By JAMES TUCKER
Travis Vengroff, co-founder of Fool and Scholar Productions, and his wife Kaitlin Statz, multitalented writer for award winning podcasts such as The White Vault and Vast Horizon, join us from the road, moving 8,000 miles to their new home. While both have been involved with a number of stellar, widely recognized podcasts, Rue Morgue joins them to talk DARK DICE, the most recent of their horror themed projects. The couple tell us how DARK DICE came to be, what inspired the creation of the podcast’s most iconic character, and what might be awaiting listeners in the future.
Travis, tell us a little bit about yourself, Fool and Scholar Productions, and any other projects you’re working on at the moment.
TV: Sure, I’m the “Fool” in Fool and Scholar Productions. We started podcasting as a hobby we could do together, and eventually the hobby overtook our actual jobs, and now we do this full time! We create audio-fiction, primarily working on this show called The White Vault, which is a horror fiction podcast set in the arctic that Kaitlyn writes and I do the sounds for. We also have Vast Horizon, which is a sci-fi that’s been a lot of fun and gets into some horror elements, and we’ve got Liberty, which has a couple of different shows that all take place in one world. We’re actually just getting back into that world with Mines and Mysteries, a four-part adventure horror series which is kind of an insular story. It’s also really table and dice centric, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.
How did you meet the cast? Some, I know, are from other productions like The White Vault, but in general, how did you meet everyone?
TV: That’s kinda fun. So, everyone is basically more or less a member of the cast of The White Vault, with the exception of Rosa De La Torre, who is an incredibly professional voice actress who has been very busy working a number of jobs at the same time in the voice acting world. We never actually physically met until a while after we’d finished The White Vault Season 1. We met at our live show for the first time in person and we’d become fast friends. We had actually already played Dark Dice by then. It’s weird playing with people who had never really met face to face, and nobody really knew anyone, and I wanted to play up the lack of insider knowledge for everybody by giving the characters all these traits that clashed and conflicted with one another. It’s kind of like Poker: nobody could tell what anyone else had, and everyone was forced to wonder who could be a villain in disguise.
That actually brings me to another question. How much input did you have in designing the players’ characters, and how much input did they have turn? How much of those characters came from you, and how much came from them?
Well, they definitely played the roles. I did a lot of the designing with them, especially with those who hadn’t played D&D before like David Ault. A lot of the discussions we had were like basically, “Tell me what kind of character you want,” and we went from there. But they contributed quite a bit: Eyþór gave me this huge backstory for his character, Father Westpike, and that almost became word for word what you hear in the “Meet the Cleric” episode, which is also what gave me the idea to start doing those. But everyone else was pretty much like, “Here’s kinda what I’m looking for, here are a few elements I could turn into a story,” and I worked with them to help create the characters they would have the most fun playing. Like with David: we talked through a lot of the different elements of what he identified with, what he thought would be a fun starting playthrough, and then I filled in a lot of the blanks to make it as easy as possible for him. Again, never having played D&D before, it was kinda like, “Tell me what you want to make and I’ll build it for you,” and I gave him like four or five catchphrases to choose from and he chose
“I’ve seen worse.”
Since you mentioned that it was meant to be a one off and you recorded it much earlier, how long has Dark Dice been in production?
TV: Well, we recorded it over two weekends for the first season as a fun little one shot. I believe they were six hour sessions, because I expected them all to die (Laughs). And I guess they wouldn’t; there were so many deathtraps, and I rolled a little more poorly than I expected, and it went on a little longer than I thought it could. And we continued recording since then. We typically record everything in 3 to 6 hour blocks because everyone is on time zones from Germany to California and they don’t really line up that well. Of course, there’s also a lot of editing that goes into it on the back end: we started recording a year before the first episode of Dark Dice came out. Whenever the first season of White Vault aired, I believe that January was when we had finished recording Dark Dice.
Shifting gears a little bit, where did you see the character arc of Soren going when you and Peter created him, and where do you see it going in the future?
TV: So… Soren had the blank background. Peter described it as something awful had happened that had left the character haunted, and we agreed that he had forgotten what that was…and I gave him many opportunities to play the character in the way that he wanted. The character and the player had the agency to pick at any moment what was most real to him, and what was important for Soren at the time. So, it’s a lot of back and forth. I wanted to create a collaborative story instead of writing a script, or having Kaitlyn write a script, and so the question of where Soren went and where he will go (if he’s alive, who knows?) is up to Peter.
Speaking of whether or not he’s alive: with regards to the ending, can we trust anything we saw in the final episode?
TV: The problem with our story is that not only do you have an unreliable narrator, but you also have unreliable characters, whose memories are faulty and always changing. If you follow when the sanity rolls fail, things can often change around those times in terms of what people remember and how they remember them, and the information presented to the cast and characters. That isn’t to say by the way that I ever throw curveballs people are uncomfortable with: I always make sure that whatever I throw their way is within the agency of whatever they’re comfortable with. But it’s been really fun toying with what we can do with perception.
