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Dungeons & Dragons as Improv Comedy

on Fri, 09/06/2013 - 00:00

Knights of the Arcade
Since its debut in 1974, an estimated twenty million people have played Dungeons & Dragons, making it the best known and most popular role playing game of all time. For many fans, Dungeons & Dragons is more than just a fantasy game but a meaningful element of their lives and an entertainment choice not to be taken lightly. Like most things in life, however, Dungeons & Dragons can also be filled with inherent humor as players interact with each other, embark on heroic quests together, and craft an original narrative within the context of the game.

It is these types of elements that most appeal to Pittsburgh actor/writer Fred Betzner and ultimately inspired him to bring Dungeons & Dragons to the stage of the Arcade Comedy Theater for an “Epic D&D Adventure.” Knights of the Arcade, as the performance is called, was an immediate success and has been a regular feature at the Pittsburgh comedy club ever since its premier on September 14, 2013.

“I consider myself to be pretty terrible at proper improv comedy, but as an audience member what I love about it is the idea that no one really knows what’s going to happen next, and we’re all watching this thing organically come to life in front of us,” Betzner explains. “When a joke in improv works and connects with the audience, it’s made even better because we know that it’s a brilliant moment of invention that’s never happened before. And that’s exactly what D&D is. No matter how many pages of notes a Dungeon Master prepares, the game comes down to the moment by moment actions of the players. And when your players are also naturally funny people, the game can be absolutely hysterical.”

As one can surmise from Betzner’s comments, Knights of the Arcade involves a group of Pittsburgh improv comedy actors playing a game of Dungeon & Dragons onstage. The proceedings are also recorded and released online as a podcast, similar to Brian Posehn’s Nerd Poker and Dan Harmon’s Harmontown. In fact it was Harmontown that partially influenced Fred Betzner to organize Knights of the Arcade.

“Beyond the fact that Dan Harmon (creator of the TV show Community) and his cohorts are comic geniuses, I think what makes it special is that they have an audience,” he says. “Having the instant feedback and participation that comes along with that—there’s just nothing like it. It’s the same reason why people love seeing movies in theaters and going to comedy clubs. There’s joy to be found in enjoying something with other people.”

While Knights of the Arcade may have been inspired by Harmontown, it does not mean that the Arcade Comedy Theater version is a mere copycat. “We are all unique personalities and the stories that come from us playing together will be original,” Betzner explains. “On a more tangible level, one of our players is Jesse L.E., an improv musician who will be playing as a Bard. So the show will be sprinkled with original live music tailored to what we’re doing. I think this is going to be really, really cool, and Jesse is just fantastic.”

Fred Betzner has been part of the Pittsburgh entertainment scene as an actor in such local sketch comedy troupes as the Hodgepodge Society and Spinster Comedy, a writer for the Steel City-based online humor journal Act Classy and co-producer of the annual Future Ten Play Festival. More importantly, he is also an avid Dungeons & Dragons fan himself.

“I came to D&D in my adult life, just as a consequence of never knowing anyone who played when I was a kid,” he says. “And what I loved about it was the idea that we were all shaping a story. There are a lot of players who are only really interested in beating up beholders and displacer beasts, but I’ve always been far more interested in achieving the goal that they’re blocking and having a compelling reason to get past them in the first place.”

It was this love of storytelling and involvement in the Pittsburgh theater scene that ultimately led Fred Betzner to Knights of the Arcade. The trick, however, was to craft an event that would appeal to both Dungeons & Dragons aficionados as well as those who have never participated in the fantasy role playing game. To accomplish this twin task, Betzner kept the basic design of Dungeons & Dragons intact but tightened the rules of the game in order to keep it moving faster and make it easier to follow.

“I’m very aware that we ‘geeks’ can be a critical bunch, so there’s definitely part of me that’s worried that D&D fans will nit-pick over my selective application of the rules,” Betzner confides. “Most importantly this is a comedy show, and the least funny thing that can happen is to grind everything to a halt to scour through rule books for ten minutes to figure out how fast an encumbered gnome can move through tall grass. I hope that the audience can accept that we’re taking some short cuts to make the show focused and funny. This whole thing is, on some level, an experiment—can D&D be a spectator sport? I’m confident that it will work and be really fun, and hope that fans of the game enjoy seeing some really fun and talented people build a story using a game they love.”

Although Dungeons & Dragons’ fans are no doubt entertained by Knights of the Arcade, Fred Betzner also believes that those not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons can find enjoyment as well.

“I think that when the uninitiated hear about D&D they tend to kind of gloss over and lose interest, and to some extent I understand that,” he says. “The rules are dense and unintuitive, and there is definitely a social stigma attached to players—unfairly of course, but it’s there. I think the problem is that they’ve never actually seen people play it, actually seen why we like playing. I really think if non-players can kind of get beyond the math and see the game played in an entertaining way, that stigma will quickly evaporate and a joyous understanding and mutual respect can unfold. OK, probably not, but I’m still going to try.”

While it is yet to be determined if Knights of the Arcade will indeed create a new breed of Dungeons & Dragons players to go along with the millions who already enjoy the fantasy game, the onstage performances at the Arcade Comedy Theater make people laugh in appreciation nonetheless—regardless of whether or not they know how fast an encumbered gnome can move through tall grass.

Anthony Letizia

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