Odyssey of the Dragonlords - James and Jesse

Interview: Odyssey of the Dragonlords

When exploring the sea of adventure books that are compatible with D&D 5E, none have got me quite as excited as Odyssey of the Dragonlords. As the epic adventure book continues to secure Kickstarter pledges, we caught up with James Ohlen and Jesse Sky, the masterminds behind the project to see where their inspiration came from and the lessons they’ve learnt from writing their first book.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
James Ohlen – I’ve worked in video games for more than two decades and during that time was the lead designer for Baldur’s Gate 1 + 2 and Neverwinter Nights. I’ve also Dungeon Mastered for more than three decades. So I have a great deal of love for Dungeons and Dragons.
Jesse Sky – I worked at BioWare for 8 years, where I was a lead designer and ultimately the creative director of a few Star Wars: The Old Republic expansions, including Knights of the Fallen Empire. I’ve been building tabletop games and video games as a hobby since I was about 10 years old. One day, I hope to be good at it. 

When did the muse visit you for Odyssey of the Dragonlords and how did that initial idea form into being?
James Ohlen – The part of working on video games that I love the most is designing the characters, the narrative, the setting and then figuring out how to make it work in an open world. I hadn’t really worked on that aspect of games since Dragon Age: Origins. So, Odyssey was a side project I started up to do what I love, except in a pen and paper setting.
Jesse Sky – A year and a half ago, James told me that he wanted to make a giant, ridiculously ambitious role-playing book. I told him he was crazy, and then we ended up doing it anyway. 

Why did you choose a Greek myth-inspired setting for 5th edition?
Jesse Sky – I studied Greek mythology in college, and I realized that it’s about a thousand times more interesting than a lot of fantasy fiction. Not just the myths – the comedies, tragedies, and histories, too. European artists and poets referenced this stuff for centuries instead of innovating, because I think they just couldn’t come up with much better. And then James and I were looking at all the monsters in 5th Edition that are inspired by Greek myth—satyrs, centaurs, minotaurs, medusae—and we realized that there really wasn’t a narrative for any of it. Those elements are just in there because they’re fantasy tropes at this point. We wanted to create a world that connected those elements to their origins, but without just making it ancient Greece.

In what ways do you think Odyssey of the Dragonlords reflects the unique epic mythos of the ancient Greek world?
Jesse Sky – When we started out, we just sat in a coffee shop and brainstormed all the coolest things we could think of from Greek history and mythology. We were reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for inspiration. And then we were like, how do we fuse all this together into a functional game world, with a narrative that fits a D&D campaign? ‘Epic paths’ were one of the first answers we came up with. The idea was to put players in the role of epic heroes, so we had to come up with the same kinds of conflicts, challenges, and goals that characters like Odysseus and Achilles struggled with. And then we designed the world and its history around the idea – what sort of crisis demands that such heroes band together, and how will they be tested along the way? 

Odyssey of the Dragonlords includes many new playable races including Centaurs & Satyrs. How did you go about translating these into 5th edition?
Jesse Sky – The first place we look is the existing bestiary, because those creatures already have well-developed entries. Obviously, we have to modify them a bit. We try to give each one a unique reason for existing. For example, why would I choose a Satyr instead of a Tiefling? They’re similar in a lot of ways. So we emphasized the Satyr’s musical abilities and fey heritage to set them apart. 

Can you tell us the story of your first role-playing game experience?
James Ohlen – I was 10 years old and visiting my mother’s friend. She had a son named Anders Bengtsson. He DM’d Keep on the Borderlands and I was hooked.
Jesse Sky – My first tabletop role-playing game was a homebrew that I played with some friends in high school, because none of us could afford a set of hardcover books. Everyone ended up angry at each other, and then we ordered a pizza and watched The Fifth Element. I didn’t have a successful tabletop role-playing experience until college, where I ran a homebrew Star Wars campaign. I used a chessboard because I couldn’t afford miniatures. Notice the pattern? 

What aspects of tabletop role-playing games influenced your video game work at Bioware?
James Ohlen – Spending time as a Dungeon Master is one of the best training grounds for designing narrative and worlds in a video game. A successful DM has to create interesting stories that still give the players agency. You also have to get good at balancing combat with story and role-playing. Some players love the tactics of combat and strategy of character advancement, while others are more into the role-playing and story. A DM needs to run sessions that satisfies these different motivations.
Jesse Sky – I took a lot of ideas from my own campaigns and put them in SW:TOR. The stories you get from playing at the table with real people are usually way more bonkers that what you get when you write stories by yourself. So it’s a great way to generate ideas. 

We often hear about video game developers being role-players too – was there a lot of people playing RPG’s at Bioware? Do you think tabletop RPG’s are an important part of the video game development process for major video game like Baldur’s Gate or Mass Effect?
James Ohlen – Yeah, BioWare was full of fans of tabletop RPGs. There were many fans of LARPing as well. In the early days I ran a campaign that had Mark Darrah playing Boddyknock (gnome wizard) and David Gaider playing Evangeline (a half-orc cleric). Ray Muzyka would sometimes play a wizard named Davaeorn. 

What lessons have you learned in designing Odyssey of the Dragonlords?
James Ohlen – That at this point in my career I need to do what I love.
Jesse Sky – I’ll second that. Also I’d say this is the first project where James and I really collaborated without a giant studio attached, so it helped us figure out which pieces each of us prefers working on and how to riff off of each other’s ideas. 

What brought you back to the 5th Edition of the worlds greatest role-playing game?
James Ohlen – My friend Sean Carriere introduced me to a campaign he was playing in when I was visiting the BioWare office in Edmonton. Another friend, Jeff Veitenheimer was also playing, so I attended several sessions. Fun fact – Sean’s childhood character was named Edwin and Jeff’s was named Sarevok. They were the inspiration for the characters in Baldur’s Gate.
Jesse Sky – My first time playing 5th Edition was in James’ campaign at BioWare Austin. He ran Princes of the Apocalypse with several twists and brought in a lot of my favorite characters from Baldur’s Gate as major NPCs. I buddied up with my friend and former coworker, Michael Backus, and our characters had an awesome time together. Sean was also in that campaign and his cleric was a huge jerk to my slightly-evil tiefling wizard. Hi, Sean! 

What other RPG’s, Miniatures or Boardgames have you played and enjoyed?
James Ohlen – I loved Battletech and West End Game’s Star Wars. My experiences with pen and paper Star Wars had a major influence on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Jesse Sky – I absolutely loved Decipher’s Star Wars CCG and Magic: The Gathering. Also there was this weird little card game called Wyvern that I used to buy for $1 per box, because I guess no one else wanted it, but it was full of awesome dragon artwork and I was ten years old! I could get like 300 dragon cards for one week’s allowance! If we’re talking about the last decade though, my favorite board games are: Lord of the Rings, Blood Rage, and King of Tokyo. I love the Warhammer 40k universe, especially Dan Abnett’s books and Relic Entertainments’s Space Marine, but I’m afraid of collecting miniatures because my cats will eat them. 

What are you most excited about in Odyssey of the Dragonlords?
James Ohlen – Finding out how different GMs use the book to do things that we never expected.
Jesse Sky – I’m excited to run the adventure out of an actual, physical book instead of a Microsoft Word document.

If you’re interested in backing Odyssey of the Dragonlords on Kickstarter, you have until Thursday May 16, 2019.

You can also check out our earlier article on the adventure book here.