Chris Metzen Interview - Developing Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent
09/02/2023 à 12:20
In an exclusive interview, Wowhead had the chance to sit together with Chris Metzen, once Senior Vice President of Story and Franchise Development and now Creative Advisor of the Warcraft Leadership Team at Blizzard Entertainment, to talk about his current projects!
After Chris had left Blizzard in 2016
he founded Warchief Gaming
, a company focused on creating tabletop roleplaying games. Last year, Warchief Gaming released its first game,
Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent
, a Dungeons and Dragons 5E campaign setting inspired by Metzen's very first adventurer group.
He also wrote the sourcebook called
which leads both game masters and players through the wondrous world of Lawbrand. Additionally, Metzen worked together with Micky Neilson, one of the leading writers at Blizzard who worked on multiple franchises, to create
Under the Sun
, a novel telling the crazy story of Metzen's teenage roleplaying group set in the Lawbrand universe. This novel is also available as an
audiobook on Audible
, narrated by Chris Metzen himself!
Back in December last year, Chris Metzen returned to Blizzard Entertainment as a Creative Advisor.
According to John Hight
, General Manager of the Warcraft franchise, Metzen's work focuses on World of Warcraft for now but will expand to other franchises in the future.
Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent: Worldbook - Lawbrand on Amazon
Auroboros: Under the Sun on AmazonAuroboros: Under the Sun Audiobook on Audible
Disclaimer: This one-on-one spoken interview was lightly edited and condensed for the purpose of clarity.
Chris, thanks for having us, and welcome back to Blizzard Entertainment!
You left Blizzard in 2016 and founded your own tabletop games studio, Warchief Gaming. The first game you’ve developed is Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent, a campaign setting for the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. This setting doesn’t tell a random story - it’s the story of your first campaign that you've played with your high school friends.
It’s safe to say that all TTRPG players will fondly remember their very first adventures RIGHT - but it’s just as safe to assume that most of them didn’t turn them into a published campaign setting! When and how did this plan to turn Auroboros and the world of Lawbrand into a campaign setting come to your mind?
Hand-drawn sketches of Chris Metzen's first group of adventurers.
Looking back on it, this thing was quite a trip. From starting a company, doing this project, and going through the Kickstarter process - everything has taken quite a lot of turns over the past few years. In the end, Auroboros is pretty much the campaign that my friends and I built when we were kids from around 1987 to 1994. We played a total of three generations of adventure parties and the Lawbrand world book essentially describes the second generation, the middle story of this world. During that time we were 17 or 18, just being kids in late high school, reading big heavy books, listening to rock ‘n’ roll, things like that.
Over the years we built our own world and played through a fairly coherent storyline, and one day our adventure came to an end. Our second book,
Under the Sun
by Micky Neilson, is a novelization of this adventure, and let me tell you, the ending was quite shocking. I remember that one group member stood up, stomped around, and was about to leave the room - things got really emotional. Those moments, where real-life friendships play out in the fiction you’ve created, are the memories we’ve all played for over years. Ever since then, I’ve chased this fusion of role-playing, world-building, and storytelling.
When I left Blizzard about seven years ago, I wasn’t really interested in being creative. I was, you know, very ready to not do any of that for a long time. And when I was ready to be creative again, it was not even a question of what I wanted to do. I had been carrying these memories around for years, so why not make it into something to share with the world, right?
This really sounds like a dream come true! You’ve spent over 20 years as a game artist and developer at Blizzard - are there any things you were finally able to do while designing a TTRPG campaign setting that would’ve been impossible to implement in the digital world?
My first thought would be that, in some ways, designing a campaign is remarkably similar to what I did most at Blizzard all those years. Writing down ideas, framing up worlds, and creating logic between moments in history. If you’re a world builder or an “idea guy”, you’re absolutely bound to the system itself, the core of game design, the fantasy experience that you want people to feel. Whether it’s an RTS, an MMO, or an ARPG - whatever it is, you know you start with a fantasy. We try to build a structure that enables the player to feel their accomplishments, to feel the fantasy through the gameplay.
