Thursday, July 27, 2017


   "She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time," my father said.   I looked up at him. "What?"   "You looked like you were getting too involved and bothered so I though I would let you relax."   "Oh, for Pete's sake," I said, "you'd think I was a baby or something. What kind of stuff is that?" I really sounded put out, but I'll tell you the truth: I was getting a little too involved and I was glad he told me. I mean, when you're a kid, you don't think, Well, since the book's called The Princess Bride and since we're barely into it, obviously, the author's not about to make shark kibble of his leading lady. You get hooked on things when you're a youngster; so to any youngsters reading, I'll simply repeat my father's words since they worked to soothe me: 'She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time.'

Let me explain something about user experience, or UX as the business calls it.  Every company that has ever created a design that failed after the release of the product has decided, in pure stupidity, that the solution to the matter will be to "educate the public" about the greatness of their product.  See, if you've spent two years preparing a product, writing copy about it, raving in meeting after meeting about the beauty of the product and the wonderful buzz it's going to create as soon as its ready to storm the streets, you just can't believe that people don't like it.  It isn't possible.  You're blown away by how good a product it is.  As soon as the public understands, this product is going to do great!

And so, faced with JB's question at the end of my last post, acknowledging the problem and asking the question, "so what?", I find myself thinking, "Well, hell, D&D is a terrific product and sandboxes are a great way to play the game, why don't I just educate people so that they'll understand how great?


If I were going to make an attempt, I'd use Goldman's argument, above.  You, the player, are in this campaign.  It has barely started.  Since you're the most important being in this game world, obviously, I'm not going to rip your guts out just for fun.  What are you, nine?

But I wouldn't expect that to make much impact, given that most of the participants of the game, whatever age they happen to be, ARE nine, or at least they desperately want to be, given that they sit in films about superheroes and screech daily, "It's not believable!"  So much for educating the public.

Thankfully, I don't have to educate everybody.  I only have to bring you around, O Gentle Reader, and count on you to use a few tactics to convince your immediate players.  This crowd-sources the issue as best I can, while retaining the sense that I can say or write or do something about this tiger-in-the-bushes problem.

The goal here is to pull the wool over the players' eyes; not to educate them and explain why they need to view the game differently (they won't, and gawd knows I've tried), but to correct the interface in a manner that will counteract the impression the players will insist on having.  Not easy.  Yet the issue will not improve until this particular element about the campaign is corrected.

People are asking me all the time, how do I fix my campaign?  How do I win the trust of my players?  How do I make the world something they want to run in?  These are questions that every product designing company is asking: how do I make people like my product?  What does my product have to be in order for people to like it?

Step 1: Evaluate your campaign.

Most readers are doing this already, but what's needed is a specific list of what needs to be evaluated.  If the reader will consider any product out there, there are some basic rules that always apply; apply these to your campaign and you'll be fine.

Here's what you're looking for:

  • Whatever rule system being used, there will be dozens of features that are part of that system that no one actually uses.  Identify what those features are and get rid of them.  An example?  Virtually every pummelling system ever made, regardless of RPG.  Later on, there might be a fix for it; but for now, consider the actual feature is too boring to capture the player's attention.  Get rid of it.  But take note, don't use the player's opinion of what falls into this category.  Players will endlessly defend features in a game they don't use.  Like alignment.  They all think it needs to be there.  But when it comes to employing it themselves, it is strangely left out.  So don't ask players their opinions.  Watch what they do.
  • At the same time, take note of what the players are using a lot.  Your players are creative; if they're interested in something, they'll try to use it every which way they can, challenging your game's coherence as they attempt to play the rules.  Take your cue from that.  Increase your control over those systems with greater rigidity; make sure you give your players plenty of play, as these are features that they want to use.  So make lots of concessions.  But make those concessions fixed and clearly understood.
  • Consider what you're asking your players to do when they're running.  What are your expectations?  Are the payoffs for those expectations evident?  If your players are chafing when you give them advice or urge them towards a certain adventure, its because they don't see what's in it for them.  Unless they see that benefit, they'll see it as serving your needs and not their own.  That's going to create friction.  So instead, give your players as much as you dare before asking them to come on board. Make sure they can see where the value is for them.
  • Don't take their feedback personally.  Oh, believe me, I have a HUGE problem doing this.  I'm not preaching from a sinless place, oh no.  But just because I fuck this up all the time doesn't take away the correctness of not doing it.  And I'm seeing advice columns saying it all the time: "It's not my fault the user is stupid; they'll just have to learn to be smarter."  So rememeber: negative feedback is good. Negative feedback is good.  Negative feedback is good.  Keep saying it until you believe it.
  • Give the players help.  There's a lot of naysayers who will say this isn't the DM's role, but those people are wrong.  Throwing the players into the world and asking them to understand and adjust to everything without help only promotes tiger-in-the-bushes thinking (I sure hope you read the last post, or you must be lost).  There's no possible way the players can remotely understand what your world is about, how it works, how the people communicate with each other or what they should expect if you don't talk about your world and help the players ALL THE TIME.
  • Ignore the players when they tell you not to help.  Listen, when you run into this, you're coming face to face with people who have been programmed to think players are deservedly doomed to see tigers. This is where this whole tiger stuff begins; by DMs convincing players, and players convincing themselves, that there is a Chinese Wall between them and the game world.  Tear this wall down.  Get the sort of players who understand why it needs to be torn down.  There are hundreds of decisions to make and plenty of opportunity for the dice and the situation to go against the players; don't make it worse by making your players stand around in the dark.  If the players express tiger-in-the-bushes thinking ("the tower seems out of our league, in my view"), jump in and stress that there is no reason in the world for them to make that assumption.  In the past, I've let that kind of comment slip past unremarked.  I'm beginning to see this only feeds the players' stonewalling.  Once they make a declaration, they'll make it true in their minds by saying it, then keep repeating it and believing it until it becomes a fact that can't be adjusted.  This will bury their enthusiasm for doing anything that counteracts this assumption ~ and it is all based on the conjecture that there must be a tiger there.

This is certainly enough.  Looking through the link midway through on improving user experience will give a few other ideas (I'm really just paraphrasing the fellow's work and making it D&D relevant).  These elements above are what you need to work on if you want to get the rigidity of your game focused and help express better to the player how much play they have in that system.

As I said, not easy.  But start with trimming the unused stuff out of your campaign, then correct your personal addresses to the players' concerns.  You can spend the next ten years learning how to do just those two things.


I'm going to be regularly making links between my blog and content that I write for Vocal media.  Many of these articles will not be about D&D.  Some of them, when I think of a good short subject, will be.  I will probably delete Brass Carrots from this blog and move it there at some point ~ it has proven to be one of my most popular posts, ever.  Understand, my interest is to get published; and Vocal media pays money for content (not much, so far).  If this blog will drive traffic there, I'm going to use this blog.  Please pay no attention to content (such as things about cats) that hold no interest for you.


  1. Just wanted to say I've been enjoying the articles on game design and user experience.

    As for links to what you're posting on Vocal, keep them coming. I can't support you via patreon yet so I might as well help you get hits on Vocal.

  2. Connor,

    If you, or anyone else, wants to help me get more hits on Vocal, copy the teaser and the link onto your facebook page. That seems to be driving the most traffic.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.