Laidback DM: Weapon and Armor Durability

I know what you’re going to say—in D&D it’s so much easier not to have to worry about weapons getting damaged. But what happens when they do? And how do you have a simple (or laidback, as I prefer to call it) system that doesn’t bog down the game?


Here’s my personal take on weapon and armor damage:

  • Every time you roll a 1 (critical fumble) on an attack roll, your non-magical weapon takes damage. It loses -1 to attacks and damage. This stacks with further crit fumbles, up to a maximum of -3, after which the non-magical weapon breaks and can’t be used.
  • Armor is treated a little differently: when an NPC or monster scores a 20 (critical hit), you as a player can decide whether you want to take the double damage or whether your non-magical armor is damaged with a -1 penalty to AC. This penalty stacks with successive crit hits up to a maximum of -3, after which the non-magical armor breaks and is unusable. (This option might potentially save the PC from being knocked unconscious or killed by a critical hit.)
  • Damaged weapons and armor can be repaired by an armorer, weaponsmith or bowyer (depending on the weapon/armor) for half the original price of the weapon or armor.
  • A PC can repair their own weapons and armor during down time if they have have the relevant background and tools (e.g. Guild Artisan or Clan Crafter Backgrounds with relevant area of expertise: armorer, bowyer, weaponsmith). They’ll need a forge if the weapon or armor is made of metal. The price for repairing their own weapons and armor is a quarter of the original cost of the item.
  • No matter who repairs the item, it takes 1 day per -1 to fix (i.e. 3 days to fix -3 damaged weapon).

And now you’re going to say, why not just buy a new one? That’s entirely possible, but not every PC may have the money, and it may be the sword is a family heirloom or that shield is the Cleric’s holy symbol. Or the player might just prefer to be self sufficient.

When using an weapon and armor damage system like this, you shouldn’t really use a critical fumble system as well. Or you could alternate crits with weapon and armor damage. Either way, as long as your players are happy with it. And remember: monsters with weapons and armor should be affected, too. All’s fair, after all.

Easy weapon damage? Done and dusted!

Game on!

Steve 🙂

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Laidback DM – One-Page Dungeon Competition 2019 Winner

Hi all

I was one of the winners of the 2019 One Page Dungeon competition at

I used one of my old adventures from Shotglass Adventures volume 1, which is available in print and PDF from DrivethruRPG (see the link below).

Here’s a copy of the adventure I submitted, which you can download by right clicking and saving. I had to change the name of the major monster because of the system-neutral guidelines of the competition, but it’s an Invisible Stalker. All the other monsters are in the D&D 5e MM.

Cross My Heart Hope To Die - One Page Dungeon Entry 2019 - Laidback DM

Game on!


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Laidback DM: Treasure Alternatives

All too often, treasure seems to be the major incentive for PCs to complete missions and quests in fantasy role playing games. So what about something else just as beneficial?

Here’s some ideas for things that are just as useful as mo money, that could be offered as alternative rewards for jobs:

  • An ongoing discount at particular traders, armourers and weaponsmiths around town.
  • Elite access to the local Sages’ Guild and their libraries for access to rare knowledge and information.
  • The best horses money can buy and free stables in any town they travel to.
  • Alchemical or magical formulas for crafting rare magic items.
  • A ship and crew.
  • A letter of marque from the local king, lord or mayor that can be used by the PCs to get audiences with important nobles and privileged circles of people.
  • Free travel on stage coaches anywhere in the country.
  • Access to safe houses in multiple major cities.
  • Noble titles and estates, making the PCs part of the ruling elite.
  • Access to street-level networks of messengers and informers, providing an unparalleled information and rumour network in a major city.

Of course, some players will still prefer a chest of gold pieces. Some habits are hard to break.

Game on!

Steve 😊

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Laidback DM: Keeping Secrets

Are you one of those DMs who finds it hard keeping secrets from your players? This may be the case if you see your players regularly, through work, school or at the pub, and enjoy talking about your game. You may find it’s hard not to blurt out some spoilers.

Telling secrets about your game may make you feel good, but does it make the players happy?

But think about it. Spoilers are exactly what they mean. Your players look to you as a DM to not only provide them with a night of entertainment, they also trust you as a referee, game runner and friend. If you tell them secrets about the campaign, what else are you letting slip? This could lead to concerns about non-gaming stuff they tell you in confidence, questioning your overall integrity as a person.

What are some ways to stop?

Journal – record your thoughts, so you want to talk about them less. Use your phone—who needs a paper diary, nowadays?

Think – before you open your trap. Spoilers spoil—it’s in the name.

Talk – not to your players, but to non-players. Unloading to others means less chance of spoilers for your players (as long as the non-player doesn’t tell them).

Play – maybe you’re not playing your games regularly enough. This can be tricky when your group has commitments, but talk with them about it. Maybe shorter games or a public venue, rather than someone’s house (why a venue? Sometimes people feel more obligated when it’s not just going over a mate’s place, plus there’s less onus on the house-owner to set up, clean up, etc.).

Do – make time for other stuff. Thinking about RPGs all the time is probably not ideal. Get your mind on other things—go out, go to the gym, drive, walk, see the country. Then come back and play RPGs!

So, stop the spoilers. Just think how much more exciting a reveal is for players when it’s unexpected.

Game on!


PS thanks to for the idea for this blog 😊

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Laidback DM: Alignments in Games

Alignments are a leftover from the days of old school role playing. Originally there were three—Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic. Then Mr. Gygax decided in AD&D that he’d spice it up a little by adding Good, Neutral and Evil suffixes to provide a bit more clarity. But are alignments necessary in a D&D game?

Players and DMs generally fall into two categories when it comes to alignments—you either love them or hate them. There doesn’t seem to be a sit-on-the-fence (or neutral!) option here. Personally, I don’t like alignments. I think players like the freedom to play their character how they wish, and alignments are just not that important in running the game.

