If you've ever played a pen-and-paper role-playing game before, then Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep, the next piece of downloadable content for Borderlands 2, will immediately make sense to you. When you sit down with friends, character sheets and dice and snacks spread around you, there are two stories happening. There's the story taking place in your imaginations, where your heroes go on epic quests and perform valorous deeds. Then there's the story of you and your friends, and what each of you brings to the table. Though the stories are separate, who you and your friends are in the real world will shape, to some degree, the interactions of your alter egos in that realm of fantasy.
It's clear that Anthony Burch, lead writer on Borderlands 2, knows all about how this works. In the upcoming story DLC, Tiny Tina, Lilith, Brick, and Mordecai come together to play the tabletop RPG Bunkers & Badasses. During a recent interview, Paul Hellquist, the game's lead designer, shed some light on how Burch approached writing the characters in this new context. "Anthony put each one of those three vault hunters into a different role that anyone who has played tabletop games [will recognize]. One person's super gung ho, one person's never played before but is really excited to check out this thing, and that's kind of where Brick is. Lilith is like, 'Yeah, I know how this works, and I'm into this stuff.' And Mordecai is the guy who's, like, 'Hey, you're in our friend group, and you've never played before? You gotta come over and play!' but they're not really bought in yet. And people who play tabletop games have had those interactions around their tabletop, and so we hope that those fans that are also playing Borderlands will appreciate and sort of see those, like, 'Oh yeah, I remember when my buddy wasn't into it but now he's Lilith; he used to be Mordecai, and now he's Lilith.'"
"There was always this attempt," Burch said, "of like, 'OK, don't be Big Bang Theory.' Don't be the guys who are just being condescending."Of course, the Borderlands games always aim to be funny, and the tabletop game scenario is ripe for comedic riffing, but for Burch, it was important to handle the humor around the role-playing game the right way. "There was always this attempt," Burch said, "of like, 'OK, don't be Big Bang Theory.' Don't be the guys who are just being condescending, like, making nerds the punch line of the joke rather than the people who are making the jokes. We wanted to be a love letter to nerd culture that can still poke fun at itself. Not like, 'Ha ha, you play video games, what a nerd!' That wouldn't have even made sense because we are the biggest nerds. Borderlands is a really hardcore, really in-depth game with a whole crazy amount of mechanics because we like those kinds of games, and this story is about nerdy sh** because we really like that--there's Game of Thrones references because everybody on the team likes Game of Thrones and all that kind of stuff."
There's no shortage of zaniness in Assault on Dragon Keep, as mishaps in the real world where the characters are sitting around the table playing the game regularly intrude on your experience within the fantasy world of Bunkers & Badasses. But it wasn't enough for this DLC to be just a vehicle for a series of jokes. "It was also really important when we were conceptualizing this that there was growth," said Hellquist, "that the tabletop part of the story went somewhere just as much as the fantasy adventure story. And Tina was the driving core of that."
As Assault on Dragon Keep begins, Tina hasn't come to terms with Roland's death, and this gave Burch an opportunity to delve into some more serious issues over the course of the DLC. Though he didn't intentionally conceive of the story in this way, he said that one early player reacted by saying, "You kind of inadvertently ended up making a story that's about the healing power of nerd stuff." And Burch definitely wanted to send a different message about the value of gaming than the ones he thinks are most prevalent today.
"It always bums me out when people are like, 'Oh, it's just games; it doesn't matter,'" Burch said. "But no, it kind of all does matter a lot.""If you ever play a game about games or you ever watch any sort of fiction about games," he said, "the theme is almost always, 'Aren't you a bad person for killing a bunch of people? Doesn't that make you a bad person that you like that in your entertainment?' There hasn't really been a voice that's sort of saying the other, and again, none of this is intentional, but looking back, I can see why we made the decisions that led us here. That we kind of wanted to be that other voice being like, 'No, I mean, we're all adults, and we know that when you're killing orcs, that doesn't make you want to kill human beings.' And also, it can really bring you closer together with people you care about and help you through difficult times. Or create awesome connections. I met my wife because of video games."
"It always bums me out when people are like, 'Oh, it's just games; it doesn't matter,'" Burch said. "But no, it kind of all does matter a lot. Even if the message you're sending isn't anything big and wide-reaching about human nature and the nature of violence, which is totally not what we're dealing in, the message that games are cool and you can play games to be close to people is, I think, still a message worth telling."'