A half-orc barbarian, an elf warlock, and a halfling rogue walk into a castle for an audition with the local duke. Ten minutes later they’ve murdered an important, fully-statted NPC full of useful plot advice who was supposed to join the party (entirely so that they could take his hat), and been locked in the dungeon where they begin debating the merits of Cathy comics with a morose turnkey who is teetering on the edge of a mid-life crisis.
It’s Episode One of the Dragon Friends, and it only goes downhill from there – at least for Dave Harmon, reluctant Dungeon Master to this group of three comedians who have never picked up a D20 before yet seem to instinctively know the best way to use one to wreck his carefully laid plans. For the rest of us in the audience, it’s the start of a beautiful (dragon) friendship with one of the best live comedy shows in town.
On stage once a month at the Giant Dwarf theatre in the Sydney suburb of Redfern, comedians Alex Lee, Michael Hing and Simon Greiner are joined by a rotating cast of guest stars, with live music provided by Benny Davis of The Axis of Awesome (who also edits the podcast) and NPC voices provided by comedians Ben Jenkins and Edan Lacey. When we catch up with the team, they’ve just finished recording episodes nine and ten of season two, part of which involved a solid five minutes of jokes about rust monster cum which Jenkins calls “one of the stupider episodes of Dragon Friends that we’ve ever done”.
“And I think that’s a reasonably high bar for us,” he adds.
Depending on who you ask, Dragon Friends is either a clever situation engineered by Dave Harmon to force his friends to actually show up to his games, or an excuse to bully him live on stage for two hours. It’s not hard to see the merits in both of these theories, especially when Jenkins starts insisting that every NPC voice should sound exactly like Snagglepuss from the old 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and Harmon starts screaming at him and walks off stage.
“We were all doing shows at Giant Dwarf,” remembers Ben Jenkins. “I was doing Story Club here, a bunch of our other friends were doing improv stuff here, and Dave was like ‘I just want to do a show that speaks to my skills’.”
“So he and I got a beer, and then we got another beer, and some more beers, and ultimately at the end of it Dave came out with this idea that we would just get all of our comedy mates to do Dragon Friends.”
Harmon and Lacey are the only people at the table with any prior D&D experience (“I still don’t know what an attack bonus is,” confesses Alex Lee), but all the cast come from a background in improv comedy, and — perhaps unsurprisingly — it turns out that improv comedians take naturally to a game of imagination, storytelling, and character-building.
“I didn’t know that it would use so much imagination,” says Lee, who plays the half-orc barbarian Philge. “Like I thought it would involve moving pieces on a board, or something like that. I just love the idea that there’s this universe that everyone who plays it kind of exists in, all around the world, and they’re kind of making their own parts of this universe and everyone’s building it together. “
“The idea of world-building for me is great,” adds Simon Greiner. “And coming from an improv background where you can do whatever you want, to have something that isn’t fleeting and lost after a five-minute scene, but continues to build and get bigger and bigger… it’s really rewarding. And it’s also rewarding in terms of jokes and callbacks and that sort of stuff, which is great.”
Lee describes her character Philge (whose name was proudly generated through a random online creator) as a “big, dumb, beefy half-orc with a big heart who is really body-positive and thinks she’s really sexy”. On stage Philge serves as the big heart of the entire group, always staying true to herself and doing what feels right to her.
Sometimes that means adopting a tribe of goblins and wading into battle with one of them roped to her torso, while other times that means stealing Freezo the warlock’s book of spells while he’s unconscious and transforming herself into a “mighty wizard”, whose spells just happen to look very similar to hitting people with her greataxe. But whatever it is, it’s always true to Philge — although Lee says she’s looking for an opportunity to bring out Philge’s darker side (and secretly hoping to gain the ability to talk to animals).
“To me it’s so easy to do it because I, I don’t know, I just lucked out and got something that’s so fun to play,” says Lee. “I love it when her dark side comes out. I think that’s always fun. The more time she spends with undesirable characters like the Dragon Friends, well…”
The most undesirable of the Dragon Friends is undoubtedly Freezo the elven warlock, played by Michael Hing. If Philge is the heart of the group then Freezo is the unhinged ego, the player who has no compunctions about brutally murdering any and every NPC if it’ll result in the slightest gain for him. During the break between seasons one and two, Hing was the only player to go and actually read up on the rules, and came back incensed at what Harmon had neglected to tell him about his abilities, such as that he could gain temporary hit points by killing people and animals (he then immediately killed the group’s horse in cold blood).
