Welcome back, last year we talked about the usefulness of a DM/GM binder and more importantly, how I had never put one together for myself. So, it’s about time for an update on the situation.
Previously running games, I often felt like I didn’t need one but it did have me begin to wonder if that was true. Did I not need a DM binder to run D&D or was I simply used to running D&D without a DM binder. After all, I used my DM quick reference religiously.
Perhaps it would behoove me to put in the time and cobble together a DM binder to see if it’s a tool I needed in my game master toolbox. So, it’s time for an update on the situation.
DM Binder Status
Where to start, it has been a slow process. My personal DM Binder, like many of my projects, is a slow burn. I knew from the outset it would be a long and challenging task. But, I’m not averse to a little work and I do a fair job of keeping myself motivated.
At time of writing I am almost finished with Book I of my personal DM Binder. Book I if you remember is the at-the-table resource. The idea was to create a resource that would serve as a quick reference for the things I find myself looking up most often during play and as a resource to help me better improvise.
And, this isn’t just white room theoretical work. I’ve been using the pieces of the work in progress at the table. I’ve used it while playing D&D and other RPGs. Currently I’m not running any standalone multi-session adventures or an ongoing campaign. But, since starting to put the binder together I’ve run one shots of D&D and other systems.
I’ve also used it as a resource for my own solo D&D adventures, which I talked about in the more recent blog. And, when there have been cancellations in my weekly D&D game I’ve gotten together with friends and played sessions of cooperative D&D without a DM. These experiments have helped me refine and test the contents of the DM Binder. So, you may be asking, what were the results?
DM Binder Experience
I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how helpful the DM Binder resources have been and how effective the collection has been at making play smooth. It has really helped me hone in on what tools I was using as a Dungeon Master and my needs.
Where I found it most impressive was in the solo D&D and DM-less, or “headless”, D&D sessions with friends. By their nature, these games are very improvisational. I found that with just some light prep work before a session I could lean on the contents of the DM Binder and solo-specific supplements to run/play the game smoothly.
Pleased is the right word. When the hard work pays off and the thing does what it’s supposed to you feel… pleased, fulfilled. So, without further ado I think you probably want to know what’s actually in my DM Binder at this point.
Let’s do a quick walkthrough of what is currently in my DM Binder: Book I and what final resources I’ll include to round it out!
What’s in my DM’s Binder Book I
If you haven’t read the previous blog, which you should, where I set out the planning for my DM Binder project, here’s a quick refresher on Book I’s organization. The sections ad the front pocket, back pocket, and central binding with four sections.
DM Binder Front Pocket Contents
Inside the front pocket is where I plan to keep all the relevant information to whatever adventure I’m running. These resources are dynamic rather than static, meaning I will be making edits to them, updating them, and replacing them.
D&D Session Sheet
For instance, at the front I have the current session sheet. This contains my prep notes for each session I’m about to run. It includes recap bullets from the last session, a purposeful start for the current session (getting PCs into making decisions and taking actions fast).
The session sheet includes a section of the “most-likely to occur” encounters/scenes based off the plan the players gave me at the end of last session.
Kin with this section is the Interscene Fluff section, which includes 5-7 small asides, interactive elements, or adventure “dressing” I can use as active world building and as ways to stretch out the session content if the group is moving too quickly through my session prep.
The page ends with my 3-Step Session End process:
- Nail down the party’s course of action for next session to aid DM prep
- Make the post-session adjustment for Countdown Timers
- Review my session notes and draft the session recap for next game session’s Session Sheet
I also include a bonus prep area in case I have more time on my hands than expected. It’s a reminder to create things like handouts, maps & miniatures, and any music or sound effects that would make the game more immersive.
I also include a small upkeep section to remind me to update the 5 Drop-in NPCs, NPC names list, minor loot/pocket content reward packets, and my Parachute File.
This is a simple sheet that includes all the ongoing countdown timers for plot/character events in the current game.
For instance, I may want a PC’s brother to show up to convey a side quest related to the backstory of that character. I assign it to a die and after each session I roll the die. On a result of a one I move the point to a smaller die. Eventually it will reach one and that means after the next session the brother is going to show up at the first plausible moment.
I’ve found that countdown timers are great to ensure that rewards and consequences of PC actions in-game have comeuppance. The sheet also reminds me to include backstory elements for all my players’ PCs, so each has a little personal PC limelight throughout an ongoing campaign.
I also include the notes (skeleton) for the current adventure I’m running, assuming it’s not a one-shot. I’ve talked about the Adventure Skeleton outline I use for my homebrew adventures in multiple blog entries.
If you want more information on what’s included in the Adventure Skeleton, check out this blog where I talk about making updates to create the latest iteration of it: https://www.redraggedfiend.com/improved-homebrew-dnd-adventures/.
Tracking time is an area that gets glossed over, hand waved in most games I’ve been in and run. But, Gygax was pointed about its importance in the beginning and it makes sense. Tracking time does a lot of good for your game and it’s not just tracking rations.
