Welcome to Tavern Talk Thursday! This is a weekly column where we chat with a member of the TTRPG (tabletop role-playing game) community to learn more about how they found themselves at the table, what they love about tabletop gaming and other fun things. Think of it as a little sneak peeks into the minds of our fellow players and DMs.
This week we are talking to an incredible actor, writer for Geek and Sundry’s Starter Kit, co-owner of Hero’s Journey Fitness and fellow nerd, David Nett. He has been a long-time TTRPG player, joining the Dungeons and Dragons community during the 80s and was hooked. When not guiding fellow fitness fanatics through nerd-inspired programs alongside his wife Christy Black, he is enjoying his time at the table or staring in movies. Nett’s most recent appearance is in Justin Lee’s remake of The Most Dangerous Game. Be sure to check it out after binging all this TTRPG fun stuff down below.
Be sure to follow David Nett on Twitter, and if you are in the Burbank, CA, area, drop in for a class!
Julia Roth: Let’s chat your TTRPG back story! How did you find yourself at the table?
David Nett: The scene: 1985, the splendor of the Class B junior high science fair hosted at the Dakota Square Mall in Minot, ND. I was a super awkward nerd with thick glasses, the kind of mustache only a 12-year-old could grow, a giant cast for my broken arm, and a presentation on the stealth technology of the SR-71 Blackbird. The kid next to me was a year older – Jason Groce – he’d recently moved to the small town I lived in. It was a long day, and though we didn’t know each other when it started, by the end, he invited me to play Dungeons & Dragons with his older brother and another friend.
I knew of the game from the cartoon and a couple of action figures I’d found at the Ben Franklin store (Melf & Warduke), and of course from Satanic Panic hysteria, but I’d never even seen the books, much less played. I went over to his house that weekend, and we made my first character. The Unearthed Arcana had just dropped. I was beside myself flipping through their books. Since I was joining their campaign in-progress (they were 10th level), I made a Drow Fighter/Mage/Thief, Lexall Flaggstaeff. He was killed deep in the Underdark a year or so later – 1e was not kind to multiclass characters. But my life was forever changed. Jason was my first Dungeon Master and is still a dear friend.
Every year my core High School gaming group try to get together for a long weekend somewhere in the country and play for two or three days straight like we did as kids. The pandemic made that impossible, of course, but we’ll be back together again this year in September.
JR: Favorite world to adventure in?
DN: For the most part, when I’m playing D&D, I play in a version of Greyhawk. I say “a version” because it’s the living world I played in and later ran games in that dates back to 1985. And, we were just kids in the beginning – we didn’t know the lore, and though we had access to the Gazeteer, we played very fast and loose with the world. So we started with a very non-canon, lore-light understanding of the world and just added to it when the stories we were telling asked for more. Over the intervening 37years, that Greyhawk has grown and changed so much with so many players and so many adventures. I have a giant 4-part map of it hanging in my living room – inserts from either Dragon or Dungeon magazine in the 80s, I don’t remember which. Apart from that shared map, there’s not much in my Greyhawk anymore that resembles the lore of the official Greyhawk.
Apart from D&D, though, I love the 9th World of Numenera. It’s such a rich tapestry for storytelling. I’m often dreaming up Numenera stories I may never get the chance to run.
JR: Favorite one-shot adventure?
DN: I used to write and run a lot of one-shots at conventions. If one played well, I’d run it in multiple venues. It’s impossible to pick a true favorite, but one of my favorites wrote on-the-fly for an Iron GM competition in 2013 or 2014 (I took 2nd place) and then refined it thereafter. It’s a fantasy homage to Die Hard called The Longest Night. Lots of good memories of that one. I also have a great one or two shot (depending upon the group) called Across the Dunes of Fire that I really love. An ancient artifact in that one (a powerful sword named Amarth – colloquial name Biter) has played a large part in the history of my Greyhawk. Lately, I’ve been running a silly Honey Heist one shot called the Furious and the Furrious.
JR: Backstory or class first?
DN: I actually don’t do much in the way of formal backstory for my characters. Broad ideas of background (character concept, I’d call it), sure: where they came from, what motivates them, their ideals (at least at the start), but I don’t do too much detail work ahead of time. I will never hand a GM a 10-page backstory; I just don’t like to work that way. I like to have the details of my characters’ past emerge during play. If the DM is down with that – that’s more fun for me.
It can be beautiful in long campaigns, and it works in one-shots as well since there’s not time to play a giant backstory even if you made one. I do start with the kind of character I wanna play, a basic concept, but since I’ve been playing so long, class and heritage (or a couple of options for those) are sort of ingrained in my thinking.
