According to head writer David Andrew Greener Laws, who goes by the acronym DAGL, The Twenty-Sided Tavern, opening October 27 at the Broadway Playhouse, is “a game and an experience, and set in a sword and sorcery fantasy world that casts the audience as the fourth player.”
Inspired by role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), audience members are invited to join the actors on various quests, each of which differs from evening to evening.
“It’s completely unique and different every night, based on how the audience wants to show up,” adds head game designer Sarah Davis Reynolds. “It all depends—do they want to name the bartender ‘Steve’ or ‘Bartender MacRuff?’ That really sets the tone for the night.”
The Twenty-Sided TavernThrough 1/15: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; also Fri 11/25, 2 PM, Wed 12/21 and 12/28 2 and 7:30 PM, Sat 12/24 2 PM only, no show Thu 11/24 or Sun 12/25; Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut, 800-775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com, $40-$65
She and DAGL are both fans of role-playing games who met during the pandemic. They still play tabletop and video games together in their free time.
“I have been playing video games my whole life,” Reynolds recalls. “I always did the ones where there were open worlds. I would literally spend hundreds of hours organizing the books that I found [in the games] in alphabetical order by genre. That fed into learning to play D&D and other tabletop role-playing games in college. I sunk my passion into that.”
In 2019, DAGL began thinking about the possibility of a hyper-interactive D&D-based theatrical show. While he had experienced podcasts and live shows incorporating a certain level of interactivity, it had never been to the extent he wanted. The pandemic forced him to put his own plans on the back burner, however.
DAGL eventually began working for an online company employing the technology Gamiotics, which now powers The Twenty-Sided Tavern, that brought theatrical experiences to Zoom conferences. Reynolds worked for that company as well.
“Sarah went, ‘I want to make a D&D show,’ and I went, ‘I want to make a D&D show,’ so we put our resources together. We tested it out online and in person at the Philadelphia Fringe a little over a year ago,” he explains. “It just took off. We thought this was the basket that we should put all our eggs in.”
The Twenty-Sided Tavern by its very nature utilizes principles its creators garnered from improv.
“The reason that we are so drawn to role-playing is that it is about storytelling—it gives you this sandbox where you get to say who your character is and what your motivations are,” Reynolds says. “Theater is also about telling stories and it was the core, concrete foundation that we built this on.”
But DAGL and Reynolds were adamant that The Twenty-Sided Tavern harness the chaotic energy that can frequently be found in role-playing games. Actors in the show are each familiar with three roles, and don’t know who they’ll be playing until the audience tells them. The company has about 13 actors, five of whom are onstage at a time.
Reynolds notes, “It’s a lot about prepping different characters, knowing different improv skills, [and] asking, ‘How can we get to this moment, knowing a particular character arc, when we don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen?’”
DAGL and Reynolds both appear onstage, always tweaking lines and audience choices to keep the script flowing naturally.
“We learn so much from every night’s audience,” DAGL says. “Between my writing the script and Sarah coding the story, we’re basically doing rewrites each and every night. Our roles behind the scenes are very present.”
Onstage, DAGL acts as Game Master, laying out the figurative map of the adventure the audience embarks on. Reynolds plays the Tavern Keeper, who she describes as “the rules arbitrator. I also run the technology.”
Gamiotics employs a web-based interface so audience members don’t have to download single-use apps to their phones.
“It allows the audience to vote and compete from their phones, and I am actively running that from the stage,” Reynolds explains. “I’m responding to the audience. If they’re solving a riddle, I’m seeing if enough of them got it right for it to count as a success or not. DAGL guides the story and I guide the game.”
The Twenty-Sided Tavern was designed so that audience members have numerous access points during which to engage, according to their own comfort level.
“I always say—in a positive way—that one of the great things about the show is that we always focus on everyone maintaining the capacity to surprise everyone,” Reynolds says. “That means the audience surprising us, us surprising the players, etc. It also means that sometimes the technology surprises us. There are so many interesting elements—huge projections and sound effects. One of the challenges is making sure that everything is telling the story together and recognizing that this is not a linear thing.”
DAGL said that the show appeals to both role-playing enthusiasts and “other parts of nerdom. We have people who come to the show dressed in chain mail, Star Trek uniforms, and Pokémon onesies. There are also people who have never played these games before.”
He considers managing “scope and scale” to be his biggest challenge: “It’s a two-hour production; the audience comes in expecting that. There are audience members who want to follow that expectation—it’s two hours and we’re done. But there’s just so much in the show. Do we want to explore another room? Do we want to play this game longer? Do we want to follow this comedic bit for longer?”
He calls storytelling an innate part of the human experience, adding, “At the end of the day, that’s what role-playing is, whether you’re playing a single-player video game or you’re telling a story communally with a tabletop role-playing game.”
Role-playing also affords participants opportunities to learn much about themselves and their communities, Reynolds adds. “It allows you to say, ‘I want to be this character who is brave, and bold, and goes on daring quests, when in real life I’m an accountant. It allows you to find that part of you that you haven’t talked to since you were a kid.”