strahd
Curse of Strahd (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 1-10 by Chris Perkins with Adam Lee, Richard Whitters, and Jeremy Crawford. Curse of Strahd captures everything great about I6 Ravenloft and expands it into a full campaign. While Ravenloft mainly stayed in a castle, Curse of Strahd gives players the freedom to roam the cursed land of Barovia. Although Curse of Strahd features a strong design, the vampire Strahd and the fearful gloom of his domain make the adventure’s best parts. See the full review.

3. Lost Mine of Phandelver
Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) is fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins for levels 1-5.
The adventure that introduced fifth edition serves D&D’s expected and favorite ingredients. To longtime fans, the elements may be familiar, but superb execution makes the adventure a winner. After the first encounter, players experience samples of dungeon crawls, quests, and mini-adventures. The adventure provides enough clues to keep even new players from feeling lost. See the full review.

2. Red Hand of Doom
Red Hand of Doom (2006) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and James Jacobs for levels 6-12.
Red Hand of Doom starts with the fantasy trope of an army of evil sweeping the land, and then casts the characters as heroes working to slow the march. Their missions span the landscape and vary from diplomatic meetings to dungeon delves. Along the way, the adventure accounts for the players choices, successes, and failures. See the full review.

1. Night’s Dark Terror
Night’s Dark Terror (1986) is Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher for levels 2-4. The adventure starts strong with a widely-imitated episode where the characters defend a freehold against a goblin attack. The events of the siege make the night of terror. After the first episode, the adventure’s scope expands. Players explore more than a wilderness, with eighteen locations, including a number of mini-dungeons, a ruined city, a riverside village, a frontier town, and a lost valley, while active villains oppose the characters. See the full review.

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 3

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) is fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins for levels 1-5.

Adventures created to introduce new dungeon masters to D&D must be simple to run. Sunless Citadel offered DMs an easy recipe by sticking to the dungeon, but Lost Mine of Phandelver brings a more ambitious design and succeeds brilliantly. The adventure rates so highly because it allows players freedom to roam while offering enough structure and guidance to ensure that a new DM succeeds.

For new players, the adventure serves D&D’s expected and favorite ingredients. To longtime fans like Mike “Sly Florish” Shea, the elements may be familiar, but superb execution makes the adventure a winner. “Even years after its release, Phandelver remains one of the most popular D&D adventures for 5e and is my personal favorite.”

The adventure takes place in and around the town of Phandalin. This setting introduces more of D&D than a dungeon crawl can offer. Alex Lucard describes the scope. “There’s a mix of straightforward dungeon crawls, fetch quests and even sandbox-style mini-adventures, so DMs and players alike get a sampling of various adventure tropes. It’s very well done!”

Merric Blackman explains the design. “Phandelver has a directed storyline, where you’re investigating the kidnapping of a dwarf and the secret of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, and a sandbox feel where many of the characters you meet have their own goals and can send you on missions not directly related to the main quest. This isn’t a linear quest: after the initial encounter, you can choose which way to proceed through the storyline. There’s enough clues and direction so that you’ll rarely feel lost.”

The individual encounters invite more approaches than combat, so players get chances to win friends and outsmart foes.

“Phandelver is a great adventure full of opportunities for you to relax, play loose, and let the story evolve from the choices of the players and the actions of the characters,” writes Mike Shea.

“Overall I have to say Lost Mine of Phandelver is fantastic,” writes Alex Lucard. “Not only is it a great way to introduce new gamers to Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s a very solid campaign in its own right.”

Merric Blackman rates the module this way: “This is an extremely well-designed and well-written adventure. It’s fun to play and run, and offers a lot of scope to the players and DM to make it their own, while still being accessible to newcomers.”

Next: Number 2

Start at 10

Curse of Strahd (2016): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 4

Curse of Strahd (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 1-10 by Chris Perkins with Adam Lee, Richard Whitters, and Jeremy Crawford.

Fifth-edition hardcover adventures like Tomb of Annihilation pull inspiration from a catalog of classic modules. Curse of Strahd just draws from just one: Ravenloft (1983) by Tracy and Laura Hickman. Ravenloft’s 32 pages spawned a campaign setting, so it easily brings enough inspiration to fill a hardcover. Ravenloft ranked second on Dungeon magazine’s list of the 30 greatest adventures, beaten only by a compilation of 7 adventures.

Curse of Strahd captures everything we loved in I6 Ravenloft, and expands it into a full campaign,” writes Mike “Sly Fourish” Shea. “Of all of the published campaigns, this one is the most solid, with a clear motivation and excellent locations.”

While Ravenloft mainly stayed in a castle, Curse of Strahd gives players the freedom to roam the cursed land of Barovia. Most of the fifth-edition hardcovers aspire to play as a sandbox, but only Curse really succeeds as one. Credit a foundation borrowed from Ravenloft. To defeat Strahd, characters must collect 3 artifacts. Early on, the party gains clues to the items’ locations. This structure gives players a goal and a sense of direction.

