#441: What Dungeons & Dragons Can Teach Storytelling in VR

chrisperkinsDungeons & Dragons is a form of collaborative storytelling that isn’t constrained by time or budget. Because it’s all happening within the theater of the mind, then if you can imagine it, then it can be constructed instantaneously within everyone’s imagination. The end result is that each participant is able to express the full extent of their free will to the dungeon master, who either directly controls their fate or delegates it to a roll of the dice. It’s the ultimate expression of imagination, improvisation, and storytelling that provides a high benchmark and design inspiration for what virtual reality and artificial intelligence can only hope to someday fully replicate within the metaverse.

Chris Perkins is a Dungeons & Dragons story designer as well as the Dungeon Master for the Acquisitions Incorporated podcast. I had a chance to talk with Chris the day after the 3-hour, season finale show for Acq Inc. that took place in front of a live audience of 2500 people in the PAX West Main Theater.


Chris and I talk about what DnD can teach VR storytelling, designing a DnD story within a traditional three-act structure, the expression of free will in DnD, and how to balance out the participation of all of the players and enabling them to do something really cool. Chris sees so much of the dynamics of DnD storytelling as a social experience, and as such most of the biggest open questions for DnD are more shaped by human interactions than by technological limitations.

Some of the hardest open problems with artificial intelligence have to do with understanding stories, disambiguating pronouns, and comprehending inside jokes, cultural references, and different tones of voice. The dungeon master has to track all of these things, observe the mood and body language of all of the participants to keep them engaged while at the same time pacing each character though series of perils. These are all sufficiently complicated enough that having an AI dungeon master successfully guide DnD players through a campaign could be a next-generation Turing test.

Chris also hasn’t been impressed with any of the VR experiences that he’s seen so far because it felt like walking through someone else’s mind. With all of the DnD experiences he’s had, he’d much rather walk though a VR experience of his own mind. There’s TiltBrush and Oculus Medium, but painting or sculpting is 3D is still no where as fast to the instantaneous ability of the mind to construct a scene and story on the fly. Perhaps it will some day be possible if neuroscientists are able to completely code the brain, and unlock the ability to be able to use neural activity to automatically translate our thoughts into virtual objects and full scenes within virtual reality.

Chris is fairly confident that DnD doesn’t have too much to fear from technological competitors. It’s entirely possible that technology may never be able to fully replicate the capabilities of the human mind as we visualize stories with our mind’s eye. So he’s skeptical about the capabilities of VR or AI to be able to accurately and synthetically express your own personal “theater of the mind.” But he also said that it’s inevitable that we’re going to try our hardest to do so because humans and storytelling are inseparable. As history has shown, we’re going to always be looking for new ways to reach people through the latest storytelling techniques.

Here’s the YouTube video of the PAX West 2016 Acquisitions Incorporated campaign discussed in this podcast:

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Music: Fatality & Summer Trip