Distanced D&D: A chat with Jeff Cannata of ‘The Dungeon Run’


Jeff Cannata is the Dungeon Master on ‘The Dungeon Run.’ (Caffeine TV)

Right now, distancing practices and school closures are presenting obstacles in traditional educational delivery models. Students are cut off from their friends, their teachers and the traditional social interaction of teaching has now been remanded to contact via the internet on platforms like Google Classroom or videoconferencing. Curriculum packaging has been limited to text and video techniques as have the opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding.

Kids need to learn, but they also need their teachers. What can we do when we can’t be there?

As both a teacher and a long-time fan of geek-culture, one of the ways that I’m helping students deal with this current crisis, is to revert to my basement-dwelling days and fall back on the thing that I’ve loved ever since I played Dungeon Module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands in 1982.

Dungeons & Dragons can be an answer; and I had just the right person in mind to share his thoughts with about it: Dungeon Master extraordinaire Jeff Cannata of Caffeine TV’s The Dungeon Run.

First off, it’s important to note that The Dungeon Run just passed its first anniversary at the time of this writing. So, a Happy Birthday was well deserved.

“Yeah, thank you.” Jeff began in our interview. “I’m so amazed that we’re here a year later. You know, the show was only supposed to be ten episodes. The fact that we’re here one year later is a wonderful gift.”

I think it’s safe to say that I’m one of those loyal D&D players constantly in search of a party. Things change over time and different priorities take over. For me, moving, the demands of family, career – these all get in the way of setting up the ideal D&D party. But the internet can solve that. Distanced D&D definitely came to public attention with shows like Critical Role. Their success obviously is an example of the power of the net to provide not only an outlet for playing a game that has captured the imaginations of D&D starved geeks like me, but that can fill in that social gap that goes along with playing.

The same holds true for education. Dungeons & Dragons is a game that relies on interactivity and shared storytelling. These are elements that are able to be transmitted via internet-based applications. A good internet connection, a conferencing platform and some way to communicate visual information are all possible in the golden age of technology. I think this combination appeals to both the learner and the social media aspects of students’ personalities.

The cast of ‘The Dungeon Run.’ (Caffeine TV)

I asked Jeff about the attraction of the show.

“I think we somehow captured lightning in a bottle, ” he said. “I think it’s a testament to the wonderful production team, the wonderful actors that we found and all the labour of love it’s become for everybody. Honestly, finding an audience that has embraced the show the way they have is the key. We have built up an incredible show with people who have confidence in us.”

I’m presently running a campaign for students. I’m not as imaginative as Jeff and am simply using a prepared module adventure. But even though I’m a lousy Dungeon Master, the students are not only engaged with this activity but they’re willing to put up with my ineptitude. Why? Because of the material, the chance to interact with each other and the opportunity to create.

That’s the draw. The love of the subject material and if I can attract a modicum of attention with what I’m doing, imagine what a cast of seasoned professional actors with a love of improvisation, collaborative storytelling and training can do. My students are my audience and their confidence in me to give them a story is key to any success I can hope for.

The current cast of characters in this show features Jeff as the Dungeon Master, Jessica Lynn Parsons, Ronald Ogden, Jarred Kjack, Katie Michels, and Morgan Peter Brown. Zand Broumand plays Lord Arrabann.

“I love this show,” Jeff continued. “It’s become the bright spot in my career.”

His appreciation for his audience is definitely what makes this show successful. All of the performers in the cast have made it a point to thank their audience for their enjoyment. One of the key factors of appreciating The Dungeon Run is the level of participation that the audience gets to experience. In D&D terms, the audience can either provide game modifiers like Advantage or Disadvantage in the game. For the novice adventurers, Advantage is the story mechanic employed when there are favourable conditions available for a Skill Check, and instead of just one twenty-sided die rolled, two are rolled and the player gets to choose the higher of the two numbers.

There is a sense of invitation in watching The Dungeon Run that immediately sets up a sense of community. The free-flowing comments that flit across the bottom of the screen as you are watching the cast collaborate in their combined storytelling not only provides a companioned excitement but is also addictive. A viewer wants to see what other people think about the show and the result is a gestalt sort of entertainment.

This isn’t just Jeff and the Party’s adventure; it belongs to everyone watching.

