Neverwinter has been on a roll lately with new content, first capitalizing on the Undermountain, and now with Uprising taking the game by storm. To the point where many of the voice actors who are taking part int he game are getting their own D&D fame and notoriety for the work they've been doing to bring the game to life. One of those actors is Ruty Rutenberg, who voices Durnan, the owner of the Yawning Portal in Waterdeep. Today we get to chat with Rutenberg about his career and love of the game, plus his take on the current additions to Neverwinter.
BC: For those who may not know you, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Rutenberg: Heya! I'm Ruty, and I've had a very fortunate life so far. I've been an Army Aviation Medic, served during OIF & OEF, received undergrad and master's degrees from Florida State University, and feel blessed to have the career I've had so far in Hollywood and in gaming. My bio is pretty readily available on google or IMDb but what I think it can't convey is that am constantly blown away by the creativity and drive of the people I am lucky enough to call my friends, and I love that I get to have the experiences I do with them. People are truly inspiring to me, especially when you take the time to know them. Take the people at Perfect World, or Cryptic Studios, or WotC, or Level Up Dice—these are people who are constantly pushing the envelope to create things that resonate emotionally with others. They are constantly giving of themselves. I sort of feel like that is what life is about. I guess I sort of skirted that question. How about I sum it up by saying that whatever "me" people see, there's a bunch of people beside and behind me that inspire me every day.
How did you get into acting and how was it for you starting out?
Well, I was an actor as a kid, so I'm sure my parents have a much better idea of what that spark was, but I can remember loving people from the beginning and wanting to engage with them. My mom loves to tell stories about our trips to New York, Orlando, and Atlanta for auditions when I was little… she says that I didn't seem to comprehend the idea of a stranger, that I would light up when talking to people, and they would light up in turn. So, I suppose that's where it started. In school, I think I might have been a bit of an anomaly, in that I was in both a regional theater troupe and a jock. I had to take a break when 9/11 happened, as I sort of felt as though I needed to earn my place in America, but once my part in the war was over, I knew LA was in my cards. Within a few months of getting out here, I booked a Pizza Hut commercial and had a small part in Argo and got to meet Ben Affleck, who is a really genuine and sweet gentleman. He probably doesn't know it, but residual checks from Argo pulled me through some tough times financially. I probably still owe him for that.
What drew you to doing voice work and getting involved with shows and video games?
I'm not sure if it comes across always, but I have a pretty resonate voice with a pretty decent amount of base. I lost a lot of roles early in my career that I looked right for because my voice was too deep and booming. The interesting thing was, casting directors thought it was a really defining quality about me and didn't want me to pitch it up. That's a bit of a conundrum when you look too young for the depth of your voice. So, I guess you could say voice-acting sort of found me in the lulls between onscreen work. There are some incredibly talented people in the veteran community (Veterans in Media & Entertainment – Check them out if you're a vet looking toward Hollywood) who knew a good place to utilize my voice and my experience. They were responsible for bringing me into Looping (aka background vocals) on films like "Fury" for Sony and "Finest Hours" for Disney, and that sort of work is engaging and fun, and doesn't require you to disappear or skip auditions (for the most part… always take the work over the audition). I specialized in military characters (go figure) but also in voice matching other actors in their various character work… and I was reliable. That's a big deal out here. Motivation-wise, I've always loved getting into interesting characters, and voice work is part of that immersion, which I get to really flex as a Dungeon Master… especially on livestream.
How did the opportunity come about to work on Neverwinter and take on the role of Durnan?
The opportunity came about through the fine people at Wizards of the Coast, particularly Greg Tito, Bart Carrol, and Chris Lindsay, who really appreciated the time and energy I put into producing live streams and DMing. Tito offered me the opportunity to portray Durnan at the Stream of Many Eyes, and that's where I met Thomas Foss and Julia Fredrickson, who I just adore. I guess they liked the energy I put into the voice and, a few months later, they called me up to see if I'd be interested in bringing Durnan to Neverwinter. To be part of the D&D Universe, that's the sort of thing you make yourself available for.
