Review: The Lazy Dungeon Master

The Lazy Dungeon MasterThe Lazy Dungeon Master
by Michael E. Shea

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Lazy Dungeon Master / 978-1073741113

This book was clearly a labor of love and I hesitate to give it a poor rating, but it simply was not helpful to me. Others might find my experience useful when considering whether or not to purchase for themselves.

Some background: I have been dungeon mastering for 10+ years. I have run official modules as well as completely homebrew worlds I made up myself. I have run in-person tables and online games, both in voice/video calls and in text-based forum formats. I am currently running the official Curse of Strahd module in an online game over Discord. I frequently find myself pressed for prep time, and I was hoping this book might help me optimize my preparation so that I could spend less time preparing and more time playing.

First, to start with, this book is VERY oriented around the expectation that you're DMing a completely homebrew world. A lot of the "lazy" guidelines basically boil down to not going overboard on worldbuilding, and to confine your efforts to things the players will actually see and interact with. This is true: if you're building an adventure in Texas, you don't need to nail down everything that's happening in Alaska. But this is also largely unhelpful for anyone running a prewritten adventure, as I currently am.

Second, and similar to above, the authors are extremely concerned that you may be spending too much time building homebrew monsters rather than using ones from published sources. Again, this is good advice but largely unhelpful to anyone already doing that. I don't think I've ever homebrewed a monster; they are correct that there are just so many already published ones. This might be a difference between the 2020s and the 1980s, but in the hundreds of games I've attended as a player, I don't think I've ever seen any DM pull out a homebrewed-from-scratch monster. My experience is that we usually take a prepublished one and tweak as needed. This particular advice may be a bit out-of-date.

Third, and continuing this theme, there is a LOT of emphasis on not spending too much time fleshing out NPCs. The authors recommend taking characters from popular books, movies, and other media and using them as templates rather than trying to build new personalities from scratch. This isn't a terrible idea, but it's overly belabored here: there are actual *lists* of characters that the authors like from popular shows. It feels like filler material to flesh out the book and (again) this isn't helpful to DMing a written module.

A lot of the advice is very geared towards short 3-5 session adventures, which is fine but definitely not necessarily the norm in this post-Matt Mercer world. (My own Curse of Strahd adventure has been going on for years.) Their key rules for "Five-Minute Adventure Preparation" is shortened to "three simple questions": "where does your adventure begin, to what three areas might your adventure lead, and what are your three notable NPCs up to?" These aren't awful questions when homebrewing a new world, but they are not useful for my prep session today, which is about finishing out a boss fight with a lich.

Moreover, a lot of the "advice" in this book is heavily centered around implementation gimmicks rather than concepts. The authors are obsessed with the number "3" and with 3x5 index cards. Instead of telling the reader to keep their NPC list short and manageable, for example, there are litanies of 3s: three notable NPCs, three adventure locations the PCs might discover, three scenes that they might encounter. Instead of "don't go overboard fleshing out the person/place/event and keep your notes short", there's an insistence that it all needs to fit on individual 3x5 card for each item. I've tried that method before, it's fine, but it's not for me (I will always prefer typing to handwriting) and having to wade through pages of implementation advice, rather than exploring the underlying concepts of simplicity and how to achieve it in all forms, is tiring.

I've mentioned that my prep session today involves finishing out a boss fight. The things I need to do for prep include: Remind myself of what happened in the first half of the fight, including damage dealt and initiative order. Brush up on monster abilities and what each character can do on their turn. Familiarize myself with the (premade) dungeon map in case the PCs want to explore more after finishing the fight. Reacquaint myself with the existing NPC personalities so that I can improvise when the PCs talk to them. Have at hand my DMing tools: dice, initiative tracker, calculator, and damage counters.

All of the above can take me anywhere from one to three hours, which is why I was hoping a "lazy DM guide" might help me. But nothing in this book helps to condense this work; heck, nothing in the book even acknowledges that prep time *contains* this stuff. If I were a new DM reading this book, I would think that 95% of weekly DM prep work was making NPCs and monsters and rooms and places and events and scenes from scratch. If you're running an official module, almost all of that stuff is already done for you; if you're running a homebrew, all of that stuff still isn't 95% of the weekly prep for me. It's very strange to me that the book not only doesn't have advice for the "nitty-gritty" of the weekly prep I've done for 10+ years, it doesn't even *mention* it. DMing is so much more than putting, ahem, "Walter White from Breaking Bad" on the NPC cast list under a new name.

I am confused who this book is for. The advice to not go overboard on worldbuilding is useful for new DMs but the introduction says "This book is intended for experienced dungeon masters who had run dozens, if nor hundreds, of Dungeons and Dragons games. This is not a book for a novice." The introduction also includes an inspirational quote from Chris Perkins (credited here as "senior producer of Dungeons and Dragons and dungeon master for Acquisitions Incorporated") saying "I don't have to do much prep at all, I just kind of wing it", with the implication that this is an ideal way of DMing and, with a little practice, you can too. But to be honest, I don't see how any advice in this book addresses the concept of games that aren't short sessions designed to either be a single 1-shot or maybe 3-5 sessions at the most. Improvising and "winging it" works fine for snappy dialog, but it's not going to familiarize you with how, for example, Night Hags interact with the Ethereal Plane and whether they can take people and objects with them and whether the PCs will be able to use the Heartstone to do the same. I suppose the 1980s answer would have been to just make up an answer on the fly (rather than grind the game to a halt to consult the manual), but again in this post-Matt Mercer world, plenty of people at the table have a decent enough understanding of The Rules and The Lore that they might well find this off-putting and immersion-breaking. Most of the players at my table are *also* DMs, and they understandably expect me to know my stuff and not just "wing it" all the time.

Maybe that means this book is just a product of an older era, I don't know. Obviously a lot of folks have found the book to be incredibly thoughtful and useful, so take this opinion with a heavy gallon of salt. I hope my experience helps you to determine whether this book is for you. Happy gaming!

~ Ana Mardoll


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