What does Dungeons & Dragons have in common with landscape architecture? More than you’d think.
Interview by Maci Nelson, Associate ASLA
Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop role-playing game where imagination and strategy are the core of play. To participate, you must build a world that does not physically exist but must be understood by others. Dungeon Masters are similar to designers in that they design experiences for people and curate encounters specific to their players and their world for dynamic interactions. In this interview, Frank Tedeschi, a biochemist and the founder of Dead Box Games, discusses the interdisciplinary process of world-building and the way his professional training influences his game making, mirroring the efforts of designers to create spaces.
Maci Nelson, Associate ASLA: I talked to you about being a landscape designer and the world of landscape architecture, but I think Dungeons & Dragons [D&D] and landscape collide because of the world-building aspect, and I love that the idea of world-building and controlling a space and designing an experience is relatable to a lot of people in a lot of different fields.
You know why the fan base is so big for D&D, but I wanted you to talk about your specific connection. I came from landscape world-building to D&D role-playing. But for someone who is a biochemist, how do you get to D&D?
Frank Tedeschi: I asked myself that a lot, actually.
I think that the biggest intersection here is that training as a scientist taught me to think broadly and specifically about a concept and to research it to its fullest to really understand all aspects. It’s the attention to detail and ability to invest.
It’s research that allows me to build large, complex worlds and societies and stories.
Nelson: When I’m drawing these parallels, I’m thinking about when we design spaces, and we think about the experience that people are going to have, and similarly, what’s the experience we want people to have? However, because it’s public space, we don’t get to heavily curate those things.
Understanding that the experience has to change and that it cannot be stagnant, and you can’t just come into a tavern every single day and then expect that experience to be the same and matter. So, I love that it’s pieces, parts, and a balance. Balancing an experience for multiple people is something you have to do as a Dungeon Master [DM], but also something you have to do as a designer in the built environment.
Tedeschi: A hundred percent agree. This is not Groundhog Day, right? You can’t do the same thing over and over and over and expect to be good, unless you’re Bill Murray, and I’m not.
So, keeping it fresh and exciting is something that’s not easy to do when you’re at the table every week, 10 years in a row.
Nelson: But in design, pattern is something that, in repetition, is very revered in a way, you know?
Tedeschi: I like to call them echoes. It’s similar in this way, which helps tie the themes together. I think a lot about themes. Each campaign [a series of playing sessions that continue a storyline using the same set of characters] I run has a specific theme that kind of helps me focus.
I typically choose one primary theme and two secondaries. If time allows, I will think how each session [an episode of the game] also ties into one or two of those themes. It helps me set the tone of it and helps me curate the encounters that I’m building.
Everyone experiences everything a little bit differently. You can’t always have an experience that is for everyone, and so part of what my design philosophy in campaigning is about is setting it up episodically, kind of like Star Trek.
“YOU HAVE TO THINK ABOUT WHO’S INTERACTING WITH YOUR DESIGN. A VERY COMMON DESIGN PHILOSOPHY IN D&D IS—KNOW YOUR PARTY.”
And my campaign is somewhat loosely set up like that too, where I say, this is going to be Jason’s time to shine, this time this is going to be about Niac and his backstory and his people, and it lets people have a spotlight, have that specific experience that we’re trying to curate.
It keeps things interesting because the other players, they only know about themselves, and they only experience the other players and their characters and their backstories if it comes out during the game, so this is a way to help draw those things forth and to the limelight.
Nelson: I’m trying to think about, if as designers we thought about our users’ episodes and making it episodic. If this user came here, what do they get to do? And how do they get to shine and enjoy themselves?
Tedeschi: You have to think about who’s interacting with your design. A very common design philosophy in D&D is—know your party. If you’ve got, for example, a wizard and a barbarian, when you design your adventure, you should have stuff for a wizard to do and stuff for the barbarian to do.
It makes a lot of sense when you think about it in these terms. But I’ll tell you what, people write adventures and they just put all kinds of stuff in there. It’s just bandits and dragons and a cliff. But well, what about the thief? What is he going to do during these steps? It should be the same in any kind of design experience. Even if you’re designing a space for kids, you should have something for the active kid, something for the brainy kid, something for the social kid who just wants to talk to people—you should have that experience there for them.
Nelson: I could not agree more. I love that this does parallel so much. People-oriented design ends up being so much about knowing people and how they work and how they operate, not how you want them to, right? I think that is what I love about D&D—and also the challenge to a Dungeon Master—is as much as you could predict how things could go or how you want people to react, you also have to be very open to and happy about people not doing that. You just have to go with the flow, not in a begrudging way, but meet those deviations with enthusiasm, and I think that’s a really hard thing to do as a Dungeon Master and as a designer.
Tedeschi: It’s hard sometimes even for me. I give the players a lot of agency, and I want them to do what they want to do. Write the story you want to write; you’re in control of that character. Let it happen. And I’m pretty good at saying, ‘okay, this is going to go one of three ways,’ and I’m usually pretty on board, but every once in a while, some characters will do things that are so off the wall that I don’t expect it.
And sure, those things do happen, but I think as a DM, your job is to help facilitate the story, even if it doesn’t go exactly the way you think it’s going to go.
Nelson: In the landscape, after we’ve built something, the way you thought someone was going to use something is not the way it was used. And unfortunately, we have clients to answer to when those things happen.
But it’s a learning experience, and I think it just kind of pushes you further to understand that there’s agency, and even though you’re designing with the best of intents, you’re just trying to predict as much as you can, and if something goes awry you have to push through it. But clients in the built world will punish you for that.
Let’s use homelessness as an example. Someone who does not have a home will lie down on the bench, and rather than saying—ah, they use the bench—now we put the bar in the middle of the bench or we chase them away. It’s interesting that the response is no, no, no, we are going to keep it the way we designed the experience to be, rather than having that collaborative back-and-forth. Not everyone does it that way, but it’s just a parallel that I’m seeing right now when you think, okay, that wasn’t what I intended. But it doesn’t have to be me versus them.
Tedeschi: Right? It’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Nelson: I think one of my first sessions, my brother was the Dungeon Master for our campaign, and we had a druid in our party. We were in this underground sewage area, and he described this cage door setup with a bunch of mossy algae stuff. And the druid was like, can I manipulate these plants as a way to then open the door? But the Dungeon Master was just thinking of that as a setting.
Why wouldn’t you just break open the door, try to reach in, you know, the other ways to interact with the door? But no, they’re latching onto the plant surroundings—is that something I can do? Can I do that? And that just reminds you…
Tedeschi: You never know what’s going to catch their attention.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the full conversation, download the episode “Landscape x Dungeons & Dragons” of The Landscape Nerd wherever you get your podcasts.]