A calendar helps you know what the weather is like, when religious days are coming up, what the peasants (90%+ of the people in a D&D-analogue setting) are doing. It also helps with pacing your campaign. You can slow down the zeros-to-heroes super cut montage of just a few in-game weeks.
Matt Colville on Calendars & Time Tracking
But enough stumping, all you need to know is that keeping a calendar has greatly improved my game and helps to make it more immersive with players.
Since I’m creating an Earth-analog world in our worldbuilding process series, I have a standard 365-day year of 12 months. What I have done is retool the weeks and months to make them not a mess like the Gregorian Calendar. The year consists of 12 months broken down into six 5-day weeks. There are also five days outside the standard months: two equinoxes, two solstices, and one New Years Day. And it’s capped off with a “Fourth of Four” Day, Leap Day, that happens at the conclusion of a four-year cycle.
On the reverse side of my World Calendar is another calendar that tracks the expected agriculture chores for every week throughout the year. Adventurers travel and it’s nice to be able to tell them what the workers are doing in the fields as they pass by, how the adventurers can help out around the farmstead in exchange for room and board, or that they run into a herd of pigs pannaging in the woods.
Sometimes it’s the small things that make a big difference. They help make it feel like time passes and things continue to happen in the world without the PCs’ presence.
As you can see, the front-pocket contents of my DM Binder are the items I see myself referencing and replacing the most throughout play at the table. I have them in the front pocket so they’re easy to reference and replace as needed.
DM Binder Center, Section I
Readers will recall from the previous DM Binder blog that the first section of my binder’s center is for the easiest to reference quick reference material and improvisation help.
DM Binder I Center Section Contents
- Combat Actions
- Exhaustion Levels
- 1d20 GM Oracle
- 1d10 Monster Pre-Battle
- Improvised Numbers
- Limited Damage
- Difficulty Classes (DC)
- Chases & Escapes
- Artisan Tools
Most of the information in this section is straightforward. I can remind a new player that they can take the Help action. Without opening a book, I find condition information in a second or look up the fourth level of exhaustion.
Other content is a bit more niche, specialized for me. Primarily it is included to help me improvise. With a die roll I can tell my players what the monsters (or any random NPC) are doing, “the hobgoblins are combing knots and picking lice out of each other’s hair.”
Now that I’ve played quite a bit of solo RPG using the 1d20 Oracle, I probably could get by without including the table, but when it will take me less time to look it up than think it out it makes sense.
And, the improvised numbers are a great assistance to figuring out encounters on the fly. I can set DCs, damage, even quickly draft an average difficult monster with some scribbles and a few dice rolls.
I also included my chase and escapes notes here. Originally I thought to break them down into their relevant sections (wilderness and settlement). But, the more I thought about it the more I realized I rarely PLAN for chases to happen. More it’s just that combats or exploration scenes transition into a chase/escape. In my mind, it made more sense to have that information in an easy-to-find place regardless of the environment.
Oh, and here’s a fun DM hack I learned while doing this. Did you know there are exactly 50 non-combat, non-language proficiencies in 5e? That’s right there are…
- 18 Skills
- 17 Artisan Tools
- 15 Miscellaneous Proficiencies
Having a round number like 50 makes it easy to roll up custom background proficiencies (2 skills, 2 other) for NPCs. And that’s it for the first section. Some of these inclusions are battle-tested. I’ve been using much of these resources in one form or another for years. Just now it’s all collected an an easy-to-carry DM Binder.
Binder Center, Section II
The second section in the center of my DM Binder focuses on reference and improv helpers for running players through a classic dungeon delve. Up front I have some tables to help improvise traps and hazards for the party to encounter.
Typically I plan out traps and hazards, but this is a really nice resource for when I’m sight-reading an adventure from the parachute file or premade module and need to swap out or convert a trap. But most of my use for this section so far has been solo RPG play and DM-less group D&D, where there is no session prep or reference and we’re flying by the seats of our pants.
Random Dungeon Encounters
I also have some table to roll up random dungeon encounters. Part of my Adventure Skeleton framework is to draft up random encounter tables for different environments. But, sometimes you run through all the encounters on a table or you need to throw a random encounter to jumpstart the group when they get stuck, or you feel they’re getting a little too safe exploring the dungeon.
For this purpose, I have a very generic 1d6 dungeon roll table with a range of encounters that could be found in just about any dungeon, scaled from trivial to probably going to wipe a low level party if they decide to fight instead of run. This is followed by a quartet of 1d100 Dungeon Encounters from Pathfinder’s Gamemastery Guide. They are more themed while still being generic (Dragon’s Den, Undead, etc.).
Again, with these I’m not too worried about balanced encounters. I want the players to worry, for the tension to build, when they’re trying to figure out a puzzle and I’m rolling the random encounter occurrence die because it could be 1d4 goblins or an adult dragon. They shouldn’t want to stick around to find out.
Encounter Quick Matchups
This is ripped straight from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and is included to help me come up with BALANCED (relatively) encounters quickly. It’s a useful tool when you don’t know if you’ll need to sightread a parachute file adventure or forgot to recreate an encounter from a non-5e adventure you’re running.
