Tag Archives: Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons at TfB

It all started with someone saying they had never played Dungeons and Dragons. It seems weird, working for a video game company that exists because of D&D, but many people didn’t get the opportunity to play growing up. I did. And I had even run games before, though for much less discerning players than a group of people who *make* games for a living.

4 years later, we have had two full campaigns and a short lived run through some Savage Worlds, but here we are, playing D&D again. I have played in some of it, but mostly I have been running games. Not just because it’s the easiest way to make sure we play and everyone is having fun, but more because this is what I find fun. Presenting a situation to players and watching them destroy it in the most beautiful ways.

I believe playing and running D&D games makes you a better game designer.

There are different kinds of DMs (dungeon masters) and different kinds of campaigns, but most of the players I have encountered agree that that whole point is to have fun. I have tried planning out everything meticulously and it rarely works. If I have a country road ambush, and I need the players to ride along a road at a specific time to have something specific happen, but I mention in passing while setting the scene that a monarch butterfly flits by – one of two things will happen – 1. The players will chase off after the butterfly certain that it is important because I mentioned it. Or 2. Turn around and ride the other direction because someone forgot to buy arrows or their cat is on fire back in town.

Over the years leading up to my career in video games I learned a great deal about D&D players. They might as well all be named Murphy. They will absolutely go the wrong way, do the wrong thing, at the absolute worst possible time. The job of the DM though, is to make sure they have fun doing so.

I learned to only vaguely plan what I wanted the session to be. It will always be shorter or longer than I imagine. They will have an easy time with extremely difficult monsters while dying to the fluffy bunnies of cuddles. They will bash down doors that weren’t locked, they will fall down shafts that have ladders, and they will drown in small ponds. They will also roll natural 20s (an automatic success) on unopenable chests, leap 40 foot crevasses, and drown bosses in pools of holy water without ever once touching him.

What makes D&D so much fun? What makes me enjoy running these games so much, despite it taking hours of my limited free time, excessive amounts of money for every book WotC prints, and so much mental preparation? Because I can always say YES to the player.

In video games, we are often limited by our tech or our scope. If the player in a game wants to go off the beaten path and chase down bunnies – they can’t always do that. And if we do let them do that, that takes time and money that could be spent on “more important things”. But in D&D – not only can the player do so, but I can twist the story and plan to make it so it’s important and what was intended ALL ALONG. There’s always an answer. Everything’s always connected even if it wasn’t intended to be that way.

To give a very immediate example – last night I presented my players with a room in a magical dungeon. The dungeon is magical because it creates challenges that are specific to THESE characters. This room was targeting towards our resident sorcerer, who’s day job is creating gaming supplies like cards and dice. The room was a handsomely appointed tavern room (yes, in a magical dungeon, it works because magic) with a single table and two chairs. The player immediately sat in the chair, while his party members stood back and watched, and a ghost appeared in the opposite chair to play him at a card game. As he spoke to the ghost he learned the specifics of this challenge. He had to win three bets against the ghost, before he lost 3. Of course, he lost 3 first. Now, I as the DM, didn’t have a concrete plan beyond – the ghost will attack him if he loses. That was it.

The ghost turns aggressive and attacks my player. Of course, his party members join the fray, but as they are level 1, and the ghost is quite challenging, they didn’t kill it. It however reduced my player to 0 hit points (in D&D this doesn’t mean he is dead yet, just knocked out and dying.) At this point, I could have the ghost start attacking the other players, they did after all attack the ghost. But that’s so… normal. So instead, the ghost reverts to its previous non-aggressive form and vanishes. I didn’t plan that. I thought of it in the moment.

As they revive the player, he once more sits down to play the ghost, who returns and acts as if nothing has happened and is willing to play again. They know they hadn’t beaten the room’s challenge and earned the reward. Only this time, the players change their tactics. They all start cheating like mad. Slight of hands, distractions, perception and insight rolls are flying around as they try to help the player win 3 rounds of poker. Of course, he succeeds this time – it was easy as he had 3 extra cards in his hand.

They successfully overcome the challenge and the ghost leaves, giving them access to a door that rewards them with a magical staff specifically made for the player. I didn’t plan most of it. I had exactly two words written down for this puzzle – “gambling game” and then a second note made later that said “v ghost.”

On the surface it seems like a really weird thing to have in a game. It’s not combat (well, it had combat, but it was solvable without combat.) It allowed them to fail and retry without “reloading” or sacrifice. It was still challenging, but not mindless. And yet, it’s exactly the kind of thing we frequently did in Skylanders (there was just a card game, and at times the players inexplicably had to beat them to proceed.) And mostly, the interactions, rolls, and events were generated on the fly to adjust to the players, their actions, their health and stats, and the general feel of the room.

