Pubs would be so much more interesting if they were like RPG taverns. Go in for a refreshing beverage. Leave on an epic quest to save the world from evil, instead of to pick up that knock-off TV you accidentally bought from the tattooed bloke who really didn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘no’. True, ‘You all meet in a tavern’ is the Dungeon Master equivalent of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, but it’s hard to argue with the efficiency. Where else would heroes assemble, to eat, drink and be merry?
Hello From The Magic Tavern is what happens when they do a podcast instead.
It’s one of my favourites of the last year or so, easily joining the likes of Welcome To Night Vale as a world worth checking in on each week. The premise is that host Arnie Niekamp fell through a portal behind a Burger King into the fantastical land of Foon, and like all good podcasters, immediately set up a podcast with his two new best friends – Usidore the Blue, Wizard of the 12th Realm of Ephysiyies, Master of Light and Shadow, Manipulator of Magical Delights, Devourer of Chaos, Champion of the Great Halls of Terr’akkas, whom the elves know as Fi’ang Yalok, the dwarves as Zoenen Hoogstandjes, and who is known in the east as Gaismunēnas Meistar… and Chunt, a shapeshifter who typically appears as a badger. Not always, but usually.
Each week they’re joined by one or more guests from the Chicago improv scene, and pretty much just roll with it. Characters include just everything from Arnor, greatest hero in Foon, unimpressed that a nebbishy podcaster dare share syllables from his name, to a bit of Ooze that Arnie stepped in while exploring the local dungeon in a quest to retrieve its treasure that at current progress should be finished sometime after the heat-death of every sun in the universe. (So far he’s gotten quite good at fighting an amiable skeleton that lets him win, but remains terrified of literally every natural feature being a trap put there to squish him… though in fairness, there is a good chance…)
Going back to the early episodes inevitably doesn’t show it at its best. Those in particular have a tendency to go for easy gags, like ‘creating’ a vicious race of blue creatures called Smorps, Chunt’s shape-changing being kicked off by having sex with other animals, and a fixation on the joy of having multiple buttholes. (One is apparently inefficient. Wizards have two. The Earth ‘OK’ symbol on Foon translates to ‘I have three buttholes’. This is particularly relevant for those show-off elves.)
Once the series finds its feet though, it does a surprisingly good job of building a lore for the world considering how many guests are brought in, and how the basic rule is that if someone says something that doesn’t contradict something important, it gets thrown into the pot. A year in, it’s a patchwork quilt of bad puns and off-the-cuff inventions, but still juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust coherent enough to feel like more.
At the very least, within the Tavern is relative sanity, where any guest can enjoy a Rainbow Bowl, a cup of mead with a little raspberry, or the Foonish speciality, the spiced potato. Which is literally a raw potato rubbed in spices. So far, Arnie hasn’t developed a taste for them. Over seventy episodes in though, there’s no shortage of running gags and references, like former tavern owner Otak having set out on a quest to find his daughter, and most recently, political instability in the realm thanks to Arnie having accidentally murdered its most important king in cold blood. Whoops?
The downside of improv is that episodes vary wildly in quality, with some characters that were just a bad idea from the start, and a few that ultimately don’t have the oomph to carry an episode. (As I understand it, guests are asked to pitch a couple of one-line suggestions, but otherwise it’s left to the record how things go.) It doesn’t really matter though because the core of the show is so strong. Each week’s episode is like heading in to hang with friends for half an hour or so; albeit friends who never actually acknowledge your presence or talk to you or offer you a drink or spiced potato or anything. So, rude friends. Most impolite! But friends none-the-less.
It’s the camaraderie behind all this that really sells it. The main actors have worked together frequently, and that relationship comes through almost immediately. Nobody hogs the microphone or tries to overshadow anyone, guests are allowed to steer and be the stars of their episodes, and the trio support every crazy thing that they might come up with, with additional questions or additional flavour confirming what they just said and adding a level to it… such as when talking about Mittens, Foon’s far more violent version of baseball. When it’s just the three of them however, things can get brutal. Arnie tends to get the bulk of the butt-monkey duties – however many buttholes one of those has, probably twelve – but all three audibly know each other well enough to know when it’s time to leave someone hanging or stammering through a joke and when it’s time to throw a rope, as well as always being willing to jump into challenging improv like making up a limerick or song on the fly.
Either way, the tone never gets too unpleasant and never for too long. You can hear the smirk when someone thinks of a pun and desperately tries to squeeze it in, and feel the wince of it as it lands. Chunt for instance holds a blood drive for vampires in the tenth month of every year, just to call it the Chunt For Red October. Honk the Assassin gets through almost an entire episode before someone finds a way to casually start a sentence “Honk, if you’re horny…” By far the meanest character isn’t even technically in it – the Mysterious Man who handles the credits and is obsessed with everyone a) knowing it’s not real and that everyone involved is simply a terrible actor with no life and nothing better to do and of late, b) pimping Cards Against Humanity, the beyond tedious card game where people with no discernible sense of humour can at least pretend for a while. At least it beats enduring another Audible, Squarespace, Harry’s or Casper advert – the four horsemen of every bloody podcast right now.
In short, if you’re in the mood for a comedy podcast, it’s definitely one worth checking out. Follow anything similar? Let me know in the comments, not as a throw-away line to get a larger number down there, but because I burn through a lot of podcasts and am always looking for new recommendations of fun things to listen to while walking or working or cursing my inability to read on trains, planes and automobiles.
While we’re on this subject though, I thought I’d throw a quick shout-out to a couple of other D&D related series that I’ve been watching lately. To my shame, I’ve never actually played it, with most of my knowledge coming either second hand or via CRPGs. (What can I say? At school, friends were into wargaming stuff, which I wasn’t.) Still, I have a fondness for watching people play and seeing that sense of camaraderie and feuding play out over campaigns, with wit and snark flying as much as dice. If you’re in a similar mood, or simply want to click on something right now, Dan “Community” Harmon recently launched HarmonQuest, which combines the table-top stuff with animation, which is a pretty fun way to handle it. Simpler, but interesting for the fact that it’s mostly game designers playing it, is Jordan “Bioshock 2” Thomas’ Dice With Death – a permadeath run through the realm of Ravenloft, where Strahd’s Posession is 9/10ths of the lore. That’s definitely a more traditional version – very slow, very methodical, definitely lacking in Bojack Horseman actors, but still interesting. I’ve been slowly working through it over the last week as a kind of second-screen soap opera and it’s been pretty engaging… even if several episodes in, I still don’t know how many buttholes everyone has. Details count, people! Even the most anal ones!
To subscribe to the above, click the links. For Hello From The Magic Tavern, head here for all the episodes and a handy Podcast link. Other things to click on, like iTunes buttons, are also available. There’s also a wiki charting the lore in all its strangeness, which may come in useful if jumping into the later episodes, but honestly isn’t essential. The show’s pretty good about explaining things you need to know when a reminder is needed, and sometimes even in a way that almost makes sense.
Or as much sense as Something Which Is Not Real can, anyway.