Prior to this, what was your experience like with D&D as a gamer?
Prior to voicing Durnan, I had been a fan of D&D's lore and iconography, but it was 5th Edition that really gripped me. From its launch in 2014 (I got to playtest it with some other producer friends of mine), I've been pretty hardcore. I don't think there's been a week that's gone by without a game (my current home game is on Tuesday nights), and sometimes three to five nights a week… and don't get me started on conventions. I logged a LOT of hours before I ever livestreamed. I was going to conventions and spending nearly every hour slotted at a different Adventure League table. I couldn't get enough of the people, the different styles, etc. I was already a working screenwriter at the time, so that was what I did to blow off steam. I met everyone in 2016 at the Storm King's Thunder reveal at Meltdown Comics, and things just sort of went from there. I think at this point, I've either produced or participated in over 2,000 hours of live D&D content, mostly for Wizards directly.
What kind of characters do you like playing as and what's the most off-the-wall creation you've made?
I like playing inherently damaged characters. In acting, you hear a lot of people talk about "the secret." What's your character's secret? This means something a little different to everyone, but for me it means, what is that thing your character did – a moment of selfishness, or a sin – where they weren't concerned about anyone but themselves? What would they do to keep that from someone else? Most adventurers are inherently loners, so that moment in their lives where D&D kicks in, is when they have finally found a group of people who they can interact with that understands them on a baser level. That adventurer finally has a group of friends that would put their lives on the line for them, and they would do the same (something that resonates with us military types). Given that wonderful moment of finding people that will face adversity with you… if you're willing to die for that bond, how far would that character go to keep them from leaving because of their past? And, as a character moment, how great is it when the adventurer finally comes to terms with the fact that the bond of trust they share with the group is enough to overcome whatever was in their past? The suspense really kicks in when you sort of have that race to create the bond before the secret gets out.
Off the wall character-wise, I'm usually the DM, so I'd have to say that some of my NPC's especially those in Inkwell Society, my Eberron Noir live-stream, are some of my favorites, because I made them all with these backstories that, if the PC's uncover, they'll have to really make a decision as to whether they act morally, or twist the NPC's to their own advantage with the information they know. I don't want to spoil anything for fans waiting on the show's return, but I'll just say the Robair, Pauly, and someone they are on the verge of discovering, have these really complex lives behind them that will trend pretty dark if the PC's decide to keep digging.
How has it been for you being able to take part in this version of the game and help mold that universe?
As with most American kids my age, I think video games were one of my guilty pleasures. I always had a penchant for exploring my imagination through them, and building onto the worlds that were already established in fantasy. I think one day I thought I might love to work for Blizzard as a writer or something. Obviously, as a kid, I never dreamed I would be involved in helping embody the incredible lore and accessibility of the D&D multiverse. It's just been a dream come true to exist on the convergence of those two things that I love very dearly. What Perfect World and Cryptic Studios have done with Neverwinter leaves me in awe every time I log-on. I don't know that I can accurately express how proud I feel to be a voice in the game, and especially a character who is essentially the Clint Eastwood of Dungeons & Dragons.
What specifically went through your mind when creating the voice for such an iconic character to the game?
It was very important to me to make sure that I was portraying the character in a way that makes everyone happy. Surprisingly, there really isn't that much printed material about Durnan in many of the editions, and he doesn't take a primary role in any of the books. He is just sort of this Drizzt-like character that would refuse to have his exploits cataloged. So I spoke with Ed Greenwood on several occasions about the inspirations behind Durnan, things that would influence the way he is and the purpose he feels at the Yawning Portal, the history with his wife, kids, etc. All things that I used to color different shades of his reactions to PC's. Then I also got to speak with Mark Meers (his catalog is mind-blowing!), who voiced Durnan in the older isometric games a decade ago, and he was super supportive and positive with these little tips and tricks about Durnan specific pronunciations that most people would never even pick up on. That sort of nuance is the stuff I love to put into characters, and in my writing, which you can see infused throughout the work I did on Eberron with Keith Baker in Wayfinder's Guide and Morgrave Miscellany. So, all those little things go through my mind at different points in the performance and really help me to define the things that make Durnan who he is. Remember how I mentioned secrets before? Woah, the things Durnan has seen and done, in Undermountain alone, would make a Tarrasque quake. Maybe one day some of that stuff will come out. Who knows?
