Dungeons, Dragons, and Turkey Kings: Josh Holober-Ward Talks About Roll Play

Josh Holober-Ward as Dungeon Master (with NPCs Kevin Regan and Emily Davis)

Josh Holober-Ward as Dungeon Master (with NPCs Kevin Regan and Emily Davis)

Dungeons & Dragons has had a slow but steady resurgence over the years. Popular games like MAGIC: THE GATHERING and TV shows like STRANGER THINGS are introducing fantasy role-playing games to a new audience while also encouraging older fans to come out from the shadows and share their love of role-playing.

The Mountain Goats just released a Dungeons & Dragons-inspired album!

What is really exciting is how they are doing it. No longer satisfied with just playing on a Saturday night at a kitchen table, players are inventing new ways to play the game.

And comedians, the nerdiest of all nerds, are leading the way with podcasts like NERD POKER, TV shows like HARMONQUEST, and stage shows like ROLL PLAY: AN IMPROVISED ADVENTURE playing this month at CSz Philadelphia.

ROLL PLAY is an improvised fantasy epic, combining the excitement of role-playing games with the spontaneity of live improv comedy. Guided by a mysterious Dungeon Master, the audience helps craft the world and its characters while dice rolls decide their fate.

We spoke to the creator and show’s Dungeon Master, Josh Holober-Ward, about his love of D&D, his top 3 games, and his favorite part of the show.

Q: When did you start playing D&D?

Josh Holober-Ward

Josh Holober-Ward

A: In 2011, junior year of college, a few friends of mine were starting a game of Werewolf (similar to D&D) and asked if I wanted to join. I didn't know what to expect, but during our first session it clicked that this was basically just good friends telling a story together, and I was totally on board for that. I mainly remember my character was so awful at transforming into a wolf that he kept getting stuck halfway, spending a lot of time as this awkward gangly Sasquatch.

Fast-forward to January 2017, Kevin Regan (of NPC, CSz, and Punch Up Podcast fame) came to me saying he'd never played D&D and had always wanted to try. I offered to DM, we got a group together, and I proceeded to spend practically all of my spare time for the next few months researching how to DM, studying other DMs, and prepping for the game. I was so ridiculously nervous and excited that I actually kind of went a little overboard, staying up late drawing maps and stuffing the world full of secrets. That game ended a while ago, but many of those same folks joined the show and are still in it today!

Where did the idea for ROLL PLAY come from?

July 2016, Dan Harmon's show Harmonquest came out (highly recommended!), and it totally captivated me. Essentially, they film a few comedians sitting at a table playing D&D in front of an audience, and then later animate it all to match what they're describing. So we get this clever effect of spontaneous creativity being immediately transformed into visual fantasy, and I thought "...Wow, a live-action version of this would be SO COOL..."

One of the fun things about the show is how interactive it is, it's not just one suggestion and then 45 minutes of improv, there is audience participation throughout. Was that intentional or out of necessity?

Super intentional! Something I felt was a missed opportunity with Harmonquest and similar D&D shows was the audience was only ever a spectator, just there to watch someone else's journey. Improv is utterly unique in how interactive it can be, so I wanted to amp that aspect up as much as possible. I wanted to let the audience work WITH the dungeon master, actively deciding details about the world and creating challenges for the players. That also inspired me to create different interactive "games" for each character, like the Wizard casting audience-written spells, and the Cleric having their deity BE an audience member.

There is a lot of production value to this show: costumes, sound effects, and music. What made you add that aspect?

Even though it's a comedy, I wanted it to feel extra immersive and true to the genre. Most improv shows can get away with little to no production, but we're dealing in epic fantasy here! If our heroes are trekking across a volcano, it just adds that extra layer of cool to see the lights go red and hear the lava bubbling. The cast is killer at working with it all, and they rock those robes. A lot of love and time went into getting every track, lighting cue, and fake wig just right, and I couldn't be happier with the result. Huge thanks to Dave Jadico for helping set the lights, Joe Campbell for making our awesome dice projection, and Emily Zargan for running all our crazy tech this run.

What is your favorite part of the show?

The audience. Hands down. Sometimes we have audience members show up fully decked out in medieval costumes. We've had the Wizard reach into his bag of audience spells to save the day, only to cast "Everyone Catches On Fire." We've had a Rogue given the secret objective of starting a pyramid scheme. We've had a kid join us onstage and totally steal the show as The Turkey King. We just seem to get the most enthusiastic and creative audiences, and I'm always so excited to see what they'll give us next.

You are a game-enthusiast, what are your top-3 favorite games right now?

#3 - The Stanley Parable. One of my favorite video games ever, it's an extremely clever look at choice and narrative freedom in games. Plus it's short, funny, and has a fantastic british narrator.

#2 - Funemployed. Probably my favorite party game. Everyone gets dealt hilariously bad "resume" cards, then has to explain why they're the best person for the job.

#1 - Dungeon World. A role-playing game like D&D, but way simpler and story-er! And, the whole thing is online for free! If you have any interest in weaving adventures with your friends, seriously go check it out!

ROLL PLAY: AN IMPROVISED ADVENTURE runs February 1, 8, and 15 @ 8PM. Get your tickets now!