RPG Evolution: Twenty-Sided Tavern Review

I had a chance to visit The Twenty-Sided Tavern recently, and it was an absolute blast.

I had a chance to visit The Twenty-Sided Tavern recently, and it was an absolute blast.

The Twenty-Sided Tavern is a live interactive theatrical experience that blends elements of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons with improv theatre. The show invites audience members to participate in the adventure by making choices that affect the storyline, characters, and outcomes, using their mobile phones. This interactive format ensures that each performance is unique.

The production officially premiered Off-Broadway at Stage 42 and involves collaboration between Hasbro, Curious Hedgehog, Showpath Entertainment, and Wizards of the Coast. It features a diverse cast, including co-creators from the Drunk Shakespeare troupe. My wife and I took the train in and had dinner first before taking in the show. We suspected it might be something like Night at the Forbidden Library which we watched in Connecticut. It turns out it’s a little closer to Bruce Campbell’s BRUCE-O-RAMA.


The Setup​

Entering the theater is an experience unto itself. There’s a large map of Faerun on one wall, and taking the stairs to the second floor reveals a mimic, a large 20-sided die, a merchant booth, and two bars. The merchandise wasn’t particularly interesting (a shirt, a pin, magnet, and some dice), and the drinks were fine but not all that relevant to the game – there were more interesting drinks served up for the Dungeons & Dragons movie.

The stage setup is that of a tavern, with a bar that also doubles as the play space for our two Dungeon Masters (that’s right, two). One (Sarah Davis Reynolds) is dedicated to running the giant screen that fills up much of the stage as a backdrop; she was basically the audio/visual coordinator. The other (DAGL) is the “theatrical” DM, the one who speaks to the audience and to the players. Because this is a tavern, there’s a lot of drinking – curiously, the audience isn’t encouraged to drink (this may be because it’s for all ages, although there’s definitely some swearing), but it’s clear you can do so if you like (a callback to the two bars in the lobby).

Conceptually, the game is D&D light. Players and the DM roll dice with cleverly disguised cameras (they look like lamps) that point down at dice trays. When anyone rolls a natural 20, they drink a shot of liquor; when they roll a natural 1, they drink something unpleasant. This rule applies to every 20-sided dice roll, including initiative.

There are three players, all improv actors who really have to work to keep up with the audience. While the plot has certain beats, there are so many variables that it’s impossible for the actors to prepare, so they have to just go with it. And they’re (supposedly) drinking alcohol while they do it.

It’s entirely possible the players drink alcohol, but it’s hard to believe the DM is, if only because with enough die rolls he’s likely to be quite drunk by the end of the session, and he has a LOT to keep track of. The Q&A dances around the subject if “the drinking is real”:

Some of it! Alcohol is not a barrier to entry at The Twenty-Sided Tavern, to the performers or to the audience. The performers who are drinking are really drinking, but the ones who choose not to aren’t. We have a series of check-ins and internal vocabulary to make sure everyone onstage is able to get a little silly while staying safe.

But this is an interactive show. And there’s where Gamiotics come in.


How It Works​

Like BRUCE-O-RAMA, gamiotics involves a web-enabled mobile platform to let the audience influence the show as it unfolds. You begin with a sticker identifying which player you’re associated with: fighter, rogue, or wizard. By using your phone, you get to vote for a variety of choices or responses. Sometimes these are responses to riddles, sometimes these are just simply voting on what you want the actor (and their character) to do. There are also reflex games, like the audience cumulatively tapping enough to beat a challenge within a set timeframe without going over a certain limit, which is much harder than it sounds. There’s also a lot of quizzes to see if you were paying attention (there’s so much going on, it’s pretty easy to miss things).

Because your choices are tied to a character, different members of the audience may end up influencing the game more or less. There’s a lot of randomness, as is true to D&D, so things can (and do) go hilariously wrong.

The audience can also ask for a character to use their inspiration. Curiously, it’s not called inspiration but is effectively the same – players get to reroll a 20-sided once during the game. There are big events where the actor will be required to roll a giant 20-sided die on stage, and this is often a hint that the audience should spend that character’s inspiration on the outcome if they fail. Depending on how the audience does in answering trivia, they can also give the actor a bonus to their roll.

The audience has a strong influence on the events in the game, starting with character creation. While the actors are up for anything, their character archetypes are tied to subclasses. The setup makes it a point of not using game terms, so there’s “religious-minded bird person” instead of aarakocra paladin. That’s where our fighter ended up (not a subclass of fighter, I know). We also had “hot grandma wizard” and “rogue who pretends he’s a wizard.”

