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Dungeons, Dragons, and Design Workshops

By: Tallwave

What does orchestrating a Dungeons & Dragons campaign have to do with design and branding workshops? Quite a bit, actually.

I agreed to it months ago. The four adventurers arrived at my tabletop largely on-time. I had dice and pencils and most importantly, snacks. I was about to Dungeon Master (DM) my very first Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign. As the party worked through my series of fictional encounters, I began to realize that leading this D&D session was much like facilitating design workshops, which is something I do often in my work.

Preparation

Well before the participants arrive, I plan the activities that everyone will work through. Just as a DM knows what type of story they want to tell, a good facilitator has an outcome in mind and knows exactly the right activities to put into the workshop.

The easiest part of the preparation is ensuring the materials (pens, paper, sticky notes, kraft paper, and most importantly, snacks) are ready when the participants arrive. An unprepared facilitator or DM puts barriers in the way of a successful session. Being prepared sets the stage, even before the workshop begins.

Setting the stage

I’ve found in my workshop facilitation experience that getting participants to engage is difficult, but crucial. The trick is to pull your participants out of their day-to-day mentality. Typically I’ll put things on the walls and scatter workshop tools (pens, paper, etc) across the tables. Don’t forget the snacks!

After introductions, it’s important to recap why they are there, talk about goals for the day and answer any pertinent questions before diving in.

Welcome to the studio

I tell my workshop participants a story. I tell them that they have entered a new place—that the meeting room we are in has been transformed. I invite them to leave their creative blocks aside for a short time. Usually, these blocks include laptops, judgmental impulses, nervousness, job descriptions, and others. They are following in the tradition of many of the great thinkers before them. The day will be structured, but a bit chaotic, and most of all, it will be productive.

In Dungeons and Dragons, I may also begin by telling a story:

You have been lost in the desert for so long that you can no longer remember the warm embrace of civilization. You see clouds in the distance. You begin to move toward them in hopes of tasting a few drops of water on your tongue and something to eat other than the thorny sticks that have sustained you thus far.

You are now someplace else. The rules are different here. It’s time to get to work.

Encounters and activities

In a fantasy roleplaying game, you have encounters. Usually this is a fight with a larger enemy, or a conversation with someone. The encounters must be carefully planned so that they

  • are interesting
  • are difficult, but not too difficult
  • move the story along

In a workshop, every activity must follow the same rules. The facilitator must know their participants and the problems they are trying to solve. The activities they choose to make up their workshop should move the group forward toward solving those problems, and shouldn’t leave anyone in the group behind in the process.

Improvise

In my first DM experience, my group nearly failed to make it past the first major encounter. I had not planned on some poor dice rolls, and had not equipped my adventurers to take on the monster I put in front of them.

From time to time, something will happen in a workshop setting that you don’t plan for. Sometimes, you misjudge the group of people you’re leading. Other times, you spot an opportunity to add value to a workshop by swapping out an activity on the fly.

I like to have a backup plan in mind in case things go a little off the rails. Remember, it’s about getting the value out of the workshop, not merely completing a list of predetermined tasks. So, change the activities, take an extra-long break to re-evaluate the problem, or move the entire meeting outside for a change of scenery.

In my gaming example above, I realized I had made a mistake in my planning and arranged for some nearby villagers to rescue my adventurers (an admittedly shallow plot device), and the night continued.

Who is this about?

Ultimately, with gaming as with design, the end product isn’t about the designer or storyteller. It’s about the story. And as a facilitator, you are creating the atmosphere to bring your group of participants along for the ride. They’re going to work through some tough problems together, and will end up co-creating the final with you. Often, the result will be wholly different, and better than the one you had in mind before the session.

Sounds an awful lot like facilitating a design workshop, doesn’t it?

So whether you’re planning to coordinate a D&D campaign or design workshop, be sure to prepare, understand the problem you’re trying to solve, and be ready to change course when something is not working. And the biggest tip? Get over yourself and have some fun with it!

Written by Tallwave

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