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Fractal subsystems

This is one of the most difficult mind whacks for a new DM. It’s easy to get the impression that it’s a big branching flowchart of scenes, “if the players say yes, the NPC is gonna say this, if the players say no, the NPC is gonna say that instead…”

Don’t do that.

That’s the major piece of advice I always make sure to give new DMs. I keep coming back to that.

It’s important. So let me try to explain it another way.

There are some subsystems that many DMs understand are subsystems that can have different outcomes, like a fight for example. It’s mostly symbolic mechanics, it’s these characters, these monsters, start making those moves and rolling those dice and we’ll see who ends up alive.

There are game styles, like the one most popular in the 4E community, and it’s also common in Fate games, where you set up a scene (like a fight or a “skill challenge”), then play that scene to find out what happens (instead of having an outcome in mind), and then set up a new scene based on what happened in the previous scenes.

If you’re with me so far, great. You’ve understood that part of the game isn’t “telling” a story, instead what happens just fall out of the systems the players are engaging with.

Now here’s the mindblow. The entire game is a system of system of systems. It’s systems all the way.

This is why I recommend maps as one of the best tools for the DM. Not event flow charts, throw those out the window right now, but maps of locations (or relationship connections, in a social game). You should even have maps of maps, like a wilderness map where one or more dungeons are placed, and each dungeon has a map of its own. That’s such a great tool to force your brain into being able to handle situations where the PCs are like “We go here and we do this”.

The maps don’t have to be elaborate if they’re for your home game and not for publication. Like, write the word “attic” in a circle and the word “hallway” in another circle and draw a line between those circles, and you’ve made a map.

When you first start out as a DM, you won’t have many systems. A map should be the first one, and a system for resolving fights, and a system for casting spells. Any D&D clone + module should give you that. The tier-patching process will grow your toolbox over time. “Oh, snap, we really need a subsystem for handling starvation!”, all right, then you find one or make one. This can get kinda idiosyncratic and group-specific, like we now have systems for finding moss.

Now, I’m not saying “make it a board game”. I love diegetic mechanics, where you interact with the game through saying what your character does or says. “I poke at the trash heap a bit with my sword, trying to break it apart and spread it out over the floor, see if there’s anything in it.” Or when talking to an innkeep “Have you heard any rumors lately?”

Here’s one of the best parts: Since you have a human running the game, the subsystems don’t have to fit perfectly like Lego pieces or video game mechanics or even a board game. Natural language and common sense are great tools both for resolving overlapping systems and for patching over gaps in between the systems.

This mishmash of connected and glued-on subsystems is also why the whole “combat as war” thing (from the OSR) can work. When your brain is wired that “each scene is a subsystem, either a combat or a skill challenge, and those scenes fit together in The Story”, combat becomes like a martial arts tournament almost. But when you’ve internalized that these subsystems are all interconnected and overlapping and fit together fractally, you can mix and match stuff wildly. Situations doesn’t devolve into “roll initiative”, it can be “OK, we try to smoke them out” or whatever. Tripwires and glue in the dungeon.

I’m watching a YouTube series called “Critical Role Demystified” where a DM named Mike walks through episodes of Critical Role’s first campaign, recaps them, and gives advice.

He is charming, he has a good cadence, he is good at reading from his script in a way that sounds more like natural narration than reading a vista, he is good at picking up subtle stuff like how the players feel about things, he is tuned-in to the fan community and things the fans have found in those episodes (and he agrees with some and disagrees with some), he is good at not overly speculating.

I love it.

His show is great and even though I only first heard of it the other day, I’m almost caught up already (I’m on episode 15 of 17 so far, and I’m planning to continue watching this as he releases new episodes every other week).


Some of his notes and advice makes me reminisce over what I call the 90s school of DMing, a la Robin’s Laws or some of the more linear Pathfinder paths. That style was all about the ide that the DM should be sculpting the story, scripting NPC comments and events, pre-seeding dramatic moments, teleporting villains away etc.

I’m at the “downtime” episode now (episode 15):

He says:

When you’re running an adventure, you can carefully design your adventures, craft elaborate maps, or you can steal content from published materials. Or you can wing it.

When playing an NPC, you can make lots of notes in advance, or base them directly on an existing character from another piece of media, or practice until you have a full complete understanding of that NPC’s goals, flaws, and mannerisms. Or you can wing it.

Even if your players throw a huge curveball your way and completely change the trajectory of your entire campaign, you can usually steer the session to a good stopping point and then take a little break and make some new plans. Or you can wing it.

But when you ask your players what they want to do with their downtime, most of the time you’re just gonna have to wing it. You have to decide in the moment what you think makes the most sense, how long you think something will take, how much money it will cost, and how many rolls the players need to make in order to make it happen.

Trajectory. Steer. A jedi craves not these things.

Mike ultimately gets this. He continues by saying that, while Xanathar’s Guide to Everything wasn’t out when this episode of Critical Role was made, it has subsystems for things like crafting magic items and so on, that can help you a lot (I love that chapter in XGE), but that there’s a danger to just presenting the players with a list of systems or symbolic actions to select from, that there’s value to instead leave it open to having the systems (if applicable) be triggered from the diegetic layer.

I really love playing with new people. They do wild stuff in combat like climbing bookshelves or hiding under water breathing from reeds. The more you know the mechanics, the more your mind can get trapped into “selecting from these mechanics is all I can do”. Centering the interface of the game in diegetic terms is a way to try to counter that mechanization freeze, to bring it back into the “no, what do you really want to do?” wide open canvas.

But, those diegetics are the interface. They are the burning needle in the air between the players and the DM. It’s a mistake as a DM to think that “narrative” is the framework your prep should be crafted in. Don’t make your game an “if this, then that” flowchart. Instead, make maps and encounter tables and then let your players loose in that world. Let them take the wheel.