Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Book Review: Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

Author: Michael Shea ("Sly Flourish")
Publisher: Self-Published
System: Mostly System Neutral (w/ some focus on D&D5e)
Marketplace: Amazon, DrivethruRPG

 Here's a Confession for you: I have a hard time deciding how to best plan a session.

When I was in elementary and junior high I would occasionally draw a map and part-roll-, part-choose- a treasure hoard. I gave out more magic items than I should have, but they were usually the weirdest, most situationally useful, odd, or simply off-beat custom magic items I could choose. I ran a fusion of AD&D and BECMI D&D, with occasional forays into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Palladium Fantasy RPG.

In Highschool I ran mostly AD&D2e, RIFTS, and Shadowrun 2e. I did almost nothing for prep. I ran it off the cuff, and didn't sweat treasure. I just rolled on the treasure tables occasionally, but mostly ignored it.

When I was in University, I managed to create a more balanced approach of at least writing down the names of a few NPCs and the major points I wanted to handle. I prepped treasure that might tempt PCs in one hoard per session, and made sure the bad guys had some interesting loot. Of course, at that point I was running Shadowrun 3e most of the time, which, contrary to popular opinion, is a really easy game to run on the fly. And occasionally HōL, which is inimical to planning.

The Disease

But then, along came Dungeons & Dragons 3e... and the game was somehow a bit traumatic to me. D&D3e had a Challenge Rating System, and for some reason, I thought the idea was so cool (maybe because I had TPKed a few parties on too-hard encounters,  and made a few adventures that were way too easy early on) that it became my obsession in adventure design. I also had problems when my players fell way behind the power curve from lack of appropriate treasure. I spent a huge amount of time on the D&D forums trying to figure out how to make best use of CR and treasures by making sure I was keeping within the parameters of "game balance."

Whenever my players found treasure, I would grind the game to a halt as I rolled the treasure hoard during a break. I eventually resolved to pre-plan a lot more of the game to avoid that.

I also started running a group with hardcore character builders and rules lawyers who had much higher expectations. I ended up starting to spend something to the tune of 4-5 hours a week planning adventures using a mix of this article by Wolfgang Baur, strict CR, a mix of planned and randomized treasure, and a lot of chatting with other DMs. 

From there through my 20s planning for D&D3e in particular snowballed. Oddly, when I played Mage: The Ascension, Shadowrun 4e, or Call of Cthulhu d20, I improvised a lot more. in fact, CoCd20 went nearly 100% unplanned, and for Shadowrun 4e, I mostly just statted important NPCs.

I became addicted to overplanning through my 30s. I played less and planned more as I went. My D&D3e and Pathfinder 1e games started showcasing elaborate boss fights and strange events. And I played less and less of the other games as well. Shadowrun 5e seemed to invite a lot of overplanning comared to SR4, in spite of only having a few small mechanical  differences.

This reached a crescendo when I lovingly converted The Temple of Elemental Evil and Wrath of the Immortals to Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition by lovingly going room to room rebalancing each encounter to fit the new edition. After each major encounter I would total approximate experience for a party of 4 so I could be sure i was balancing for the right level, and wrote additional encounters for the environs of Hommlet and Nulb that could make up the difference for skipped encounters.

I spent over a hundred hours planning that conversion, and it remains one of my most-read, downloaded, and translated creations.. but it was a ridiculous expenditure of time, and the scary part was that I was  planning everything in D&D and Shadowrun that way...

...And my games weren't any more fun for it.

Good Medicine

As I hit my 40s and moved back to old-school games, I found that I didn't need all the planning... but I was still doing it anyway. I had developed methods and systems for planning my adventures that  were deeply ingrained habits... and I couldn't ditch them even if those habits were sapping the fun out of the game.

Going back to as simple a set of games as I could: Cairn, Tiny Dungeon 2e, Index Card RPG, and especially Swords & Wizardry, where there was just less to plan helped immensely. As has simply planning a dungeon in the way Gary Gygax had advised in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide - draw a map, stock it, add random treasure piles where the dice suggest.

