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At Esther’s Follies in Austin, TX this weekend, the crew that normally hosts the Harmontown podcast at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles brought their show to SXSW to give the festival audience a taste of HarmonQuest, a Seeso Original Series coming later this year. And luckily, Thomas Middleditch – the Silicon Valley star and avid role-player – was also in town to play along.
For the uninitiated, HarmonQuest is a live-action roleplaying series in which Dan Harmon – joined by Jeff B. Davis, Erin McGathy and Game Master Spencer Crittenden – navigate the improvisational fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons.
“On its own it’s a live comedy show,” Davis says, “then we hand it off to brilliant animators who create the fantasy world that we’re playing around in.”
In addition to the SXSW showcase, Middleditch also served as the special guest on one of the ten live shows the HarmonQuest crew shot at Hollywood Center Studios last year. The series will bring to life the game by adding extended animated sequences that illustrate the action conjured from Game Master Crittenden’s bizarre imagination.
“Middleditch was so much better than all of us because he’s been playing since he was a kid,” Davis said, to which Crittenden added: “He brought his own dice.” (Middleditch apparently plays a home game with a dedicated crew of supernerds).
“He was a little frustrated by our lackadaisicalness,” McGathy said, noting that Crittenden often has to adapt the rules of the traditional role-playing game for comedians of varying skill levels.
“If we were just playing the real game it wouldn’t be very interesting, but because this is the dynamic we have it ends up working,” Crittenden said. But not all guests are Game Master-level players. In some episodes, the learning curve makes for an even more entertaining game.
“Aubrey Plaza,” Davis began. “Dan was saying that her’s is the best episode, because she didn’t know anything about the game—and I couldn’t tell if she was having fun or not—but it turned out to be really funny. Sometimes it’s funnier when people have no idea what’s going on.”
While HarmonQuest has the added benefit of animated sequences to go along with the improvised storylines, Harmon notes that the game stays true to what they have been playing at Meltdown. It all began a couple years ago, when Harmon decided to start playing on the podcast and asked the audience if anyone knew how to play Dungeons & Dragons (Crittenden raised his hand, not knowing he would be getting a job out of it).
“To me, we’ve proven when we’ve done role-playing stuff on the podcast that it’s funny in and of itself,” Harmon said. “And then there’s this hybrid thing of having non-scripted dialogue handed over to animators so they can illustrate the thoughts going on, which I think is funny.”
Crittenden pointed out that the animated portions will make the game more accessible for those who don’t already know about it, and those who are avid role-players will get to see what is normally never really executed in real life. The storyline of the game will play out over the ten episodes, with each comedian guest playing an assigned role—a challenge that gets easier when they realize they can still be themselves.
Ron Funches, for example, who Harmon accurately described as “cuddly,” plays a Dread Pirate Roberts-type villain. Paul F. Tompkins also gets to be his fully-dapper self while playing a half-Orc. But no matter what or who they are supposed to be, Davis says it’s just about having fun and moving the story forward.
“It’s a nice metaphor for not buying into imposter syndrome,” McGathy added. “In each episode, every guest star is trying to figure out how to do the right thing, and then they realize, ‘oh there really is no right thing, except to just do whatever you want.”
The group noted that Crittenden provides structure and drives the game forward, whereas the guests of varying abilities or knowledge of role-playing provide entirely unexpected twists.
HarmonQuest premieres this year on Seeso. Sign up here for only $3.99 a month.