Dungeons and Dragons is more than just a “game”. Like punk rock, it’s a way of life. It fuels and fires your imagination, encourages individuality and communal play and values intellect, humour, creative spirit and a desire to change your world through participation. Heck, it might just be more punk rock than punk rock. Being a four decade devotee of TSR’s first born it always gives me a warm glow when I meet fellow punks who love D&D as much, and sometimes more, than I do so when I found out that Sam Russo and Tobias Jeg (owner and operator of Red Scare Industries) were fully paid up members of dungeon crawling faithful, I figured I’d ask them if they wanted to talk about all things Dungeons & Dragons. They heartily, and readily, agreed. And this is what they had to say…
Interview by Tim Cundle
MM: Every story has a beginning, so let’s start there… Would you folks like to introduce, and tell us a little about, yourselves? And what do you, and others, think is the strangest facet of your personality?
Sam Russo: Hello, I’m Sam! I write songs, play guitar and sing and I just put out a new record called Back To The Party on Red Scare Industries. I also play D&D which I’m guessing is the main reason I’m here. Strangest facet of my personality – that’s a toughie. I’m quite obsessive. Some people think it’s strange that I won’t eat off a square plate. I have a collection of rusty spanners, most people would find that an irreconcilably bizarre thing to hoard I suppose. My favourite food is a good salad, again, points on the oddball board. I just asked a couple of people and the consensus seems to be that there isn’t much about me that isn’t strange. People HATE that I took up fingerboarding last week. 35 years old and one of my isolation go-to’s is rolling a little plastic skateboard around my house with my fingers. That’s more annoying than strange though I think. I love how incensed people get when adults have fun in ways they feel like they’re not allowed to. That’s probably a huge part of why I love D&D actually. That moment when a colleague or someone asks what you got up to last night and you tell them you got together with 5 other grown up human beings, put on a silly voice and pretended you were a gnarled little goblin wizard creeping around a crypt for six hours. Keeps your heart young!
Tobias Jeg: My name is Toby and I’ve been releasing Sam’s music for years through our independent record label, Red Scare. Well met! I grew up in the woods in Washington State USA, which probably explains my love for fantasy gaming. That and older brothers. Where would we be without older brothers?!? Strangest facet of my personality? Hmmm. Maybe that I’m into nerd culture (fantasy gaming and punk rock) but also am really into sports and play lotsa soccer. Sam is a “footballer” too, mind you. Don’t let him try and charm with his gamer side. He’s a total jock as well.
MM: Diving straight into the Dungeon – When did you first discover D&D? What initially drew you to it and made you want to battle dragons, explore cursed catacombs and search for thrice damned treasure?
SR: I was 14 or so and me and my friend Billy were ransacking a car-boot sale when we found the old 1991 D&D boardgame. The one that claimed to be ‘easy to master’. Buuuullshit. It was about as easy to master to me at that time as dancing. Hard. That was kind of the problem for me too; I always loved the idea of playing D&D but all I heard about it at school was that it was impossibly complicated and the only people I knew who played were really clever nerdy types who took pride in how opaque the rules were and it put me off. I was always the dumber one in my friendship with Billy so I basically just bullied him into playing with me and hoped I’d just learn by being around a clever guy.
Thinking back, I’m pretty sure he paid for it because I was broke after spending all my money on rusty wrenches and a broken skateboard. Anyway, I assumed there would be loads of maths and insane rules to remember so I just pushed Billy behind the screen and hoped he’d do the leg work. The main thing that attracted me to begin with was the dungeon part. I didn’t give two turnips about dragons but I loved anything dungeon based. If it involved escaping from a dingy, rat infested dungeon full of secret passageways and oozes I was down. I also loved being able to lock ourselves away and just play games for ages so we spent easily a whole summer of nights trying to get the hang of the boardgame and that’s how I got hooked. I’ve been trying to defeat Zanzer Tem ever since!
