Learning Game Design Through Dungeons and Dragons (Part 1)

By January 22, 2015Blogs, Game Design, TeamBlog

Hi everyone!

This will be a first entry in a series of (we hope!) weekly forays into the minds of the developers here at ManaVoid Entertainment. Although this is our first public appearance as game developers, we’ve been playing/making/studying games for many many years and have pretty strong opinions on several subjects related to video games as artistic objects, but also as an industry.

We are always bickering amongst each other in the studio, but we would love to know what YOU think. So, if you have a few minutes every Thursday, come check out this segment and feel free to chat about the subject in our Offical Forums!

On that note, here goes!

Learning Game Design Through Dungeons and Dragons (Part 1)

My first experience with game design happened at 13 years old, when I received the core rule book set for D&D 3rd Edition. At that age I had already read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and I was well into a few of the Harry Potter series, but I had never really “played” anything in a fantasy setting, let alone created my own game. I was psyched about playing it with friends though so I stayed up late two nights in a row and read through The Player’s Handbook and The Dungeon Master’s Guide. I remember thinking that it kind of sucked that I wasn’t going to be able to be the hero in my story. Since I had the books I was going to be the Dungeon Master (DM), the one who creates and manages the game world, while my friends would be the players. It would only be after a few sessions that a friend would suggest taking over as DM so I could play a character and that I would refuse him that privilege because I had grown too attached to the world I had created.

Without realizing it, I learned many things as a DM. So much so, that I would recommend that any aspiring game designer tries his/her hand at DMing a D&D campaign at least once in their lifetime. There’s a lot to cover so I will share what I’ve learned in parts during the next few weeks/months, using examples of past campaigns I’ve run. Here is the first part.

1) Teaching Players How Your Game Works

D&D isn’t an overly complicated game, but it does have an incredible amount of content which can make it daunting for new players approaching the game. This is why it is so important for the DM to summarize what’s important for each player’s specific character and have him learn the rest through play. The truth of it is that most of your players will not read a 300 page rulebook to be able to play a pen and paper game, nor will most players read through every tutorial text bubble in order to start playing your video game. The best way to teach a player the rules of a game is by having him play it!

Seems logical right? Yet somewhere in history, developers assumed that players needed to be told everything. Like we weren’t smart enough to try four buttons on a controller to figure out which one to use…

Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword / All Rights Reserved

2) Giving Players Interesting Choices Without Ever Saying a Word

Once you understand that it won’t be any fun for anyone if you tell your players what to do all the time, you can start using strategies for them to learn what they have to do without you actually telling them!  #Designing

The particular beauty of D&D is that there are no buttons. The player is free to do whatever he wants in the realm of his current possibilities, which means design needs to be that much more elegant for the player to be doing what you want him to without him noticing it. Several strategies can be used, but for today I’ll just give an example of what I did in a recent 4th edition campaign.

I had my five players wake up on a bed of pine needles in jail cells with rusted metal bars. They were all wearing simple clothes, no equipment. I explained that the room they were in had no windows, only a closed wooden door and a few torches on the walls for light. There was one empty cell in the corner of the room and far away passed the door they could hear screams of pain. At this point I stopped explaining and only said: “What do you do?” The players looked at their sheets and saw that they had ‘Skills’ and ‘Powers’ they could use, much like a console player would look at his controller and see he had buttons to press.

  • “Aha! I’ll use an unarmed attack to see if I can kick these rusty bars open, said the Fighter.”
  • “Aha! I’ll use my Thievery to try and pick the lock with two pine needles, said the Rogue.”
  • “Aha! I’ll help the Fighter in my adjacent cell by striking the bars at the same time…”

I didn’t force any answer on the players, they simply looked at the tools they had and ran with it! There were indeed many ways to escape the frail rusty bars: pure strength, thievery, spells, etc. All of them had different difficulties and chances of success, but they were all valid options. The important thing was this: the player now knew, that at any given moment, he could look down at his sheet and use a skill or a spell, all he had to do was ‘press that button’. Teaching the player mechanics is much more efficient when it comes with a sense of discovery and achievement. He will remember that mechanic throughout the entire game because it now comes with a memory of his success.

Source : Playwithlearning.com / All Rights Reserved

3) Thinking Ahead and Giving the Player Goals

In my previous example, the first goal was pretty clear without anyone saying so: “We need to get out of these jail cells”. I used fear of pain and captivity as a negative motivator for action. One of the options could’ve been to simply stay in the jail cells and see what happens after a while, but as human beings there are certain things that drive us and this is a tool that designers must use in order to give goals without forcing them upon the players.

However, in D&D and most role playing games, goals can change quickly and therefore it’s always good to think ahead to what the next motivator will be. As the Fighter began kicking his bars with his cell-mate, the far away screams stopped abruptly, as if what was causing the screams had heard the banging. Here is where I told the players that we would now need to act in rounds, according to their ‘Initiative’ checks, in order to keep time for the following events to proceed. The players were excited. The goal was now to get out as soon as possible in order to prepare for combat. Also, I had just introduced a new ‘Initiative’ mechanic in a memorable way.

In this campaign, I had basically designed from top to bottom how I would teach every important mechanic in the game without it ever breaking from the game narrative. They would eventually fight the hobgoblin jailor. They would get back their equipment from his torture chamber, sneak through a goblin hideout while fighting, finding loot and gaining experience. Then they stumbled upon a letter telling them that they were prisoners to be sent to a specific slaver in a specific city. By the end of this session the players would know how to use: skills, feats, powers, initiative, combat, experience and loot. I also made sure there was a narrative hook as a goal for the following session by giving them a name and a place to follow so they could get revenge.

How does this all tie in to video game design?

Whether it is a board, a pen and paper or a video game, as a designer you are creating an experience for individuals. All of these gamers are different in the way they play and you will not always find the same archetypes from one campaign to the next. Learning how different players approach situations, how they react to certain triggers (emotional, narrative, reward-based…) and what they love and hate about the game you are presenting will absolutely make you a better designer. In this regard Dungeons and Dragons is a great design test, because you are acting and reacting live, managing the current game state, anticipating all possible actions/outcomes and thinking of what you will want the players to do next! Some of your ideas will work great and some are going to be terribly bad, but the constant design improvisation skills you will acquire will help you distinguish patterns of what works and what doesn’t and in the end those patterns will be transferable to any type of game.

That’s all I’ve got time to write for this week, but stay tuned for more next week!

Thank you for reading and please leave comments below!


– Christopher Chancey

Zelda – Navi Hey Listen by GENZOART / DeviantArt / All Rights Reserved

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