Curse of Strahd borrows another brilliant device from Ravenloft. A card reading from Barovia’s version of a tarot deck reveals the location of the magic items and the roles of key non-player characters. This gives the story a random element that feels vital.

Although Curse of Strahd features a strong design, the vampire Strahd and the fearful gloom of his domain make the adventure’s best parts.

Strahd’s history sometimes makes him seem relatable—or even capable of redemption. But that lie just makes him more horrifying. Tracy Hickman calls Strahd “a selfish beast forever lurking behind the mask of tragic romance, the illusion of redemption that was only ever camouflage for his prey.”

The adventure never lets characters forget Strahd’s threat. “Stahd isn’t a villain who remains out of sight until the final scene. Far from it—he travels as he desires to any place in his realm. The characters can and should meet him multiple times before the final encounter,” the text explains. “When Strahd wants to terrorize the characters, he pays them a visit, either under cloak of night or beneath overcast skies. If they’re indoors, he tries to charm or goad a character into inviting him inside.”

Strahd’s presence taints his land with dread. “Many of the locations and towns seem to be quite ordinary or mundane at first glance…until you dig deeper,” explains Tyler Biddle. “The imagery is at times hauntingly beautiful and tragically grotesque. Barovia’s characters as well as its horrors will stay with you long after you’ve left the table.”

Wary of making the adventure too gloomy, the authors added notes of twisted humor. No player will forget Blinsky’s toys.

“Creepiness abounds, with locations and characters who just drip gothic horror,” Chris Stevenson writes. “Groups that hate being ‘railroaded’ will love the sandbox nature of Barovia. Curse of Strahd is the best 5E campaign book yet.”

After playing the adventure, the author of the Mindlands blog summarizes the experience. “Curse of Strahd is the best published adventure that I’ve ever played in. The atmosphere is fantastic, the locations, non-player characters, and villains are interesting, tragic and funny.”

Next: Number 3

Start at 10

Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 6

Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt with Creighton Broadhurst and Steve Townshend for levels 6-8.

Fourth edition’s early scenarios lavished attention on combat encounters strung into linear adventures designed to ensure no one missed a battle. But towards the end of the edition’s run, the D&D team wanted to grant players more freedom.

Madness at Gardmore Abbey combines the best qualities of fourth edition’s encounter design with a sandbox. “Gardmore Abbey is all about choices,” writes Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea. “It’s a large sandbox of adventure locations, villains, and a single powerful thread that binds them all together.”

That thread comes from the scattered cards of a Deck of Many Things, perhaps the most irresistible artifact in D&D. The adventure includes a real deck. “The Deck is interesting both in real life and in game, and one of the biggest reasons why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is awesome,” writes the Learning DM. Madness borrows the brilliant trick of drawing cards to determine aspects of the adventure from Ravenloft by Tracy and Laura Hickman, .

The adventure encourages choices by focusing on patrons, rivals, and the layout of the abbey. By scattering patrons who offer quests, the adventure gives the characters a steady sense of purpose.

The encounter design shines too. In a product history, Shannon Appelcline writes, “When Wyatt wrote out his order for the encounters, he told his designers that he didn’t want a ‘combat slog,’ but instead a ‘mix of combat, roleplaying, and skill challenges.’ Thus, Madness is one of the most varied of all the fourth-edtion adventures, even within the constraints of individual encounters.

Steve Townshend says that after he wrote up an encounter, he’d then go back and apply the ‘Lowell Kempf’ test, named after the longest-running player in his D&D campaign—who would often ignore the ‘direct’ solutions to problems, and instead look for the ‘interesting’ ones. Thus, Gardmore Abbey is filled with encounters that could be solved in many ways—not just with combat.”

Madness at Gardmore Abbey comes in a box packed with goodies, including the deck, battlemaps, tokens, and 4 adventure booklets.

Mike Shea calls Gardmore Abbey a “wonderful sandbox.” The Learning DM writes, “As it stands, Madness at Gardmore Abbey is the final pinnacle of adventure design in fourth edition, and I believe it deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest adventures in D&D’s rich history. Easily the best fourth-edition adventure.”

Next: Number 5

Start at 10

Vault of the Dracolich (2013): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 7

Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters.

The Living Greyhawk organized-play campaign pioneered a popular new way to play Dungeons & Dragons at conventions. In Battle Interactives, multiple tables could join together in the same adventure. The effect of actions, successes, and failures at tables could ripple to others in the interactive.

To fuel excitement for D&D’s upcoming fifth edition, the D&D team planned a gameday for stores. Vault of the Dracolich co-designer Teos Abadia explains, “Wizards of the Coast wanted to see whether a gameday could be transformed from the typical adventure format into a very exciting event: a hybrid between a battle interactive and Lair Assault.” The event proved a huge success.

