After launching Warchief Gaming last year, Chris Metzen - the former vice-president for Blizzard and worldbuilder for titles such as Warcraft and Diablo - has announced the first project from the tabletop gaming studio, Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent. A roleplaying setting designed for Dungeons & Dragons 5E, the first sourcebook in Auroboros will be Worldbook: Lawbrand, which is set to provide players and game masters with an overview of the fantasy setting and enable them to tell their own stories in the world.
Ahead of the game’s reveal, I spoke with Metzen, along with fellow Blizzard alumnus and lead product developer Ryan Collins, about what players and GMs can expect from Worldbook: Lawbrand and Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent when it launches on Kickstarter on April 20th.
Chris Metzen: This is Warchief's first big product and we are making a 5E sourcebook. So it's a fantasy setting in a richly detailed sourcebook I developed with my friends when we were kids for our D&D campaign that we ran from like the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s. We played in successive generations. We picked it up a little after high school. And then we played a third time shortly before I joined Blizzard. So those are kind of three distinct areas of this setting that we created with three different groups of characters that all kind of string together this big world we crafted to facilitate our adventures. So when we decided at Warchief to actually go from just being a private gaming club to a production shop, I knew very quickly that this is the product I wanted to do. This was the project that was nearest and dearest to my heart. It's the world I was working on before I joined Blizzard. And it was pretty amazing to come back to it and kind of relook at what made it tick, who we were as people when we were kids developing it.
We put together a team here at Warchief, although it's really only three of us, but we have a few contractors we work with that are effectively teammates. And we've kind of recreated and translated this old setting and built out a sourcebook with the purpose being that any GM can come in and craft stories for their own groups for their own parties, players can come in and use our unique races or backgrounds and you can run your own adventures right through this world that stand separately from the storyline that my group and I played through back in the day.
The playthrough that you and your friends did back when you were kids, was that based on an existing D&D campaign? Or is this a world you all entirely made yourselves?
Metzen: It started out like most groups do. We were playing this module and that module; Ravenloft or Temple of Elemental Evil, just going through all the classic modules. But over time felt like we wanted to flex and create our own content. In some ways, in those early days, we reimagined some of those adventures and put in our own world ideas and ongoing plot in as we went. It really became much more of an organic, homegrown setting that in our subsequent generations we really doubled down on. In particular, this first project, Worldbook: Lawbrand, is set in the middle era or the second era of the world. It was late high school-post high school when we were developing this chunk of it all. While the origins of it all start where you're most players start, we very quickly morphed it into something that was more for ourselves.
And this is specifically a supplement for D&D 5E?
Metzen: That is exactly correct. It uses the open source system for 5E. So fully compatible.
What can players expect from this world? How does it stand out from a standard D&D 5E sourcebook?
Metzen: We've got elves and dwarves and all the kind of classic fantasy hooks. Our intent in developing this world back in the days was to make it feel a little more reflective of the world we were growing up in, and maybe even shades of the now. While it's not attempting to be an allegory at all, there's a newness to it. It's a very rock-and-roll setting. There's bars and bands are like a big deal in the setting. There's a lot of tension. The realm it takes place in is called Lawbrand. And Lawbrand is essentially built of a number of trade cities, which are very urbanised industrialised cities. So you got all the classic races living together in these densely populated spaces - they all work the same factories, there's this overarching faith system that many adhere to. There are a lot of social pressures pushing down, and people wind up expressing themselves in this movement of music and self-expression. It's a different world in that it's not as based on good and evil and these classic red-versus-blue super factions. it's really more about individuals kind of rising up and expressing themselves in their own way.
We were trying to create a system of deep psychology that kind of takes the grand quest and kind of turns it on its ear.
One of the other big points of distinction is beneath all of that is this mythology of the Auroboros itself. The franchise is called Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent. The ouroboros is an old word -the serpent that devours its own tail - and we've taken that idea and mythologised it. There's this power in the universe called the Auroboros. The World Serpent that coils its way throughout reality. And it’s comprised of vast power to create and destroy, it represents enlightenment and madness. It is all things at once. It's kind of Nietzsche's monster of energy, if you will. Player characters can tap into the power of the Auroboros by taking a specific kind of tattoo, which are called sigils. You can get the serpent tattooed into your flesh and tap into this universal force. You can wield power totally apart from your class progression. We've developed a system called the Coils of the Serpent, whereby you can perform miraculous feats or horrifically destructive acts. But as you do these acts more and more, you're also potentially going a little crazy. It's devouring your identity and warping you as a person. Ultimately, as you descend the Coils of the Serpent, it leads potentially to madness and death.
And all of this is meant to be a narrative system in partnership between the player and the DM that creates a different kind of storyline for roleplayers. There's always justice to dispense. There are many factions in the world and super villains to defeat and rights to wrong - plenty of things for adventurers to do. But with this system raises the question of what do you do one of your party members actually becomes your storyline's supervillain? There's even abilities for different party members to actually help keep that player on their feet and focused towards the right goal. It conjures things, like Frodo heading to Mount Doom and the Ring is becoming heavier and heavier, but it's kind of giving him more power and it's twisting his soul. But you got Sam there to carry him up the side of the volcano. We were trying to tap into some of that vibe and create a system of deep psychology that kind of takes the grand quest and kind of turns it on its ear. What if one of your party members was the grand quest?
Things could get fairly complex as multiple characters wind up with the power of Tetsuo from Akira - it could really start getting out of hand.
Are the Auroboros powers something that you would advise only one party member investing in? Or is it something that all player characters are encouraged to explore?
