Hello brave adventurers!
The Reckless Play Guild Interviews… Dungeon Masters’ spotlight moves on this week to a very hard working man, Travis Vengroff of Dark Dice. The self proclaimed “Fool” of Fool and Scholar productions, Travis has produced all their content, from Liberty to Tales from the Tower to the White Vault and so many, many more shows.
My gods this dude is prolific!
I met the guy through twitter about two years ago responding to a random tweet, and holy crapola, two years later I’m proud to call this guy a friend (even if certain government branches do not agree!).
Right, let’s get this off to a good start.
Volonda: Firstly who are you, from what podcast, and what role(s) do you do within your podcast?
Travis: Haha, thanks! I’m the creator/producer/DM/Editor/Sound Designer/Music Director of Dark Dice. I craft the story well ahead of time, I manage chaos while I run it, I edit the mistakes out after it’s transcribed, I add all of the sound effects after the Sarah makes the first edits, and I creatively splice together and create music for the soundtrack.
Volonda: So much work for just one person! And you do do an excellent job of managing chaos and dealing with… well… us.
Dark Dice is VERY different from many other AP podcasts. It feels very much like a story versus a game. Why did you take this more… cinematic route (and heavier on the workload!!!) rather than the traditional Actual Play route of leaving much of the table talk in?
Travis: In short, because I felt it would be more effective.
Dark Dice was originally planned as a 12-hour two-shot with the cast of the White Vault that might be a bonus episode or two for White Vault Patrons.
I planned to record the whole thing in under a weekend and for the cast to die well before reaching the end. I wanted it to be really rail-roaded so I could focus all my effort on an intense horror vibe for a single path (like a haunted house) that would allow for disturbing descriptions and cinematic horror movie moments.
Without naming names, I’d listened to a few of the top horror Actual Plays people recommend and found them to be not scary at all. The comedy of the table talk vastly overpowered any horror elements and the worst monsters or situations were largely a dressing to be the butt of the jokes, which pulled me out of the story. They are still great shows, but the only one that really made me feel anything in the vein of horror was the Call of Cthulhu Mystery Program, and only in the final 3 or 4 episodes of its first season, where everyone gets serious and makes the drive toward the final encounter. (BTW: Season 2 is fantastic) I also really hate combat in actual play shows, and wanted to make it as cinematic as possible through editing because there’s a lot of redundancy in information and a lot of waiting between that redundancy. Six seconds for story can take upwards of a half hour, which kills me every time.
Lastly, with some of the top horror actors on Dark Dice who have narrated some of the most bone-chilling stories in audio (aka the NoSleep Podcast) as the players, I definitely wanted the show to be a shared storytelling experience. In horror the characters really make the story, so just like improv, I used anything they gave me and ran with it.
Volonda: I can say, even during the recording the seriousness and horror managed to come across exceptionally well – even though I personally think all the participants are comedic geniuses.
I see also the phrases ‘originally planned’, ‘cast to die; and ‘bonus episode’ – I guess the original idea kind of grew monstrous legs and started run away with itself? What changed to make you go from ‘a bonus episode on The White Vault’ to ‘Let’s make this it’s own thing’?
Travis: There’s a joke about having being ambitious but not planning things through all that well… So the campaign wound up extending into a second 12 hour weekend. I’d underestimated how long it would take them to get through locations, the players were a bit more cunning than I’d hoped, and I was unsuccessful in killing them all off before the campaign concluded. There were still plot points that I wanted to delve deeper into, and while the core haunted house idea concluded, I was still very much interested in telling the story of the surviving characters.
If you have over 6 hours of content then that should probably be on its own feed, especially given that it’s not a straight audio drama and has its own distinct story, apart from The White Vault.
Volonda: So Travis, everyone wants to know (ie….. Well…. Me, I want to know) What’s your rpg origin story?
Travis: I was on a school bus in the 1st or 2nd grade, and I made a friend who asked if I wanted to play a game. So we played a fantasy RPG without dice (there was some way to randomize things but I can’t remember what we did) that was a LOT of fun. We played a bunch of games over the years and it was always a storytelling experience first with minimal rules. All of my friends got roped into it.
