Long read: What might the ultimate character creator look like?

Baldur's Gate 3, Street Fighter and Lost Ark developers discuss.

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Dungeons & Dragons helped me appreciate narrative game design

The dungeon master and Margarita.

It's a Friday evening in October 2016, and there's more paper on my desk than I have space for. There are slips of paper with notes. Flash cards with notes for the notes. Hand-drawn maps. A text file on a tablet with colour codes to find the corresponding notes a little quicker. Most importantly, there is a 440-page hardcover rulebook resting on my legs, with more colour-coded bookmarks sticking out of it.

Yup, that's me. You're probably wondering how I ended up in this situation. The easy answer to this question, as for most of the things that bring me equal amounts of joy and pain, is a game. In this particular case, it's Dungeons & Dragons.

As someone who's always enjoyed narrative-focused gameplay, it was only a matter of time before I'd end up playing D&D. I have always been drawn to roleplaying games, and D&D is the direct ancestor of many video game RPGs, both regarding their themes and game mechanics.

I had been peripherally aware of D&D for years, but two hurdles consistently kept me from taking the plunge: firstly, as someone living in a non-English-speaking country for most of her life, my experience of trying to get into pen-and-paper roleplaying was a bit like that of reading manga in the early nineties. If you were lucky, you'd establish contact with a guy on a forum who had a friend who agreed to meet you on a full moon near his house with a printout of a fan translation of the rule book.

The second reason is the sad truth that the hobby you're interested in will have a few gate-keeping idiots looking to nip your fledgling interest in the bud. So when I turned up at my local boardgaming shop to sign up for their gaming evening and was promptly informed that real games would be played and not, you know, Dream Phone, I took my new set of dice and left.

The story had a happy end on the internet, where I found a lovely group to play with for several years. It was this group I would finally lead through a mini adventure as dungeon master for the Dragon Age pen-and-paper RPG.

'He looks good whatever he wears!'

A dedicated D&D player will get very invested in the creative process. The process starts with the joy and dread of a completely blank canvas for a character. You describe your character's looks and attributes in excruciating detail and craft a backstory that accidentally or purposefully infuses your creation with parts of yourself. At some point you have created so much content that the power fantasy of running your own game doesn't sound so far-fetched anymore.

If recent events have taught me anything, it's that as a player it's very easy to assume you know everything. Most D&D players will entertain the thought of having their own game at some point, mostly because the entry hurdle is very low. As a player, you have to be just as aware of the rules of the game as the person who runs it, and you have the same set of tools to work with. It is very much a collaborative effort - but it's easy to overlook how much preparatory work a dungeon master gets done to allow you to do whatever you want.

Running a D&D session was the first time I truly understood the notion of so much of game design being psychology, and the first time I understood what it felt like to want to anticipate and cater to the expectations of your players. For pen-and-paper roleplaying, this means either being good at improvisation or having colour-coded contingency plans. I ran a game for people I knew well enough to understand how to craft something fun for each of them. It's a distinct advantage most narrative designers have to go without or spend a long time researching.

Most players I met always fit a certain mould - there is the quiet player you will coax into action, the player who likes battles the most, the one who is always devising strategies during dungeon crawls, the one who likes dramatic heart-to-hearts with other characters over the campfire and so forth. Inevitably there's also always going to be that one person who likes to set absolutely everything on fire, too.

We expect a good video game to cater to all of these player types simultaneously. The massive scope of such an endeavour necessitates an analysis of shared knowledge between you and your audience. The Uncharted series is a good example. Promotional trailers and illustrations have Nathan Drake dangling from a ledge or brandishing a weapon in the wilderness, so that's what you expect to experience in-game. The obvious homage to Indiana Jones comes with the further expectation of witty banter and a female sidekick who can hold her own.

A pioneer of the French Tuck?

Designers bank on such associations, as they are exciting both for the designers and the player, but you need to be absolutely clear you know what people expect so you can both fulfil their dreams and surprise them occasionally, too.

In contrast, Detroit: Become Human is a game that similarly pays homage to a lot of different influences from the world of sci-fi, but it begins to stumble under the weight of the sheer number of references it makes. That doesn't mean that references to popular pieces of media need to be avoided. Not everyone has consumed everything, so we sometimes stare right at a plot point without knowing that it's been liberally lifted from someone else's work.

The act of doing so isn't reprehensible in an on itself, either - as John Yorke points out in his book Into the Woods, there are certain conventions of storytelling people use again and again simply because they work and there is comfort in familiarity.

