Wednesday 29 May 2019

On DMing, or How I Learned to Let Go and Embrace the Chaos

Image (cc) Kridily
Dungeons & Dragons is a bad game.*  Bad naughty.  It's irresponsible in that it doesn't show us how to be Dungeon Masters - my favourite term for which is Apocalypse World's "MC" as we are, after all, Master of Ceremonies above all else.

D&D teaches us to build encounters, but not how to build stories and worlds.  It teaches us to think in terms of probabilities and not stakes.  I learnt to DM on 4e and I've spent maybe a decade unlearning how it was presented to me then.  It took Stars Without Number and Dungeon World to open my eyes to how a game could be run.

Embracing the Chaos
The adage "No plan survives contact with the players" is particularly true at our table it seems, but it's often expressed as a negative.  Dungeon World says Play To Find Out What Happens and I decided to embrace the chaos and go with that in my homebrew Stars Without Number campaign. Let the players drive the story and I'll try to steer, or just sit back and watch. That's the nature of SWN by design anyway. I gave the players a goal and an environment and tried to build as much of the PCs backstories and connections in as I could.  It was the most fun I've had running a campaign - I spent less time building encounters and calculating challenges and more time on the story - and I'm now definitely putting together a process to help with this more dynamic approach as it's something I've been chasing for years.

Shaping the chaos
I need a process because of entropy; I don't want any campaign to devolve into meandering around doing random directionless stuff.  I realised I was fostering this early on, mainly because I thought I needed something to be going on at every location and kept adding "side quests" rather than moving on. Lesson learnt. I also want to plan to have an end in sight, as my group rotates GMs so we play in "seasons".  The plan is to take inspiration from Technoir, which I happened to stumble across, as a framework for building these campaign seasons from a railroad or a sandbox or a load of player fiction.  I'll be putting my thoughts here, and would welcome feedback, but in the meantime I recommend you read:
  • Stars Without Number for inspiring ways to only prep what you need, and great DM tables
  • Dungeon World for its principles, especially Play To Find Out What Happens, Be A Fan Of The Characters, Embrace the Fantastic and Think Dangerous
  • Technoir for how it sets out elements in its "Transmissions" and maps them into a plot
Agree? Disagree? Want to know more or have some suggestions? Comments welcome.

PREV Campaign Planning & Management Project NEXT

* OK, OK, it's not D&D's fault specifically.


  1. Yes, it took me a long time to learn certain lessons as a CH. But learn I did. Letting the players lead the way is probably the most important.

    1. I think player characters should be integrated with the story, not riding along on top of it like can happen when running published adventures. I guess if I ever made adventures for publication I'd look to find some way of building PCs backstories into the game, but maybe most people don't care enough?

  2. You might also find the following articles at Campaign Mastery to be useful (only a few because campaign structure and 'keeping things loose' is a popular topic there):

    I've tried to list them in a coherent sequence.


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