One of Blizzard’s core principles is “Gameplay First”. I wasn’t always overly fond of that particular value, but at the end of it, it is true, right? If a thing isn’t fun in the first two minutes, it doesn’t matter how great your story was.
That is why some ideas just aren’t going to work within that video game system. Some of the big themes are just too much for some video games, right? We argued a lot about Starcraft II, for instance - I wanted it to feel like “Gone with the Wind” in space - you know, this kind of sweeping tragic romance. But in the end, a lot of designers were like “Dude. Nobody wants that, right? They just want to feel like a badass general and slaughter Zerg …”
So when designing Auroboros, in terms of ideas, it was kind of just me. I had a small team that I would discuss things with, and some designers I partnered with to provide perspective and keep it on the rails in terms of application to Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition. But other than that, there was no team down the hall, no one who said “no”, no one to wrestle with. I think that’s the main difference - this sense of freedom, unbounded by systems.
Talking about systems, the Sigil system in Auroboros is a great example of combining gameplay design and character lore. In the world of Lawbrand, characters can make use of powerful magical effects when wearing so-called Sigils - ancient tattoos - on their body. How did this radical idea of a system come about?
Back when were 17 or 18, everything was about self-expression. I would draw our characters as torn-up hippies or as metalheads covered in tattoos. As edgy as it may sound - to us, playing in this world felt like a heavy metal band tour! The rock and roll feel was always core t how we were playing the game. In Auroboros, you can tell how epic and arcane someone is by looking at their tattoos.
The theme of sacrificing a part of your body to gain arcane powers really resonated with the world we were playing in and also resonated with our young selves. Diving deep into your character, finding the truth in the gutter - all that provided a real sense of clarity about what life was and still is really about. Those themes really stuck with me back in the day, and that is the whole idea of the Auroboros as well - the serpent that literally eats and sacrifices itself to gain more and more power.
The most powerful sigil in the game is the Mark of the Serpent. It allows users to channel the powers of Auroboros itself. From making multiple clones of yourself to moving whole mountains - most effects sound incredibly powerful but come at great cost with death as your final fate. Don't you think that the system built around the different spell tiers, the "Coils of the Serpent", provides a bit too much “deus ex machina” power to handle for the average adventurer group?
A sigilist inscribing a Lawbrand adventurer with the Mark of the Serpent.
A lot of my designer friends said that this system should be more structured but I think that it instigates the relational dynamic in your adventurer group. Getting the Mark of the Serpent will be a burden, and not only for that one adventurer who chose to wear it. Using its powers can and most certainly will create crazy situations you never could have planned. And those are the adventures we laugh about 10 or 20 years later. That’s the magic.
You can’t just conjure these things - but the whole Serpent engine tries to enable players to emotionally engage with each other. In fact, we would really love to hear feedback about this system! What kind of terrifying, amazing, or challenging moments did it create?
It certainly sounds like this system could definitely create crazy situations! Another theme that seems very close to your heart is described at the very start of your world book. Right at the beginning, - on page 13 to be precise - your world book starts explaining the role of music in Lawbrand. Why is music such an important part of your world's culture, and ultimately, lore and gameplay?
Music is something that fits right into the world of Auroboros, and that was because we were all big fans of music. For instance, the section of the book about the world’s most famous bards was written by my friend Daniel who was a part of our group back in the day, and everything about it takes you straight into the feeling of the setting we’re trying to create. In fact, we’re currently working on our first Auroboros campaign book - I’m calling it “Anthem” for now!
It’s a light-hearted low-level campaign where your party gets sent to each of the major rock festivals throughout the season, and it’s just bedlam, it’s hilarious! There’s also this equivalent of a big record label, and they’re the bad guys, so your party basically has to save music and freedom of expression. In this context, we’re also working on a new Bard sub-class called the Shock Bard which does all kinds of things to cause public outrage!
