As dungeon masters we can learn a ton of great game design concepts from video games. While Dungeons and Dragons is a game in the most literal sense, you have fewer limitations than in a video game. In video games there is a game limitation simply posed as the question: “Can you pet the dog?”
This concept explains that the options for what a player can actually do in a video game are limited ahead of time. You can only take so many actions in a game due to how it was designed, no matter what you actually want to do. This concept is known as “Can you pet the dog?” because it is something players often want to do but it’s a 50/50 chance that the developers actually put in the ability for you to interact with the dog at all. Flipping this concept on its head, in DnD you can always pet the dog, and so much more.
Learning From Limitations
It might seem odd that we want to learn about Dungeons and Dragons and game design in general by looking at limitations in a different type of game. The reason is because video games give you a chance to ask questions that can be helpful when later crafting scenarios for your tabletop role playing experiences.
If you’re playing an open world RPG video game you’ll likely have a variety of mechanics available to you at any given moment. A good portion of those mechanics are going to be about locomotion. Walking around, climbing, jumping, and so on. Beyond the movement mechanics you may have some attack mechanics mapped to various buttons and a general interact button that you press when you want to do non-combat stuff with things in your environment.
In a lot of ways DnD is just like this. There are a core set of mechanics your players have access to for combat encounters. They generally have a simple set of movement rules. When they want to interact with a non-combat encounter of any type, they press the universal interact button (also kindly known as the DM).
The biggest difference here is that when you act as the interaction button for your players. They not only indicate that they would like to interact with something, but also give input as to how they want to interact with something.
So now that we see some commonalities and big key differences, how can we learn from this? Well first off, when you’re in a game you can ask yourself two questions:
- What can I do?
- What do I want to do?
Both of these questions give you very valuable insight into what you might want to do in your DnD game. When you craft a session you should think about the default mechanics that your players have available to them (combat actions, spells, or special abilities) that do very specific and detailed actions.
You’ll also want to ask yourself what you think your players might want to and how they might press that interact button. Priming yourself to think about these things is an invaluable skill as a dungeon master and you’ll be glad you honed this tiny bit of foresight whenever you play a game in the future.
Limiting the Limitless
Now that we’re thinking about how players might want to interact with things we get to the actual interesting choice of the game: Do you use mechanics or do you role play a response? Let’s go back to our primary example. Can you pet the dog?
A player approaches the animal and says, “I would like to pet the dog.” For the purposes of this thought experiment, we assume your players know to state what they would like to do vs what they do.
Their dog petting adventure can go a variety of ways. Let’s look at multiple outcomes in two possible routes.
Mechanics Based Dog Petting Interactions
The players “I would like to pet the dog” statement is met with a simple, yet firm response: “Roll an Animal Handling check.” This is the mechanics driven approach to dog petting in DnD. The player wants to do something for which there is a related skill and you ask them to roll a check to see how well they perform their action.
On a high roll the player might be really good a reading the dog’s body language and know how to invite the dog closer in a comforting and positive manner that eases tension between the player and the dog. On a low roll the player might be clueless about dogs and just aggressively leap out to pet the dog firmly without checking how the dog might react. No matter what the player rolls, you now need to figure out how those rolls correspond to this particular dog’s personality.
A very good boy or girl (12/10 best dog) may be super chill and even on a low roll will enjoy being pet by the player character. On a high enough roll this kind of dog might even follow the players around for a bit or seek out belly rubs. Very cute, very wholesome.
An equally good boy or girl (13/10 still is dog) may not like humanoid creatures very much. This dog could bite the player on a low roll or still be timid and back away on a high roll.
This variety of outcomes has nothing to do with the initial roll and everything to do with what you prepare as a dungeon master. This is the where you and a video game designer share some common ground. You’re preparing a set of outcomes that can happen when a player decides to interact with something in the game. If the dog really doesn’t like people there is a chance the player characters cannot pet the dog, but that design choice is up to you.
Side Note: We highly recommend making dogs pettable in your DnD games. There is no reason to deprive your players of imaginary good dogs and it is perhaps a fate too cruel to unleash as a DM.
