On a snowy December night in New York City, an audience at the Peoples Improv Theater Loft watched as the actors on stage played through a heart-wrenching scene. The half-elf ranger Lady Aragorn knelt beside Khadash, a dragonborn cleric, and tried to help him heal after he was gravely injured in a fight. The effort would succeed in bringing Khadash back from the brink of death, but at a cost. The action drained Lady Aragorn of life, killing her instead.
This scene ended the final 2017 performance of The Campaign, but the dramatic ending was not planned. The death was all due to the result of a d20 dice roll.
The Campaign is just one of quite a few improv theater shows inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, a combination that is less unlikely than it might seem. The tabletop game naturally involves some amount of improvisation from its players, with a story crafted by players and dungeon masters in real-time.
Eric Fell started Vancouver's The Critical Hit Show after he walked past a gaming store and saw people playing D&D about six years ago. He walked in and opened up the Dungeon's Master Guide 2 from the fourth edition, and saw a mention of improv and the "yes and" concept, which is at improv's core.
"A light went on as it does never in real life and I thought 'this would make a pretty rad show.' I sat down with some strangers and said 'can you teach me D&D?' I played every Wednesday for six months and figured it out. I grabbed some of my hilarious comedian friends and we put on a show and they keep wanting us to do it," he said.
Kaitlin Noble is the creator and DM for The Campaign. She first tried D&D in college after years of wanting to play and during a reunion game with that group after graduating, had the idea for the show.
"I noticed that my roommates were standing around watching us and we were all improvisers so we were all really theatrical. We were weaving a beautiful scene and it struck me as something people would want to watch based on the fact that there were people watching us at that moment," Noble told SYFY WIRE. "I took some time to sit down, think of a form, how I could translate it on stage. We workshopped it a bit a year and a half ago, and now here we are."
The Campaign performs once a month at the PIT Loft and features Noble as DM along with nine performers. Four of them play NPCs while five play the main party members. According to Noble, one of the first things she tackled when adapting the game to stage was streamlining it into something watchable.
"Back in college, one of the big drags was waiting for someone to roll through their character sheet and figure out what they wanted to do and then do the math to see if it worked or not. It was just so much more dynamic when we threw that out the window," she explained. "When you think of D&D you think of a d20 first so I thought that really all you would need to play the game was really good actors and a d20."
A few different versions were tried, including one where everyone individually rolled their own d20s, but ultimately it settled on a form where Noble is the only one with a d20 and that's the only dice used to determine decisions. She rolls and comments on everything as a DM would normally while the actors play out the story. Rolls above 10 mean the character succeeds while a roll below 10 means they fail. A natural 20 is still a major success and a natural one a critical failure.
Accessibility was key to what Noble wanted with the show so that people don't have to know the game to be able to watch and follow along.
"I wanted people to be able to access it because it's not hard," Noble says. "It shouldn't be hard. It's a game first and foremost. I want it to be fun for everyone whether you know D&D or whether you don't."
According to Fell, some fans have followed the characters in Critical Hit since the show began in 2012, so while creator and DM Fell thinks of each performance as "its own action movie and fantasy film," there are story arcs because of fan base interest with characters even falling in love, getting married, and having a kid.
"I can set something up in January and pay it off in October. We have recurring villains, recurring themes, and the characters wind up with these arcs," Fell told SYFY WIRE.
To adapt the game, Fell decided against everyone sitting at a table due to the theater's spacious stage. While they started with fourth edition D&D, they have since moved to a different d20 role-playing game called 13th Age.
Fell often incorporates the audience into the shows, hiding stuff among them during an intermission for example that the heroes have to find or bringing up audience members to fill in as people at a party the performers are attending. He also gets the audience involved in battles, bringing them up to fight the players. Those audience members get to decide who they attack during such fights, taking that out of Fell's hands.
"We try to keep the audience as involved as possible. Off the top, I let everybody know you're all sitting around the table which means you're all part of the show," he said.
It's another way these D&D-inspired shows incorporate a common improv element: audience participation. The Campaign also incorporates some audience suggestions, which can impact the game in interesting ways as does Pittsburgh show Knights of the Arcade.
While adapting the game to an improv show, Fred Betzner told SYFY WIRE the main change they wanted to make was having it be "fast, funny, and really entertaining and engaging for an audience." While they still keep dice rolls and add modifiers, it's more about being funny for the audience. Knights of the Arcade started when, around four years ago, Betzner was listening to a bunch of D&D podcasts like Acquisitions Inc. and Nerd Poker, and he was listening to Harmontown where the group played D&D in front of a studio audience. The energy and interactions from that audience clicked with Betzner.
The group performs at the Arcade Comedy Theater monthly and their shows are also released as a podcast. Dice are rolled digitally and shown on a large screen so everyone in the room can see the result. Betzner is the DM, and the game has been tweaked over time. After spending their entire second episode fighting worms, they had to figure out how beholden they wanted to be to aspects of the game, like monster stats. A balance had to be found, with their fan base about 50 percent D&D players and 50 percent comedy fans.
They also initially wanted the show to be one ongoing story, according to Betzner, but then they realized that kind of continuity would be difficult. Now they make sure each show features the completion of a single quest, though there is still character continuity.
For Betzner as the DM, it's more about telling a good satisfying story and making "it as funny as possible" without having to worry so much about the stakes. That they can bring back characters from the death also helps.
The Campaign has been experimenting with story arcs though, and how much they can get away from the day-to-day adventures they started with. Their first big arc ended in July and started when the party accidentally released an evil wizard. With only two minutes left in the show, Noble decided to try a cliffhanger and see if the old audience would not only come back, but if the new audience would get it. They did and now Noble looks for arcs to start organically, never planning the next adventure.
With their similarities to other improv shows, what makes D&D such an attractive inspiration for these comedians? Why adapt it instead of using something else in the first place? Fell thinks part of it is that role-playing tabletop games like D&D don't have a set world, unlike other potential adaptations. If you go with something specific like Star Wars or Game of Thrones, you're directly parodying specific characters. D&D may have certain default worlds like Greyhawk, but "it's more of a framework than it is a specific narrative." To Fell, the game allows you to tell basically any story which speaks to the audience and the key is continuing to make it feel like it's just a bunch of friends around a table having a good time.
There's also the twist D&D presents to the "yes and" rule of improv Fell mentioned earlier. For Betzner, that one rule of improv where "if someone presents something to you, you say yes to that, you accept the premise that they're putting forward and you build on it" is something they all do as performers. The rise of geekiness has also helped.
"Dungeons & Dragons is becoming a much more popular game and people aren't as afraid of being confused as devil worshipers or whatever. I think just with things like Game of Thrones and the Marvel cinematic universe and Star Wars and how all of this stuff has become more mainstream, shows like this then have an additional level of interest whereas this might have been a niche show 10 or 15 years ago," added Brad Stephenson, Knights of the Arcade co-producer and actor. "Now it's sort of like 'oh my gosh, I love Game of Thrones. I've never played D&D but these guys are wearing these funny costumes and saying things that I hear on TV.'"
Dungeons & Dragons has a unique foundation that offers endless possibilities for improv performers which more and more theaters may continue to realize as the game and geek culture continue to grow in popularity. It takes the idea of "yes and" to a new level as comedians embrace not only the suggestions of their fellow performers but the unpredictable roll of a dice that can decide the fate of their characters and an entire show.