It feels weird to type this, but in 2018 I’m almost ashamed to say I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons. I’d go as far as to say I’ve never played any form of tabletop role-playing game, but I ended up joining a one-night session of Dungeon World a little over a year ago. How did I get there, though? By listening to every episode of The Adventure Zone, binging HarmonQuest, and dipping my nerdy toes into similar shows like Critical Role, of course! It was just the start of a ride I never expected to take and my first introduction to a world in which I never thought I would be remotely interested.
That’s right, no matter how nerdy your interests may seem now, rest assured: There’s always room for more. The winning formula behind this irresistible pull is surprisingly simple, so go ahead and place those Amazon orders for 100pc translucent dice sets before digging in further.
The Comedy Gateway
Comedy is the best way to get into pretty much anything. Think about the first time you saw a horror movie. It probably scared the living bejeezus out of you. But then you get a chance to check out something a little lighter; something that plays with the darkness while making light of what freaks us out. You watch a Gremlins here, toy with a little Killer Clowns from Outer Space there. Next thing you know you’re a full-blown horror hound with Dickies albums on wax. If you’re anything like I was as a kid, you might just try watching Ghostbusters every single night like clockwork until the ghoulish librarian no longer makes you wet yourself.
Now take that mindset and apply it to something else completely foreign. In my case, it was tabletop role-playing. I grew up with enough nerdy interests to fill a very unwelcoming library, but despite all the Magic: The Gathering cards and the bagged-and-boarded Valiant comics, I didn’t have a single friend who (openly) played Dungeons & Dragons. Thus, it became the realm of the Super Nerd. Something unfathomable even to me, the kid who drew maps of side-scrolling platformers and ripoff Battletoads comics.
Fast forward to a few years ago and this lid blew off like a paper manhole cover, and it’s all thanks to shows like HarmonQuest and The Adventure Zone. Both are very different—not just because one is an animated/live-action hybrid TV show and the other is a podcast—but because they have their own unique methods of storytelling. There’s a strong comedic tether connecting both, though, and it has the power to pull in even the most dubious of dungeon-crawlers.
The Power of Participation
Another feature both HarmonQuest and The Adventure Zone have in common is the inclusion of people who don’t normally participate in fantasy role-playing games. While most of MBMBaM‘s McElroy brothers—including oldest brother Justin, middlest brother Travis, and sweet baby brother and 30 under 30 media luminary Griffin—had played Dungeons & Dragons to some degree before starting the cast, they hadn’t really played together. They definitely hadn’t played with their dad, Clint McElroy. Thus, a strong dynamic instantly emerged, and it’s one to which any potential player can relate.
In HarmonQuest this role falls to the guest of the week. According to Chelsea Peretti, the closest she got to playing before being on the show was watching her brother and his friends play D&D—which is totally not what they’re playing on HarmonQuest—as a kid. Peretti and other guests might not get the chance to really get into role-playing during their appearances, but it’s the perfect amount of water for some light toe-dipping. Regular guest spots like these had me thinking I might as well at least try sitting in on a one-off session with a few likeminded friends through virtual tabletop service Roll20. Hence my fleeting but satisfying Dungeon World adventure.
Maybe I’m just the most impressionable person on the planet. I tend to get really into whatever it is I’m consuming at any given moment, so it was only a matter of time before I wanted to participate in a game myself. Hell, I pretty much wanted to run a game and design an entire campaign right away, but a lot of that has to do with watching people play. Seeing the level of fun your average newcomer can have right out of the gate is inspiring, to say the least.
Beyond all the humor and the desire to get in on the action, the most illuminating aspect of acting as a spectator to these games was the realization that they have the potential to tell a pretty damn good story. It takes about an arc or so of The Adventure Zone before you realize something special is at play. HarmonQuest doesn’t get terribly deep, but its combination of comedy and animation make for characters worth following from one season to the next. Critical Role is a sprawling saga, and GM (and accomplished voice actor) Matt Mercer has provided plenty of resources to help everyone else tell a story while running a rewarding and balanced game.
The fact that role-playing storylines are mostly ephemeral is kind of empowering, too. Sure, the aforementioned shows and podcasts are here to stay, and you may opt to record your adventures, too, but there’s something exciting about living in the moment of a story. Like the creation and subsequent destruction of Tibetan sand mandalas, there’s a certain thrill that comes along with putting a lot of work into a narrative and fully-realized characters for a small, temporary audience. Will it all work? Probably not. Hit-and-whiff improvisation is one of the chief attractions, and every misstep along the way only serves to highlight the moments with actual weight.
I guess what I’m saying is… this stuff rules, actually. It owns bones. I was wrong for three quarters of my life and it feels great. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to coming up with a new way to trick my old friends into falling into this bottomless bastard of a rabbit hole so I can finally launch a full-blown campaign of my own.