Kaitlin, I had a question for you regarding your character, Sister Cavernsfall. This is only my interpretation of the character, but did you write her to have a darker edge despite her more benevolent intentions? And if you had continued with that character past the point where her story failed, would that dark side continue to develop and express itself?
KS: So, for Sister Cavernsfall, it’s been a couple years since I played her. But I would say that I had really good intentions when I was creating this character. That being said, because of who I am and what I do for a living, so when I create characters who are entirely there because of good intentions but with a consistent history of, “Bad things happen and I’m here to fix it,’ it comes through as… my real intention, my own ideas expressing themselves. I mean, the problem is that she could fix any problem, but that problem would likely be fixed with violence. I think it works for her character though, because being the devotee of the god of suffering and mercy…well, sometimes you can fix some people’s suffering through the suffering of others! She was created to be a beacon of light in a very dark world though, and I think of her as the embodiment of the idea ‘no good deed goes unpunished.
Travis, you’re currently working on the Aftermath series, which showcases our characters struggling with PTSD after the end of their quest. Can you tell me anything about the upcoming second season?
TV: Yeah, Kaitlyn and I are currently working on designing a new “haunted house,” which is what we call the dungeons we create, and her keen horror sense is really helping with that. In a dark corner of the world somewhere else, a whole new cast of adventurers will get into all sorts of hell. Kaitlyn won’t be playing it, because she’s helping write it, but her horror talents really help. There may some tangential tie-in with Aftermath, a very small one, but the intent is to create a new story with characters we don’t entirely trust to start with (again) and we can maybe figure out what’s happening. My style as a DM is really to play with people as much as they’re playing the game (as much as they’re okay with it) and to play with perception, especially with the Silent One, and that’s always been a really fun challenge.
Where did you get the idea for the Silent One?
TV: In my own life, I have some personal issues with recognizing people, cause I have something that’s called prosopagnosia. A real-life fear I live with everyday is not being able to recognize people, even myself. And getting to push my real-life issue on others through the form of not knowing who to trust even when you can see them is really fun for me, seeing how other people react and deal with it. But yeah, face-blindness is an interesting condition to live with, and I think that’s some of the underlying nature of it. And on that note, we do have a sanity mechanic, and I just want to clarify: my goal is to not proscribe characters with disorders or to make light of or gamify any element of mental illness, but rather to have it function as a kind of perception mechanic. A lot of people ask about this, and I think if you listen to the episodes you can see that’s not our intent; but it’s important to state that our sanity mechanic is really a perception mechanic, or something that determines how characters react to stressful situations. We’ve been very cautious about that, because we are very conscious of mental health and we are also aware that we have a fair bit of diversity in what we do, so I think it’s important to mention that as an aside.
Speaking from my own experience as a listener, I never thought of it as anything other than a perception mechanic. I think that comes through in the episodes. This is something I’m curious about as well: the world of Dark Dice, it’s a completely original world created by you. Can you tell us anything about the world outside Illmater’s Hope?
TV: Sure. To clarify, the world was crafted by myself and 30 plus players over 20 plus years that have been running the same D&D campaign world for a long period of time, and the world that it is is one where humanity is not the apex predator, because there are things like dragons and monsters in the woods. Fear and distrust are sort of central and key themes BECAUSE the world is so scary out there, with monsters behind every dark shadow. So it’s not quite Ravenloft, where everything is dreary and sad all the time, but there is a underlying fear and a need to come together as a civilization in order to survive. When you get to places like Illmater’s Hope in the middle of nowhere, that is where you’ll find some of the scariest things of all.
Travis, Kaitlyn, thank you so much for your time. I really only have one more question for you. Having mentioned that Dark Dice was only meant to be a one shot, how far do you see the series going, now that it’s become something bigger?
TV: I don’t particularly have a vision. I think our lack of vision has been a great strength, we’ve recorded quite a bit… the aftermath season is wrapped from a recording perspective, even though the episodes are just being released now (there’s a lot of editing and post production that goes into them). We don’t really have too many intents beyond the stories we have now. I have an idea for a potential third haunted house, but I want to say that it may never become a thing or it may become the next thing, or something else may take it’s place. We don’t really have any guided vision for it except to do what we enjoy doing and to change things and adapt them as we see fit! We have one shot adventures that will take place in the epilogue story arc; we’ve got two of those planned out right now that we’re looking at turning into one shot adventures for the DM’s guild possibly, and subclasses I’m thinking about publishing soon, like a necromancer class that won’t necessarily make one evil. We’ve also got over 30 minutes of music that we haven’t shared yet, and we’re recording more still. We’ve also been developing the setting of the larger world in some interesting ways, and if there’s an interest in the world we may release a world book, like we did for Liberty. We have a lot of ways we could go with it, but our intent is to see what resonates with people before we commit to any given path.
The Aftermath series is releasing now, and season 2 is coming sometime in 2022. Visit Fool & Scholar Productions online, and stream any of their podcasts on your favorite service.