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Here's a method to make your game's narrative setting more unique

Writer and MIT professor D. Fox Harrell shared insights on how his academic research help fuel a vibrant new world for Dungeons & Dragons: Journey through the Radiant Citadel.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

April 7, 2023

3 Min Read
Key art from Journeys through the Radiant Citadel. Characters gather in a fantasy bazaar.

When coming up with narrative settings for video games, game developers face many struggles when they have to build whole new worlds. The fantasy and science fiction genres are so well-trod that it can be tough to break conventions your players might expect. If you make a game in the real world, you have to be sensitive to real history.

But it's the real world that can make video game worlds all the more real. Sometimes developers use the real world as visual inspiration (such as pursuing photorealism), other times it's about using history to help fill out your backstory.

Writer and MIT professor D. Fox Harrell explained during a panel at MIT's Gaming Industry Conference that he took a different kind of inspiration when creating the coastal realm of Djaynai, a setting in Wizards of the Coast's 2022 role-playing game sourcebook Journeys through the Radiant Citadel.

Djaynai blends together a number of real-world cultural influences from East and West Africa, already a big shift for Dungeons & Dragons, which has tended to show locales resembling Europe or sometimes Asia.

But Harrell drew on another, very real-world truism from many cultures: in Journeys through the Radiant Citadel, Djaynai has been around for thousands of years—and not everyone agrees about its history.

Djaynai represents how we argue about civilizational stories

To make sense of Harrell's point, you might want to look at some of the broader think that defines his academic research. His work dives into what cognitive scientists call "narrative imagining"—how humans psychologically interpret the world through storytelling.

At the simplest level, this can be about how someone tells a story about their week, or a moment at work. When we recall these moments, they're shaped not just by the reality events of our memory, but the mental scaffolding we use to put things in order.

At the larger level, these can be stories about our history. How groups of people internalize or popularize the stories of their culture can be a unifying moment that brings people together...and how they argue over them can drive devastating conflict.

Which brings us back to Djaynai. Harrell said that the city is "a metaphor for diaspora." Characters in the world argue if the current society is a continuation of the old civilization or a brand new one. Physical remnants of the old civilization like buildings or rituals get confused or appropriated for new lifestyles.

Key art of Djaynai. Two sword-wielding men stand on a boat.

And this isn't just all backstory. Harrell explained that the content in Journeys through the Radiant Citadel invites players to take part in that mythmaking. They can align with factions that represent different points of view, and who embody different elements of the city's culture. "They have to choose actions within the game to say, 'How do I think about my own history?'" Harrell explained.

Given that Journeys through the Radiant Citadel was nominated for a 2023 Nebula Award, it seems like Harrell (and other contributors to the book) made something that resonated with players. He invited developers to not just think about the physical environments or historical events in a narrative setting, but to dive deeper into how cultures respond to them.

"What are the kind of tensions and questions that underly issues within the diaspora [of a culture]?" he asked rhetorically. "How can that become fodder for central conflict within the adventure?"

So for your next game world, if you've already figured out historical events that fill out your game world—maybe you can start thinking about how different cultures tell stories about them as well.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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