I love RPG books so much, I write my own. I also have a terrible weakness for buying more, especially if they’ll facilitate my own campaigns, whether solo or otherwise. Since most of my groups tend to play D&D (and I do a fill-in campaign for one of them. Oh, and professionally DM every so often, too,) anything that can help me sharpen my DMing skills is a must read.
So I was really psyched to get a copy of Keith Ammann’s How To Defend Your Lair. I’m not super familiar with online D&D personalities, but his credentials and endorsements are legit. I was a little taken aback by the combative tone of the introduction — hi, I’m a reader who is interested in what you have to say, not a PC to be battled — but that fortunately fades quickly, as Mr Ammann gets into the nitty gritty of what it means to design a big bad’s lair, and why you would want to invest the time and energy into doing so.
At which point, I need to make a disclaimer: if you are a vibes GM*, like me, a lot of this stuff might not be pertinent to you. I continuously ratchet difficulty levels up and down for my players because I do not think TPKs are fun and I also want them to each get their shots in before downing the bad guys. I like for my players to feel involved in combats, and to experience the terror of thinking they’re going to die (but not actually killing them.) As a GM, I feel that my job is to challenge the players but not frustrate them.
And as much as I’ve loved the hundreds of players I’ve run games for over the years, I can confidently state that most of them don’t play D&D, or any other role-playing games, in order to think. They’re there for the action, and they’re there for the drama. The fun ones are also there for the lolz. My job as the DM is to facilitate all this, to make my players feel smart and capable and like big damn heroes. I have thrown away so many puzzles and lowered the success rates of so many secrets just to make sure my tables have a good time getting through carefully constructed adventures, whether my own or others’ (I’m a big fan of running from pre-written modules.)
But if your players really do love a challenge, and if you as a DM want to design rich, well-thought-out settings for your big confrontations in D&D 5E, then this book is a must-read. Mr Ammann knows his stuff, as he discusses the basics of medieval architecture, defense and combat (arcane fantasy being the general setting of most D&D campaigns.) Honestly, this book also works as a great resource if you’re working on worldbuilding for your fantasy novel.
Perhaps the most valuable part of this book for seasoned DMs, however, is the section detailing Sixteen Lairs. These are sixteen enemy bastions rigorously designed to confound any adventuring party, complete with beautifully detailed maps, lists of personnel and calculated CR/XP. Ordered by difficulty level, each lair is a great seed for an overarching campaign, and a mighty challenge for thoughtful parties of combatants. One thing I really appreciated is the diversity of settings, analogous to different real world backgrounds, cultures and fantasy traditions. And Lio Pressland’s cover illustration is just the perfect blend of cute and vicious, tho it may bely the sophistication of the book’s contents.
This was a valuable reading experience for me as a GM, player and general appreciator of all things role-playing, but I’m not sure how much of it I’ll actually use. It’s a great addition to the library of any serious DMs tho.
*Note for those less familiar with RPGs: in this review, I use DM as short-form for Dungeon Master when referring specifically to Dungeons & Dragons. I use GM for Game Master in reference to any RPG, including D&D.
How To Defend Your Lair by Keith Ammann was published November 29 2022 and is available from all good booksellers, including