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Dungeons & Dragons & Design

Photo: Blue Envelope

In the realm of Dungeons & Dragons, anything can happen. A Dungeon Master leads a group of adventurers through puzzles and peril as they barrel towards conflict and an ultimate resolution. In 2019, Design Week held it’s first live D&D event with host and Dungeon Master Colby Nichols as he led Adam Garcia, Tammi Heneveld, and Ian Whitmore through a dangerous adventure filled with laughs, smiles, and gasps as the audience even got to participate.

Video: Blue Envelope

Hi! I’m Colby. A medium-sized boy and very-large nerd. When I’m not dorking around I’m a Co-Founder and Creative Director at Jolby & Friends, a Portland-based design and illustration studio that makes for the better.

A few years ago, I found myself in need of an escape from the realities of life. I had a few friends who were feeling the same way—We had been playing loads of tabletop board games and card games, but we wanted more. Along came Dungeons & Dragons; a game where we could fully immerse ourselves in a world created just for us to play in. Where the beer flowed, new friends were made, and there was an endless expanse of creative possibilities laid out before us.

Here are the basics of D&D: You role play as a character in a medieval world (think dragons, magic, swords, castles, moats and warlocks). And a Dungeon Master (the DM) leads you through a story for you and your friends to explore in. As players, you make decisions as your uniquely-crafted character, interacting with puzzles, exotic locations, and monsters that the Dungeon Master dreams up. As the Dungeon Master, you are paving the road in front of the players as they walk it while improvising alongside your players in order to create a seamless and immersive experience.

Illustration: Colby Nichols, Jolby & Friends

I believe that D&D exists at an apex of creativity, collaboration, storytelling and being social. It’s a collaborative game where you can tell amazing stories, have unforgettable moments, and solve problems in ways you never thought possible. Everyone has a role, everyone has a job to do, and they are all working together toward a common goal. I think D&D and group gaming can be used as a way to bring creative groups of people closer (whether they work together or not) and help them learn ways to work better together with others.

The deeper I went into D&D, the more similarities I found between playing this game and the design world, not to mention many avenues to express myself creatively in. Years later, with epic gaming deeds under my belt, I realized that I wanted to share this feeling (the “high,” really) with as many people as possible. And so, the live D&D event for Design Week was born: Let’s play D&D in front of real humans and invite them to participate to ensure ultimate improvisation and surreality. A bonus goal was to give those who had not played before a chance to dip their toes in with little effort.

There is no “winner” in D&D. It’s pure storytelling where you are a character of your own making exploring and interacting with the World around you. It’s cooperative storytelling at its finest and most liberating.

Since this event was taking place during Design Week, it required visuals to keep everyone's eyeballs moist. There were illustrations presented on a large screen as we introduced the characters, met monsters, encountered puzzles, along with designed materials for everyone at the show. There was also an audio component, Spotify playlists made from video game and movie soundtracks that I had collected over the years (hand-selected to ensure maximum drama when needed). Each attendee left with a screen print made by Seizure Palace as an artifact of the evening.

Illustrations presented to the players and audience throughout the night.
Illustration: Colby Nichols, Jolby & Friends

Here’s a breakdown of how the night worked: We played a version of the game we had dubbed “D&D Light” that involved less rules, alowing us to cut a few corners for time and focus on storytelling.

An important component of the show were the two parts of the audience. ‘Spectators’ who’s job it was to sit back and relax. And ‘Participants’, a group of 20 people who were called on to give the players suggested actions. These ended up greatly effecting the night’s story and led to a handful of ridiculous moments!

Leading up to the event, the players and I had defined each of their unique back stories, goals, and desires. Tammi (Bronky Thunderstump) was looking for her rival Eldrin the Mighty who was stealing credit for all of her badass deeds. Ian and Adam (Fergusson and Agatha Casselanter) were running from the mysterious murder of Agatha’s husband.

Each player and their illustrated character.
Photo: Blue Envelope
Illustration: Colby Nichols, Jolby & Friends

The adventure began with our characters setting out to find Queen Kath’rine who has been causing trouble in the area. She’s a new queen who is offering a huge reward for those who can help cure her insomnia: they will be granted a single wish! Any of their desires met without question; they just need to make it to the queen. Little did they know the trials that lay in front of them.

Venturing into the swamp to find the Queen, the players were confronted with oddly-narrated characters, uncomfortably puzzling-puzzles, and weird challenges written to bring-out each character’s back story and narrative hooks that had brought them all together. How did they do? Did they survive? I’ll give you a hint: the audience got to help in the final fight with the big boss... you’ll just have to watch the video to find out!

Photos: Blue Envelope

Dungeons & Dragons & Design was born as an experiment, but due to the overwhelming success and support, we will soon be planning the next live event as part of Design Portland!

A huge thanks to the following people without whom this event would not have existed:


Adam Garcia, Tammi Heneveld, Ian Whitmore

Photo and Video:

Blue Envelope Productions


Wayfinder Brewing, Jolby & Friends

Under the direct influence of:

Matthew Mercer, Matt Coville, Deborah Ann Woll, Death Saves

Super Buds:

Rachel Coddington, Orion Landau, the entire Jolby & Friends crew

Contact Me:
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