What's it been like working with Perfect World and Cryptic Studios to bring this character to life?
It's been nothing short of amazing. The Cryptic/Perfect World team is one of the best groups I've worked within voiceover, across many companies, and they care so much about their community of gamers. Julia is a wonderful host and guided me about the office the whole time, and Thomas is a dude that is just so in his element that he exudes cool… and he's a pretty sharp dresser. I think what I love about that office is that it's just so beautiful to see a bunch of people excited about the game they are creating. Their reason for waking up in the morning isn't to just make a buck. Their passionate about providing as much joy as they can to their players, and to each other, as they can before the sun goes down. You can really feel it throughout the entire building. It's magical. I already consider it an incredible honor to have been asked to work on this game.
What do you think of the latest additions to the game as they've explored Waterdeep and the Undermountain?
Hmmm, I really like that they listen to their player base and do their best to balance what makes a fun and compelling game, with what the players would like to see happening. Take M16 for example, they didn't just tweak classes here and there, they overhauled all of them. It literally feels like a brand-new game but with all the familiar stuff you really enjoy about D&D. Their designers are really excited about making the levels and encounters balanced so that everything has the representation it deserves. Further, it's UNDERMOUNTAIN! There is a forest in a mountain! Not only is it a cool idea, they nailed it. You can really feel the love and attention to detail as you explore it. I mean, we don't even need to get into the Yawning Portal. Here's a little fun fact, at the Stream of Many Eyes, I was super excited about Durnan's greatsword, Grimvault, and Thomas knew that. He made sure to point it out to me right there on the tavern wall behind Durnan's bar. Does that relay how much thought and attention they put into it?
Without giving anything away, do you know if there are plans to keep bringing Durnan back for more expansions, or is this just for these updates?
Gavin! You know better! But, I applaud the attempt. You wouldn't be doing your job if you didn't ask. Whenever you are in a creative flow like the team at Cryptic, there are going to be lots of possibilities thrown around; for this project, other projects, and it's all really exciting stuff. I think legal would be alright with the classic standby: "This is a beautiful friendship that I treasure like a dragon's horde. And, in a Perfect World, we'd get to work on many, many things together. As always, it would be an honor… whether Durnan is involved or not."
What other projects do you currently have on your plate?
After finishing up my work on the recently announced Eberron for Wizards of the Coast, I have been abroad in Asia working for a big AAA publisher on an unannounced game. It's still in its early phases but I've been brought in to help with narrative design, and leaning pretty heavily on my film writing and Voice Over experience to keep those elements in the forefront of the design team's mind from the ground up. We are having a blast so far and the early concept stuff is beautiful. That's on top of all the usual biz buzz, like producing the live streams for Gen Con, and other conventions on the circuit. As soon as I can get this stuff settled, I plan on getting Inkwell Society back on its feet and continuing that game, because I have some really great players and the way they negotiate that very gritty, noir setting of Eberron in the backdrop of Sharn… they really feed my creativity. Just like I said at the start, I'm incredibly fortunate to have thoughtful, talented, considerate friends who inspire me to keep making things that will inspire them, too. I sincerely hope this rollercoaster never ends, but if it does, I've got a hell of a lot of memories that I can look back and draw every ounce of appreciation from.
We nerds are really lucky, you know? Our community is our lifeblood, and their enthusiasm proves that the only limitations we have are the ones we put on ourselves. I truly believe that gaming, and D&D in particular, makes the world a better place. It's this community that is the reason I feel strongly about this, and I am eternally grateful to the Neverwinter team for blending the genres together with all the love and dedication they do.