Lab Notes
Dungeons & Dragons and Design

How Dungeons & Dragons Can Make You a Better Designer

Last year, I joined my very first Dungeons & Dragons campaign. If you’re somehow unaware, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a role-playing game in which you and a group of your friends jump into a fantasy world and collectively craft your own adventure. You start by creating your character: Select a race (elf? human? maybe a gnome), a class (sneaky rogue? wise wizard? hulking barbarian?), and a background (a noble, a merchant, or a hermit). From there, you proceed to build a storyline around the characters and the challenges they face. A D&D campaign can last for an evening, or for days on end.

There are a lot of different ways to look at D&D, but I see it as Group Storytelling; at each session, we all sit down, get into our characters, figure out what our next steps are, and begin crafting our story. The more I’ve played, I’ve also been surprised by the many ways in which D&D gameplay connects to my life as a designer. It has helped me gain a new perspective in my work and how to approach design challenges. Here are just a few of the ways it might help you, too:

EMBRACE YOUR CONSTRAINTS

When you’re creating your character, a big part of the process is rolling stats, which include Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. They affect how well your character will perform different tasks or abilities, and the effect that performance will have on the greater story.

Your stats can range anywhere from 1–20 with 10 being what an average, everyday person would be rated as. There are various different ways you can roll your stats, but our Dungeon Master has a great rule: at least one of your stats has to be below 10. This forced our characters to have a flaw, an inherent constraint. This may seem backwards at first; don’t you want to build a character who’s the best at everything? But you soon realize that’s unrealistic and, quite frankly, not nearly as fun. Limitations add tension. They force you to get creative in your adventures. For example, your character might lack strength but be very charismatic. Instead of bashing down an obstacle, how might they use their charming demeanor to talk their way through it?

As designers, we must be willing to accept and work with constraints on every project. They help give us direction, provide guidelines for how we can or cannot solve the problem at hand. In other words, interesting things happen when we’re constrained. What if you only get two steps for a user flow that used to have five? How do you bring new life to a brand’s digital experience when you’re not allowed to change its color palette or typography? Embracing limitations and finding ways to get creative with them is almost always better than fighting against them.

EMPATHIZE WITH YOUR CHARACTER

When you create your character, you have lots of customizations available to you: race, class, background, weapon preferences, alignment, the list goes on. But there are four more areas you need to look at to figure out who your character is: Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. Defining these areas helps you figure out what truly makes your character tick and where their priorities are. It helps you step into your character’s shoes and empathize with them so you can act like they would, not how you would (this is a role-playing game, after all). Being able to understand your character helps you get immersed in the game and create a better story.

As designers, we need to always be empathizing with end users. We need to understand their need states, their goals, their pain points, and their feelings at any given point in the process. Being able to think and feel like a user helps us create truly empathetic and helpful products.

KNOW WHICH WORLD YOU’RE LIVING IN

While it’s key to empathize with your character, you also need to recognize that you, as a player, will likely know more than your character does. Maybe another one of your party members has a conversation with someone while your character is out of the room. You’ll know what they talked about, but your character should have no idea the conversation even happened. If you’re not mindful of that fact, you could wind up “metagaming” — having your character act on information they don’t actually possess. This can seriously disrupt the narrative, change character dynamics, or even bring the whole campaign to a halt.

This is an important caveat for designers, too. While we’re working on a designed experience, we’re often acutely aware of what’s happening behind the scenes from a business perspective. We know why certain questions need to be asked, which requirements are driving them, how the system is collecting information, and what the next step is in the flow. We need to remember that users don’t have that same omniscient view, which can affect their experience with the product. It’s crucial to take a step back and meet users where they are based on what they know (or don’t know), so we can be sure to solve their problems.

IT’S A TEAM GAME, NOT A SOLO CAMPAIGN

When you play a video game, you’re the main character and the story revolves around you. When you play D&D, the story revolves around your whole team. You can’t run off and try to do everything yourself — that’s often a great way to get yourself and your team killed. Everyone has an important role to play: the rogue is sneaky and unlocks doors, the cleric heals your team in battle, the bard inspires and buffs the team. Being a team player and letting everyone contribute ensures you complete your quest while creating a better story.

This is absolutely the case with design teams as well. If one person shoulders too much of the work, it can slow progress and create stress for everyone involved. Always be aware of your teammates’ strengths and skills — especially the ones you might lack — and how they can help you all create amazing work together.

SOMETIMES, YOU ROLL A 1

So, your adventuring group has tracked down the bad guys. You have a plan, you bought all the necessary supplies, and you reached their stronghold. All you need to do is sneak in and find them. You roll a stealth check. It’s a 1 — a critical failure. Now everyone knows you’re there, and you’re being surrounded by enemies.

When playing D&D, sometimes it all comes down to a dice roll, and you’re left to deal with whatever the outcome might be. You have to accept the reality of the situation, adapt, and move forward. This is also true in our lives as designers, when even our best work might be adversely affected by things out of our control. Maybe the budget has been cut and we only have two more weeks to finish. Perhaps a new system update ruins a feature and you need to come up with a new solution overnight. Being resilient enough to take a breath, evaluate the situation, and move forward is a trait that anyone involved in a product build should strive to have.

GoKart’s resident ginger, “The Digital Flood” rounds out the design team with a mountain of curiosity and energy. He is a passionate maker who strives to create empathetic, beautiful, and usable design experiences around the user journey. He enjoys playing games, watching television, dabbling in photography, and drinking a glass of good whiskey.