Review of The Lazy Dungeon Master by Mike Shea

There are few who would argue with the assertion that the role-playing game fan-base is a very inclusive group. RPG fans come from all walks of life, from nearly every age bracket, and from a diverse range of racial, political, and societal groups. The only criteria that really applies to becoming a role-player is the willingness to just get on with it and ROLE-PLAY an alter-ego/character, and to learn enough of the rules for a game system to play fairly well.

But within that “big tent” that makes up the community of RPG enthusiasts, there is a rather exclusive group which is central to the perpetuation of the hobby – the Game Masters. Whether they call themselves Game Masters, Dungeon Masters, Keepers, Directors, or any of a dozen other titles created for various role-playing game systems, these select few RP gamers make it possible for the vast majority of the community to keep on playing and having a good time. And much like the general population of role-players, the only criteria to become a Game Master is the willingness to take on the burden of running an RPG.

But it’s a heavy burden to become a Game Master, and many RP gamers have no desire to don the mantle. Charged with taking on the persona of EVERYTHING - from a world, to monsters and aliens, to myriad other characters – as well as planning adventures, keeping players motivated, rules adjudication, and perpetuating the campaign, it’s no wonder that only small fraction of the RPG community ever steps up and volunteers for the job!

But being a good Dungeon Master (or Game Master, or whatever you call it) does not have to be a Herculean task if you have the right tools, and author Mike Shea of the blog Sly has some ideas of his own about how to be better at it by actually doing less work than one might think. In his recent book, The Lazy Dungeon Master, Mr. Shea purports to have a methodology for being prepared by not-being-prepared, and how to make more content in less time!

The Lazy Dungeon Master
  • Author: Mike Shea
  • Illustrations: Jimi Bonogofsky (cover)
  • Layout: Erik Nowak
  • Publisher: Michael E. Shea
  • Year: 2012 (1st Printing November)
  • Media: PDF (57 pages)
  • Price: $5.99 (PDF available from RPGNow)

The Lazy Dungeon Master is a collection of time-saving organizational tips and tools to make the process of being a dungeon master (or any other kind of game master) easier, more efficient, and take less time and effort. The author details these concepts in twenty-three chapters, with each chapter detailing a different facet of game preparation, adventure planning, world building, and other design elements used in running a role-playing game. There are also three appendices with additional information and insight, including interviews with 10 notable Dungeon Masters, and a set of ten tables of handy ideas to use in a variety of game mastering situations.

Production Quality
The production quality of The Lazy Dungeon Master is very good, with some stellar writing from the author, and an easy reading style which allows the concepts to be understood and quickly utilized. The format is straightforward with few frills, with chapter titles and sub-headings printed in an eye catching blue font.

While the format can seem a bit “wall of text” at times, the author provides hyperlinks in the PDF to resources, blog sites, and other URLs which illustrate or enhance a concept being discussed. There is both a table of content and PDF bookmarks for easy navigation throughout the book.

The cover art has a cool indie flair to it, and nice drawn by Jimi Bonogofsky. Sadly, there is no interior illustrations, which again lends to that WoT feeling at times. To be sure, the overall aesthetic is an edgy self-help book for GMs, but honestly, a few illustrations pictures, or diagrams would have enhanced the reading experience.

Why you should be a Lazy DM
In many respect, entitling this book The Lazy Dungeon Master is a bit of a misnomer, as it is less about being truly lazy and uncaring about one’s role-playing game, but is an empowerment book about how to spend less time preparing for a campaign, and actually getting more from the shorter span of time a Dungeon Master spends between sessions. It really comes across as espousing that Corp-Speak common-sense phrase telling everyone that they should “Work Smarter, Not Harder”.

[Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that the phrase “Work Smarter, Not Harder” came from Disney artist Carl Barks, creator of Duckburg and its inhabitants, as a touchstone for multi-gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck - and was not invented by some slick corporate entrepreneur-guru from the 1990s.]

The author’s target audience for this book is the experienced DM (or GM) who spends too much time preparing for their game, and who might actually be defeating his or her own purposes in the process. Reducing the time spent on preparation is a major theme in The Lazy Dungeon Master, and the author provides a logical method, with useful tips and techniques, to speed prep time. But further, a number of the tips and tricks presented in the book go further than just preparing for a session, but demonstrate that building NPCs, adventure locales, plotlines, and even a world-setting can be accomplished with less work than most advanced Dungeon Masters would believe was possible.

The ultimate goal of all this is to spend less time while creating a more enjoyable and dynamic game for your players. And I must admit, the processes and tips the author recommends are a solid way to reach that goal.

I must admit that I found myself a little skeptical reading the book. I’ve gone through many different phases in my own dungeon mastering over the past three decades or more, ranging from methods not too dissimilar from those recommended by the author, to more a highly structured method of plotting and planning almost every nuance of a plot/encounter/adventure/setting. So some of what I read in here felt like “well duh, I know that… I’ve done something like that...” – but there was a good bit here I had not thought of, particularly in the ways the author describes bringing all those concepts together into a neat and very effective package.

