The advertising copy for this Gilded Balloon show contains a word guaranteed to strike fear into many a fringe goer’s heart: ‘improvised’. Whilst the top end of impro performers would make you swear that their material has to be scripted, so slick is it, years spent watching lesser performers diving in as an excuse to not actually prepare a show can leave scars that will never heal.
But fear not. This isn’t really that kind of impro. This is ultimately a game. And quite a familiar one.
Dungeons and Dragons as a spectator sport has been around for a while now, best exemplified by the popular web series Critical Role. And as with other successful genres, it’s spawned comedic takes on the same material with shows like Questing Time (where a panel of comedians take on the iconic role-playing game) proving a bit hit.
Tartan Tabletop is very much in this mould. The set up is simple. Three regular performers and one guest are acting out a role in the latest chapter of an ongoing fantasy adventure, guided by their ‘Dungeon Master’ – a fifth performer who has written the story they inhabit. The success of their decisions are determined by the roll of a twenty-sided die where a twenty is a glorious success and one an ignominious defeat. Whilst their words and actions are made up on the hoof, the framework provided by the nominal story ensures that there’s always a structure available to pull the material back on course and lend the hour a satisfying shape. This means the performers don’t have to worry too much about the whole thing making sense, they can focus on character and funny lines.
How well this will translate to anyone who isn’t already aware of the way Dungeons and Dragons works is questionable but the Tartan Tabletop team make an admirable attempt to convey the basics of the game and their characters in as brief a manner as possible.
Sensibly, with only an hour to play with, our storytellers ease the audience into the world by leaning heavily on fictional tropes (as the Dungeon Master suggests, they’re lovingly ‘homaging’ two classics, at least one of which is likely well known material to the majority of people). Each character is a comedic riff on a familiar character or archetype. Usually with an outrageous accent. And the other cunning stratagem, in contrast to some of the longer form versions of this format, is leaning into making the set-up of the world very much non-serious from the get-go. So rather than having to pull laughs out of bog-standard elves and goblins we’re already in a slightly daft place, the reveal and potential of which is too enjoyable to spoil here.
With solid foundations the space is open to play. And the performers, all clearly long-term friends, fill it with gusto. One of the oddities of the format is that the most memorable moments are those where they attempt to defy the game and break their long-suffering Dungeon Master… or indeed each other. When one plants a bomb under the plot and proceeds to roll high numbers with outrageously good fortune their storyteller has to pull another twenty minutes of story out of nowhere and their discomfort is joyous. Furthermore an ongoing conceit where one barbarian going into rage leads to some of the team having to perform awkward or embarrassing forfeits is the source of some of the best laughs. If most of the jokes thrown out in character don’t quite reach this level that’s slightly missing the point. Games aren’t really about winning or losing. As the cliche goes they’re about playing… or perhaps more accurately, they’re a mechanism for enjoying the company of friends. And that’s the case here – the show is effectively just an excuse to watch five likeable and amusing people hang out and be funny.
If that sounds a little like listening to a podcast, you’re not far out, which is probably one of the drawbacks this show has. The Tartan Tabletop team do have one and other than a couple of minor beats of audience interaction there’s not a massive amount here that requires live viewing on a stage. The other note in the negative column is that it feels a little old-fashioned in its lack of obvious diversity – all the performers at the show I attended were white guys of around the same age and general appearance, but I note from a check of their social media feeds that this isn’t always the case so it would seem churlish to mark them down too harshly.
The show is a light and fun way to spend an hour. It’s ultimately a little inessential, so it’s not going to hit full marks, but it’s a lovely afternoon pick-me-up if you require one. If you’re a gamer or simply just know one, you’ll likely have a fun time with it. Even if you do have a pathological fear of impro.
Created by Tartan Tabletop
Tartan Tabletop in a Dungeons & Dragons Comedy: The Never-Ending Quest will be continuing its run at The Gilded Balloon until 27 August 2023 at 17:40 daily. You can book your tickets via The Ed Fringe website or Gilded Balloon