TJ: I mean, have you SEEN the Dungeon Master’s Guide?! I was probably 7 or 8 when I first got a glimpse of those old 1E tomes and it was fascinating. And that’s before you even open the books! I was probably thinking that I could get in trouble for even knowing about this stuff. My brother wisely buffered me from the game because I would probably fuck up the crude Ral Partha lead miniatures and lose the dice. To Sam’s point, it was indeed intimidating. So at age 10 I laughably made my own simpler D6 version of D&D called “Adventure!”. I played a lot of Car Wars at that time as well. It wasn’t until about age 12 I got to play AD&D with the big boys. If I had to guess how the sequence of events: I went to Wagner’s Hobby House (R.I.P.) and bought a copy of the module Under Illefarn when it came out in 1987 and my brother ran it against my friends and I.
MM: It’s a lifetime commitment… Do the things that first pulled you into Gary Gygax’s Universe and made you fall in love with D&D still hold true or have they changed over time? And if they have, how have they changed?
TJ: I’ll be honest with ya, all the 3rd, 4th and 5th editions that have come in rapid succession seem like a money grab. I hear the new one is decent and I even own a 5E Players Handbook. And ya know, I don’t necessarily blame them for cranking out frequent updates. They got bought by Hasbro and they want a return on their investment. We can compare this to music in some ways! Artists and record labels hypothetically need to keep creating content too, but a musician is allowed—and even encouraged—to take their audience on a journey and experiment. I don’t personally feel the folks who preside over the D&D franchise should do that, and to (finally!) answer your question: I think Gary Gygax (et al) gave us everything we will ever need. Hasbro doesn’t need to keep futzing with a perfect game. And if you still need a little help with your fantasy gaming, Ed Greenwood built the best ever setting (Forgotten Realms) back in the 1980’s. No need to tinker with that either!
SR: I’m still a die-hard dungeon fucker. There’s loads more that I enjoy than tunnels and traps but I’ve never been big into constructing detailed pantheons and tomes of lore and expansive world building. I do make my own homebrew content but I tailor it to my players and they’re like me – they don’t want a 25 minute preamble about which god ate which other gods grapes and incurred the wrath of his minions for aeons of woe and blah, blah, blah. They want to know why they’re there and what they have to do to get into some shit. The story unfolds more naturally for me as a DM if I weave in the detail and build slowly, sparely and mostly only when asked! I’m a huge fan of monsters and as time has gone on and the game has expanded, I feel totally spoilt for choice in that department. It’s not just new monster classes either, I only recently discovered flail snails and I can’t stop bringing the little bastards in, they’re just insane! The storytelling element has never gotten old for me either and that’s really the payoff for me as a DM. If anything’s changed for me it’s just smoother game play. More practice just makes it more fun.
MM: Likewise, what do you think it is about D&D that inspires such rabid devotion and fanaticism in its fanbase? What do you attribute its longevity and multi-generational appeal to?
SR: I think escapism is addictive and when you couple it with serialised storytelling and the ritual of getting together with your friends and having some laughs you get something that people end up craving. D&D is an enormous body of amazing creative work and it really does bring people together and brings out people’s creativity, sense of fun and imagination, their sense of shared narrative and it gives people something to look forward to. It’s also cleverly marketed nowadays which has probably built and solidified a whole new wave of fans. D&D has mainstream cultural approval now so I think there’s a more visible type of pride in some players these days than maybe 20 years ago. That’s probably polarising because when D&D was just another greasy, geeky subculture there was an underdog, outsider mentality to it that made it more like a secret society than the kind of thing you’d put in your tinder bio to show you had a ‘cool nerdy side’.
Now it’s referenced in Hollywood movies and TV and there’s clothing and you can buy dice and books everywhere I think that’s improved the reputation and perception of the game and hopefully taken away the stigma that it’s a sad and pathetic hobby for devil worshipping human pimples furiously masturbating over their DM’s guide and translucent wheezing misfits guzzling mountain dew from plastic chalices. I still love the counter-culture, underground spirit of the game and I spend a lot of time making my game less slick and modern, but I absolutely love how user friendly the 5E rules have made low level and beginner gameplay because it’s so much more accessible and inclusive. To my way of thinking that can only improve things. Anyway, what the fuck was the question? Oh yeah, it has lots of fans because it’s fun. Storytelling is timeless and rolling dice to see who fucks who has been around since 5000 years before the lamest fictional RPG rulebook ever – the Bible!
