Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 04, 2014
The DM as game designer

Game design is a big subject on this blog. But my interest in it is not just that of a player of games. I am also a dungeon master (DM) of a Dungeons & Dragons pen & paper role-playing campaign. And part of that job is game design. Now some people will say that D&D has been designed by TSR / WotC and the DM is just some kind of referee running the game. But in reality Wizards of the Coast only sell some sort of tool kit, not a complete game. Even if you play all rules as written and only use published adventures, the DM needs to fill huge gaps either by preparation or improvisation. And thinking about game design helps to make the overall experience a better one for both the players and the DM.

One important question in that respect is one we discussed earlier this week with regards to Bioshock Infinite: In how far is the story of the adventure you are playing pre-determined? That is an open question, and the response depends very much on the group of people you are playing with. On the one hand, especially when using published adventures, there is a "main story" to each adventure, and sometimes even the whole campaign. On the other hand, theoretically at least, the players have unlimited freedom to follow the story or not. Some DMs go as far as not preparing any story at all, but just creating an open "sandbox" world for the players to interact with.

My philosophy is that the optimum is somewhere in the middle. I don't want to railroad my players into following a pre-determined story with a pre-determined outcome. But I don't want to just leave them in the middle of some generic fantasy kingdom in which nothing happens without them either. So the general idea for my adventures is that there is a story of which I know how it *would* develop if the players would not interact with it at all. For example (and now that I think of it it could actually be a rather cool adventure), I could have the players arriving in a castle in the middle of the plot of Hamlet. But the players would be able to interact with the various NPCs and change the course of the story in one way or another. Only if they behaved as passive observers would the story play out exactly as written by Shakespeare.

Related to that is another game design question about the balance between combat encounters and other activities. By nature, combat encounters are relatively straightforward from a story point of view. Once combat begins, the usual outcome is the players killing the monsters, and looting them. If you string many of such encounters together in a large dungeon, you can get a hack'n'slash adventure in which the story quickly becomes secondary. So I am always trying to not have more than two or three combat encounters in series, creating other events which necessitate more talking and less fighting, with more opportunities for the story to develop in different directions.

The big advantage and opportunity of tabletop role-playing compared to computer games is that the DM can add elements to the story on the fly. For example in this week's session of my D&D campaign I had prepared a clue leading to an alchemist in the alchemist's guild. But my players were reluctant to just enter that guild and confront the alchemist head on. So they devised a plan to find somebody in the town who they could trust and ask him about the guild. They proposed going to the temple of their god and ask the local high priest. The high priest told them that they could easily meet the guildmaster of the alchemist guild the next day at a banquet. Both the high priest and the guildmaster were invented by me on the spot, in response to the ideas of the players. The principle is to always say yes to the ideas of your players, and thus let them introduce new elements into your story. That way you can design a game that responds directly to the expressed wishes of your players.

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