I’m building a character right now for a new campaign I’ve been invited to play in – I decided I wanted a world-weary ex-soldier. From that seed, I go to the mechanics because they’re second nature to me, and any backstory that I decide I need will emerge hand-in-hand with mechanics as I do the build and with whatever context cues our DM decides are important. This is a very long answer to a simple question, but I guess the real answer is, it’s hard for me to tease the two apart.
JR: Favorite spell and why?
DN: What a difficult question. I love spells that are infused with drama. Fireball has incredible utility, obviously. But there’s something just wonderful about spells like Tasha’s Uncontrollable Laughter, or Shatter, or Meteor Swarm. Sure, Fireball Blows Shit Up, but can you imagine spontaneously bursting out in laughter so intense that you drop your guard, your weapons and collapse into uncontrollable spasms in the middle of a battle? A sudden, piercing noise so intense that it damages your internal organs? Flaming meteors raining from the sky? That’s the stuff for me.
JR: Who has been your favorite character to play?
DN: I still have a lot of fondness for my first character, Lexall Flaggstaeff. He went through a lot, and he was my doorway into the RPG world. I’m mostly a GM, so a lot of my characters are also NPCs in various adventures. They all have an important place in my heart, but tops right now is a Paladin that started as a PC in a friend’s wonderful campaign and has grown and changed a lot as an NPC and in one-shots in intervening years. He’s a Half-Elf Paladin named Parimar Illuradil. He started out as a religious fanatic but mellowed under the influence of his original party. As he’s aged, he’s become a quiet force for good, mostly working in the background of my Greyhawk. He also fights primarily with a spear, which, while suboptimal for a martial character in 5e, I just think is cool.
JR: Do you have a particular race/class you enjoy?
DN: Assuming this is D&D/Fantasy RPG related, I love Elves and Half-Elves, and I play a lot of them – that’s the direct influence of Tolkien on my childhood. As far as classes, while I’ve played all the current 5e classes, many of the 4e classes, and all of the 1e and 2e classes (I didn’t play much 3/3.5e – those years were not very active for me), I have mostly played and loved Wizards and Paladins. Both of those classes appeal to me greatly, I think, because of the rigor of study, discipline, and (in the case of Paladins) adherence to ideals that drive them.
JR: Is there something that you build into every character? A fun trait or a special item?
DN: That’s interesting. I don’t think there’s anything overt. I do try to make sure my character has a clear ideal, at least at the start, and at least one flaw related to their concept. Beyond that, I think the only real shared trait of my characters is that they are, almost without exception, sub-optimal combat builds. This is mainly because the cool things I see in my brain are rarely in lockstep with what is optimal inside RAW, especially in D&D.
JR: What is your favorite system to play within?
DN: What a cruel question! I love D&D and have certainly played it most, but that’s as much about opportunity as anything. Beyond D&D, I love Vampire: The Masquerade and am very bullish on this newest edition – they’ve done a lot of great work incentivizing characters to hold onto their humanity, which was often a problem with older systems. I love Numenera, thanks to the simplicity and depth of the Cypher system and the beautiful worldbuilding. Plus, I love Phoenix: Dawn Command for structure, mechanics, and incentivizing throwing caution to the wind. I love Tales from the Loop for its beauty and sensitivity, and wonder. And there are so many other great games I haven’t explored – I know few people who’ve managed to more than scratch the surface of what’s out there.
JR: Tell us about the wildest adventure you have been on?
DN: As a kid, I played in a Palladium Fantasy campaign during which we were imprisoned in a dream (though we didn’t know it) by a Rakshasa. All manner of just bizarre, rule-breaking stuff started happening, and I remember a few of us freaking out, challenging the DM, really pulling our hair out trying to survive and figure out what was happening. That was really fun.
JR: What has been your most impactful moment at a table?
DN: All of these “most” and “favorite” questions are really hard when you’re mining 37 years of play. As a player, probably the death of my first character; knowing he was probably gonna die, doing everything I could think of to keep him alive, despite having gotten myself into just an absolutely impossible situation, and then failing. I learned a lot about what the game can feel like in that session, about what I’d later come to understand (thanks to my friend Dr. Drea Letamendi) as parasocial relationships.