Cave exit
Escaping the confines of alignments…

That’s not to say alignments are a complete write off:


  • They make it easy to role play NPCs and monsters because they provide a basis for their motivation.
  • They provide players with some guidance as to how they might play their character.
  • They can create interesting conflicts for parties containing characters with wide-ranging alignments.
  • The rules are set up to use alignments, particularly where aligned magic items are used or in certain magical areas or traps that only affect specifically aligned characters.
  • They make it easy to tell who the good guys and bad guys are, thus ‘aligning’ the story with traditional high fantasy tropes.


  • Players may feel restricted by having to ‘fit’ their role play to the alignment they’ve chosen.
  • Conflict between opposite aligned characters may feel ‘manufactured’ or meta-gamed, rather than natural.
  • DMs may feel restricted by an NPC’s or monster’s alignment e.g. that monster is Chaotic Evil, he would never do something to help out that party!

In the end, everyone has good and bad in them. Nothing is black and white in the real world, and role playing games are a bit like that, too (at least mine are). I don’t believe in the need for alignments, but I can see how they can be useful in helping to guide a player’s ethical decisions. When I’m playing an NPC or monster, I ignore alignment altogether and do whatever fits the story best.

In the end, whether you use alignments or not, you decide how they work in your campaign. Like many of the peripheral rules in TRPGs (i.e. rules that could be considered non-essential) they don’t really make much difference to how the game is played. Everyone will still have fun, whether you use them or not.

And that’s what the game’s really about.

Game on!

Steve 😊

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Laidback DM: Playing in the Sandbox

So what exactly is a sandbox? And how does it relate to RPGs? ‘Sandboxing’ is where you let your players loose in the world to do whatever they want. Give them a map and they decide where they go and what they do. Consequently, the world is built around their actions.

It’s a bit like computer games such as Skyrim and GTA—if you don’t follow the main story quest you can literally play in an open world sandbox, and do almost anything you want. But computer games are limited by their code, system memory and processing power. TRPG sandboxing is not.

For new DMs, sandboxing can be scary. With the players left to do what they want, go anywhere and do anything, it’s up to you to respond and create interesting NPCs, story, sidebars, and world building while they do it. Obviously you’ll have a little something pre-prepared, but it might not get used as the players may decide on a different course of action. You have to constantly think on your feet and improvise, and this can be daunting for some.

Laidback DM -

So how do you prep for and run a sandbox campaign?

  • Learn to improvise. Let the PCs make the decisions and let your logic and creativity respond to their decisions.
  • Let the players help design the world. Your players are a source of joint creativity here—use them!
  • Use random tables. Random names, random towns, random locations, random quests – there are loads of supplements and online tools out there for generating content on the fly. Have them on hand to use during the game. Shotglass Adventures volume 1 has a bunch of useful tables in the back – shameless plug.
  • Keep lots of notes – as you create stuff with your players, keep notes so you know what you did in that session (this is a given in any DMing session, but it’s even more important with sandboxing as you don’t want the PCs going back to a town you created on the fly only to find you’ve forgotten all about it.
  • Have some one-shot adventures on hand to slot into the campaign and save some prep time. The party might not take the bait but you’ll feel happier knowing you had them (this feels like a great time for another shameless plug – Shotglass Adventures volume 1 and 2 are ideal for this).
  • Have a few random maps on hand, for towns and dungeons (hark! Time for yet another shameless plug – my own Connectable Fantasy Town Maps and Old School Maps for RPGs are perfect for this).
  • Don’t panic! Your players are going to do unexpected things. That’s what they do. Don’t stress—just go with the flow.


  • Creativity unleashed!
  • Everyone is fully involved in creation
  • Will take your campaign in directions you never expected


  • Can be difficult to plan for
  • Often more resources are required at the gaming table
  • Some players prefer more structured gaming approaches
  • Pacing may be an issue
  • May be stressful if you’re not used to improvising on the fly

It may be that sandbox gaming is not for you. That’s okay. There are plenty of other options for your game. And your players will have fun, no matter what.

Sandboxing is one of those things you might want to try out sometime. And who knows? You and your players may just love it. Then there’s no going back.

Game on!

Steve 😊

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Laidback DM: Saving Throws – the Nat 20 Bonus

So you scored a natural 20 on that saving throw? Awesome. You passed. Doesn’t sound as great when you think about it, now does it. But what if you got something a little extra to celebrate with?

Here’s some ideas that won’t break the rule bank. Obviously you only get to choose one of these each time:

  • You get 20% extra experience point for making it through the trap. If no experience is allocated, you receive a 200 XP save bonus instead.
  • If making the save meant half damage, you now take a quarter.
  • If you made the save against an attack or poison, you now have resistance to that type for 5 minutes.
  • You gain an automatic save against the next save of the same type e.g. if it was a CON save, you make the next CON save automatically without rolling.
  • Your HP are topped up by 10. If you are already on max HP, you gain 10 temporary HP.
  • You gain Inspiration, which you can use to replace any D20 roll you fail.

So next time you roll that natural 20 during the save, look on the bright side and let Lady Luck send a little bonus your way.

Game on!

Steve 😊

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Shotglass Adventures at

Splitting the Party: strength in numbers? Nah!!

Every time I GM an RPG, whether it be D&D, Stars Without Number, Numenera, Kids On Bikes or another genre, the players take it upon themselves to split their party because some want to do one thing and others want to do another (usually because strong personalities compete). And every time they do it, the separated weaker parts of the whole inevitably suffer.

I have no problem with players splitting up. I can handle multiple groups and jump back and forth to keep them engaged. I can modify stuff on the fly so they are not overwhelmed unnecessarily by their enemies. But that doesn’t change the fact that the sum of the whole is generally better than the individual parts.

Where’s my backup?!
Where’s my backup?!

An example: in a recent playthrough of the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, the party decided to split up to check out the gardens around the old manor. A few checked out the back yard. One investigated the burrow under the rose bushes. A couple decided to see what was in the well.

The solo crawl down the burrow didn’t end well, but the PC’s screams of pain brought the rest of the party running from the backyard, so they were able to pull them out and stabilise them (as well as kill the poor giant weasels that were just defending their home).

