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Rodney Thompson

From English to Video Game Design: Rodney Thompson

Rodney Thompson’s love of storytelling brought him to English and now game rooms everywhere.

Rodney Thompson

English alumnus Rodney Thompson (Creative Writing ’04) is a multi-award-winning video and tabletop game designer. In addition to being the creator of Spectaculars and Dusk City Outlaws—and co-creator of Lords of Waterdeep—he was one of the creative minds behind Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, Dungeon Command, and Star Wars Saga Edition. Currently he is Senior Design Lead at video game company Bungie and owner of Scratchpad Publishing. Professor Christopher Hebert sat down with Rodney to talk about storytelling, games, and his path to the job of his dreams. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hebert: One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about your work in game design is how driven it is by storytelling.

Thompson: Always, ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved stories and storytelling, and the other thing I’ve always loved is games and play. My brother said that even when we were kids he knew there were games in my future because I was always making up games for us to play. And then when I got into high school I discovered role-playing games, and that was very much the fusion of narrative and games. From there that became a lifelong hobby for me. But then in college I actually discovered, oh, this is a thing that I might be able to do for a living. I could take these things I love, the love of stories and love of games, and sustain myself and create a career out of it.

To me, that’s been the most fulfilling thing about the kinds of games I work on. I don’t just tell stories to people. I enable people to tell their own stories. When I create a tabletop game, I use tools that are very different from the ones I use when working on video games. But it all amounts to the same thing: I’m putting the pieces in place so that when a player comes to the game, whether they’re picking up a controller or rolling dice, they get to experience and direct a story.

Hebert: You said you discovered this possibility in college?

Thompson: When I started out, I thought I was going to be a Romance linguistics major. I got to school and I started taking Spanish and Japanese, then computer science. I was kind of all over the place. Then for about three years, I thought, I’m going to be a computer science major. But I got to the point where I didn’t think I could spend the rest of my career sitting and staring at code on a computer screen. I was pretty unhappy. I couldn’t handle the lack of human interaction. Ironically, you know, now I’m a full-time video game designer and I sit and stare at code all day, so you know, despite my best efforts, that didn’t quite shake out.

At the time, I had enough credits for the computer science minor. I decided, that’s good enough, For my major, I switched to English. I had a creative drive, and it was hard to get that out in computer science. When I switched to English, it was very much like, I’m doing this to fulfill myself.

Hebert: Were there specific classes you took at UT that were especially influential?

Thompson: When I first switched from computer science, I was convinced I wanted to be a screenwriter, so I took screenwriting classes. Those really stand out because they were very much about putting together a story with a minimal amount of text. You had to communicate everything you could through dialogue and a little bit of stage direction. It’s very much like minimalist storytelling. And I think that taught me to distill a narrative down to its most essential elements.

I also took a creative writing course my last year. It was a workshop, which meant we would write short stories and everyone would read them and we would talk about them together. It was a really great way to learn to write through practice. But it was also a great way to learn how to take and give feedback. Those are skills I’m still using today.

In fact, I ended up giving a talk at a convention a couple of years ago that was all about how to give good feedback. There’s this thing called the mistaken assessment of danger, where if you’re giving someone feedback on something, they can see it subconsciously as a threat—to their career or their livelihood or whatever. So learning how to give feedback so as not to trigger that assessment of danger or trigger defensiveness is really important.

Also learning as a creative person how to put yourself in the mindset of being open to feedback and being open to not just hearing the words that people are saying when they’re giving you feedback but learning how to find the root source of the problem that’s generating that feedback. I use those skills literally every day in my video-game design job.

Hebert: Could you talk about how you arrived at that job? How did you get from English at UT to game design?

Thompson: When I was in college at UT, I was freelancing for tabletop game companies. So I was basically doing freelance game design. I used that to pay my way through school. When I graduated, I worked in Knoxville for a couple of years and then eventually got a job at Wizards of the Coast in Seattle and moved out here to work on tabletop games. I worked at Wizards for about nine years. And then in 2015 I got a job at Bungie, which is where I work now, and I’ve been there for nine years.

One of the big deciding factors for me in going to Bungie was that they allow you to pursue your own outside endeavors, so I could start my own publishing company and start creating my own games. I’m actually working on my next game on the side right now. I get a lot of fulfillment out of it. A lot of people I work with are like, how do you have the energy for this at night? I think I just have more creative energy than an eight-hour-a-day job can contain.

During the day I’m working on video games. I’m in a leadership position, so I’m helping more junior designers. And then at night it’s just me making the games I want to make and telling the stories I want to tell.

Hebert: It feels like there’s a real tabletop role-playing renaissance happening now. So many of my students are discovering these games, and it’s one of the ways they come into storytelling.

Thompson: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It has never been a better time to get into tabletop games, for sure.

Hebert: What advice would you have for someone interested in pursuing something like this for a career?

Thompson: It’s interesting, the ways the random mishmash of different parts of my education all combined together to enable what I do. I have the minor in computer science, and you have to take a lot of math as part of that. And then the English creative-writing side of things for narrative and storytelling.

Nowadays, there are actually game-design programs that teach this blend of statistics and math and logic and narrative and world-building creativity that I got—I don’t want to say by accident—but that I got by navigating through the different parts of things I love.

Also nowadays, before you take a huge leap like I did, you can kind of dip your toe in the water and see, is this a thing I really love? And can I turn this into a career? It’s never been easier to get into game design as a discipline. If you want to get into tabletop games, you can do Kickstarters that let you self-publish. If you want to get into video games, you can build your own indie games.

Hebert: I have a lot of students who will be very happy to hear this, though I’m a little afraid of telling them. It’s already hard enough sometimes getting them to work on their writing instead of their Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. I blame you for that.

Thompson: Yes, well, sorry, not sorry.