D&D TEACHES GAME DESIGN? VOL #1
WHAT DOES DESIGNING A D&D BOARD GAME ADVENTURE TEACH YOU ABOUT VIDEO GAME DESIGN? VOL #1
Dungeons & Dragons, the classic co-operative, action-adventure, roleplaying board game, or D&D for short. Originally designed in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, now published by Wizards of the Coats. It was initially derived from miniature wargames, and has seen world-wide commercial success since, with an estimated played-base of over 13 million gamers.
The game will usually host around 1-6 (ideally 5) individual players and the game is ran by what is called a Games Master (GM), or Dungeon Master (DM). A DM is someone who guides the players through the adventure, creates the world, writes and also runs the game, as both a referee and a narrator. Playing and 'DM'ing' are two different experiences, playing D&D - as a gamer - is to play as part of a team, inside of the adventure and the rule structure of the game, where DM'ing is to design the encounters, to build the world and provide a narrative in which a game may play-out, so as to create the best, most satisfying experience for the players.
As someone who has both enjoyed playing the game for shy of two years and DM'ing for a little over a year and half, its safe to say I'm a big fan of the game! As a DM, I've been running a homemade D&D campaign (long term games spanning across multiple sessions, week to week) and I've ran almost 30+ different one-shots (short term games spanning a few hours in a single event) for various groups, sometimes strangers, while attending one of the most prominent wargaming clubs (LWG) in London (UK) - at the time. I put everything into my games; from spending long hours planning fun encounters, to designing interesting combat and ultimately running my games, all so that the players who join me at the table, have the best possible experience I can give them.
DM'ing D&D allows me to stretch my creative muscles, to design from pure imagination, without limits; as an old theatre student (oh la la), as a Fantasy fan, as a movie buff and as a gamer, this is an absolute dream! I've learned SO much from playing and especially running D&D games, I've found that it's helped me to develop in my own career too, as a Designer working in the Video Game Industry. Which brings us to the topic of this blog post, as I will try to show you dear reader, what designing a D&D adventure can teach you about designing for video games.
Know Your Game
First of all, a most obvious and highly important part about being a good DM is to have a good grasp of the rules for the game you're running. For DMs it's to be at the very least familiar with the rules, so that the game can be ran inside of that framework effectively and this is entirely the case when working as a game designer too, as you have to know the core pillars of the game you're designing for.
For example, as a Level Designer, I have to be very familiar with the pre-existing game mechanics I'm designing spaces for, so that I know what the player can do inside of the levels I create. This is the case when trying to master any great game; first, one must start with learning the rules, playing by the rules as best you can. I'm summoning icon Reginald Fils-Aimé energy here, because ultimately, to design for it, you have to play it!
Then, once you've understood these rules, why they are implemented and how they work, you can start to bend, break and invent your own to advance the play. Children at a young age when socializing well with other children learn this very same principle, to take part you have to play by the rules. It's only as adults that we start to develop the skill mastery and the intelligence to understand that we can begin to bend those rules.
After DM'ing my campaign for a long while, I started to create my own homebrew rules that I would run alongside the game, or change rules that I felt were unsuitable for the games I was trying to run. I re-invented the Inspiration system, I created a Mortal Wounds chart for when players were grievously wounded and most importantly maximized the use of the Exhaustion system; awarding players with a point of exhaustion each time their characters were reduced to 0hp, so that players were mechanically disadvantaged each time they were incapacitated, making encounters more deadly when providing further consequence to something that otherwise had very little.
And to refer back to video game design, if I find that some mechanics are not working as intended inside of my level, or we need extra functionality, we can request that from the programming team, we can make these changes ourselves etc, so long as there is a need for the feature which improves on the play experience.
Goals & Opportunities
Next up! So most D&D games are a co-operative experience, where essentially a team of players must work together to progress a story, through overcoming a series of challenges. Some part of the goal for many, is to escape the real world and be immersed inside of whichever setting the game is based. Though others might also enjoy to gamify it somewhat, treating it like any other game they have to 'beat', other players try to find comedy in the experience for their enjoyment. Like any game, it can be played and enjoyed in various ways.
So to understand that, the game can be enjoyed in various ways by all types of different people, with each playthrough of the game providing almost a limitless number of approaches to every scenario, we reach our second point. To design for D&D and for video games, you have to understand your players, what they want, what they expect and what they enjoy.
