(This post is part of an end-to-end UX design project.)
To analyze the data I collected during my research on tabletop RPG game masters, I printed their comments out (old school, I know) and laid them out on a table. Then I began looking for common themes and patterns.
With this research, I hoped to uncover the needs and requirements of DMs with respect to finding adventures. I expected many to be surprising, and some to be unsolvable by a searchable adventure database, but nevertheless this stage is essential to understand one’s users.
In the interest of putting the main conclusions up front, here are the main insights I have uncovered that will inform my design in the next stage:
1. DMs homebrew everything
Most DMs who responded did not use pre-written adventures at all, relying instead on their own creativity. Anything they found or used was heavily reworked to adapt to their players and campaigns. Therefore, finding an exact adventure to run as written is not as important to DMs as knowing how much work they’d need to do to adapt it.
2. Searching is quick and dirty
DMs in need of a map, encounter, plot point, or anything else to throw in front of their players used a shotgun approach, looking anywhere they could think of for something they could work with: Google Images, Pinterest, RPG subreddits and forums, random content generators, etc. This means that DMs are unlikely to perform rigorous search under time pressure, and an adventure database should support quick-and-dirty scanning for usable content.
3. DMs have trouble saving and keeping track of the content they’ve found
DMs had read tons of pre-written adventures and had even saved some for later, but they usually couldn’t save any context or metadata with them. Returning to their PDF folder a few months later, they had no idea what sparked their interest in each particular adventure. Therefore, an adventure database that lets DMs organize, annotate, and catalog existing adventures would fulfill an important need.
4. Anything can inspire
DMs derive inspiration from any media they can find: movies, books, drawings, etc. They often flipped through old adventure books or Dungeon magazines just looking for cool, memorable stuff to steal. Therefore, an adventure database could do well to offer inspirational snippets such as plot hooks, character motivations, or individual encounter locations.
If you’re eager to continue to the next stage, here’s my next post.
If you’d rather delve into my data interpretation process, read on.
Research Interpretation Details
As it turned out, the bulk of the data I collected challenged the core idea behind an adventure database. I consider this extremely valuable insight into whether what I am building actually matches the needs that users have in the world.
Many of the responses listed potential features or aspects of adventure they would like to see in a database:
- What is the adventure about, briefly and without trying to “sell” it?
- How much does it cost and where is it available for purchase?
- Which game or edition was it written for?
- Does the adventure require any additional resources (books, monster stats, etc.)?
- What level is the adventure meant for?
- Was it written for a particular campaign setting, and how well could it be adapted to a different one?
- What kinds of terrain does the adventure feature?
- What are the main enemy types?
- What is the main villain like?
- How long does the adventure take to play through?
- What are some hooks into the adventure?
- What is the adventure’s genre (murder mystery, politics, search and rescue, tower defence, etc.) and tone (cheerful, dark, adventurous)?
- What maps are included with the adventure?
- If the adventure has parts, what is each part or chapter about?
In order to capture additional insights without bias or preconception, I used emergent coding to cluster responses into ad hoc categories suggested by the data. I uncovered six core themes:
Theme 1: DMs homebrew everything
Many DMs greatly preferred creating their own adventures to running existing content. This preference extended from building entire worlds’ geography and lore to improvising small side missions and encounters during gameplay.
DMs valued the ability to build adventures exactly tailored to their tastes and their players’ preferences, and they enjoyed flexing their creativity.
“I homebrew every single encounter, quest, and campaign. It’s the main attraction of D&D for me.”
Even if they used pre-made adventures, they never ran them as written, swapping out plot hooks, NPC names, sometimes ripping out almost all details of an adventure until only one core idea was left.
“I almost always have to heavily rework [pre-made adventures] to give my PCs real challenges and maintain the pace I like. So, I go to them for subject material, but basically just do what I want from there.”
DMs were generally disappointed in the depth and quality of many pre-made adventures from a storytelling standpoint.
“Most adventures in modules lack explanations on why this plot is relevant and can’t be circumvented with a high enough level spell.”
Some of this frustration came from the inability to find suitable adventures that fit their campaign or their vision.
“I can never find anything that fits what I envisioned, so I give up and make my own.”
So, what value could homebrew DMs derive from an adventure database?What problem would it help them solve?
Theme 2: Adventure paths are useful frameworks
In contrast, some DMs reported using existing content in the form of adventure paths: multi-adventure storylines meant to engage players for months at a time. In an adventure path, a series of adventures tie together into an overarching story that typically includes details on the geography and logic of the world.
“Adventure paths are absolutely invaluable, even if you just use them as a loose framework for your campaign. If you pair them with the campaign setting book for the area you’re in, they’re even better.”
Since inventing a coherent world requires a lot of time and preparation, DMs liked having a world framework to consult if their players ever deviated from the prescribed sequence of adventures.
However, DMs would still exclude or alter adventures they don’t like, and, since an adventure path is a huge investment of time to play through, DMs were careful to consult with their players before launching into one.
“An adventure path is a long-term proposition, so I tell my players a little bit about it to see if they like the concept.”
DMs may be looking not for adventures or encounters, but for entire adventure paths or campaigns, and they would need to know how well any given adventure could integrate with their existing adventure path and setting.
Theme 3: Preparing a game is a collaborative effort
Finding adventures and creating campaigns is largely an individual effort on the part of DMs, but they also often rely on the experience of others in their social circle when looking for adventures.
“I’m […] crowdsourcing ideas from other DMs I know IRL”
When they come across an adventure, they seek out reviews and running notes that may alert them to potential problems.
“I start googling for reviews of modules. […] The opinions don’t have to be ‘It was great” i just want to know what people thought.”
