Dave Harmon is the Dungeon Master for Australian comedy Dungeons & Dragons troupe Dragon Friends. We spoke with Harmon ahead of his trip to Seattle to take part in the Stream of Annihilation.
Dragon Friends is a monthly live Dungeons & Dragons show and podcast which has become a pop-culture event in Sydney, but for Harmon it was never meant to be so.
“I got back into D&D to do Dragon Friends when I was having a conversation with my friend Ben. He always wanted to play D&D and knew that I used to play. We settled on this idea of getting some comedians who’d never played Dungeons & Dragons together and doing it as a live comedy show. The podcast was kind of an afterthought.”
Harmon told me that putting the podcast online was really meant just as an archive for the Dragon Friends. A place to have their old adventures stored for posterity. “The numbers started to grow and we went from there. It was really surprising the way it happened to us.”
In the beginning, Dragon Friends was playing to crowds of 20 people in tiny little bars. Harmon says the crowds were usually just the performers’ friends that they’d dragged along. Now, Dragon Friends plays to packed audiences at PAX Australia and the Giant Dward theatre in Redfern. Does playing just with friends or an intimate group different to playing in front of huge audiences? Harmon told me it was, but wasn’t.
“It definitely does. But also it doesn’t as much as you would think it would. There’s huge pressure to be funny, on and present. But it’s also a huge gift.” Playing D&D can be difficult according to Harmon, because the players might be distracted, on their phone or just not giving 100%. “It’s really nice to actually have everybody present, available, show up on time ready to play.”
Even though Dragon Friends knows they’re there to perform, Harmon says he quickly forgets that he’s on stage. He told me that D&D is so intimate and close that it becomes about the players. “That’s just something special about D&D, When it starts working you very quickly lose yourself in the story and you get transported out of the room you’re in. Whether it’s a basement, or a stage.”
Dungeons & Dragons isn’t usually a quick game, Harmon told me that a standard game can run as long as six hours. To make the game work as a stage show, obviously it needs to be streamlined. “When we were doing Dragon Friends, we knew that every podcast episode was going to be an hour long, or under an hour. So, every hour on the show had to tell a bit of story. It had to go somewhere. I really struggled with that.”
To streamline the game, Dragon Freinds play their own rules. It’s a variation on 5e which is designed to never slow down. Harmon and his troupe don’t spend 45 minutes making dice rolls or doing maths. “If I was playing with my friends I absolutely would take some of these rules. D&D is at its best when it’s moving forward. If you can stop having to look everything up and you can just be having drinks with your friends and telling stories that have that are always powering forward, even if it’s powering forward over a cliff. That’s the ideal way to play.”
As the troupe’s DM, Harmon says he has a different relationship to his players than other DMs. “People have commented that we almost have the relationship to every other D&D podcast out there. The DM is kind of this powerful status authority figure. I don’t get treatment, which is incredibly unfair and certainly wasn’t what I signed up for.”
It’s all in good fun for Harmon though. He’s happy to deliver what’s coming to his players, especially, he tells me, when it comes to Michael Hing. Obviously you can’t play something as intimate and as close as D&D with a group of people without getting close to them. Harmon puts it perfectly; “Look, they’re horrible people, they’re my closest friends and I hate them all.” Isn’t that how we all feel about our friends?
Taking part in the Stream of Annihilation is a big deal for Dragon Friends and Harmon told me that he and his troupe were proud to be involved. He never thought that playing D&D would lead to an international audience or the opportunity to travel overseas. “Everybody that plays, we all met at university. And most of us met in student comedy and student improv,” Harmon tells me. They had no designs on performing D&D, but here they are. Harmon also beleives that the group’s skills as comedy performers help them greatly.
“Improvisors make amazing D&D players and improv skills make D&D players better D&D players. Both are about collaborative storytelling and the skills that make you good at improv, like, listening, advancing, taking other people’s ideas, accepting them and building on them, are the same skills that make a really excellent session of D&D come alive.”
Before we ended our conversation I asked Harmon what his advice for new players was. “Just play,” he said. “Learn some rules, but just enough so that you feel comfortable. Just start playing and learn as you go.” It’s the same way Harmon approaches Dragon Friends. What started out as something fun, for friends to come together has grown exponentially.
Harmon is on his way to Seattle to participate in the Stream of Annihilation and you can tune in to watch Dragon Friends at 9.30am Sunday June 4, 2017.
We’d like to give a huge congratulations to Harmon and Dragon Friends and thank him for his time. For more information, head to the Dragon Friends website.