Down the well went perhaps the party’s weakest character, with the stronger character controlling the rope. Poisonous snake attacks later, dead PC pulled back out.

Would this have gone better with the full party at both scenes? Probably. With more party members, more than one may have descended the well. Perhaps they would have left the burrow alone, or perhaps used fire to smoke out any inhabitants first.

My point is, strength in numbers is not just about raw fighting or magical power—it’s about the ideas the group bring to the table. More heads may come up with interesting solutions where only a few might not.

I don’t really mind parties splitting up. It makes for interesting play and certainly ups the tension (and makes for some pretty funny outcomes). Sometimes splitting the party is necessary for the adventure, but in that case the players would normally be working to a plan (nothing may go according to the plan, but it’s the thought that counts). Players often forget that ‘many = strong’, no matter how long they’ve been playing RPGs. Oh well…

Game on!

Steve 😊

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Fantasy Maps – hand drawn vs. digital

I’m a huge fan of maps. I draw lots of them, and occasionally give them away free on this site. But I’m a bit old school when it comes to my preferences. I love hand drawn maps, but I’m not a fan of digital maps.

Laidback DM - Connectable Town Maps 2

Why don’t I like fully digitally created maps? They take just as long as hand drawn ones, and arguably are just as good or sometimes even better looking. For me, purely digital maps look a bit too much like a computer game, and often they look a bit artificial. The really good ones look a bit TOO good. In many ways, they get away from the idea of a pre-tech fantasy world.

But hand drawn maps? They fit the fantasy setting. When I see a good hand drawn map, it invokes warm, fuzzy feelings and feels as if it was drawn by a cartographer on an actual fantasy world. It’s more in keeping with the games I play and the main reason why I will never go ‘full digital’ (I hand draw my maps and then color them digitally in photoshop, but that’s only because I’m an awful painter).

Laidback DM - Map Stretch Goal2

There are a number of old school, hand drawing cartographers out there. Many provide their maps for free or have patreon sites where you can get regular maps for a low price. Here’s a few of my faves:

Game on!

Steve 😊

If you like old school, hand drawn maps, check out my own maps at

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Flanking: Good Team Work or Unbalancing the Game?

Flanking is an optional rule in D&D 5e, generally used with miniatures (although you can also use it in theater-of-the-mind combat if you want—I do). Flanking is where two or more miniatures ‘surround’ another (which we’ll call the 3rd), on directly opposite sides. The theory is that the 2nd miniature is distracting the 3rd while the 1st attacks, granting Advantage to the 1st’s attacks (and then the 2nd’s, if they are still in the same position when their turn rolls around). Flanking applies to melee attacks only. Sorry, archers—you already get it pretty good (especially if you’re a Rogue).

If my description is a little unclear, here’s the official rule from the DM’s guide: “When a creature and at least one of its allies are adjacent to an enemy and on opposite sides or corners of the enemy’s space, they flank that enemy, and each of them has Advantage on melee attack rolls against that enemy.”

Yep. She’s flanked by Goblins.

Not every DM uses the flanking rule, but it is an option that enables the party to think more tactically (and in more of a meta-gaming way, if you want to think of a downside) in combat. Much like the use of special abilities using bonus actions that stun or trip opponents to give Advantage first before your actual attack action, the flanking rule means players will tend to think how they can get an Advantage in any fight by flanking opponents any opportunity they can. Having finished off a monster, a player might deliberately move behind another monster to allow one of their team mates an opportunity to move up to the opposite side and have Advantage on their attack.

Flanking does have a downside to play – battles with miniatures tend to be more static, as inevitably those monsters or PCs escaping the flanking situation tend to be subjected to opportunity attacks as they move out of the flanked situation. Thus they hold their ground more often.

Multiple flanking is where a miniature is surrounded on all sides, with each character directly opposite giving the other Advantage. This makes short work of big monsters, but also means the characters can be damaged more easily as they are all in close combat with a major beastie (I roll randomly to see who gets hit in these situations, simulating the monster flailing around it to try to get out of the situation. Unless it’s two sizes bigger than the PCs, and then it can step over them).

Does flanking unbalance the game? That depends. If you’re the sort of DM who likes to use small numbers of more powerful opponents, the PCs can gain the upper hand if they can use their superior numbers to constantly flank. If you prefer to use large numbers of weaker monsters it makes them more effective as they can use flanking tactics to hit the PCs more often and wear them down. With flanking, even large numbers of low-level Goblins can wear down higher-level melee-based characters. I don’t believe flanking unbalances the game. It just means both players and DM need to think more tactically when using the rule.

So, if you’re not currently using flanking, you may wish to consider it. And remember: players may get Advantage from flanking, but monsters do, too.

Game on!

Steve 😊

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Shotglass Adventures 2 Preview

Hi all,

Here’s a little preview of the adventures and contents of SA2, currently on Kickstarter!

The adventures are for D&D Fifth Edition (the current version of the game) and Old School Revival (OSR) games like Swords and Wizardry, OSRIC, White Box and Dungeon Crawl Classics (to name a few). Here’s a taste:

I’ve upped the ante with my design work and maps on SA2! Here’s what some of the pages look like:

There’s also a digital maps package available with a royalty free license to use the maps in your own projects. Here’s some of the maps (over 35 + bonus stretch goal maps):

Hope you like the preview!

If you want to support this project, click on the link below.

Game on!

Steve 🙂

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Support the Shotglass Adventures 2 Kickstarter at

Shotglass Adventures 2 Kickstarter is ALIVE and KICKING!

Addendum: The funding goal was achieved in 6 hours, six times faster than the previous campaign! Now happily moving into the stretch goal phase! YAYY!

Steve 🙂


Hi all

My second Shotglass Adventures book for D&D 5e and OSR fantasy role playing games is now live!

If you’re a role playing gamer, you’ll love this project – the last one delivered lots of free additional content and was delivered a month ahead of schedule, so get on board!

