Jan 24, 2024

A Case for the AI Dungeon Master

by Greg Harezlak

For diehard players, tabletop roleplaying games offer endless potential for creative expression. Storytellers can build entire worlds and then watch the main characters evolve and conquer adversity. Artists can drum up immersive scenery that breathes life into a dreamscape. Power gamers can dive into spreadsheets to model anything from action economies to how class features work with weapons, armor, and magic items to create the ultimate broken character build. So what happens when you introduce AI into the mix?

Since I was a kid, I’ve been drawn to the idea of D&D. Creating a world from whole cloth—and living in that world with your friends to tell a fantastical story—is an easy sell for a Pokemon and Harry Potter-obsessed gaming nerd. The challenge with these games, at least for me, has always been in the details of design. I can have an abstract story arc in mind, but what happens to the characters in the quiet moments between epic battles that give them depth? What are the factions and institutions of that sprawling medieval Metropolis in which the characters find themselves? What do I do when the artwork available online is only a faint, shadowy imitation of the vibrant images in my head?

Players and Game Masters will likely never entirely hand over the reins of their campaign to AI. Human expression is the core of what makes the game so engaging. That said, AI has both changed my approach to design, as well as graciously taken over the crucial—but dreadfully boring—operational tasks of gameplay. 

If you’ve ever had a super cool idea for a D&D campaign, but suffer from crippling writer’s block whenever you stare at a blank document, a simple conversation with ChatGPT can get you out of that hole. It may not spin the narrative gold that makes it to the final cut. In fact, it may give you a list of ten abysmal ideas for your hook to lure players to the brooding hooded figure sitting in the corner of the tavern. That chat will, however, give you a firm starting point to respond with “yes, and” or “no, but” to open up the floodgates.

Prompt: I want to start a D&D 5e campaign in a tavern. I need to get the party to talk to a brooding hooded figure sitting at a table in the corner (and not Boblin the Goblin). Give me some ideas to engage the party with the hooded figure.

Completion: Certainly! Here are a few ideas to engage your party with the brooding hooded figure in the tavern:

  1. Mysterious Invitation: The hooded figure discreetly slips a sealed envelope onto the table as the party passes by. The envelope contains an invitation to a secret meeting, signed only with a cryptic symbol. This could lead to an intriguing quest or an opportunity to join a secretive organization.

  2. Shared History: The hooded figure recognizes one of the party members from their past, despite attempts to remain incognito. The figure holds information about a traumatic event that affected the character, such as a lost family member or a cursed artifact they seek to reclaim. This creates an opportunity for the party to delve into their past and potentially seek redemption or closure.

  3. Prophecy or Vision: The hooded figure approaches the party with an urgent message. They claim to be a seer, sharing a cryptic prophecy or vision about an impending disaster that directly involves the party. The figure urges the party to undertake a quest or investigation to prevent the calamity from occurring.

  4. Suspicious Connection: The hooded figure is observed by a local informant as someone linked to dangerous criminal activities or illicit dealings. The party is approached by this informant and offered a generous sum of gold to gather information on the hooded figure. This sets up an intriguing moral dilemma for the party - should they confront the figure, possibly compromising the informant's trust, or investigate further to understand if there's a noble purpose behind their actions?

For an added treat, perhaps the party’s all-time favorite OOG celebrity Dungeon Master can narrate the intro for them using the voice you cloned on ElevenLabs (obviously for personal use only).

If character voices aren’t your strong suit, but you want an immersive experience for a particularly dramatic monologue from the BBEG, synthesizing an audio clip using AI can really step up the production value. For even more versatility, add a bot to your group’s Discord server to generate live audio during your session.

Are you a big fan of creating elaborate and ornate player handouts for homebrew rule systems or items? You might spend a lot of time in The Homebrewery, lovingly crafting beautiful artifacts for your players. Most of that time is probably spent copying, pasting and fiddling with markdown syntax. Just have AI do it for you! By uploading a sample of markdown syntax as a plain text file, and providing the AI some instructions to translate your prompt into that format, you can quickly generate new handouts like this one. This can be done as a one-off using Claude, or you can create a GPT Assistant in OpenAI’s Playground with the retrieval feature to have the tool ready to go in the future.

Nervous about that homebrew holiday-themed Starfinder one-shot you have coming up? Of course you are! You have Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman fighting in a mech battle. You need maps and tokens for your virtual tabletop and custom stat blocks for each mech. Also, your players have never used the mech system in Starfinder, so you’ll need a cheat sheet and tracker for them. Don’t sweat it. Between Midjourney, DALL·E, and a host of other AI image generators, your assets are covered. Any number of chatbots can help create the stat blocks if you define the premise (e.g. “Create a stat block for a homebrew Frosty-the-Snowman-themed Tier 12 mech from the Starfinder TTRPG system”). Plus, Notion AI can help you generate and format the tracker.

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And then there’s note-taking. If you’re lucky, you have someone in the party whose single goal in life is to be the rockstar archivist for your group. Otherwise, the painstaking effort of documenting a session’s beautifully improvised canon can break your game’s immersion, or your campaign’s history is lost to the vortex of time. Thankfully, we’ve got other options in 2024. While many AI-based note-taking tools are geared toward enterprise/B2B applications, use them anyway. Combine these tools with a ‘chat with documents’ tool, and you can give your players an interface that answers their questions about previous sessions. Use with caution. The Rules Lawyer in your group will now have their own AI paralegal during debates.

Is AI ready to become a one-stop-shop autonomous Game Master for your band of role-playing comrades? Not yet. That said, we may not be too far off, and the current limitations of generative AI certainly aren’t stopping people from trying. Regardless, the linguistic and visual nature of these games make them a delightful use case for a variety of AI experiments. As a voracious gamer, I’m excited to push the boundaries of what’s possible. 

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