How I Ran A Multi-DM Campaign (And How You Can Too)

I totally stole this image from Hit On Crit. Click to check out their site.

I ended up editing this article for length. I didn’t want to go on too specifically about “what happened in my campaign.” However, if you want to know more, please leave questions in the comments, and I’ll be happy to expound.

We just finished a very short summer campaign. The group I DM for usually only meets twice a month in the library basement (even in public buildings, the D&D players are relegated to the basement), but over the summer, we decided to try and pack an entire mini campaign into 12 once-a-week sessions. Even though the story took a weird hop (that I’m not sure anyone noticed), I tried a few new things that all worked out very well. The biggest experiment was a multi-DM model where everyone¬†took a turn as DM, but since some of the other things we did fed into that, I’ll recap those other things first. (If you want the shorter version of the article, skip to “And here is the part about the Multi DM Campaign.”)

Group World Creation

I wanted to use some of the world discovery mechanics that DMG 42 used in one of his campaigns, so I set the campaign on a “water world” with a bunch of islands. The players each had to design an island that their character had some sort of connection to, and sketch it on sheet of gridded poster board that we used as a world map. (Unfortunately, due to time constraints, those world discovery mechanics didn’t come into play too much.)

Interparty Relationships

This idea was stolen directly from Sly Flourish (and I guess Fiasco, by proxy). I made a list of possible relationships for party characters, and had everyone roll on the table. Since I’ve never played Fiasco, I kind of messed up the whole relationships thing, but it actually worked out for the best. The mess up: I had each player roll a relationship for the person on their right AND left, which resulted in each player having TWO relationships with each player they were sitting next to. For example, since I rolled a relationship for the character of the player to my left (Delphai) and he also rolled one for me, he was my “Shipmate” and “Protege.” The result was players coming up with elaborate backstories to explain both relationships.

Rob Donoghue’s NPC Relationship Matrix

NPC Relationships

I also wanted to try Rob Donoghue’s really cool NPC relationships matrix to quickly infuse some NPCs into the world. Each player writes an NPC name on an index card, rolls on the chart to figure out the character’s relationship to the NPC, and puts the card in the middle of the table. Repeat. This results in 12 NPCs (with 6 players involved). Then, each player takes two NPC names out of the pool (that they didn’t put in), and rolls a relationship for them as well. This creates “once removed” connections for the players, with an NPC in the middle. Again, the players had to work these connections into their backstory.

The two interparty relationship exercises was good because no player was crafting their backstory in a vaccuum. Everyone had to brainstorm with at least one other person to make everything fit. I guess you could call it “group backstory creation.” (It was also good because it forced every player to come up with something of a backstory. Even the players who wouldn’t normally do so.)

And here is the part about the Multi DM Campaign

There are two reasons I wanted to try a multi-DM campaign. One of the reasons was selfish – I wanted to play. The group I usually play in hasn’t been getting together recently, and I was itching to create a character. I figured that, by sharing the DM duties, I would get the chance to scratch that itch.

The second reason was less selfish. As a matter of fact, I did it for you,¬†dear reader. You see, if the DM always stays the DM, and the players are always players, you don’t get a lot of new DMs in the hobby. However, if each player takes the DM reigns at some point, even just for a few sessions, they get a new perspective and hopefully realize that DMing probably isn’t as hard or scary as they thought. They might even like it. In short, when more people try DMing, you get more DMs in the hobby. Yes, you. Well, all of us, really.

Now, I’d heard of a two DM campaign, but not more than that. Could it work? Would it be possible to have a good storyline with a whole group of DMs? I did an article a while back as a thought experiment about a multi DM campaign rewards system, and Living campaigns are a sort of multi DM campaign, but what I was trying was new – to me, at least.

Here’s how it worked

First, I needed a hook, but one that a bunch of disparate stories could hang on. In the loose storyline that I created, the PCs needed to find pieces of a dragon statue that were scattered across the world. Once the statue was back together, they could engage in the big finale to the campaign. The order in which they retrieved the pieces was not important. Each player was tasked with DMing two sessions where the party retrieved a piece of the statue. That was about the extent of my planning, beyond an idea as to what the finale would entail when the statue was back together.

Of course, I didn’t need to use a physical object that had to be pieced together. The PCs could have been looking for information or trying to get a group of people together. In short, this is the generalized formula that I used: going on a series of small quests to gain access to a grand finale.

This formula created one central hook, but each player had a good deal of freedom when running their part of the campaign. There were no real constraints on the DM as to what the story would be, besides time (2 sessions) and objective (have to find a piece of the puzzle at some point). Heck, finding the statue piece could be merely incidental to the adventure!

The results were pretty stunning. Each player came to the table with a really fun adventure, and worked tons of character development and world development into the quests. It worked so well that I actually scrapped the originally planned finale, and instead let the players finish an unrelated story line that kept popping up. It was a better finale than mine.

Here’s why it worked

Each player’s strongest connection to the game world was their character, so each player used their own character’s rich backstory as a jumping off point to the adventure they ran. (Not at my suggestion, mind you.) They used the island location they designed and NPCs connected to their character. Here’s the really awesome part of that – because of the way we created interparty and NPC relationships at the beginning of the campaign, each character’s backstory (and therefore, each adventure) related to at least two other players. So now, not only did the DM have a stake in what’s going on, but several of the other players did as well. Their backstory was directly tied to the adventure. And neither I nor the Player/DM had to do any extra thinking to put those players “in the spotlight” beyond those initial campaign relationships.