Play on, fellow gamers

Steve 🙂

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Shotglass Adventures II is Coming!

SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES II is the sequel to the successful Shotglass Adventures Volume 1 Kickstarter in March!

Published under the OGL and compatible with 5e and other OSR fantasy role playing games, SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES II  is currently 52 pages long, but will be longer once stretch goals are included. Inside you’ll find:

· 10 ‘adventure-on-a-page (or two)’ one-shot adventures of all varieties – murder, dungeon crawl, gauntlet, planar, puzzle, quest, siege, sci-fi – complete with additional DM and player maps! The adventures are for PCs of 6th – 10th level, designed for minimal preparation and flexible delivery. Each adventure can be run as a ‘fill-in’ for 1-2 gaming sessions (3-4 hours per session) or played as a mini-campaign. Over 50 hours of gaming content!

· 25 New Monsters + 10 Monsters from Kobold’s Tome of Beasts + 6 Monsters from Kobold’s Creature Codex! 5e stats included! New monsters include the Devil Door and the alien Sargalith Swarm!

· 17 New Magic Items! New items include the magic-dispelling Spongebob Squarebub and the consciousness-altering Phenol’s Mindswapper!

· 2 New Ships! Compatible with GoS!

· An all new playable PC Race – Sh’Vy’Th (Sherviath) Elves!

· Notes on the Invician Empire to support campaign play!

· An updated map of Verona Province – the region the adventures are set in, complete with every location used in SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES II!


I’ll post here as soon as I’m ready to launch!


Steve 🙂

Connectable Town Maps Volumes 1 & 2 and Maps for Fantasy RPGs available now!

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Connectable Town Maps Volumes 1 & 2

Ever had your players wander into one of those random towns along the road and start raising a ruckus, just because they could? I have. Players are nothing if not unpredictable. In fact, they’re predictably unpredictable. That’s why I put together these little maps packages – Connectable Town Maps Volumes 1 & 2.

These PDF and digital maps packages each consist of ten A4-size print-and-play maps you can arrange any way you want, for any occasion your players enter a new town or village and you don’t have one available. Use all ten maps in any number of combinations, or just a few of them, and voila! A new port, town or village. Add Volume 2 to make walled cities, forts, castles, ports and island towns! 

There are several buildings on each map with floor plan exposed and no furnishings, so you can use them as you wish. Print and laminate them and you can draw on them with a dry-erase whiteboard marker.

Included in this package are grid and grid-less maps (20 x 600DPI JPEGS) – use whichever version you prefer. Oh, and the inclusion of a commercial license means you can use them in your own publishing projects as well (‘cause I like to share the love).

Connectable Town Maps Volumes 1 & 2 can be purchased by following this link.

Maps for Fantasy RPGs

Maps for Fantasy RPGs is a collection of 24 hand-drawn maps and zip file of 35 digital image files, which come with a limited commercial license allowing you, the purchaser, to use them royalty-free in your own commercial or private publication projects.

Dungeons, mansions, temples, towers, ruins, lairs, wilderness, streets and more! All map images are high quality 600DPI (print quality is 300DPI) black and white (with one in color) JPEGS and are unlabeled, so you can add your own labels as needed.

These maps are system-neutral and can be used with any fantasy game.

Maps for Fantasy RPGs can be purchased by following this link.

Game on!

Steve 🙂


Shotglass Adventures available now in Print and PDF!

Hi All!

SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES, my first D&D 5e/Old School Revolution (OSR) role playing game book, is now available at DrivethruRPG, the world’s largest online role playing game store.

LaidbackDM Shotglass Adventures Ad
SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES is published under the OGL and compatible with 5e and other OSR fantasy role playing games. Inside this 52-page book you’ll find:

  • 10 ‘adventure-on-a-page’ one-shot adventures of all varieties – murder, dungeon crawls, heists, breakouts, sieges, love stories – complete with additional DM and player maps! These adventures are fully playtested, for PCs of 1st – 5th level and are designed for minimal preparation and flexible delivery. Each adventure can be run as a ‘fill-in’ for 1-2 gaming sessions (3-4 hours per session) or played as a mini-campaign. Over 50 hours of gaming content!   
  • 12 New monsters! 4 new magic items!
  • Hints on the art of improvisation to bring your NPCs and adventures alive
  • How to use these adventures in OSR games 
  • Random tables – for names, motivations, adventure introductions, room dressing and special items to add additional nuance to your adventures
  • Verona City – a city for adventurers to use as a base
  • Verona Province – a region for players to explore, complete with every location used in SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES
  • Additional blank maps – Five additional hand-drawn, unkeyed maps with adventure seeds for you to use in your own adventures

SHOTGLASS ADVENTURES can be purchased in print or PDF by following this link.

Game on!

Steve 🙂

Laidback DM: Condition Cards, Initiative Cards and Critical Fumble Cards

Hi All

I’ve started selling some products on, the biggest seller of online role playing game PDFs in the world! My intention is to release more products onto the site for 5e and OSR gamers, including Shotglass Adventures, once the Kickstarter is completed.

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My handy Initiative Cards are a no-fuss turn order tracker, whether you’re using figures on a grid map or running theater-of-the-mind combat. Each card folds in half, and can be hung on a GM screen or stand on the gaming table. Each two-sided, free-standing card lists the PC’s class and has space on one side for players and the other side for the DM, so PC/NPC names, passive perception or current conditions can be recorded.

The convenient Condition Cards are designed to be used during 5e games by players and DMs. Condition Cardscan be issued to players or placed on the map as a reminder of the condition affecting the PC or monster.

Critical Fumble Cards bring a new element to your 5e games! When your players roll a 1 on a d20 during combat, have them draw a Critical Fumble Card to add some spice to the outcome. Use them for monsters, too!

All cards are double-sided, but can be printed single-sided if preferred, in color or black and white. For extra longevity, you can laminate them. I use these cards in all my 5e games to free me up to concentrate on running fast combats and telling better stories with my players. Now you can, too.

You can find these products at

Game on!