As D&D is a co-operative (co-op) game, players must expect to work together - as a team. Which is why when players are first confronted with the game, they are expected to create or choose a character, deciding their race but most importantly choosing a class. There are various classes to choose from, but this helps players define their role inside of the team, typically choosing an archetype from which their character is first established.
Which is why it is important that the DM running the game accommodates for each class and a diversity of players, providing bespoke and unique challenges that offer unique opportunities for each to tackle in meaningful ways. For example, is your D&D group trying to get inside a private party? Can the high charisma bard persuade the guard to get inside? Can the stealthy rogue sneak-in quietly without notice? Can the pious Cleric appeal to the better nature of the guests to get an invite? Or will the Barbarian just gate crash the party? Give and allow every player the chance to find their fun, and do what you can to help facilitate that as a DM.
When designing a video game space, you're doing the same thing! You should be thinking, what can your players do here and what you can do to help facilitate the needs or role of that player. For example, Overwatch (2015)'s map design allows for all types of traversal options, from running, climbing, flying, that grant the long list of heroes, unique opportunities to get an edge over their opponents, from vantage points to corridor chokes etc.
As a level designer, it's my job to consider where in the level players can better utilize their skill and knowledge of the game mechanics to their added benefit. As a DM, I've also found it enriches the player's experience when they are rewarded for playing their role to their individual benefit and especially to the benefit of the team so as to encourage this behaviour.
This may not be wholly realistic; that for good behaviour or where challenged there is always a reward, but it has become an expectation inside of the games community so much so that it has been codified into game design; that there is usually some kind of resource reward attached to any such action. That if a player spends one resource to best a challenge, that there is some kind of greater resource granted to them as reward. We will cover rewards in further detail, later in this blog.
However on the contrary, it can be a part of the fun in playing D&D, where players are disadvantaged of their volition or through their own actions. For example, D&D characters sheets include a section under 'Background' called a 'Character Flaw'. Players are asked to write down a flaw (or roll for one) that then typically becomes part of their roleplay, providing examples such as:
'When I get scared, I get mad and I can't control myself. Sometimes I even hurt people, which makes me sad.'
'I harbor dark, bloodthirsty thoughts that my isolation and meditation failed to quell.'
'I’d rather eat my armor than admit when I’m wrong.'
'The monstrous enemy we faced in battle still leaves me quivering with fear.'
Many players and DMs alike overlook this section of character creation. However I often see that this addition allows players to find more roleplaying opportunities and so when DM'ing, I try to present challenges where possible (and where relevant to the narrative) that relate to my players flaws. This adds to the drama and fosters the connection between the player and the game. Though it may disadvantage some players in some sense, most feel special enough that their backstory, their role and more importantly their choices are still being considered, that they still have an impact as it provides meaning to the decisions they made in the creation of that character.
Being an adventure game, there is naturally a progressive journey that the players go through - what's it called? You know - a story! As DMs, we can craft the story ourselves, weaving between each narrative thread, delivering plot points etc. everything to keep the players engaged inside of the fantastical world you have written. And though the story of the game isn't always a game designers focus, it is certainly important to the process of level design inside of game development, for the reasons of pacing, carrying story momentum, everything to establish the right balance between intense moment to moment gameplay and 'downtime'.
For example, in Naughty Dog's The Last of Us (2013), in the 'Lakeside Resort' mission. The player is brought back to square one in a sense, after playing as the main character Joel for 2/3 of the game, the player takes control of Ellie for the first time. The mechanics are largely the same (with a few minor additions), but the environment has changed, from a green sprawling city, to a desolate, snowy, wintery wilderness. This is fitting and entirely intentional, as thematically the setting and tone is bleak, cold. Throughout human ancestry, Winter is regarded as the hardest month of the year, and so in the video game this is represented with hardship, challenge and emotional trauma; for both the player and their game avatar, Ellie. The game takes away nearly all of the resources the player has collected up to that point, leaving the player feeling desperate, so that there is a thread between what the player experiences through gameplay and how the character feels in the story. I could go on. But this example demonstrates how the narrative of the game can have its impact on the level and that each must consider the other.
My advice to DMs to draw this comparison with their own adventures, especially if running a long term campaign. At what point of the story do you want your players to experience a particular emotion? How can you communicate that effectively? Ask yourselves these questions to best pair 'gameplay' with storytelling. You can make your game characters personable and relatable through dialogue if you expect your players to engage with them positively, those non-playable characters (NPCs) might help the players in some capacity through gameplay, so they might form an attachment to that character, which makes it all the more devastating when you kill them later haha!