“The project’s approach was a new one for Wizards,” Abadia writes. “We designers were all freelancers acting as a team, instead of writing and submitting our work separately to WotC for them to put together. Mike was the author, I was the developer, and Scott the editor (and first draft cartographer). As a result, we all collaborated heavily and all took turns scheming, writing, developing, and editing.”

During the adventure, bands of heroes infiltrate a temple of the Cult of the Dragon to recover an ancient elven staff from the dracolich, Detchroyaster. Merric Blackman describes the setup. “Vault has a number of different groups investigating different parts of the dungeon at the same time. So, from one to seven tables can play at the same time, with a DM at each table, and one further person would act as the event’s coordinator, making sure everything worked smoothly and triggering the big events that affected several tables at once.”

“The lair of the Dracolich is large enough that it accompanies four sections, ranging from a Lizardmen commune to a temple of the dead god Bhaal,” writes Alex Lucard. “Each of the four locations offers a very different experience, so if you decide to run all four parts as a mini campaign or a single party, things won’t feel repetitive.”

The adventure encourages interaction between tables. Shannon Appelcline writes, “The coordinator moves about, threatening adventurers when the dracolich tracks them down; tables briefly come together and then separate, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. Even compared with similar adventures created for organized play, Dracolich stands out for the amount interaction possible between parties. Its game-store-sized scale lets everyone share the same dungeon.

“Groups that rely solely on one strategy, whether sneakiness or smacking monsters, will probably have some difficulty. The adventure is exceptionally well-designed, and various creative approaches are required for PCs to move through the complex safely. Enemies may be defeated, fooled, or co-opted with role-playing; regardless, it will take canny and aware players to succeed.”

In an RPG.net review, Vestige describes play. “There’s a breakneck rush through the dungeon to reach the staff, and then a massive climactic battle with even more to do than there are players. That’s a solid formula for a memorable day of D&D.”

In his account of running the adventure during a game day, Merric Blackman calls the experience “fantastic” and the scenario “something quite special.”

In a post, co-author Mike Shea offers advice for converting the adventure to fifth edition.

Next: Number 6.

Start at 10

8 Thoughts About D&D From Winter Fantasy

At the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the entire Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall. Despite the event’s compact size, it delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as the biggest table-top gaming cons. Imagine the D&D track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, concentrated in a convention of its own. Plus, the con offers plenty of inexpensive hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

This year’s convention inspired 8 thoughts about D&D.

1. Winter Fantasy 2019 marks my first convention under the Season 8 Adventurers League rules, which meant lots of jokes about the system’s abstractions. Based on descriptions at my tables, treasure chests now contain vouchers allowing the purchase of magic items, coins disappear into trusts payable upon leveling, and hardened mercenaries now tackle deadly missions for the promise of gratitude. (These adventurers took Intelligence as a dump stat and think “gratitude” is a gemstone.) For a summary of the season 8 league rules, see My Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Quick Reference Sheet.

Despite all the jokes, players seemed fine with the practice of unlocking magic items. Other aspects deserve changes. I plan a deeper look in a future post.

2. The convention’s organizer, Baldman Games, creates Adventurers League scenarios set in the Moonshae islands. With Shawn Merwin and Eric Menge shepherding the writing, these adventures boast an otherworldly flavor of Celtic myth and faerie. In Moonshae, the good fey are dangerous, the bad fey are creepy and dangerous, and the story ends when the witch eats the children. Those brats had it coming.

Everyone but the dog

3. My first game gathered James Introcaso, Mike Shea, Teos Abadia, and other D&D enthusiasts to play MOON4-1 Precious Cargo by Cindy Moore. Through our adventures, we befriended goblins, a svirfneblin, and a dog, adding all to our party. Credit our dungeon master, Garrett Crowe, for silly goblin voices and a knack for playing along. Just when Garrett seemed like a pushover, the svirfneblin betrayed us. Good move.

Whenever I run a D&D game for kids, their party seems to gather an entourage of pets, companions, and friends. The kids love it. So what does it say when a party of “mature,” “sophisticated” D&D players gathers a similar zoo? Don’t answer that question. And if my editor puts quotes around any words, ignore them.

4. Speaking of strategic mastery, our party started befriending monsters because Cindy penned a challenging adventure that made combat seem risky. I love difficult adventures because they can either bring tense battles that push characters to their limits or—in our case—alliances with one-armed goblins who fancy themselves emperor. Because Cindy’s adventures once carried a reputation for being cupcakes, this scenario’s difficulty surprised me. Later in the con, I asked her if this reputation led to a change in style. “Yes, I said eff you all.” Well played, Cindy.

5. As for challenges, a highlight of my games came when a kraken tentacle hurled my unconscious character to another game table. The incident came during the D&D multi-table special adventure MOON ES-1 A Drop in the Ocean. The DMs invented a process where tentacle attacks could fling characters from table to table. Falling characters landed in the quipper-infested waters controlled by another DM. Players loved it.