TJ: Agreed with Sam’s point on storytelling. That shit is timeless, regardless of format. RPGs provide an interactive stage, and now you’re seeing a generation of actors and actresses who first learned their trade from playing D&D. Pair that up with nostalgia and you’ve got an enduring product. As evidenced by stuff like Stranger Things. Man, I was stoked to see that show involve old school gaming, but it was vexing to watch how they did such a poor job with it in the TV show. Cultural appropriation, if you ask me!
MM: You never forget your first time… What do you remember most about your first game of D&D?
SR: Three hours of set up, preamble, scene setting and rule explaining followed by: ‘You are given the bag to deliver to the mine, what do you do?’
‘I look inside’
‘You are immediately turned to stone. You die.’
And then starting all over again. That board game was so unforgiving. We STILL joke about that Basilisk bag to this day, it’s in almost every game I run.
TJ: Ha,ha, I like Sam’s story more than mine. I’m not sure if I can remember…? I recall I had a sleepover at a friend’s house and his older siblings begrudgingly let us play. These stoners were power gamers with level 30 characters that fought gods and possessed half the relics in the DMG. We rolled up characters, and as soon as we joined they made it a point to cut my head off. So that lasted about 5 minutes. But hey, lesson learned: don’t play with loser dickheads.
MM: Everyone has an incarnation, or system, of D&D that they favour. Me, I’m a 1E guy and have an almost religious obsession with original AD&D. So, which incarnations are your personal favourites? Why?
TJ: I have a campaign I started in like 1993 and I’d say it’s 1.5 meets 2.5, if that makes sense? Seeing how I’ve been running it for over two decades, I gotta pick that. I totally see the appeal of the original though. That shit sent all the American church moms into a complete panic with all the devilry, so nothing but respect to the OGs. When 2E came out I feel like it was a tasteful expansion and improvement. I dunno if it came from Dragon Magazine or what, but we were already using THAC0 in First Edition. Sam however is probably into all that new jack bullshit and has a 5E tattoo like the heretic he is…
SR: I do play 5E. I love them all, and I draw from everything (plus other RPG’s) but I’ve found players feel way more empowered and confident using 5E than anything else. Probably because it’s designed to do exactly that! I’m not a purist, I wouldn’t say any one system is any better than any other, I just love that there’s so much choice and so much past material to incorporate.
MM: Do you prefer to be a player or DM? Again, why?
SR: I DM a lot because only me and one other guy in our group (shout out Woody!) are willing to. I love playing, and right now I am playing in a game, but for the most part I DM. I love it because of the creativity and the prep sessions. I love setting up events and stories and monsters and allies and then rolling it all out and watching it go to complete shit immediately. It’s very rewarding when people say they had fun, I love being a source of fun to my friends.
TJ: I’ve only got to be a player like 5 times in the last twenty years. It’s fun as hell, but ya know what I noticed this last sesh as a player? Nobody pays attention! It was driving me crazy. I needed that perspective though. All the foolishness I endured as DM made more sense! I’ve seen some DM’s online talk about how they don’t allow phones at their table. Hmmm…
Sam mentioned that it’s rewarding to bring joy to your friends as DM. Too true! There’s a lot of similarities between what we do when we bring music to the world and what we do to prepare a game. Clearly I must prefer being DM, but I only keep it running because the players keep asking me when we can play again. We always have a spirited session and this old party makes for high level gaming. That’s fun because it’s new territory for them as players and me as DM.
MM: And we all have that one special character, the one we could endlessly talk about at length to anyone willing to listen… So, tell us all about your character of choice, what made them special and what, ultimately, happened to them?
TJ: Oh my, probably Durgon of Arabel. By far my highest level character… I think he’s like 11th level? A Thief that has pretty much exclusively adventured in Undermountain. What an amazing box set! He’s more of a battle rogue than most thieves and fights two-fisted. What’s weird about that character is that he’s evil. I mean, comes with the territory, right? As an older person, I don’t know if I enjoy playing a character that excels at murder and theft, BUT HEY, that’s the hand I was dealt! He’s actually still alive and possesses a sentient dagger that has saved his bacon a couple times.