Around that time I had inherited my older brothers’ Monster Manual II and box of old pewter models, (which grew to include legos) to help tell the stories. Around 5th grade D&D released its 3rd edition, which I was allowed to purchase (despite prevalent rumors in my town that D&D encouraged demon worship), and that’s really where I started. Despite having access to the core 5e book, my friends’ parents thought it was Satanic and they weren’t allowed to play. So instead we continued the storytelling game we dubbed ‘The Great Imaginary Game’.
At around highschool we started playing actual D&D 3.5 (and eventually Pathfinder) because I’d made new friends whose parents didn’t care, all while maintaining the same world and continuity that juxtaposed grotesque undead abominations with talking magical cow genies. I ran the same world from second grade through college (and beyond), with many of the same players throughout, and maybe 20 extra players over the years outside of my core group of ~8. I was almost exclusively the DM/storyteller in my group of friends (and their extended group of friends), and we were without a doubt the only people playing D&D in our school as it was vastly unpopular.
I tried to join a D&D club in college. I waited an hour at each event they posted, and each time no one showed up. So I made my own friends from another club and pulled them into my ever-expanding game, still running 3.5 and pathfinder.
I’ve always been a monster manual collector (I have every monster manual TSR/Wizards has ever produced), and somewhere in College I also invented Liberty, which is my Sci-fi setting. It’s developed a lot since we started in D20 modern (a horrible system I wouldn’t wish on anyone), and I eventually wrote my own 5e-version of Liberty called AFTER. Liberty also expanded into a bunch of podcasts and a comic book series I’ve been working on for over 10 years.
I pretty much ignored 4e because it was a bit too difficult to convert my group, but we completely embraced 5e because of its perfect simplicity. The rules are literally easier than board games i’ve played (looking at you, Games Workshop)! I read the entire player’s handbook in a weekend cover to cover and haven’t looked at 3.5 or Pathfinder since. I also quit wargaming (40k/fantasy) and a few other systems I’d toyed with (GURPS/VTM/the warhammer and 40k ones) in the same week.
My wife generally dislikes my D&D world, and since we always play D&D together, we’ve played a lot of the book campaigns, which I really enjoy and wish I’d discovered sooner. We’re finishing up Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and I’m running Out of the Abyss and Storm King’s Thunder for our local friends. I also host a Yawning Portal adventure every year with my wife, brother, and father-in-law every Christmas, where their characters are looking to raise money for the pub they want to retire to. It’s been a blast!… Except Tomb of Horrors…
Apparently I also wrote about every character I’ve ever played (except my 5e character in Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and Old Man Apeloko – who I use for 5e oneshots with Reckless Play Guild folks) and how they died:
Volonda: Wowzers! I love those kind of games where the world keeps on living. Wish I had one of those going. Now, important question: is it the same pub they’re trying to buy each year, or a vast empire of pubs?
Travis: Haha! At this point I think they’re just expanding on it. If you’ve ever heard Wooden Overcoats, it’s sort of like Chapmann’s funeral home. Sure it started off as a funeral home but now it has a monorail, balloon rides, a pub, swimming pool, and a dance club. I imagine it as something like that.
Volonda: Omg nice. I’d buy a drink there!
Knowing that you’re inviting people to the table to listen (via the podcast), how has this affected the game itself, compared to say your home games? Does it mostly come down to editing, or has it actually affected the way you’ve written it?
Travis: For one, I have to pay a lot more attention to my own continuity. I can’t really lie to players about things that we all sort of forgot, or retcon things because it’s all recorded and listeners will call me out on it. Thankfully I can edit mistakes out in post as I realize I’ve made them (aka all of Season 2 for Dark Dice), but it’s still a lot of work.
Also I really need to make sure that that the players know what’s happening before each session and that they remember the previous game that took place a month or two ago so they can just jump into the game ‘in character’ from the moment we hit record. Liberty: Vigilance had some moments at the start of each episode where the players sort of forgot who they were for about 10 minutes, and it’s kind of like warming up to get into character.
