Dungeons & Dragons was and continues to be a foundational storytelling game for nerds everywhere, and with its recent resurgence to the forefront of geek culture, there's no better time than now to get in. And who better to accompany and inspire you than a die-hard D&D fan that's also had plenty of acting impact on the world of genre? We're talking about Scream, SLC Punk, Thir13en Ghosts, and Scooby-Doo star Matthew Lillard.
The actor likes the role-playing game so much that Lillard's new gaming company Beadle and Grimm's Pandemonium Warehouse is releasing 1,000 limited-run platinum editions of the new Dungeons & Dragons story Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (and there are still some boxes left!).
We at SYFY WIRE found out that he named the company after two characters his friends played with back in the day and had to know the backstory. So Lillard, despite being a little bit harried one morning last week, jumped on the phone with us to talk about his company, his Dungeon Master, and what he looks for in a role(-playing character).
Sounds like you're already fighting some real-life battles today.
Just yelling at my kids. I've got three kids and all three of them go to camp tomorrow, for a month, so they get to binge technology and media as hard as they want today. It's like they're going to the chair.
An electronic last meal.
To rope it into Dungeons & Dragons, there was something about being a kid with mom and dad throwing you out of the house at 8AM during the summer to play with a group of friends all day. When you don't necessarily have access to that — if you're in the realm of playdates — you miss out on the reason you ended up playing D&D: because you were bored.
Boredom is one of the great things for your imagination. We try to make [our kids] as bored as possible so they have to use their imaginations.
Is that how you started playing?
We had a kid in our neighborhood who was smarter than the average bear and discovered D&D. I don't know how HE found it, because we were kids. We'd ride our bikes down to the local gaming store and buy minis, then roll a character that matched your mini. You'd play that character for two weeks, then immediately become 20th level with psionic powers - become a god - then retire that character (or the DM would get bored or angry at you and kill that character), and you'd go back to buy another mini.
Playing in college, we had pages and pages of backstory.
I came back to the game at 21. I was an actor in NYC and my roommate, who I happened to get — luck of the draw — from school, was a DM. He'd been DMing since he was eight. When the rest of us gave it up, he kept going and doubled down. At some point in the conversation, the five guys I was friends with realized we'd all played as kids.
We sat in the lobby of a Broadway theater and gamed from like 10 PM to 6 AM. That was that iteration of the game for me and those guys, by the way, are the same guys I play with today. 27 years of playing with the same guys, and those are the guys I formed the company with. The point is, if you come into D&D as a 48-year-old man or an eight-year-old kid, you're gonna find an element of the game that'll be for whoever you are at that part of your life.
How has this almost three-decade-old party changed?
We've lost a couple guys — they didn't die or anything, but two guys stopped playing, and everyone moved to California except for one guy still in New York, who plays on Skype, which is crazy.
That's how I play sometimes. It's rough.
It's hard, dude. We're gaming on the opposite coasts. We're ordering dinner and he's like "oh my god you guys, just bring dinner." Look, half of the fun of D&D is the fellowship of sitting around the table and exchanging time together. In the early days we were out to kill things and that's still part of our game. But now, it's hanging out, it's bulls***ting before, it's inside jokes. I just retired a paladin I've been playing for seven years.
Our company is named for the first characters we played. I played Beadle the Dungeon Delver and one of the guys played Grimm the Giantslayer — when you play those characters for seven, eight, nine years, it becomes part of you. It becomes part of the texture of your friendship. We're all actors or former actors, so there's a lot of roleplay that becomes second nature.
Is everybody doing character voices?
Ten years ago we added [Without a Paddle actor] Abraham Benrubi, and Abe and I always play obnoxiously-defined characters. We're the guys with the booming voices-
-and the intelligence scores of 8, ruining everything.
Exactly. "Don't you guys like my silly voice?" The two of us do a lot of voices, a lot of schmacking, and that's what makes it fun for us. The other guys...not so much. Everyone plays their characters, but they're never as braggadocios, big, or obnoxious as ours.
If you ask ME what our game is based on - or maybe what my favorite parts of the game are - I'd say killer moves (way better than just getting up and slashing something), witty banter, and great [player character] stuff.
But, we can overthink and ponder any decision for hours. Us in a heavily-trapped dungeon is unbelievably excruciating.
How does your DM push you forward in those situations?
He's implemented a LOT of clocks in our lives. Somebody's possessed, somebody's turning, the town's about to be destroyed - anything so we can't sit there and fart around.
Have you ever run anything?
I ran Champions, the superhero game. And my game was super fun, but you have to understand your strengths and limitations and running a game is not my strength.
Does your DM provide the same kind of tangible, prop-heavy experience as the platinum edition?
Not really! The idea came from a WANT for that, because we all have crazy busy lives. It's what you don't have time to provide for this great gaming experience. There's an echelon of gamer that would love handwritten notes, that would love to produce metal coins, that would love trinkets or a handcrafted trap. But there're a lot of people out there that don't have the time to execute that.
We're talking about doing a gold set, we're talking about doing a silver set, so even if you don't necessarily have the $500 version of it, the $200 version of it (or whatever) will be great! We don't really know what the other versions are yet, which is a f***ing mistake on our part, but we're working towards figuring that out.
We're definitely experiencing some blowback on the price, but everything we have in the box - everything we're delivering and the way the game is played - we think we're going to exceed what people expect.
Some of that blowback might stem from uncertainty - nobody's gotten their hands on it yet.
For sure. We have no track record. It's a leap of faith to buy the box early, but we're only making 1,000. Pre-sales have been great so far and we've got some ways to go, but after 1,000, they're gone.
But look, we understand where people are at. We understand that people don't know us, we understand that it's a leap of faith, we understand that it's a lot of money. What we're gonna do is make a kickass product that will deliver. That will create that sense of goodwill.
Tell me about the namesakes of the company doing the delivering: Beadle and Grimm.
Beadle is a Dungeon Delver, before there was subclass of Dungeon Delver, and he called himself "the greatest Dungeon Delver ever." His favorite expression is "useless." Every cleric, every bard. "Useless." And he's obsessed with magic. He'll do anything at any time to collect magic. A magic user and a thief, he's a dwarven beast of thievery...and he's an asshole. He's nefarious.
Grimm's a berserker, 6'5," man of few words, fights with a greatsword or sometimes two longswords. We'd go into these battles playing Age of Worms, an old Dragon magazine adventure. That party eventually opened a bar called Giantsbane. I'll tell you this: if [Beadle and Grimm's] ever ends up making a dollar, we may end up buying a bar somewhere.
What's the last great "move" you've pulled off in the game you're playing now?
We were recently playing on that Twitch stream as a golem was knocking on the door, and I drew a sound illusion down the hallway that distracted it. That's the kind of move — a minor illusion that stops a golem from killing you — that isn't something that's going to be in songs. No bard is gonna see that and say "that was amazing," but it's just creativity. That's the joy.
Yes, you can roll crits and those are super fun, but a natural one is just as exciting because the story changes. D&D to me is 27 years of five guys telling the same story full of great moves and horrible tragedies. The more you invest, the more the game gives you.
This interview has been condensed and edited.