The Magic of Dungeons and Dragons for Design Thinking Workshops

Jan 22, 2020 · 7 min read

How a tabletop role-playing game inspired us to build a game for innovation.

Co-written by Molly Oberholtzer and Ko Wongpichet, Illustrations by Gizem Güvendağ

We’ve written about the need for a good foundation for collaborating with clients here. But in this article, we will go into details of how we address these challenges with a game workshop that prepares participants for collaboration, co-creation, and especially for future thinking.

Presenting the connection between D&D and Design Thinking at the Service Design Network

To get people working together, you need the right energy, understanding of the context, and any barriers for teamwork to be removed. In the design world, we traditionally employ icebreaking activities to reach these goals and create a research report or presentation to try to get people on the same page. In the game world, we simply design a good game. Because within the game, participants are given a safe space to connect, learn, and play. In fact, game design can teach us a lot about creating compelling, engaging experiences.

Studies show us that play removes barriers to collaboration, and increases creativity and our ability to react to the unknown in innovative ways.

Some forms of play lend themselves better to the task at hand of promoting interpersonal communication. (Sorry folks, adding a swing to the office doesn’t cut it.) We knew tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGS, such as Dungeons and Dragons, hereby referred to as D&D) for their unique ability to give players a voice and create immersive situations with open-ended problem-solving. RPG’s are unique in their ability to provide us with all the benefits of play, plus some new ones, like scenario simulation, soft skills, and teamwork. (Some really cool people have written about these connections already. We highly encourage you to check them out. Looking at you, Ploy Buraparate, Julie Marquis, and Tim Dahmen!) The potential to embed learning and relationship-building within the D&D format was equally clear to us.

Anything can happen in a D&D game. Illustration by Gizem Guvendag

We designed a game that would go at the beginning of the process, and provide the proper foundation that would sharpen our workshop goals and relationships with clients.

The two mix well, because TTRPGs are quite similar to design workshops. Both are based on participants assuming a role as they explore unknown situations and problem-solve. They are multi-hour meetings that run on collaboration, and in both settings, empathy is a critically important skill. We realized this overlap a lot of potential to explore.

What is D&D

A collaborative storytelling game with no winning or losing, D&D is a game of ‘what-if’ and make-believe, where players role-play as characters in an adventuring party and go on quests in a fictional world. Players have the freedom to improvise, and their choices shape the outcome of the game. The Gamemaster (kind of like a workshop facilitator) weaves the stories together throughout play and presents players with obstacles and adversaries. At its core, all of D&D; is just three steps: describe, decide, roll. (Check out this breakdown from Vox to learn more!) The Gamemaster describes what’s happening, then the heroes decide what they want to do, and roll a 20-sided dice to determine their success or failure. The ‘win’ is the memorable experience of taking action in a world (be it the fantasy world or the office of tomorrow) and the often unpredictable story that the team co-creates.

Illustration by Gizem Guvendag

Using D&D to get next-level outcomes

We didn’t just create a role-playing adventure for a future world. We adapted the most beneficial aspects and game mechanics and brought them into our game. The format of the game is the perfect setting for participants to explore the given situations, get to know the context, and learn to collaborate. These elements lay a strong foundation to optimize the success down the road in the design workshop. Let’s take a closer look at the areas where we use game mechanics to provide the desired experiences and outcomes: Storytelling, Role-playing, Collaboration, and Worldbuilding.

Storytelling: Fiction moves us forward

What brings the facts and figures of virtual reality to life for you? Reading a scientific paper, or watching the 2018 movie Ready Player One? Stories help us connect the dots between abstract and complex concepts. They allow us to understand information at a deeper level. Our brains are wired for stories, and we remember and preserve information better when it is in story format. The more intact the picture of the story in our mind is, the more we believe and memorize it. With PlayBase, players are creating a story with the game master. The main scenarios and conflicts of the story are based on qualitative and qualitative research, and take a narrative approach to the topic participants need to explore.

Illustration by Gizem Guvendag

Role-playing is about engaging

The IKEA effect is when you fall in love with something simply because you built it. The same applies to the characters that you create. Not only do you love it a bit more because you made it, but throughout the game, you are also compelled to empathize with the character to role-play. You actually have to put yourselves in their perspective, and imagine what they/you would do. Not only do you love it, now you have emotional skin in the game. Since it is you, the stakes are higher. The consequences are (more) tangible. You get a better understanding of the situation as you are exploring it as a participant, not a bystander. In PlayBase, you can role-play as a character in the future. It’s not as hard as it sounds — While technology may change, humankind’s core psychological qualities will remain constant. Within the game, the unfamiliar becomes personal.

Players take control, create their character, decide their actions, and build a unique journey. Illustration by Gizem Guvendag

Role-playing is not winning

This game is for unhappy perfectionists, know-it-alls, and people exhausted by post-it-note ideation sessions. The stress to impress or be creative is removed because the success or failure is determined by chance. Whether you decide on a great idea or a crazy one, the outcome of your action depends entirely on your roll. It is great when it goes right, but the bonus still occurs when ‘it goes wrong.’ That’s where things get interesting. That’s where you learn how your ideas can fail. In design terms, it is very much comparable to the Pre-Mortem method where you think about how a solution could take a wrong turn. It’s gone wrong… now, what do we do?

Role-playing is working together

Collaboration is essential in role-playing games. Each player has unique skills that are designed to work in harmony, like a team. Because of the different strengths, there is a ‘Yes and…’ dynamic in the group, as they take action and build upon each others’ stories. Players get used to this game mechanic and learn that success is achieved through collaboration. As an added bonus, you learn much about someone by playing with them. At a meta-level, the team gets to know each other to a degree no icebreaker can achieve, laying the groundwork for successful out-of-game collaboration.

Players sharing their character at a game testing event hosted by the Service Design Network

Worldbuilding is natural for design researchers

Worldbuilding is familiar to anyone who has ever been a Gamemaster. Within D&D, you create an entire world that serves as the context for the story. The gameplay is sandbox-style, which means the player can roam around with minimal limitations — the world is their sandbox. As a designer, don’t you wish your collaborators and clients wanted to roam around your research like that? Player’s are intrinsically motivated to engage with the world and learn through exploration. The sandbox-style game world within PlayBase is a rich environment that contains whole reports of ideas, facts, and information about the future.

Illustration by Gizem Guvendag

Game on!

Change can be scary, or it can be exciting. One thing we know for sure is that it is inevitable, and it moves us forward. Whether it is the future of mobility or your organizational structure, by exploring the future in a game format, we open our eyes to new possibilities and understanding. PlayBase prepares our partners for the changes on their horizon. At the same time, it dissolves hierarchy and galvanizes collaboration. It recognizes the increasing need for spaces within the creative industries where failure can be explored and where learning is engaging and playful. PlayBase is where the best-case and worst-case scenarios can be examined, and players find the common foundation they need to build their next big thing.

Sometimes it’s more fun when everything goes wrong…

Now you’ve got an overview of the aspects of TTRPG’s we’ve applied to improve our design thinking process. Stay tuned, and we’ll get into some more details next!



  • Research as Story: Content exploration in RPG
  • Playable People: Engagement in RPG


How we use strategy, design, communication & technology in…


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How we use strategy, design, communication & technology in a human-centered, creativity-driven approach to provide a broad spectrum of digital solutions to help our clients invent products, transform their business and develop more intimate relationships with their customers.


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How we use strategy, design, communication & technology in a human-centered, creativity-driven approach to provide a broad spectrum of digital solutions to help our clients invent products, transform their business and develop more intimate relationships with their customers.

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