For most tabletop gamers, inviting friends over for chips, drinks and Pathfinder (a roleplaying game spun off from the revised 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons) is just another night of questing and battling around the dining table. It’s not a spectator sport—unless, of course, you’re Dan Harmon, creator of NBC’s Community and co-creator of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, and you decide to turn a roleplaying game session with buddies into a TV show.
Taped last year before a live studio audience, Harmonquest’s ten episodes debuted this week on Seeso, NBCUniversal’s digital streaming comedy channel. For the series, Harmon is joined by his regular playing partners from the Harmontown podcast, including Spencer Crittenden (Harmon’s personal Dungeon Master/assistant), Erin McGathy and Jeff Bryan Davis. The guest player lineup is stellar, including Thomas Middleditch and Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) and Paul F. Tompkins (Best Week Ever), among others.
If the gaming and improv comedy weren’t enough of a draw for an audience, Harmonquest adds animation to hit the geek-cred trifecta. Each episode features animated segments, directed by Dominic Polcino from Rick and Morty and drawn to complement the cast’s impromptu dialogue. Players get their own animated doppelganger for the Pathfinder journey.
“This been a dream of mine since doing it experimentally on the audio podcast [Harmontown], and then seeing fans, after the fact, taking the audio from the podcast and animating to it, verifying for us that is something that could work,” Harmon says during a recent phone interview. “I can’t quite remember if that was before or after The Ricky Gervais Show on HBO that was based on his podcast with Karl Pilkington. The animators would draw, illustrating Karl’s rambling thoughts and [I thought] how endlessly entertaining that was as a formula.”
Harmon says that Crittenden’s skill as a gamemaster is another key to the show. (For those not familiar with RPGs, a gamemaster or Dungeon Master is the game’s organizer, referee and chief storyteller.) “His intersectionality between writer, producer, host of a show, TV personality, and finally, a human computer is pretty impressive,” Harmon adds.
Part of the show’s improvisational nature relied on Harmon not knowing some of the challenges and journeys of the characters, so Crittenden took it upon himself to craft a rough outline of the overall narrative for each game session and create a character and journey specifically for the guest stars. “There’s an episode where we’re on the high seas, there’s an episode we’re in an actual dungeon, there’s an episode where we’re in a village, a tavern, all the things you want to hit on a big epic quest,” Harmon says. “This is a game that’s played much more organically in six-hour sessions—and you might spend all six hours trying to open a door. Spencer had to sit down and make sure that there was an adventure there.
“He’s really good at striking a balance between the incredibly purist joy of being a good gamemaster with the totally antithetical needs of things being funny and moving forward in a timely fashion and understanding that everyone at the table’s not going to be regulation role playing,” Harmon adds.
Harmonquest’s guests have a wide-range of gaming skills, but Harmon easily picks out the season’s best player. “Obviously, at the top you have to put Thomas Middleditch for actually knowing his way around a gaming table. He brought his own dice and did his own rolls and he was clearly sort of goofing on us because he’s so comfortable gaming.” Middleditch has a regular gaming session with a “bunch of fancy people,” according to Harmon, and no, people can’t join Middleditch’s game. (People flake and cancel way too much.) “That’s how seriously he takes it.”
“He’s an absolute avid pro, and then everyone else…there’s a sharp drop-off,” Harmon says. The show’s other guests had either played Dungeons & Dragons a couple of times in junior high or had never even heard of the game. But that didn’t stop anyone from pouring his/her personality into their character.
“Aubrey Plaza’s character is this gnome that we are locked in a jail cell with, and we spend the entire episode breaking out of the jail with her,” Harmon says. “It’s very different from, say, the Ron Funches episode where he’s the pirate captain of a sea vessel, because Aubrey’s style is so dry and methodic, and the whole episode happens in real time where it’s just us, kind of arguing with each other as we’re trying to kill prison guards and escape from this prison. And it’s really very specifically Aubrey. Every single performer brings their own flavor and kind of creates a special episode around themselves.”
While it’s too early to tell if Harmonquest will earn the cult status of Rick and Morty or Community, Harmon keeps things in perspective. “I knew that expecting 250 million Americans to flood its gates was probably an unreasonable expectation,” he says with a laugh. “I felt that, hopefully, there would be avid gamers that would be able to enjoy it, but that there would be as many avid gamers, who because of their love of gaming, would be offended by it and not want to watch it.
“And then I figured my mom would watch a couple episodes because my name was in it.”
For Harmon’s short notes on Rick and Morty’s third season return date and the possibility of a Community movie, click here.
All episodes of Harmonquest are available now on Seeso.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.