Friday, 22 February 2019 15:29

Rolling the Dice: Turning roleplaying games into theater

Written by  John Kissane
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Brooke Heintz, dungeon master of Dice Tales. Brooke Heintz, dungeon master of Dice Tales. Photo by Sean Francis.

Cari Scholtens and Jil Farheart look pretty much the same: they’re both tall, lean brunettes. But Farheart has a scar on her cheek. And while Scholtens owns a plastic sword and axe, Farheart’s sword and axe are necessarily steel; she’s a bounty hunter, and uses them when she has to. In a world of dark cults, vicious monsters, and the ever-present threat of violence, “when she has to” is pretty often.

Scholtens plays her badass alter ego in Dungeons & Dragons, the fantasy roleplaying game once feared as a portal into demon worship and now dismissed as the province of the socially inept. In reality, it’s a demanding, highly social and imaginative game, one that involves analysis, quick thinking and the ability to act.

Brooke Heintz, a teacher at Greenville High School (where Scholtens also teaches) introduced her to the game. “I loved it,” Scholtens said. “It was a great time.” Heintz asked if she’d be interested in playing before a live audience for a one-off event, a fundraiser for Grand Rapids’ Dog Story Theater. She agreed.

Scholtens isn’t one to shy away from performance. While working on her master’s thesis, she came across a contest: two winners would be flown to Los Angeles to record dialogue for an upcoming Mass Effect game. Along with 16,000 others, she put her name in the hat. But unlike most of them, she won; she and another winner were flown to Los Angeles. If you play Mass Effect: Andromeda, you’ll hear her.

The fundraising event, titled Dice Tales, went off with only one hitch: it was too much fun. The group quickly agreed to continue to perform fundraisers there, as a way to pay Dog Story back for the opportunities given, and because it was fun. The crowds continue to grow in size; a recent event raised more than $300.

I attended an event, and found it to be imaginative, exciting and genuinely funny — funnier than I would have hoped. Dice were thrown, but rarely, underscoring that this wasn’t just a game. It was an event, complete with lighting, music and a large screen on which appeared relevant visuals.

Scholtens was as strong as the other players; I admired how immersed in the moment she was. But I found myself getting curious about the person she affectionately calls an evil genius, the crafter of the story and shaper of events. The mysterious Brooke Heintz: Dungeon Master.

“Some of my friends in high school played,” Heintz said. “I saw these maps they had lying around and asked, ‘What is this stuff about?’”

Even as a child, she’d loved writing stories, drawing maps, building worlds. Dungeons & Dragons offered her a chance to build them again.

In college, she began to teach other friends how to play. Historically, more men than women tended to participate. As she played in campaigns with a more equal gender balance, she found an interesting trend: mostly male sessions tended to be tactically driven, whereas those in which a good number of women were present had room for full characterization — even the men got into it.

“I don’t know if that’s always true,” she said. “But that’s been my observation.”

In many cases, Heintz was the Dungeon Master, which meant she ran the games. And she ran them well, often putting in hours of solo preparation before any session. That work led the worlds to feel fuller than they otherwise would. In her worlds, in her stories, you can hear the ringing of metal-toed boots on stone floors.

Over the years, Heintz had been heavily involved with Dog Story Theater (indeed, a picture of her onstage hangs in the bathroom). She was asked to find a low-budget show that could serve as a fundraiser for the theater, and Dice Tales was born.

The group consisted of people Heintz knew and had played with before, like Scholtens, and others who were new to her. But all of them were good actors, funny and quick, which she knew would be necessary if a live audience was to be satisfied.

“We have a small core group of really dedicated fans, fans who haven’t missed an event. That’s been gratifying. And we also have audience members who came to a later session but loved it.” Some of those audience members knew nothing about Dungeons & Dragons, and some of those have since gone on to play it.

An employee of Gaming Paper, a local company that creates printed maps and other products for gamers, saw a session and asked about forming a partnership. One fruit from that tree is Dice Tales Live, a podcast version of the live sessions. The podcast is available on gamingpaper.com and, soon, iTunes and other podcast platforms.

A group of Calvin College students followed the group around for a couple of months, recording. Their documentary is available on Dice Tales’ Facebook page.

Dice Tales continues to perform monthly at Dog Story Theater, growing in popularity and gaining new fans. Despite that, it’s still an intimate, interpersonal event. As Heintz said, “It’s just storytelling with friends.”

Visit facebook.com/dicetaleslive to look out for the monthly show.

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