Bonus Material

Dungeons and Dragons and Bells and Whistles


May 21, 2024

Nicholas Orvis

Nicholas Orvis (he/him) is a dramaturg, critic, and doctoral candidate at the David Geffen School of Drama. His previous dramaturgy includes Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles by Luis Alfaro and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Yale Repertory Theatre); Green Suga Bloos and Almost (nearly) Fucking Finally (David Geffen School of Drama at Yale); The Hedgehog’s Dilemma (Yale Cabaret); and the father, the son, and the holy spirit (Yale Summer Cabaret). From 2014-2019 Nick was the Literary Associate for Premiere Stages at Kean University, where he helped develop new plays by writers including Deborah Brevoort, Nicole Pandolfo, Keith Josef Adkins, and Tammy Ryan. Nick is a former managing editor of Theater magazine and a co-creator and producer of the ongoing Dungeons + Drama Nerds, a podcast exploring the intersections between theater and tabletop roleplaying games.

Ran Xia

Ran Xia (she/her) is an undisciplined dramatist originally from Shanghai. Member of Soho Rep’s Writer/Director lab 2022-2023. Beatrice Terry Resident at the Drama League (2021/22); Resident Director at the Tank where she directed and composed for the film adaptation of Prometheus Bound (inaugural Artist of the Year 2019, In Blue, Tallest Man in the World, etc.); Guest director ar Barnard (Orlando, fall 2021), Montclair State (Randi & Roxanne), and Stella Adler (You for Me for You), Commissioned playwright at Vanderbilt University (To Stab a Butterfly Through the Heart); Usual suspect at Exquisite Corpse Co (Sound Design for the NYT critics’ pick Zoetrope, audio installation for Memory House, and many more). Playwright/Director for the theatrical portion of Risa Puno’s The Privilege of Escape with Creative Time. Chava the Giant and the Oldest Bird at Rattlestick Global Form Festival. Assisting credits inculde: Grey House on Broadway, Laurence Fishburne’s Like They Do in the Movies at PAC, and more. She was long time writer for, ExeuntNYC, formerly Did They Like It, etc. |

When you enter the Stage 42 theater in New York, you might be forgiven for thinking that you’ve entered a castle-themed escape room or an extension of the Medieval Times across the river in New Jersey. Fantastical maps and colorful banners with heraldic-looking emblems hang from the rafters; upstairs, the lobby is lined with vibrant paintings of dragons and mail-clad warriors and shields and axes hang on the wall. Some of those paintings have graced the cover of box sets available in gaming outlets and big box stores like Target. This is Dungeons & Dragons: The Twenty-Sided Tavern, or (as its marketing confidently proclaims) “the Dungeons & Dragons Live Theatrical Experience You’ve Been Waiting For!” The two of us (Nick Orvis and Ran Xia) are lovers of both theater and tabletop roleplaying games (including D&D), and attended – in Ran’s case twice – intending to think through how much of the Tavern is performance, how much is game, and whether this relatively high-profile offering augurs anything for the future of interactive theater.

Photo Credit: Bronwen Sharp


I think it’s important to note that I’m not the ideal audience for Dungeons and Dragons: The Twenty-Sided Tavern. The ideal audience was sitting behind me when I attended: as David Andrew Laws (a.k.a. DAGL), the Dungeon Master, narrated the opening and revealed that the story was set on the Sword Coast and in the city of Waterdeep, a person behind me gasped with excitement and delight. Waterdeep…doesn’t mean anything in particular to me. I recognize the name as a place in the Dungeons & Dragons official setting - I’ve seen it in the title of books - but I’m not a D&D superfan. And in many ways, that’s who this show was for.

Twenty-Sided Tavern is an improv comedy show inspired by and (I would say loosely) based on D&D. The Dungeon Master guides three players - a Warrior (Tyler Nowell Felix), a Mage (Madelyn Murphy), and a Trickster (Diego Salinas) - through a story each night, with the audience helping make decisions and solve challenges along the way. They do this through the Gamiotics platform, a browser app developed by two of the creators (one of whom, Sarah Davis Reynolds, performs as the Tavern Keeper, running live effects and managing the app during the show).

Basically, it’s a D&D-branded improv show selling the idea of participation and play.


I’ve stepped into the Twenty-Sided Tavern twice now, each time with friends who are both players of D&D the game and theater practitioners. We have, as they say, met the wizard behind the veil. “So, did you have fun?” I found myself asking them, albeit with slight trepidation – because for me, the goal of going to the theater is seldom simply “fun”.

“I think so!” or, “Yes!” have been the answers I received, but some part of me remained unconvinced, as if I, as the person who invited a fellow traveler onto a journey, didn’t manage to guide them to where I had hoped we’d go.

