There’s an old saying between intrepid heroes: ‘If it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid.’ The same could be said of the rollicking Dungeons and Dragons-inspired, fantasy role-playing adventure Twenty-Sided Tavern. Our GM or ‘Game Master’ for the evening has drawn us to the precipice of some great cataclysm that will shape the show’s knock-off Tolkien universe for all eternity (until the end of August), and the audience is hooked.
D&D-style gameplay combines with improv theatre in this audience-driven quest where rolls of the dice decide success or failure. Interspersed with mini-games, we tap at our phones or playing beer-pong to muster an advantage for the cast of players. We selected their heroes – the PCs or playable characters, as they’re called – for better or worse, and I even feel vaguely responsible for their wellbeing against my better judgement. Not everyone’s a fan of role-playing. Yet the stupidity of the game will work its magic, if you let it. Unlike Wondro ‘I’m Definitely a Wizard’ wizard that is, our audience-selected hero, who, as it turns out, is incapable of casting spells. His talents, we soon discover, lie elsewhere when – oh, erm, is that a wand or butterfly knife with a star glued on it?
Phones are used to pool audience votes to dictate the direction of the story. The stat-checking and admin is surprisingly quick, and cast does its best not to let the process slow the progress. Predictably the conspiratorial nature of collective wish fulfilment, the kind of enthusiasm the Twenty-Sided Tavern thrives on, soon dissolves the story into a chaotic jumble of impulse decisions as the popularity votes masquerade as the show’s rudder. (Yes, we do want to go to the wine cellar, and you will take us there!) In actual fact, many of the plot points feel heavily pre-planned with little manoeuvre for real spontaneity, the type of fickleness that makes table-top roleplaying games special.
Really this is improv theatre, reskinned with a unique take on audience participation. It’s fun and no one minds the guardrails as we happily roll along through the clichés of the genre, further spirited away by silly wigs, bad accents, and the general frivolity of shared(ish) storytelling. For many, I expect this will be a first introduction to the mechanics of table top games like D&D. It barely scrapes the surface of the game and the phenomenon it’s become in recent years, with blockbuster appearances in Stranger Things and hugely popular actual play shows like Critical Role or Dimension 20. In this sense, Twenty-Sided Tavern is a great first look at what the game has to offer live.
As the Twenty-Sided Tavern rings for last orders, the GM introduces one last indescribable horror: a terrible monster from the deep that threatens our ragtag bunch of heroes. Frankensteined from a soup of nouns and adjectives, the monster is an exquisite corpse of audience suggestions. It’s a full house and by this point the theatre had bonded. Dice rolls elicit cheers from the audience like goals at a Champion’s League final (isn’t wearing a Messi jersey just another form of cosplay?). Eventually, after much ceremony, the beast is slain.
The cast make the most of it, but there’s no real sense of peril or stakes to the battle. The GM promises that the world will evolve from show to show, that our decisions will have consequences for the next audience, and I expect the Twenty-Sided Tavern will only grow in texture and colour as the run continues. A frothy, light-hearted bit of improv with more to give.