Many multi-table adventures feature a way for characters to jump between tables, but they typically move in response to a call for help. Players never ask for help, so nobody moves. The tentacle rule sparked concerns that too many people might temporarily land at a single table, leading to a party size that exceeded league regulations.

Luckily, someone read the part of league guidelines that grants DMs authority to make rulings that make things fun. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us just to see a game where kraken tentacles can’t hurl unconscious characters from table to table.

6. Another highlight came when I played Invasion from the Planet of Tarrasques run by the adventure’s author, James Introcaso. This stands as my first game with top-level characters. Despite our superhero-like power, James pressed us to our limits and we had a blast. This adventure serves “over-the-top, gonzo action” without becoming silly. I’ve already committed to running it for friends.

7. The play of the convention came during the adventure MOON6-2 Troubled Visions, run by Eric Menge. The adventure pits the party against a fey prince named Uznezzir, who revels in everything repulsive and unclean. Our party found the prince’s captive and unrequited love, an Eladrin woman named Aodh. Uznezzir offered her freedom as the stake in a challenge. He suggested a riddle contest. D&D players know how that goes: The players try to solve a riddle and the adventure moves on a well-trod path.

Instead, a party member played by Jason Pearson challenged Uznezzir to a compliment contest. Is that even a thing? Whoever lavished Aodh with the best compliment would win her freedom or her eternal imprisonment. She swore on her honor to judge fairly. While the party struggled to craft praise, Eric as Uznezzir found quick inspiration.

At last the party finished and we read our work. “Aodh, Your hair shines like the sun yadda yadda yadda.” Surely Uznezzir’s honeyed words would best our platitudes.

Then the fey prince spoke. “Aodh, You are as beautiful as a heap of rotting fresh turned green under a yellow sky of dripping acid that reeks to the highest heaven and brings all the flies.”

We won the contest. In the tradition of fables, Jason had realized the fey prince’s weakness and used it to outsmart him, while Eric had been quick enough to see the twist in the story and play it out. This may rank as the best moment of collaborative storytelling I’ve seen in a D&D game.

8. The authors of D&D’s creature statistics missed an opportunity when they failed to give owls an 18 Wisdom.

Dungeon Masters, Instead of Plots, Prepare Secrets, Clues, and Leads

Planning a Dungeons & Dragons game around encounters and plots leads to trouble. In my last post, I explained how preparing encounters proves less flexible than preparing situations.

Situations can take dungeon masters far. Every D&D adventure published before 1982 presented a situation ripe for adventure. These early adventures might include broad goals, like destroy the evil behind raiding giants, but these modules mapped out situations and then set characters loose. Nothing broke this mold until N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God in 1982. Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or adjacent hexes. N1 paired an investigation with a scenario where events happened even if the characters did nothing. Since then, both features have appeared in countless adventures. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good.)


Such features make adventures resemble plotted stories, so dungeon masters preparing for events and investigations often imagine plots for their scenarios. Then they contrive ways to make players follow the plot. When the players’ choices upset the plan, the DM feels tempted to invalidate the diversion. Sometimes, to avoid railroading, DMs work to build player-proof plots by including contingency plans for every choice and outcome. The preparation effort can swamp a DM.

As an alternative to plotting adventures, DMs can turn to situations. Adventures designed around situations allow both investigations and events, but other techniques make preparing and running such scenarios easier.

Instead of preparing plots, prepare leads.

Leads go by other names. Some writers call them clues, secrets, or hooks. When they discuss clues and secrets, their terms cover scraps of information that may lead or may serve another purpose. I favor “leads” because the word matches my main purpose, but I’ll use the other terms too.

Suppose the characters investigate a string of bloody murders in a village, they might discover the following leads:

  • All the murders center on well, recently dug to replace one that went dry.
  • A farmer found blood on the clothes of family members, but believed their innocent explanations and hid the evidence.
  • Children have spotted parents wandering the woods at night and returning at dawn.
  • A forester who cared for the woods now spends days in a drunken stupor.

Clues like these leave many angles that invite investigation. Each could lead to more clues.

Leads serve as one way DMs direct players through a plot, so in a sense, planning leads instead of plots just represents a change of mindset. But leads encourage choices. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

If situations form the obstacles in an adventure, then leads become the scraps of information that direct players through situations and from one situation to the next.

Most adventures begin with a lead that everybody calls a hook. The best adventures supply characters more hooks as they go.

Leads give players a sense of direction. They lure players through an arc that, looking back, will resemble a plot. Leads can guide characters to the locations that match their power. As clues, they help reveal a situation in an order that keeps players asking questions and craving answers.

