It’s been around since 1974, but Dungeons & Dragons has been making a serious comeback in recent years. With the release of Force Grey: Lost City of Omu, the far-reaching fantasy worlds of D&D have returned with a vengeance. Set amid the new Tomb of Annihilation storyline, Force Grey is a Dungeons & Dragons quest that streams live on the official D&D Twitch channel. Diving deep into the enchanted jungles of Chult, legendary Dungeon Master Matt Mercer leads his team of players on a treacherous new journey. The voiceover veteran is flanked by Force Grey newcomers, Joe Manganiello, Dylan Sprouse, and Deborah Ann Woll (alongside Brian Posehn and Utkarsh Ambudkar).
Following the success of fellow D&D live series Critical Role (which pulls in nearly 250,000 viewers per week), streaming-giant Twitch is set to get even more Dungeons & Dragons for their increasingly hungry audience. Enter Force Grey, the platform’s flagship original series.
Screen Rant caught up with Joe Manganiello to discuss the D&D show, and although he’s no stranger to fantasy television, he sees Force Grey as the next level in high-concept viewing: “It’s like jumping into someone else’s TV series. It’s like being able to be a guest star on your favorite fantasy series.” His character, Arkhan the Cruel, is a red dragonborn oathbreaker with a big attitude, a bigger battleaxe, and powers that hail from the Queen of Darkness herself.
Manganiello thinks the improvisational nature of D&D works brilliantly in a TV show:
“It’s one thing to watch a scripted series or be a part of a scripted series. It’s another thing to because of the game, because of the dice rolling, there’s a randomness built into the filming. Where you don’t know where the story is going to go... There’s an electricity to it which is really fun – you don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know who’s going to die, you don’t know who’s going to live, you don’t know how this thing is going to go, and it’s all playing out live in front of you.”
The True Blood star and much-anticipated Deathstroke actor (to potentially appear in The Batman) has been a lifelong Dungeons & Dragons devotee. A self-described “huge fantasy nerd,” Manganiello played throughout his childhood and grew up on the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons animated series. Though high school sports, college, and the meteoric rise of his acting career took him away from the game (what he calls his Dungeons & Dragons “dark years”), Manganiello seems to enjoy playing now more than ever:
“It’s theater of the mind, high-concept storytelling and theater of the mind where you’re not burdened by needing a hundred million dollars to play out this story.”
Manganiello even co-wrote his own take on a live-action Dungeons & Dragons movie when the property was at Warner Bros. Drawing on his love for the Dragonlance novels, Manganiello expressed his interest in “[opening] the doors to 40 odd years of amazing adventures and novels that are all sitting locked in a vault.”
Though the movie has yet to be made, Manganiello’s script attracted the attention of the Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro: “I became very, very close with everyone [at Wizards of the Coast] and we’ve been actively talking about the best way to get it up on the screen.” With other actors like Shia LaBeouf also interested in a live-action adaptation, there may well be a race to the finish in the near future.
Surviving the Satanic Panic
Dungeons & Dragons has come a long way over the last 30 years. In an era of Salem witch-trial like controversy, fantasy board games became synonymous with dark magic, sorcery, and the occult. The public outcry metastasized when players like James Dallas Egbert III disappeared and later committed suicide. A few unfortunate cases of game-related madness poisoned the game’s reputation, leading to the “Satanic Panic” and a widespread misrepresentation of Dungeons & Dragons altogether.
Manganiello is glad the game survived:
“I think the ‘80s and ‘90s were hard on the game and hard on fantasy in general. I think there was such a paranoia of drugs and Satanism, and for some weird reason, those were rolled into this game that really had nothing to do with either. There was a stigma attached to it to the point where people who played during the ‘80s and ‘90s wouldn’t mention they played for fear of being ostracized publicly. It really became acceptable to speak poorly about it when anyone would mention tabletop role playing.”
Though public enthusiasm for D&D went underground for several decades, the game has been resurrected for reasons unknown. Its former association with geek culture has been supplanted by a more robust, diverse appeal. Manganiello admits that even in the heart of Hollywood, Dungeons & Dragons is alive and well:
“There’s a real resurgence – which is interesting in LA – a lot of directors, writers, comedians, actors, producers all play. They all grew up playing. And for some reason within the last couple of years, everyone has started playing again. So there are all these games going on during the weeks in LA, so it’s been really fun over the last couple years to bounce around to people’s home games. I even have my own.”
Deborah Ann Woll, Manganiello’s former True Blood co-star and Force Grey companion, attributes the return of D&D to a latent passion for fantasy and adventure. Woll has played Dungeons & Dragons for just five years, but she now Dungeon Masters more than she plays and confidently holds her own on Force Grey. In describing that “nostalgia” for creativity, Woll finds “that youthful, childlike spirit [of Dungeons & Dragons] is a very popular thing right now.” Though Force Grey may seem targeted at the role-playing establishment, Woll believes the show’s concise format makes it the perfect introduction for newcomers to the expansive world of Dungeons & Dragons. While shows like Critical Role show the magnitude of campaigns in all their time-consuming glory, Woll describes Force Grey as a less intensive commitment:
"As a companion piece, Force Grey is great because it’s a little more contained. You can jump in, watch about 9 hours, 9 to 10 hours, and just get a sense of what D&D is without feeling like, ‘well, now, I’ve missed the whole story,’ or, ‘I’m coming in in the middle,’ or anything like that.”
As for the rest of the entertainment industry’s interest in the game, Manganiello insists that Hollywood is run by D&D fanatics:
“Here’s the thing, most of your favorite actors, directors, writers flexed their skills as kids playing that game, and now they’re running the entertainment industry. So, I really think we got past that stigma, and my generation is now old enough to not give a sh*t. We all enjoy it, we still enjoy it, and we’re going to keep doing it, and that’s it."
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Force Grey season 2 premieres this week and runs through the fall on Twitch.