Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy-inspired TTRPGs (tabletop roleplaying games) are enjoying a burst of popularity that’s represented in everything from online streaming series to appearances on Stranger Things. Now, a new interactive show coming to Chicago is giving seasoned tabletop players—and curious newcomers—an opportunity to step outside theatre of the mind and explore this fantasy world in, well, a literal theater.
The Twenty-Sided Tavern, which begins its residency at the Broadway Playhouse on October 27, is an immersive theatrical experience inspired by games that “might involve dungeons and might involve dragons.” Part comedy show, part interactive game created by experienced game designers, the show utilizes collaboration between cast, crew and audience to tell an ever-changing story.
The audience is a “fourth player” at The Twenty-Sided Tavern, collaborating directly with the actors and the Game Master. In addition to the more traditional improv show audience engagement, The Twenty-Sided Tavern uses Gamiotics, a browser-based software that guests use to vote to make decisions on where the story will go—what characters appear, what rooms they explore. The result is an experience that balances giving the audience agency while letting guests choose their level of involvement—and a different show every night.
“We find that a lot of people, when they hear ‘interactive,’ they think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get pulled up onstage, so I’m not going to get involved in that,’” says Sarah Davis Reynolds, The Twenty-Sided Tavern’s head game designer and Resident Tavern Keeper. “So with Twenty-Sided Tavern, we try to have a balance, where if all you want to do is sit in your seat and on your phone, make choices of which door we’re gonna go through, you can do that and remain in the darkness and have that voice without having to get up on stage.”
For the more brazen adventurer, there are opportunities to get up on stage and test your strength (or dexterity, or wisdom, or charisma) through a variety of rollicking games, including trivia, charades and the ever-popular Fantasy Beer Pong.
“We have so many different ways to tell a story, whether it’s through the rolling of a die or through a projection behind us or by getting audience members on stage to play a game,” says David Andrew Greener Laws, a.k.a. DAGL, the show’s head writer and Resident Gamemaster. “There are so many different ways to express what we’re telling.”
And the collaborative storytelling choices don’t exist in a vacuum—whether the adventurers succeed or fail in their quest, the outcome impacts future shows, further building out the world and its history.
“Everyone involved, audience included, we all need to retain the capacity to surprise everyone,” Reynolds says. “It’s constantly in this world of discovery, keeping everyone on their toes so we can have that chaos while telling a satisfying story.”
The show features more than 30 possible playable characters, and even the actors don’t know exactly who they’ll be playing until the show begins. Each actor assumes a role in the party—the Fighter, the Mage or the Rogue—as well as three characters they could potentially play. The audience then votes on who they want to see in action. Among the most beloved characters are Elmir “Trunks” Buchet, a Loxodon (elephant-folk) artificer, and Tamberlaine the Greatest, a half-elf bard close to DAGL’s heart—the first TTRPG character they ever created.
For DAGL, one of the highlights of the show has been the broad spectrum of fans who have come into the community, from those who are completely new to the world of fantasy roleplaying to those who have been playing D&D and Magic: The Gathering all their lives.
“We have had grandmothers who have brought their grandchildren to the show that have never heard of Dungeons & Dragons,” they say. “After the show, we would speak to them and the grandmother would say, ‘Next time you play D&D, come play it at my house. I get it now.’”
And that community is more than a one-off experience. Reynolds says during the show’s run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, people would come to Twenty-Sided Tavern three or four times despite the extreme breadth of shows available at the fest, even gifting the cast dice in the colors of their characters. The community extends beyond the live show with further interaction—the team launched a Discord server where they host game nights and ask daily questions to keep building connections.
“It’s like we’ve made this huge party of adventurers all over the world,” Reynolds says.
If the live shows and Discord weren’t enough, there’s also Ale! And Well Met!, a podcast set in the world of The Twenty-Sided Tavern, giving the creative team more opportunities to build out the world and the audience a chance to get to know the characters and show in-jokes more.
“It really lets you choose your level of involvement,” DAGL says. “if you’re the kind of person who wants to listen to the podcast, and study the characters and know their character sheets and know what the Armor Class actually should be when a character misspeaks, you can do that. The more we create and the more of this worldbuilding and community building we do, the more there is to immerse yourself in.”
During The Twenty-Sided Tavern’s Chicago run, DAGL advises would-be adventurers who attend the Chicago shows to pay close attention and show up early if you can.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a game, and there is a way to win and there is a way to lose, and there are a lot of hints and Easter eggs that we sprinkle throughout,” he says.
Reynolds’ advice is more concise: “Be ready for anything.”
The Twenty-Sided Tavern runs October 27 through January 15 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E Chestnut St. Shows run on Thursday, Friday and Sunday evenings at 7:30pm, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2pm and Saturday evenings at 8pm, with a modified schedule the weeks of November 21-27, December 19-25 and December 26-January 2. Tickets start at $36.50 each and can be purchased via Broadway in Chicago.