Steve 🙂

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Laidback DM: Trading Places

During long campaigns, some players might not turn up for sessions, some might retire, new players will join. There are good reasons for changes in your ongoing cast—work and family commitments, sports, meetings and significant events in peoples’ lives. And some players just move on because your game might not be what they’re looking for.

So, what can you as a DM, do to prevent players from dropping out of your game or to cover short-term absences?

  • Accept that some things are outside your control. Don’t stress unnecessarily about it.
  • Get feedback from your players. Ask them what they like and don’t like about the games you run. Take the feedback on board and use it constructively.
  • Have you picked up the signals being given off by your players? Boredom, non-game-related cell phone usage, missing sessions for no reason? Ask the player if they’re okay. Ask them what you can do to re-engage them with the game. What type of game do they prefer? Work with your players to make the campaign one you all want to play.
  • If a player has real life reasons why they can’t attend, work with them by making it part of the story. Maybe the PC goes off to a monastery to study and only joins the party once ever four adventures. I have a standing rule that if a PC drops out for a short period they can drop back in anytime—when they turn up the party comes up with a story reason for why the PC was absent from the earlier part of the adventure.
  • Use Milestones for PC advancement rather than Experience Points. That way all PCs stay the same level, whether they are there or absent from sessions. The other players will understand because there will be times when they’re absent as well.
  • Treat everyone equally and even-handedly and don’t play favourites.

And hopefully you’ll have less player movement. Or at least you’ll be more prepared for when it happens.

Game on!

Steve 🙂

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Laidback DM: Have Merc(er)y on Me

Matt Mercer hosts Critical Role on YouTube, one of the many D&D online channels that have helped propel the game’s popularity into the stratosphere, and is arguably one of the best DMs around. A trained voice actor, he has a wonderful storytelling ability and excels at immersive and engaging story telling. And for the rest of us mere mortals, that can be a little bit of a problem.

I don’t get the chance to play that much, but when I do I like to observe how other DMs run their games. As one would expect, there are differences in style, the way some rules are interpreted, the way people manage their players. Some are good, some are average. Some are appalling. One aspect that shows up more often or not, however, is DMs trying to be Matt Mercer.

Now, I have the utmost respect for Mr Mercer, but the fact that he is so good makes it difficult for most DMs to measure up. Many DMs just don’t have the range and acting chops that he does, and sometimes it comes across like they’re trying too hard to be like him. Here are a few things DMs need to realise (especially beginners).

1. You don’t have to be Matt Mercer to be a good DM. Just be yourself and establish your own style.

2. Matt Mercer is a trained actor. He also does a LOT of preparation for each session you see. And while he was previously an unpaid DM, now he is employed to do that job. Many of us mortals have full time day jobs or are full time students or have full time family responsibilities. Remember you can still be a good DM, but you need to be aware of your own limits.

3. Long, drawn-out Matt Mercer-style descriptions during combat can be great and really bring combat to life, but they do slow combat down (which can be a long and sometime frustrating process to start with if you have a lot of players at the table). Include your players—let them take part in describing the scene. If you do everything it seems like the game’s more about you being the centre of attention than them.

4. If you want to be an evocative DM, don’t forget to learn how to narrate the non-combat scenes. This is an area that some DMs appear to struggle with.

5. You don’t have to do accents if you’re not good at them. Focus on telling a good story, and involve your players. Evoke the scene with interesting descriptions. Play to your strengths.

6. You shouldn’t focus on jokes if you’re not good at them. If they fall flat every time, it’s generally a sign. Adventures with a serious tone can be fun, too. And if you’re not a funny DM, your players will fill in the humour gaps.

Yes, Matt Mercer is great, and he has a wonderful style. But be aware you aren’t him. You can always learn from him, but be yourself and you and your players will still find the game rewarding.


Steve 🙂

For more Laidback DM, click here.

Support the Shotglass Adventures Kickstarter at

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Shotglass Adventures – 10 adventures for D&D 5e and OSR Role Playing Games – KICKSTARTER LIVE!

Hi all!

I’ve been working very hard over the last few months to write a book of D&D adventures, and the Kickstarter to fund the project is live right now!

Follow the link below to read all about it! I’d appreciate your support, as this is the first time I’ve done this!


Steve 🙂

For more Laidback DM, click here.

Support the Shotglass Adventures Kickstarter! - Shotglass Adventures Kickstarter


Laidback DM: Avoiding The TPK

As DMs, we’ve all done it at some time or other: we’ve killed the entire party and drained the fun out of the D&D session. Sometimes it’s unintentional, sometimes it’s mean spirited, sometimes it’s to punish players for being complete d$&@s.

But no matter how you look at it, the Total Party Kill (TPK) is a bummer for your campaign. No one wants to go out that way, unless it just happens to be the final battle of the campaign and a TPK means the big bad gets it as well.

Most players get attached to their characters. Having them all die at once can lead to losses from your gaming group, or players giving up playing the game altogether (a bit extreme, but it does happen).

Total Party Kill
Odds are, they’re not getting out of this one alive.

Here’s some ways to avoid the TPK:

1.Have a contingency prepared – perhaps the PCs were all knocked unconscious and saved as they proved useful to the villain’s plan. They awaken chained up and breaking rocks. Now you have a cool prison escape scenario instead of multiple funerals and habitual moaning and mourning.

2.Fluff your dice – I’m not a fan of this option, but you’re the DM. Just don’t make it too obvious.

3.The Deus Ex Machina – something amazing happens that saves the party: A company of Dwarven Commandos intervenes; the ground cracks open, swallowing the bad guy before he can deliver the coup de grace; an even bigger bad guy appears and fights the villains, giving the party time to escape. Just make sure the rescuer/event is relevant and part of the ongoing story, not something that just happened “because” (even if it did).

4.The alternate universe/another plane save – the PCs are dead, but now they find themselves in the afterlife or a screwed up version of their world (come on, you always wanted to run one of those Star Trek Mirror Universe episodes, didn’t you?). Now, they just have to find their way back home. A quest to return to life!

