Ego Check: Spencer Estabrooks, Creator of One Hit Die

I did not realize what was missing in my life until I received a press release for One Hit Die, a new webseries that combines “the journey and adventure of a Dungeons & Dragons game with the intimate aside interviews of The Office.” I quickly followed the link, watched the first four episodes of the series, and fell in love with the concept. Considering how much of my blog is dedicated to navel gazing the various levels of communication involved in roleplaying games, One Hit Die is a critical hit on my sensibilities.

One Hit Die LogoI reached out to the creator of One Hit Die, Spencer Estabrooks. He has directed numerous short films in the past and was able to fund One Hit Die by earning a grant through the Alberta Foundation of the Arts. He is in the process of raising funds to advance the show, and was kind enough to share some of his time to discuss the genesis of the series – and some of the wonderful moments in the first four episodes currently available online. Before reading the interview, I suggest you first watch the first four episodes, which will be time well spent!

When previously asked about your inspiration for the series, you responded, “It came out of a desire to relive my early Dungeons & Dragons gaming experiences . . . we always had a lot of inter-party treachery, and I thought it was fun, and wanted to do a show based on that.” How would you describe the world of One Hit Die, and how does it relate to your early gaming experiences?

I grew up in a small town, and we played D&D and other games with very eclectic people. Everyone played with different ambitions, but it started to get fun when characters passed secret messages to the DM. It went like this:

  • Player A passes message to the DM
  • Player B asks, “What was that?”
  • Player A responds, “Your character wouldn’t know.”
  • Player B grumbles

Which is why I like focusing on the characters in One Hit Die, not just on their class and race. I started with the four standard classes, because what’s interesting is how people play them, and how that effects interactions with others.

So to sum it up, One Hit Die is not about games as much as it is about how people play them.

The series itself seems like those messages passed to the DM – the characters break the fourth wall and communicate directly to the audience without the other members of the party knowing. What inspired you to create a show in that format?

The Office and D&D both have the same inside joke. They rely on the actors or player characters playing in a documentary or fantasy world that they believe is true. Critics may say that my genre mix is too disjointed, but shows like Community and The Office have shown that the audience is sophisticated enough to enjoy and appreciate it.

You mentioned earlier that One Hit Die is not about games but how people play them. What are some of the dynamics that have most interested you about how people play games?

Conflict and betrayal are the most fun. The dark side of humanity, which shows like Game of Thrones dwells in. It creates great drama, and great drama is fertile ground for comedy.

Perhaps you can elaborate on how the show evolved from an idea in your mind to something that was captured on film and placed online. When did you first have the moment of inspiration, and what hurdles have you cleared to make the series a reality?

In 2008 I directed a zombie western and during the auditions an actor submitted their own D&D webseries that they were doing. It was pretty much the worst thing I had ever seen from a production quality standard, but it had a charming heart. I liked the rough style and thought with a bit better production value – it could be a pretty cool concept. A couple years later I got the idea of shooting it more like a documentary. Last September I got the idea to write it.  I completed the grant application for funds in February, and shot the footage in July.

In seems like you were inspired by multiple sources leading up to the creation of the show. What has it been like for you to take an idea in your head to a finished project the world can see in less than one year? I imagine your work in traditional film is quite different.

Spencer Estabrooks is watching.

Spencer Estabrooks is watching.

Compared to my more traditional short films the preparation time and shooting is very similar. The difference is the exhibition. My last short film was shot on December 1st, 2012 and I finished posting in January 2013. The film has been out for eight months and has had some great success with in the festival run, but it’s still in its festival run.

In just its first week of release, Episode 1 of One Hit Die cleared 12,000 views. There is instant feedback from the audience. There’s more mystic and anticipation around a film in a film festival. The immediacy of a webseries going online is something tangible too.

How does it feel to get immediate feedback from the audience for One Hit Die

It’s great to get immediate feedback for One Hit Die, especially when they just quote something I wrote like it’s the funniest thing every. Although there is a dark side.

Trolls.

Not the ones that would live in the world of One Hit Die, but real Internet trolls. We fell victim to a bad grammar troll that blamed our mayor, who had nothing to do with this, for it being a bad show. The nice thing is that before we could do anything, our fans came to our defense.

If only feedback was 100% positive! Although it would make the world a dull place. What seems to be the one moment from the show thus far that has resonated the most with the audience?

It’s hard to say. I can only judge that when I watch a film with an audience physically. When groups of people watch a film, there is a “feeling” collectively that you can tell the moment that resonates with everyone. I’ve only seen it in public once and I couldn’t tell because I was so nervous. That’s the upside of watching a film in a theater and the downside of launching a show on the web.

For those who have not yet watched the first four episodes, stop reading and go watch them now. Really – we will wait.

Back? Good!

I love the concept of combining the format of shows like The Office with the fantasy setting. It is such a great way to explore topics like metagaming. For example, one of my favorite moments is when Torvold, the rogue, calculates the math for an upcoming battle with some goblins and comes to the conclusion that the group is in serious trouble. What inspired that bit? And perhaps more generally, what does “metagaming” mean to you and how does it affect a game?

The min-maxers? It’s natural.

