HarmonQuest’s Game Master Shares How Role-Playing Games Build Community

“Are you sure this is going to work?” I yelled, over the sounds of clashing metal from below.

“I hope so,” replied Re, the only Dragonborn of our party. “I’ve never flown this far, I’m only half dragon!”

She had taken me as low as she could safely fly — about 40 feet above the Earth — before dropping me into enemy territory. I unsheathed the demon blade as I fell and, for once, willfully gave control of my body to the demon that had cursed me. Hate and bile boiled inside me and I was overcome with an ancient hunger — crying for blood. No longer was I a lawful barbarian; I’d become my darker self, the Wolf Demon of the shadowlands.

My vision tinted red with fury as my feet padded across the ground. I smelled the anxious fear of the Orcs nearby. The generals rushed my position with their broadswords and battle screams and I readied myself.

“I’m going to use ‘Barbarian Rage’,” I said. I picked up my 20 sided die, kissed it for good luck, and rolled.

“Dammit!” I yelled. “I rolled a one!”

“Your barbarian warrior loses grip of his sword mid-swing,” said Matt, without missing a beat. “The sword is sent soaring into the air. The Orc army circles around you and you start crying and…ah… you shit your pants too.”

“Really?” I said.

“You rolled a critical failure, dude. You’re lucky that you’re only shitting yourself.”

I was playing a tabletop fantasy role-playing game, akin to Dungeons & Dragons. Matt, the Game Master, had been playing for years and, after teaching me how to play Magic: The Gathering, had convinced me to give role-playing games a shot. I was reluctant at first, but found myself hooked after one session.

If you’re not familiar — if you’re not a nerd — tabletop role-playing games can be best described as communal storytelling with rules. One Game Master (or Dungeon Master) manages the story along with several other players. This video from SeeSo’s HarmonQuest actually lays everything out quite nicely:

Generally speaking, the Game Master uses a set of complex rules, multi-sided die, and personal judgment calls to decide what events take place. For example, when my barbarian tried to use an ability called ‘barbarian rage’, I rolled a 1 on a 20 sided die, which is called a critical failure. That means I did as badly as possible and — as the Game Master decided — pooped myself.

Say what you will, but it’s fun as hell — not just because of the game, either. At a time in my life when I felt listless, role-playing games, along with several other nerdy activities, helped me find and cultivate a close-knit community. It’s no stretch to say that pretending to be an illiterate barbarian warrior has, on several occasions, improved my life drastically. It’s not just because these games are fun, or a great way to blow off steam (though nothing relieves stress like slicing through an orc), but because they’ve proven to be the fastest and most effective ways to make friends.

This experience is not unique to me — I didn’t crack some great nerd code. In my experience, it’s extremely common to find people whose lives have been improved through being nerds. In fact, I recently spoke with Spencer Crittenden, a regular fixture on the Harmontown podcast and current Game Master (and lead writer) for the SeeSo original series Harmonquest. The show is hosted by Dan Harmon and features a regular set of players, as well as celebrity guests, who gather together to play Pathfinder, one of the world’s most popular tabletop RPGs. It’s playing games like Pathfinder that first got Spencer on Dan Harmon’s podcast and, subsequently, changed his life forever.

When did you get into playing games like Pathfinder?

It was probably in fourth grade when I started in earnest. I had learned about Dungeons & Dragons first, ah, because it is one of many fantasy role-playing games that exist. Anyway, I learned about it from my cousins at Thanksgiving one year. And then some of my friends came in with monster manuals and they had all the different monsters and some of the rule books and so we started playing. We didn’t know all the rules, but we did our best — we did all the math and made sheets and stuff and just tried to play it — and I’ve been playing on and off since then.

So, then, how did you meet up with Dan Harmon? I was familiar with him before Harmonquest, but I never knew that he liked playing games like Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons…

Yeah, it was a pretty weird sequence of events that lead me to join up with Dan. I was going through a breakup and it was tough, and I was at work for long periods of time when I would just sit and stare at a computer, and I was alone with my thoughts and it was a real tough time, so I started listening to podcasts because it’s something that I thought was a really cool idea and a really cool thing that was happening, and I just hadn’t experienced it.

One of the very first was Harmontown, which was just starting around the time when I started listening to it. And then I realized that I wasn’t really doing anything in life, I was kind of in a rut, but L.A. is really close to where I live and Harmontown is recorded in L.A., and I realized I could just go there physically and be there for it.

