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Note: this post ended up a bit longer than most. I apologize in advance for the lengthy introduction. If you are short on time or despise superhero origin stories and their ilk, I’d suggest you skip to the first bolded section for the actual lessons learned.
Rewind about two decades. My two greatest concerns at the time were finding friends who own an N64 and how the Utah Jazz would fare against Jordan’s Bulls in the NBA finals. I spent most of recess shooting hoops, to relative success—being short didn’t matter as much when nearly everyone is less than half the height of the rim. Whenever there was a break in the action, I paid close attention to a small group of kids sitting in a circle. They were all older than me, and strict playground politics prevented me from approaching. So instead I watched. One kid in the circle would tell some kind of story, and the other kids listened and occasionally offered their own input. Everyone wielded pens and paper—notebook sheets filled with stats, skills, and HP bars.
From that point on, I’d caught a contagion in my mind that would never leave. With no firm knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons or other roleplaying systems, I tested out my own homebrew RPGs with my younger siblings. Later, a middle school friend named Tommy showed me his 3rd edition D&D books. I admired the leather, brass, and gemstone design of the cover, and the fantasy illustrations within. I designed a character—a highly charismatic, badass half-elf bard (everything I wanted to be, but wasn’t)—and we played a couple short one-off sessions, but never started a true campaign. Board games like Hero Quest and Talengarde enthralled me, but in the end they only made me long for a true D&D campaign with an experienced Dungeon Master.
In high school and college I let my desire to play D&D fall dormant. I had nerdy friends. I had story-loving friends. I had gamer friends. But it never seemed like I had the right group of friends for tabletop RPGs. Consequently, I resigned myself to a lifetime without the connections I thought I needed to start a D&D campaign.
Then, several months ago, a Critical Role stream showed up on the front page of Twitch. After watching Matt Mercer and his fellow voice actors play I was hooked once more. I quickly began to binge-watch episodes of the online D&D campaign so I could catch up with the story (with over 90 episodes available on YouTube
I still haven’t quite caught up). Add to that the numerous D&D references in many of the shows my wife and I love—Community, Stranger Things, and Freaks & Geeks, to name a few—and the craving to play returned tenfold. With a sparkly degree in creative writing and a current job as a game designer, I decided the easiest way to play might be to adopt the mantle of DM myself. So I did, after I found a few fabulous friends and a wife who were all willing to play with a first-time DM.
We haven’t played long, but the experience has been wonderful and exhausting, fun and frustrating, and above all: illuminating. It’s obvious that D&D teaches good narrative design principles for game development, but I was surprised by how much I learned about non-narrative game design from D&D in a relatively short time. I want to briefly share some of those insights here.
My first DM session (complete with hastily-prepared DM screen)
1. Don’t be an evil designer.
As we started our first game, one of my players recounted a previous campaign that was ended on the first night. Apparently, the DM ambushed the team of first level players with an entire army of goblins. They were, of course, summarily overrun. Unfortunately some DMs view the player/DM relationship as inherently antagonistic. This is only partially true. The DM might create antagonists to challenge the player, but the end goal for a good DM is for his or her players to have fun and tell a great, collaborative story. Likewise, good video game designers should take care not to view the player/designer relationship as antagonistic or competitive. A correct mindset could be “how can I help the player have fun or become a better player,” whereas a problematic mindset might be “how can I show the player how clever my design decisions are.”
Of course, as is often the case, exceptions to this rule exist. As part of his ongoing informational YouTube series, Matt Colville spent one video discussing funhouse dungeons
. These are dungeons deliberately designed to beguile, vex, and stymie the players through ingenious traps and madcap puzzles. As Colville outlines in the video, a funhouse dungeon disrupts the “evil designer” rule because the players expect
to be beguiled, vexed, stymied, and even killed. That is part of the fun. Some video games, such as the Dark Souls series, rely on a nearly antagonistic relationship with their playerbase. But even funhouse dungeons and brutally tough games should always keep their players’ enjoyment in mind.
2. Balance tension and release.
For a long time, my understanding of D&D largely revolved around combat encounters and skill checks. I saw the story opportunities, but the plot seemed to exist only to prop up the dice rolls and tactical (or not-so-tactical) swashbuckling. Then I watched an episode of Critical Role
after the party defeated a dragon, and my mindset from the previous two decades suddenly reversed. DM Matt Mercer and the players spent around four hours collecting loot and recovering in the bard Scanlan’s magical mansion. I saw how D&D, along with other roleplaying games, could serve as a vehicle for storytelling and character building. After a very tense battle—who wouldn’t be tense after defeating an ancient dragon—the characters very naturally decided to recuperate and blow off some steam.
I think watching Critical Role or DM-ing a campaign can help a game designer get a feel for the balance between tension and release. As a designer, look for chances to both ramp up the tension as well as opportunities for your players to relax. Cutscenes are a common choice for emotional release, but I think minigames, house building options, or even crafting loot can work just as well or even better.
3. Give players the information they need.
As a DM you quickly (very quickly) learn that your players will often either look past information you intended to be important or hone in on details you never intended to be important. I’ve learned that it’s good to include a few “failsafes” in the campaign to give your players multiple chances to catch an essential plot detail. As a DM or game designer it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking your players will act the way you would. You might think the solution is obvious, but there’s a decent chance that’s not the case. Try and give your players multiple chances to see or hear the information they need.
When we brought an early demo of Alkanaur (our current video game project) to an exhibition, I thought most people would win the little 3-on-3 tactical battle handily. I was wrong. Nearly everyone who played lost to the 3 A.I. opponents in our demo. I failed to realize how my own personal experiences, including a wealth of familiarity from playing similar tactics games, were not part of some Jungian collective consciousness that all gamers share. Of course you’ll have reasons to obscure some pieces of information in your game. But whenever you make a conscious decision to hide information from the player, make sure to pause and ask yourself “why?” Can’t find a good reason? Perhaps you should consider including that info in the game.
4. Not all bands are Rush.
I’m shamelessly stealing this from Matt Colville’s excellent video on D&D player types
—I highly suggest watching his video to get the best understanding of the reference. But essentially, Mr. Colville meant that it’s not easy to find a group of people who will all enjoy telling a collaborative story together in the exact same way—just like it’s not easy to find a group of musicians (Rush) who will all enjoy playing the same type of music for decades. If you find a group of players like that—awesome! But DMs shouldn’t feel like a campaign’s shortcomings fall solely on their shoulders.
On the other hand, Matt points out in his video that it’s not the players fault either—and this was the part of the video that really clicked for me as a game designer. Players love games for a wide variety of reasons. At the game exhibition I mentioned earlier, we had a few young children try our Alkanaur demo. I was tempted to explain to them that they might not “get” the game, but it turns out they probably had more fun than any of our other playtesters—even if that fun simply came from moving around the game’s battlefield and giggling as the enemies gave chase. As a game designer, you don’t need to convert all gamers to your definition of fun. Realize that your game might not appeal to everyone, and also recognize that players might find new ways to enjoy your game, and that’s okay.
I look forward to more adventures run by Matt Mercer on Critical Role, as well as more tips from Matt Colville and the other wonderful D&D content creators on YouTube. And of course I’m especially excited to continue my own campaign as a DM. If you, like me, are a game designer that was always curious about D&D but never got the chance to experience it, give it a try! Watch a D&D live stream or a YouTube video. Reach out to a local game store about opportunities to play, or start your own game like me. I’ll wager that you’ll learn a lot about your craft and have fun doing it.