And I should note here that while the book is written with D&D 4E gamers in mind, a vast majority (85% or more!) of the ideas and methods presented here can be used with almost any role-playing game system, as the theories for being a more effective DM are fairly universal.
As previously mentioned, the book is divided into twenty-three chapters (with numerous sub-sections in each) and three appendices – here is the table of contents to give an idea on all that the author covers in the book:

I. About this Book
II.The Mantra of the Lazy Dungeon Master
III.Being Lazy is Hard
IV.The Dangers of Over-Preparation
V.Five-Minute Adventure Preparation
VI.Beginning Your Adventure
VII.The Three Paths
VIII.Character-Driven Stories
IX.Tying PCs to the Story
X.Keeping the End in Sight
XI.World Building Though Relationships
XII.Building From Frameworks
XIII.Colliding Worlds
XIV.Six Traits About Your Game World
XV.Tools of the Lazy Dungeon Master
XVII.Lazy Encounter Design
XVIII.Lazy Treasure and Experience
XIX.Using Published Material
XXI.Improving Improvisation
XXII. Immerse Yourself in Fiction
XXIII.Take What Works
Appendix A: Lazy Dungeon Master Toolkit
Appendix B: The Dungeon Master Survey
Appendix C: Dungeon Master Preparation Questionnaire
The author’s choice of using chapter order and concepts to reach a DM paradigm did not sit well with me, personally, and I would have preferred a slightly more organized chapter structure that grouped like concepts together. Due to chapters and sections being of unequal length, this caused some abrupt changes in venue, often on the same page, to avoid excess white space. (And see, this is what interior illustrations and diagrams are for – blotting up those untidy blanks on a page!) It felt a bit jarring to me at times, but not so much that it was a deal-breaker, and certainly not enough to dissuade me from appreciating the theories and methods the author was conveying.

One thing I really enjoyed were the quotes from gaming industry notables like Chris Perkins, Mike Mearls, Ed Greenwood, and game blogosphere writers such as Scott Rehm (The Angry Dungeon Master) and Davena Oaks (The She DM). These additional comments were used effectively throughout the chapters to highlight an idea being discussed - or a problem needing a solution.

And the Appendices were a nice added feature to the book after a lot of potent methods and tips were provided. Appendix A is entitled The Lazy Dungeon Master Toolkit, and has ten tables offers tables which embody the topics discussed in the previous chapters like Adventure Seeds, Movie-Inspired Quests, NPC Character Frameworks, and Things That Never Should Be Found. There is even a Combat Outs Table to help wrap up an overlong 4E combat encounter, with 20 ways to end what is grinding out into a boring slugfest.

In Appendices B, the author presents the data he surveyed from 470 game masters to research and create this book. The data is displayed in both narrative and table formats, and provides some interesting insights. And finally, Appendix C consists of interviews about “dungeon mastering” from ten notable blogosphere DMs such as Teos Abadia, Jeff Greiner, Matt James, and Steve Townsend. Both the survey data and interviews provide fascinating study into the habits of successful game masters, but also in many ways validates the methods and tools Mr. Shea presented in the previous chapters of the book.

Overall Score: 4.25 out of 5.0

I have to say that I really enjoyed reading The Lazy Dungeon Master, and the book really is crammed with good advice to allow a DM to spend less time working on their game, and more time enjoying their game. As like as not, it’s made me rethink how I am preparing for my own RPGs, and I’ll almost certainly be integrating many of the tips found in this book to enhance and shorten my own prep time for both my campaigns. The book is well-written, easy-to-read, and comes across feeling more like advice from a friendly DM, rather than a pedantic lecture on all things “Dungeon Masterly” – which is no mean feat!

And while the book is ostensibly written with D&D 4E DMs in mind, it really shouldn’t necessarily dissuade GMs of other games from picking it up and getting help. Almost every theory and method in this book can be applied to almost any version of D&D, including Pathfinder, and to other role-playing games as well.

That makes it easy to recommend this book for almost any experienced game master looking to sharpen his or her game, and to make preparation less of a chore and more of a means to the end of running a great game!

Hmmm… maybe this book would have been more aptly named “23 Habits of Highly Effective DMs”?

So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Editor’s Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.

Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)
  • Presentation: 3.75
  • - Design: 3.5 (Excellent writing; layout was a bit underwhelming)
  • - Illustrations: 4.0 (Cool cover, but interior illustrations and diagrams would have enhanced the reading experience)
  • Content: 4.0
  • - Crunch: 4.0 (Massive crunch; lots of time-saving advice on host of topics important to GMs!)
  • - Fluff: 4.0 (Great examples demonstrate how “Lazy DM” concepts can be put into a game)
  • Value: 5.0 (Probably the best 6 bux a GM can spend to make their games and lives more enjoyable!)


I also wanted to make sure and plug the upcoming event planned for later this month called International TableTop Day! Sponsored by Felicia Day’s Geek & Sundry channel, March 30th will be a day to spend with family, friends, and other gamers promoting and playing table-top games all day! Check out my recent blog promoting the event for more details and a link to the official site with event locations in your area!

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