The venerated role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons is enjoying a cultural resurgence. Nerd culture is ascendant and a recent wave of 1980s nostalgia has turned the pop culture dial back to those Spielbergian days of Doritos and 20-sided dice. Tabletop D&D game nights are popular online and in real life — even on podcasts — for kids and grownups both.
And now, thanks to recent advances in artificial intelligence, you can play D&D with an AI-powered collaborative storytelling machine. No other humans required.
AI Dungeon is a text-based adventure in which the AI plays the role of Dungeon Master, generating narrative and dialogue in response to any action you choose to take. It’s made a serious splash in the gaming world, with more than 700,000 players as of March. There are no graphics or sound (yet), but that’s part of the appeal. AI Dungeon is deliberately designed to evoke early PC-era text-based games like The Oregon Trail.
Unlike those older games, AI Dungeon doesn’t use a limited set of verbal commands. Instead, you’re really conversing with a “live” AI, which is using natural language processing to figure out what you want. Ostensibly, it’s spinning a new and original tale every time. It’s like talking to Siri, if Siri were a 7th-level half-elf wizard.
Ranger, Peasant, or Rogue?
As it happens, I was a teenage D&D nerd of rather startling intensity. So I was genuinely excited to give AI Dungeon a try. I clicked over to the web-based interface and was up and running in seconds. (The game comes as a phone app, too.) AI Dungeon isn’t just for fantasy swords-and-sorcery-style role-playing. You can choose from five genres, including zombies and post-apocalypse stories. I’m an old-school nerd, though, so I went with fantasy.
The game offers a choice of character class — noble, knight, squire, wizard, ranger, peasant, or rogue. I chose ranger, as I have pretty much without exception since fifth grade. I named my character Walker, in honor of Strider, J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal hero. The game dropped me straight into the action:
I did the one thing that every self-respecting D&D player does when confronted with uncertainty:
> find tavern
You are Walker, a ranger living in the kingdom of Larion. You have a hunting bow and a quiver of arrows. You spot the deer and are ready to finish your hunt when suddenly you hear an unusual noise coming from the forest. Suddenly, you see a dark figure standing by one of the trees. It’s wearing a hooded cloak and its face seems distorted with hatred and pain.
After each entry from the AI, you’re allowed — encouraged, even — to type literally anything you want. The AI is quite powerful and is custom-built to interact with humans. I could have taken any course of action at this point, but I’m one of those goody-goody role-playing game types. I like to play straight and stay in character. So I typed:
> hail the stranger
The system recognized the general gist of my command and replied: You call out to the creature, but it doesn’t respond. You know better than to approach it as it could attack at any moment.
After a few more attempts at peaceful greeting, the mysterious stranger ran off. I tried to track it — that’s what rangers do — but no luck. Using simple text commands, I returned to my forest hideout and slept. The next day I did the one thing that every self-respecting D&D player does when confronted with uncertainty:
> find tavern
After a few seconds of cogitation, the system replied:
You wake up early the next morning and make your way to the nearest tavern. You’re not sure where exactly, but you end up finding a place called ‘The Blacksmith.’
I found the game remarkably easy to get the hang of and was genuinely impressed by the AI responses. It was clear that the system was inferring my intent through natural language. It helps to keep your commands simple and consistent, and to use verbs in the imperative tense: Go to the river. Find a constable. An onscreen help button is available, and you can revert to an earlier exchange if the story starts going sideways.
I sense a quick recap is in order: At the tavern, I met a man named Gwen, who later turned into a woman named Gwen — clearly an AI slip-up. (I’m going strictly by the onscreen pronouns, mind you. I support gender fluidity in general and Gwen in particular. She knows this.) When I left the tavern, Gwen disappeared on me, but she later showed up at my kitchen table with her little sister. Evidently, a story was unfolding in the kingdom of Larion…
At one point, the action seemed to flag. I checked the help files and found a cool trick. With AI Dungeon, as with classic D&D, the player character need not be strictly reactive. Put an exclamation point in front of a command and you can make things happen. I typed:
> ! A troll attacks
The system replied:
You grab your sword and prepare yourself for battle. You quickly rush forward and swing your blade at the troll. You hit the troll hard, but unfortunately it regenerates its health back instantly and slashes at you once more. This time however, you dodge out of the way and slash down on the creature’s leg.
Veteran D&D players will be impressed by this. It’s common knowledge, in nerd circles, that trolls heal instantly and can regenerate severed limbs. The traditional weapon versus trolls has always been fire, which prevents regeneration. I grabbed a torch. I used it. It worked.
This last encounter explains why AI Dungeon has promise as a gaming experience. The AI clearly has knowledge of standard narrative tropes in the fantasy genre: rangers find tracks, trolls regenerate. I don’t know to what extent the sequences are pre-scripted — I assume someone is writing these individual scenes — but the experience is sufficiently seamless for casual, goof-around D&D adventuring. In short: I was into it. I was seeing things in my mind. And that’s the real trick, innit?
AI Dungeon cannot replace the tabletop experience, of course — just as the dozens of previous D&D-inspired computer iterations could not. There’s something special, maybe even magical, about the social experience of playing the game with others, consulting endless rule books and rolling ridiculous dice. As a one-player game (or two-player, depending on how you feel about AI personhood), AI Dungeon is a lonesomer experience. However, since sitting in a room together is not recommended just now, an AI-powered approximation has arrived just in time.
AI Dungeon is still free and open to anyone online. However, the game has gotten really popular, really fast — from zero to 70,000 players in a week. To cover mounting server costs, the designers are now requesting that all players make a nominal Patreon contribution — you can name your own price. This is a standard financial model in the indie gaming industry. It’s clear the game’s producers expect to stay afloat; they’re already planning next-generation features like voice command and multiplayer support.
I’m happy to report that a romance blossomed between me and Gwen, after I killed the troll. It’s just one reason that AI Dungeon is an attractive option for nerds in self-quarantine.