Could this work in a long term campaign? I think so, but I may be biased. I believe the particular gimmick I used (find the artifact pieces!) might not hold the players’ attention long term; instead, each DM could individually curate a story line. Where the stories intersected, the DM baton would get handed off. For example, if you use Dave Chalker’s 5×5 method, each player could take one of the 5 step “vertical” storylines, and when the PCs decide to move “laterally” to another point in another 5 step vertical storyline, the DM reigns get passed. Or, as another gimmick, you could have each player state a goal for their character, and assign another player to DM sessions that help the character achieve that goal. My character had a goal that appeared rather spontaneously one session (kill these 5 pirate captains!), but I’m convinced it could work just as well if it was intentional.

On the other hand, the artifact pieces could be used exactly I used them, creating a “seed” to something as-yet-undetermined. What do I mean by that? When I started the campaign, I had a concrete plan in mind for the campaign finale that involved the dragon statue, but as we passed the DM screen around, there was another unrelated story that developed rather strongly all on its own. I had no idea (nor did the players, I think) that this would happen, and certainly had no idea ahead of time what that story would be. But it ended up being so cool that I wanted to see how it ended. As a result, I let the conclusion of that story arc become the campaign’s finale rather than the one I had planned. If you’re the type of person to leap before you look, and can let go of something to see what happens, simply seeding a campaign with a starting objective and then letting it go could reap really unexpected rewards (personal quests could work this way, too).

In short, I had a great time with the mini campaign this summer. Not only did I get to play (yay!), and not only did I get to conduct a few character/world creation experiments, but I also got to see some of my players turn into DMs, and create a really cool story with them as a result. Overall, a rousing success.

How about you? Have you ever tried a more-than-two-DMs campaign? How did it go?
Or, if you had been planning my campaign, what would you have done differently?

7 thoughts on “How I Ran A Multi-DM Campaign (And How You Can Too)

  1. shortymonster

    I’ve only ever done co GMing with two people, but we did manage to keep it going for years. http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=27

    For everyone to get involved I think takes a lot of effort and keeping that at a sustained level would be the biggest challenge. I’m going to be running a silly/awesome game in a couple of weeks called Something Went Wrong, and although it looks to be fun, it’s a short term kind of fun, very different to what you managed to pull off…

    Reply
  2. William McCormick

    We’ve been running a rotating DM game for 2 years now with 4th Ed and we’ve just made level 24. It’s been going really well. We’ve framed the game in kind of a three act style, with a shifting objective over time. Everyone has to wait months between running adventures so we really get everyone’s A game when they step behind the screen. We’ve invaded the land of dreams, defended gith settlements in the Elemental Chaos, and even attended a wedding. Right now we’re on track to finish the game around 2014, hopefully just in time to start a D&DNext rotating game.

    Reply
    1. Benoit Post author

      That sounds really cool! Could you explain more what you mean by “Three Act?” Sounds like each DM takes a big chunk of time before handing it off to the next. That’s probably what we would have done if the campaign was for more than the summer.

      Reply
      1. William McCormick

        What we did was sit down at the beginning of the game and broke it up. So Heroic Tier we Spent gathering Star Charts to find a hidden Artifact. We didn’t know what it looked like or where it was only that it allowed travel through Time and Planes. That was out Act 1, and we closed it off at level 10. We then started a second act where we traveled through the planes and ran into a set of Dark Doubles…again we didn’t specify who they were or what they were after just generally that they were our opposition and we would close off Paragon dealing with them. Now we’ve hit level 24 and we’ve all ascended to God-Hood and we’re dealing with a force that was manipulating us and our Doubles through Paragon. We didn’t even sketch this out ahead of time, we just knew we wanted our characters to be playing for big stakes. This just grew out of it.

        In terms of time off, each person runs an adventure, and at the end of it the party gains a level. Our first night we powered through 10 hours and my entire adventure. Others have taken 5 or 6 weeks to make our way through. Myself and 2 others do most of the DMing, but switching between us gives a good break in order to recharge and come at stuff fresh.

        Reply
  3. Dave Matney

    We decided to borrow this idea, last night, and revamp our current game (which was growing stale). We opted to keep our current characters, but we only kept a single one of our original ties (two characters were vets of the same war, and it was the only one that any of us really liked).

    Because of the NPC relations, we have learned that one of the characters (a dwarf) is the brother to the father of another character (human), giving a weird dichotomy there. Also, “Veterans of the same war” was rolled a scarily large amount of times, so we know our world had a huge war. Two of our characters are sluts (lovers with more than one person — one has slept with another character’s mother), and two other characters were created from scratch from their relationships alone (a barbarian tyrant, replacing another character; and a necromancer, for the former full-time GM).

    We’re incredibly excited about this.

    Reply
    1. Benoit Post author

      Very cool! Yeah, we actually rolled our relationships *before* character creation so we didn’t have any problems with weird racial stuff. It did require some coordination at points. For example, it turned out my character was the aunt of another player’s, so we had to agree on a race. But the more talking and coordination between players like that, the better and more connected the party (and players) will be. I’d love to hear how this works out for you guys.

      Reply

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