It all started with someone saying they had never played Dungeons and Dragons. It seems weird, working for a video game company that exists because of D&D, but many people didn’t get the opportunity to play growing up. I did. And I had even run games before, though for much less discerning players than a group of people who *make* games for a living.
4 years later, we have had two full campaigns and a short lived run through some Savage Worlds, but here we are, playing D&D again. I have played in some of it, but mostly I have been running games. Not just because it’s the easiest way to make sure we play and everyone is having fun, but more because this is what I find fun. Presenting a situation to players and watching them destroy it in the most beautiful ways.
I believe playing and running D&D games makes you a better game designer.
There are different kinds of DMs (dungeon masters) and different kinds of campaigns, but most of the players I have encountered agree that that whole point is to have fun. I have tried planning out everything meticulously and it rarely works. If I have a country road ambush, and I need the players to ride along a road at a specific time to have something specific happen, but I mention in passing while setting the scene that a monarch butterfly flits by – one of two things will happen – 1. The players will chase off after the butterfly certain that it is important because I mentioned it. Or 2. Turn around and ride the other direction because someone forgot to buy arrows or their cat is on fire back in town.
Over the years leading up to my career in video games I learned a great deal about D&D players. They might as well all be named Murphy. They will absolutely go the wrong way, do the wrong thing, at the absolute worst possible time. The job of the DM though, is to make sure they have fun doing so.
I learned to only vaguely plan what I wanted the session to be. It will always be shorter or longer than I imagine. They will have an easy time with extremely difficult monsters while dying to the fluffy bunnies of cuddles. They will bash down doors that weren’t locked, they will fall down shafts that have ladders, and they will drown in small ponds. They will also roll natural 20s (an automatic success) on unopenable chests, leap 40 foot crevasses, and drown bosses in pools of holy water without ever once touching him.
What makes D&D so much fun? What makes me enjoy running these games so much, despite it taking hours of my limited free time, excessive amounts of money for every book WotC prints, and so much mental preparation? Because I can always say YES to the player.
In video games, we are often limited by our tech or our scope. If the player in a game wants to go off the beaten path and chase down bunnies – they can’t always do that. And if we do let them do that, that takes time and money that could be spent on “more important things”. But in D&D – not only can the player do so, but I can twist the story and plan to make it so it’s important and what was intended ALL ALONG. There’s always an answer. Everything’s always connected even if it wasn’t intended to be that way.
To give a very immediate example – last night I presented my players with a room in a magical dungeon. The dungeon is magical because it creates challenges that are specific to THESE characters. This room was targeting towards our resident sorcerer, who’s day job is creating gaming supplies like cards and dice. The room was a handsomely appointed tavern room (yes, in a magical dungeon, it works because magic) with a single table and two chairs. The player immediately sat in the chair, while his party members stood back and watched, and a ghost appeared in the opposite chair to play him at a card game. As he spoke to the ghost he learned the specifics of this challenge. He had to win three bets against the ghost, before he lost 3. Of course, he lost 3 first. Now, I as the DM, didn’t have a concrete plan beyond – the ghost will attack him if he loses. That was it.
The ghost turns aggressive and attacks my player. Of course, his party members join the fray, but as they are level 1, and the ghost is quite challenging, they didn’t kill it. It however reduced my player to 0 hit points (in D&D this doesn’t mean he is dead yet, just knocked out and dying.) At this point, I could have the ghost start attacking the other players, they did after all attack the ghost. But that’s so… normal. So instead, the ghost reverts to its previous non-aggressive form and vanishes. I didn’t plan that. I thought of it in the moment.
As they revive the player, he once more sits down to play the ghost, who returns and acts as if nothing has happened and is willing to play again. They know they hadn’t beaten the room’s challenge and earned the reward. Only this time, the players change their tactics. They all start cheating like mad. Slight of hands, distractions, perception and insight rolls are flying around as they try to help the player win 3 rounds of poker. Of course, he succeeds this time – it was easy as he had 3 extra cards in his hand.
They successfully overcome the challenge and the ghost leaves, giving them access to a door that rewards them with a magical staff specifically made for the player. I didn’t plan most of it. I had exactly two words written down for this puzzle – “gambling game” and then a second note made later that said “v ghost.”
On the surface it seems like a really weird thing to have in a game. It’s not combat (well, it had combat, but it was solvable without combat.) It allowed them to fail and retry without “reloading” or sacrifice. It was still challenging, but not mindless. And yet, it’s exactly the kind of thing we frequently did in Skylanders (there was just a card game, and at times the players inexplicably had to beat them to proceed.) And mostly, the interactions, rolls, and events were generated on the fly to adjust to the players, their actions, their health and stats, and the general feel of the room.
Video game development is a weird beast. Very rarely does the plan set down at the beginning actually lead to the game at the end. Much like the adage about war, the battle plan never survives the encounter with the enemy. On the 4 Skylanders games I built levels for, never once did the order of levels survive 5 months without being changed. That’s not the first 5 months. That’s every 5 months. 5 months from CRC (the first attempt at a final build) at least one level would be moved forward or back to fix some weird issue with a story point, a mechanic, or a toy production issue. Being able to quickly think on your feet and improvise solutions using nothing but what is already in the game is a very valuable skill.
D&D is a group storytelling experience, in that the DM is taking all the threads of story being told by the players, weaving them together, then weaving them into a larger epic narrative. Many video game designers want to achieve this same goal. I have found these are generally the better designers in the game industry and often make exceptional games. They let the player affect the game, story, and experience, even if that means things break in unexpected and horribly broken ways. D&D makes me a better designer because experience DMing has taught me that saying yes to the player and allowing them to do ridiculous game breaking things often leads to the most interesting stories that get retold for years afterwards. It’s not my epic tale where I force them along a prescribed set of actions (that’s a book) it’s the group of us, working together to create hilarious adventures.
Not to mention that having a regular group of people willing to stumble and bumble through mechanics and puzzles is a really great testing ground for level design. In addition, playing with people from work leads to really amazing friendships and the ability to work really well together even when not in dungeons.