SR: Dippot Wolfsbane. My human fighter from when I was about 16. What made him special to me was that he was just an insanely violent extension of my real life 16 year old personality so he was just a vicious, rampaging, emotional beast machine. He died as so many brave warriors before and since – skullfucked and eaten alive while shitting in a bush, ambushed by zombie rat people. I remember my NPC’s the most though. I take great pleasure in coming up with enormous tables of awful names like Ron Piano, Nanny Fudger, Itching Bill Tunt, Dave Egg, Toke Smokeychode, Salad Man, Beryl Bumlungs, John Erect Penis etc.
MM: Are you a strictly by the rules or a loose interpretation fly by the seat of your pants kind of player / DM? And what’s the one rule that you desperately wish you could change and more often than not abandon for the sake of your sanity while playing?
SR: I have a great deal of respect for the rules because they’re concocted by awesome writers and they’re play tested and they’re the backbone of what makes the game work BUT, also, fuck the rules. If a rule sucks and it’s stilting my players’ fun, I either ditch it immediately or make it even more unreasonable so that the players find a way around it. Things like damage from falling – it’s kind of hard to swallow for a player who’s worked really hard to get their character from level 0 to level 5 and has defeated a fucking flaming mace wielding coven of lava hags that they could die by falling out of a tree and then being attacked by a rat while unconscious, but that they could also survive jumping onto cobblestones from a burning tower that’s described as ‘so tall it scrapes the sky’. So I’ll just bend it to fit. That’s part of the fun to me.
Boring stuff like donning and doffing times is important, but it’s way more fun to come up with an AC rule for choosing to fight in only a studded leather codpiece. Instead of sticking to the rules for spellcasting, I use corruption tables to make sure my spellcasters don’t get too overzealous. So for example if they choose to try and cast without the components they’ll improvise with whatever they have handy or can find, and then they have to roll on a corruption table and risk having a face appear on their back or having eyeballs grow on their fingertips or puking constantly for a whole day, stuff like that. I don’t really have any specific things I’d change or abandon because it’s all about the application of the rule for me.
TJ: I’m a disciple of the Gygax/Greenwood school of not letting the mechanics get in the way. Even Gygax himself thought of the rules as an ugly necessity. In my case, I have a player who is a much better DM than I and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rules. One would think that would be an annoyance to any game master, but it’s actually great because he’s a pure, unbiased rules egalitarian, and his clarifications almost always work against the party. Every group needs a player like this! Lotsa players try and pull a fast one on the DM, which is why we need these damned rules!
MM: What’s the most fiendish and dastardly situation that you, as a DM, “helped” to guide a party of adventurers into? What happened?
SR: I’m not big on contriving tough situations for my players because they do a superb job of creating peril out of thin air, but I did recently throw a load of traps from White Plume Mountain at my 5E Level 7 party of gnomes. Teeing up a gnome bard to navigate the frictionless room, an acid pit and a gelatinous cube was pretty mean but they absolutely smashed it. They found that shit easier than convincing a miser to lend them some money. The less said about that the better.
TJ: I had a party that was tearing ass through a dungeon and then a few layers down they ended up in a Rakshasa’s den. He was keeping all manner of monsters in a zoo-like lair. The party was hacking and slashing through all the various critters until they ran into the zookeepers. This was deep into their stomping grounds, the Haunted Halls, and they haven’t been back to that part of the dungeon in 20 years real-time, haha. Maybe they’ll see this Q&A and muster the courage to give it another go!
MM: Your top five D&D adventures / modules and why? And…go
TJ: Hell, I’ll even rank ‘em!
5. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh – A classic from 1981. Spoooooky!
4. Under Illefarn – The very first Forgotten Realms adventure. I played this, and then ran it as DM against a different group. Underrated module and I believe this is the first time TSR introduced 0 level characters.
