Why UX Researchers should be dungeon masters

Hosting TTRPGs could help you become a better designer, researcher, and writer.

UX Collective
An illustration of a woman in a dark cloak holds a book and a handful of dice that sparkle.
The quintessential Dungeon Master, wielding the power of chance and storytelling prowess. — illustrated by Daley Wilhelm

It should come as no surprise that there is a significant overlap between user research nerds and fantasy nerds. UX is a nerdy profession that requires in depth research, stepping into the shoes of users and personas, improvising interviews, and thinking outside of the box. Playing Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) also requires reading up on lore, embodying strange new characters, bluffing through interactions with non-player characters, and thinking outside the box.

Playing tabletop role playing games (TTRPGs) might be the best hobby for user experience professionals, not only because it is fun, but because many of the skills needed to be a successful Dungeon Master (DM) or player are used extensively in user research.

An illustration is a smiling woman brandishing a sword. She has short, ginger hair and pierced, pointed ears.
Ready for some swords and sorcery? — illustration by Daley Wilhelm

Once upon a time, I played Dungeon Master for a totally homebrewed campaign with four players. It was a little chaotic, extremely fun, and way more work that I had expected. I built a multi-layered city, its inhabitants and their problems, from scratch. I concocted a mystery, complete with red herrings and dead ends. Then I had to consider the needs of each character, their particular backstory and abilities, where I needed to nudge them to go, how to slowly present helpful information via the environment and NPCs…

Being a Dungeon Master, the host of the adventure, turned out to be a lot like being a UX researcher. I’m not the first one to make this observation, either.

Rowan McMullen Cheng, a User Experience Researcher, has been a Dungeon Master far longer than she has been in user experience. Over the course of her seven year long campaign, she has gained essential skills that apply to her work.

DnD and TTRPGS in general, but specifically DnD really helps you learn how to solve problems spontaneously. It’s kind of like serendipity.” — Rowan McMullen Cheng

DnD and TTRPGS in general, but specifically DnD, really helps you learn how to solve problems spontaneously. It’s kind of like serendipity.” She told me in a recent interview. “You still have to find creative solutions with inadequate resources or use tools that were designed for different types of purposes. And I find that I do that in UX research all the time.”

The thing about both user research and hosting a fantasy adventure is that you are not in total control. Problems pop up spontaneously. You must be ready for the unexpected. The players and participants have a significant hand in how the story, or experience, plays out.

“Every participant in UX research ends up contributing to the overall narrative of that research.” McMullen Cheng said. “Like in DnD, the Dungeon Master sets the original context… setting up the overall theme of the campaign is sort of like in UX research identifying the product that’s going to be tested. This is the space in which users will use this product, this is the space where participants will begin that product space journey. Like the players in DnD, the research participants contribute to the story as it grows.”

Collaboration is key for both pursuits. Ask any TTRPG player, and they will tell you a horror story about a campaign sabotaged by a selfish player imagining that they were the main character. The point of these games is not, McMullen Cheng points out, to win. Nor is it to try to outwit the Dungeon Master.

“If your Dungeon Master is like, ‘It’s me against you’ get a different Dungeon Master.” She advised. “Oftentimes, the party is trying to solve the same thing together.”

An illustration of a staff with vines, a red bow and arrow, and a gold-filigreed lute side-by-side.
Choose your weapon — illustration by Daley Wilhelm

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of playing Dungeons & Dragons, imagine this: you are an adventurer looking to find treasures hidden within a cave you have recently discovered. You can’t do it alone. You need a party.

  • Would you want to gather a group of all fighters, who certainly will be able to protect you from any monsters in the cave, but will be unable to notice any booby traps?
  • Would you want to hire only rogues, who will definitely be able to detect hidden traps, but try to evade fights?
  • Would you want to seek out wizards, who could identify what magical properties the treasure may hold, but aren’t very physically strong?

Traditionally, parties in TTRPGs are a grab bag of classes. The goal is balance: someone is there to heal wounds, someone is there to deal damage, someone is there to tank the hits for everyone else, etc. The same can be said about UX teams.

“Similar to a product team, the researchers in all our different roles develop something that makes everyone happy. You are doing it to accomplish that shared goal. It also just really means understanding strengths and weaknesses of other teammates. There’s only so much a researcher can do without a designer and vice versa.” McMullen Cheng said.

In both DnD and UX, a diversity of backgrounds can help cover for weaknesses and supplement strengths. User experience is a field that welcomes professionals from a diversity of backgrounds–McMullen Cheng was once a freelance reporter herself–and this benefits the field by contributing a diversity of perspectives.

“The party is stronger together than apart.” — Rowan McMullen Cheng

“The party is stronger together than apart.” McMullen Cheng cites of the golden rules of DnD. “[UX is] not just a digital only field. It’s really similar to how you need different kinds of players, right? You need magic, you need martial… some sort of party balance in parts is similar to UX where there’s no such thing as someone who is absolutely wrong for UX research because it needs different kinds of backgrounds and different personalities to be flexible.”