Blogger and game designer Justin Alexander has a rule for giving clues:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

“Why three? Because the PCs will probably miss the first; ignore the second; and misinterpret the third before making some incredible leap of logic that gets them where you wanted them to go all along.”

By Justin’s three-clue rule, every step in the scenario needs three clues that lead to another step. The surplus clues make the scenario robust. In game, players never wind up so clueless that they lack direction. In life, they’re on their own.

The clues can lead in different directions. Such diversity gives options, breaks linear adventures, and sometimes creates tough choices for players. Justin builds on his three-clue rule to create a node-based system of scenario design.

Typically, I plan clues, planting them along the course of the adventure ahead of players. But Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea takes a looser approach. He calls his clues secrets. He prepares for each game by listing 10 secrets that the session could reveal. Some of his secrets reveal the game world, but others serve as leads for players. “Secrets and clues are the anchors of our games. They’re a simple way to build out an adventure, create meaning and story for the players, and connect people, places, and things. Secrets and clues are the connective tissue of an adventure—and, more often than not, a whole campaign”

Mike’s lazy technique skips planning where the clues lead or how players will find clues. “You know the characters will learn something interesting—but you don’t know how they will learn it. You get to figure that out as it happens at the table.” He prepares a list of evocative secrets, and then as he runs a game, he improvises ways to reveal the secrets. Mike’s secrets don’t even become real until the players discover them. After a session, he discards some unrevealed secrets, but revisits others for the next session. For example, in my game based on the murders, if I choose to reveal the secret of the well, then the well becomes important; otherwise, it’s nothing.

“Abstracting secrets and clues works particularly well with mysteries. You’ll have no idea how the characters might go about investigating a mystery. But as they do, you can drop in the right clues at the right time to help them solve it.” For more on secrets, consult The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures designed campaigns around situations that offered all the advantages of the situation mindset. The designs gave players maximum freedom and DMs the flexibility to cope. But these adventures tended to lack ready-made leads that helped players find direction and helped DMs anticipate and prepare for the players’ next destination. (For more, see Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?)

Alone, situations can overwhelm DMs with information to remember. Campaign-sized situations make preparing for sessions hard on DMs because the scope of what players might do becomes vast. DMs who run published adventures suffer the worst of this problem. Chances for improvisation are more limited. And I can’t be the only DM who finds remembering lore from a fat adventure book harder than the product of my own imagination. Few DMs can master hundreds of pages of content that spans a region like the Underdark well enough to prepare for aimless wandering.

In my games, leads provided the secret ingredient that the campaign-sized situations lacked. They gave players clear options and narrowed their likely choices enough for me to focus my preparation.

Next: Instead of preparing events, prepare villains.

Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?

Adventure paths reveal their linear design in the name: They follow a path. In a linear adventure every play group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. For adventure creators, linear adventures bring advantages. They’re compact. Authors can devote their energy—and a published adventure’s pages—to content that reaches play.

Adventure paths are episodic campaigns that look linear from a distance. Such adventures offer choices in each episode or chapter, but at the end of each chapter, the path leads to the next chapter. This device enables an entire campaign to fit into a book.

Adventure paths serve dungeon masters by making a campaign with a story arc that leads from start to finish easy to run from a book.

In 2003, the Shackled City adventure path in Dungeon magazine led the format to prominence. Shackled City and its successors proved so popular that Paizo made adventure paths the foundation of their publishing strategy, and the inspiration for the name of their Pathfinder role-playing game.

In the classic adventure path, each episode ends with clues or hooks that lead to the next episode. This arrangement dates to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). The steading’s treasure room contains a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magic chain capable of transporting 6 to the site.

When the designers of the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons paired a line of hardcover adventures to the game, they aimed to grant players more freedom than a classic adventure path allows. Each book finds ways to break from the adventure-path model.

The early fifth-edition hardcover adventures avoided hooks connecting the adventure into a narrative. Perhaps the designers felt the lack of threads benefited the adventures by adding some of the freedom of a sandbox. Explaining his design for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Steve Winter said, “There are specific tasks characters should undertake and a sequence in which they happen, but we don’t hand the DM a script.”

Many reviewers judged this design strategy harshly. Bryce Lynch wrote that the designers of Hoard of the Dragon Queen “clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, but are terrified of being accused of railroading.”

The adventures that followed Hoard of the Dragon Queen avoided a specific sequence of tasks. Most chapters described locations and the designers invited players to roam.

While these adventures experimented with sandboxes, they still expected a good dungeon master to prepare or improvise leads for players who need a nudge.

The 2nd adventure, Princes of the Apocalypse, poses as a sandbox with strongholds to raid and ruins to explore. But the “character advancement” sections on page 41 and 75 reveal a problem with granting so much freedom. Each note lists the character level best suited to the dungeons and sites on the pages to follow. For example, one site is “appropriate” for 6th-level characters; another “works best” for 9th level characters. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford explained, “For a lot of our published adventures, we’ll have broad difficulty targets for different parts of the adventure. For example, we might decide that one chapter of one of our adventures is really designed to be not too much trouble for characters of 6th level. Characters of any level can go into that chapter, but really what we’re doing is we want to ensure when an optimal group is there, it’s not too much trouble.