Another weird thing is that in the podcast I’m not writing a story to make the players feel empowered, I’m writing a compelling story that supersedes the characters. If they struggle, if they suffer – they grow. If they die, their death will shape the story. It’s a completely different dynamic in my home games, where my goal is to make the players feel like badasses. My home games have players summing ghost pirate ships, throwing down tornadoes, rescuing cave-bears from Drow, and drunkenly dueling liches on their nights off. My podcast is largely a struggle to find one’s identity while trying to squeak by, not die, and maybe just perhaps save an uncaring world. Identity and self-discover are bigger themes than I really will say out loud on the show, and we use the Sanity mechanic to help find the edges of the characters’ beliefs.
Volonda: So bearing in mind that comment about identity and self discovery for the characters, what was that moment that made you go: Holy Hannah, these folks… damn I’m proud of my players? (Home game or podcasts).
Travis: Beyond #spoilers, the crossover game with The Lucky Die really made me realize that they had just fully overcome their first obstacle in a way that really felt like a complete victory. One of the other team (I think Zaltanna) said something like “We just killed a god!” And my crew just sighed, and started walking back on their path to reunite someone with their family. The temporary (but HUGE) victory was outweighed by the burning need for this character to just see their home one more time, and for the others to help make this happen. This little part of a character backstory has defined who they are, and is worth more than XP or treasure.
Volonda: That’s really sweet! I’m glad that they had such a good character moment from that crossover. I think they all did actually. That’s a solid Proud DM moment Travis, thanks for sharing.
And onto the next little section: You jumped into comic books, further expanding the amazing Liberty universe. Tell us more about that shock of awesome! From idea to page. What did that feel like to see if finally all come together?
Travis: I have a complicated relationship with comics in that I love making them, I’m extremely passionate about reading a select group of them, and they are the most deceptively difficult medium I’ve worked in.
I greatly admire almost everyone who works in the medium, and I’ve made quite a few friends at the fifty or so conventions I’ve sold books at, but it’s hard work and it’s expensive.
The reason I’m really in it, and the reason I keep returning to it is because it’s so darn fun and amazing! Seeing your ideas come to life in a visual medium is probably one of the coolest things in the world, especially when it’s brought to life by a talented artist who takes your ideas and makes them better. I started making comics to bring one of my Liberty RPG campaigns to life in “the easiest way possible” thinking it would be easier and cheaper than making a film. Despite my early failures there (which I wrote a few articles about) I stuck with it and became a better producer in general. I work with a large team, many moving parts that never really talk to anyone except me, and it really prepared me for podcast production. Everyone on my team brings a new perspective to the table and we all have worked together to create something we’re all genuinely proud of. We’re excited to be wrapping up close to 450 brand new pages of comics that we hope to release toward the end of the year.
Volonda: I think that’s the same in almost all creative endeavours… deceptively difficult. And the learning experience of being a producer clearly shines through in all the Fool and Scholar productions.
(I refuse to apologise for the flurry of questions) You know I gotta ask, The White Vault. How did that come about? How are you and Kaitlin dealing with the huge popularity of the show? And a Live show! Holy crap. What’s the future plans for it? Will The Documentarian ever get a name?!
Travis: That was totally Kaitlin’s idea. We were on our first trip to Iceland, listening to the NoSleep Podcast, driving through some pretty harsh weather, stopping at remote museums with some awesomely creepy and creative displays and she got the idea. When we got home she talked me through the outline, and over a series of dog walks we changed things and molded them to be a fully fleshed out story. Kaitlin worked really hard on the writing and advertising, while I hit production with my best efforts, going through extreme lengths to get genuine polar bear audio, genuine sounds for objects and snow walking, and finding the right cast to bring our story to life.
The show got really popular really quickly, eclipsing everything we’d ever worked on in the first month. We don’t do advertising on the show so it took a year before the increased popularity/listenership had any true affect on our lives (beyond our egos) in that the Patreon grew to the point where Kaitlin can podcast full time. I don’t think we ever really stop to think about how big of a shift that was in our lives because we’re always busy working on the show (and Dark Dice, Liberty, Imperial, Vast Horizon, etc) but it’s changed Kaitlin’s identity. Before The White Vault, she was an artist who wrote. Now she’s a writer and podcaster. For me, the popularity of the show was the nail in the coffin of my other creative endeavors. I had a bunch of hobbies that I pretty much abandoned as I feel that time spent podcasting or on my day job is 100x more valuable than time spent elsewhere.
