Jeff: I swing my sword at the vampire, yelling with all my might!
DM: Ok, Jeff, your fighter Vignar swings his sword, and connects, doing 1d8 damage.
DM: Anne, we haven’t heard from you for a while: what’s your sorcerer up to?
Anne: Oh, I guess she’s sneaking around to the back of the castle?
DM: Can you say more about how she’s going about that?
Anne: Well, I guess she’s going to just walk – actually, no, she’s going to fly up to the roof and sneak over that way. What do I see when I get up there?
DM: I guess you would find that mostly it’s just tiled roof, but… there’s also an astronomical viewing platform up there, with a door down into the castle. Ben, what are you doing while Anne is getting up to the roof and Jeff is fighting the vampire in the crypt?
Ben: I want to try and talk my way in through the front door.
DM: There’s an elderly servant in a black coat and tails when you knock. “Helloooo?” he intones.
DM: Well, what do you say?
Ben: I, uhhh, “I’m here from the International Toothbrush Corporation, may I interest you in some of our fine toothbrushes?”
If you’ve played a tabletop roleplaying game before, this kind of back and forth might be familiar to you. If you haven’t, it’s perhaps arcane, verging on inscrutable, like the writing of a bad fantasy novel wrung through the niceties of a cocktail party conversation.
‘Tabletop roleplaying games’ are one of my great, strange passions. If that term is meaningless for you, you might recognize the grandfather of the genre: Dungeons and Dragons. Here’s the object association that goes with that, most likely: weird dice, complicated math, stacks of dog-eared rulebooks, and gaggles of nerds. Having played the game since before high school, I can confirm that the stereotype is mostly true. But there’s more to the genre than just sword and sorcery and pen and paper. There are games that let you explore the near-future vicissitudes of advanced technocapitalism, or experience the terror of dealing with nameless horrors from the abyss, or pretend to be space explorers in a distant, utopian future. There are games that require hundreds of dice, and there are games that require none. There is even a game system that aims to realistically simulate medieval life, stripping out the wizards and dragons and replacing it with a 90% chance of being a peasant and a lifespan under 30 years. The common thread across the genre is collaborative storytelling: in each case, you’ll see a set of rules that gives players a common ground on which to construct imagined worlds and narratives.
The role that I usually play for these games is that of the “game master”; I set up the scenarios and worlds that other players get to explore. It’s useful to think of it as somewhere between a narrator, MC, and referee. In the last year, I’ve tried to really “level up” my skills as a game-master: I’ve probably played more in the last twelve month period than I have in any other twelve month period since I was 14, gently strong-arming various friends into giving various games a try and convincing the more advanced of them to run the games themselves. Partly this initiative has been because it’s a hell of a lot of fun to play. Beyond this, though, I think that this year spent playing a lot of games has also helped me become a better, more thoughtful designer. It’s made me more creative, better at engaging others, and a more capable systems thinker.
The creativity boost seems, on its face, pretty obvious: “you’re inventing a whole fantasy world! Of course that’s creative!”
The real key here, though, is that it’s creativity with constraint: consistency in these games is really important, for two reasons.
First, consistency is needed in order to create worlds that are believable – if you’re following every flight of fancy that comes into your mind, you might wind up with a hodgepodge like something out of a Lewis Carroll story. When you build stories and worlds that have narrative elements that “fit” together, on the other hand, people can start to immerse deeply.
Second, because the storytelling is happening collaboratively, you create a pool of shared descriptions, identifiers, and references – keeping the social and narrative ‘physics’ of the world consistent lets players make smart decisions with a certain degree of confidence.
As a result of this drive for internal consistency, I find that I have to push more and more to keep players interested in worlds that seem both believable and stunning, startling, and new. This isn’t so different from the kinds of constraints we face when we’re working in complex organizations or across systems: path dependencies and other kinds of social and infrastructural baggage force us to strike a constant balance between so-called “blue sky” thinking and mere status quo repetition. Needless to say, this conundrum is a lot more fun when there are gnomes involved!
If you’ve ever been in a discussion that’s really expertly facilitated (whether for co-design, research or simply stakeholder engagement), you probably have a sense of the level of finesse and art required by this particular skill set. If you’ve been in a really terribly facilitated discussion, that goes doubly.
Running a game of Dungeons and Dragons is ultimately not so different from facilitating a meeting or group discussion.