I never do stuff like that, I’m pretty antisocial and I don’t go out much. So I thought that maybe this would be a change of pace.

How did you go from being a fan of a podcast to actually being a major part of that podcast?

Dan Harmon kept mentioning playing Dungeons & Dragons and playing role playing games, and he kept on referencing old friends and how he used to play in high school. So I kind of had it in the back of my head that, you know, these guys talk about Dungeons & Dragons a lot, so it would be cool to play with them or talk about it.

Back then in the early days, a big part of Harmontown was audience participation and after the show every week, they would go to this bar and fans could go to the bar and hang out with the people putting on the show. So I went to the show with that in mind — that it’s this very loose format and I might be able to talk with them. And then, when I went, Dan mentioned that they might want to start playing Dungeons & Dragons on the podcast, as a segment or something, and they said they wanted to play the original version which, to my understanding, is a pretty complex system. The old rules have a lot of weirdness and hard things to figure out, like THACO [which means “to hit armor class 0”, just in case you’re not a nerd – DP] for example, is just this really weird mechanic.

The audience had this really weird reaction, like half of them were groaning, and the reaction was so weird that Dan said: “Hey, we don’t know what we’re talking about, does anyone know anything about Dungeon’s & Dragons?”

No one raised their hand or anything. So I raised my hand and I went on stage and they asked me some questions and at the end of the episode we had agreed that I would come back and talk about making them characters so that they could play, and we talked about running through a game for practice. And the original idea was to audition different dungeon masters and have like, I don’t know, a “King of the Nerds” or an “American Idol” thing where they’re just trying to look through the masses and find a celebrity dungeon master. But they abandoned that idea after my first session with them and they just went with me, and from then on I just became more and more a part of the podcast.

And when Dan was rehired for Community, he hired me as his assistant.

So you’ve been working with him ever since, right? Is that how you guys got to Harmonquest? I actually got to watch the first episode and it really seems like it’s something that you control, and also it’s really great. 

Well, thank you for saying that, that’s awesome. The inception of the show was almost like accidental, I think. Originally Dan had wanted to play a fantasy RPG as a segment on his podcast, but he kind of thought it was going to drag down the podcast, he thought it was a self-indulgent thing he was doing, where he would play to indulge his childhood fantasies and his nostalgia and the audience would just have to deal with it, but it ended up being really popular and people really liked it, and eventually it became a selling point of the show.

So Dan offhandedly pitched the idea of spinning off this idea as a kind of TV or animated series. And that pitch got us the show, and I don’t even know how that went down, I just came in after he wanted to do it.

Dan likes not knowing the story, he likes being in the story, you know, he’s a character. So he basically just washed his hands of the entire series and left the writing up to me. I just did it like you would do a normal campaign. You just come up with a story and try and have stops along the way with fun monsters. I tried to make it so that there were more opportunities for the players to be involved. Because usually when you’re designing a campaign or adventure, you don’t plan what they’re going to do or what kind of arcs they’re going to go on because that’s the stuff that players bring to the table.

But because this is going to be consumed as a TV show, we figured that we wanted to spend a little bit more time making sure that the story had arcs, and that’s what lead me to the idea that Dan’s character didn’t have a father. Because Dan in real life is always talking about fatherhood and the idea of this father figure in mythology and stuff.

And then Erin is kind of wild and she is just really comedic, so her being this barbarian that didn’t have a tribe and didn’t really fit into civil society really played in well. So I kind of just tried to make it a bit more cinematic or a bit more storytelling-based — instead of just a bunch of scenarios or a bunch of goblins and traps like you might play in a standard Pathfinder game where you draw maps and stuff.

And I think that’s a really fun way to develop the story. It’s a blast to watch new people come in and learn to play with you and Dan and everyone else. But does everyone get it? How do you go about teaching new people to play?

It’s such a hard thing to explain, and I do it all the time. And especially more so now that it’s become my calling card, my claim to fame. I’m always explaining what a role playing game is to people. It’s one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done, and I’ve never come up with a satisfying answer for it.

It’s hard to explain because improv is something that a lot of people are kind of used to when they’re joking around with friends, but then translating that into “we’re telling a story and technically there are rules…” can be hard. On the show, I would have a situation with the guest and tell them it’s kind of like long form improv, but instead of all the players of the improv getting to define the world, there’s only one person who gets to define the world and everyone else only gets to control their character, and you have to work within that confine.