In Princes of the Apocalypse, players can stumble into areas too dangerous or too easy for their characters. “If characters aren’t careful, they can definitely ‘dig too deep,’ going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered,” Mike “Sly Florish” Shea wrote. “Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth-level dungeon to an eighth-level dungeon with just a few steps.”

Jeremy Crawford and the D&D team see such design as a feature. “Our starting assumption in 5th edition is that the game is pretty open ended and sandboxy, and we often like—particularly in our published adventures—dangling out the possibility that you might wander into a fight that you can’t win. We don’t view the game as a series of combat encounters that you are expected to face in a predictable way and then march off with a set amount of experience points and treasure. We view the game as a set of potential combat encounters, some of which you might not turn into combat encounters at all.”

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire dungeons that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level dungeon, they can only fight to escape. No player enjoys fleeing a dungeon, and then starting a quest for weaker foes—especially if the dungeon seemed like the best route to reaching their aims.

If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout. Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored—and I’m not alone. Mike Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge. See Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

Like its predecessor, the 3rd adventure, Out of the Abyss, featured loosely-tied locations, each designed to suit characters of a particular level.

In a guide to Out of the Abyss, Sean “Powerscore” McGovern wrote, “This adventure thinks it is a sandbox, but really it is a railroad in serious denial.” To Tim “Neuronphaser” Bannock, the lack of story threads made Abyss resemble “a sourcebook disguised as an adventure.”

The adventure leaves connecting the locations to the DM. “Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the Underdark,” Mike Shea explained.

Such requirements make designers seem blind to plight of DMs running a 256-page adventure. The designers wrote the book. When they play their own material, they enjoy a deeper understanding of their scenarios than any DM can gain from the text. This mastery makes adjustment and improvisation easy for them. If they need a hook, they know just the walk-on character on page 167 who can offer it. If their players go off book in chapter 2, a designer has no fear of inventing some detail that wrecks the plot assumed in chapter 7.

The designers seem to assume that DMs resist a written playbook as an unwelcome limitation, but most DMs appreciate the help. If a hook or clue doesn’t suit their game, DMs know to ignore or adapt it.

The 4th adventure, Curse of Strahd, ranks as the most successful “sandboxy” design. The Tarokka card reading brings one advantage by hinting at the means to Strahd’s defeat and providing clues that might guide the adventure. The card reading assigns destinations, but as Sean McGovern explains, “it’s up to the DM to figure out how to get the group to these places, and new DMs are going to have a hard time with that. The hooks that take you from one area to another are buried deep in each chapter.” To complicate the challenge, DMs must deal with hooks likely to lead inexperienced characters to their deaths.

The 5th adventure, Storm King’s Thunder, starts with sandbox exploration and finishes as a linear adventure. In between, the adventure leads through 1 of 5 possible strongholds. On the plus side, the choice of giant strongholds gives the adventure unusual variation. As a minus, the strongholds stand as a highlight, but most groups will only explore one. (Still, a party at my local game store chose to battle through them all.)

Of the fifth-edition hardcover adventures, Storm King’s Thunder suffered the second-lowest rating among reviewers on enworld. Reviewers praised the strongholds while criticizing the sandbox chapters.

To start, the adventure shows the menace of the giants, but leaves characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters run errands until they reach the adventure’s true beginning. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either need to rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expects it. Mike Shea advised DMs to “Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on.”

Weak hooks and blank spots can leave DMs to struggle. “I’ve been running Storm King’s Thunder and the first three chapters of the adventure presented nothing but trouble for me,” Snazzy wrote in comments on this site. “I basically did what the book recommended, trusting that it would make sense and my players would want to do what the book suggests. And it turns out that it doesn’t really work. Which is disheartening! I’m a pretty new DM and so when the campaign book I spent all this money on has issues which require significant patching in the very beginning, it shakes some confidence in the product. The whole point of me buying a campaign was so I could game with less prep time required.”

Many experienced DMs share this dissatisfaction. Sean “Power Score” McGovern writes guides that help DMs running the adventures. “My guides to these adventures are by far the most popular articles on my site. To me, that says that DMs need help with these books. That should not be the case! The point of a published adventure is to make it so that the DM does not have to do a lot of work!

“I still think they should be organizing these adventures like Pathfinder adventure paths—linear. If you want a sandbox, It’s not hard at all to make a sandbox out of a [linear adventure]. But it is very time-consuming to turn a sandbox into a path.

“Every single 5e adventure requires a ridiculous amount of homework and I think that is a shame.”