In both cases, you’ve got to set the terms of engagement for the participants. In the game, the most basic piece of this is the rules, that everyone should be roughly familiar with, and agree to play within. But beyond that, you’ve got myriad house rules, casual agreements, and world-specific constructs that folks need to be aware of. In design facilitation, similar level-setting is crucial: what are the ground rules for participation, the guardrails for what’s in and out of bounds, and what should participants expect for the time spent together?
Establishing a clear context for collective engagement isn’t enough, though. You’ve got to read the table, and let the table read you.
In the first case, it’s important to constantly be assessing and managing the folks who you’re game-mastering or facilitating. This can mean seeing if they’re having fun or not, and adjusting accordingly (in a design context, ‘fun’ might stand in for engagement, how seriously they’re taking the activity, whether or not they’re scrolling through email, etc.). It can also mean evaluating whether or not one player/participant is dominating, or if another is withdrawn entirely from the conversation.
“Let the table read you” is a little less clear, but just as important: in no case do you want to actively railroad your participants unless absolutely necessary. In a roleplaying game, this means giving them few choices or telling them what to do, either in a narrative sense, or in terms of their behaviour as players. In a facilitating sense, this might be prescribing the focus too narrowly, or ‘laying down the law’. Instead, providing subtle hints can help guide participants to better outcomes while maintaining a sense of equanimity. There are two important caveats here, though. First, sometimes you do need to lay down the law, when things go utterly off the rails (in both games and design, I can think of situations where participants take things in unworkable directions, or make other people uncomfortable with their behaviour). Second, you need to be careful that these ‘subtle hints’ don’t prescribe ideas while giving the illusion of participations; after all, facilitation must be at least in part about drawing out new voices and not just getting them to repeat your ideas back to you.
It should be clear by now that when you’re running a roleplaying game, you’re building a world for your players. Another way to think about this world is as a system of smaller systems: there’s a system for how swords work, and a system for magic, and a system for how the merchants in the town work, and these systems ladder up into a larger, mostly-balanced system of narrative and mechanistic triggers and reactions that your players get to poke and prod.
When you first start learning how to world-build for roleplaying games, most of what you read will recommend one of two approaches. The first approach is to build from the inside out: pick a character, or a location, or even a single artifact, and define some details. What is the character named? Who are the main patrons of that inn? What is a defining characteristic of that artifact? Then you build out from there. Why is the character named that? If the inn is in a village, what’s the village like? Who owned the artifact in the past? Ultimately, you spiral outwards, creating a world iteratively as your players explore it. This perhaps maps to a approach that leads with lived experience and builds connections outwards to larger structures from there, using ethnography, co-design, and other participatory methods.
The second approach is outside, in: start at the highest structures, then work in. What are the cosmos like? What are the broad biomes of the planet? What major factions dominate the world? Then, you selectively add detail where it needs to be added in order for the game to work, shuttling back and forth between filling in these higher-level constructions and adding the minute detail that brings the story to life. Here, we might think about approaches to systems thinking and change that emphasize inter-organizational relationships, flows of energy, capital, and ideas, or how socio-cognitive structures of norms and behaviour pattern the world.
In both cases, you’re making connections between objects, flows, or experiences at different scales and knitting them together into something cohesive and immersive. World-building for roleplaying games forces you to think exhaustively and creatively about the context you’re creating (and in a sense exploring). Playing games with a table of smart, creative humans means that they’re almost certainly going to ask you brilliant and unexpected questions about the game world, so you’d better have a sense of commodity flows between those two kingdoms, but also how a citizen of one feels about the dominant religion of the other, and how that might in turn impact trade relations. At very least, you have to get comfortable experimenting in real time to generate those details in a believable way.
An important second lesson emerges from this playful stacking of systems, however. Inevitably, in any kind of roleplaying game, you run into the fact that this teetering “system of systems” is at the end of the day merely a model for a reality. The rules can suddenly seem at odds with what a player wants to do in a narratively-coherent sense, or you might realize that you’ve created a thoroughly one-dimensional culture that would never be so simple in the real world. These are humbling reminders in the game, but also good to keep in mind in design as well: no matter how thorough we are in mapping and thinking about systems, we need to remember that these are mere models, and that we should anticipate and even embrace their potential to break catastrophically.
Ultimately, my hope in this idle reflection was to shed some light on the ways in which roleplaying games can help designers think a bit differently about their practice. If that’s resonated with you, then your next question might be this: how do I get started?
Here are some thoughts: