Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Every Aspiring Game Designer should DM

All video game RPGs have their roots in Dungeons and Dragons. In some games it shows more strongly than others, in everything from the main stats (STR, DEX, CON...) to even names of specific spells or powers. A friend of mine got me into tabletop a few years ago, and after joining a 3.5e D&D game over Skype with the rest of the SA crew a few months ago, I've become thoroughly hooked.

Two things led to the idea of this post: a D&D exercise in the game design class that I TAed for earlier this summer and my first foray into Dungeon Mastering. For the uninitiated, tabletop roleplaying involves people sitting around a table (or Skype call) with dice, character sheets, and occasionally dungeon grids and miniatures. One person, the Dungeon or Game Master (DM/GM) runs the session. He or she is in charge of putting forth the story, "You receive a letter from courier. It is addressed to you in a flowing hand, but there is no mark of the sender save for a sigil on the seal you've never seen before." She controls the enemies in encounters and enforces the rules of the system (be it D&D or other), or doesn't, as the case may be.

After a brief lesson on balancing, the Game Design professor directed the class to four character sheets for 4e 9th level characters as well as a variety of monsters they might run into. He then challenged them to create two monsters of their own and design an encounter for the four characters to run into. The next class, we playtested some of them. As most of the class had no D&D experience and none of them had any with 4e, there were many balancing problems. A few had monsters with reasonable stats except that they were very difficult to hit, while another group made interesting monsters that weren't hard-hitting enough to pose a challenge to the players. My favorite, however, was the group battling a cyclops that had 1000 HP, keeping in mind that, at this level, characters are doing 14-15 damage per hit on good strike.

I was thinking of that lesson as I approached my first experience DMing. While I love our Skype shenanigans, I longed to have face-to-face conversation and missed the feel of real dice in my hands. So I recruited my brother and housemates to join me in an adventure. I wrote a simple campaign in a system that was effectively D&D-lite to teach them how to play. Despite a few balancing problems of my own, the campaign went well and we're looking for another chance to play. They started as strangers in the dungeon of an unfamiliar mansion and worked their way up to the lord's chambers, where they confronted him in the midst of a blood magic ritual to revive his dead wife. Battling off shadow creatures and crippling fear, one player rolled a critical hit after dipping his arrow in what they assumed was holy water. I described in detail as the arrow zipped through the air, piercing the lord's head and filling him with a brilliant light as he screamed and collapsed. The day was saved.

Sounds a lot like a video game, right? Between these two experiences, I've come to the conclusion that budding game designers should give DMing a shot. While there are aspects of it that don't come up in video games, such as managing rambunctious friends, I still think it's a valuable experience.
  1. Story design: The DM is responsible for crafting a story that the players can bring to life. You determine how to throw a disparate set of characters together and what to throw at them to make them grow. Our Skype campaign started with us defending a town and has progressed through our investigation to battling angels and racing to preserve the very fabric of space itself.
  2. Dungeon design: Most D&D campaigns involve a bit of dungeon crawling, and that requires putting together a floorplan, as well as a series of enemies, traps, and even puzzles. 
  3. Following the rules: D&D has a set of rules that are put forth in the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide. Other books expand the setting and enrich the experience. This gives you an idea of the scale of creating a game and how to work within the restrictions of the medium.
  1. Breaking the rules: Sometimes a rule doesn't serve the experience you're trying to create. In our Skype game, one of us had never roleplayed before and three of us had never done D&D. To that end, our DM removed the level penalty for death. (I greatly appreciate this, playing as a sorceror.) We still want to avoid death, of course, and resurrection still costs 5000 gp, but it's much less discouraging this way, which has been helpful to a beginner's campaign.
  2. Thinking outside of the box: PCs do some wacky things. I've used my raven familiar to untie ropes and give us another view on something. We've had players attempt to scale a giant worm to rescue a team member caught in its maw. The DM has to call for the proper checks and decide how well a plan will go off.
  3. Balancing: As in the example from class above, balancing is a vital but tricky part of game design. Tabletop systems try to help out by using things like challenge ratings, but the dice gods are fickle and some classes aren't built to take on certain threats. For that matter, ask why different dice types are used for different attacks. What's the difference between rolling 2d6 and 1d4+4?
  4. Managing player expectations: This is generally built into the system, but still an important point. Players can't generally see the stats of the enemies that they fight, but they'll bring some assumptions to the table: a vampire will be harmed by sunlight, a zombie will have bad reflexes, a dragon won't be likely to fail a Will save, and so on. See how these expectations are built into the system and why they're important.

At the end of the day, DMing and game design both endeavor to deliver an immersive experience to the player. The extensive rules involved in any tabletop system, though particularly D&D, will prepare game designers for the sort of thinking that programming a game requires. Designing a campaign has direct parallels in designing video games of many genres. Dealing with player characters will give you instant feedback and insight into how PCs tackle obstacles and view challenge.

If you've never played tabletop, head to your local game/hobby store and ask - many will run weekly or monthly game nights or host local groups. Look for people playing online. See if any of your friends play or would be interested. If fantasy isn't your cup of tea, give a system like Savage Worlds a try, which is designed to be extensible to any setting you can think of. Get off the computer, grab some dice, and pull up a chair.

It's time for adventure.

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