I knew I needed to talk to the team behind the Party from its first line of dialogue. It’s a comedically academic screed about the artistic merit of musical bootlegs (incidentally, thrown in at the last minute of scripting), but signaled everything that the D&D-based web series was going to get right. Not just in its writing, but in its depiction of the relationships you build playing D&D, this web-based sitcom about a group of D&D players understands the depths of character that come out of regular creative exercise. The Party shares much in common with your average campaign, starting out as a set of sketches about a group of weirdos that slowly grows into something deeper and more serious as you spend more time with the characters. Talking to the show’s creators Margaret Borchert, Geneva Willis, and Tori Chancellor, I got an appreciation for how interested they are in D&D, not only as a fantasy game, but as a means of self expression and discovery.
The Party kicks off when graduate student Viola needs to pick a thesis topic or risk ouster from her program, and in a stroke of desperation decides on her new roommate’s weird obsession for Dungeons and Dragons. Wedging her way into a party of awkward strangers, her barely disguised skepticism gives way to an appreciation for the art form of roleplay and the internal experiences of the players themselves. Each member of the party is more than they appear at first, including Viola herself, much to her surprise. Getting to know D&D and her fellow players, she starts to uncover a side of herself that she couldn’t have understood before, and a respect for what brought this party together to begin with.
The Party is a funny sitcom, but it’s also one of the more thoughtful D&D adaptations I’ve come across. Most either ignore the experience at the table, like Honor Among Thieves and Vox Machina, or are overladen with a sense of embarrassment about playing D&D, like 2013’s Zero Charisma. The Party melds its depiction of player and character to tell a story about the people behind the game, and what the game tells them about themselves and one another.
This independent production began with a broken elevator. Geneva and Margaret were working their first production jobs in Hollywood, and their building’s busted machinery forced Margaret to pass back and forth through Geneva’s office multiple times a day, in full vintage wear that Margaret assures me is more breathable than today’s polyester. The fact that she hasn’t died of heatstroke as an active PA in Los Angeles speaks to her veracity. The two got to know one another and began a creative collaboration on their work in television.
Like many creatives I have spoken with recently, the lockdown gave them time to evaluate their work and start on something all their own. As a pair of women with long histories in television, they had all the right skills and contacts, but had yet to strike out on their own. Honor Among Thieves’ announcement surprised them, and helped start a conversation about what an adaptation of tabletop games would consist of. Translating the improvised to the scripted, the active to the passive, is a shift in the basic nature of the experience.
They hit upon the sitcom as a natural way to explore what a game of D&D feels like, both in playing the game and relating to your fellow players, while also explaining why a group with disparate personalities keeps coming together week after week. By December of 2020 they had a pilot script finished, and it sat on their pile of writing samples until January 2022 when they decided to adapt the pilot into a full series. Tori noted the popularity of actual plays, and correctly posited that it could translate to an audience for this series. A friend of Geneva since college, she joined as executive producer of the series and helped write five more episodes as they developed the concept further.
The first half of 2022 consisted of table reads, refinements, and wrangling of their friends in the entertainment industry. Over 70% of the crew had a pre-established connection with tabletop gaming, and were happy to work on something showcasing their love for the hobby. With their combined experience, a lot of good practical decisions were made for a low budget, shooting primarily in single locations. The in-game portions at the Theater of the Mind Tavern took place in a bar closed several days a week, over two days of tense shooting in full makeup, fraught with the challenging smoky low-light of the fantastical middle ages. These portions were logistically taxing, but also crucial to the narrative. The team understood that portraying only in or out of game segments would be missing half of what makes roleplay the unique engagement that it is.
If you don’t know much about film, you might not notice just how much they got right with limited resources. Over 90 minutes shot in 17 days, they pulled off a miracle with smart choices, hard work, and the right crew. Cai Kagawa and Maeve Kiely put together over 100 costumes for the crew, including detailed character costumes full to the brim with Easter eggs. Michael Benni Pierce, their editor (whose work you might have seen with the ship reveal in Star Trek Picard season 3 episode 9), turned in a master class. One of the best examples of all of this work coming together is the explanation of D&D classes, mixing humor, costuming, lighting, and editing to take a hectic two days of work and cut it down into a punchy set of jokes on D&D’s classes.
The Party is a refreshing blend of comedy and psychology, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all ties together. Featuring cameos by Vince Caso, Ally Beardsley, and Becca Scott, it’s clear that the show’s earnest respect for Dungeons and Dragons, with all the comedy and tragedy it inspires, has already struck a chord with the community. Episodes 1-5 are available now on the show’s Youtube page, with the final two to be released each Tuesday coming up. You can also follow the show on its website and listen to Margaret’s own actual play campaign Lore Brewery. You can follow Margaret, Geneva and Tori. For now, this is the team’s only self-created project, and I truly hope to see them at the helm of more projects in the future. I’m happy to say their work is already all over television. Geneva’s been hard at work on season 3 of Star Trek Picard, and Tori is working to bring more comedy to life at Sethmaker Shoemeyers Productions.
John Farrell is a legal aid administrator, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/