Immersive in-character conversation and sound design are the two aspects of any actual play podcast most likely to get me hooked. Fool and Scholar Production’s actual play podcast, Dark Dice, is a horror podcast made up of Game Master and producer Travis Vengroff and the cast and writer of The White Vault that uses the 5th edition of Dungeon & Dragons, and it will keep you hooked from the very first crack of lightning.
Dark Dice is a horror actual-play D&D podcast that uses immersive soundscapes to create an added layer of immersion. Six travelers embark on a journey into the ruinous domain of the nameless god. They will never be the same again.
In a horror game, and one with as many player characters as Dark Dice, one of the most important early goals is to be sure to connect listeners with the characters while building the expectations for the style of horror they can expect. They have an introductory episode for David Ault’s character, Iaus the innkeeper, for whom they originally designed the game as he’d never played D&D before, and future one-on-one interviews with each player will be released intermittently. Dark Dice keeps the more traditional introductions in episode one so that listeners learn the names and important qualities of the three dwarves, bard Rowena Granitepike, Pelor cleric Father Sindri Westpike, and paladin of Ilmater Sister Tsavorite Cavernsfall as well as the mysterious monster hunter Soren Arkwright and tiefling druid Flygia of Zarketh.
There is not only darkness here, but moments of snark and jokes between characters that help guide the ebb and flow of the story, and that growing rapport is what I think will keep listeners attached to them. That’s especially important in a horror game, where the expectation of character death is already high, and gaining that listener confidence matters greatly for making impact with the first death, and those after. Vengroff says the group has created a language and cultural map based on the players’ own cultures and languages, where Dwarves are Icelandic, with Scottish variants, and the Drow are Germanic and Slavic, making for a rich world they’re playing within with shared understanding, and that means their interactions sound that much more complete.
Dark Dice stands out from the rest of the D&D actual play landscape in its handling of combat. Combat can often drag if it hasn’t been well-edited or modified in the rules, or be impenetrable to follow if there’s a lot of actions and numbers. Vengroff has taken the combat scenes and turned them into a narrative of their own. He describes each action as the characters take them, with the players providing their dialogue, and it’s all filled out by a heartening, robust, jaw-dropping score and sound effects for flying arrows, breaking bones, and scuffling. It’s a deeply immersive experience, one that has elicited more than one sharp gasp and cringe from me in the dark. Cleverly, key dice rolls are kept in the combat edits so that listeners can have that moment of triumph or despair with them.
Tying these colorful characters and narrative combat together is Vengroff’s story of ill-suited heroes on a quest to save a village’s mysteriously missing children. They dive straight into the fear with no holds barred, cinching the horror hooks with torn animal limbs, constant rain, and gaping maws of attacking creatures. Excellent editing means that tangents are kept away, and the ones remaining are hilarious bits of realizations and improv, like when Vengroff snaps out of his deep-voiced narration to be baffled on how to give measurements in meters for the European players or when the team attempts to coordinate who, exactly, can see in the dark.
One concern that definitely will pop up for potential listeners, including myself, is the design and handling of game mechanics for sanity and stress management. It’s not surprising to have a sanity trait or meter in a horror game; variations on this mechanic can be found in tabletop role-playing by games like Call of Cthulhu, Unknown Armies, and D&D has optional sanity trait rules. I generally always have concerns about gamifying mental illness to any degree, but ultimately this is something heavily dependent on the Game Master and the players, and their approach within the game as to what’s possible and what makes sense without stereotyping when stress, or magic, affects perception and ability to cope with the situation.
It’s important here to talk about how Dark Dice handles this in play and mechanics. The sanity trait present will affect the information given to players, rarely force their hand into action, and often actually result in inaction instead. Vengroff describes it as a D&D 5e “jumping at shadows” approach rather than the sudden onset of schizophrenia, kleptomania, or other mental illnesses found in other tabletop games. For instance, an ally might be mistaken for an enemy in dim lighting, or a hero may have a gap in their memory. As Dark Dice relies most heavily on its storytelling, I think this podcast’s development will demonstrate an understanding of what lines need to be drawn and how.
Dark Dice is a hybridization of actual play with audio fiction, one that I think is crucial in enabling the balance between having six players at the table and helping the listener follow everyone’s actions and put names to voices. NPCs are voiced brilliantly by other actors (Graham Rowat makes for an excellent creepy spirit) and the podcast as a whole is effectively soundscaped to highlight characters. It’s easy to settle into the world, music score, and committed, enthusiastic acting — even if the goal is to horrify you.