Dungeons & Dragons & Design Thinking

I’m a nerd. On the weekends I love to indulge in comic books, sci-fi, horror movies, and tabletop role-playing games. During the week I spend part of my time as an experience designer as an Enterprise Design Thinking Coach where I plan and lead workshops for large interdisciplinary teams. A connection between these two different worlds is in role-playing games. Playing role-playing games and designing user experiences both share a deep investment in developing empathy for your characters or for your users. I was a nerd long, long before I was a designer and I’d like to share some of the tips that I’ve learned from tabletop games and how you can use them in your design thinking workshops.

First a little bit of background for those unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), D&D is a fantasy role-playing game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Dungeons & Dragons is, at its core, an empathy-based role playing for anyone at any age. It forces people to think outside of their own heads and understand the heart of a given character and to understand a character’s place in their universe. This empathy-based approach really resonated with me as an experience designer and as a design thinking facilitator. In design thinking workshops, facilitators try to do similar things to focus a team of designers, developers, and business stakeholders, from product management to sales. We build robust scenarios and activities for our participants to get to their outcomes - drawing them out to focus on users, create solutions for difficult problems, and build out solutions or programs for their users.

The way people play D&D is with a group of people led by a Dungeon Master (DM). The DM is responsible for unfolding the plot to their players. They control the story and it’s subsequent elements - all non-playable characters (NPCs), puzzles, and battles. Often hidden behind a Dungeon Master Screen, this person serves as the hands behind the curtain and ensures that all the players enjoy their time together while role-playing.

The role that facilitation plays in a design thinking workshop completely mirrors the same type of role that DMs play for their gaming sessions. Facilitators are behind the scenes, focused on working out the kinks of how to run a great design thinking session - to promote their participants in doing their best thinking. Similarly, DMs work to understand the stories, the characters, and the interactions within a given scenario to create fun and memorable role-playing sessions.

This brings us to the lessons facilitators can learn from good DMs:

Lesson #1: The game is for the players

Preparing a D&D session takes time. D&D games (called campaigns) can span several weeks and extend into months and years. Such a long time investment takes a lot of preparation and commitment from both the DM and the players. Similarly, but to a much shorter duration, design thinking workshops take tons of preparation. I’d say more than 70% of a great workshop is preparing for it. Planning space, prepping co-facilitators, and scoping with clients is a huge part of ensuring that the time you have with your participants is fruitful.

However, sometimes you are in workshops that just go wrong. In D&D we’d call this landing a natural 1 on the 20-sided die - this means everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Great DMs don’t let their sessions fail because their players didn’t do what they expected. They don’t flip the board and storm out of the session. They keep on going, learning how to roll with the punches, and recraft their stories on-the-fly to support where their players want to go.

It’s important to remember the game is always for the players. A workshop is for the people in it. If participants aren’t reacting well to an activity, even if it’s been painstakingly crafted, then ditch it and do something even better.

Lesson #2: Set rules and boundaries

If a DM doesn’t establish rules early, then it’s easy to get bowled over by an overzealous player. While DMs aren’t prescriptive on where a story might go, there are still limitations and boundaries to what players can do on the tabletop. Is your campaign set in a rustic fantasy world? Well, we don’t exactly want to have a space marine come landing down and suddenly nerfing all of the bad guys in the clearing. Establishing proper boundaries in your workshop actually gives your participants more of an edge to their creativity.

Even setting basic rules like governing how conduct is done in a workshop gives your participants clear guidelines to act within, so they understand the basic rules of engagement that everyone in the workshop is agreeing to. It puts everybody on the same page and creates a sense of shared trust between all parties involved if everyone abides by the same set of agreed-upon constraints.

Lesson #3: Don’t make assumptions

When I join a new game a lot of male DMs assume I want to play a female character. I’ve also sat in games where people assume that because there are more women playing, or more women characters in that campaign in general, that women like to “politic” more than men and are more averse to conflict. This is a false assumption and woefully wrong.

A good DM doesn’t make assumptions for who the character is and allows the player to craft their role in the game for themselves. In a workshop, it’s easy to put people into buckets based off their job role. Engineer? Well, you cover all the technical stuff then. Sales? You focus on product packaging and pitch. This limited way of engaging with your workshop participants is harmful.

Good ideas and insight can come from anywhere. Do not limit your participants creativity by assuming they only fit in one box. Embrace your participants’ domain expertise and invite them to use it in a different manner with different activities so your workshop can flourish with the insights from multiple parties.

Lesson #4: Make the NPCs come to life

As a DM, you are responsible for all of the non-playable characters (NPCs) that your players interact with. From the person who maintains the inn, to the kid feeding your crew secret intel, to every character your team battles with, it’s up to the DM to make these NPCs resonate and help their players. Similarly, in workshops it’s up to facilitators to always bring back their participants to the user.

I often find myself talking through the persona as my participants go about their activities and encourage my participants to do the same. Bring up parts you crafted as part of your persona. Talk through the user as if you are them to help ground workshop participants in their user. Ask them, “And how does this benefit the user?” Bring in the user for key moments in your workshop so that your outcomes always end up human-focused rather than bogged down in technical details and implementation.

Lesson #5: Steal the best ideas

A great DM is someone who is a learned player. This means participating in a few campaigns and one-shots and being on the other side of the DM screen. Learning from other DMs helps you understand the type of person you want to be when you do have control of the game. You can learn lessons, both good and bad, from all types of DMs. From these sessions take story points or conflicts that particularly resonate with you and use them in your own stories. Good facilitators don’t only facilitate a lot of workshops, but they try to participate as much as they can as well. When you’re in a workshop observe: What’s going well? What’s going poorly? Are participants continually engaged? How might you, if you had to, reinvent this to maintain continual engagement?

Steal the best things from each workshop you are a part of and you will be a better facilitator. Take the parts that work well and remix them for your workshops. Take activities and techniques to sharpen yourself until you can develop your own.

Lesson #6: Fortune favors the brave

Dare to be bold in everything you do. The thing that I believe separates the good from the great is the ability to take risks that may or may not pay off. Good DMs lead a wonderful story that everyone enjoys. Great DMs craft a campaign their players reminisce about like a cherished childhood memory. They build big stories with big impact.

Good facilitators lead a fruitful workshop, but great facilitators lead workshops that drive big outcomes - investment in research, actionable roadmaps, and impactful discussion for example. Be bold in everything you do, learn from it, and use your lessons become even bolder and better.

Facilitation has been one of the most rewarding skill sets I’ve learned in my career as a designer. Being able to help others is a reward with compounding interest. Enabling facilitation with my innate nerdiness is just a bonus. I hope these tips help your future workshops. May all the campaigns and workshops in your life be prosperous, the treasures bountiful, and the conflicts fulfilling.

Ploy Buraparate is a designer based in Austin, Texas. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.


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