But we did have fun, didn’t we? There were exhilarating comedies performed by actors skilled in improvisation; recognizable names (of monsters, locations, renowned characters from lore that has become a shared language amongst generations of players) – we notice the gelatinous cube (a classic D&D creature that’s also featured in the recent film) shaped lamp on set and we delight simply at, being a part of a community, a culture. There were people in the audience who cheered like they’d just turned back time by 50 years – donning elf ears and tiefling horns, side by side with people who could be their children, even grandchildren (the level of D&D knowledge from the children in the audiences astounded me), marking themselves to be recognized, not as a mythical creature (those ears are made of foam after all), but to each other in a way that revealed themselves in a ‘Hey, I’m into the same thing you are’ sort of way without the need of language.

And what is theatre if not a shared experience?

However, what disappointed me was that the things that connected us, the things that we were able to share, did not come from the show itself. Experiencing the Twenty-Sided Tavern didn’t change my opinion about D&D as a game, nor did it challenge my point of view about real-life issues in any way – but at the end of the day, I don’t think that’s what this production is aiming to achieve. It’s an easy, good time for those who want a few hours of escaping the relentlessly complicated mundane, and watch a few magical characters deal with the much simpler task of fighting monsters.

Sarah Davis Reynolds and DAGL in The Twenty-Sided Tavern. Photo Credit: Bronwen Sharp.

If you’re not involved in the tabletop roleplaying scene, the idea of a performance based on D&D might seem far-fetched. But tabletop games and performance go together fairly naturally – roleplaying as an elf can bring out the amateur actor in many people. If we think of a game as a structure of rules that creates play, and a play (in the dramatic sense) as a series of rules for how to create theater – what to say in what order-- the forms don’t seem quite so far apart. But can they be successfully merged?


This show is a very, very corporate exercise. That’s not a criticism in itself – there are two Disney shows playing on Broadway right now -- but it’s a real and inescapable fact. This year is the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons’ first publication, and this show has got to be seen as part of publisher Wizards of the Coast’s push for greater public awareness of the game.

And the game is certainly becoming better known! Nostalgia for the 1980s fueled a megahit TV show (Stranger Things) featuring D&D. That show’s popularity dovetailed with the rise of “actual play” performances on multiple platforms in which performers play sessions of the game in front of an audience . The biggest of these, Critical Role, has generated millions of dollars, an independent game company, and an Amazon original cartoon series. It’s a very, very good time for D&D as a brand, even as its publisher, Wizards of the Coast, has come under increasing public scrutiny for a number of PR missteps and historic problems of representation.

Twenty-Sided Tavern, which only recently got the official imprimatur of D&D, is at least partly a marketing project. And perhaps it succeeds at that – at least at drumming up enthusiasm among the existing customer base, who were wildly excited on the night I was there. As someone who is interested in and wants to see more game-based performance, I was disappointed that this venture ended up being neither a good game nor an especially interesting show. It’s a fine show – the performers are pretty good at the broad improv comedy at its heart. But it’s an odd beast for the space it’s in. The show’s called Twenty-Sided Tavern, and I kept thinking that I’d be more enamored of it in a basement, with a drink in my hand, closer to the performers. Its original (unbranded) run in Chicago in 2022 looks like it was closer to that. Here, there’s a distance between the performers and audience that makes it all feel a little flat. It lacks the camaraderie between performers and audience that seems to be intended.


The rise of Actual Play shows (such as Dimension 20 and Critical Role) has transformed or expanded Dungeons & Dragons. Gone are the days when the game was about fighting monsters and collecting treasure. These days, players sometimes crave more complexity and explore moral grey areas within the magic circle of the gaming table – which is all very good. I’m not a consistent consumer of Actual Play however, I see the appeal of following well-crafted characters throughout their journey and enjoying top-notch role play, as players in these shows are often professional actors and improvisers. As a result, even though the audience isn’t actively participating, the immersion could be effective. There is an element of “Actual Play” within the structure of Twenty-Sided Tavern as well, however, since it can only be a micro-session of D&D within the show that lasts a total of 2.5 hours, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to delve deep into any complex characterization or meaning. The surprises or plot twists often felt jaunty, or fraught. The performers carried the production with their quick wits and comedic deliveries, but alas, by adding the 4th dimension of the audience making certain choices – which are mostly inconsequential and random – the characters themselves are made more 2D than they could’ve been.

I believe that the show is geared toward people who are already well versed in the mechanics of D&D, and as such, the introduction of certain mechanics during the show felt unnecessary, and took away what could’ve been a meatier story.

Tyler Nowell Felix, Madelyn Murphy, and Diego F. Salinas in The Twenty-Sided Tavern. Photo Credit: Bronwen Sharp.

The premise and promise of the Tavern is more than just a performance, however – it claims to offer interactivity, audience input into the narrative, and involvement on a level that its marketing implies is more substantial than that of other audiences facing a proscenium. But what does the “gameplay” actually amount to - and, more importantly, what does it mean?