3. Against The Giants – A pure Gygax dungeon crawl. I ran this against my old group recently, and it was a real grinder. Like all those early modules, you’re presented with this paradox: The party encounters a family of Yetis in a cave. They kill them. The party then goes down a 20-foot passage and encounters two White Dragons in the next cave. And so on. HOW ARE THESE CREATURES CO-HABITATING?! Gotta love it. Proud to report that the all the leaders (Hill Giant Chief, Frost Giant Jarl, Fire Giant King) all survived. I maimed the shit outta the party in the G Series.
2. The Ruins of Undermountain – I’ve mostly been a player in Undermountain. It’s incredible. One of the best TSR products ever and a great value. It does an excellent job of giving the DM a place to start, but also leaves so much room to craft your own realm.
1. Haunted Halls of Eveningstar – This is where it all started for my longest-running group about 27 years ago. It was written by Ed Greenwood, the creator of the Forgotten Realms. Ed gave me my start and the dungeon has been going deeper down, down, down for many years since. For my money, Greenwood is a world builder up there with Tolkien, Roddenberry, and (filmmaker) George Miller. He’s a titan.
SR: Tomb of Horrors – Obvious classic. Dark as a fart in a miner’s helmet, ominous, mysterious and weird as hell. All time fave. The artwork is so memorable and it’s action packed, high stakes and really tough. Very immersive, unforgettable and iconic.
Against the Cult of the Reptile God – Like an 80’s fantasy action B-movie you can leap into and get fucked to death by giant lizards in. Great fun and genuinely creepy! It also has some great down-time elements to it which I think contrasts nicely with the mayhem.
White Plume Mountain – A slimy, bizarre, unbeatable death trap ladled thick with doom and camp nonsense! Mad as hell and full of really exciting challenging things to describe and navigate.
Curse of Strahd – I’ve prepped this, but haven’t yet run it but I can tell I’m going to absolutely LOVE it. The story is brilliant, and it has this classic gothic fear factor that’s just drenched in dusty and fog and cobwebs and blood. It feels so much like Bram Stoker it’s hard to believe. If it plays as well as it reads it’s going to be one of the best ever.
The Curse of Bone Hill – I’ve never played this properly either, but I’m using lots of elements of it in my Gnome Quest at the moment and having this gnarley hilltop ruin full of bugbears by day and zombies at night is amazingly fun. Plus the puns coming out of a place like Bone Hill? Exquisite. I’m particularly enjoying an NPC I’ve created called Boneless Bob Trumpet – a creepy hunchback sewer dweller who guides the players into the fortress from below. Great fun!
MM: Has your love to D&D encouraged you to explore other RPG’s and if so, which other games do you tend to favour and enjoy the most?
TJ: Like I said earlier, I played a lot of Car Wars when I first started playing D&D. I believe Steve Jackson Games is rebooting that game with 3D minis. I played the Ninja Turtles RPG that Palladium had and that was fun. A fair amount of Battletech too. A tiny bit of Shadowrun, James Bond, and Twilight 2000. We’ve been playing HeroQuest a bit at the crib. I’m blanking on a couple, but I won’t lie to ya: D&D is the best.
SR: I absolutely love Tales from the Loop. That’s a great system and a really brilliant world to escape to. The artwork is stunning and the premise is so cool, you get to roleplay a teenager in a fictional version of the 80’s where robots exist and all this mad technology is a part of normal everyday life but it’s all decaying and failing. Adults don’t give a shit about you so you’re out on your own. It’s basically the Breakfast Club meets Blade Runner! We make 80’s playlists and have these synth heavy montages while we play, it’s just an excellent game. I have a buddy who wants us to play Symbaroum soon and that looks awesome too. Bleak and brutal. I have some cool DIY RPG Zines that I love too – Mystic Punks is a favourite of mine. Hot Jungle and North City Park are cool as hell. DIY stuff really appeals to me because it feels like those early D&D modules and you feel really closely connected to something that’s been created out of nothing but pure fandom. I like board games too. I really like Twilight Creations’ ZOMBIES!!! Games. They get a lot of shit from ‘hardcore table top gamers’ (care?) but I love the art and the simplicity and how big it gets. I have a great thrash metal playlist for ZOMBIES!!! sessions! Paranoia is sick too, I‘ve only played a few times but I’m really keen to play more.
