Denver comics use Dungeons and Dragons to connect during coronavirus

They say you don’t really know your favorite artist until you’ve seen them journey to an ancient Elven ruin to cram an elemental shard in a Balrog’s face.

OK, they don’t say that. Unless “they” is Denver’s Harlan Kelly. Kelly is a prominent organizer of the game Dungeons & Dragons — a Dungeon Master — having managed games for nationally renowned musicians and comedians such as Esme Patterson and Andrew Orvedahl.

Now, Kelly has begun bringing audiences in on the action, live-streaming Dungeons & Dragons games, connecting artists and fans in an unprecedented way during an unprecedented time.

On May 18, Kelly will launch Better Than Heroes, a weekly Dungeons & Dragons web series with four Denver-connected comedians. Andrew Orvedahl (of The Grawlix), Rachel Weeks, Aaron Urist and Jordan Doll will join Kelly on a quest to the far reaches of space, where Earth (and its troubles therein) is just a pale blue dot. Fans can support the comedians via a show Patreon, but the show is free to watch.

The stream comes at a time of unprecedented popularity for Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D. According to a representative from Wizards of the Coast, 2019 marked the best sales year in the franchise’s 54-year history. That includes a glut of new players: Big box stores sold 300% more first-time player products than the year prior.

It’s just the latest boom for the franchise, which has seen year-over-year growth since 2014. That’s owed in part to the popularity of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” which features D&D on screen and a narrative arc that resembles a D&D campaign, tasking a group of pre-teens with defeating a horrible monster called a Demogorgon.

The game’s transition online, including digital game boards and streaming, has driven its recent growth.

“A big reason D&D is on everyone’s mind is the rise of video streaming,” Hughes said via email. “People learn about how fun Dungeons & Dragons is by watching their friends and families play.”

Kelly’s live-streams have seized on this idea. For fans and artists, they’ve also painted a silver lining on a bleak year. Confined to our homes, the streams afford fans a unique glimpse of artists we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise: as sorceresses, gnomes and warriors.

And taking it online clears up the game’s biggest hurdle: scheduling. “That’s 60% of D&D,” Kelly said, “getting adults together for 2 to 5 hours regularly.”

D&D is a tabletop roleplaying game that casts its players as characters in epic adventures. The game is helmed by a Dungeon Master, who designs obstacles and opportunities for players, whose fates are forked by dice rolls, split-second decisions and their character’s abilities.

Part improv, part board game, it’s pretty much perfect for the near-total overlap between comedy geeks and geek-geeks.

“I’ve always played D&D with comedians,” said Rachel Weeks, 28, a Los Angeles-based comedian who founded trailblazing Denver comedy group Pussy Bros. “Comedians use it as a different outlet. I’m sure Harlan will be furious with us for all the tangents we take the game down.”

Orvedahl, a figurehead in the Denver comedy scene who’s currently involved in six (six!) different D&D campaigns, sees the game as an ideal antidote to these shelter-in-place times.

“It’s like, wouldn’t it be nice to not be on Earth for three or four hours?” said Orvedahl, who’ll play as a bard masquerading as a warrior in Better Than Heroes. “I can’t wait to play tonight, to be this totally other thing. It’s relaxing and invigorating.”

While the stream isn’t expected to make meaningful money — not at first, anyway — in a world without nightclubs, comedians take the audience where they find it.

“Comics are good at adjusting to the room,” said Weeks. “And right now, the room is very sick.”

A former amateur stand-up, Kelly first started playing D&D when he moved to Denver in 2017 to work as a radio promoter for Secretly Group, a prominent independent music label that represents artists like Bon Iver and Angel Olsen.

Two and a half years later, that group is still going: Kelly recently got a tattoo on his left bicep of a juniper bush, commemorating a character in the campaign that recently died.

“It was the first character I killed,” he said. “That weekend, I talked to each player for like two hours on the phone. Emotionally, that moment really unlocked what this game could do.”

He had the thought to live-stream D&D with artists late last year as a fun and different approach to promotion. When quarantine began, everyone’s schedules opened wide.

In April, he launched a seven-game live stream with Nap Eyes, a hazy rock outfit from Nova Scotia who’d just seen months of tour dates blink out.

“When it was first pitched to us, we were kind of like ‘OK, we gotta do something, we can’t tour,’ ” said Nap Eyes drummer Seamus Dalton, 31. “But we all enjoyed it so much, it became a weekly thing we looked forward to every Friday.”

While none of the band’s four members had played D&D before, Kelly designed a campaign that didn’t sacrifice expertise for drama. From the band’s shelter-in-place outpost in Montreal, Seamus became Crumb, a trickster gnome who ended the campaign squaring off with an ancient elemental being. The game nearly ended in bloody defeat — a magic shard lodged in Crumb’s skull, turning him against his party — if not for a few lucky rolls of the dice.

Kelly, who designed the boss battle, was nervous that he might end up murdering the band he was supposed to be promoting. After all, a Dungeon Master only sets the events in motion; dice rolls decide characters’ fates.

“I wasn’t worried about it having been anti-climactic,” Kelly said, “but I think I might have gotten a weird work email the next day.”

Kelly will fold his background in music and comedy into the new series. Better Than Heroes will have a custom score, courtesy of Culture Vacuum Recordings. A student of improv, Kelly talks often of how crucial that form is to what he does. “All of my DMing comes from my favorite improv axiom: ‘If this is true, what else is true?’ ”

But ultimately, Kelly’s campaigns aren’t just bringing fantasy to the world of comedy and music — they’re also evidence that they’re one in the same.

“I’ve done stand-up, been in bands, done poetry,” Kelly said. “Dungeons & Dragons is an amalgamation of everything I love about those things.”

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