I first encountered Yee Olde Dragon Master's Guide to the Mighty Labyrinth Quest on a Thursday night in an unassuming Eastlake watering hole. I found myself in need of a drink before the weekend officially started, so I followed the strains of ragged folk-metal coming from inside the curtained façade of Rooz Cafe, hoping for a little beer and brutality to take the edge off. What I found, along with the suds, was an interactive musical parable of epic proportions.
At the front of the stage was the Dragon Master (Donald Hughes) himself, a half-dragon, half-wizard bandleader with a blue headdress covered in spines and a cloak bearing obscure symbols of power. He shared the stage with a guitar-playing barbarian in full battle dress, a shirtless drummer, and a fiddle player as he bellowed the words to his song, "Do You Like Food? Thank a Honey Bee." Meanwhile the audience members nursed their beers, enraptured by the spectacle. As each song ended, he paused the music to continue with his saga, The Epic of the Saddest Forest.
The Dragon Master models his sets after role-playing games (RPGs), which present players with quandaries that drive the plot, such as, "A three-foot bee appears in front of you. Do you try to talk to it?" Players propel the narrative by choosing a course of action and rolling dice to determine the outcome — in the case of the Dragon Master's live shows, a twelve-sided die the size of a beach ball, which audience members roll in turns. Each decision leads to a new plot point, which the Dragon Master introduces through song.
The music of Saddest Forest draws from a variety of influences, including hair metal, folk, and classic rock. The flexibility of the plot-driven songwriting appears in the details of each piece, such as "The Sad Tale of Grimmlick the Dwarf," which devolves into a frenzy of blasting beats and scratchy fiddle as the titular character obsesses over vengeance against orcs, or the throaty, deep-voiced droning in "Ohm with the Druids."
In an interview, the Dragon Master said an important difference between his performances and a typical RPG is that he accelerates the combat because his sets are shorter than a full game, which can continue ad infinitum. The Epic of the Saddest Forest contains forty songs, which allows the Dragon Master to perform a different set each show. "The audience's perception of the Mighty Labyrinth Quest is determined by their choices and the dice," he explained. Since he typically doesn't know which songs he will play ahead of time, he performs with a rotating lineup of musicians who have strong improvisational skills.
According to the Dragon Master, fifth dimensional Care Bear people — whose eclectic influences include black metal, Queen, and Kate Bush — composed Saddest Forest to prepare humans for the time when magic will return to earth. The Dragon Master also recently released a shorter album on Bandcamp, The Foreshadowing, and launched a crowdfunding campaign to immortalize the Labyrinth Quest as a full studio album, complete with written instructions and dice so fans can play the game at home.
Despite its fantastical origins, Saddest Forest has some tangible themes, often with environmentalist commentary: In the epic, Iggy Farben, an evil gnome named for the now-defunct chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben (a predecessor of Bayer), enlists orcs to destroy honey bees with poisoned plants and extract petroleum with hydraulic fracturing operations. The Dragon Master is blunt about his role as a bee propagandist, and said that his human alter-ego, Donald Hughes, is "a little bit politically active."
The Dragon Master has performed at a wide variety of local venues — such as the Oakland Metro Operahouse in the Jack London district, where he headlined a Game of Thrones-themed live variety show last weekend — and has only recently begun to play in spaces traditionally reserved for fantasy culture, like gaming conventions. Though one might assume that Dragon Master's music targets a niche audience, the artist said that his left-field, interactive live show has captivated diverse crowds outside of gamer circles.
"I kind of trick them into paying attention to me," he admitted. "Because they have to tell me what their character wants to do next in the story." He said it also helps that "everyone loves rolling large dice."
The obvious silliness and unselfconscious sincerity of the Mighty Labyrinth Quest likely plays a role in its popularity with non-gamers, too. Ultimately, Yee Olde Dragon Master's Guide to the Mighty Labyrinth Quest gives listeners an opportunity to act raucous and goofy in public, and that may be its strongest appeal. In an era of incessant irony, such an invitation is refreshing.