The future plans for the White Vault are to finish the main story. We have at least one more season ahead, probably more, and we’re excited to see how the story (and our audience) adapt over time. The story is ending at some point but somehow our fans seem to enjoy the other stories we create as well, so thankfully the White Vault won’t be the end of our creative endeavors.
-While I’d like to think that the Documentarian will get a name, I have no idea, since it’s a Kaitlin thing.
Volonda: It’s great to see you both doing so well with it! Kaitlin is a great writer and I’m happy to see that she can do the thing she is clearly talented as full time! You two put so much work into making all your shows awesome, it really, really tells.
So another thing that our brave adventurers might not know about you is this:
I have a simple link.
I need comments.
I need information.
This is rad as all hell.
I need to know how, what, who, how, what?
Travis: So, unbeknownst to many, I play accordion in a fictitious rock band called Careless Juja (and before that I was the frontman/founder of a band called Random Encounter). We generally play video game cover songs, but the other guys and gals involved are nice enough to also bring my original songs to life.
I started playing accordion when I was 16, after I had a dream that I could play accordion. When I woke up on my birthday, I asked my parents for lessons, having no previous knowledge or experience with the instrument or any musical instrument. After six months of lessons (I took about 3 years of lessons), I busked around at various events, which paid for my food and merch purchases. I started Random Encounter a few years after that, and did a lot of live shows, albums, original music, and got to collaborate with some amazingly talented individuals. My band toured for a month around the US (and broke even), we toured with the Video Games Live orchestra through Europe and the UK (which I also wrote a blog journal about), we wrote songs with the composers from Castlevania, Earthworm Jim, and System Shock, we played with some big name bands, and we made some real friends for life. Somewhere in the mix of that I made a friend through Youtube who played guitar who’s internet name was The Great Juja. We started collaborating together around the time when the band split up for the second time (we went through a few incarnations – I was the only consistent member over its 10 years), and formed our own project called Careless Juja (Careless being my stage name), after the Random Encounter guys said that they didn’t want to be associated with it.
Juja and I released an album and met for the first time in the same month, having no idea what the other looked like, since we’d only talked on the internet. Luckily we’re about the same age and get along really well as internet friends typically do. We toured together with/as Random Encounter on the US tour, and released a bunch of music since then. At one point our friend Brandon Strader joined our band as our third regular member, and we’ve had an open chatroom on facebook for the last 6 or 7 years where we conspire to create music from time to time, or just talk about life.
One of our albums – LEGEND OF THE BOAR KNIGHT – was my first audio drama, and it was sort of an accident idea that made me realize how easy podcasting could be. Every other track on our CD was music, and the off-tracks were the story of the Boar Knight, Nathanial, as he journeyed through Porkalore to save the world from evil fast food chains. I wrote the story with Peter Pepper, a friend and fellow musician, and Juja and myself did the bulk of the voices. It got a write up on Geekdad and is still something we look back at and smile on.
Regarding the specific link you sent me: For Naughty Children, a holiday EP of original songs I co-wrote to scare naughty children. The songs are about various legends from Krampus taking back Christmas to Baba Yaga teaming up with Mama Oodie to cook all of the bad children into a nice stew. I assembled a 12 piece brass band just for that one song ‘Swamp Witch Swing’ which included elements of Foxy Shazaam (the band) and Jackson Parodi on tuba. It was a blast and we even got to perform it live once at the end of our fictional live tour.
Volonda: I loved Legend of the Boar Knight. I just loved it! Your journey through recording and music, just whoa on those names! It’s bonkers to think a fictional band gets to perform live, a lot of real bands don’t often even get that far!
12 piece brass band… nice.
And to wrap up my little section, the last two traditional questions:
The Adventure Zone? You a fan?
Travis: I’ve never actually listened, but just because I don’t really have the time to listen to a lot of shows.
Incidentally I was on tour with Travis’s old roommate once, Brentalfloss. He was also the shopkeeper in legend of the Boar Knight.
Volonda: And finally… Netflix/Podcast recommendations?