You can probably get a good sense of what resources I think are important for quick reference and improvisation when running D&D and other RPGs. In the dungeon section I have non-combat tools (traps/hazards), quick random encounters and tweaking tools, and this final part focuses on dungeon dressing.
Dungeon dressing is basically the stuff in the dungeon. I think of dungeon dressing as Dungeon Master Dungeon decor. It’s stuff for the party to experience with their senses and interact with if they want. It’s also an opportunity to improvise and include ideas to the dungeon that occur organically through play. Which is fancy way to say, things to help me steal better ideas the players come up with.
To accomplish this I have two tables. One is a generic 1d20 Dungeon Dressing table that has more significant dressing items on it. The second is the 1d100 Minor/Major Dungeon Dressing table from Pathfinder’s Gamemastery Guide. The entries on the latter table are both more inconsequential and less generic.
For example if I wanted to include dressing to spruce up a linen closet the PCs found. The minor entry is a bottle, simple enough but not very interesting unless I put something in the bottle. The major item entry for the roll result is a crucible. Sure, I might be able conjure up a reason for it being there or go “hmm, that strikes you as strange.”
Of course, the second option can lead to players assuming weird equals important to the adventure. Meanwhile on my custom 1d20 table I could roll the fresco/mural/painting/graffiti entry. That’s much easier to work with in the context because of the options, but also more significant.
I don’t always want to explain who the person is in the portrait they’ve found stored in a random linen closet. And really that’s what it comes down to: having good options and having the experience to know what I need so I use the right tool. And, that’s just good ol’ fashioned elbow grease experience from putting in the work behind the Dungeon Master screen.
DM Binder Center, Section III
This section in the center of my personal DM binder is focused on the wilderness, travel, and exploration. There’s a natural progression through the sections I like. In most D&D adventures your players go from a settlement, through the wilderness, to the dungeon. And when they’re finished plumbing the depths, they do it in reverse.
Essentially, I’ve set up the DM Binder so I can move between the adventure environments with ease without skipping and flipping back and forth between sections.
This section serves a very similar purpose to dungeon dressing. They are tables or mostly non-combat encounters tailored to different wilderness environment. I made the eight tables by hand with entries that are generic enough that they feel natural coming up again and again, but the tables robust enough that the interval of duplicates isn’t extremely common.
Each Biome Table Has 20 Entries
- Forest Temperate/Boreal
- Jungle (Tropical Forest)
Let me give you a small taste. Let’s say I rolled a 15 on the Jungle table. Good times, the PCs stumble across a hidden cache of supplies. This is an intentionally mundane occurrence and one an adventure might expect to come across every one in a while. But, more importantly, it’s interactive for the players and a great way to perk them up during wilderness exploration.
They will naturally be skeptical and want to know more about the supplies. How old are they, who left them, are the people friendly, should we take the supplies?
Those all sound like great questions for the players to try and figure out if they want. Maybe they get sidetracked by it, such is the life of a game master. Or, depending on what they decide to do, and if I have a good idea, maybe it gets added to the countdown timer sheet.
Maybe they’ll have to deal with some surprise hangry jungle bandits when they finish clearing out the dungeon!
Wilderness Random Encounters
It does what it says on the tin. These are bite-sized random encounter tables divided again among the biomes. The danger for each encounter ramps up through the table. Half are adventure tier I appropriate encounters. A third are encounters for adventure tier II, and the last entry in each table is an adventure tier III encounter.
The idea is to come up with potential encounters if the players start getting fidgety because they’ve gone too long without a fight. But, also that the wilderness is incredibly dangerous.
It’s completely possible for my level three party mushing dogsleds across the frozen tundra to stumble across 1d4 remorhaz. Now unless my players’ collected alignment is chaotic stupid, and I’ll make the threat level very clear, they should be in panic mode on how to avoid fighting the things. Then I flip back to the front of the middle section, to the chase/flight table and here we go!
A random encounter roll can dive right into a skill challenge where the group is trying to outrun remorhaz until they find some safe spot or the remorhaz get bored. Can one or more PCs get chowed down on in a random encounter this way? Yes, but it should be exciting, epic, and make for a good story down the road.
“Remember the time we were dogsledding across the tundra of the Blasted Waste and our low-level party stumbled onto that nest of remorhaz and we had to flee for our lives?” I don’t know about you, but I want to play in that game, sound dangerous but very cool (punny, ha ha).
I included a section here with the less-common, but still common rules that usually come up in, you guessed it, exploration. Like the rules for falling and fall damage, movement and terrain, jumping, visibility, breathing, etc.
On this page I also have notes about food and water, and a quick reference for tracking consumable supplies using the supply die. I talk about the supply die mechanic often so longtime readers are probably familiar, but I’ll give new readers the quick overview.
This is an alternate method for tracking consumable supplies like rations, ammunition, crafting materials, etc. You can basically use it to track anything that reduces in volume/quantity over time. It replaces tallies and check boxes with a simple die mechanic. The same die mechanic used on the Countdown Timers Sheet.