While DMs sometimes rely on the community or on other DMs, many reported that it was in fact their players’ input that drove their decisions. An encounter, adventure, or plot hook would only be considered if their players seemed like they would enjoy it.
“Every desire or whim on the part of the players is a plot hook.”
“If nobody’s having fun with it, we will stop right away.”
The issue is, players don’t typically read through adventure databases, and a DM has no good way of consulting her players without spoiling the adventure. Can we help players contribute to the DM’s preparation process?
Theme 4: Inspiration can come from anywhere
Unsurprisingly, DMs find inspiration, plot hooks, and quotes from all kinds of media: TV shows, books, history podcasts, video games, real-life stories, images, etc.
“Any film, story, or picture can become an adventure if you tweak it hard enough.”
DMs steal and repurpose anything from anywhere. Unlike an author, a DM’s audience is limited to 4–8 players, so anything their players are unfamiliar with is perfectly usable and engaging. Therefore, is it possible that an adventure database could serve as a source of inspiring plot hooks and nuggets of originality? Do the minute details of each adventure entry matter in this context?
Theme 5: Searching under pressure is sloppy
DMs who were looking for specific assets (e.g., maps, monster stats, etc.) or smaller encounters did not bother with a systematic or filtered search. Rather, they reported browsing any of the following with a few quick keywords:
- RPG subreddits or forums
- Google images
- RPG map sharing sites (e.g., rpgmapshare.com, cartographersguild.com, davesmapper, etc.)
- Random encounter, dungeon, character, treasure, or spell generators
If an existing adventure happens to have the exact encounter or NPC that a DM is looking for, it is currently hidden behind a multi-step search process that seems unnecessary given how quickly and easily some of these alternative sources may yield similar results.
Theme 6: DMs browse, collect, and archive
DMs mentioned browsing for interesting plots, adventures, maps, etc. in their spare time, in order to eventually use them in their games.
“I periodically scour dmsguild, download everything that’s free, and dump it into a big folder. Whenever I’m exceptionally bored, I’ll skim through a few of the dozens of modules I have accumulated this way, discarding those I don’t like.”
Rather than searching for adventures to fill a set of immediate requirements; many browse for them without a goal or agenda, skimming a few when they have spare time, and saving them to se in the future.
“If I do include something someone else made, it’s because I stumbled upon it earlier and thought it was cool, not because I actively went looking for something to include in my game.”
These browser DMs had a fair amount of difficulty keeping their archives organized and retaining an idea of what they found interesting about each adventure.
“I wish I were that organized! […] I don’t have a master list or anything, unfortunately.”
For them, searching happened through their own private collections, where they had limited organizational options:
“PDFs in a large folder, sometimes with note files next to the PDFs where I put ideas for things that can be lifted and how to hook the lifted part.”
Chearly, there’s a need for better supporting personal collections:
“I’d probably want to do a few different things: favourite/bookmark my preferred things through the website (being able to group things together in my favourites would be good too); take notes on things that I’d bookmarked, distinguish between stuff I’d actually run and stuff I hadn’t.”
These DMs yearn for brief, informative summaries of the adventures they’ve come across, and are typically failed by the verbose introductions of premade adventures:
“Here’s an example of what I wrote for one of the Dungeon Magazine adventures:
issue 122, p. 10, lvl 3: diviner niece wants uncle’s remains retrieved from the Underdark, entrance is in forest a few days from town; corpse is revered as hero by troglodytes.
“In contrast, the actual adventure has almost a page of “Background”, “Synopsis”, and “Adventure hooks”, all of which you’d have to read to get the gist of what’s going on. That’s fully 1/8 of the total page count.”
So, if an adventure database can help DMs find interesting adventures, can it also help them remember what they found and maintain an archive of favourites?
Jobs-To-Be-Done and Job Stories
The Jobs-To-Be-Done framework is an excellent way to summarize and determine the goals users are trying to solve by coming to a particular product. Its core principle is that users hire products to do jobs, and that products cannot push themselves as solutions to problems (or jobs) that aren’t already open.
For any given job, products may be pitted against a vast range of competitors. E.g., if the job is “I am bored”, then an ice cream sandwich, reddit, and a sheet of bubble wrap may be considered equally plausible candidates.
Job stories are the expressions of users’ outstanding jobs that a product may try to solve. They consist of three parts: a context, a motivation, and a desired outcome.
When I am browsing through adventures in my spare time, I want to be able to see what an adventure is about without having to read through it, know what other people thought of it, and see if I like its main idea so I can decide if it’s worth saving for later.
When I am looking for inspiration for my campaign, I want to extract only the most interesting hooks or ideas from suitable existing adventures without being bogged down by details so I can get creative around them.
When I come across an interesting plot hook or idea for my D&D game, I want to be able to file it away for later without too much effort, so I can remember it and incorporate it into a future adventure.
When I am considering an adventure, I want to check that it matches the constraints and requirements of my game (e.g., player levels, tone, length) so I can use it without having to do too much extra work.
When I am considering an adventure, I want to pitch it to my players and get their initial reactions without spoiling it so I can be confident they’ll have fun with it.
When I am running an adventure path and I need to add an encounter or adventure, I want to be able to quickly see if it would fit in the existing campaign and how it would end so I can get my players back to the adventure path afterwards.
When I finish reading or running an adventure, I want to keep a record of what I thought of it and what challenges I encountered in a systematic and organized way so I can remember my insights or share them with others.
My research interpretation has led to many possible scenarios in which an adventure database could be useful, and in keeping an eye on the most important motivations driving DMs to go to one. In the next stage, I ideate on some solutions and create an initial low fidelity sketch.