5.It was all a dream – This is another one of those options I don’t like much, but it could work if used the right way and if it makes for a better story. Perhaps the real big bad is a dream deity manipulating things behind the scenes and wants the players to suffer both mentally as well as physically to harvest their energy on the way to achieving ultimate power?

In the end, if the PCs are just being stupid, then maybe they need to die to teach them a lesson. As always, it’s up to you, the DM, to decide. Just remember this: killing everyone almost always kills the fun.


Steve 🙂

Free Map! The Living Tower of Moka-Shul

Time for a free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I give them away any chance I get.

This week: The Living Tower of Moka-Shul!

So, who is this Moka-Shul guy anyway? And what’s the go with his living tower? Well, I picture Moka-Shul as a powerful wizard, perhaps a Lich or Vampire. His tower exists on a lower plane and travels inter-dimensionally depending on its master’s whims.  The tower is populated with all sorts of beasties the players will have to confront as they make their way to the top.

The tower is alive, the walls extruding living tentacles in surprise attacks that suck targets into fleshy maws that appear wherever the tower needs them. And the inhabitants aren’t immune to this either, which is why they regularly bathe in the waters of the fathom beast, one of Moka-Shul’s pets. The fathom beast sweats a particular oil that the tower recognises as friendly. But the fathom beast isn’t very amenable and often makes a meal out of bathers!

The Living Tower of Moka-Shul

Above: Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

P.S. I’m writing a 48-page book of dungeon maps, adventures, tables and tips! Coming soon!

For more Laidback DM posts, click here.

The Laidback DM: Murder Hobos vs. Negotiators

Is your party the kind that prefers to fight their way through a role playing game encounter (known in the trade as ‘Murder Hobos’)? Or one that likes to talk to the bad guys, using their role playing ability or character’s skills to get out of a tough spot (negotiators)?

I believe players that prefer fight- over talk-based solutions may result from the following:

• Old school, ‘experience points-from-monster-death’ mindsets

• Characters created with an emphasis on fighting skills/abilities

• The enjoyment of a good battle

• A personal belief they’re not good role players

• Negotiating/talking means too many variables/potential outcomes

So, how do you get around these particular issues? It’s quite possible that your players just prefer fight-based adventures. But you may be growing tired with running these sorts of games all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with a bit of variety. Here’s some things you can do:

Write some deliberately role playing-focused adventures – nothing like a good murder mystery, or an adventure where the party are unable to use weapons. They’re forced to use other approaches.

Use milestone advancement in place of experience points – 5e includes the option for milestone advancement, and it sure saves a lot of XP calculations. Players think less about killing monsters and more about completing goals. Or if you really love XP, reward for solution-based outcomes rather than killing.

Reward players more for good role playingInspiration in D&D is an extra D20 that can be rolled in a tight spot to replace another D20 roll. Reward players more often for role playing and they’ll start role playing more. If you have people in the group who aren’t good role players, reward them for inventive use of player skills/spells.

Make them think more – use more puzzles and interesting traps for players to think their way out of.

Offer alternative outcomes to hacking and slashing – monsters have feelings, too! Let them have opportunities to talk their way out. I like one of the rules in the 13th Age game: everyone speaks the same language, unless the story calls for a different one. It makes it easier to negotiate. Or at least understand the bad guys as they’re dispatching you.

Emphasise consequences – sometimes your players need to see the repercussions of their violent actions to start thinking more. The orphanage for homeless goblin kids whose henchman parents were killed in that last lair assault, for instance. Or the bad guy, whose brother was killed, coming to murder the party in their sleep. Try not to get too grim, though.

Most of all, don’t forget to keep it flowing and keep it fun!


DM Steve 🙂

What did Steve just rabbit on about? Don’t know what D&D or RPGs are? Click here.

Dragon’s Ahoy! Like Chips Ahoy, but with less chocolate…

Time for another of my Laidback DM posts, and a new free map! I love drawing maps for D&D adventures. I have far too many, though, so I’m giving them away every chance I get.

This week: Dragon’s Lair!

This large cave system has a number of shelves that vary the level of the terrain throughout the caverns, making for interesting challenges for the party. You can make the shelves any height you want, of course—the bigger the better. There’s also lots of hidey holes between pillars and stalagmites.

What the dragon doesn’t realise is this cave system’s original plunderer inhabitants built a number of well-disguised secret passages. Or maybe it does realise, and woe betide any characters that use them…

Dragon's Lair Map

Above: Actual map size is 14cm x 20cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

It’s about time for a free Dungeon Map!

Time for another of my (currently) irregular Laidback DM posts, and a new free map! Map drawing for D&D adventures is my thang. I have far too many maps, so I’m giving them away every chance I get.

This week: Border Keep!

Reminiscent of the original Gary Gygax classic D&D Keep on the Borderlands castle, this outpost is much smaller, but can be filled with murder, mystery and intrigue…Of course, I leave that up to you, intrepid DMs!

Border Fort Map

Above: Actual map size is 14cm x 22cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

The Laidback DM #11 – Free Dungeon Map!

Yes, it’s that time of the week, and in the tradition of my irregular Laidback DM posts, here’s a new free map. I really enjoy drawing maps (nerd alert!) for D&D adventures, so much so that I have more maps then I know what to do with. So, I’m giving one away free on my blog each week.

This week: Plentar’s Mine!

I created this map because I really wanted to learn how to draw raised shelves (not cupboard shelves, cave shelves) and ledges properly. I was happy with the results. So happy, in fact, that I’m not even going to give you any hints for a scenario. You’re smart enough to stock this baby yourselves.

Plentar's Mine (Map)

Above: Actual map is 19cm x 13cm. Just right click and save.

This map is free to use for non-commercial purposes, as long as you acknowledge me and my website If you want to use it commercially, please send me an email and we can talk terms.

Happy Gaming!

Steve 😊

The Laid Back DM #5 – Foiled again!

Don’t know what a Dungeon Master is? How uncool. Click here to find out. 

