Can a machine run your tabletop RPG?

Artificial intelligence behind the GM screen
by Amber Cook

If you've ever played a tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) like Dungeons & Dragons, you know what a game master (GM) is. For the uninitiated, a GM creates the story and moderates the game for the rest of the players. They play a critical role (🫣) in a successful RPG session, so we’ve been excited by the recent dialog about how AI can support the GM’s work.

Much of that discourse has centered around the potential for machines to replace GMs. Despite the headlines, it will never match the value of a wonderful friend or professional GM crafting a story with you at your table. A machine isn't a 1:1 replacement for a human. Not only is it unlikely to happen any time soon, but it also can't happen in a way that would provide the social benefits of tabletop roleplay. So much of being a good GM is being creative, and machines are not creative. That magic comes from game creators, GMs, and players making excellent choices to build a compelling story together - the creativity comes from people.

A far more compelling conversation is about how AI can assist GMs. If you’ve used any of the many AI tools available now, you’ve probably witnessed firsthand that AI is impressive for jumpstarting creativity. It might help you write a poem for someone on Valentine’s Day and give you ideas to shape into a piece of fiction. It even helped outline this blog post. But no AI tool creates independently - you provide the spark, and the AI will responds with as much information as it has access to. And, critically, you (or your GM) decide if those responses are helpful.

If we think about it, this isn't a new concept! GMs already augment their creativity with analog tools like props, dice, and designer-created rollable tables. Some GMs use digital tools like random name generators, character creators, and encounter builders. AI takes that a step further so that the responses are more predictive and less random.

Imagine you’re running an RPG session. The players are at the table, and you’ve set the scene. They’ve decided to engage with a non-player character (NPC) or explore an area or object you didn’t intend to focus on. Using AI to spin up a map or a piece of art quickly, or generate setting-appropriate names or scripts for your NPCs, allows you to stay focused on the game itself. With AI, you provide prompts to get a more useful response than flipping through randomly generated ideas or sticking exactly to a pre-written adventure.

Another benefit is addressing the barriers to entry for onboarding new players and GMs. For most RPGs there aren't simple rules, but tomes: player guides, GM guides, monster manuals, settings, and sourcebooks. Game stores and conventions offer dice, accessories, GM screens, maps, art, minis, props, and soundscapes! That’s great, but it’s a distraction on the way to rolling dice in your first game. AI can ease that onboarding by helping you develop a character that aligns with an RPG setting. It can run you through a starter module for your first game so you can learn the ropes like a true introvert. An AI starter adventure can react to your choices instead of pushing you along a scripted tutorial.

Futhermore, AI support will allow participation and fun for people who otherwise wouldn't play, whether by reducing session prep time or the minimum experience required to do a good job. Lowering barriers to entry promotes a diverse and accessible tabletop RPG community. The year when Alice is Missing and Dungeons & Dragons head to the big screen is a great one to consider new ways to support and welcome people who otherwise might not find the tabletop community an easy one to join.

Beyond helping gameplay, GMs can take advantage of the many AI products that support calendaring, note-taking, and safety tools. Each player’s experience with AI is up to them, their group, and the quality and ethics behind the tools they choose to use. We strongly believe that the emergence of AI won’t mean the replacement of your GM, but an abundance of new players and GMs.

If you’re thinking about the impact of AI on tabletop roleplaying or digital story games, we’d love to hear from you. We’ll be at GDC next month, showing off our most recent development work. Please be in touch if you’d like to see us there!