The Cure?

In the TTRPG circles I found myself participating in when I started Welcome to the Deathtrap, people lauded the work of Sly Flourish as an antidote to overplanning your sessions. I read some of their blog. While a number of people told me that Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master was their best work, and could be enjoyed out of sequence from their first book, The Lazy Dungeon Master, I decided to start at the beginning. And I was disappointed.

The Lazy Dungeon Master was not a great resource for me. it was entrenched in the culture and minutae of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, which I skipped, and seemed like it was waging a hopeless battle against an excessively bloated system. I honestly could not see what people saw in it.

I suspected that I had bought the clearly inferior of Sly Flourish's work, however, and that I ought to give them at least one more chance before I wrote it off as a fad. So, I put a copy of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master on my Christmas list, and lo and behold, it was under the tree this year. I have read it, tried its techniques, and found it  much, much better product.


Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is a book on planning to run TTRPG  sessions (with a superficial focus on Dungeons & Dragons 5e) in the most effective, efficient way possible. It identifies the things you must need to know to make a memorable adventure tailored to the players and their characters' goals, and what is extraneous and distracting from that process.

It structures these ideas into a "Checklist" you can work through as you plan an adventure that accelerates the process. It doesn't focus much on adventue scale and structure, and I find that a tool like a Five Room Dungeon or a similar planning system can still be of incredible value to speed this process up even further.

By the end of the Checklist you will have a list of possible scenes or encounters, a list of the monsters to be used, a set of interesting locations,  and a handful of lore, secrets, or clues that the players can discover, as well as a magic item or two to include in treasure hoards that are otherwise (like in 5e, considered mostly irrelevant.)

A second section discusses a change in mindset and approach to DMing, including thinking about campaign planning using a "spiral" method, planning your villain's actions using fronts, and having quantum-ogre style world-building where a fact about the campaign is not true until the PCs learn it, and may be contradicted in another adventure if the fact was not made "true" by player discovery.

A third section focuses on feeding creativity and developing a flexible mindset for gaming, including tools like reskinning monsters and basing NPCs on mashed-up pop-culture characters.

Finally, the results of the 2016 WotC poll of D&D players (which I did partiipate in) and the results of some of Michael Shea's own research, polling, and interviews.

What I Loved

Actionable Tools

The Checklist process works really well to make for fast, simple planning. I will believe the claim he makes that woth practice you can put together a good, solid adventure in just 15-30 minutes. i got good results trying his method.

Suggestions on How to Modify the Tools

One of the first things that Shea suggests once he has walked you through this process in detail is a discussion on how to trim and shrink it. he doesn't expect the system to work perfectly, and knows even now that it has needless steps.

Beautifully Illustrated

The cover by Jack Kaiser and the interior art by Pedro Potier ara apropos, beautifully done, and add to the enjoyment of the book. 

Emphasis on Prioritization

As a life coach, I have made my bread and butter helping people figure out their priorities and sticking to them. Nothing creates better results than having your priorities straight, and using them to determine how you spend your precious time. And having an honest discussion about how some things, like background world building do very little to engage your players.

Excellent Read

The writing of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is easy to read and in a frank, conversational tone that really is easy to process, Shea is great at expressing the arguments for their method in a way that is very persuasive. It is much imrved from the original The Lazy Dungeon Master. A few years of development in their writing voice has worked wonders for doing their ideas justice.

Growth Points

Bound to a Modern Playstyle

The ideas in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master are very much assuming that players are brinigng detailed backstories, that the players are looking for "Story". There is an assumption that the reader will likely not be running a traditional dungeon crawl. In places, it's ideas are so different from the free, open-ended sandbox style of play that I prefer that I found it frustrating.  It isn't that Shea is advocating for a railroad, but rather that he is advocating for building with an eye to maximizing (capital S) Story. Which isn't necessarily a result that I want.

