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Similarities Between a Dungeon Master and Game Designer

Dungeon Master

Dungeon Master vs Game Designer

Now that I have experience both designing board games and being a Dungeon Master, I recognize many similarities between the two. This is perhaps not surprising given that both focus on coming up with creative ways to entertain a company. In this blog post I explain which similarities I see and what you can learn from them as a starting game designer.

Also, if you want to become a good Dungeon Master, this blog post is going to help you create an unforgettable experience for your players.

What is the goal?

Whether it's stealing the dragon's treasure, protecting the town's inhabitants from bandits, or seeking out the king's three heirs, with D&D it is very important that there is a purpose. You don't want to wander around endlessly without any idea of what you're doing. Often the players have their own motivation as to why they participate in the story, but much of the motivation also arises during the game itself. The goals change, new ones are added and sometimes goals will expire.

As a DM, you want to make sure that the players have a sense of accomplishment by giving them visible progression towards that goal. For example, if you want to repair your family sword, the progression could be to learn about the location of a blacksmith who can do this for you.

Also in card and board games there is always a clear goal that the players are working towards. This goal is usually directly linked to the win condition of the game. You have to sell as many apples as possible and every sale earns you points. Throughout the game you see that you get more and more apple trees and sell your apples faster and faster. You see a visible progression and you have a sense of accomplishment. When making your own game, you have to think about this carefully. How are you going to reward the players and give them this satisfied feeling?

Significant choices versus luck

One of the things you have to watch out for as a Dungeon Master is that you don't try to railroad the players too much. In Dungeons & Dragons, the DM makes the world, but the players color the events by interacting with the world. The actions of the players must be significant. They must matter. A DM who does too much railroading already has the final destination in mind and regardless of how the players react you will always end up at that final destination.

The core here is in the choice for the player. As a player you want to exert influence, otherwise you might as well read a book or watch a movie. This is not only the case with D&D, but also with all board games. The presence of a choice for the players is what differentiates a game from a story. It is what makes a game 'playful'. You can't really call it a game without significant choices.

Where at D&D you can remove the impact of choices because the outcome is already fixed, you can see this happen in board games due to an excessive impact of luck. Something that we have also been playing around with. If you make a game where luck is dominant, this can prevent you as a player from making significant choices. The outcome of the game is mainly determined by the luck element. It certainly feels like a game, but after playing it briefly you notice that something is missing for the players. It doesn't matter at all what the players do and if they win or lose it is impossible for them to link it to their own actions.

Do you want to make a good game? Then make sure that the players can exert enough influence to influence the outcome of the game. Luck can certainly make a game accessible, but too much luck takes away the impact of choices.


What do the players like?

You can still make such a good game, if people don't like to play it is worth nothing. Both as a DM and when you design board games yourself, it is perhaps the most important to think from the player's point of view. What atmosphere do you want your players to experience? Is this addition really fun for the players or am I just doing this to enjoy myself?

Suppose the D&D company loses a backpack because it fell off a cliff. As a DM you have thought that the players will not find those backpacks, but the players do everything they can to get down to the cliff to find the backpack again. It may be better to let go of the fact that the players have lost the backpack and give them what they are looking for. Unless it's really necessary for your story, you should reward your players as much as possible for the choices they make.

In a board game, the fastest way to find out the player experience is to playtest a lot. For example, you make a board game about itinerant adventurers and you find it important to be as realistic as possible. You have thought that the players have to keep track of how much water and food they have used and have left. But when testing, you notice that this does not make the game more fun. Don't be afraid to get off! If you stick to your own principles and want to make it as realistic a game as possible, but because of that your players don't like the game or like it less, then don't do this.

For this reason, it is extra important to get feedback as quickly and as much as possible. Playtest therefore you play frequently and ask for honest feedback. Which elements did the players like and which elements did not?

Creating the world

The core task of a Dungeon Master is to create a world. A world in which you determine the laws and rules yourself. This can be as identical as different to the world we live in on all levels. These laws and regulations must be consistent to be credible. As a DM, for example, you will first have to consider which breeds exist in your world. Are there elves, orcs, dwarfs and tieflings? And how do they interact with each other? How big are cities if these exist at all? Are there seasons and what do they look like?

As a DM you have complete freedom to create this world. Let your creativity run free. You just need to make sure your world is consistent with your laws and regulations. This ensures that the world is predictable, no matter how strange the basis may be. For example, if you have come up with a world where it never rains, think about where the water will come from. Does this come from the ground, from certain water sources or is it done by magic? This ensures that the players can still interact with the world because they know what to expect.

If you are making a card or board game yourself, you are also creating your own world. This world also consists of its own laws and rules and will differ in some way from the world as we know it. If the players are to believe in your world, the world must consistently comply with the laws and regulations as the players know it. All game components and the game rules contribute to the establishment of these laws and rules.

Take for example Wingspan. In this game you play as a bird collector. You can add new birds to your collection by 'luring' (buying) them by feeding them. Then you place the bird in one of the three landscapes; forest, meadow or water. This feels logical and clear to the players. However, if you now say that you would not need food to attract meadow birds, for example, then this does not fit with what the players expect from the world.

Where does the similarity end?

However, there are also differences. The main difference between being a Dungeon Master and designing games is in improvisation. As a playmaker you make a one-time game and the rules and events are fixed. Of course, the choices of the players can influence certain events or there is a random aspect that can cause the outcome to be different each time, but nothing new is invented.

As a DM you always have to be ready for changes in the world. The party arrives at a fork, are they going left or right? No, they choose to go straight through the woods. Maybe the players are fighting a strong monster, but you overestimated what the players can handle. You can then adjust the game in the middle of the fight. Maybe you wanted to unleash two more enemies, but decide not to. Perhaps the monster does not intend to kill the players, but captures them. This is a big difference from normal board games.


Dungeon Master are for inspiration

Imagine facing the option to become a Dungeon Master? Should you consider this so that you become a better game designer? Of course it is of primary importance that you like Dungeon & Dragons a game. But the experience of being a game leader can certainly help you further as a game designer. You gain experience in inventing a world, learn how players react to your invented game elements and you learn to think from the player's perspective. All very relevant if you are making your own game.

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