Herding Cats: A Dungeon Master’s Dilemma


CatspetfinderCats are, if anything, independent creatures. It’s in their very nature. They care very little about what you would like them to do or not do. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if they knew what you wanted, they would enact the exact opposite (and then expect you to feed them for the 5th time that day). Needless to say, you cannot herd a cat. It is impossible, a contradiction of terms even. Saying that you are attempting to herd cats is like saying you’re trying to make water stop flowing downhill or, maybe, that you’re attempting to run a dungeon.

For the uninitiated, “dungeon” is geek-speak for an adventure (usually underground) taking place during a session of a roleplaying game. In other words, a session of raucous laughter, shenanigans, unintended explosions, and battles to the death.

Imagine if you will, a room filled with Doritos, soda, ice cream, dice, pencils, and what you could easily mistake as beaten up old textbooks. Beware! For you have entered the domain of geekiest geekdom, the fabled halls of Dungeons and Dragons. No, we’re not worshipping the devil. Rather, we’re engaging in elaborate make believe interlaced with copious amounts of arithmetic. Roleplaying is an arena of imaginary swords and sorcery: a place where any action, no matter how mundane, can brutally fail due to an arbitrary dice roll. In this realm every player commands a character with an alarming wealth of fictional powers and equipment, and often an unhealthy obsession with obtaining more of both. Adventure lies just around the corner, and by corner I mean an old sorcerer with a “Help Wanted” sign standing on a podium in the town square.

D&DkickstarterDespite this obvious plot hook, most of the players can be found elsewhere. Throughout town they ramble about with ill intentions. The rogue can be found attempting to steal from the local guard tower in broad daylight, while the bard can be seen trying desperately to convince a shop owner to sell their +3 Vorpal Longsword for only a single gold piece. The fighter you ask? Losing an ale drinking contest (and consequently all of his belongings) to what he believes is a talking monkey. Please place stress on the world “believes” in that sentence. The wizard sits nearby, practicing his magic by turning his cup into a toad, then blasting it to pieces with a magic missile. The old sorcerer remains on his podium, his voice hoarse from calling out to the players as they pass him by unheeded.

In a game populated by such miscreants and fools, one wonders how anyone ever explores a dungeon, except maybe by accident. You’ll find my position at the head of a candy wrapper encrusted table, bespectacled and struggling to catch the attention of the other attendees. I’m the Dungeon Master, the one that plays all the monsters and bad guys. I’m also the one responsible for getting the other players to head down into each week’s dungeon. In other words, I’m the one responsible for herding cats. Lucky me?

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

catscringefringeSo…(you might ask)…how exactly DOES one herd cats? Well, the answer is simple. You don’t. You let them herd themselves. Cats, while uncooperative, will always find a way to get into trouble if left unattended. Any cat owner can attest to this with ample ruined furniture to serve as evidence. Roleplayers are no different. The trick is in finding ways to turn that inevitable trouble, whatever it may be, into your dungeon. By doing this you’ve ensured that the players are already interested in the events that transpire. Ensure that each decision they make means something, no matter how idiotic it may seem at the time. It’s ultimately a simple trick to transform the paths your players stumble upon into the paths they should follow to begin with. Despite appearances, an unorganized comedy of errors can turn into a memorable and engaging dungeon.

Being a Dungeon Master means mastering the art of herding without herding. You may be tempted to drop lightning from the sky or roadblock the other player’s activities with obstinate non-player characters. This is both a waste of time, and un-fun, for everyone (including you). The most useful skill a Dungeon Master can have is a knack for improvisation. Using the activities described before as starting points, there are a host of adventures to be had. The old sorcerer will find someone else, or maybe the players will find him of their own accord.


Maybe the rogue is caught while trying to steal from the guard tower. The others might find it useful to free their fellow. If not, then the rogue at least has to try and find a way out on her own. The local guard just happen to be thralls under the command of a vampiric lord: a lord that plans on dining on the rogue that very evening. Maybe the bard succeeds in buying the +3 Vorpal D&DoutmavarinblogspotLongsword, only to learn that it is cursed. The sword might begin slowly stealing the bard’s soul, a process that will take a month to complete, dooming the bard to an eternity in the Abyss. The curse’s cure? Destroying its creator, a mad warlock with an army of demons at his side. Maybe the fighter’s drinking contest is in truth with a capricious god of trickery, who offers to return the fighter’s belongings as long as he agrees to complete a favor. That favor happens to be stealing the enchanted wand of a familiar old sorcerer in the town square. Lastly, maybe the sadistic wizard’s spell backfires, transforming the cup not into a toad, but a rampaging man-eating monster that terrorizes the town. After the beast disappears into the nearby woods, the townsfolk demand the wizard and any associates (i.e. the other players) hunt it down or pay for the damages in blood.

I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons for a long time, and if I’ve learned anything it is this: the best adventures, and thus the best stories, are never told by one person and are never planned in advance. Years down the line, when you reminisce about the fun gaming sessions you’ve had with your friends, it won’t be the tightly scripted cave full of traps and trolls you’ve meticulously created that everyone remembers. It will be the time your cleric accidentally awakened a slumbering god of darkness and hate by reciting passages from an evil spell book with the phrase “Do not utter these words aloud..” written clearly on the cover.

So the next time you pick up your dusty tomes and dice, go into the game without a specific dungeon in mind. Let your imagination and the imagination of your fellow players illuminate the path. In this uncharted territory, every mistake and each asinine distraction is an opportunity for adventure. Relax, have fun, and let go of the reins. They weren’t helping anyway.

Oh, and don’t forget to feed your cats. It might save your furniture.

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