McGovern wrote those words in the wake of Curse of Strahd. But Storm King’s Thunder presents a flow chart to help DMs, and the latest book, Tomb of Annihilation, scored higher with reviewers than any of its predecessors. Is the fifth-edition D&D team helping DMs more? Perhaps. The hardcover line shows consistent improvement and Tomb of Annihilation rates as the entry that best serves DMs. Some of that success comes because Tomb draws from proven styles of play. The first half offers a hex crawl patterned after  Isle of Dread (1981). The second half lays an adventure path through chapters inspired by classic adventures from Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981) to Tomb of Horrors (1978). The authors Chris Perkins, Will Doyle, and Steve Winter deserve some credit too. Will Doyle once said,  “Adventures are playbooks not novels.”

Still, I’ve heard nothing from the D&D team that suggests they share Will’s insight. Too often, the designers seem to think DMs who read a 256-page adventure can match its author’s comfort and mastery. Sometimes, the designers have hidden linear designs like a stain of dishonor. But an adventure path offers players plenty of choice and freedom within its chapters. And besides, players don’t hate linear adventures as much as designers think.

As works of imagination, the fifth-edition hardcovers contain the some of the best D&D adventures ever. They teem with vivid characters, fantastic locations, and unforgettable scenes that few DMs could match—especially throughout a campaign. But too often they work better as books to read and admire than as blueprints for DMs to run games at the table.

5 Situations That Tempt Every Dungeon Master to Railroad Their Players

If you believe countless Dungeon & Dragons adventure reviews, nothing ruins an scenario as quickly as a linear design. In a linear adventure every group follows the same plot thread, through the same scenes, to the same conclusion. At best, critics accuse linear adventures of eliminating the players’ choices between scenes. At worst, critics say linear adventures require dungeon masters to abuse their power to shunt players along a railroad. Instead of steering the adventure, players follow a fixed story.

In my last post, I explained that players don’t hate linear adventures as much as reviewers and dungeon masters think. We tend to judge harshly because we see the lack of options. In a successful adventure, players never see the walls.

Many gamers conflate linear adventures with railroading, but that mistake tars decent adventures. Players seldom mind linear adventures, but few players tolerate railroading. DMs who railroad deserve player complaints.

“Railroading is not linear prep,” Phil Vecchione from Gnome Stew explains. “Railroading is the game master’s reaction to a player’s action, in an effort to drive the game in a specific direction. That reaction is to typically negate, reverse, or shut down a player’s action, in order to get the game moving in the GM’s desired direction.”

A successful linear adventure invites certain choices and makes assumptions about outcomes, but it never forces a result. Some of the success of an adventure depends on the designer’s ability to predict choices and outcomes. (See Actions Players Always Take and Choices Players Never Make.) When the predictions fail, adventures tempt DMs to railroad.

In some game situations, when the players veer from the plan, the temptation to railroad becomes nearly irresistible. These situations appear in nearly every DM’s career. Instead of succumbing to temptation, what should we do?

1. When an action leads in a direction you never anticipated, improvise.

Every DM eventually faces a player decision that nullifies all the planning that prepared for a game. “If you can’t improvise, you’ll eventually hit a wall you can’t climb over, or find yourself trapped in a corner and unable to talk your way out,” D&D senior producer Chris Perkins writes.

“Improvisation demands equal measures of intuition and confidence. DMs who lack sufficient intuition or confidence tend to have trouble improvising at the game table. The good news is that DMs, being creative souls, rarely fall short in the intuition department. They know a good story from a bad one, a well-developed character from a cardboard cutout, and so forth. However, confidence is a far more rare commodity, and DMs who lack the confidence to trust their intuition often have trouble improvising behind the DM screen. I know because I’ve been there.”

Entire books aim to help game masters improvise, but often the trick comes down to making a leap into the unknown–or unprepared. If you find yourself stuck, call for a break, spend a few minutes finding inspiration, and then go with the idea that seems most fun.

2. When an action may deliver an easy win that cuts an adventure short, reward the ingenuity and then add complications.

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea likes to note that we DMs match our one brain against the players’ six brains—a serious mismatch. Sometimes players invent a plan that threatens to skip the middle of an adventure and deliver an easy victory.

As one possible response, DMs can grant players an easy win. Players relish a chance to thwart the villain (and the DM) with an ingenious plan. Perhaps the characters built around deception or infiltration get to shine.

But an easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. If you want to spare more of your preparation, reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that make the plan unravel. Perhaps the players reach the throne room, but discover that the lich-king has left to sow terror and whatnot. Now the players must decide how long they dare to wait in the heart of an enemy stronghold.

Many ingenious plans start with the players impersonating the villains’ cohorts and seeking a free pass to the boss’s war room. In those scenes, I seek ways to help the heroes while also stirring trouble. Often some of the party must pass as prisoners or foreign allies. What if guards demand to take prisoners to the dungeons and allies to the rest of their delegation? Sometimes I add tests of loyalty. “We’ll take you to the Prince of Murder, but first help us execute your prisoners.” Even when a deception succeeds, such tests suggest that smart foes hold some natural suspicion.