Maximize your strength and minimize your weakness regardless of your character’s style. Is is me or is it always the Thief or Fighters who do it? I think it’s fine. There are always people that look at the rules that govern the world of a RPG and will find ways to exploit them. In the world of One Hit Die, it’s Torvold the thief, in our world it’s Bernie Madoff. A good GM should deal with them appropriately.

It’s delicious that you compared min-maxers to an infamous modern-day criminal! I do not believe optimizers are limited to any one class of character, but it seems those who are focused on combat mechanics care the most about statistics. Since this is a blog offering advice for GMs, how exactly would you suggest a GM deal “appropriately” with min-maxers?

There’s a certain amount of karma that’s dealt out. In the dice or in the description.

I’m going to let that answer stay open to interpretation. Back to the show, the pinnacle for me is Azurus, the perpetually-hungover wizard. Sheer genius. Please share how that character came together?

Throughout the writing, Azurus was the wildcard. His character went through dramatic changes on every rewrite. After casting Phil Burke we chatted every morning on the way to set, and it came out of that. It was also influenced by the time I booked an interview and got too drunk the night before and thought I could handle the interview. By the time I got to the interview, I realized I couldn’t. Sigh.

Phil also did some amazing improv interviews, but forgetting the question midway through the answer, that’s personal experience. For your amusement, it’s the last clip they used in this video – and when it played, got the biggest laugh.

Torvold, Azurus, Gwen, Sasha. This is the true story… of four strangers… picked to go on a quest…work together and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when characters stop being polite… and start getting real…One Hit Die.

I gave everyone a great deal of creative freedom. I think it’s important in comedy to allow actors to explore their characters, try different things. I treated the script like a backbone structure that we would all work off. That let people explore. Phil did a lot of exploring, but if things strayed too far away from my intent or story, I could always bring them back to the script. It also gave me a chance to have fun, banter with jokes and try new ideas. “Son of a Harpy Whore” is a perfect example of a collaboration with a couple actors and myself challenging each other with jokes.

I imagine the cast trying to out-do each other with jokes. Good times! How much roleplaying-game experience did the actors bring to the table? (pardon the pun)

Phil Burke surprisingly had the most. Larissa Thompson hosted an unsuccessful D&D game. Julie Orton and Andrew Long had only working knowledge, but Andrew did some excellent research for the role. I didn’t mind that much. I made this series for gamers, but I also wanted non-gamers to be able to relate to the characters.

There are so many moments from the show that resonated with me as a gamer – Sasha and Torvold arguing over XP, Torvold mentioning his backstab damage from a sling attack (a mechanic I loathed in 4th edition D&D!), the party bantering about the merits of talking to NPCs instead of killing everything, Torvold begging Azurus to check the “crappy Goblin dagger” to see if it’s magical, etc. etc.

What has the reception been from non-gamers who might be totally lost in those references?

Almost every non-gamer I talk to like it. They don’t get the subtle references, but they see the over arcing problems as character conflicts. Gwen vs Sasha, are not arguing over, merit’s of talking to NPC’s they’re arguing different techniques of problem solving. Direct vs Non-direct. Active vs Passive. Even if you didn’t know that you could get a backstab bonus with a sling, to an uninitiated ear it’s sounds pretty funny. The best part about RPG games is there played by people. People, no matter how unique they think they are, all have similarities. What I’m doing with One Hit Die is playing on these similarities as a way to engage peoples empathy for the characters whether they’re gamers or not.

I won’t dumb down my gaming references for the audience, I want my audience to rise to meet them and if they’re engaging with the characters, they will. In the first 4 episodes they do.

The first four episodes end with the party failing their quest. But they rally for another day when Gwen says, “Then it’s settled. we’ll farm the rat-infested forest until we all level up and then we’ll try again.” I cannot wait to see what’s in store next for the party.

What are the plans for One Hit Die beyond the four episodes currently online?

I’ve got four mini-episodes called One Hit Die: Rat Die Nasty. Each one is about 30 seconds and is more of a skit than an episode. The episodes show the troubles the party encounters when hunting for rats to level up. I’ll be releasing them shortly.

After that I’ve written seven more episodes and I’ve got an IndieGoGo to raise money for. I have now confirmed publicly the presence of owlbears.

I have another season after that planned. There’s so much more I want to do with this series, it’s really hard for me not to talk about the future.

It’ll be great to see new One Hit Die footage. The future episodes that are planned – how can people who appreciate the series help to make those happen?

Either donating to the cause, or helping spread the word. There’s so many webseries out right now, so any help from people to increase awareness of the show would be wonderful.

How likely is it that the current roster of actors/characters will return for future episodes?

As long as they’re interested they’ll be back. This was a basically a pilot. The more we do the better we get. These characters have big arcs and may come and go throughout the series. I’ll be adding a fifth party member as well.

What are your hopes for the future of the series?

My hopes are grand in scale. It’s difficult right now to see the future because we’re so small. There are some plans for off screen stuff as well. I just really want to shoot more footage next month to keep this rolling.

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About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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4 Responses to Ego Check: Spencer Estabrooks, Creator of One Hit Die

  1. froth says:

    Sounds like an awesome idea, I will watch it tonight.

  2. Eric says:

    Very Cool!

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