The only thing I’d say about whether it worked as a game is just – it’s not a game!

I found myself following the steps to make choices to influence the outcome of the game – if I had cared about my own choices, then most of the time I'd be disappointed. If not, the step of making those choices felt unnecessary. I would’ve preferred to sit back, and be surprised by the choices the players would make – as the choices they gave the audiences were sometimes misleading, or at the very least vague. I didn’t feel as though I was effecting any changes personally, nor collectively as the collaborative storytelling element wasn’t there, nor do I believe it could be achieved within a large, proscenium audience.


The most frustrating thing for me about this show is that its gameplay just…isn’t. Games create meaning by building structures that facilitate play; once we’re playing, the spaces the game creates for participation become what the game is about. A city-building game, for instance, is about the management of complex, large-scale systems, and in the experience of managing them we absorb ideas about what these systems mean (consider the difference between a game that asks you to try to maximize your citizens’ happiness and one that asks you to maximize the city’s GDP). The gameplay of Twenty-Sided Tavern, though, features a very shallow, surface-level participation – a far cry from the show’s marketing, which proclaims “each decision you make, or don’t make, has consequences.” Most of the decisions the audience makes in the game are made in purely arbitrary terms -- for example, when a character faces a threat, they’ll ask their portion of the audience to pick between two vaguely worded choices, only to reveal after the fact what the options mean. One of the very first choices in the game came when the Mage’s audience voted to have her “help an old man relax,” which she did by stabbing him. (And somehow this worked, which makes the show less logical than many actual D&D games.) It’s a pretty disingenuous way of engaging the audience -- it’s good for shock humor, but it doesn’ttap into some of the most interesting and engaging parts of roleplaying games. When we play these games we can explore almost any imaginable choice - but we can’t make any meaningful choices if we’re voting based on some cutesy improv schtick rather than trying to decide something.

For all that Tavern claims to be “like nothing else in the world,” gamified theater isn’t entirely new, and I think some of the other works I’ve seen in this format offer glimpses of what it could be. Addressless: A Walk in Our Shoes at Rattlestick, for example, was also a three-character choose-your-own-adventure story - but unlike Twenty-Sided Tavern, it worked to help the audience understand the consequences of their choices, presenting dilemmas rather than random, gag-driven coin flips. Obviously, Twenty-Sided Tavern isn’t tackling as sensitive material (Addressless dealt with the crisis of houselessness in NYC), but it could still have engaged that fundamental question of roleplaying: who are you going to choose to be? What kind of person will you become through the choices you make? There are ways to ask that in a light-hearted, fun, silly way, but the creators don’t seem interested in actually exploring those questions.

They also don’t seem interested in thinking through the gamification of their themes! There were a couple of moments where the audience ended up working together to solve puzzles, some people shouting out answers so others could finish within the time limit. The creators-cum-hosts, DAGL and Reynolds, both seemed disdainful of this -- I remember at one point one of them commenting, “That’s a success, even though you turned it into kind of an open-book quiz there” – which is baffling given that to the extent this show has a message, it seems to be (at least in the ending we got) about how people can come together to overcome challenges, an obvious choice for a team-based game like D&D. How can you tout that message and then get annoyed when your audience comes together to overcome your challenges? Those moments of group participation were some of the few that I was engaged and excited by the interactive elements of the show. I was pretty miffed to be mocked for coming together with my fellow adventurers.

Madelyn Murphy, DAGL, Tyler Nowell Felix, and Diego F. Salinas in The Twenty-Side Tavern. Photo Credit: Bronwen Sharp.

The Twenty-Sided Tavern does seem to offer something to its core audience, the D&D fans who are delighted to revel in the branded setting and the appearance of iconic monsters from the game’s history. And it’s hard to harshly criticize something that is so clearly fun for its core audience. But ultimately, what does the show add up to? And what might it suggest for the future of the field?


I did have fun at the tavern, though I can’t say that much of it stuck with me. The crowd energy was a blast on opening night, where people had definitely bought into the hype. But game systems embody values, and I can’t help but wonder what the values of a system that offers you mostly arbitrary, frenetic, slightly inane choices are. It feels like a sugar rush – lots of adrenaline in the moment, but no substance. I hope that more game-based performances do take mainstream stages in the future; I think there’s a lot of potential in the field. But I’d much rather experience a show that engages with games as a full artform, going deep into what gameplay can offer us as artists, rather than gamified theater – work that borrows the simplest, most easily scalable, most easily contained parts of games to claim novelty.


For a show that is self-aware and doesn’t take itself too seriously, however, I believe it knows exactly what it’s offering and who it’s offering entertainment to. I know who I’d bring with me to the tavern, but more importantly, who not to, and that is an achievement in itself.  

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