Travis: As above, so below, the ritual.
Podcasts: The Lucky Die, End of Time and Other Bothers, Dumbgeons and Dragons, the Call of Cthulhu Mystery Program, Dice Boyz, D20 Dames.
Scripted AD: Wooden Overcoats, Alba Salix, The Amelia Project, NoSleep.
Volonda: Ok Travis, the last bit is “How many Reckless Guild questions can you answer before we publish on Friday?”
Sean Howard: What’s it like trying to run season 2 of a horror podcast that you strangely populated with comedy players?
Travis: It’s a lot of fun actually, but I am pretty sure one of the players is close to death next session I’ll get you next time, my pretty! -and the ghost of your sister, too!
Kayle Bilou: What is your favorite plot twist/surprise that you’ve pulled on your players?
Travis: The big thing at the end of the Vigilance is easily my favorite – When Archon Reeve reveals that she’s been watching their progress and talks with the team.
Kat Sanzo: How hard was it to build relationships and network with people in the industry?
Travis: A lot of it was just asking people and them saying either yes or no. If they said no, it’s done. If they say yes, then just treating folks with respect, honoring their time, and going out of your way to do good by them.
Volonda: That’s genuinely good advice, not just in the various creative industries. Respect, honor and do good.
Kayle Bilou: Having read the vigilance module: WHAT IS UP WITH PENNY?
Travis: More importantly, as GM, what would YOU like to be up with Penny? 😀
Volonda: That is the best non spoiler answer!
Combining these two questions since they cover the same subject matter and might answer each other. A bit of synergy in the questions! Love it.
Kat Sanzo: If you had to name a couple of your biggest influencers to what you create, who would they be?
Alexis Gee: What media (if any) have provided an unexpected inspiration for…___?
Travis: I am influenced largely by what I see, what I listen to, and video games I play.
In D&D I’m largely influenced by games I love like Warcraft II, Resident Evils 1-3, Demon’s Souls (my favorite in the series), Baulder’s Gate II, The Witcher series, and Final Fantasy I and VI. Also the NoSleep Podcast. I beat Demon’s Souls over the course of a week, and I was deathly ill for the duration of that week. It was a rather intense experience, literally passing out out mid-game, dreaming I was in Boletaria, waking up to puke my guts out, and play more of the game because that was all I could really do. Much of the horror from my D&D games come from the messed up dreams and not-dreams from that week.
As an audio editor, I’m largely inspired by great films with strong sound design, and great audio dramas like We’re Alive, LifeAfter, and The Phenomenon. I was initially introduced to foley and the construction of sounds by my late friend Vinny Cassaro. I fondly remember talking with him over meals about the fun he had crafting the autopsy scene in the film Independence Day. His words really stuck with me, and gently guided me down that path.
Kat Sanzo: Is there anything you would have done differently from what you have?
Travis: There’s a saying that goes like this: You are inherently better at some things than others. If you focus all your effort on learning to draw, perhaps you’ll be an okay artist, but if you focus no time at all in practicing an instrument you’ll be amazing. Therefore, the time you spend on different skills does not offer the same output.
I’d have probably not started a band or comic book if I knew my strengths, and instead would have focused on podcasting with that time. This space is where I’m most effective. This and my day job are my calling.
Kayle Bilou: And finally a somewhat vain question but is my group the first one to play a liberty game and send it to you or have there been others?
Travis: I’ve had about three story submissions so far. One by text recap, two by audio recording. I’ve enjoyed all of them, but I’d have to say that the Lockdown was by far the silliest! That team is fearless and willing to accept when their arm has been ripped off and replaced with a piece of possibly sentient technology!
Volonda: And on that “riveting” note (please see the pun), you’re free now Travis! I learnt a few new things about you so that’s awesome, and hopefully our Adventurers of The Reckless Play Guild have too! Can’t wait to see the next story from Fool and Scholar, and hopefully hear more epic music of yours.
And of course… go listen to Dark Dice!!!
If you’re ready to start your adventurers with the creepy tale of “Dark Dice”, then click here.
And if you wanna get involved with the Reckless Play Guild and ask questions of the next interviewee, then, follow this link to the Facebook group!