Armored Storyteller brings new purpose to role-player gaming


Courtesy of Dean Leonard and John Brennan

“Armored Storyteller” is a role-playing game publishing company.

By Gabel Strickland, Staff Writer

Zombie hoards. Aliens. Plagues. All of this and more can be found in games created by Armored Storyteller, a role-playing game (RPG) publishing company that highlights RPGs as a medium to explore the storytelling and theatrics Emerson students know and love, as well as the moral questions that make us human. 

Armored Storyteller was co-created by Emerson alum Dean Leonard and his childhood friend John Brennan. Brennan and Leonard became friends in childhood, sharing a passion for tabletop RPGs that lasted long into their adult lives and eventually inspired the creation of Armored Storyteller in June.  

Armored Storyteller specializes in RPGs—games in which players assume the roles of imaginary characters and engage in improvised fictional adventures directed by a gamemaster—which can be played online or around a table. “Dungeons & Dragons” is probably the most popular example of a tabletop RPG. These games come with manuals instructing the players on the rules, settings, and characters available throughout the game session. 

Armored Storyteller publishes gaming handbooks reminiscent of these original D&D manuals, using the same mechanics to tell unique and original stories. Armored Storyteller games specialize in the genres of dystopia, sci-fi, and horror, trading out elves and clerics for zombies and medic scouts. Their latest release, “Dead Men Walking,” places its players in the throes of a zombie apocalypse. 

John Brennan acts as founder and president while Deon Leonard is co-founder and creative lead. This means that while Brennan brings a knowledge of the publishing industry and product management at the table, much of the storytelling is done by Leonard, who crafts unique characters and settings. 

Leonard explains an Emerson creative writing professor helped him find his voice as a creative: gritty and brutally honest, which translates to a love of dark fantasy and surrealism. 

“[My professor]  looked at me and he said ‘You, you really like Ernest Hemingway,’ and I was like ‘Yeah, I do’ and he said ‘Well, I can see it in your writing. Stop. Find your own voice,’” Leonard said. “I took that to heart and so I try my best now to write in my own voice… he was very impactful in my thinking about writing.” 

Photo: Courtesy of Dean Leonard and John Brennan
Still image from Armored Storyteller.

Leonard isn’t the only Emerson student—former or current—who is a fan of these games. It’s a popular pastime for many students. The Level Up Guild is a popular Emerson student organization dedicated to providing community and resources to students who enjoy RPGs and other interactive games. Leonard isn’t surprised this is the case, as RPGs provide an outlet to practice the storytelling many students come to Emerson to study. Leonard said it is the same love of storytelling cultivated by games like D&D that inspired him to apply to Emerson as a creative writing major. 

“I’ve been gaming since I was almost 12 years old,” he said. “My dad got me the first basic Dungeons & Dragons box set and I was hooked because I love to read, but I like movies as well, and the idea of creating a living movie or a living book where you don’t know the ending because it’s all [based on] the player interactions… I found that fascinating.” 

Brennan suggests the acting and improvisational component of RPGs could also be a big draw for many Emerson students who love to perform as well as tell stories. 

“Dungeons & Dragons, or any of the role playing games where you sit around the table (or if you sit around the virtual table) it’s entirely improv, right? So the storyteller is every other character in the world besides you and the game players that you’re with,” Brennan said. “And so I can understand why people at Emerson who are often in acting or in performance of some kind would be attracted to these types of games, because it exercises all of those muscles all of the time in a very safe place.” 

One thing Leonard and Brennan always loved about RPGs is their ability to bring people together. Being creative with your friends is a big part of what makes these games fun. 

Armored Storyteller takes this a step further by introducing high, morbid stakes into their games. One reason Brennan and Leonard love the darker genres is because it’s a chance to see how players come together, especially in the face of extremely grim obstacles that force cooperation and amplify unity amongst players. 

“We do enjoy the question of moral ambiguity. There’s a system in the game where Dean will write the story that the characters have to make certain decisions,” Brennan said. “It’s a moral decision that will present itself to the characters. It’s usually about working together… That premise is baked into the games almost entirely.” 

The grim obstacles characteristic of Armored Storyteller’s chosen genres don’t just bring people together; they test their morality and expose how gray the world is. These challenges give Brennan and Leonard an outlet to explore ethical complexity in their characters and stories. 

 “I do enjoy the experience of seeing how people make decisions when they’re confronted with a dangerous situation,” Leonard said. “What do they do with their characters? How are they going to interact with what we call the NPCs [Non-Playable character], the characters in the fictional world?” 

Armored Storyteller’s games are an outlet to explore both creativity and philosophy in the same space, however, they are designed to be customizable to the players’ tastes. This allows the game to be both serious and silly, and the players can adapt that ratio depending on what they want for their session and friend group. However, as Leonard explains, engaging with the moral concepts addressed in the game can be one of the most compelling parts of the game. 

“If you’re familiar with ‘The Walking Dead,’ for example, you see characters who start off as villains and then become morally ambiguous and then you actually find they may be at least antiheroes,” Leonard said. “I think if you’re not using that type of content in this game, you’re missing out on a beautiful dynamic.” 

In a world with so much despair, hope is essential to illuminate the path forward for the players. Teamwork and hope work in tandem to bring the group through the game, which is a larger lesson to the players. 

“I want [the players] to find a cure. I want them to rebuild civilization. I want them to build a better one,” Leonard said. “After everything’s gone to complete hell, I want the players to feel a sense of triumph that we overcame the worst possible circumstances when things looked the bleakest. When you’re on that edge of despair, cling to hope and you achieve success.”