A man with a sharp beard points a gloved hand at a glimmer of magic. He has a double-headed ax on his back.
Will you wield your powers for good or for evil? — illustration by Daley Wilhelm

The Dwarven merchant scowls and places a meaningful hand on the ax holstered on his belt. What do you do?

The possibilities are almost endless. Depending on your character’s class, race, alignment, background, and skills there are a huge dearth of ways you might react in this instance. If your character is also a Dwarf, you might deescalate the situation by appealing to your similar background. If your character is chaotically aligned, you might escalate things into a full blown fight. Bards and rogues are known to use their charm to get what they want, while barbarians prefer fists over pretty words.

Regardless of your choice, to play DnD is to dive into an improv session. Qualitative user research and user testing often require the same improvisational skills as a fast paced Dungeons & Dragons session.

“It’s kind of funny that in UX research we use the term ‘users’ and in DnD we use the term ‘players’ but both are actually just participants. You’re participating in DnD, you’re participating in UX research. That same path is the context that they have to interact with the story or product, right?” said McMullen Cheng. “And you kind of have to leave it to them, shenanigans or not, to interact with it in a way that feels really authentic to them either as who they truly are or who they would be as they’re roleplaying.”

“And you kind of have to leave it to them, shenanigans or not, to interact with it in a way that feels really authentic to them either as who they truly are or who they would be as they’re roleplaying.” — Rowan McMullen Cheng

Roleplaying is what happens when you facilitate user research. You are playing the role of a curious observer, an active listener curious for the genuine reaction of a user to a new, or old, experience. Although user experience researchers like McMullen Cheng go into interviews with extensive preparation and questions, further elaboration often calls for improvisation. Players and participants can behave in surprising ways, so Dungeon Masters and UX researchers must be ready to work with that.

“When folks would respond to my questions and I would have to come up with another question for them or just relate to them somehow I was mostly relying on the skills that I learned in DnD and dealing with maybe some other player characters that I didn’t know personally.” McMullen Cheng said.

A wooden chest with gold trim. Beneath the lid, sharp teeth and a saliva-coated tongue peek out. A red eye watches from the keyhole.
Don’t open chests without making a perception check first. — illustration by Daley Wilhelm

Throughout the course of our interview, McMullen Cheng and I kept coming back to one essential factor that will make or break a career in both UX and TTRPGs: empathy. I’ve written about it before, and I will write about it again. Empathy is the cornerstone of UX and a key component in competent storytelling, especially collaborative storytelling.

“Collaboration means understanding what everyone can and can’t do within a sphere that’s human-centered.” said McMullen Cheng. Similarly, UX is the human-centered study of the needs of users. It is important to understand what people can and can’t do, what they want to do, and what they want to avoid. To do so, we must exercise empathy.

“…DnD can be like whatever the party wants it to be. It helps improve empathy for other players, other UX researchers, for the DM, for your research manager… and it helps build empathy overall, especially when you have to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes.” — Rowan McMullen Cheng

When I played Dungeon Master for my small campaign, I had to place myself in the well-worn adventuring boots of the party. I had to consider how the tragic backstory of our Half-Orc fighter would affect his decisions when an old enemy revealed himself. I kept in mind the connections our Tiefling bard had to the city. Our Loxodon cleric was largely a pacifist–how would that impact combat?

Players roleplay as a single character, but Dungeon Masters and UX researchers must consider the needs of many players and personas. Indeed, building personas are a lot like building a character, but are not interchangeable. (Let’s not assign charisma stats to our personas, please.)

Various die float on a purple background, surrounded by sparkles.
Roll for initiative — illustration by Daley Wilhelm

Even if fantasy–the dragons and the dungeons–aren’t your thing, there are plenty of TTRPGs that explore a plethora of genres. Playing role playing games like DnD might help you to hone the skills essential to being an effective user experience professional. The two have a surprising amount of overlap:

  • Collaboration
  • Storytelling
  • Improvisation
  • Interviewing
  • Empathy
  • Engaged listening
  • Context awareness
  • Puzzle solving
  • Creative thinking

Rowan McMullen Cheng agrees that her experience with Dungeons & Dragons has definitely helped her in her UX career thus far, and can be a great way to increase a player’s capacity for empathy.

“I think it’s hard to make a [specific] recommendation because it can be so many different things to everybody simultaneously. …DnD can be like whatever the party wants it to be.” She said. “It helps improve empathy for other players, other UX researchers, for the DM, for your research manager… and it helps build empathy overall, especially when you have to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes. Like yeah, you’ve created that somebody and they’re made up of stat locks but you’re still roleplaying someone other than yourself and that is such a genuine and enormous lift for any game to be able to accomplish.”

Playing games is a great way to decompress from work, and roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons can serve up some seriously fun shenanigans. But the game can also impart some skills that are crucial to the work of both user experience professionals and anyone else who works with people on a regular basis. Empathy is a frankly magical skill that should be exercised IRL as often as possible.

Want to try it for yourself? There are easy ways to jump into a quick roleplaying session with a few friends, and forums online where you can find groups in need of players.

Have fun!

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