“We’re convinced that there are a lot of people out there who want to be invited. Alex Albrecht, who created the show, his initial inspiration for creating the show was every other D&D stream out there with a bunch of friends – that’s how most people interact with the game. But Alex thought: What if we make a show with people who were perfect for the game instead of an established friend group? Because this is a game that’s based on familiarity and trust. I didn’t know if it would work, but he was so right. I think the discovery of our friendship along the way, building a friendship along the way also builds one with the audience. It invites people in. Because Alex has the same mentality I do – looking for good humans first as well as good players – I think that infused the entire show with a heart and authenticity that I wouldn’t have been able to foresee. We have wonderful people and a show that’s family-friendly and accessible.”

That’s the mentality every teacher has in setting up a classroom. As a teacher you want students to feel invited. It’s a vital social component to establishing a secure environment that establishes the conditions necessary to learn. When students feel secure and invited, they feel confident to learn and that creates, as Jeff says, ‘good humans’. If distanced D&D can create that same sort of environment with a show like The Dungeon Run, then that’s what teachers want and it can be copied.

From left: Jarred Kjack, Jessica Lynn Parsons, and Morgan Peter Brown during a gaming session. (Caffeine TV)

You see, right now, the show is being remotely broadcast instead of filmed in the studio. I need to point out the amazing talent of the set designers and prop creators who are currently out of work due to the current COVID-19 crisis. Not only can the props be purchased but they are glorious examples of craftsmanship that add to the flavour of the game for the cast and I am eager to see new ones when the show returns to its home in the studio.

“The thing that is so great about this experience is seeing emails that say, ‘Oh my gosh, I watched this show with my kid’. As a father myself, I think that’s the greatest compliment, you know?”

Educators want classes to be accessible, even virtual ones. In my own crude DM’ing attempts, I’m grateful to have received similar emails from parents who are happy that their kids are engaged during this time. I’m grateful, but I can’t help but think it’s a far cry from my days as a player in the 1980’s when my own parents were worried that playing D&D would foment a belief in witchcraft and occultism! How times have changed. But the type of play that is seen on The Dungeon Run is the type of play style I want to emulate in my own virtual classroom campaigns.

“I am so looking forward to playing this game with my own kids. I think it’s pretty wholesome entertainment, sitting around a table. My one vice is that I can be pretty graphic with my descriptions of violence, so I guess it’s pretty PG-13, but other than that, these stories are fairy tales – the type of stories that my young mind was introduced to.”

The discovery of this game was more than just a happy one for me – it was a necessary one. In order to run this type of environment, you obviously have to have a knowledge of the world. So, I suppose my article would be meant for those teachers who already have a proclivity for this sort of thing. If you’re not, then, well, I’m sorry.

However, whether you are into D&D or not, the preparation for this sort of commitment is intense. Just like any sort of lesson preparation, there is a lot of work involved.

“I do a tremendous amount of preparation for this show. Just ask my wife! [laughs]. No, I do a lot of work. Again, it is a labour of love, so it is a joy. The primary thing is building mind palaces. That’s a term I’ve kinda borrowed from competitive memory people. They talk about building mind palaces, where they see images, walk through things. You know, Ron Ogden, who plays Uggo, described it that way. I said that was the perfect way of describing it. I construct a mind palace as detailed as I can, so what’s going to happen next, so as you’re improvising, you have all the answers the players will have for you because you’ve thought about it ahead of time. It’s easily accessible. The fun part is to live in my imagination.”

Jeff is a performer. He has a theater degree, is a writer, an actor and these are skills that are taught, at least within the curriculum that I teach. Watching the cast of The Dungeon Run interact with Jeff is an exercise in shared improvisational theater. It’s about collaborative storytelling and acting which are both contributory literacy skills that are challenging to bring out in students.

Yet, today I watched my 13 and 14-year-olds emote characters complete with voices, back stories and even physical mannerisms on my Google Classroom hook-up this afternoon. Would they do that in class? Who knows, but for some reason, it was very easy for them.

“This is literally my dream job.” Jeff continued. “It is the cross-section of everything I love. I didn’t know it until I had it. It is writing, performing, improvising – it’s imaginative and in the sci-fi/fantasy realm of everything I adore. I never want this to end, I love it so much.”

