The writer behind Borderlands 2 talks roleplaying, why Big Bang Theory is harmful, and more.
By Tim Colwill on June 4, 2013 at 5:06 pm
When we learned that the final piece of Borderlands 2 DLC saw players jumping into a D&D game narrated by Tiny Tina, we knew that we had to sit down and speak to the man behind it all — Anthony Burch. Below, you’ll find part one of our conversation where we discuss all things roleplaying, why Anthony thinks The Big Bang Theory is harmful to nerds, and using nerd sterotypes to cut through poor storytelling.
GON: Now I’m in the unusual position where I don’t play Borderlands 2, but I do play a $@#%load of Dungeons & Dragons. So when 2K said “Would you like to interview the delightful Anthony Burch about a D&D game in Borderlands” I said “Yes. Yes I would like that very much,” and so here we are today.
GON: Now Anthony — how many games of D&D have you played, and how many of them did you use as inspiration for this?
Anthony: I’ve played around four separate campaigns with two different groups of people. I’ve played Gamma World to start off, that was my gateway drug into tabletop roleplaying. Then I played fourth ed with a couple friends who were the same guys I played Gamma World with — who are actually guys who work at Gearbox! And then I played fourth ed with some of my friends on the side. I know many people think fourth ed players are heretics and stuff like that but that’s all I’ve played so far.
GON: It’s alright, I wasn’t going to say anything.
Anthony: (laughs) I could hear you turning up your nose. But a lot of it went into the basic understanding of how to write the DLC, because it’s a very easy trap to get into I think — and I even fell into this in the early stages of production — of “Okay we’re making a thing about D&D! Let’s just make fun of orcs and dwarves and nerd things!”. There’s this inherent kind of condescension to the way a lot of people make fun of D&D which is really kind of harmful and not satisfying to the very audience they’re trying to comment on.
GON: Because there’s a lot of TV shows, aren’t there, that make fun of people who play D&D while attempting to do a show about D&D for example, if they have a “D&D episode”, and it ends up making the people who play D&D look like morons or perhaps weird man-children. Do you think that’s a fine line to walk?
Anthony: Yeah. I think it is. I think the only circumstance I’ve seen of people doing that well is the Community episode of D&D because everybody plays D&D and it’s a healing thing for Neil and it’s cool and, you know, it’s presented as a good thing essentially. Everyone else does it in this sort of really easy “Nerds are stupid! Ahaha!”… okay here’s the thing. What are you deriving your humour from? Is the humour inherent in your character and in your character being interesting, or is your humour laughing at the nerds for playing D&D. Are you laughing with them or at them? Because that for me is the biggest distinction.
And what I try to do — what I hopefully have done — in Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is that you’re laughing with the characters about just who they are as people, they’re making jokes, and the punchline isn’t “They like D&D?! That’s ridiculous!”. I try to set it up quite early in the campaign, so that the people playing are Tiny (the DM), and then Lilith, Mordecai and Brick and the ones playing. And Lilith is actually the one who is the most socially ‘cool’ of all of them, everybody can get along with Lilith relatively well and she’s more charismatic than the others, and she’s the one who is the hardcore D&D fanatic, not the other two. We tried to set up the fact that in this universe, at least in terms of how we’re communicating the D&D idea, that playing D&D actually makes you cool (in some ways). It’s not something where people are going to make fun of you. That said, Lilith later says stuff like she was made fun of as a kid for playing D&D, or our version of which is called Bunkers & Badasses.
But hopefully early on we set up this preface that “Okay, if you like D&D, we do too! You’re in a safe place. We’re not going to make fun of you because we, the guys who made this game, are the same people who play D&D.” And that’s the sort of preface you have to make if you’re going to reference an aspect of the game, like we have a whole facet on like, critical failing and how weird an idea is. Like “Oh you failed to do a thing therefore you failed to do it in such a spectacular way that it makes you worse off than you were before… even if that thing is just trying to pick up a weapon. Like somehow you stab yourself with a weapon or it just goes flying off into the distance or whatever.
Now if you really care about D&D, the joke you get to make about that stuff can be a little bit more detailed, a little bit more specific than just going “Orcs, am I right guys? Fuckin’ orcs! Ha ha ha! Weird!” and just moving on.
GON: It would be vaguely ironic for a video game to criticise another hobby for being too geeky.
Anthony: Hah, yeah, that’s the weird thing. It’s like — you know what’s really geeky? Watching fucking, watching TV sitcoms on CBN. But Big Bang Theory, right, is constantly making fun of geeks for liking the same shit that you’re engaging in by watching Big Bang Theory… I just don’t get it.
GON: A lot of people argue that Big Bang Theory is just a constant put-down of nerds and nerd culture instead of actually embracing it. How do you feel about that?
Anthony: I agree. There’s a really good comic that my friend Mikey Turvey made, he’s a Welsh cartoonist, and he was just… I used to write for Destructoid and he was part of the Destructoid community, and he was writing this comment about what it would be like to be a character in Big Bang Theory, and how every time you do anything — sit down at your computer, open up a comic book, there’s just this insane laugh track that starts and people are just laughing at you forever. And that’s how that show feels to me. I’m sure the people who make it are nerds in some way but I think inadvertently they’re just pushing the stereotype that nerds are really socially awkward, and that liking comics or D&D/tabletop stuff inherently makes you a weird person or that there’s something kind of sad about wanting to play in an imaginary world which is like… which is just bullshit.