Metzen: As of our current design and thinking, there's nothing that prohibits more than one person from utilising this system. And in the back of my head that sounds crazy. But that's the beauty of roleplaying - why arbitrarily limit things? It really comes down to the GM's discretion. Things could get fairly complex as multiple characters wind up with the power of Tetsuo from Akira - it could really start getting out of hand. But that sounds kind of glorious, too. I think our intention with the system is that there'd be more focus on one character, but there's nothing that prohibits a GM from running the campaign however they want. My gut is that focus probably draws out the strengths of the system.
Collins: We have a guide for the GM to give them some notes and some tips if you do plan to go that route. Because we know it's going to be kind of overwhelming. It's a lot for the whole party to have to deal with, but we also respect that it's really cool if you think you can pull it off. We'll let you know if the complexity will be increased and provide some suggestions of how to make it work best. Ultimately we want people to play out their campaign as they see fit.
Are the classes in this RPG based on your standard kind of D&D fare? Or are there any sort of outliers or unique classes?
Metzen: Being 5E compatible, there's all the basic classes you can run. But we've developed some new subclasses that are unique to the setting and echo some of the things that my old group did. We've got a rogue subclass called the Wraith Blade, which is connected to this vampire cartel. They've got kind of quasi-vampiric abilities, so they can shapeshift into mist and regenerate.
We have a fighter subclass called the Wild Keeper. Who are warriors that work for the main druidic faction, but they're blessed with animal totems. While they don't shapeshift, certain parts of their body can morph or mutate to reflect their animal totem.
We have a warlock subclass who can take the patron of the Soul Eater and they use an interesting system where they scarify or tattoo their bodies, and steal souls into these tattoos and use them in various ways.
We have a monk subclass called the Way of Eminence. And they effectively learn to channel their inner willpower outwards to form a sphere of influence. And that sphere kind of grows over time, and can do more things as you interact with other players or NPCs. If they're within your Sphere of Eminence you can do any number of abilities like generate shields or perform combat effects, or even through suggestion motivate people to do different things.
This was always the purest distillation of the idea that there's this power that you can tap into, but it can be absolutely corrupting.
We're really excited about the new subclasses. I think that they're very flavourful thanks to the franchise fiction.
This world that you've developed - have elements been further developed since you first started thinking about them when you were younger? Have they been affected or influenced by other stages in your career or work you've developed?
Metzen: Oh, for sure. When we were actually running and playing the game, back in the day, we were developing as much world as was necessary to accomplish the storylines we had in mind. I'd have big city ideas for the group that lived there and what's going on in that location in general. We only developed as much as was needed to get things done. An interesting aspect of working with the team here at Warchief is that we would look at these spaces and factions that were embedded in the old idea. And we'd pump more air into the tyre, if that makes any sense? Broaden these ideas. I got into it at a ground level and asked "What is really going on in the city? What are these factions really about? How do they relate to each other? What types of creatures exist within each of these factions? What are the types of POIs and sub locations that really make these cities distinct from one another? What are the types of things that are happening?"
I approached it like the video games I've worked on over time - if you're building a big chunk of World of Warcraft, you just have to roll up your sleeves and really get nitty gritty with details. So the team at Warchief took different chunks and hashed all the details out and breathed new life into some of these older concepts.
Was there anything in the sourcebook that didn't make it into the other worlds that you've worked on before?
Metzen: I'd say the main thing was the concept of the Auroboros itself. The reason I would use that as the example is that it's a big feature system for us. I think for me, it's the distillation of one of my favourite themes. I'm a big fan of corruption and redemption. Noble people falling into darkness with the best of intentions and whether they can be brought back. Can they find redemption innoble action again?
It's really one of my favourite themes. it occured in cycles throughout my Blizzard work. And in a way, this system, the Auroboros, is where all of that came from. This concept was so effective to me as a kid. This was always the purest distillation of the idea that there's this power that you can tap into, but it can be absolutely corrupting. Can you step into it and retain who you are? All the while it's eating away at you, can you still perform a hyper heroic action and save the world? Even though it's an old theme for me, I think it's the most personal distillation of it in any of the worlds I've worked on.
How can people get hold of the sourcebook?
Metzen: We'll be offering it over Kickstarter during a campaign that begins April 20th.
Is there a rough pledge amount that people can expect to pay?
Collins: This is intended to be as accessible as any D&D 5E sourcebook. So, we'll have a digital version that will be cheaper. We'll have a sourcebook at a regular price for what you would expect compared to the kind of products you get from D&D Beyond. And we will have a collector's edition, which comes in a big fancy slipcase and with a novelisation of Chris' original adventure. So we have three price points.
And this is going to be part of a series of sourcebooks?
Metzen: That is our intention. We haven't announced anything, yet. But there are multiple eras in this setting. Our grand intention is to get to those other eras of the setting. And then support those with ongoing adventure material.
We love providing players with as much control as possible to make their characters feel unique to them.
Dungeons & Dragons has been around for ages, and in recent years it's come under scrutiny for not modernising enough and reflecting player groups, particularly in terms of representation and the way that races are depicted and created in the game. Is that something that you've considered with this system? Is there a race system that you've created yourself? Or will it be taking cues from D&D?
Metzen: We've been watching all of that along with everybody else, and it's interesting to see how things are flowing these days. We've conjured a number of new races, I think we have five new races, that kind of plug into the setting alongside the classic roster of current races. We've done things like taken alignment out of the process. It's fair to say you should be able to play your character however you want. Otherwise, I would say, our races fit the fairly conventional mould of having normal stat blocks. We've made suggestions on what this race works with. You still get things like intelligence bonuses, or characters who are little lower on dexterity. So we make those suggestions based on just contrast and how the different races feel. If a player wants to put their bonuses into some other category that's their thing, they can. We love providing players with as much control as possible to make their characters feel unique to them.