It can be difficult to explain Dungeons and Dragons if you haven’t experienced it for yourself – and this is exactly what the cast of Dice Paper Role, a Melbourne-based Dungeons and Dragons podcast group, attempted to do before their first live performance at the 2018 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Easiest to describe as ‘collaborative storytelling’, Dungeons and Dragons is a pen-and-paper-and-dice game which requires a vast and brilliant imagination, and the willingness to talk about silly things with silly accents in front of your friends. In the case of Dice Paper Role, who usually only do session recordings for the internet, they brought their silly ideas and silly accents to a sell-out crowd at Storyville, an adorable hidden bar themed after fairy tales inside and out. (This reviewer can also highly rate their cocktails, even the ones that have little dried worms in them.)
Dice Paper Role are five friends, each introducing themselves as their characters – Greg Pickering as A’lan, an angelic sorcerer; Emil Freund as Brakai, a barbarian appearing to be made of stone; Jack Kirby Crosby as Oriki’s Song, a demonic bard; Ben Clements as Snatch, a hobbit-esque rogue/thief; and Daniel Last as their Dungeon Master (DM), the designated storyteller for the scenario.
Last is a brilliant DM, and easily begins to weave a narrative that the entire audience can picture in their minds with a little encouragement from the cast. The story opens as a fairly common Dungeons and Dragons trope, the group have been invited to a dinner party slash ceremony at the town castle, but intrigue quickly becomes the focus as one of the partygoers is murdered by an unseen killer.
The cast appear a little nervous to begin, as can be expected of a group who are performing their first live show ever, but they quickly fall into their familiar characters and play easily off each other. Dungeons and Dragons requires quick wits and strong skills in improvisation in order to remain in character as well as progress the story being told by the DM. The cast are evidently well attuned to their characters and know exactly what to say to make each other laugh, which infects the audience with laughter as well.
For the first half of the show the cast stick to role-playing, or acting, describing their characters actions as they move around the halls of the castle. The barbarian attempts to dance but rolls a low number on his dice, so he’s forced to trip over his own feet, much to the delight of the other characters and the audience. The Halfling, a food-motivated thief, steals a wide variety of fruit platters before winning three games in a row against a gambler, who turns out to have nothing to wager but the shirt on his back, and so of course the Halfling takes that as his payout.
Some of the greatest delights of the first half come as the cast talk over each other, with one character accidentally causing additional damage to the dead man by starting CPR before being told there’s a knife in his chest, pushing it in further with every compression. As is the way with improv, every member of the cast expertly allows failures to roll off and continue with their “yes, and” responses, preventing the show from ever falling into dead air or awkwardness.
There’s a near-constant switch between speaking in-character and speaking as themselves, but it doesn’t detract from the story, instead providing extra avenues for jokes and callouts amongst the group. ‘Meta-gaming’, or the act of discussing in-game decisions in an out of character way, is forbidden (they do it anyway), but it’s totally fine to laugh at Last as he struggles through a knockoff Minnie Mouse voice for one of his characters.
After a number of call-backs to earlier trumpet-based jokes, a ‘good cop / bad cop’ routine that results in a broken nose immediately resolved via healing magic, and some truly terrible detective work, the twist is revealed to the total shock of everyone onstage. It’s a real delight listening to the characters as they try to work out just what the hell they’ll be fighting as the show transitions to the fight scene after a brief intermission.
Managing combat in Dungeons and Dragons can be tricky, as the dice rolls are random and each action requires a description based on success or failure. The DM Last manages to skilfully describe each failed attack on the part of the mysterious villain, and each of the cast members have their own preferences on how to attack, which is a real tribute to their familiarity with their characters and battle styles.
After a brief battle (that may have been briefer had there not been some behind-the-scenes machinations to make the villain a little bit stronger, a learning opportunity for their upcoming second show), the party has succeeded, with the faint smell of burning hair described so imaginatively that it could almost be real.
Dice, Paper, Role are extremely skilled performers and presenters, with the smooth familiarity of a seasoned group despite only playing together and recording podcasts for a year. Each cast member brings their own flavour to the show, with every opportunity to delight and amaze the audience by saying something random in a potentially-Scottish accent. With their first live show a resounding success, they’ll be a group to watch out for if they ever take to the stage again.