When running my D&D adventures, I've found it important to show my players direction but not push them too forcefully. It's their adventure and they can play the game however they like. To present to them a list of different choices to make and provide ample opportunities for them to change their minds if they so choose. This is because one of the most enriching things about playing games, is having freedom of choice. This is dubbed, player agency. With D&D being a game communicated through language, I try to imply what the player can interact with, when writing the descriptions for my game environments, choosing what points of the environment I'd like to draw focus to, providing players with a number of items they can then interact with. This can include learning something new, finding a different route forward or finding a new tool etc.
For example, here is a set of notes from my D&D Eldritch Horror Adventure, where players must escape or hunt an otherworldly creature, while traversing through a castle estate:
[Introduction] "The centrepiece of this wood-panelled dining room, a chandelier hanging over a carved mahogany table, surrounded by eight high-backed chairs. Tall windows and framed paintings dot the far wall opposite."
[Point of Interest A] "Bodies slump in each seat, all heads buried into their food stacked plates. Flies circling. The back of their heads are exposed - with deep, open wounds. Inside their hollow caved-in skulls, nothing - their brains devoured."
[Point of Interest B] "A crystal, gas lit chandelier hangs above a table covered with resplendent silverware and crystal-ware polished to a dazzling shine. Mounted above the marble fireplace is a mahogany-framed painting of an alpine vale."
[Point of Interest C] "Red silk drapes cover the windows, and a curious tapestry depicting hunting dogs and horse-mounted aristocrats chasing after a wolf, hangs from an iron rod bolted to the south wall."
Here I would start with an introduction, then upon inspection or questioning, I could possibly provide players with an optional three different pieces of information. Each open up new opportunities if explored. It is entirely down to the players which they choose (if any) and which they would like to interact with (if any).
The first, starts as an introduction to the space. When a player enters any space for the first time, it is when they are at their most attentive. Enough information should be delivered here, so that the player can make a decision as to which piece of information they would like to investigate first, or in which direction they would like to travel. This would be called a decision point or referred to in wayfinding as a 'node'. However, it is important in these moments not to overwhelm players with too much information too quickly, whether verbally in D&D or visually in video games. This is because we as designers should be aware of what is called 'cognitive load', the limited amount of working memory that one can access at a given time. Good DM's like good orators will choose to enunciate or hover over particularly important words, (see those words underlined and how they relate to the points of interest that follow) so as to stress a meaning; in this case, choice of information. Which makes selective wordsmithing here all the more important in D&D.
Point of Interest A, shows the player the victims of the creature they are hunting, which the DM can reveal to the players if they approach the table. These bodies can be interacted with and if followed with a players enquiry, using their Investigation, the player might gain insight into the creature's method of attack and thus give them an advantage in their hunt, or help them to avoid it.
D&D is communicated through dialogue, so you have to be careful with your language, as well as how and where you draw emphasis using your voice. The same can be said with video game design too; focal points, leading lines, spatial composition, shape language and the all the rest. In both mediums, designers have to be clear (yet subtle), while intelligent in their communication with the player.
They follow and create for themselves rules, rules that help communicate a message to the human mind through our senses. Any good game design will express consistency throughout the experience, that can be easily understood by players, whether that's the shape language and arrangement of shapes inside of a supposedly hostile space, to telegraph to the player that they might soon be in danger, or communicating possible interactivity with certain objects using a distinguishable sound and brightly coloured outline, so as to communicate to the player that they can indeed interact with said object. See below how the Walking Dead (2012) shows the player which objects are interactive with its User Interface (UI).
Delineation away from the 'critical path' (the main path plotted for the player to follow) is okay too. In fact, I'd encourage it where possible; so long as players feel their time isn't wasted, that exploring elsewhere provides them with something meaningful to work with. This rewards players for engaging with the medium; rewarding those for having a keen eye for detail and for spending time to explore the level you have designed for them. I learned this especially when designing the estate in the example above. With more than enough rooms for me to work with, in my notes, I was able to create a rich adventure where each space was unique to the other, while fully expecting that during the playthrough of the game, some of these rooms might not even be explored by my players. However when players do explore, they learn more about their environment, they discover new items to use, new opportunities and new characters etc, this encourages the player to continue with this good behaviour; they feel immersed and engaged.
