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In Chris Metzen’s Auroboros, a new setting using D&D rules, the bards have gone full Burning Man

‘It’s like Dragonlance meets Black Sabbath’s 1973 US road tour’

A woman grasps the pommel of a knife while a man with tentacles on his head carves a glowing tattoo into her arm. Image: Warchief Gaming
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

In 2016, after 22 years with Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft co-creator Chris Metzen stepped away from video games. On Tuesday he announced his next adventure: a new, self-published campaign setting for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons called Auroboros: Coils of the Serpent. The setting has a number of interesting features, including the fact that the bard class is very punk rock.

As historian Shannon Appelcline notes, the bard class first appeared in a tabletop setting in The Strategic Review, a zine-like newsletter produced by TSR — the original publisher of D&D. It was among the game’s first prestige classes, something that players had to earn through skill, luck, and determination. The bard class wasn’t just something you could choose right out of the gate, like you can in the current iteration of the game. Making things more challenging, of course, is the fact that the earliest version of D&D was much more cutthroat than it is today. Character progression was more arduous, and death was a much more common occurrence.

A dwarf reaches out with his hands, energy arcing from his head down into his hands. A finger sits on his right temple.
Art for a new Monk subclass, called Way of Eminence, that will be included with Lawbrand: Worldbook.
Image: Warchief Gaming

Metzen created Auroboros in the 1980s with his friends in southern California. They began by playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which was nearly as deadly as the original game. The culture of music was an integral part of their life, and so it became a big part of their characters’ lives as well. He says that culture has been built into the game’s first book, Worldbook: Lawbrand, coming to Kickstarter on April 20.

Metzen describes the region of Lawbrand as a collection of loosely affiliated merchant states that are locked together in a virtuous cycle of trade. But, much like the world of Warhammer 40,000, their manufacturing output comes at the cost of individual freedom.

A female dwarf with long red hair. She’s dressed in furs and carries a large axe.
A Desert Dwarf, one of the new races launching with Worldbook: Lawbrand.
Image: Warchief Gaming

“Under the surface of Lawbrand, with its strict codes of behavior needed for keeping the factories and commerce moving between these trade cities, you have this new youth movement,” Metzen told Polygon in an interview. “It’s really very much a rock-and-roll-type movement, where bards and bands and this emergent music scene are really core to the vibe of the place.”

In the cosmopolitan world of Auroboros, ogres, elves, humans, and many more races new to the D&D multiverse live together. They work in the same factories, their children attend the same schools. There’s conflict, to be sure, but there is also order — and a new generation that is pushing back against it.

“Of course, this is all born of most of my friends when we were in our teens,” Metzen said. “We were all musicians, we were in bands. Music was a huge part of how we related, and it completely bleeds into this setting in a lot of interesting ways.”

While the first bits of art show placid, almost idealized cityscapes, Metzen says that the underbelly of Auroboros is “kind of like Dragonlance meets Black Sabbath’s 1973 U.S. road tour.” Imagine tattooed elves running around in dusty bell bottoms, dwarves in leather cowboy hats, all rolling down a desert highway toward a medieval Burning Man.

“We would do a gig, and then we’d play some D&D,” Metzen said. “Then we’d get in the car and, drive into the Mojave desert for an off-road race. [...] Our off-road races became, in Auroboros, off-road chariot races. These big crazy exotic chariots pounding 100 miles across the desert in no-holds-barred combat.”

A scaly man with tentacles for hair stands in battered parachute pants on a crate.
An Atsaad, one of the new races launching with Lawbrand: Worldbook.
Image: Warchief Gaming

Metzen said there’s even a Coachella equivalent. It’s an annual event called Bard-In, where all the big rock star performers and bands converge and magic flies through the air. Hill giants act as bouncers, wearing the Auroboros equivalent of yellow security shirts.

“It’s not necessarily the highest concept thing you’ve ever heard of,” Metzen said. “Any of us can point to a hundred fantasy settings that are all just amazing that we grew up with. This one, if you could say that it has a charm, it’s in its nearness [to our world]. It’s not an allegory, but there’s a lot of elements of it that I think speak more to what are actual experiences.”

Expect to hear more about Auroboros, and Worldbook: Lawbrand, in the weeks to come.