Blu del Barrio simply wanted to find a way the cast of Star Trek: Discovery could spend time together, again.
COVID-19 had changed the process of filming television, much like every other aspect of the world, and the once tight-knit group of actors felt the strain of their months-long separation from friends and coworkers. On a whim, del Barrio mentioned Dungeons & Dragons.
“I was like [nasally voice] ‘We can play D&D’ but we don’t have a DM. I don’t know how that’s gonna work,” del Barrio, who plays Adira Tal, recalls.
Surprisingly, several other members enthusiastically responded. Mary Wiseman, who plays Ensign Sylvia Tilly, immediately recommended her spouse and Ryn actor Noah Averbach-Katz to lead their game. People were willing but, as is often the case with a nascent tabletop group, planning that first session proved a large hurdle until actor Anthony Rapp stepped up.
During the break between wrapping season three and beginning the ongoing filming for season four, the actors would check in on each other weekly on Zoom. At the end of five consecutive chats, Rapp - who plays Lieutenant Commander Paul Stamets - would mention that Averbach-Katz would be running a D&D game.
“If I have any skills, it is making sure things like that happen and aren’t just talked about,” Rapp says.
I guess there is me in everything that I do, but it is really nice to have a creative storytelling outlet in something that isn't work.
Rapp hadn’t consistently played tabletop RPGs since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a boy with his friends, but professed holding onto the hope of one day rolling dice in a high-fantasy setting again.
Averbach-Katz explains the email he sent out to interested parties entailing the details, but also the commitment, of playing D&D. A longtime player but first-time DM, he says many interested people took one look at the character creation questions and politely declined. In the end, relative newcomers Ian Alexander (Gray Tal) and Emily Coutts (Keyla Detmer) rounded out the prospective adventurers.
Alexander assured del Barrio they could teach the other young actor everything they needed to know, and Coutts was eager to try another cast game after their sessions of social deduction classic Mafia “became so intense that people started to feel anxious about it”. Rapp says that Coutts was an extremely proficient liar, but the actors ended up too invested in their roles and relationships, walking away with real feelings of betrayal.
The crew is currently five sessions into the Dragon of Icespire Peak adventure module, which is included in the D&D 5E Essentials Kit. Every one of the party members was excited to share the details of their currently third-level characters.
I do things impulsively in this game and think, ‘It's probably not going to be that bad.’ And even if it is, it kind of just becomes another fun problem we get to figure out.
Rapp plays Grafinas, a half-elf druid whose impassivity borders on aloof. He disgusted his companions early by transforming into a wolf spider unprompted. Coutts is the half-elf cleric Erlia, who has dedicated her life to Eldath, the god of pacifism - that doesn’t stop her from cracking skulls in the name of peace. Wiseman created Misha, a goliath ranger whose large stature belies their natural affinity for birds.
Ian performs as the wood elf bard Vivi - a self-professed shameless self-insert who most recently befriended a manticore and derailed Averbach-Katz’ preparation for that session. Finally, del Barrio plays Bink Oathbound, a “a little squishy boy with horns that are growing”. The teenage tiefling wizard is just coming into his awareness of what a tiefling heritage means in the broader world, and the rest of the party aggressively protects him from any harm.
As professional actors, it seemed roleplaying at the table would be a natural thing. But the party admits the relaxed nature, lack of lines to memorise and embracing of mistakes as opportunities encourages a different creative energy in their performances.
“I guess there is me in everything that I do, but it is really nice to have a creative storytelling outlet in something that isn't work,” Alexander says. “It is really fun to be able to just explore, and it kind of reminds me of improv. I'm getting back into my theatre roots a bit.”
Alexander and del Barrio, as the younger and newer cast members, especially appreciate the chance to play with their coworkers. The dynamic during our interview doesn’t contain any of the trepidation or nerves both said they felt when they first joined the show.
It's refreshing to be in a natural world, because Star Trek is almost totally non-organic.
“Because normally we have been able to get together, this has been such a gift,” Rapp says. “Anything that allows us to do this is really helpful. It's just something to look forward to, leaning into the mystery of it and, like, anything's possible.”
First-time dice rollers and old hats alike found playing D&D helped them consider storytelling, acting and their own ways of thinking about the world in new ways. “I'm such an overthinker. And I'm so fearful of bad outcomes,” Coutts says. “But I do things impulsively in this game and think, ‘It's probably not going to be that bad.’ And even if it is, it kind of just becomes another fun problem we get to figure out.
“I think I'm learning, maybe, to try that in real life someday.”
Asked about the difficulty in performing in a sci-fi setting while playing in classic fantasy tropes, the party points instead to the similarities between Star Trek and D&D. Averbach-Katz says the moralistic core of any Star Trek iteration is alive in their game, investigating problem-solving without violence.
Wiseman highlights a key difference. “It's refreshing to be in a natural world, because Star Trek is almost totally non-organic. You're inside in the vacuum of space at all times,” she says. “I don't think it's an accident that three or four of us have characters who are deeply, profoundly connected to nature.”
Though they won’t say anything definitively, Rapp mentions the party discussing the possibility of streaming or recording one-shot adventures that bring in other interested actors from the Star Trek: Discovery set. They clearly want to continue sharing the magic they’ve discovered at the tabletop with others.