It strays way off into territory I actively dislike, such as offloading world building to players during play time using tools like the PbtA world-building questions like " How do people perceive your race in this town?" Or "What's one quirk that you share with every other wizard you have ever known." 

Untrustworthy Sources

There is a lot of callbacks to the 2016 WotC D&D player survey, informal polls, Facebook surveys, interviews with designers and celebrities.

The survey really only offers insight about how players passionate about 5th edition who regularly checked the WotC websitefelt about D&D, and that small, self-selecting group doesn't necesaruly represent the larger hobby. In fact, I would suggest it mostly reflected 30-something DMs. I believe that these surveys have created a number of problems in the way D&D has been developed over the last few years that have not been reflective of what actually makes for a good game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Likewise, the data from these self-selecting groups gives the book an impression about what and how the players want to experience that I ddon't find is true of the wider community. And I think the book would have been better had these been taken with a liberal grain of salt.

I also find that some of the people he quotes to reinforce his ideas about running D&D do his argument more harm than good. An interesting quote can help summarize your idea in a fresh new way and lend it gravitas. But quote somoene who has proven that they honestly don't respect or understand the hobby, and you make yourself sound the fool. To be fair, this book is several years old, and the pandemic gave people a lot of opportunity to make themselves look like fools


I love the art in the book, and the layout is pretty... but I can't help but think that it is too much. Every page except one myseriously blank one have the cover image reproduced in the background, and the text in fron on a semi-transparent tattered-paper frame. the font is large, the columsn widely spaced apart, and there is a massive margin at the top of every page. The art, while lovely, often gets 60% or more of the lovely, glossy pages on which it appears.

In the end, the book comes off as product that could have been made with half the page count, and been even more readable for it. As it is, the high-quality paper, heavy use of colored ink, etc. has easily doubled the cost of the book. It is more ornate than the 5e corebooks themslves. I could have been just as happy with a 9pt. font trade paperback book of 48 pages as this 94-page extravaganza.

Could Use Printable Tools

The Checklist is really more of a procedure than a mere checklist, but the framing of it is useful; if you know the gist of each step and go through them, planning is easy. I feel that the book could have been served by having a printable form that gave reminders about each step and some blank lines for writing things down.

I suspect that this is the problem that Michael Shea later solved in The Lazy Dungeon Master's Workbook, but I am surprised that there was nothing in this version of the book at all to work with.

"Spiral Campaign" Idea Deserves Some Fleshing Out

The "Spiral Campaign" is a new term for a very old method for writing a campaign. in fact, it is one of the oldest as it is a new label slapped on the campaign design advice given by E. Gary Gygax in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide back in 1979, and what was recommended by  word of mouth in the game culture long before that.

I can see why it needed to be presented again here: the new, D&D5e crop of DMs often have not read the 5e DMG, and learned by watching streaming games that are often popular because of their overwhelmingly detailed world-building. Reminding players of how it is done is an excellent idea.

But given just how solid Gygax's original advice was, and how much other great sources like Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG have oned it over they years, this section could have included some extra advice and prompts to help take even more of the guesswork out.


Not much in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master was new to me; the Lazy Dungeon Master's Checklist is not that far off of how I used to plan games in my teens and early 20s. Althought there are certainly things in here that I could have done more consistently to be a better DM in those years.

It was, however, an extremely powerful reminder. It was helpful to read in black and white (well, black over parchment and phantoms of an ornate book over) that my players don't care about the minutae of my setting. Nor that I have to make my campaign adhere to facts that the players have never heard and exist purely in my head. A reminder that the Pareto Principle applies just as much to DM planning as business processes is a great reminder. If you can stick to the 20% of activities that enrich play at the table you are planning smarter instead of harder.

I am using the checklist right now in hopes that it will hel me continue to unlearn the bad habits I made for myself in D&D3e.

Overall it is a great book for new DMs or old DMs like me who have a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome when it comes to the ideas of Challenge rating and Level-Appropriate Treasure. If your planning are nearly as long as your play sessions, it will definitely help.

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