Dungeons & Dragons, Character building and Improvised songs : In conversation with Sasha Ellen

“The ethos of it was that it should be accessible to anyone who walks through the door”

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard about the iconic game, Dungeons & Dragons, but have been wary to get involved. Maybe you don’t think you’re “nerdy” enough to play an RPG game. Maybe you had a bad experience with a Dungeon Master once and don’t want to experience it again. Well, you’re in luck. Sasha Ellen’s D&D-style show, Character Building Experience, is for everyone, whether you’ve had your character sheet prepared for years or whether you don’t know what a D20 is (and frankly, at this point, you might be too afraid to ask). The show is “s a unique Dungeons and Dragons-style mini-adventure with improvised songs, left-field thinking and questionable choices” led by Ellen, who is a professional Dungeon Master herself!

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Sasha about Character Building Experience and the show’s development over the past few years. We talked about her start in the comedy world, Dungeons & Dragons, and even what it takes to become a professional Dungeon Master!

So how did you first get involved in the world of comedy?

Sasha: I watched a lot of stand-up as a kid, and just forever, really! I went to drama school so I was doing acting mainly. And I think my drama school was one of the only ones that didn’t offer any stand-up element, because I think in most drama schools they go, “Hey you should be able to do some comedy! It’s quite a big part of life and performing, especially!” [Laughs] So that made me think about it. But also, I had always been a really big comedy fan. And it felt like quite a natural progression from performing in other ways.

How did you get involved with both D&D and comedy?

Sasha: I played D&D for a long, long time. A  school friend of mine got me into it and he’s my Dungeon Master. He taught me how to be a Dungeon Master. He’s the grandfather of the people I Dungeon Master for.


Sasha: It’s quite sweet! So I’ve been playing for years and years. In 2019, when we first started doing Character Building, I had a show up, as in a solo show, a standup show. I started playing a lot of D&D with comedians and it was one of those things that felt very natural. It felt like a very natural progression in that there are so many shared elements. There’s a very strong storytelling element and character element, and there’s a really sweet embracing of failure, which is quite nice. You can fail quite badly and it can work! So it felt like a very natural thing to do. So we started doing Character Building. The first Fringe we did was in 2019 and it was a fun show! I think it’s quite difficult to do a show throughout the Fringe and not lose the will to live at some point during the month . . . 

Oh, no! [Laughs]

Sasha: [Laughs] And we didn’t! We did it in a room that was designed for four businessmen and a stripper and we packed twenty people and four performers into there. It was very sweaty! But it was never a chore – It was always fun. So that’s how we started.

Yeah, I think that the mix of D&D and comedy is interesting. I had never really been interested in D&D, but then some members of Mischief Comedy started Hell or High Rollers and I’m like, “This works!” [Laughs]

Sasha: Get into it! 

I feel like comedians, especially, are able to play with the game a bit more. That feels like it works.

Sasha: Mhmm, definitely. I mean, don’t get me wrong, some standups do come in to destroy everything. 


Sasha: You can still make it work, it’s okay, but they come in and they go, “I’m gonna smash everything here!” It’s a fun energy.

Do a lot of the people that you play with have experience or is this their first time


Sasha: When we first started doing the show, it was a little more complex in terms of how the game was played. It’s not D&D – It’s a take on D&D, it’s an RPG, but it’s definitely not D&D. We say “D&D-style” and that is exactly what it is. At this point, it’s a little bit of a piss-take. 


Sasha: So when it was a little bit more rules-heavy, when I was first developing the structure of the game, we primarily got people who’ve played something before. Dungeons & Dragons isn’t the only tabletop role-playing game – There are hundreds of them! So it was one of those. And then over the years, we slowly stripped out the stats and the heavier bits. All the abilities are kind of “comedy abilities”. So there’s an ability that’s “Buttermancer” and they can produce a font of butter from their fingertips. Those kinds of things. It’s more for fun. The ethos of it was that it should be accessible to anyone who walks through the door. Some areas of the D&D community, especially, are quite difficult to penetrate. It’s prohibitive in some ways and I don’t like that. The idea was, anyone who walks into the show should be able to understand everything that’s going on, and, at this point, any player that comes on board should just be able to pick up a piece of paper, read the hundred-odd words on there and just be able to play. So now we have people who’ve never played before and are absolutely fine. They can absolutely pick it up and do it, and it’s great. That’s one of the things I’m actually quite proud of. The thing that I’ve refined over the years was that it’s for nerds and for everyone else because it’s so hard to hit that Venn Diagram.