Say your PC has a bow and a partial quiver of 1d4 arrows. If you use one arrow or less in a scene they are considered to be “conserving” ammunition and you don’t need to roll the supply die.
Otherwise at the end of the scene (day for things like rations) you roll the die. On a one you go down a die size. In the case of rolling a one on a 1d4, the PC looks down to discover they’re down to their last arrow, rough!
I like the system because it abstracts and adds a little uncertainty into whether you have enough supplies for an adventure or not. It also allows you to provide instances for things like falling down and snapping arrow shafts or having rations go bad. It helps simulate the idea that outside forces also act on your supplies.
The supply die also reinforces some things I want in my D&D. Obviously ammunition isn’t infinite, but also that ranged weapons aren’t as overpowered as they usually are by providing indirect damage. Spells use spell slots, melee weapons put PCs in direct danger, and ranged weapons need ammunition to remain balanced.
Secondly, if PCs want to carry more supplies they need a way to do that. Having a pack mule or vehicle actually makes a difference in games because you may not have enough supplies to get through the adventure without them.
But to make it worthwhile, you also need to not give every party a Bag of Holding so they can carry a room full of supplies in their pocket at all times. That’s more specifically a personal quibble into how to run better games, but no apologies. Dammit, it’s my person DM Binder after all!
Local Exploration & Travel
One of the juiciest, meatiest bits of my DM Binder. I’m a big fan of D&D’s exploration pillar. To go to dangerous places and experience weird and wonderful things, to set foot in places that have not known the touch of man in decades, centuries, maybe ever?
The Local Exploration & Travel section is about managing small scale travel measure in days. Specifically off-road travel and seeking a place, person, or item the party only has a general idea of where it might be, or even if it exists.
The section has a very hex crawl feel to it. There’s an order of operations, opportunities to find things, potential random encounters and dressing, and the quick management of fatigue and supplies. Because another feeling I like to reiterate in my games is that travel and exploration is a pain in the butt.
It’s tiring to bushwhack through the wilds, to spend days on end walking, to sleep on the hard ground in the elements night after night, and eat bland, often cold, rations. It’s not a nice afternoon stroll for a cup of coffee. Campaign and backpacking are recent, post-industrial migration to the city, leisure activities. Previously people were only doing it because there was a lot of money to be made or because they were run off from somewhere better.
This section helps make the act of just “getting there” a potent and poignant part of the adventure. After all, after you’re done with the dungeon you have to do it all again, but with less supplies and laden with treasure!
This section is similar to the previous section, just abstracted to a larger degree. It’s primarily to help me as a DM create a novel overland travel experience, i.e. taking weeks to walk or ride along the road to a new destination.
For each week of travel I sprinkle in a few travel nodes, potential encounters along the way. It’s meant to represent the idea that every few days the group comes across something worthy of at least a footnote in their travelogue. For this I lean heavily on the Wilderness Dressing and Wilderness Random Encounters tables with some other details.
The idea is to punctuate the travel with a staccato of encounters, things to see/interact with, and acts of god. For example, one of the potential travel node points is a piece of mundane equipment or vehicle part breaks. The system has an Oregon Trail game feel to it with broken wagon axles and the like.
Center Section IV
Towards the back of the binder’s center we have the settlement area of DM references and helpers. It kicks off with what to do when the adventurers enter town, obviously.
1d20 What’s Happening in Town
This custom table supplement falls into a similar subset as the agriculture chores calendar. The sentiment again being to make the world feel alive and like things are happening regardless of the players’ input. Fostering a feeling that the world exists. Here, we roll 1d12 when the party heads into town.
On a 12, that means something is going on in town. The table includes things like weddings, market days, public works, and even other strangers showing up in town. It’s just a little something extra to add into the game.
For those of you who have been following my world building process posts, this will seem familiar. It includes BP (buying power) as a rule of thumb of what types of items and services are available in town. The reference also includes the per population breakdown of shops from Medieval Demographics Made Easy. Helpful to remember that most random villages do NOT have a blacksmith, much less a traveler inn.
In this section I also have a short table for downtime carousing and small section on crafting items. The item crafting section is a retooled version of the official 5e crafting rules which are… cumbersome to say the least. My change was to make it easier to administrate and a bit more interactive.
5e Item Crafting Reforged (Homebrew)
- Determine the market price of the item to be crafted
- Gather material components = 1/2 item’s market price
- Acquire appropriate crafting tools and space (workshop, forge, etc.)
- Make a related ability check for each day spent crafting the item
- Completion happens when the total of summed ability checks = item’s market price
Want to craft splint armor (200 gp)? You need 100 gp in material, blacksmithing tools, and a forge. With an average roll of 10 and a +5 modifier, you can estimate the armor will take about two weeks of work to complete.
Since I don’t give out a lot of coinage in my games I like to think about crafting as a downtime activity to support a long-term goal for a PC. And while making armor alone is doable, pricier items, like a galley (30k gp), not so much. Assuming the same average ability roll, it would take almost five and a half years of daily toil by one person to create.
Probably more lucrative to keep adventuring and hiring a shipwright. It’s just easier and faster to leave some things to the professionals over DIY.