Role Play Based Dog Petting Interactions
The other side of the players saying “I would like to pet the dog” is the ability to instead lean into role play territory. Unlike the interactions you set up previously where you prepare some outcomes that are based on the dog’s disposition and the player’s rolls, you now have a variety of ways to simply jump right into a narrative interaction.
The two main ways to handle this are question and answer based role playing and direct narration.
In question and answer based role playing you accept a request to interact with a question of “How do you proceed?” The idea here is that instead of the player rolling a die and letting fate decide how well things go, you allow them to describe their actions and you narrate the outcomes. This can be one question to one description or it can be a series of questions to refine the player’s interaction down to a very nuanced experience that completely removes chance from the equation.
Option number two requests no clarity from the player and you presume some amount of control over the player’s character and weave that into the narration. This is best used when you understand your player’s intent clearly and you want to speed your game up. This method is not great when your player’s intent is unknown. The phrase “I would like to pet the giant spider” can also be role played, but in those types of cases we suggest you ask clarifying questions before narrating the likely terrible outcome.
In either case, where you are narrating the dog’s personality plays into the scenario exactly the same as it does in the mechanics driven example before. The only difference here is that you are removing chance when you don’t ask your players to make a roll for the action and you are removing player agency when you don’t ask clarifying questions about how they approach the interaction.
All of these methods, including the mechanics based ones, can have a place at your table. Different scenarios call for different approaches to interaction. By balancing methods you can control game pace, player interaction, and overall thematic feel. All of this just from a few decisions on how you handle some random interactions your players might want to initiate.
Player Initiation of Interactions and the DM’s Wild Guess
Sometimes you want to know what your players might like to do beforehand so you can prepare some material ahead of time. This is the endless struggle of DMs everywhere. Prepare too much content and your players will only see or use a tiny fraction of it. Prepare too little and you end up ad-libbing most of your session.
This concept can be highlighted again in video games when we look at how a player might interact in an open world game. Some players don’t want to pet the dog in video games (crazy, I know!), but game designers have to take a gamble on what players will and will not want to interact with at any given time. Each interaction you try to design leaves another you won’t have time to build.
The concept of player initiated content really boils down to guessing what your players will want to do given the environment. Then you’ll prepare for the most likely interactions first and work down to the least likely interactions last. You will obviously start your planning with mandatory interactions. These are things initiated by the environment in some way. The player imitated part is their response, which can vary wildly depending on both the situation and the players. Everything beyond that happens on player request, so how do your players know what they want to do?
In video games players know they can interact with things in a few different ways. Most obviously, interactable objects could be highlighted. Players might also get prompts when they can interact with something that tell them what type of interaction is available. In other cases players may see certain things that have standardized mechanics and interactions. Since the environment in DnD is rendered by your narration, your words need to provide highlights, prompts, and standard mechanics for the player to grapple with.
Highlighting Items in the Players Imaginations
You need to verbally highlight intractable items in your game for your players in order to reign in the amount of guess work you need to do when creating a session. This has to come through in your description, but it’s not always in what you say. Sometimes it’s in what you don’t say that matters.
If you were describing a scene and you spend 10 minutes talking about the architecture and only note the doors in the room once, your players will think they need to do something with the architecture. They will immediately search the walls, look at carvings, ask for details about pillars, check for traps, and so on.
This is an example of unnecessary highlighting. You may have just tried to give some cool set dressing to an area, but because players are looking for cues to interact with the world you describe, everything gets more highlighted when you spend more time on it. In this way details themselves are the highlighting element.
Video games have the luxury of being able to actually highlight something visually while still having gorgeous and ornate settings in the background. In DnD you need to be more clear because every word you use anchors a specific object in the players’ minds and can push them down the wrong path if you’re not careful.
Video games teach us that strong highlights are important for player initiated interactions. So when DnD sessions highlight interactions you’ll want to divide your narration in a way that clearly makes descriptions and interactables sound different. Description for the sake of description should be concise and apply broadly to the surrounding. A damp stone dungeon with various aged tapestries and a cracked and crumbling floor is great. But the moment you spend and additional time on those tapestries, you’ve added too much highlighter.