So have you found audience members who have no D&D/RPG experience coming in? 

Oh yeah, definitely! I do a little thing at the beginning where I find out who’s played stuff, who hasn’t. Sometimes it’s a nerd-heavy audience, but rarely! So it’s actually, I would say, a 70/30 split at this point, maybe even less than that. But I like that. That’s quite nice. It should be for everyone.

So how does one become a professional Dungeon Master?

Sasha: [Laughs] Well, I started by joining an agency, and then word of mouth, that kind of thing. D&D can be quite heavy. So if you want to do all the traditional stuff that’s quite intricate with the hundreds of books and moving cogs and all the rest of it, hiring somebody isn’t the worst idea! And it’s a fun evening in, or sometimes out. So it’s one of those things where I started getting paid to host games, and I went, “Oh, this is quite nice. This is what I do for fun, but for money!” It is different hosting professionally, but I think it’s more if it’s my friends, I’ll mess with them. If it’s somebody who has hired me to do this, I’ll make sure that they get what they want out of this game. Not that I wouldn’t with my players! [Laughs]

[Laughs] How do you find a balance between performing and playing D&D?

Sasha: That’s an interesting one! With a professional game, you definitely perform more. People know you less, and therefore you perform more. An audience are strangers, and as soon as you are in front of them, the show is very different. And comedians behave very differently in front of an audience than they do playing with each other. I think there’s something that switches on in front of an audience if you have performed enough, where you slip into a slightly different mode of how you talk, how you do everything, really, including how you play the game. So that’s why when we first started doing Character Building as a podcast ages ago, we recorded it live, because I thought it was so important to have an audience there because of how differently people behave when there’s an audience. I guess that’s the balance. You gauge the room.

You have experience doing solo shows and stand-up comedy – What is that like versus improv? 

Sasha: Character Building, there are written bits, but they’re very few and far between because it’s mostly me setting up scenes. And then, I don’t know what they’re gonna do – I never know what they’re gonna do!


Sasha: It’s wild, every so often, I think, “I can predict this!” [Whispers] I can’t! I’ll give them one object that will do everything that needs to be done – They won’t touch it! So yeah, there’s a huge improv element and it’s very reactive. I found that I can’t have a tech for the show – I have to tech the show from an iPad on stage because it’s too reactive. It’s not possible to do it any other way. Whereas with a standup show, my standup show is very scripted, so I really refine mine. And I’ll have built-in elements where I talk to people and I interact, I think that’s very important, and those are looser. But it’s two completely different beasts. They have some overlapping skills, but they’re really, really different.

Do you have a preference for one or the other?

Sasha: No, I think I’d miss either. If they went, that’s the thing! Yeah, no, I need both now!

What do you hope audiences take away from Character Building Experience?

Sasha: I think an element of play is really important in life. I don’t just play tabletop RPGs – I play a lot of tabletop games, so board games and things. I camp out in the woods for a board games festival every year.


Sasha: And it makes me really happy! There’s a lot of joy to it. And I think sometimes it’s difficult to get into. It’s a difficult scene. Nerdy stuff tends to be quite a closed circle sometimes. There are a lot of people working against that – It’s definitely not just me. I think an element of play is so important and it’s something that we lose over time, which I think is sad. So I think just the joy of playing.

And finally, how would you describe Character Building Experience in one word? 

Sasha: One word! Ugh, you’re mean!

I ask everyone! It’s not just you.

Sasha: Do they ever give a really random word?

I’ve had a range! Very hyphenated words, very short words . . .

Sasha: Ooh, I can do hyphenated?

If you can work it out, sure! [Laughs]

Sasha: Dungeons-and-Dragons-style-adventure-time!


Thank you to Sasha for the fun interview and to Julian Hall for arranging it!

Sasha Ellen: Character Building Experience will be running at the Museum of Comedy on 29 March, 27 April, 25 May, 22 June, and 27 July. The runtime is 60 minutes and the age advisory is 12+. Tickets can be purchased here.

Character Building Experience will also be returning to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2023 at The Lounge in the Counting House at 8:45 PM for the duration of the Fringe. The venues for later performances will be announced soon.


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