This bite-sized table follows the same format as the random encounters by biome. The party could be crossing swords with a half dozen cultists or 1d10 warhorse-mounted knights. But hey, having a group of knights humiliate a low-level party can put them on a path to payback after a few levels!
2d20 Urban Dressing
This is a table that is in my Quick Reference document available through Drive Thru RPG. Like the other dressing tables, it’s meant to add some color and potential interaction with the game world. Simple roll 2d20 and choose one of the entries. The table has things like three-card monte, a town crier shouting the latest news, and clergy members dispensing alms to the poor while proselytizing.
Of course, what I really like about the table is what happens when you roll the same result on both dice. That event happens, but it involves a weird or unexpected type of creature.
This has turned out to be one of the most useful resources in my personal DM’s binder so far. Since more of the material has been tested in solo RPG play or DM-less group D&D play, I’ve often needed an NPC and fast. And this is different from the needs filled by random name lists or my drop-in NPCs (will be discussing shortly).
Essentially this list is a roll table of jobs. And, each entry often has two or more similar jobs/roles making the table closer to being 300 or 400 NPCs.
For example, the group is tracking down rumors on a mystery adventure lead. They hit the big areas like docks, markets, temples, places with lots of random people milling around. I can grab the dice and make some quick rolls for people they’re going to talk to:
- Food/Drink Establishment Owner
Easy to flesh this out on the fly. Investigating the temple area they can speak with a clerical acolyte (spellcaster). Down at the docks they can talk to the owner of a dive bar popular with sailors. And at the market, they can catch the eye of someone staring at them out a second story window. They can try to cajole the shut-in into telling the group what they’ve seen happening in the market below.
Simple, easy-to-use, incredibly powerful for a Dungeon Master/Game Master.
Good old town time. I put a handful of shopping-specific resources into my binder. First, because I personally find shopping kind of difficult to prep because an outfitter/general goods store basically becomes “Amazon.com for Adventurers”. In most cases, shopping doesn’t fit any pillar of play. There’s not much in the way of combat (hopefully!), mechanical searching (exploration), or even haggling/role play.
However, the secret to making shopping more enticing is fairly simple. Many Dungeon Masters know this secret through experience or observation, but we rarely talk about it. Create interesting things/people/places to interact with and price the experience so players don’t have to choose between playing the game or buying a piece of boring gear/supplies they need to effectively play the game (armor, healing potions, rations, etc).
1d100 Shops & Market Stalls
Pretty self-explanatory. Let’s say the adventuring party returns to town. I rolled on the “What’s Happening in Town” table and ended up with a market day. Great, it’s a small village so I think three “stand out” market stalls makes sense. Then I grab the percentiles and make some rolls.
- Special Materials
Interesting market. If the party has monster parts or trade good treasure to sell they can maybe do that at the market. They could also have monster parts prepared by the Tanner. The special materials seller is interesting. Special materials usually refers to adamantine, mithril, darkwood, silvered items, etc. Maybe they sell silvered daggers and stakes playing up on a nearby rumor of vampires and werewolves.That would make for an interesting side quest. Or, the seller is just fear mongering to sell their wares.
So, when I get a result of carriage, ferry, cab, etc. that’s usually to book passage. But, if it’s at a market it may be because the carriage already has one or more occupants mid-journey. Again, we can find a use for the 1d100 NPCs table and make some rolls.
Huh, that was a serendipitous roll. The carriage is in the use of a wealthy landowner or heir. I would probably pick the latter. Here we have a younger noble that’s had an older relative pass away and leave them land. They are en route to see it for the first time. Perhaps the heir is looking for some protection on their travel to an unknown place? The heir may not know how their relative died, perhaps it’s a mystery. Is that mystery related to the person selling silvered items?
Whoops, looks like a trip to town on market day has dogpiled into a potential gothic horror adventure. You could take the group to the house, make it the Dead House and have a planar rift suck them into Barovia and start the Curse of Strahd published adventure module!
As you can see, the resources in my DM Binder don’t just work in isolation. Many of the resources can be combined like puzzle pieces to work together to make something bigger. If you used the random rolls of the example above your players would believe on face value it was all scripted and not improvised on the fly. That’s when DM improvisation is at its best, when it blurs the line for players so they can’t tell where the prepped content stops and the improvised content begins.
Goods & Services
The DM Binder is a quick reference so I have the lists of weapons, armor, and gear for players with prices. I also added in extra pricing I like to use and focus on as a DM. That means things like room and board rates (Lifestyle Expenses), food and drink prices, animas, tack, vehicles, etc.
I also include the common services player characters can (and really should) take advantage of. For example, players will note very quickly that buying and maintaining horses for travel is expensive. In a recent game we wanted to explore getting horses to make an upcoming journey faster and easier. For a week-long journey here’s the breakdown per PC:
- Riding Horse 75 gp
- Bit & Bridle 2 gp
- Riding Saddle 10 gp
- Saddle Bags 4 gp
- Feed (week) 3 sp 5 cp
That’s a total of 91 gold, three silver, and five copper pieces per PC. For most overland travel between major settlements, hiring a coach will be your best option. Hiring a coach for the same distance is five gold, two silver, and five copper. Even if each PC had to pay that price (unclear via RAW rules) it’s still six percent the price of the group buying horses plus tack and feed, and it comes with a skilled driver.
