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To preface an article on something with such a rich history as Dungeons & Dragons, I feel it’s best to start from the beginning, or more specifically, where it began for me. I was in college about the same time Geek and Sundry first started putting out their infamous Critical Role show and hadn’t the foggiest idea about D&D other than some guide books on monsters I had picked up as a kid to use as inspiration when writing stories. I’d heard about it, of course, but only in vague references, and the most I understood at the time was that it was a popular game of some sort.
In class one day I glanced over at my friend’s computer and saw that she was looking at a picture. I recognized in my distant childhood memories a beholder, a floating abomination that looked like a meatball had been given a maw of razor-sharp teeth, a giant central eye, and eyestalks all over its body, each of which could fire a magic laser with different effects in order to royally screw with whoever had the misfortune to stumble into its path. After class, I asked her about it and she said she was perusing a digital copy of the Monster Manual. I asked what it was, and from there fell down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Five years, several campaigns, and multiple characters later, I find myself in the dubious position of reviewing Caffeine’s show called The Dungeon Run and asked to write an article while sounding like I know what the heck I’m talking about. While I had seen trailers and the like, I never looked into the show before now simply because I had other things going on, including ongoing campaigns of my own, and knowing how long sessions can run in an average game, it wasn’t too hard to imagine a similar experience playing out in front of me on a screen. Obviously, I had a lot of catching up to do. Hopefully, if you’re reading this you don’t have to go diving into wikis and the like to figure out what The Dungeon Run is actually about, but if you do, I’ll save you some time and give a brief overview of what’s going on here.
The Dungeon Run is a live RPG show where five adventurers are set loose in the fantastic world of Ain. The characters are played by notable actors: Katie Michels from Brooklyn Nine-Nine plays the gnome bard Lily Dumblestuck; Morgan Peter Brown from the film Ouija plays the human warlock James Quillus; Ron Ogden from Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies plays the orc barbarian Uggo; Jarred Kjack from James Ellroy’s L.A.: City of Demons plays the tabaxi rogue Siv RedThistle; and Jessica Lynn Parsons from S.W.A.T. plays the fire genasi wizard Fahima Tadhg. The group’s Dungeon Master, Jeff Cannata, is also an actor, known for the web series The Further Adventures of Cupid and Eros. The show premiered on Caffeine’s streaming site, with episodes being ported later to YouTube.
So, as someone familiar with D&D, what did I think of the show, and what can people familiar with the game expect from it? What makes The Dungeon Run fun to watch for veteran DM’s and players?
Honest, short answer: the same thing that makes every D&D game enjoyable.
To be clear, the show isn’t going to be for everyone, just like there’s no one true method to playing the game that’s for everyone. Some people will think the rules are too lax, or too strict. Some people will dislike the story, or the characters, or the player’s decisions. And that, too, is a part of D&D as a whole. It attracts such a diverse array of people, such that there are so many opinions and beliefs and ways to play the game that there’s no ‘right’ way to do it anymore. It’s amazing, really, especially when you consider that it came out in the 70’s, and people old and new from different backgrounds and experiences STILL play it.
Some people will point out how interactive The Dungeon Run is, how the audience can affect the outcome of the story, and while to a degree that makes it interesting to watch, it’s not an entirely novel idea. There’s an early episode of Critical Role where they have an encounter that was stated to have been provided by the chatroom. While it may help draw in people who have never played before or are relatively new to the game, the interactivity of the game isn’t going to be the main point that brings in veteran players, at least not entirely.
What about the quirky cast? An orc, a tabaxi, a fire genasi… heck, there’s even a subrace of gnome that doesn’t appear in the player’s handbook! For new players, seeing such variety before them is entrancing, and it certainly is interesting to see such a wide array of uncommon races being played. But again, having people playing something other than the bog-standard races found in the player’s handbook isn’t necessarily what makes a good campaign. While playing as a race you’ve never played before may enhance the roleplay somewhat, it’s not the only factor that makes a character interesting.
So what does it? The miniatures? The maps? The mind flayer puppet at the start the show? What’s the main draw of the Dungeon Run that will make veterans of the game want to watch?
The same thing that makes people want to play the game in their living room with crudely-drawn maps and toys bought for their kid. You don’t really need anything fancy to have fun playing D&D, or even just watching it. If the DM can spin a story that draws the players and the audience in, if the characters work well together or bounce off in ways that are hysterically funny, if everyone is having a good time… then that’s all you really need.
There’s a reason Dungeons & Dragons is lauded as one of the best roleplaying games out there. It taps into the magic of storytelling and invites the players to become a part of it, and the audience to watch it unfold. Sure, you can have the audience tweak it by having them set up encounters or provide magic items, and that makes it more interactive and fun for people who want to be a part of the action. But even without that, if for some reason you don’t want to spend money or you can’t get in on the fun of throwing monsters at the players, The Dungeon Run still holds promise for fans of D&D, new and old, for the same reason any home campaign does: the promise of a story yet to be told.