Dungeons & Dragons never really went away, but its resurgence in popular culture over the last few years has been obvious. Helped by appearing in shows of the moment like Community and Stranger Things, the venerable roleplaying game has a larger and wider audience now than at any time in its 44 year history.
The students of Greendale Community College or the kids in Stranger Things, however, play D&D in the 'traditional' way: which is to say, huddled in basements and study rooms. Nothing wrong with that! D&D in 2018, on the other hand, is often found intersecting with online culture. An increasing number of role players are keen to let their imaginations shine out beyond their immediate surroundings, and share their grand quests through podcasts or streaming or whatever.
The show Adventurers Wanted embraces this concept, not least by embracing the audience, and its brave questers face something that is possibly more terrifying than goblins — the audience for one of the largest arts festivals in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe. The idea behind the show is a full D&D campaign that runs from start-to-finish throughout the festival, with four hour-long sessions taking place almost every day in August, featuring a rotating cast.
It could be you: anyone can buy a 'player ticket' for the show, which allows them to take part in the adventure, either bringing their own character along or using a pre-made one provided by producer Chloe Mashiter. The production's commitment to accessibility defines several key elements of how it works (the first show of each day is interpreted through BSL) and it's here you see the payoff: several of these participants, after all, have no idea what D&D is. Those new to it are given a gentle introduction to the idea by Mashiter and provided with a set of rainbow dice, which makes them easier to tell apart.
Though the crew makes use of Twitter and Twitch to share the adventure, the focus is really on the audience in the room and the fun part of roleplaying anyone can understand — the back-and-forth reasoning, the jokes, the projected consequences and the lucky rolls. The format creates a sense of intimacy through the 'core' players constantly bringing eager Fringe-goers into the action, and somehow dealing with the consequences (another big upside of the Fringe is the deep pool of talent the show has been able to draw on for guest performers).
That human side is what lies behind Mashiter’s belief in the show and D&D in general. “It’s great when we can introduce D&D to a wider audience, to expand that sense of having fun together out to more people. When D&D works and it's people bouncing off each other, it’s kind of magic.”
Making D&D work, more often than not, comes down to the hardest and possibly most rewarding job of all: the Dungeon Master. Anyone who's run even the most basic D&D campaign knows it can be a daunting task, even without the additional burden of telling a coherent story in strict hour-long chucks with a constantly shifting group of players. This weight rests on the demonically horned shoulders of Chris Hislop.
It’s Hislop who opens the show with a short welcome and brief explanation of what D&D is and how it works. In this performance he focuses on explaining why the players have dice. But it's over like that, and such brevity initially surprises me. At the Fringe, as the show's performers know, a sizeable chunk of your audience have picked a show at random or simply wanted to escape the rain. Some of them won't know what D&D is, some of them won't care, and some won't have the foggiest notion of what's going on.
But in the same way that a road-trip isn’t really about the car, this show isn’t about D&D so much as powered by it. The mechanics of D&D aren't quite abandoned in favour of straight improv — there is definitely an actual game being played over time — but they do take a back seat to whatever's happening on stage. Everything is set up to keep the story beats running smoothly and, when stats or rules checks are required, Hislop is assisted by an off-stage team who follow the players' moves and search the relevant books as the game progresses.
During this show a character rather suddenly transformed herself into a bear. The stats for a bear were on her desk in moments, and the game ticked on almost entirely uninterrupted.
Hislop is a generous DM, and his delight at inventive moves or witty comments from the players is genuine. He rewards creative moves, and softly narrates the action without hesitation. Such fluency under pressure is seriously impressive, and Hislop's skill brings the other performers and audience right into the roleplaying world, where everyone's imagination has a moment to shine.
Sadly even Hislop can't quite save the 'combat' element of Adventurers Wanted. During combat D&D itself becomes, somewhat by necessity, more rigidly structured. This is where the cold hard stats really matter, and a legendary warrior can be ended by underestimating a wasp. During the stage show these combat sequences follow the pattern of characters attacking then NPCs counter-attacking, which is fun when you’re a player. But even in capable hands, and though there were flashes of entertainment and humour, this was the part of the show that dragged a little, and felt like merely watching others have fun.
Perhaps that’s just the thinking of a jaded has-been, a role-player past his best. I mention these thoughts to the show's producer, and Mashiter recalls her favourite moment from last year’s run, where audience participation came to the fore at a key moment. “There was a battle between two ships. People were loading whatever they could into cannons and someone rolled really high on an attack roll, and was about to kill one of the enemy leaders with a piece of cutlery. A woman shouted ‘I do hope it’s a dessert spoon’, and so Chris decided damn right it’s a dessert spoon.”
Whether the idea of lethal precision kitchenware tickles your sense of humour or not, that Mashiter remembers this moment between DM and audience cuts to the heart of what makes Adventurers Wanted an endearing experience.
Aspects of nerd culture are rife with gate-keeping, D&D can be no exception, but this show is about throwing them open and inviting everyone to the party. The ambition to spin a yarn to a live audience over 100-odd hours is ambitious and impressive. Even more laudable is how the show shares its creators' passion with the audience. A roleplaying game can seem like a heavy commitment sometimes, but Adventurers Wanted takes an audience by the hand and gives them a little self-contained taste of the possibilities.
Those just beginning to explore Dungeons & Dragons, or those simply curious about it, may get the most enjoyment out of Adventurers Wanted. This is not a show for the hardcore, and it's a better show for it. And even I, a cynical and hoary old hand, was reminded of why the game still holds a special place in my heart. After the applause, I walked straight from the venue to a local game shop, and left with a brand-new set of multi-sided dice.
Adventurers Wanted is on at Sweet Venues, Edinburgh, every day from now until the 26th of August at 10.30, 11.30, 12.30 and 13.30. You can book tickets here, and the show also has a Twitch channel. The group also do shows throughout the year in London.
Cover image and above illustration: (c) John Aggs. All other images: (c) Andreas Lambis