Uncharted and Detroit are linear experiences, but D&D campaigns are small-scale open world adventures. You can't put a marker on a map for someone and say "this is your main quest" if you want people to be invested in what they're doing. In a video game we do a lot of things because we are supposed to do them. We practically vibrate with excitement the moment an NPC approaches us for help. D&D is curiously much more like real life in the way that players don't just want to help out of the goodness of their hearts, they want to make sure it's worth their time. If you want to get your D&D group to do something they have no interest in, it's like dragging a house cat around outside by a leash.

Without a UI to direct them, players have to ask what their options are, and with little visual representation of their surroundings, they may get lost. If as a dungeon master, I don't manage to make them aware of their options and find something that appeals to them, the game instantly goes nowhere.

By comparison, in open-world video games we often run into a quest almost by accident and only find out we hate it when it becomes clear that it's an escort mission. Even then, our completionist mentality may force us to finish it either way.

Another important tool in the designer's arsenal is dialogue. After my very first session as a dungeon master I immediately knew why important information in text used to be highlighted. I always saw this approach as unnecessarily on the nose, but let me assure you, it's not.

There is a scene in the recent Jumanji remake with The Rock in which the group of players sits in a car with a guide who keeps repeating the same lines of dialogue over and over until they ask him the right questions. It really hit home because during D&D campaigns, I repeatedly tried to come up with ways to give simple directions, say, "go west", that wouldn't seem stilted but would get the message across that I wanted my group to go west, please, preferably now.

Games like Card Hunter try to recreate the atmosphere of a pen-and-paper session.

If you ever see a dialogue wheel that only seems to consist of options you don't want to take, it's probably because the designer wants to convey important information to you instead of allowing you to wax philosophical about cheese with a character for an hour.

I could go on to tell you about the late nights of playtesting and statistical probability analysis in hopes of creating great battles, only to have my party kill everyone within five minutes. There are also several anecdotes about the anxiety-filled horror of having silence descend over the group while I frantically tried to look up the correct price of a halberd.

Instead, let me tell you how it all fell apart.

Everyone who writes probably has had someone advise them not to get too attached to your own creation. Whatever medium you write for, something will get likely get cut, and it will be something you love, because you love everything.

It's only fitting that I had to learn this lesson the hard way after getting uppity with my own DM about it.

"Why are you guys always trying to kill my characters?" he asked after one session in which we dug up the bones of an NPC we killed only to have his lifeless husk kill for us against his wishes.

"They're not likable," I told him, unbearably smug. "It's more fun to kill them than to interact with them."

Turns out it hurts a lot when someone kills a character you've lovingly crafted after the first conversation. It can be similarly frustrating when you go through a whole spiel to make your players see that a character is deserving of their help only for them to shrug and move on.


It's embarrassing to admit in hindsight how completely unable I was to accept that the vision I had didn't gel with that of my players. Eventually I felt like one side of this equation was always going to be dissatisfied, and so I quit. Not wanting to influence their experience, I never went and addressed the problem - I was unhappy they couldn't see what I was getting at and how much effort went into each step. You don't want to yell at someone for asking what they get out of helping your poor, wronged baron that it's the quest, just start the quest Jordan, Jesus Christ.

To come back to the example of Detroit, I believe the idea of the flowchart that shows all the possible narrative branches serves both players and writers, because it's a good, if slightly inelegant method to make people aware of paths they didn't explore and make them curious while at the same time taking a moment to say "Look, we wrote all of these things for you, isn't that just neat?"

I even understand the urge to wrest agency away from players that David Cage so regularly succumbs to. Most likely he's devised certain scenes so emotionally powerful to him that he just didn't want to risk players wandering away from them. Admitting that a game supposedly all about your decisions isn't always about you doesn't make a catchy slogan on the box. More importantly, you don't want to give all of your secrets away. I was usually proudest when my group had no idea that they did exactly what I hoped they would do.

Running a D&D campaign is, without exaggeration, like running a highly emotional marathon. Having to keep an eye on at least three things at all times made me appreciate all the systems that in a video game run in the background to ensure I get from A to B, do the damage to my enemies I'm supposed to and trigger dialogue that is both entertaining and useful.

Eventually, my group quietly disbanded. It's a sad but normal occurrence, schedules and priorities change all the time. I've been looking for a new party ever since, because playing D&D is a unique and completely personal experience that evidently still has lots to teach me about storytelling. Hit me up if you're into Dream Phone.