3. When players try to start fights during an interaction scenes, pause the action.

Sooner or later, every dungeon master sees players stop a role-playing scene to start a fight. As the party talks with a scheming queen, a player blurts out, “I hit her with my axe!” Picking a fight during such an interaction typically causes problems because the adventure expects the queen to bridge the way to the rest of the adventure. The attack burns the bridge and leaves players running from her heir and her army.

These scenes tempt me to add a hidden pit trap between the charging barbarian and the queen. Actually, that makes some sense. If I were boss of some D&D land, my throne room would feature a trap door.

If the archer or warlock launches a ranged attack, every DM feels tempted to turn the queen’s guards into invincible minor minions who crush the party. Then the queen threatens to hang the characters unless they continue the scheduled adventure. Steal from the classics.

A better, non-railroad response includes 3 steps: (1) pause the attack, (2) learn the root cause of the attack, and (3) reroute the adventure.

Instead of letting the instigator roll damage, pause the action.

If only one player wants the fight, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains how he lets the party intervene in-game. “I’ll freeze time. ‘Everyone can see that your character is about to kill this person. Everybody has a chance to stop this. What do you all want to do?’” Teos makes it clear that the single player stands alone against everybody else in the party. See What To Do When A Player Interrupts A Role-Playing Scene To Start A Battle.

If the whole party seems eager for battle, look for the root cause of the attack.

Perhaps the players see the queen as a bad ally, so when the adventure leads to an alliance of convenience, the players rebel. Murder in Baldur’s Gate assumed characters would support one of three patrons who vied for power. The patrons start unsavory and, as they gain power, become worse. My players wanted no part of it. I needed to find a more agreeable patron.

Often, the players see the queen as a villain they will fight eventually. Why not solve the problem now? As DM, tell the players how their characters’ lifetime of experience in the game world reveals flaws in the players’ plan. “The reputation of the queens’ knights leads you to believe that they can easily defeat you.” If the players attack anyway, finish the fight, and then find another patron.

4. When plot features recurring villains, but the party blocks their escape, plan for escape, but prepare for a new villain.

Every DM loves a recurring villains. But to establish one, you need to introduce the villains and then somehow invalidate the players’ decision to murder them.

Typically, DMs underestimate the players, and so potential recurring villains die during their first scene. Our odds stand at 6 brains to 1. As a slim advantage, we have time to plan. Don’t make a potential recurring villain the most threatening target in an encounter. Don’t leave the villain exposed between their turns. Plant a potential barrier along the escape route. (I’m not above an escape via spinning bookcase.) Start the escape while minions remain to block pursuit and while the villain still has enough hit points to survive the players’ biggest attacks. Accept the (probably) inevitable premature death. Prepare to call another foe from the bench.

In the interest of story, Monte Cook’s acclaimed adventure Dead Gods requires villains to escape the players. “It’s crucial to the story that some of the cross-trading khaasta escape with the thief of charms and some of the stolen beauty. If necessary, the DM can increase the number of khaasta in the encounter or rule that some of the creatures have already escaped through the portal by the time the PCs arrive in the alley (and make it clear to the heroes that this has happened). The latter option foils the use of a gate ward or surelock spell to stop the khaasta.” Unfortunately, once the DM sees the need for such measures, it’s probably too late.

5. When the story includes the players’ capture, but the players win instead, wait for another chance.

The most egregious crime of railroading comes when a DM wants players taken captive. In adventure fiction, heroes get captured regularly. So DMs dream up similar stories, and then try to force a capture despite the players’ determination to never get taken alive.

Notoriously, A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords starts with the players’ capture. This adventure originated as a tournament adventure where players adopted pre-generated characters already imprisoned. When the authors adapted the adventure for home campaigns, they anticipated complaints. “It is likely that [the players] will be angry at the DM for putting them in such an ‘unfair’ situation.”

The Adventurers League adventure Shackles of Blood depended on players getting captured. Some players went along for the ride, but others resented it. I tweaked the adventure so players who thwarted capture could choose to become captives as a heroic gambit. No one resisted that.

To engineer a capture, DMs needs to hide an encounter’s threat to the players, block the characters’ attempts to flee, beat any signs of an unexpected rally, and so on. During all this, if the players see signs of their DM bending the odds to thwart their escape, they will feel railroaded. You can’t plan for a capture.

None of this means your players’ characters will never be captives.

Use capture as an alternative to a total party kill. Save your escape-from-the-dungeon scenario for a time when players ignore warning signs, make bad choices, suffer setbacks, and ignore any chance to run. Those times happen—trust me. Then, instead of rolling new characters, have the old characters wake in chains. The players will feel grateful for a second chance.