Of Dice and Men: The Play that Conquered PAX East

Of Dice and MenBack in March I had the chance to attend Pax East. Between play test sessions with the soon to be released Dark Sun campaign setting, I made time for gaming panels. Among them was one that involved a stage reading of a play called¬† “Of Dice and Men.”

I have to admit, a play about Dungeons and Dragons sounded a little too good to be true (I mean, look what they did with the D&D movie), but if they were brave enough to bring it to the hive of geekdom that was Pax East, it was at least worth giving a chance. I was blown away, and it ended up being my favorite part of the entire weekend.

A stage reading involves the actors moving around stage with binders, reading their characters from the script. There aren’t any costumes or set pieces to speak of, but other than that, the players act out the performance as it otherwise would be done in a full production. Meanwhile, another person reads the stage directions and settings aloud in a narrator-like fashion.

Normally I wouldn’t spoil the plot of a movie or theater production, for fear of diminishing the experience for anyone that sees it. However, in this case I’m going to make an exception, because there just isn’t anything else out there right now like “Of Dice and Men”. To understand how great it is involves knowing the story. What follows is a semi-spoiler filled explanation of the plot.

The play is about a group of 30-year-old D&D players, from the perspective of the group’s Dungeon Master, John Francis. It follows along with their gaming adventures as well as their real-world social interactions with each other, both in and out of play sessions. The play begins with John Francis sorting books into boxes, and waxing poetic as he comes across some of his original D&D books. He launches into a discussion¬† about how he first got into the game and reliving his initial experiences playing alongside his friend John Alex. John Alex soon arrives and we learn that something occurred at the gaming session the previous night that caused quite a stir and threatens to break the group apart. John Alex also explains the time honored tradition of “booksterbating” which just has to be heard to believed. I couldn’t possibly do it justice.

Through their conversation we learn that John Francis may be leaving for a new job, new city, and giving up the game for good. All this despite being secretly in love with Tara, an adorable member of the group who plays a wizard who loves to discuss her backstory, in painstaking detail. We also find out that the night before, during the play session John Francis was going to tell the group, but was preempted when Jason, a more macho guy’s guy type, (certainly not the stereotypical gamer) made a huge announcement that led to a fight.

The story continues on as we relive the events of the night before, before jumping forward to the next play session and the eventual resolution of the story. All the while it teeters perfectly between side splitting laughter and more somber emotional moments that caused more than a few tears to flow in the auditorium. It was the best kind of story. One that has you laughing, crying and in the end jumping out of your seat just begging for more. Much of that is due to the outstanding script written by playwright Cameron McNary, but it is also due to a fantastic roster of actors who each embraced their characters with aplomb and provided excellent chemistry.

As the events of the story unfold, we also meet each player’s character, who take the stage one by one in between scenes for introduction from the dungeon master and to give their own monologue. Each of the game characters was a hilarious caricature of their player.¬† Among the characters was a dwarf cleric who had a heavy Scottish accent and seemed remarkably pre-occupied with describing how endowed he was. Oddly enough that “character” was the avatar for one of the female players, a mother of two who hosts the group’s gaming nights. In contrast, her husband’s avatar was a barbarian who lacked a backstory and personality to the point that all he ever did was try and attack things, even the audience. This ended up being my favorite part of the play and served as a great way to break up the story during tense moments and provide extra humor as well.

After my experience viewing “Of Dice and Men” a few things are clear to me. First, I would like very much to find a Tara of my own, and second, this is the most brilliant piece of non-Wizards of the Coast Dungeons and Dragons related material since the Dead Alewives. It perfectly achieves the balance of reminding gamers why we love the game, while providing insight into the world for the uninitiated. The humor and emotion are both deep and the jokes are tailor made for D&D fans. If you know the mechanics of the game, some of the famous dungeons, and reoccurring issues in the game, your experience will be all the richer. If you don’t it certainly won’t ruin things for you, it’s just that the play rewards gamers for all that time well spent.

In the end, the best part about the play might be the respect for the source material that it has. This is not a D&D play that makes fun of gamers, or reduces them down to crude stereotypes. Its a play written for gamers, by gamers, and about gamers. It gives an incredibly realistic portrayal of the people who play and reveals the simple truth that many non-gamers just don’t understand. For many of us, sitting down for a play session is about so much more than just rolling dice and playing a game.

If you’d like to know more about the play or donate to the effort to put on a full performance, check out the Critical Threat Theatre Company. And if you are in the Seattle area, make sure you attend PAX Prime this September to see the unveiling of the full stage production.

For a taste of what the experience was like at PAX East, check out these two videos taken during the performance. Bonus points if you can spot me in the audience.

(photos and video from criticalthreattheatre.com)