The Dungeon Master's Guide
Updated: Feb 22
Using Behavior Science to Improve Player Experience Jeanne Ambrose
It's Saturday night. The snacks are stocked, the drinks are cold, and you and your fellow adventurers are prepared to draw weapons. You enter the world where office managers don the likes of rangers, wizards, and bards. From tavern brawls to negotiating peace across the land, you and your crew stand on the precipice of a grand adventure. That's right, friends, it's time for some Dungeons and Dragons!
There is no fun, of course, without the Dungeon or Game Master (DM/GM).
For those unfamiliar with the game, the dungeon master is the emcee (think of Eddie in the legendary Vecna scene in Stranger Things Season 4). Whether a home-brew campaign or an official sourcebook with pre-generated stories, it is the DM's responsibility to engage the players and bring the fantasy world to life. A DM's role is challenging. They are tasked with conjuring story elements on the spot while juggling the interests and motivations of several characters with varying and exaggerated personalities. How, in the name of Helm, is anyone supposed to juggle that while ensuring a great player experience? Never you fret my little goblins. I'll share some tricks from my behavior science bag of holding that will help you create a great user experience and make you the talk of Faerun.
One of the main draws of role-playing games is the player's ability to contribute to the narrative through their character's actions. While video games allow some customization, the possibilities are limitless in a role-playing game. This, however, can cause difficulties for the DM in keeping the story on track while allowing players the individuality and freedoms they crave.
Setting The Mood: The Wise Dungeon Master
Before a game even starts, set the mood. Establishing guidelines early on will save the battle for the game and ensure everyone has an enjoyable experience. Set clear expectations. Indicate someone's turn to talk and what actions are allowed in the game (like sexual content or swearing). Now is the time to ensure everything is clear and establish the tone of the game.
To set the mood, a shrewd dungeon master will prepare the game environments for success. Everyone wants to feel unique (maybe role-playing gamers especially), so personalize it. One clever but simple way is to ask them what they like and get them to write down some of their favorite in-game goodies. What do they like most, loot or story arcs? Do they want high-level weapons or items that connect with their character's story? Making a list of players' interests gets them invested in the game before it even starts. It's a gift that keeps on giving as they pursue story arcs and items that interest them. Just a little magical motivation to keep the adventure going. Players want to contribute to the game and story events that benefit their character. A DM's arduous task of keeping the game's flow and everyone happy can make or break a session. Use the wisdom you've gained to incorporate character preferences to provide a meaningful experience for them without overwhelming the story with options. Starting your journey without a plan to keep motivated and happy is as good as rolling two 1s in a row.
Don't forget to train your noobs! New players often need more hand-holding to get invested in the game. There is much to cover, and a surprising amount of math goes into playing a character. Before starting your campaign, review skills and situations with your noobs to give them some confidence. But don't stop there. Explanation alone usually brings little comfort in new or hectic situations. You can't expect someone to magically know how to use the Persuade skill to get past a guard. Show them! Practice what things look like in the game so it's not weird and they don't ruin the game for others. The comfort level can benefit players who are shy or new to role-playing, along with the experience for other players.
Addicted to Loot: The Benevolent Dungeon Master
Now that everyone is prepared and hyped, it's time to get them hooked. You have your bag of motivation to make the campaign meaningful. Now it's time to deliver the goodies. Loot is great! But too much will spoil the game. A bored player is distracted, and nobody needs another peasant village burning. A benevolent DM will conjure positive reinforcement (rewarding experiences and goods) from all places and with care.
Most addicting behaviors do more than mess with your brain chemicals. They hijack your behavior too. Video games, gambling, social media, and the like have a similar mechanism to keep people wanting more. The fancy term is called a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. Reinforcement (loot, winning, breaking news, likes) is provided intermittently depending on some random (variable) schedule. Meaning you never know when it will come. But they swear (or at least tell yourself) that it's coming if you play enough or swipe enough.
This type of schedule (as opposed to always winning) causes people to respond more often. It also brings balance to the game. Give too much loot, and your players will become OP (overpowered), and nothing will be a challenge. Boring. Give too few rewards, and there is no motivation to keep playing. If you want your party to explore more areas, reward them with exciting and unique story points or items every few times they travel to a new location. If you want more interactions with other characters in the world, have another character give them a secret item after a variable number of interactions. This is a great way to get your players to stay curious about the game and get them heavily enthralled in the world you have created.