So what happens when that wonderful adventure you put together, with all its interesting surprises and nasty traps, gets circumnavigated by the party because they have some nifty spells and additional tricks up their sleeve you didn’t think about?

Aside from taking it on the chin and continuing in the spirit of fun, there’s not much you can do for that session. But it can give you some ideas to prevent said players from getting out of similar traps next time:

1)      Use a trap that breaks concentration. Something that projects loud noise, for instance. Have them save each round in order to keep their concentration up (you have to be fair, after all).

2)      Make traps only respond to human/humanoids, or have a weight limit. Using the poor mascot or familiar to activate a trap is just nasty, but some parties do that sort of thing. Think about your trap set up for next time: perhaps the mechanism is too complicated for an animal or it’s too light to activate it.

3)      Surround your mechanically-based traps with an Anti-Magic Shell. No magic works inside its 10 foot radius sphere. Take that, player characters…

4)      Trap the walls or the air. Now this is really evil. If the characters climb up the walls to avoid the trapped floor, the wall trap triggers. If they fly over the floor the air trap triggers. Bwah ha ha!

5)      Make their spells go haywire.  If the characters cast a Fly spell in the trapped area, make the spell go crazy and fly them straight into the wall, damaging them and possibly breaking their concentration. If they persist, have the spell go crazier still. You can ad lib the various effects if needed. You’re the DM, after all.

In the end, the whole point of traps is to challenge the players and let them have a good time figuring it out. Yeah, you can make them hard, but they shouldn’t be impossible. You want some of them to survive to play another day, don’t you?

You can find more Laid Back Dungeon Master posts by clicking here.

The Laid Back DM #3 – Maps and random encounters?!

Welcome to my occasional series on Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)* refereeing (makes it sound like a sport, doesn’t it? Well it is, my friends: a sport of the mind. Okay, that sounded better before I read it out loud…).

Here’s some more time saving stuff:

  • No random encounters – hold on a second?! Didn’t I just say ‘save time’? Or something like that? Prior to the session I think about what the ‘random’ encounters will be. In a four hour session the players might have 1-2 random encounters, as well as play part of the main adventure, with its pre-set encounters. All I need to know is the monster types. I then ad lib the encounter as appropriate for the number of players present, terrain and challenge rating. Screw rolling for it.
  • Provide maps – there are lots of great maps in published adventures, but I hate mapping and so do the players. Sometimes you have to map manually; other times I use the story to give the players the map: maybe they get the town map from a local merchant or town guards, or find the dungeon map in a crevice in the wall, left behind by the original architect. Is it really that big an issue if they know where some of the secret doors are? You can always set additional challenges for them when they open them. And if you prefer theatre-of-the-mind, don’t use a map at all. Just describe the areas. Screw mapping.

More stuff in future columns. Subscribe if you’d like email notifications 🙂

* What is this guy raving about, I hear you say? Click here.

Didn’t see the previous columns?

For more on RPGs, check out my Top Ten favourite Roleplaying Games, or if you like D&D inspired poetry, my D&D Haiku Tetralogy.

The Laid Back DM #2 – New-fangled Electronic Gizmos?

Welcome to the second of my Dungeon Master (DM) columns. (Didn’t catch the first one? Click here.)

Today I’m going to talk about all these new wiz-bang apps and stuff that you can use during your sessions. (“What did he say?” Says the old grognard, raising his ear trumpet. “What’s an app? Is that some kind of new pill?”) Yeah, old timers. It’s like Viagra for your RPG sessions.


The Spellbook – Every D&D 5E spell. The spell opens as a drop down, so you don’t have to go back and forth between pages. Sortable, and you can create and import custom spell lists. Free –

eRPG Tools – Designed for you to enter party and encounter data, keep track of initiative and combat. Or you can use it for monsters, spell and magic item look ups. Also has treasure and NPC name generators and dice roller. Free –

5th Edition Spellbook – For magic using characters, contains every spell. Each spell has room to add individual notes. You can add new spells, create custom lists, and save multiple character spellbooks. Free –

Loot Generator for D&D 5e – Generate treasures, magic items and spell scrolls randomly, by challenge level, and for individual monsters or hordes. Free –

Dice 3D – Awesome dice rolling simulator. You can add any number of dice to the table top. Tilt the tablet to roll the dice and listen to the sounds of the dice rolling (I love it!). Free –


Most iPhone/iPad apps are paid, but a few are free. Not as many apps for D&D 5E as on Android. Go to the App Store on your phone and search to find these ones.

5E Spell Book – at first, you’re annoyed, because the spells are NOT pre-loaded. But there’s a link on the REDDIT page by a nice person who has manually coded all the spells (NOT the developers, I might add. Talk about lazy!). The update process for each spell is a bit tedious. You can sort by name and level. Supposedly you can add custom spell books, but to do this you have to create them individually. Possibly the most in-User-friendly app I’ve EVER used. If you just want a sortable list of all spells using the REDDIT link, go for it. There’s not a lot on iPhone for 5E spells. Paid app.

Fifth Edition Character Sheet – Update and maintain multiple characters. Pretty basic, but does the job. Free app.

Fight Club 5 – The free version allows you to create and save one character. More attractive than the previous app; I have some players who use it regularly and think it’s great. Free/Paid app.

Game Master 5 – lets you enter campaign and encounter information, run combat, includes compendium of spells, monsters, items. Compatible with Fight Club 5. Paid app.

Natural 20 – critical hits and critical misses. Provides variety for your crits, for weapon and spells. The effects add variety, however they are NOT balanced, so discuss with your players before you decide to use this. Free app.

DiceandDragons – Dice rolling app. Create customised dice rolling options for your characters. Create combos and add damage automatically. Flick the dice with your finger on the screen to roll them. Free app.

PDF versions of manuals

I own every D&D 5E manual and adventure in hard copy. Despite this, I find it easier to have the manuals in PDF on my tablets, especially when travelling around for games. I know some of the PDFs I own have been scanned illegally, but as I’ve already paid for the books I think I have the right to use them.

