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How a love of tabletop D&D helps video game designers tell their stories

Within any video game development company, at least of a certain size, there is usually to be found a subset, a clique, who congregate around a very particular form of entertainment.

They are Dungeons & Dragons players or more generically, fantasy desktop adventure game players. Almost always, at their center, will be a core of organizers who have been playing these games since childhood.

Talking to professional video game designers who play D&D (I use the term, very loosely, to cover all fantasy desktop games), it becomes clear that they are united in a belief that creating these worlds, exploring the possibilities of imagination at the crossroads of rules and mechanics, has helped them in their work.

For anyone who hasn't played a desktop adventure, its format may seem arcane. Whatever the actual game being played, there is usually a set of rules that are interpreted by the Dungeon Master or Game Master (a kind of participating referee and organizer) in order to accommodate the group's particular skill level and preferences. Players create and inhabit characters and set off on imaginary quests. Individuals vary wildly in how far they inhabit these characters. The throwing of dice adds an element of uncertainty and risk to the proceedings.

In short, it is an almost perfect busman's holiday for game designers, for people who are paid to create fantasy worlds, whose job it is to understand the fundamentals of fun.

"When you hear guys talk about starting out in game design, they maybe recall programming games for their Amiga when they were seven years old," said Nels Anderson, game designer at Campo Santo. "But for me, my first experience was playing D&D which is pure, straight up game design.

"You're operating within the specific context of the rules of the game to build content, challenges, encounters, that are interesting, engaging, distinct, unbroken, original. You're building a game but just for people in the room with you. Moving from designing table-top games to designing video games felt pretty natural for me."

D&D is essentially group improvisational storytelling. The players are as much game designers as the dungeon master. This means that people who play D&D are unusually literate in how stories work and how they interact with games.


Kim Pittman started playing D&D at the age of six, inviting herself along to her older brother's games. She has maintained the hobby and organizes a regular game with her workmates at Toys For Bob, best known for its work on the Skylanders games.

"My brother was really big into what they called home brew," she said. "They would just make up their own adventures. He was the DM. I was the filler role, because I would take on whatever role nobody else wanted to for the party. The first game I played, I was the healer, because nobody wanted to be the healer that game. My brother would make my characters for me. He'd make them all wildly overpowered, just because he knew that I didn't really know how to play very well."

By the time she was in her teens, she was DMing and inviting her own friends over to play. She found converts at college. She also realized that her lifetime of "designing" games on the fly, as a DM, might come in useful.

"The realization came that I was preparing, every single Saturday for most of my life, to do what ended up being my career," Pittman said. "It's really awesome. I think I am quick on my feet about solutions to problems or design twists. Well, I DM'd games for years, of course I can think on my feet fast.

"It's amazing, actually, how useful that is as a game designer. You get halfway through a design and you realize it's not going to work at all. You have to improvise and figure out a way to keep from losing that mechanic, or keep from losing all the artwork that went into it."

One of the reasons game designers love D&D so much is its sense of freedom. The games unfold entirely from the imaginations of their participants. There are no programming constraints or level design documents. It's free-form. It's a way to play and to see others playing, unfettered.

Keith Nemitz is a veteran game designer who is best known for his satirical RPGs like Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. He started playing D&D as a teenager, back in the 1970s.

"The biggest effect it has had on me is its power to use games to tell stories," he said. "If you play Monopoly or Scrabble, there's no story. But D&D changes all that. You play as a character. It's not just a series of rooms that you visit but a living world that you create. It has helped me to understand how sincere you need to be, as a game designer, if you want to express a sense of realism in the worlds you are creating."

He also believes that D&D's design by the late Gary Gygax has given him enormous respect for balancing game rules with a sense of freedom. "You make a connection with the player by making a set of rules that are fair and that make sense, but you also want to have flexibility in there for the player."

He said that game designers who are "better storytellers" have an edge, which is something that can be honed in DMing situations where scenarios unfold that grip the attention of the group, to a greater or lesser degree.

Francis Fernandez is programmer on lunar racing game Astro Engineer: Moon Rover, which is more about recreating a physical world than a fantasy adventure. But as a keen D&Der, he enjoys the intimate interplay of watching real people play games in their wild diversity.

"Some players like to play within the confines of established characters, while others want to experiment," he said. "I find it interesting to see how different people approach the playing of games. Obviously, tabletop games are not the same as electronic games but they can teach each other useful lessons, and I often find myself thinking about how ideas that work in one might be used or modified in the other, especially for the particular types of players that you encounter."

Pitman believes that designers with a background playing D&D are more likely to try new things. "We have focus testers come in and play our games early on. We watch players do things you never expected them to do. I find that designers who have played Dungeons & Dragons will have more of the mindset of, 'we should let them do that' than thinking that they are breaking the game."

Video games based on D&D, and those that borrow heavily from its mythology and mechanics, are so numerous that they defy listing. But the magic of D&D is in the playing with real people and with their attendant unpredictability. Watching people play games, it turns out, is a good way to learn how to make games.

Anderson has found success with games like Mark of the Ninja. He believes that although there are many ways to learn about game design, desktop adventures is one of the most useful and fun.

"Anyone who wants to pursue game design in any capacity will be very well served by spending time with table top games and with proper meaty board games," he said. "They are game design laid bare. With video games you have the 'sturm und drang' of high end graphics and crazy sound and production values which can obfuscate or shore up otherwise shoddy design. But with a board game you can't do that. Either the game is good or it's not. Ultimately, design wise you can't hide anything that's not good and that is tremendously important for anyone who wants to do game design in any capacity."

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