In level design for video games, we can provide the player with direct or subtle visual ques that implies direction, or design a space composed to show intention, communicating to the player what they can do inside of the space. For example, in Ghosts of Tshushima (2020), when traversing the vast wilderness, when close to a particular side quest, the player will spot a bird circling the player character, that if followed takes them to a new piece of gear. Or when near a secret shrine, the player will spot a fox, that will show them visually how to traverse the space to find the shrine. Subtle ways that provide players with direction, an objective, or an action, without any verbal communication necessary. This encourages players to continue exploring the world; enticing players with loot that ultimately rewards good behaviour, as players are engaging with the setting, the level and with the challenges the game designers have laid out for them.
Like any game, there needs to be ample motivation for the player to want to continue. D&D lauds a huge unique advantage over most games, where players and DMs can create bespoke characters and fantastical locations to life; the creation of which is limited only by their imagination. DMs can use those character backstories their players give them, to create unique motivations for players wanting to continue through an engaging story.
DMs and game developers otherwise provide a measurable resource as a motivation for players to continue through different challenges. There are all kinds of resource that you can use to motivate your players. In the Division from Ubisoft, after each mission complete screen, loot is provided to the player, providing better gear and equipment, in this case the resource is Gear.
The same goes for D&D, where players at the end of a hard, grueling dungeon for example, are often rewarded with magical items or cool new equipment for them to try out. Another resource includes experience, for example levelling up player characters; this is also a well understood game presupposition seen throughout many games. However, what I learned as a both a DM and as a video game designer, is that the trick is to drip feed these resources to your players at the right times, where players must spend or invest a resource they own, whether through spell slots, skill, in-game currency, planning etc. so that the rewards feel adequately earned. This investment becomes an exchange. There are a number of resources used across games, from ammunition in Call of Duty (2003), health in Mortal Kombat (1992), mana in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), rage in God of War (2018) etc., the list is endless.
But the most important resource of all, is time. When players take part in your game, they are investing their precious time and they are looking to gain something from it in exchange so we must be perceptive to this as DMs and as game designers. This can be in exchange for anything, but ideally it has to be something at the very least meaningful.
In the D&D phenomenon 'Critical Role', in a combat scenario, the DM Matthew Mercer always allows the player who slays the last enemy the opportunity to describe their heroic action, the famous line 'How do you want to do this?' This is a reward, that big release after a hard fought encounter, giving that player who was successful in doing so, the satisfaction to choose how they would like to best the big bad boss for example. The investment of their health, their spell slots, sometimes hours of their time, all finished off by giving the player the spotlight, to stand in front of their friends and express something cool!
When designing for D&D and for video games, it is important to track and plan where these resource will be dropped across time. How many encounters will take place across (x) amount of time? At what point in the session will players expect to be rewarded with a new tool? When running a D&D campaign for example, only when my high level players have shown a mastery of their features, abilities or gear, when they have demonstrated their understanding of what they have, do I reward them with something wholly new to try-out, adding a new tool to the sandbox for them to play with and potentially break the adventure.
The same can be said for God of War (2018), where the designers at Sony Santa Monica mapped out precisely, the precise point in the game where players will unlock a new weapon or ability. Starting at the beginning of the game, the player gains access to new abilities regularly, but over time, the spacing between such rewards grows in distance from one to the next, leaving the player the right time to not only yearn for the next tool but the time to master the tools they have already unlocked. This is referred to as pacing.
If players are given few, simple tools to use over an extended period of time, if the use of those tools is limited, the experience feels boring as players express a longing for new content. On the other hand, if players are rewarded too often with new tools or too quickly, and this rate continues over time - then it becomes overwhelming. Often in those scenarios, players overlook said new items or abilities. Timing - is just as important here as the delivery. In God of War, the design team at Sony Santa Monica created an overreaching level to level flow chart, which established a formula across the game, where every 90-120 minutes players are rewarded with a new item. In the level following this reward, the player must use this item to best new unique challenges related to said item, which expresses its important to the player, allowing them to reach new areas of the game they would have overwise not been able to explore. Timing and delivery here in this example, was executed exceptionally well, because they had a proven strategy in their game design.
Official D&D sourcebooks have a number of different dungeons which explore the same design aforementioned principle; through the completion of particular milestones, players reach a new level, or discover a new magic item significant to the story etc. These are just a few examples shown here in this blog however I aim to provide you with more examples in the future. That's all for Volume #1, please return next time for more examples on how and what designing D&D adventures teaches you about video game design.