I also have a section on hired help (hirelings). It starts from the RAW, wonky to say the least, and uses multipliers and bonuses. Hiring unskilled day labor is cheap at a couple of silver pieces per day. Great for large works of manual labor that don’t require specialized knowledge or tool kits to accomplish. Skilled labor is more expensive and expert labor more so. Skilled labor includes NPCs with proficiency in most types of toolkits, I consider this to be hiring a journeyman craftsperson.
Experts are those with (wait for it) expertise in their field. They are masters of their craft and often work in niche areas.
OK, but how do I use it? Most parties aren’t looking to do construction projects so how do these hirelings pertain to the business of adventuring? Well, I use a lot of trade good treasure (coming up next) in my campaigns. Most trade goods are heavy and bulky to transport. That means you need porters, wagon masters, etc.
Adventuring parties should also consider hiring additional jobbers (day wage adventurers) to round out the party. Now we can begin to use our multipliers to determine the real cost of hired help. Let’s do a linkboy, a fighter, and an alchemist/artificer.
A linkboy is someone you hire to hold your torch or lantern. It doesn’t require much in the way of skill or special equipment so we’ll use the unskilled labor rate. Is the job dangerous? Yes, basically agreeing to go with the party into the wilderness or dungeon means the person gets hazard pay. Do they get a jobber’s cut of the treasure? Probably not, but everything is up for negotiation. Our linkboy can earn four silver a day working for adventurers. That’s twice the normal rate thanks to the hazard pay and they aren’t expected to actually fight any monsters, explore areas, etc.
Hiring a fighter means they immediately come in with proficiencies so they’re skilled labor. And, unless the party is giving them weapons and armor, they bring their own gear which needs to be maintained which bumps up their price. A fighter is definitely going to get hazard pay. Will they get a jobber’s cut? They’re definitely going to try to negotiate a 10% claim to any treasure. That means our hired fighter will be paid eight gold per day and 10% of the treasure take.
Jobber’s Cut: The Jobber’s Cut on average is 10% of the treasure take of an adventure and that is shared between all hirelings, not 10% per jobber. It is also a negotiable rate. The party can try to negotiate a higher or lower jobber’s cut of the treasure by increasing or decreasing the day wage.
Hiring an artificer, alchemist, or wizard is one of my go-to favorites. Smart groups will try to hire these services and keep them out of combat. They can be better used to craft important resources for the party like healing potions, spell scrolls, and custom magic items. They can also take care of the useful “out-of-combat” and maintenance spells like Light, Mage Armor, Identify, Comprehend Languages, etc. That way your in-party PCs can keep their spell slots free for when trouble rears its ugly head.
This wizard might be too pricey at 16 gold pieces per day. Just depends on how valuable your casters’ spell slots are. Especially for many D&D 5e parties that end up drowning in gold with nothing to spend it on. Grabbing an out-of-combat spellcaster may be well worth the price.
Magic Item Prices
I have a short section on the average price for buying magic items. The table I have is a distillation of the work done over at Angry GM on making magic item prices make a little more sense. You can find the full walkthrough and tables here: https://theangrygm.com/how-to-price-an-item/.
I particularly like this system because it considers two major ranking criteria missing from the original breakdown in D&D RAW. First, is the item a major or minor magic item. Second, how many uses is the item. These criteria combine with pricing by rarity to create a more organically pricing structure for magic items.
The magic item prices table is used in tandem with the magic item crafting notes to help determine how much in material components you need and the expected number of days it will take to complete. So, as a DM, I could combine this information with my hireling information to estimate costs.
Let’s say the party wants to hire a wizard to craft them a wand of Healing Word. OK, Healing Word is a first-level spell. The Wand of Magic Detection is a minor magic item and the Wand of Magic Missiles is a major item. I think this will be a major magic item because it’s combat-oriented and Healing Word, unlike Detect Magic, cannot be cast as a ritual.
Our custom wand is a major, uncommon, magic item with charges. Using our magic item prices table that means it’s worth 450 gp. The PCs need to provide their hired wizard 225 gp in material components. Let’s use the Mage stat block and give the wizard expertise so they have a +9 to Arcana. We can expect it will take about 23 days for the wizard to complete the wand. And the expected total cost for the item would be 225 gp in materials and ~185 gp in labor.
So the wand is cheaper than market price and unlike most magic items it’s a custom job so it’s exactly what the party wants. They can hire the wizard and go on an adventure. It may take one or two adventures and some downtime before the wand is ready, but it’s a great magic item for getting your KO’d healer back up in a tight combat.
The next section is one of my favorites, Minor Treasure!
Regular readers know I am not a fan of modern D&D’s gold bloat. At least in 3.X and 4th editions of D&D there was something to spend money on, magic items. But, with 5e’s emphasis on ready-made magic items not being a thing they didn’t provide anything for player characters to actually spend their money on except building a stronghold.