MM: The problems of being an adult in the boring ass real world. Is it just me, or is increasingly difficult to find the time to get a regular game sorted? What advice would you give to those players struggling to find a regular game?
SR: DM for your buddies. Keep struggling!
TJ: I’m the wrong guy to ask. I go to great lengths to link up with my old group to bang out a game. All I can say is that if and when you DO get a game sorted, make the most of it. Participate, engage in the game, and have fun. You can play on phone apps or X-Box any day of the week, but a proper D&D gathering is sacred time!
MM: What’s your absolute favourite, the one that immediately springs to mind, D&D memory?
SR: My friend Gardz cried genuine tears during one of our games. He’d completed an epic mission and was carried back to town by the villagers who threw a huge festival for him. People were singing and dancing and there was a kobold band shredding lutes and there was fireworks and an NPC gave a stirring speech about his bravery and heroism and he cried. It was incredible. One of those moments where you realise how much a silly game can mean to you!
TJ: Kobold band shredding lutes! Now I’m getting choked up too. I dunno if I’ve had THE big moment yet. At my last session, the players were trying rescue someone who was imprisoned in a cell behind a Prismatic Wall that woulda killed anyone passing through it. The Magic-User pipes up and is real cocky when he tells the rest of the party, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of this!” He teleports himself into the cell, but then realized he had no means to get back out. This is a veteran player, mind you! Man, I laughed my ass off.
MM: How would you explain D&D to an absolute novice and potential first timer?
SR: I do this a lot because I run a couple of D&D groups at a school. One of them is a beginner’s group and it’s not a hard pitch! I just ask them if they want to play something that’s like a boardgame without a board where you get to create a character like in a video game and fight monsters and do magic and kick the heads off goblins.
TJ: It’s much easier nowadays since there’s no longer a taboo, satanic stigma attached to the game. A shame, really. Haha. I’d probably say, “You know Harry Potter, World of Warcraft, and the LOTR movies? This is like that but WITH dice and WITHOUT posers.”
MM: What’s your biggest D&D regret…?
SR: Not learning 1E properly!
TJ: Not sure I can top Sam’s. Shameful. He should be stripped of his wands or his codpiece, or whatever. Ummm, biggest regret… I had a Halfling that chose to walk into a Gate. Straight to the Nine Hells. The DM didn’t even let me play out my inevitable fate. We were in Myth Drannor, so I shoulda known, ha.
MM: And finally, if you could choose a dream party of four players, who would they be and why?
SR: Toby Jeg. He’s a clinical strategist who’s been playing since the days when the etch-a-sketch was a frighteningly advanced form of sorcery. Toby also makes the best popcorn, has excellent taste in music, and would have the stamina for an all-nighter. He’s cunning, loyal, a total morale booster and he knows his way around a little vicious mockery to say the least. He’d be a total asset.
Cassandra Peterson (Elvira). She’d bring something very important: puns. If we’re playing Strahd, she’s my party leader. Imagine her encyclopaedic monster knowledge, her capacity for devising gory deaths for her enemies, and the lore she must know. Yikes. No bullshit, tons of style. I hope she brings costumes for us…
Nicolas Cage. The greatest actor in the history of cinema. Imagine Cage slamming beers and throwing Jeg’s popcorn at you across the kitchen table screaming his way through the jungles of Chult. Best.
Brian Van Proyen. Brian plays guitar in another Red Scare band called Elway and we’ve talked about playing D&D on tour before but it’s not yet happened. He’s very intelligent, patient, extremely funny and generous and one of the coolest guys I know so I think he’d be the best dude every to play with. He’d bring the cigars and weird snacks too, for sure.
There’s so many people I’d love to play with. This was hard.
TJ: Yeah, cool question! First off, I like my current group, so this is nothing against them, ha,ha, but I’d go with Ed Greenwood, R.A. Salvatore, Sam Russo (No, I ain’t just sayin’ that!), and my homegirl Daisy. That’s a PARTY right there. By every definition of the word.
Parting is such sweet sorrow… Any last comments and parting shots?
SR: Thanks for the interview! Let’s roll!
TJ: This has been a hoot! If there’s anyone out there who enjoys this same stuff, please say hi at a show or come find us on social media!
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