Dungeons & Dragons was the Devil’s work. At least that’s what many religious Americans thought in the 1980s, when the classic role-playing game was at its original peak. Many children in Christian households weren’t allowed to bring the game into their homes, which gave it an air of danger and mystery that only made them want to play it even more. The Satanic Panic hasn’t fully gone away, but they just don’t make ‘em like they did in the ‘80s anymore.
Comedian Andrew Orvedahl grew up in just such a household. A member of the Denver-based trio The Grawlix, and co-creator and co-star of the TruTV sitcom Those Who Can’t, Orvedahl was fascinated by D&D as a child but couldn’t actually bring any of its books or modules into his house. He didn’t finally start playing the game until he was in his 30s. He fell for D&D’s fifth edition so hard that games ultimately became as much of a passion for him as comedy. Shortly before the pandemic he formed a company called Occupied Hex to publish his own original games, which so far have included a stripped down fantasy game in the mold of D&D, and a more modern concept where players role-play as stray animals. Orvedahl prefers simple, elegant rules for his RPGs, making them accessible to those who aren’t overly familiar with the form. His latest game, Duster, is a post-apocalyptic Western played with two traditional six-sided dice; its Kickstarter runs until next week, and has already raised more than twice Orvedahl’s goal.
Paste recently talked to Orvedahl about Duster, his love of tabletop gaming, and how it intersects with his career as a comedian.
Paste: Duster’s described as a “a post-apocalyptic gaspunk roleplaying game set in the new west.” What can players expect from your game and its setting?
Andrew Orvedahl: As a huge fan of both post-apocalyptic and western fiction, I finally decided to smash both these interests headlong into one another. The resulting game should please fans of either genre, and really strike gold with fans of both. The game itself is based on my own original game engine centered around one simple six-sided die, and my goal was a game that’s quick to get started, easy to learn as you play, and flows smoothly throughout. I’m particularly proud of my combat system, which is still about tactical strategy but every turn can be different for the players, and it moves at a nice speed.
Paste: What are some of your influences, both on the game design and on the overall concept of the game?
AO: As I mentioned, I’ve been a fan of both western and post-apocalyptic fiction forever, and I’ll digest pretty much anything in either genre, but I’ve always enjoyed the Fallout videogames, of course the Mad Max films, and there’s an ‘80s movie called The Blood of Heroes starring Rutger Hauer that I absolutely loved growing up. On the western side of things I was a big fan of the scheming and treachery in Deadwood, and John Hillcoat’s dire western The Proposition (he also did the film adaptation of The Road, another favorite). Also all the classic westerns from the ‘70s and ‘80s that were rated PG somehow but were more messed up than a lot of our modern rated R films. Finally, I once had a telephone customer service job, and the only media we were allowed to consume was a shelf of books that was almost entirely Louis L’Amour novels, and I think I read about 50 Louis L’Amour novels at that job. As for the design aspects, I’m a huge fan of Stephen Dewey (Ten Candles) and John Harper’s games (Blades In The Dark, Lasers + Feelings), and their unconventional game designs kind of illuminated the fact that I could design my game however I wanted and could leave some old conventions behind.
Paste: The post-apocalypse is an evergreen setting for fiction, especially with us continually finding new ways to destroy ourselves. Still, what sets Duster’s world apart from other games or movies with similar settings?
AO: Surviving an apocalypse is something a lot of people are fascinated with, especially me, and it’s a weird fantasy to inhabit! I think there are a few distinctions we can make with post-apocalyptic fiction: there’s near-event, where the survivors are raiding grocery stores for canned goods and fighting over looted medicine, and this ranges all the way to far-event, where the world looks radically different and the survivors may have little to no knowledge of the world that came before them. My setting in Duster inhabits a bit of the middle. It is definitely not near-event (there are no more grocery stores or canned goods) but there are remnants of the old world. In Duster, the apocalypse doesn’t hit in our modern times, it hits decades down the road, so the remnants of the old world are more science-fiction. When player characters find these buried mysteries they will also be an intriguing unknown for the player behind the character. These sci-fi flourishes really help Duster stand out on its own, I think.
I don’t think mixing western aesthetics with the post-apocalypse is particularly new; we see it in movies often without it even being a story point. In the world of Duster, these survivors have intentionally rebuilt their small pockets of civilization to old west levels of technology. They do not trust any higher technology (or anything made from plastic), and it’s almost universally shunned. The big exception to this of course are motorized vehicles, which have been included simply because they’re fun. I always wondered why the straggling survivors in Mad Max films are driving gas-guzzling V-8-powered cars, but those logistical concerns are always drowned out as soon as the gas pedal is mashed and the car disappears in a cloud of dust.