Video game development is a weird beast. Very rarely does the plan set down at the beginning actually lead to the game at the end. Much like the adage about war, the battle plan never survives the encounter with the enemy. On the 4 Skylanders games I built levels for, never once did the order of levels survive 5 months without being changed. That’s not the first 5 months. That’s every 5 months. 5 months from CRC (the first attempt at a final build) at least one level would be moved forward or back to fix some weird issue with a story point, a mechanic, or a toy production issue. Being able to quickly think on your feet and improvise solutions using nothing but what is already in the game is a very valuable skill.

D&D is a group storytelling experience, in that the DM is taking all the threads of story being told by the players, weaving them together, then weaving them into a larger epic narrative. Many video game designers want to achieve this same goal. I have found these are generally the better designers in the game industry and often make exceptional games. They let the player affect the game, story, and experience, even if that means things break in unexpected and horribly broken ways. D&D makes me a better designer because experience DMing has taught me that saying yes to the player and allowing them to do ridiculous game breaking things often leads to the most interesting stories that get retold for years afterwards. It’s not my epic tale where I force them along a prescribed set of actions (that’s a book) it’s the group of us, working together to create hilarious adventures.

Not to mention that having a regular group of people willing to stumble and bumble through mechanics and puzzles is a really great testing ground for level design. In addition, playing with people from work leads to really amazing friendships and the ability to work really well together even when not in dungeons.

Black Wings

I needed to be away for a while. To not be where people knew me. My studies were important, but I found my spirit flagging. Even normal magic became difficult to cast in my deepening sadness. I needed to leave.

I thought I had more roots, but it took less than a week to deal with my worldly possessions. My mentor and friend, Joren took most of my books and supplies. Clothes were donated to the city temples. Everything quickly cleaned and sold. Suddenly my cluttered laboratory was empty of all but furniture. A friend would be taking over the space. I imagine Ayen will do good work here.

After decades of a sedentary life, all my worldly possessions fit in a single leather pack. A common brown horse, named Nomad, laden with two saddlebags filled with items I knew to be useful to life on the road.

I am afraid. It’s a new feeling, and one I welcome. As a child I was never afraid. My parents supported my every study and dream. As a young adult, I moved to this city to study magic with the human Wizards. I was apprenticed to Joren, and life became a clouded haze of learning, study, and experimentation. I lived in constant amazement of Joren’s power, confidence, and knowledge. The most archaic bits of knowledge he loved to throw out like tidbits to children. The most complex spells and rituals were all within his grasp, though he rarely had cause to use them. He taught me much. Even his presence and friendship is not enough to keep the darkness at bay. My spirit knows it’s time to leave.

It took two weeks to get beyond the fields and hamlets. To the wilderness. I was not as prepared as I had anticipated. There are things that one cannot learn from books.

Several months later, I found myself at an abandoned watchtower. The door had rotted away, and inside the derelict building was filled with dirt, leaves, and the remains of past campfires. I pushed aside some built up piles of plant material, when I noticed the blue slate floor. It was the color of sky. Surely an odd thing, in a watchtower in the middle of nowhere. It must be a native stone.

A quick trip outside and I returned with a leafy branch, the appropriate length for sweeping. An hour later and the floor was cleared. I discovered in my labor, a well designed firepit, lined with stone. It took me a bit to find a nearby stream, but once I did, a floating disc spell carried water back to wash clean the floor. By nightfall, I had cleaned the room to the standards of any innkeep. A small fire crackled in the pit.

The night still held a chill, despite being late spring, so pulled my traveling cloak tight and made sure to cover Nomad with my winter blanket.

“It’s going to smell like horse now.” I said, patting the gelding’s nose. He wickered back, and nuzzled me. His lead was tied to the side of the window, so I was sure he was nearby and safe. As I turned to reenter the watchtower, I noticed a large raven on a branch watching me intently.

“Hello my friend. You’re a pretty fellow aren’t you?” He cocked his head to the side, as if in response, to preen slightly.

“I will share my bread with you, if you are hungry, friend.” I beckoned the bird inside. As soon as my foot crossed the threshold, the flutter of wings sounded, a breeze passed my cheek, as the raven flew past to land on the saddle I had removed from Nomad.


“Alright, I am getting it.” I opened the bag as the raven adjusted his perch. A fine white loaf of bread wrapped in oil cloth soon served as dinner to me and my new feathered friend.

“What say you, Corvo? A bit of water, then to rest?”

“Chirp.” I held out my hand, and poured water from my waterskin into it. The raven eyed me suspiciously, but jumped to my hand to drink.

Once he was done, I settled down to mediate. I had only used a single spell, so I wasn’t concerned with restoring my magics. A simple trance would refresh me and I could once more be on my way.

I passed into the trance. As I rested, I felt something on my leg. When I once more awakened, there sat the raven, perched on my leg, resting as well.

I returned the raven to the saddle, then headed outside to relieve myself. When I returned, the raven had departed.

I doused the coals, re-saddled Nomad, and prepared to leave. As I mounted, I called out, “Good bye Corvo, may you be blessed friend.”