The whole theme of this DLC is — if I can get into the specifics of the story for a second — is that Tina is in denial about the fact that two characters from the main game are dead. They were friends of hers and they died. And as you go through the game she starts inserting them into the story as a way of dealing with it, and by playing this game of D&D she gets closer to her friends who are alive, and then comes to understand and accept that fact that her friends who died are actually dead. She stops denying it.
It’s always this super-easy thing, and you even see it in movies, where video games or D&D are used as shorthand for establishing that a character is either mentally ill in some way or just withdrawn, like, if you’re writing a movie and you’re a bad screenwriter, say your movie is about a guy who’s got a son and you want to make sure that people know the son doesn’t care about his dad. The first thing you’re gonna have him do is sit around playing games while dad’s trying to talk to him. It’s super-lazy, super-condescending shorthand as if to say “Oh, no well-rounded person could like video games or D&D!” It’s bullshit.
GON: I guess a lot of people aren’t really expecting Tiny Tina to have that sort of character depth. Whenever I talk about Tiny Tina on the internet I get a very divided audience reaction between people who think she’s the best, and people who think she’s literally the worst thing since Jar Jar Binks…
GON: …which is probably not a nice comparison to make as far as history’s list of fictional characters goes. Did you have to change Tiny Tina at all or was this just a natural extension of her character?
Anthony: This was a natural extension of her character to me, because… well I know you haven’t played Borderlands, but there’s a quest with Tiny Tina where she basically has you do this big tea party, and it’s all very fun and light-hearted and goofy, she’s mixing violence with nursery rhymes, Alice in Wonderland type-stuff. The guest at the tea party is a bandit you’ve tied to a chair and then beat up a bunch, and you have to defend the tea party from bandits who are trying to save him by killing them. It’s funny, it’s violence in a childish sort of a way.
But after you finish the tea party you find out in a separate quest that the reason she chose that bandit is because that bandit sold her parents out to Hyperion and she had to watch her parents get tortured to death in front of her. That’s why she went insane, that’s why she’s the way she is. So to me that was always an aspect of Tiny Tina’s character in that she can be very goofy and very over the top, but like a lot of things in Borderlands, anything that gets too goofy or over the top has to have something that’s dark and serious about it to keep it grounded. And to me that was just something that already existed in Tiny Tina. To me this is an extension of that.
We even had a quest in the main game which we were going to do but we had to cut for design reasons which was that after (redacted) dies, you were going to tell Tina what happened to him and she was actually going to drop her manic personality for a second and be real and start crying. And we couldn’t implement it but we were like “Oh man, I wish we had”, and so this was our opportunity to try and give her that, and finish the character arc we started for her. But that said, Tiny still did change a little bit in that she, when you meet her in the main game, is so… she’s not around for that long. She gets one plot mission and three side missions, so it’s not really that much. And even in the Torgue DLC she probably only gets that same amount.
Because she’s not around for that long, I can kind of get away with her being turned up to eleven all the time, yelling, spouting rap lyrics and speaking Japanese and all that. But when she’s going to be with you through literally the entire DLC, I felt like I needed to pull her back just a little bit. So she still says some Tina kind of things, and she still has that basic demeanour about her, but much less intense and much less loud and shrill and in your face. It’s more calm.
GON: It would probably be hard to pay attention to a DM who was shrieking at you all the time in Japanese.
Anthony: Yeah, exactly.
GON: How long does the D&D session go for and how many hours of play does this translate to in the DLC?
Anthony: Well as far as the characters are concerned, the D&D session only goes for about a day. It’s all one session for them. In terms of the actual play time of the DLC we’re looking at around 10 hours.
GON: Ten hours is a good D&D session. Did you change the mechanics of the game at all to incorporate traditional D&D tropes like, you know, critical failures and so on?
Anthony: We already had critical hits baked into our gameplay, but the actual mechanical stuff we mainly kept the same but we found more interesting ways of incorporating them that doesn’t necessarily break what we already believe to be a pretty solid game. So like, critical fails, there’s a whole quest about what it’s like to get critical fails and when you’re basically forced to get critical fails by the story.
Magic spells — now, we don’t have magic in our game but we did find a way of taking our grenade mods and modifying them to behave like magic spells. So in a regular Borderlands experience you throw a grenade, it falls on the ground, after a set amount of time, it explodes. Whatever. What our designer Rob did was he took the grenade, and instead of having them have physics that have an arc to them, they now go straight out of your body in a straight line and the first thing they hit they explode and do a particular kind of elemental damage. Not only that, but having one of these grenades equipped makes your grenade ammo regenerate over time — and when you cast one of these grenade spells, your character says “Lightning bolt!” or “Fireball!” or “Magic missile!”.
So working within the constraints of the way our grenades work, you now have an entire magic system because they regenerate over time the same way that mana does and they go straight and you say “Lightning bolt!”. It feels kind of like what you want from a magic spell but it’s still all within the existing Borderlands system which is quite clever, I think.