As a DM – that’s a lot harder. The first session with any new group, teaching a new person to play and seeing the lightbulb go off in their head, connecting with new and old friends over shared stories – my life has been very rich with those opportunities, and it’s supremely difficult to pick a “most impactful” moment. Putting together my first campaign in a decade after shooting GOLD was big. Pulling together my current campaign, the Owls, after some prodding by my dear friend Todd Stashwick, really brought back a lot of feelings for me. My wife Christy is at that table, too, so that’s really special.
Everything I’ve done as an actor, a writer, and a producer has its roots somewhere in that day at the science fair when I met Jason Groce and those long sessions in the Groce’s dining room and my family’s basement in the mid and late 1980s. I learned about story and collaboration and worldbuilding at those tables.
JR: Favorite dice to use?
DN: I mostly play d20-based games, so I have a large collection of d20s. I decided several years ago I had too many dice, so went about carefully divesting myself of most of my full sets. I’ve a set specifically for Vampire: The Masquerade and maybe 6 or 7 “full” sets of D&D-ready polyhedrals. But I’ve a LOT of d20s. My favorites vary, but many of those are meaningful because they were gifts or connected to a specific game or campaign. But my favorite is a worn, gold-flecked d20 that I’ve had since 1986 – it wasn’t my first d20, but it’s the only one from those days I still have, and it’s become my good luck die. I’ve carried it in my pocket for luck during a lot of important moments in my life.
JR: Would you rather face off against an entire dungeon of undead or charm your way through a royal court?
DN: I’ll choose the Undead. I love intrigue and relationship-fueled games, but I’m an introvert by nature, so those encounters are very draining for me. One or two a session is fine, but a whole royal court sounds exhausting. The undead are dangerous to my character but less exhausting for me as a player.
JR: Favorite TTRPG Monster?
DN: The classics are still my favorites. As a DM, I love Dragons – so much richness to be found there as a GM. My little cabin up in Big Bear is named “Owlbear Manor” because I’ve long loved Owlbears so much. And I love Beholders and Illithids because they are so weird, so alien, and playing a powerful monster with at least partially unknowable motivations is a great time.
JR: Good luck charms or rituals before a game?
DN: I make sure I’ve got my dice, if I’m playing a dice-based game – I do not like to roll other people’s dice if I can avoid it. Apart from that, nothing. RPGs are not about winning, they’re about playing, and I’ve no special need for luck. Even if my character ends up failing, the act of play and of community is joyful.
JR: Who is sitting at your dream table?
DN: I’ve had the good fortune over the years of playing with lots of the luminaries of the RPG actual play world, just by luck of geography and old friendships, so I’m not sure I have a specific “dream table.” I love playing with old friends but also love meeting new people – that’s why I run games at conventions. Ultimately, if I’m running a game, I just wanna play with people who are excited to collaborate on a story. Some players really want to play and are very passionate and fun, but have a need to always center their characters, to seek their spotlight moment.
Some players give rich texture to a story but require a lot of work to coax them to full participation. Some players have shining moments but are otherwise disengaged. My Dream Table is a group of people who are as eager to listen to each other as they are to speak, who build upon each other’s ideas and successes and failures without prompting, and who celebrate the story as much as they do individual moments. But, we’re all human, and even the most collaborative, creative, exciting players aren’t that every session, all session.
Also: I’d love a campaign of players who all remember what happened session to session without my having to recap, but experience tells me that may be asking too much.
JR: What are you most looking forward to within the TTRPG world?
DN: I love seeing new games coming out from new places – I won’t have time to play them all, of course, but I love to support small publishers and read the systems and lore. There’s so much cool stuff going on, and so many people stepping into the RPG world who haven’t been in the position of creator or publisher in the past. The Coyote and Crow team recently delivered on their Kickstarter – I’m just now digging into this cool setting, and they’re a great example of largely unheard voices providing a framework to telling stories that just haven’t been told in the RPG world.
They’re just one example; I back a lot of crowdfunding campaigns for new games and settings. I’m very content with the pace and content of new D&D stuff, but I’m rarely on the edge of my seat for any of it – not because it is not good, but because I’ve already got 40+ years of rules and settings and adventures available to me. What gets me really excited are novel games and storytellers and seeing our hobby grow and gain exposure to new audiences.
A lot of people who play RPGs right now don’t realize the industry was in real trouble in the early part of the 2000s – I remember talking to small and mid-sized publishers and even some D&D folks leading up to making GOLD in 2007 & 2008, and pretty much universally there was a feeling of, “I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to make it very much longer.” One of the central themes of GOLD, in fact, is the imminent death of the RPG industry. The fact there’s such robust growth now, so many new people playing every year, so many new games and voices finding their way to the light – that’s what I’m most excited about.
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