Another thing I’m currently working on is a graphic novel that plays in the Auroboros universe. It’s called “The Muse” and it’s essentially about a bard who has lost inspiration. She’s very depressed and can’t write anymore, but one day someone says “Well, I can give you this tattoo that will expand your mind!” - and that is where she starts to flow down the Coils of the Serpent, slowly losing her mind while composing insane music.
I really love these stories about music, and thanks to the Lawbrand sourcebook, we can offer people who normally don’t play TTRPGs other ways to enjoy the world of Auroboros!
Looking at ways to enjoy the world of Lawbrand, we as World of Warcraft players took a particularly good look at the new species introduced with your campaign setting. One of the five new playable species in the world of Lawbrand is the Desert Dwarves of the Eastern Wastes. What differentiates them from the dwarves of World of Warcraft?
Concept art of a female desert dwarf by
I grew up in the desert, riding dirtbikes and dune buggies, going to off-road races, this and that. While we started our campaign in a very typical D&D world, the Lawbrand campaign, which was the second of three campaigns, was supposed to be much more familiar and fun. When you look at the map of Lawbrand you’ll notice that it looks a lot like Southern California.
So when we created our characters back in the day, my friend Mike would try to come up with races and species that would fit into this landscape, and so the Desert Dwarves were born. They know how to survive in the horrible hot desert and how to do things under the most hostile circumstance - they are specialists. When we looked at possible new species for Auroboros, we found that the Desert Dwarves could become a pretty strong and flavorful archetype in our world.
You’ve commissioned some amazing artists and cartographers like
to work on this very personal project of yours. How hard was it to get this whole world you’ve been carrying with you over the last decades out of your head into this book?
Map of Lawbrand by
I started drawing maps early on but those were basically just some squiggles with dots and names on them. So when we started working on things like city maps, I came together with Francesca and we just started sketching. I sent over some horrible sketches, but she immediately understood where I was going, and the results were just amazing. How I haven’t been able to work with her for the last 25 years! The things we could have done!
All that just goes back to the point of Auroboros being a much more personal project. Back at Blizzard, there was machinery in place to find artists or animators. I never had to worry about it - but this project gave me a completely different perspective and appreciation for freelance artists and developers out there in the world.
As we all know, the Dungeons and Dragons universe spawned countless video game adaptations. Is there any chance we could see Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent turn into a video game one day as well? You and the majority of Warchief Gaming have spent a lot of time developing video games after all!
I daydreamed about it a couple of years ago. But now that I’m back alongside Blizzard again, I think I wouldn’t chase that idea. If I’m thinking about video games at all I want to make sure I’m focused on Blizzard. Maybe there will be licensing opportunities or something at the end of the day, but that is not where my head is today. I want to make good on my commitment to Blizzard, and I don’t think I’d ever make video games anywhere else than Blizzard.
But there are other types of expressions available! I daydream about a Netflix series or even an animated series. I want to work on a series without storytelling aspects being limited by game design, and I think Auroboros could be amazing for that. But when it comes to a video game adaptation, I don’t think I see any of that playing out in the near future at all, and I enjoy that clarity of Auroboros being a TTRPG universe.
Now back to the table for our last question: What would be that one piece of advice you’d give a group of adventurers who decides to enter the Lawbrand universe?
I’d say the most important thing that occurs is kind of more aimed at game masters. There’s a section of the sourcebook, I can’t remember exact page numbers anymore, but there are content guides for each city and each faction that also contain a number of randomized tables, containing adventure prompts or things you might hear randomly.
I know that most game masters want their group to play in these big and epic storylines - but how about you’d pull back on those and let your group breathe? Roll some die on those tables and let the players drive! You should always keep your themes in mind but letting the players do goofy stuff is what gets you in deep and fast, and that is particularly true in Auroboros.
Let your friends mess with the town guards in the early levels - that is where the magic begins! That is where they have to think and start sharpening their characters, and after a couple of sessions, you can come back in and start pushing them down whatever your big story is. Just let your party roleplay because those are the moments that will stay with you forever!
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