This intentional bent toward the old west aesthetic also sets Duster apart from worlds where it might be more happenstance.
Paste: What’s your personal history with tabletop RPGs—how long have you been playing, what are some of your favorite games of all-time, and what are you currently playing?
AO: I grew up in a very religious household and was not allowed to play tabletop RPGs, so I’d go to the game store at the mall and sit on the floor and just read them. I’d go home and sort of imagine how they worked and how to play them, and loved the art especially. Then, much later in life, in my early 30s I got invited to play Dungeons & Dragons (Fifth Edition) with some other comedians and was bit by it instantly. I’ve always loved telling stories and this was perhaps the ultimate storytelling device. From D&D I moved on to other games, such as Tales From The Loop and Alien by Free League, the aforementioned Blades In The Dark and Lasers + Feelings, which is one of my favorite game engines just for its pure simplicity. I also love Ten Candles, a horror game by Stephen Dewey which is just zero-prep, elegant genius. I can’t recommend it enough for horror game fans. I’ve also enjoyed Cyberpunk Red and Call of Cthulu as well. Honestly I’ll play any TTRPG once, because I am fascinated by these systems and what works and what doesn’t. Lately I’ve been mostly playing my own games because I have so many irons in the fire, but I am in a streaming D&D campaign called Better Than Heroes (soon to be a podcast!) and I often play Blades In The Dark on Stream of Blood. I’ll always have a soft spot for 5e D&D, it was my introduction to TTRPGs and I still play it with my daughter, it’s her favorite game. Ultimately overall I think my favorite game might be Ten Candles. It’s just a really singular experience.
Paste: You’re best known as a comedian, but you started Occupied Hex last year and have worked on three games now. What do you like about making games? And what kind of overlap is there in the skill sets required for good comedy and good game design?
AO: I love stand-up comedy, especially independent comedy, but comedy is full of gatekeepers. You need to deal with bookers at pretty much any level, from a little local show to late night TV spots. Making games as a little independent company has zero gatekeepers! I come up with my ideas, develop them, bring in other people for feedback, and then take my products directly to people through crowdfunding like Kickstarter and they either think it looks good and boom it’s gonna happen or they don’t think it looks good and it’s back to the drawing board. This style of supply chain is really appealing for someone who has spent 18 years in stand-up kind of standing outside the door waiting for answers on projects.
I think some people expect my games to have a comedic element to them, but that really is not the case. I like making people laugh in stand-up and in comedy writing, but I treat each game like its own fictional world, and I’m only going to put comedy in there if it makes sense. One useful skill that I developed creating my show Those Who Can’t, and the subsequent shows I’ve developed, is world-building. To write a solid TV show pitch or show bible, you have to build out the world. It needs characters that pop, and who live believably in that space. Learning how to do that has been hugely helpful now that I’m tasked with populating the entire ruined United States with a world for players to interact with!
Paste: How long have the ideas for your three games been in your head? Is this you finally making something you’ve long been thinking about, or are these ideas coming to you as you go?
AO: The ideas for my projects come from all different places, but I always write down every idea as it comes, because you never know how it will grow. I get ideas all the time and I think of all my ideas as sort of inhabiting a carousel in my mind, and they come around from time to time and I will gravitate toward one or another. Sometimes I never come back to an idea; whatever sparked it never grows into anything more.
For Duster in particular, many years ago in my 20s I wanted to write and draw comics, and I had an idea for a post-apocalyptic comic book setting. I worked on that forever, and then over time I realized I probably wasn’t going to break into the comic book biz, so I wrote it up as a novel. It wasn’t good but it was large, and lives buried on a hard drive somewhere. Smash cut to maybe two years ago I dug that idea up and was like maybe this would be a great world for a TTRPG? Ultimately that idea was too huge to try and tackle with a ttrpg, but I dialed into certain elements I liked and then had the new idea for the western setting. So this idea in particular has been simmering off and on for a really long time.
Paste: What are your long term hopes for Occupied Hex? Is this a hobby, a job, something in-between?
AO: I started Occupied Hex to make board games, but when the pandemic hit that was put on the back burner because I wasn’t able to test the idea with groups, and the overseas supply chain was (and is) a nightmare. So I side-stepped into TTRPGs, which I also love. Right now I suppose it would be considered a hobby, if I crunch the numbers and look at how many hours I invest vs the money that comes in, but I would love for it to be my full-time job. I’ll always have room in my life for comedy, but making games is another passion I’m never going to get remotely tired of.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.