Don’t get me wrong, strongholds are cool and serve as an awesome in-character motivation for a D&D game. It’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed D&D’s actual play Nights of Eveningstar BECAUSE it was a D&D campaign focused on the noble(s) of a manor, their counsels, and helping upkeep and upgrade their demesne. Go ahead and watch, Mark Hulmes is a great DM and the series is a lot of fun.
But, most D&D games don’t use the stronghold rules. Primarily because D&D adventures are location-based affairs. Most parties spend their time on the road hopping between dungeons and different settlements solving problems. They are knight errants, wanderers doing good across the land. Translating money to wealth and growing it… isn’t a foundational part of the game.
So, my answer was to stop giving out gold. Peasants don’t have much money. Nobles don’t have much money, it’s all tied up in the wealth of their estate and property. The only people with sizable gold reserves are veteran guilders and merchants. The likelihood that even monsters have money is unlikely. Fine, but what does that have to do with the DM binder?
Good question, it’s because my Minor Treasure section is broken down into four areas. To me, minor treasure is the treasure in an adventure I haven’t prepped. It’s the rewards of random encounters or when we’re off script either in 100% improvisation or using the parachute file adventures. More rare is straight coinage. Chests full of silver and gold pieces are not common in my game. And, with how things are set up, my players may find a chest full of copper pieces where the chest itself is more valuable than the contents.
Four Types of Minor D&D Treasure
- Pocket Contents
- Trade Items
- Magic Items
Of course the most rare type of minor treasure is magic items. Magic items and pocket contents have their own roll tables for determining value, but for currency and trade items I have two tables used together to determine the value of the treasure. The higher the level of the party (and thus the challenge leading to the treasure) the more valuable the treasure tends to be. I don’t really want to be handing out 5 cp to a level 18 party.
That’s all for straight currency, but for trade goods I have a 1d20 quick table for determining WHAT the treasure actually is. Let me show you with a quick example of minot loot for four adventurers at level six.
First, four rolls for treasure type: Currency, Trade Goods, Currency, Pocket Contents. Currency is easy so I combine the adventure tier with the currency type and the party finds: Seven gold pieces and four silver pieces. Next, lets do the trade goods value and type. They find a small religious item worth six silver pieces. And for the pocket contents, a small fetish/relic worth eight silver pieces.
You may think that’s piddly treasure for a level six party, yes… that’s the point. It’s MINOR treasure. For planned adventures and encounters there are more robust benefits. This treasure section is for things like fighting a random encounter on the road with bandits. Within that context, this type of treasure makes sense.
It shouldn’t break the game, but there is always the opportunity for the surprise of a decent score. The tables are built to allow, but avoid random windfalls of wealth. It’s strikingly more rare, but the same group could have found 800 gp worth of gold or four rare magic items.
The behavior this tries to invoke is the more time and effort the party spends looking for loot the more they will find, but it is most likely to be inconsequential for fifth-level parties and higher. But, it operates like a video game blind pull or “gatcha” system. The more loot you roll for, the better the opportunity you will find something worthwhile. However, that procedure is tempered by random encounter rolls. The more looting they do, the higher the likelihood a random encounter comes up. It’s a give and take, a balancing act between finding monetary rewards and reducing the expenditure of in-game character resources. Because as DM’s running D&D we want to focus on providing players with meaningful choices to make.
And that’s it for the center section so let’s finish up by discussing the back pocket contents.
Back Pocket Contents
Like the front pocket, the back pocket content focuses on the resources that are more likely to be replaced between sessions. In the back pocket we have drop-in NPCs and my parachute file of adventures.
I’ve spoken about my drop-in NPCs before as part of my DM prep. It a single page, front and back, of NPCs. They are titled with a name and the NPC’s most distinguishing feature. What follows is a short description that is written in a read-aloud text fashion in case I want to use it. The description talks more about their physical looks, mannerisms, and their personality to help me roleplay them on the fly. Below is an example.
Tall and wiry for a human, Michel’s most defining feature is the sisyphean pair of spectacles he is always pushing back up his nose. Quiet and prone to spending plenty of time alone, he is even-keeled and likes to investigate options before making a decision.
The drop-in NPCs are blank slates. Michel could be a shopkeeper, a shepherd, a hostage, even a rival or villain if need be. Because the drop-in NPCs are just descriptions of their appearance, mannerisms, and personality they can be anything. I can use a 1d50 roll on proficiencies to cobble him a custom background. Or, if the party is in a dwarven hold, he’s tall and wiry for a dwarf then.
For me, the drop-in NPCs hit the sweet spot between having a fully-fleshed NPC that is only good in a very specific context and a list of names that doesn’t help me describe and embody an NPC. Instead I read the passage and I know who Michel is and how he will react to things, it doesn’t matter if he’s dropped in as a noble, a scribe, or a pig farmer.