That evening I once more stopped alongside the road, simply pitching my tent within the trees. I set up a small fire, and made some tea.

“Chirp.” I looked up and there he was. Perched on Nomad’s saddle.

“Well this is quite the surprise my friend. How did you get here?” The raven flapped his wings a few times and looked at me once more.

“I swear… I think you can understand me.” I held out a bit of bread. The raven fluttered down and ate.

“What is your name then my friend?” I asked.

“Corvo.” The bird replied. I blinked exactly twice. I had always been told ravens were devilishly intelligent but I had never seen it in reality.

I spent the evening talking to Corvo. He frequently replied with just a chirp, or would mimic words I would say. By morning, I no longer felt like I could leave him behind. I plied him with food, and he perched on my shoulder as I rode away from the campsite.

Throughout the day, Corvo would take flight, off to peck at something, or simply just fly about, but he frequently returned to my side.

That evening I stopped early. Corvo sat on my shoulder, playfully pecking at my hair ornaments. I searched through my spellbook until I found the incantations. Corvo certainly fit the bill for being a familiar.

“Corvo, would you like to be even more intelligent?”


“It would mean being my familiar. I’m a wizard you know.”


“So… yes then?”


“Okay.” I set about preparing the campsite for the ritual. It takes a full 24 hours of incantations. I took the time to gather some nuts and berries, as well as plenty of firewood and water. Corvo followed me around, watching intently.

For the first hour or so of the incantation, nothing seemed to be happening. But over time, I began to feel… odd. I felt… a sense of excitement. Not normal excitement, but the entire world was changing excitement. I probed the feeling and dwelled on it. It was so different from my pervasive sadness I wanted to crawl inside it.

“Why sad?” Corvo asked, his voice very pitched and chirpy.

“I don’t know. Something is missing.”

Corvo hopped forward, and rested his wing along my thigh.

“Wait… You can speak?”

“Words. Meaning. You… did this thing. The words… I know now.”

“The spell, it makes you a familiar. I guess it allows you to speak.”


“Friend, companion, a magical creature bound to me.”

“Wing sister?” His words were paired with a feeling of flying in a group of ravens.


“I like you. You … different.”

“I like you too Corvo.”

“What is… Corvo mean?”

“Corvo is draconic for raven. I was just calling you raven.”

“Corvo. Understand. Names…” I could feel his confusion. Ravens don’t have names for each other, though they know specific ravens.

“My name is Riatha… But you should call me Rain.” I said as he pondered it.

“Rain?” My mind was filled with the feeling of rain pattering down on extended wings.

“Yes, it’s my hatchling name.”

“You Rain. I Corvo.”

I continued with the ritual. Corvo flew around the circle I had inscribed in the dirt. He fluttered happily as the bond between us grew. I could feel his excitement. All his life he had watched humans and wondered about them. Now, through the bond, he had his answers. So clever, and so intelligent. I wondered if all familiars were like this. Was this the reason I had been so dissatisfied? Was Corvo the piece I had been missing?

The ritual took a full 24 hours. The sun was near setting by the time it was done. I fed Corvo some bread (he loves bread) and settled down to meditate. Corvo settled on my thigh once more and rested as well.

I rested 8 hours instead of my normal 4, then got up to prepare to leave.

“Where go?” Corvo asked, and for the first time, I realized he spoke in Elvish. So weird.

“I don’t know. Somewhere else. Somewhere interesting and adventuresome.”

“Fly Rain!” Corvo chirped and took off. I mounted Nomad and followed at a quick walk.

The next few weeks were filled with odd conversations with Corvo, and learning how to speak with one another through our empathic link. I taught him to scout and what to look for as far as ambushes, geographical hazards, and cities. When we first came to a city, I explained that he needed to stay close by, so he wouldn’t end up in some farmer’s stew pot.

Ravens have no concept of stealing. Unless you have eaten it, it’s fair game. I learned from him, as much as he learned from me.

I also learned to keep him from talking. The first time he spoke in front of people, they tried to drag us off to a temple to be “cleansed” of our demons, which would likely have led to his death.

“Corvo… Do you regret joining up with me?” I asked one night, in our tent as rain poured down.

“Regret?” He didn’t understand the emotion. I tried to explain in feeling, but even so, he didn’t understand. To him, there was no past, only now. Only the joy of food, flight, and wing siblings. One day, maybe the joy of a mate. Maybe the joy of hatchlings.

As we sat listening to the rain, I finished carving the outline of a raven into my quarterstaff. Corvo fluttered up to sit on my shoulder and peck at the silver chains threaded through my hair. My raven black locks blended quite well with his feathers. We were clearly a matched set.

I had set out to find adventure and ease the restlessness in my soul, and in doing so, found a bit of it, in this lovely friend. As far as Corvo was concerned, we were both ravens, and that was simply how life was. I am surprised I was willing to accept it.