Come on WoTC – get with the program and provide proper PDFs for your manuals and adventures–other companies do. You could include a digital code inside each manual sold. That way you have a list of all the codes used so people don’t give them to their mates. I’d rather have a proper, pristine PDF version of the original book than a dodgy OCR version, scanned manually.


These are just a few examples. You don’t have to use electronica in your sessions. But it sure could save some time.

For more on RPGs, check out my Top Ten favourite Roleplaying Games, or if you like D&D inspired poetry, my D&D Haiku Tetralogy.

The Laid Back DM #1 – Empowerment

I’m a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) fan from way back ( to find out why, click here).

I’ve been running a D&D 5th Edition campaign for eight players over the last few months. Everyone is having a lot of fun as they progress to the final inexorable encounter with the big bad in his castle overlooking the valley that he terrorises on a regular basis.

I’ve learned a few things over time as a Dungeon Master (DM). (Yes, it’s a silly name, but I didn’t think that one up. Blame the late Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, who co-created the role playing game hobby, and the very first D&D rules, back in the 1970’s.) I’ve realised that it’s often better to do less, rather than more, when preparing for a game. It’s also handy to empower the players, so that they take a more active role in both the story and running the game. And it’s not just because I’m lazy. Players enjoy it more when they participate and engage with the game more actively.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be posting irregularly about DM’ing. Here’s a few things to get the ball rolling (or should that be dice rolling? Okay, crap joke).

There are a few things I’ve implemented to allow my games to run more smoothly:

  • Players roll all the dice rolls, including those for monsters attacking them – yep, no more rolls for the DM. This frees me up to describe battles, participate actively (but in a laid back way) and generally enjoy how the players freak out when they roll well for the monsters. It really adds to the tension. In a good way, of course. I also use the average damage number for monsters, rather than have more dice rolls (there’s enough dice rolling in the game already).
  • Players track initiative for every combat – another time saver and empowers players to do more, rather than have me ‘parent’ them. Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t do this years ago.
  • Player decisions can and should change the adventure – nothing new here, but some DMs find that they prefer players to do their adventures on rails: that is, being led from encounter to encounter. Players can, and should, be allowed to go off on all sorts of wild tangents during the game. So be flexible, be laid back, and go with the flow. Ad lib it! You’ll be surprised how well it all turns out.

More stuff soon (not sure if I can call them tips, or not…)

For more on RPGs, check out my Top Ten favourite Roleplaying Games, or if you like D&D inspired poetry, my D&D Haiku Tetralogy.

When Good Dungeon Masters Go Bad

(“You’re ranting on that blog-thingy, aren’t you?” says Beta Max.

“Yes,” I say. “About the perils of unprepared Dungeon Masters.”

“The what? The tennis masters tournament?”

“No, the……yes, the tennis.”)


As you may know, I’m a nerd and proud of it. Not an over the top nerd, but one nevertheless. Every once in a while I get a chance to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)*, sometimes as the Dungeon Master (DM)**, sometimes as a player character***.

Have you ever played a game where the referee just doesn’t know what they’re doing? In D&D, it’s the type who rolls up (pun intended) to the game with no preparation, no rule books, no dice and very little clue. I experienced a game like that the other night.

The DM had the adventure “all in his head” (the first danger sign), hadn’t brought any dice, pencils, books or materials to help him run the game, instead relying on his players to supply everything (the second danger sign). Throughout the game he would constantly reference Pathfinder**** rules (the third danger sign), wasn’t sure how the various D&D rules worked, asking his players for clarifications (the fourth danger sign), and would provide routinely easy challenges and overly large treasure hauls (the fifth and final danger sign).

You might be saying “that’s fine with me”. After all, some of the best adventures are often ad libbed, and if everyone’s having fun, then what’s the problem? Well that’s the thing. If the game is dragging to the point where people are checking their phones often and are saying “that was easier than expected”, then you know something’s not right (aside from the rule gaffes and absence of materials, I mean).

D&D is about having fun. It’s about fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants challenges and escapes. It’s about edge-of-your-seat dramatic tension as you wonder whether you’ll survive. It’s about the feeling of relief when you do. It’s about bizarrely humorous situations that naturally arise during the course of play. It’s about experiencing the wonder of battling and living in a fantasy world. It’s all these things that make for a great D&D (or other RPG*) game.

I have six basic rules I ask of DMs:

1 – Be prepared, but be flexible as well (those pesky players can basically try anything, y’know).

2 – Know the rules of the game you’re playing. You’re the DM, for Pete’s sake (and know what game you’re playing. That’s always a big help).

3 – DM honestly and fairly (if you’re making it up as you go along, please make it at least look like you know what you’re doing. And don’t play favourites, just because they know the rules better than you do).

4 – Involve all of your players (if they find their phones more interesting than the game, that’s a subtle sign to amp it up a bit).

5 – Learn from your mistakes so you can make the next session even better (read the rules, bring the dice, draw a few maps, bring along an adventure with some meat on the bones, as it were).

6 – Every game should be fun for you and the players (should be rule number one. If you as the DM are not enjoying yourself then you may need to prepare a little better. See rules 1-5).

Use this wisdom well.

And hopefully my next game with you will be better.

* For those of you who don’t know: D&D is a fun role playing game (RPG) played with dice but no board, where players become characters in a fantasy adventure, fighting monsters, gaining treasure, etc. There are lots of different RPGs, with different themes, rules and settings. Haven’t you read my earlier post Real Men Play D&D?

 ** The DM is the referee who adjudicates the adventure and controls the non-player characters. Just like at the tennis or the cricket. Except more hands on and with more power, death and destruction.

 *** The player character is the role undertaken by the player – it could be a fighter, a cleric, a wizard, etc. I told you, it’s a nerd game.

 **** Pathfinder is a fantasy role playing game originally based on D&D 3.5. The new D&D 5.0 and Pathfinder have diverged sufficiently to have various differing rules. You don’t really care, do you? Fine.

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