And another thing — we put all the guests in mini segments before each episode where we walk them through the basics. So I’d say “you find yourself in a dark room. You feel a mop, this might be a broom closet!” So a real world example of an RPG or something, so they’d have to get out of a closet or something, easy and quick. Just to get them acquainted to describing what they’re doing in a fantasy world. And I think that just doing it is the best way to do it.

It really seems to work with the guests we got, everyone seemed to get the process and got engaged and enjoyed the process.

You know, now that we’re talking about it, I kind of feel like there has to be a connection to improv comedy and playing tabletop fantasy RPGs, right?

I think that you can find articles and videos and things that kind of compare and relate the various aspects of improv and comedy in fantasy role playing, and I think that’s very interesting. I don’t know much about it, but I think it’s something that people are discovering these days.

Do you think the same can be said for learning to be a Game Master? I’ve played a few campaigns before and I’ve always wanted to try and become a Game Master. What advice do you have for that?

I think you gotta play first. Because you have to have some experience with what it is, just to know how it feels to play and what you like and dislike and to get your own taste. And besides that, you just have to read the rules over and over and over.

I can’t tell you how many times I would bring a rulebook into school and just read it the whole school day. Like, how many times I just read through all of the books over and over. And being able to recall the rules by memory rather than having to look them up just gives me a comfortability with every other aspect of making the game fun, like making sure that things keep going and that the players are involved and making sure that everyone is having a good time, and just thinking up ideas and ways to make things work instead of telling players that their ideas don’t work, and stuff that you just don’t have to worry about when you’re not flipping through pages and looking up rules.

And I just think that comfortability with the rules, even if you’re getting them wrong, is important, as long as you’re confident in your referring. You have the authority to tell people what is going on even if you’re just making it up.

So do you find yourself making stuff up a lot?

Here’s a thing, for instance, think about holding your breath underwater. If you wanted to look up how long a character could hold their breath, you’d have to reference two or three sections of two or three books to figure that out.

But at the end of the day, the higher stats you have, the longer you can hold your breath and the longer you can go on without drowning. So if they roll high enough, say 16, then they can hold their breath. And that might not be the exact rule breakdown of how long to hold their breath, but if you’re playing the game and you aren’t taking ten minutes to look up a bunch of stuff, then it doesn’t matter because you’re making a cohesive play experience and that’s what is important.

So the rules are there to make sure everyone is having a good time, I guess. They’re kind of the “yes and…” of fantasy role playing.

Yeah, and then the rules keep us all honest. It makes sure no one can say “actually I dodged and I have eight guns and I can’t be killed,” that’s all stuff that we did as kids and it got out of hand. The rules are there to make sure we keep it cool and, yeah, it’s not about agonizing over the rules.

Do you like being a Game Master more than a player? What’s your favorite thing about being a Game Master?

Oh boy. I don’t know, man. Control, I guess? It’s just hard. I’ve been doing it for so long that anytime someone else is the GM, I am constantly nitpicking and I say “I wouldn’t have done this” and it just takes me out of it. And so, I would definitely love to not have to be the Game Master, because it’s a lot of work.

I mean, you wouldn’t call up your friend and say, “Hey, we’re going to play basketball at the park, do you want to come and referee?” That’s not the normal way that society happens, you don’t get someone to do a lot of work so that you can have fun with your friends. But that’s kind of what being a GM is, so unless you kind of like the control of that, or you enjoy the creative process of creating a world, there’s not much to latch on to. But I’ve been creating imaginary worlds as long as I can remember, so it’s a natural thing for me.

So, then, what do you love most about playing tabletop fantasy RPGs?

I just like the imaginative element. I think that these days, it’s so normal to be thinking one or two different ways of things — there’s not a lot of variety about the way we go about thinking things. The internet and apps are a big part of this, but we kind of focus very narrow to what’s presented to us instead of what’s possible. Things like improv and Pathfinder and tabletop RPGs, all of these things encourage out of the box thinking and thinking about things in different ways than you might otherwise.

But also just exploring nuance. There are so many ways to go about playing the game. You could fight every monster you come across, or you could talk to every monster you come across and try and convince them to not fight you, or you could try and get their attention and run away and lead them into a trap. All of these are valid ways to play, but I don’t think thinking like that is encouraged enough in society these days. So it’s just great to encourage this fantastical imaginative out of the box problem-solving style of thinking. Because it’s really important to critical thinking skills and intelligence and how we move about in the world.

You can watch HarmonQuest on SeeSo.