Although the frankly psychopathic acts of Freezo have made the Dragon Friends more than a few enemies — some of them including guest-star NPCs at the table who weren’t expecting Hing to try and murder their character for a quick health top-up — not everybody believes the group’s resident monster is irredeemable.
“I think everybody’s got a Freezo in them,” says Ben Jenkins (Dave Harmon snorts in the background). “I think everybody’s got a friend that they’re like ‘why do we keep bringing this guy along?’ I think everybody’s got a Freezo. I think Freezo also — and I’m not trying to influence Hing’s character at all — but I think Freezo has depth to him. I think Freezo really has a heart of gold.”
If Philge is the heart and Freezo is the ego, then the calm and collected halfling rogue Bobby Pancakes is the brains of the operation. Bobby Pancakes has a reputation in Waterdeep that drives much of season one’s story, and player Simon Greiner often comes up with the plans and strategies that keep the team alive through Harmon’s encounters — although Bobby’s eventual (and hilariously deliberate) attempts to become infected with lycanthropy at the end of season one sometimes throw a spanner in the works. Greiner’s only regret is that he can’t seem to roll well on stage.
“The thing is, the first practice time we ever played, I was a halfling thief, just as a random thing, and I managed to pull off some real fuckin’ cool ninja shit just from dice rolls,” laments Greiner. “And I haven’t been able to do anything like that ever since. So it’s been a real bummer!”
Bobby Pancakes in werewolf form becomes the smooth-jazz-voiced Robert Pancakes, an almost distressingly suave creature of the night whose hunger for blood has disrupted the crew’s plans at the worst possible times — or the best possible times, if you ask Dave Harmon.
Harmon may have the on-stage persona of the long-suffering and world-weary Dungeon Master, but as far as he’s concerned the group dynamic is working really well.
“You’ve got Simon who’s a great story-teller and really gets into the story,” he explains. “You have Alex who is really good at committing to character and will make terrible decisions, not to screw with me but because she believes her character would.”
“Then you have Hing who makes terrible decisions to screw with me. And so that works really nicely together.”
Despite the overwhelming success of the Dragon Friends, the show was never intended to take the current format. The original idea was to have a constantly rotating cast, with Harmon taking a much more aggressive approach and players swapping out as they died – but instead Philge, Bobby and Freezo have endured through (almost) two seasons of non-stop mishaps. Even some NPCs and guest stars have returned, with Jordan Raskpoulos’ paladin Kithercy Gellentara starring in several episodes.
What started as a show where “the main joke was going to be people not knowing how to play D&D” has now become an ongoing saga, and Harmon is hoping to keep it going as long as he can – though he’s not limiting himself to Dungeons & Dragons.
“My goal at the moment is to end (this campaign) on Halloween,” he says. “I mean, you know how Ravenloft is, they’ve gotta collect a few items and then they’ve gotta have a showdown. After that my goal is basically for the same characters to fall through a portal and find themselves in another world which will be an opportunity to change the system.”
“I’d like to see them go on a Five Rings adventure… I also really wanted them to be Shadowrunners for a while and just keep them moving around. Some planar journeys and stuff like that.”
But before any of that happens, Harmon would be satisfied if any of the players would just actually use the magic items he spends so long preparing for them.
“The amount of times that I’ve sat there and generated, or even just come up with rooms full of magic items – y’know, ‘here’s a nice axe for Alex, and here’s something for Hing’ and instead they just… set fire to things, stab someone in the face and just run out the door.”
Dragon Friends is performed and recorded live on the first Wednesday of every month at the Giant Dwarf Theatre in Redfern, Sydney. The show is available in podcast form on iTunes and everywhere else good podcasts are found.
Fans of the series will also soon be able to purchase books of the Dragon Friends adventures, which are being chronicled by Ben Jenkins with illustrations by Simon Greiner! Stay tuned for more information on that.
Thanks to the Dragon Friends for taking the time to chat with us!
Photos by Chris Starnawski – Omnes Photography
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