Cattle Herding vs. the Art of Letting Go

Let me make one thing clear:

four lambs on ground

PLAYERS ARE NOT SHEEP

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about cattle herding, and why I hate it.

Imagine you’re a shepherd, or a farmer, or you own a flock of sheep just for the hell of it. Every day, you do what you have to do to get the sheep to return to their stables. Day in and day out, you pull the sheep from their daily traipse in the meadow to their safe home back at the barn.

Sounds simple enough, but isn’t that boring?

Now imagine this:

You have a variety of tools at your disposal, but so do the sheep. Maybe the sheep don’t want to go back in the barn, and they baaa very menacingly. Maybe the sheep have guns. Maybe they bleat while holding their guns. You could sic the dogs on them to make them go back in the barn, or … you could let them do what they want to do.

Sure, it’s wildly impractical, but wouldn’t it be exciting? What would the sheep do? Where would they go? If given the opportunity, what kind of thrilling nightlife would a flock of sheep lead?

Alright, this metaphor is getting out of hand–not to mention incredibly unrealistic. What kind of farmer would let their sheep own guns? But that is beside the point.

The nitty gritty of my rural tale is this: although a DM’s campaign can be incredibly well thought-out, that doesn’t mean it should always be followed to the letter. Part of the fun of playing with different groups of people is what they bring to the table, literally and figuratively. The DM’s job is not always to guide the player into telling a story step-by-step. Sometimes, a little side detour can be fun, telling, and extremely memorable. Plus, it will make the world seem a lot more colorful and alive if you let the characters go where the wind takes them, instead of always leading them with blinders on.

That being said, this does not mean you should let the horny bards have sex with everything they meet (because they will try to woo those goblins in the dungeon, mark my words). But let them see what’s behind that corner, indulge them in that short conversation with the town merchant. Allowing that mystery and excitement to take you will make the game so much more fun and collaborative, and create a story you never could have come up with alone.

black and white cow on green grass field during sunset

There is a happy medium to be found here that comes mostly from practice and experience. Start by using a rough outline, and allow the players to deviate from it when the moment feels right. Don’t rein them in too tightly, but don’t let go of the reins completely, either. And don’t think your players won’t completely derail the game if given the opportunity, because they will. (DnD lets imaginations fly, and we essentially become children again. Be our parent, not our friend. Otherwise a DnD night will last 4 hours and we’ll have made zero progress in the story. Yes, I am speaking from personal experience.)

Remember that there are multiple solutions to every problem, including the ones you haven’t even thought of yet. Let your players surprise you. You never know what you’ll find!

Until next time, players. Let the good dice roll! ⚀⚁⚂

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