Dungeons and Dragons (D&D for short), once considered a relic of dark basements in the 70s and 80s, has had something of a resurgence over the past seven or eight years. Spurred on by popular online shows – Critical Role, for example, a YouTube series running since 2015 – the humble pen-and-paper tabletop game has become a global phenomenon again, allowing players to let out their inner elves, ogres, dragons, and basically anything else mentioned in a Tolkien novel.
D&D is, at its core, collaborative storytelling with a strong focus on improvisation. Using anything from merely imagination to a table covered in miniature figurines and a million and one rulebooks, D&D campaigns are tales woven by players and their Dungeon Master (DM), the latter of whom is responsible for controlling the tale. Other than rules of combat, players have free reign to explore the world created by their DM, and can often hilariously disrupt a carefully planned story just by being more interested in a random shopkeeper than the orc trampling a nearby village.
Drawing inspiration from every campaign and group of players that have come before, Dice Paper Role are a group of friends with a fortnightly D&D podcast, and a fresh penchant for live shows. For their 2019 Melbourne International Comedy Festival offering, the Dice Paper Role players are Emil Freund (Brakai, a goliath appearing to be made of stone), Greg Pickering (A’lan A’aron A’eon, a mostly-naked, self-centered, part-angel humanoid), and Ben Clements (Snatch, a halfling rogue akin to Bilbo Baggins). Their Dungeon Master, at least for their first show, is Daniel Last, who in the span of only 90ish minutes managed to weave a spectacular tale of intrigue and woe for his players in ‘Dice Paper Role: At the Movies’.
Rather than sticking with their usual theme of simply playing a round of D&D, for this MICF Dice Paper Role took to the silver screen, with each week of performance (every Sunday throughout the Festival) themed around a different movie genre. For their first performance, Last crafted a spy thriller, complete with a randomly assigned player-character double agent, whose secret goal is to ensure the players fail to find and protect the Sceptre of Orcus from an evil organisation – The Omniscient Council of Vagueness.
Sound kind of silly? It very much is, but that’s the point.
To make it easier on non-D&D-playing audience members, the players have no character sheets (handwritten charts of character statistics and skills) and use only one twenty-sided dice to roll, with the outcome of each action based on the number on the dice. High numbers are good, low numbers are bad, and actions fail or succeed accordingly. The double agent could choose to lie about their dice roll to ensure the team failed, another layer of silliness on top of the general calamity of storytelling.
Last sets each scene change very well, with a masterful use of different voices and modified body language to portray each character the players came across. The audience were used as well, encouraged to make bustling marketplace noises and pretend to be seagull salesmen – a story point that came in handy later on. Last has a great talent for rolling with the punches – as any good DM should – since every player tried multiple times to crack distracting jokes. While that’s always plenty of fun for the audience, and there were definitely a huge number of moments that left some people giggling hysterically, it can be a huge pain for someone trying desperately to keep story threads together, under time limit, and (relatively) family friendly.
However, the relative family friendliness may have been broken at some point by the need to cavity search a random character for some information (a collaborative effort to capture a villain ended in him fleeing naked through the town) which delighted the audience as the players uncomfortably dealt with the situation. There were also several truly disgusting scene descriptions from Last, both prior to and following the nudity, many involving eating things that shouldn’t be eaten.
The climax of the show, involving all three player characters intentionally choosing different methods to break into a gala where the Sceptre was on display, really tested the improvisational chops of all three performers. Pickering, playing a part-angel character whose alignment would usually be considered ‘good’, lied to gain entry to the gala and then proceeded to act rather more violently than expected. Clements, as the smallest character, crept through the vents in an imitation of Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. Freund, determined to make his goliath both intimidating and ridiculous at the same time, somehow wore a half-guard / half-janitor outfit, ensuring he angled his enormous body correctly depending on who he had to convince along the way.
Despite all of this, and all of the other ridiculousness the players madly attempted to spring on their DM, Last brought the story to a close in an enormously satisfactory way. The Dice Paper Role guys are always happy to laugh at themselves and at each other, which surely comes from having played together for so long. They are very in tune with their characters – again from spending so long honing them – and know exactly how to react in any situation, even when their personality might be a little changed from a drink or six onstage.
It’s especially impressive to hear their deep knowledge of D&D lore. While ‘At the Movies’ relied on a very cut down version of the rules to ensure there were no semantics debates, each player’s passion for D&D is evident in the way they can rattle off paragraphs of information at a moment’s notice – or perhaps it was just their charisma that tricked the audience into believing their lies. After all, they are all performers.
Dice Paper Role: At the Movies will be different each week. If nothing else, the Storyville bar is a quaint speakeasy with a number of fun book-themed drinks (the Alice in Wonderland rum teapot for two is a standout favourite) and the intimacy of the venue only enhances the show. But hey, if the thought of a spy movie culminating in a ‘chocolately teleportation vortex’ (just… listen to the recording, it’s well worth it) doesn’t do it for you, there will surely be something in the next few performances that will tickle your fancy.