Something with that much appeal can be a massive draw for students who are like-minded. It’s not like this would work for every student, but it is a draw nonetheless. If we, as educators, are trying to meet kids where they are in the learning continuum, then this is one of those avenues. It’s not the only way, but it is definitely one that is available and shows like The Dungeon Run and professionals with this love of gaming like Jeff can show us that it is possible.

The interactivity of the show is striking. Fans can participate by sharing support, comments, chatting with Lord Arrabann, the animatronic Mind Flayer host welcomes the audience and entertains them via live chat throughout the show and also during the intermission break. The audience’s ability to affect the story via purchased Advantage or Disadvantage also makes them feel like a part of the story.

The overall shortcoming of distance roleplaying is not being able to manipulate figures, roll dice or simply physically play with a map. However, there are technological alternatives like virtual table tops (Roll20, for example) or shareable random number generators that can be shared online that can provide a way of overcoming that challenge. The Dungeon Run relies primarily on “Theatre of the Mind” techniques and honor system dice-rolling but in their last game they surprised their audience with the addition of a virtual map room that featured pre-generated images of their miniatures in a prepared 3D environment that responded to the players’ directions. It was a great surprise to the audience that deserved a great deal of acclaim for the production team’s efforts.

A map of the Realms of Aïn. (Caffeine TV)

Personally, I discovered a virtual whiteboard app called Aww App that allows me to not only sketch maps, but my students to edit the image in real-time. They can indicate where their characters are in relation to their opponents. While not as fancy as the 3D Map Room of The Dungeon Run, it still allows me to involve my audience. As for dice rolling, well, I just rely on the honor system. After all, it’s not about the winning, it’s about the storytelling and the fun.

But there are also a lot of logistics to watch while DM’ing. In Jeff’s case, he’s not only keeping track of initiative, role-playing the characters the players meet, and all other game issues, but he’s also keeping track of the audience involvement and responding to them while he’s playing the game.

“Well, we have an iPad on set and see a running list of show love and I have an earpiece which lets me be like an anchor on a news desk. It’s been a challenge. I was really nervous about it at first but I realized that it has been an incredible gift and it has been so much fun. I thought it was going to be how are we going to do Dungeons & Dragons with this interactive layer happening, but it’s become is we’re doing this interactive layer, but let’s also do Dungeons & Dragons!”

And that’s what it comes down to: the engagement. If this show can achieve that level of engagement then not only does it prove that it’s more than possible to play D&D remotely, but it’s also possible to engage a specific audience like students who are eager to express themselves in the new learning environment we have found ourselves in.

The cast and crew at The Dungeon Run have found their voice and their audience. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the engagement factor is still there. For instance, the ideas submitted to the show via the audience actually turned into the side quest that is currently running.

“The audience helps us tell the story. This entire side quest that we’re doing during quarantine – we took a pause on the main story – that side quest is completely inspired by something the audience suggested. They submitted an idea in the form of these Force Cards – and I went, let’s just do their idea! I fleshed it out, but the idea is that there are magic items in a vault. It’s been a wonderful gift to have this flexibility, this give-and-take from the audience. They really are the sixth player at the table.”

Learning happens; like life, it manages to find a way. All it needs is a willing audience and a dedicated set of professionals who are dedicated to finding that way.

From left: Ron Ogden and Katie Michels (Caffeine TV)

The Dungeon Run has done it. I’ve taken their example and managed to find my own way during this time of isolation. After all, while I’m teaching, I’m actually I’m playing. That gives permission to my students that it’s okay to play while they’re really learning at the same time. There are a lot of similarities between teaching and facilitating a D&D session in that you set your players or your students, up for success. You give them these series of awesome moments that they enjoy and remember. Jeff had this to say about that.

“I wish every teacher I had felt that way. I feel like some teachers lose sight of that. That’s exactly what it is. It’s exactly creating moments for the kids to shine, in that they feel like they did it. It establishes that confidence to give them those life skills that they need for success.”

Better words were never spoken. D&D is a way that can reach out to those kids, support their learning and give them a sense of success, which, during this time, is sorely needed to provide comfort and reassurance.

… And to think, it all just started with a simple dungeon run…

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.