You should go into more description for objects that can be interacted with. For example: A damp, stone dungeon with ragged tapestries hanging above a cracked and crumbling stone floor. The tapestries depict scenes from times long past and sway gently, as if moved by a breeze.
This is the exact same scene as before, but you’ve highlighted two facts that players could interact with. First, they might want to glean information from what the tapestries depict. Second, they may want to investigate the source of the breeze that is moving the tapestries. It’s such a small amount of extra information, but when the players only imagine what you describe, the relative importance of each item in a description changes based on how much to talk about it.
Prompting Player Interaction Directly
Providing prompts offsets your guess work more and balances out the highlighting work more carefully. In video games these may appear when you get close to an object that can be interacted with. It may simply be the prompt to interact, but it can also change based on the action you can take.
For example, if you walk up to a dog in a game you may see the prompt “Interact” or you may see the prompt “Pet dog”. The second prompt sets the player’s expectation for what the interaction will be while the first one leaves the considerations of what the interaction is ambiguous.
In DnD narration you can do the same thing. For example: The party walks up to the shop and sees and old dog patiently sitting out front. The dogs looks like it would like you to pet it.
In this example you have prompted the party to take an action by describing the scene and the interaction available. This is a great way to introduce trap and puzzle elements like levers and switches. Saying things like “It looks like this can be rotated” or “the lever is currently up and appears to be movable” gives your players a prompt to interact with and information they can use to make a decision.
When you tie these prompts together with the scene the players should have enough information to make a rational decision about which interactions they would like to pursue and which ones they would like to leave alone.
Balancing Prompts and Highlights in DnD
When narrating a scene for your players you can use both prompts and highlights to achieve a new effect. When you add a prompt to an already detailed scene the prompt can tamp down some of the highlighting you might have put in place. This can allow you to have a more detailed scene description without worrying as much about your players trying to interact with everything.
While we would like to say this narration choice is fool proof, we’ve known too many fools and have determined that what any group interacts with is unique to that group. If you have players who want to touch everything, you’ll want to give more general or concise descriptive narration while applying tight and specific prompts. On the other end of this spectrum you’ll have players that won’t try anything unless prompted and you’ll want to ramp up both narrative highlighting and prompting for them.
This all boils down to knowing your group and understanding the types of interactions they are likely to try.
Creating Standardized Interactions
Sometimes a video game uses a certain interaction over and over again and these become standard. One common type of interaction is breaking pots to find resources. The reason these are so useful in video games is because they offer a standard way to do something and allow developers to save time by using a standard mechanic in multiple locations. The same time saving scenario comes up for TTRPGs too. DMs can gain a lot from standardizing common player interactions in a known and limited way.
As a wild example, let’s look at fantasy vending machines. These would be a real world object your players are familiar with and already have an understanding of in their minds. If you make it a staple in your game that they can use as a simple shop without a shop keeper then you’re setting up a standardization.
These will have the same set of interactions available to your players each time they use them. This lets you save design time and the players get to make choices faster without asking as many questions about the scene. It’s a win-win situation for you and your players.
You might think these kinds of standardizations are rare in DnD, but the game is not without its tropes. Chests containing treasure was an early standardization. That chests can also be mimics is another standardization around the same interactable object. Knowing both changes how players may interact with them and what they might ask you. A simple time saver in video game design is also a time saver and good game play design in TTRPGs.
Carefully Crafted Narration and Better Interaction
You can prepare more efficiently for your sessions if you know how you’re going to describe them. Where video games have to design their interactable objects around deliberate visuals, DMs need to design their interactable objects around clear narrative descriptions. It can be a huge pain to write out a lot of description beforehand, but if you do this for a specific scene you can likely cut down on things you have to prepare by omitting or reducing the descriptions for non-interactable objects.
While it’s one thing to ask if your players should be able to pet the dog, it is another thing entirely to ask if the dog should be there in the first place.
This really boils down to the trope of Chekhov’s Gun, which is about only describing things in a story that are relevant and contribute to the story. Since you’re creating the story together with your players you should only give them things they can work with or make relevant in the story.
If you describe a magic weapon, be prepared for your players to be able to use it. If you talk about gems in a display case, be prepared for them to plan a heist. You don’t know what your players will do, but you can be certain they will work with what you give them.
