This Thursday, February 3rd, NBC’s Community airs its next episode: "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons." In this episode, “The gang takes a journey into the dark world of Dungeons and Dragons with Abed at the helm.” How could we not be thrilled? After all, series creator Dan Harmon is certainly no stranger to the game. As former member of The Dead Alewives comedy troupe, his skits included the famed Summoner Geeks.
In anticipation of “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” we spoke with writer Andrew Guest about learning the game, creating the script—and setting the stage for Community’s study group.
Wizards of the Coast: In your upcoming episode of Community, the study group comes together to play Dungeons & Dragons. What’s the setup for the game—who breaks out the books, graph paper and funky dice, and how does he convince the others to give it a shot?
Andrew Guest: It's actually an idea the whole study group comes up with together (with the exception of Pierce who ends up being excluded). None of our group has ever played before but they think a game of D&D might help out another student at Greendale. Jeff is sort of leading the charge on this, but Abed ends up learning most about the game in preparation and he ends up being our dungeon master for the episode. Because, let's face it, who would be a better Dungeon Master than Abed?
Wizards of the Coast: When writing the episode, did you have specific roleplaying characters in mind for the show’s characters? I can envision moralistic Britta as a paladin, and the religious Shirley as a cleric, but what did you consider for the others—Jeff as a bard, perhaps (since a lawyer needs to tell a good tale, after all)? Or was it more fun to play characters against type?
AG: At certain early stages of crafting the story, we played around with which characters would be funny as certain in-game characters—but we didn't want to get too hung up on the character creating because there was so much in-game story to tell. There was a joke on the table that we could have the entire episode spent with our group setting up for the game, discussing the rules, shopping for their characters, etc., and never actually getting to the game. But we wisely moved away from that.
Wizards of the Coast: Can you walk us through the job of writer for the show: How did you approach Dan Harmon with a script for a D&D-themed episode (and what was the reaction)? Or are show ideas already conceived and in need of a script?
AG: This was an episode that Dan had known he wanted to do for a long time. In fact, he'd been talking about it in one incarnation or another since we started preproduction on Season 2. As writers, we often start with an idea of Dan's and try to flesh it out and find the story in it. In this case, he wanted a full episode where our study group did nothing but play a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Those were the parameters for us.
The episode just happened to come to me because I was next in line to write a script (we all take turns writing episodes). So a small group of us talked about various ways to find a full episode in a role-playing game; the first real stumbling block we came up against was trying to find a way for the game to have a bigger meaning so that the whole episode didn't feel like a waste of time to the viewers. I'm pretty happy with the device we came up with.
Wizards of the Coast: Once written, what process does the script undergo on its way to eventual filming? Are you involved in rewrites, based on producer feedback or actor suggestions (and what feedback were you given)?
AG: Since I was the writer of this project, once Dan had approved the story, I went off by myself and wrote the first draft. This draft is brought back to the writers room, where all the other writers weigh in, give notes, make suggestions, etc. After that, Dan usually takes one or two of us and does his own rewrite where we chime in with jokes, thoughts, etc.
We're always involved on the rewrites for our material, which is terrific. We shepherd our episodes through the production process as well: going to production meetings, helping the director to answer questions, and then being on set while the episode is being shot to make sure the story points are being hit properly and the jokes are working, etc.
Wizards of the Coast: Considering that the episode centers around playing D&D, did you ever roll a d20 of your own back in the day?
AG: I have never played Dungeons & Dragons before. So that was a challenge. Dan certainly has a history with the game and we were all trying to capture everything he loves about Dungeons & Dragons. In some ways, having no experience myself was useful because I was also tasked with writing something that any uninitiated viewer would be able to understand. I did a lot of research in order to get things right, but I also did my best to make the game playing clear to everyone.
Wizards of the Coast: Did any of the cast also have familiarity with the game? Danny Pudi (who plays Abed), we see later stars as a role-player in the film Knights of Badassdom.
AG: Danny has played a little and the director of the episode, Joe Russo, had also played some growing up. Other than that, we were all pretty new to D&D.
Wizards of the Coast: How would you relate playing D&D to writing? Are there similarities, for instance, running a party of roleplaying heroes through a dungeon, and writing for an ensemble sitcom cast?
AG: I think there are certainly a lot of similarities between what a good Dungeon Master and a good writer does. D&D really seems to be a game of storytelling, which is what we're constantly tasked with as writers. And from what I have learned, a good DM is someone who excels at filling in all the details of a world in and creating a convincing place for the adventurers to explore, and that's very much like writing as well. Visualizing scenes and seeing them clearly is what we try to do every day. In our case, it may be scenes with jokes at a community college but you try and visualize it in the same way you would a dungeon, etc. The more clearly you can see and hear the characters, the better the scene will be, and it seems like the same goes for D&D.
Wizards of the Coast: Ultimately, what’s the takeaway in this episode for the study group—how do they handle their session of D&D? Any lessons learned from the game?
AG: The game ends up being a big success, but not in the way the study group initially thought it would. There are many lessons learned throughout the playing of the game. I don't want to spoil them all here, but ultimately the episode celebrates Dungeons & Dragons as a whole. Dan wouldn't have had it any other way.
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll) and at bartjcarroll.com.