Alistair (RJ Christianv), a sixth-level vengeance (?) paladin was known for picking up lutes and singing songs at parties. The actor gave off a “youth pastor” vibe. Ethel (Madelyn Murphy), a sixth-level wild magic sorcerer, made it a point of coming on to everything that moved. And then there was Wondro (Diego F. Salinas, who is also a professional DM!), the sixth-level rogue. Wondro’s description mentioned that he ties grenades to pigeons and pretended they were offensive spells – but in the game he was just an arcane trickster, which felt like a missed opportunity.

With this motely group of heroes, we were off on our adventure.


The Adventure​

PLEASE NOTE: This section contains spoilers for the adventure overall. It may change from show to show, however.

Early on, there was also a request for various adjectives with no explanation as to how they would be used. We found out later that this was a description to generate a monster’s final form.

The players all sat on a couch facing the audience, but got up when it was their turn to emote or roll giant dice. The DM will occasionally come out from behind his screen to engage with them. They ran around Faerun looking for artifacts, blundering into shops and causing havoc by failing rolls before setting out for a dungeon proper. Along the way, we had the chance to name NPCs, with one of them named Waluigi (and the DM doing an admirable impersonation of him too!). Another was named Kevin Sorbo. And a third was named after a cartoon character I didn’t recognize. There was also a chance to bring someone up from the audience and have them read some lines, which was quite entertaining.

Then there were the dice rolls. Like a typical D&D session, the dice rolls created a large element of chance. The actors didn’t seem to know their characters all that well, so there wasn’t a lot of preparation. Ethel, for example, never cast a single defensive spell. Wondro tried a few times. And Alistair did heal Wondro sporadically (much to Ethel’s dismay, who brought this up each time she wasn’t healed).

Which is probably why Ethel died fighting the final form of the slaad, which was some kind of gooey, radiant moose.

DAGL used “ghost rules” and just gave Ethel disadvantage on every roll thereafter to keep her in the game. Given that she was the party’s blaster, her death was challenging to say the least. The bad rolls practically eradicated the party, and the heroes were nearly decimated after the loss of Ethel.

The adventure concluded with a series of trivia questions in which different items the players picked up throughout the game were required to stop a ritual, with the audience voting on which items to substitute for which required ritual object. There was one puzzle that required the audience to talk to each other in the various teams (team Alistair, Ethel, or Wondro) which was unclear to the audience, and so we spectacularly failed that challenge too. The bad guy was mostly successful with his plans.

And yet DAGL did a great job of wrapping things up. Wondro, who turned out to be an assassin in a former life, came “out of retirement” to avenge Ethel and set up an organization to pursue the slaad’s evil plans. Alistair gave up on his god, Tyr, and set up a cult dedicated to Ethel’s memory (eventually becoming the vengeance paladin he was originally characterized as). And Ethel created some kind of dating hotline for ghosts ... or something, it got murky at the end.


Should You Go?​

This show is not for everybody. There was a couple with young kids right behind us, and the jokes went over their heads – or, in the case of Ethel calling herself a “GILF,” required some awkward explaining. It’s not for the littles, leave them at home.

It’s also probably funnier if you drink. Twenty-Sided Tavern toes the line between encouraging everyone to drink with the actors on stage and requiring some quick thinking to be successful. If you like alcohol, the show is considerably more entertaining. We enjoyed it, but we had already had a glass of wine before the show and wanted to be sharp to participate in the audience games.

And of course, there’s the gamiotics, which can be intense. The instructions weren’t always clear, and if you didn’t click immediately during the time challenges, your vote didn’t count. We predictably whiffed most of the puzzles, which required paying careful attention early on.

The “crits require drinking a shot” and “fumbles require drinking something gross” aren’t quite as fun as it might seem if you’re not drinking along with the actors. The DM being required to do this has an obvious flaw (he rolls more dice than the PCs after all), and initiative added to the mix is overkill since most fights only lasted one round just to keep the game moving. But mostly this is about replicating the absurdity of D&D sessions, which is less about heroics and more about overcoming (or succumbing) to ridiculous die rolls that makes adventures seem more Monty Python than Excalibur.

And in that regard, my wife and I found the show hilarious. It was Whose Line is It Anyway meets Dungeons & Dragons, and much of the fun is watching the actors on stage struggle with the curveballs we threw at them. The poor DM at one point told the other actors to keep up a bit involving a magnet stuck to the paladin’s armor so he could hand-draw a prop, and later that told them to speed up a bit they were acting out because he didn’t have time for all their nonsense. In short, it's a lot like the D&D sessions you played at home, only on a stage with a lot more friends.

If you like D&D, if you like improv, and if you like to drink, this show is for you.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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