Limitations in Traveling and Time
Video games also do a great job of showcasing interactions and limitations that are not dog based. Shocking, we know. Two additional limitations we want to cover here are those of travel and time. Both are highly related, but are equally important to scene design in video games and TTRPGs.
It’s Not the Destination, but the Journey
Traversal limitations box in how your players can move around. In a video game this would be like if a player has the ability to jump or not. There are a lot of games in a 3d space where the player either can’t jump or has severely limited jumping capabilities. This changes how the player gets around the levels and alters the course the game takes. Other times players can have their traversal limited with invisible walls or actual barriers that keep them from progressing from one area to another.
The way the players interact with movement limitations in DnD is different enough, but thematically the same. Instead of using a controller to move a character, players tell you where they want to go or how they want to overcome an obstacle.
But the limitations that in place come out in the TTRPG environment as descriptions instead of simply not being able to perform the action. In a video game when you come up to a rock face and get no prompt for interaction you have to infer it cannot be climbed. In DnD a player may go up to a rock face and say “I want to climb the rock face.” Even if they cannot for whatever reason they may still attempt to do so.
Instead of saying no to a player when they try to do something they cannot, you need provide them a narrative framework for tasks that are unobtainable goals. You could say “The rock face is steep and has no noticeable hand holds, you can’t seem to find purchase to climb it.” This, coupled with the fact that you did not ask them to roll anything, indicates to the player that the rock face in not something they were meant to be able to climb. However, the player may persist in their desire in DnD, where in a video game they would run out of options.
When presented with a clear traversal limitation in DnD players can get crafty. A player may say “I get out my climbing gear” after you tell them they cannot climb the rock face. In these cases it’s best to give into their determination, assuming they are not trying to be a problem player on purpose.
Yes, allowing them to circumvent limitations of traversal can lead to areas of the game you are not prepared for. But it also allows you to see what types of things your players might think to try in the future. Keeping notes about how players think about barriers and limitations like this will help you craft obstacles and challenges more carefully in future campaigns. So it’s completely fine that these mechanics can be adjusted on the fly.
No One Can Stop the Passage of Time
Much like travel and movement, time can gate your players from some content and change what interactions are available to them. A system for this is already in DnD in the form of resting and recovering spell slots or abilities over time. Once per day is an interesting mechanical stipulation to put on an ability, as well as other time gating concepts.
In video games time limits are often calculated by internal clocks and various ability cool downs are mapped out for the player through a heads up display or other indicators. These luxuries are not actively present for TTRPGs, and in DnD in particular, managing spell slots is often relegated only to the players. The DM’s domain rests with timing that centers more around theme and settings.
Shops may be closed at night or on certain days of the week. Certain events and plot lines might start at certain times of day. Players may need to do multiple things in multiple locations, but travel time needs to be accounted for and they may not be able to do both. All of these little factors are things we may take for granted in video games because they run so seamlessly, but in DnD you’re responsible for tracking them.
Time does get a little weird when we discuss it in the context of a game where meta discussions can take hundreds of times longer than the actions they are about. Video games offer us some ideas on how to tackle these problems too!
One solution we noticed from various casual games is action based day night cycles. In games where you farm or gather resources, but need time to progress, it might not be fun to have a realistic day night cycle.
Similarly in DnD, when time matters you don’t want to play every minute of the game one to one with real life. Instead, we can use actions as a representation of time itself. This allows us to essentially block out regions of time, figure out what the players are going to do during that time, and progress time dependent on actions as necessary.
In downtime player characters might do a lot of things, but you don’t need to role play every single action. The abstraction of that action to a time skip makes both video games and TTRPGs more accessible and fun to play.
There’s a Lot We Can Learn From Video Games
While these are just a few design principles we can pull from video games, they hopefully have shown you that there is a ton you can learn about game design by thinking about the problems other great designers have already tackled.
While we talked about things that are already consistent with running DnD, you can do even more with these ideas by creating or adding some homebrew content and mechanics to your games. We’ve certainly made our TTRPG games better by pulling ideas from video games and we hope that you’re now in the mindset to take things from one hobby you enjoy and use them in the next.