Keeping Your Sanity: The Herculean Dungeon Master
You have a lot on your plate and keeping the interest and sanity of upwards of six people can be incredibly challenging and mentally exhausting. As important as it is for the players to have a good time, it is equally essential for the DM to maintain control of the story. It happens to the best of groups. People get a bit too into their character. Before you know it, half the party is now engaged in combat with a random villager who looked at them sideways. It is literally the first village they came to, and they are already starting some bull. Time to crack those knuckles and get the kids back on track.
Differential reinforcement is your best friend. Simply put, be on the lookout for behaviors you want to see and give them something they want. See something you don't like, don't mind it too much attention, and keep moving forward. Is your party not murdering random villagers? Is your cleric actually healing the party? Then maybe they randomly find some cool gear. Keeping the fun going means recognizing and rewarding it with something meaningful to the players.
Sometimes you will have players that get a little too enthusiastic and need help reeling it back in. This can look like over-asking questions, calling out, or interjecting their own story elements over other party members. You want to keep players engaged but not let them take over the campaign. And do it without being a complete jerk about things. This is where another kind of differential reinforcement schedule can come in handy: differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior. To use this trick, the DM delivers rewards (in the case above - acknowledgment) when the behavior is reduced within a specific time.
Josh is the DM of a group of 5. One party member, Max, constantly asks questions during sessions, typically cutting off other members as they try to contribute. Josh observes that Max is asking about 5 questions every 15 minutes. Josh reminds everyone to make sure everyone is getting a chance to participate. Then Josh gives Max experience points when his questions are reduced.
Redirection isn't just for the magicians. As creative as you are, there will be times when your party wants to go one way, and the way you want the campaign to go is in the opposite direction. To redirect, you want to distract the party from potentially problematic in-game behaviors and lead them to engage in behaviors that are more in line with the story. This leads back to knowing what motivates the party. If you know there is a potential side quest that may completely derail your campaign, redirect to one that aligns with your narrative. The goal is to redirect before the party goes down the wrong or more complicated path. Saving yourself considerable time and planning to figure out how to fit the choice into the story.
You've exercised your wisdom and set clear rules and explanations. Make sure you act on them. In any setting where you want to have people follow your directions, you need to set the tone. You mean what you say. You don't do this through fear but through consistency. If you said that doing an action against your alignment (e.g., a good character doing an evil action) would result in penalties, that's what happens. Every time. The same goes for beneficial plunders as well. You need to deliver if you offer the bounty of double experience points for a creative way to get rid of the BBEG (big bad evil guy). By sticking to your, you build trust with the players.
Dungeons and Dragons, along with other role-playing games, have been associated with many negative stereotypes. However, in recent years with more media exposure (like in Stranger Things), people are starting to realize the benefits and the fantastic experience role-playing games can bring. More people are seeing how role-playing games can benefit their lives beyond just entertainment. They foster inclusivity and promote social and self-monitoring skills while providing safe spaces for people to express themselves. And a big part of that is how DM's bring the players in and make them feel included.
Although this article focused on how the DM can improve the player experience, behavior science can contribute to and enhance several aspects of role-playing games. I recommend checking out these sites for ways people use role-playing games to make positive changes.
*Helm is a god of protection in The Forgotten Realms.
*Faerun is the world of Dungeons and Dragons.
● Dungeons and Dragons for Social Skills
● Using Behavior Analysis in Game Design
● Dungeons and Dragons for Moral Development
● Dungeons and Dragon in Therapy
Critical core - the therapeutic RPG starter set. Game to Grow. (2021, June 8). Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://gametogrow.org/criticalcore/
Morford, Z.H., Witts, B. N., Killingsworth, K. J., & Alavosius, M. P. (2014). Gamification: The Intersection between Behavior Analysis and Game Design Technologies. The Behavior analyst, 37(1), 25–40. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40614-014-0006-1
White, C. (2017, May 8). Dungeons & dragons is now being used as therapy. BBC Three. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/ab3db202-341f-4dd4-a5e7-f455d924ce22
4. Wizards of the Coast LLC. (n.d.). Dungeons & Dragons. D&D Official Homepage | Dungeons & Dragons. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://dnd.wizards.com/
5. Wright, J. C., Weissglass, D. E., & Casey, V. (2020). Imaginative Role-Playing as a Medium for Moral Development: Dungeons & Dragons Provides Moral Training. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 60(1), 99–129. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022167816686263
Jeanne has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst since 2015 after graduating from the Florida Institute of Technology with an M.S. in Applied Behavior Analysis. She currently works as a Senior BCBA in Canton, GA with clients in-home, clinic, school, and communities. She believes that we should always focus on a person's potential rather than their deficiencies. Her main areas of interest include organizational behavior management, training (staff and caregiver), and adaptive living skills.