Just like the drop-in NPCs, longtime readers are familiar with my idea of a Parachute File. It’s a collection of short one-shots or one-page dungeons that are thematically-related to the party’s current location and roughly party-level appropriate in challenge. I call it a parachute file because it allows me as a DM to “pull the ripcord” when the PCs do a big tangent from what I had planned for the session or adventure.
For example, currently in my Parachute File I have three different one-page adventures from Tyler Monahan. You can find these and many more free and PWYW resources from him at OnePageAdventure.com. If you like them, I encourage you to purchase his items on DriveThruRPG and show him some love with a few dollars. As another small, PWYW-focused, creator I appreciate the work he’s done in creating the adventures AND then going back to reformat them in the standard 5e branding look and feel.
Currently I have these three loaded:
- Ancient Temple
Here’s how it’s useful. Let’s jump back to the previous example about the traveling heir the party met at a random village market day. The party decides going along with the heir to check out their inherited estate sounds like a good idea. Well, crap, I definitely didn’t plan that since it was rolled-up in session.
I flip to the back and look at my Parachute File. Ancient Temple? Probably not useful. Hills? Yep, the adventure starts on the road with a crying boy. But, they just took a job and I’m not sure I want to side quest the side quest with a second tangent. We’ll leave it at maybe.
Fort is the third adventure, and it’s about an orc fort. But, with a quick glance I think we can mod it very easily to be a country manor house. It’s got a moat with bridge, walls, some out buildings, and a keep. Very serviceable as a country manor with some defensive qualities that’s been occupied by an orc band. I can run it straight with only minimal reskinning.
Maybe I want to beef up the experience a little. I could roll up a random encounter and add one or two appropriate wilderness dressing encounters to flesh things out a bit. Easy.
The party clambers into the carriage with their new patron and head into the hill country. Off the side of the road they find the half-eaten remains of a person (multiple days old). They were eaten by something big and large humanoid footprints lead off up a rough footpath. The patron pulls out the inheritance papers and confirms with a rough hand drawn map there is an old mine on the estate’s property.
If they investigate they will find that the boarded up mine has been opened and find more remains of people and animals. There also are signs of a scuffle including lots of scorch marks and two orc corpses, one that looks like it was beaten to death with a large blunt object and the second had an arm and leg crudely ripped off at the joint. This is to help foreshadow the troll the orc warband has captured.
I made the whole thing using the wilderness dressing and encounters tables. I rolled up an ogre for an encounter and felt having it be the remains of a fight with the troll make more sense. For the dressings I rolled half-eaten remains off the road and the remains of a mine/quarry.
Pulling this adventure from my backside with the DM Binder took maybe five minutes? Definitely short enough to call for a bathroom break at the table and throw it together really quick. If they ignore the mine section that’s fine they just don’t get the heads up to prepare fire for the troll at the hillside manor.
If I wanted to go even further beyond to tie up loose ends, I could make the troll a were-troll and use Michel as that NPC, which would help wrap in the silver aspect of our village day market’s special materials stall. So if they had gotten something silver I would let it have the same effect as fire regarding the troll’s regeneration.
Done and done. I can use the binder to reskin a simple one-shot and create enough dynamism and context for the adventure to fill a session. And, it feels intendedly prepped rather than a throwaway session of play I had to improvise on the spot. Which does exactly what I wanted my DM binder to do, to help me improvise better and to blue the line where session prep stops and improvisation starts.
Conclusion & Future Plans for My DM Binder
Overall, I couldn’t be happier. DM Binder I is an uncompromising success in my eyes so far. It requires a lot more at-table testing and tweaking, but I am extremely pleased with the results. It’s really a special feeling when you put a lot of time and effort into a project like this and the result is as good if not better than you could have expected. It’s a real treat.
However, this is only the first of my three planned DM Binder resources. The second binder or phase is the Adventure Builder Binder. I am really torn about the future. First, I’m excited. Building adventures is one of my favorite parts of DMing. I think that’s why it seems like I’m more resistant than other Dungeon Masters when it comes to the dreaded DM Burnout. I genuinely like session prep and planning adventures. It’s the special fun part of D&D only I get to take part in as the Dungeon Master.
On the other hand, there’s a creeping dread that’s building for working on the second resource. For context, you need to understand the amount of material I have that needs to be condensed and distilled. I have a single custom-built “Adventure Builder” document in Google Drive that’s 50 pages. That doesn’t include the many other documents and resources I’ve personally created to help build adventures or the many great external resources on adventure building I have.
The task feels herculean to put it mildly. As I noted in my first DM binder post, I have an expectation that binders two and three simply are not feasible as physical tomes of reference. For comparison, my DM Binder I is almost 40 pages of references and resources. And that’s after I cut quite a bit. I removed the hit effects summary, battlefield features and engagement distance, weather hex flower, house rules, etc. I also cut the entire campaign/setting reference.
At the end of the day, it’s a labor of love like everything connected to RedRaggedFiend and I love the labor. I just wish I had more time to work on it, but I still have a normal 9-to-5 career. It’s your support through Ko-Fi and PWYW titles that helps to tell me the content is useful and something you find valuable enough to support with your hard-earned money!
Well, until next time, keep breathing and keep running RPGs!