One show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year that my friends recommended very highly was Adventurers Wanted: Rebellion, which combined a table-top role-playing game with storytelling and theatre. The show itself was a live play of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign set in a fantasy universe where an evil imperial cult has taken control, while players are part of a rebellion to overthrow them and liberate the oppressed peoples. But the story itself is unscripted: players play characters in the setting, the game masters control the world and environments with which they interact, and the narrative is driven by player actions, with any conflicts or uncertainties resolved by rolls of dice. All of it is improvised live, and the story is created collaboratively by a community, featuring a recurring cast of players on the show as well as regular guests or members of the public.
I saw their show over the first weekend of the Fringe, and signed up to play with them on Monday, 6 Aug. There were three pre-set characters on offer, an elf rogue, dwarf barbarian and human sorcerer, and given that I have tended to play talking and social characters, I decided to play a combat-oriented dwarf barbarian for a change. But as is my wont, my plan for the barbarian was to play him as a communist revolutionary, a dwarven blacksmith who was alienated from the fruit of his labour, and has joined the revolution to seize the means of production. His name is Marksun Ingot, or Marks for short. I was surprised to get a laugh out of this the second time I played, almost as much as my surprise that the folks at AW were happy to have me back again! I returned on Friday, 10 Aug, reprising my role as Marks, and even though there was some combat this time, I never got to hit anything in the session.
6 Aug. session of Adventurers Wanted: Rebellion. (For Chloe Mashiter’s improvised marching anthem, skip to 18:40 min)
When I played Marks on Monday, it was all about introducing the character and giving him his Marxist flavour. Most of my lines were riffing off of Marx’s aphorisms from The Communist Manifesto, including ‘There is a spectre looming over Goldcrest — the spectre of revolution’, ‘Farmers of Goldcrest unite and rise up against your bourgeois oppressors! You have nothing to lose but your chains,’ and my particular favourite was the joke ‘Let’s go add a hammer to their sickle!’ For the most part, I ended up playing Marks as far more clever than his stats warranted, that despite having below-average intelligence he made eloquent speeches and planned strategies. What really stood out in the session, however, was Chloe Mashiter’s bard character Flare and her improvised marching anthem, which was perhaps the most perfect song for the occasion. But for a first session, it established Marks’ vociferous nature and his commitment to proletarian revolution.
The second session I found a lot more interesting, mostly because of how much the story had developed. While I was away, the rotating cast of protagonists had found enormous seams of a precious, unstable ore that the cult was using as a power source. They discovered the ore to be highly explosive, and also to have magical properties that deforms and mutates people and animals who are exposed to it. The protagonists accidentally ignited some of the ore, causing a massive explosion that decimated a town and killed one of the player characters. There were the obvious parallels between the mysterious ore and nuclear energy, something I drew on while playing Marks. I made an impassioned speech at the start of the session, emphasising the long and problematic colonial history of mining the ore, and how races like dwarves and goblins have been exposed to them in the long term, and poisoned for generations. This is straight from my PhD research, particularly the material on uranium mining in South Africa in Gabrielle Hecht’s Being Nuclear. I still cannot play combat characters right.
10 Aug. session of Adventurers Wanted: Rebellion. (For the speech about nuclear mining, skip to 5:30.)
Moreover, in this session I went further into postcolonial theory: critiquing the racial assumptions in the D&D source books about the intelligence and learnedness of dwarves and goblins (an Edward-Said-inspired, Foucauldian critique of the racial presumptions in the source books, like one in an early edition of Existential Comics), excoriating the cult for their exploitation of dwarves but also emphasising that if the human sorcerers were to monopolise the power and knowledge from these ores, they would be no better than the cult, perpetuating the same structure of uneven development between dwarves, goblins, and humans. All of this from a combat-focussed character with below-average intelligence, I feel like this in itself was subverting a stereotype of Orientalist ‘barbarism’.
I am going to return with Adventurers Wanted at least two more times (17 and 22 Aug, when I hope to be playing alongside some of my friends) and I look forward to taking the character’s materialist critique of society and of the slow violence of this eldritch corruption even further. Meanwhile, though, given how much fun and engaging it was to make my PhD research dovetail into D&D, I might even experiment with more possible intersections between table-top role-playing and disseminating findings of my academic research.
Acknowledgements: My sincerest thanks to the wonderful folk at Adventurers Wanted, Naomi Heathcote, Chris Hislop, Nemo Martin, Chloe Mashiter, and Leo West, for making all this happen, and for having me on board so generously, and also the lovely players I played with who made the experience so delightful. My thanks also to Catherine Wilson, Caileigh Marshall, and Emma Sheard for all of their support and encouragement with all this.