A lot of great people have worked hard to make the second season of Tabletop Deathmatch what it is, from the creators of the games to the artists and designers who helped those games become their very best, and we've already shared most of their stories. But to complete this oral history, we had to learn more about the creation of the competition itself. So we spoke with three of the brains behind the whole operation, Producer/Cards Against Humanity Events Manager Trin Garritano, Producer/Director Graham Stark, and Producer/Assistant Director/Editor Kathleen "Bad Lady" De Vere, about bringing this deathmatch to life.
"I had just started working at Cards Against Humanity when Tabletop Deathmatch started," said Garritano. "During my first day of work I started helping weed out games."
At this point the decision had already been made to turn the simple board game competition into a full-blown web series.
"One of the producers from last year, Liz Smith, talked to Max [Temkin] pretty late in the process and suggested that they actually film the contest," said Stark. "Max thought that was a good idea and asked if there were any suggestions for people who could do that, and she suggested us."
So CAH turned to Stark and De Vere's video production company/Canadian sketch comedy group LoadingReadyRun based on the strength of their work on Penny Arcade's independent comic strip competition "Strip Search," which also provided Tabletop Deathmatch with several talented artists.
"We needed to send out somebody we could trust to manage an incredibly long, taxing, and complicated shoot where we would go to seven different cities in a three week period and drive across large swaths of America," said De Vere. "So I killed all of the other, better candidates and then got the job."
The first season of Tabletop Deathmatch, while a success, had issues you'd expect an accelerated timetable might cause.
" I was really proud of what we accomplished with the first season with the massive asterisk footnote of 'with what we had to work with' which was very little time, two camera people, and just some lights in a hotel room," said Stark. "The content was very strong, but we needed to present it better."
So, as De Vere put it, "bigger and better" was the motto for season two. And with more time to collaboratively develop new ideas, as well as learn lessons from season one, the creators seriously considered what exactly they wanted the show to be.
"We wanted to make sure that this series was something that the finalists could all keep," said Garritano. "Something that would reflect positively upon them and their games. Then they could have these episodes, show them to people, and put them on their Kickstarters."
Changes to the show, from the updated two-part episode format of each game to the flattering lighting to the shot compositions featuring the show's logo to the choice to interview finalists in their homes, sprang forth from this increased emphasis on production value. But to make something that looks this good, sometimes you have to crack the whip.
"At the end of the judging portions we had a very tight timeline. We had basically two days to get all of the games judged, all of those judge talking head interview shots filmed, their final deliberation, and any pickups that we needed," said De Vere. "So we had to be like its 7 a.m., have you eaten? Are you ready to start looking at the game? And then they finish the game and it's like okay who needs to go to the bathroom?"
According to Stark, LRR probably wouldn't have been able to even take on a documentary-style gig like this without their experience on Strip Search providing a benchmark. And even after the long, hurried days of filming finished, editing still presented its own lengthy challenges.
"There's a lot of footage to comb through when you work on a project like this," said De Vere. "The judges are playtesting these games and asking contestants questions about them for up to an hour in some situations. And then you cut that part of the episode down to six minutes or something like that. You can go through six or seven hours of footage to get ten minutes." Fortunately, all that digging also discovered unexpected gold, like Mike Selinker going off against "fucking Luke Crane."
However, even as they were all busy performing the important jobs only they knew how to do, everyone working on Tabletop Deathmatch still learned from the show and each other.
" Going into season one I did not care about tabletop gaming. I played games, but it wasn't an interest. And I learned so much just during the filming and editing," said Stark. "Observing discussions I learned basic stuff like how important playtesting is. The judges are a bunch of really clever folks who know their stuff."
De Vere gained a similar appreciation for the medium.
"I learned that I could probably never make a board game," said De Vere. "I can help to make a great video series, but I think board games are really hard."
And Garritano gained more respect for the video side of things.
"Everything I know about video production I learned on Tabletop Deathmatch. All I had worked on in video before this was a dumb friendship vlog I had for a little while that I just made on my webcam," said Garritano. "I learned so much from Graham and Kathleen and Max. This was a big first for me, and I just learned how much I love doing this and how much I care about it. I want to get better at it."
Everyone who worked on Tabletop Deathmatch also believed it had something to offer other people. After all, why work so hard on a project if you didn't think it had value?
"It's a great, entertaining show not just from the perspective of tabletop gaming, which it obviously is, but also from a perspective of just creating," said Stark. "There are so many lessons from this show that can be applied to creating any sort of content, or media, or product. The stuff that the judges bring up is a lot of granularity that's very specific to tabletop gaming, but the broad strokes can apply to anything."
De Vere saw value in the more personal side of the competition.
"I've learned about the people who made these games. It's nice to see everyone's different motivations, why they wanted to make games, and how they got involved in it ," said De Vere. "People like Pete and Jasmine are like 'We love making games, it's something we work on together as a couple.' And for somebody like Adam, who made Brewin' USA, he's just like 'I heard this podcast and was like I can make a game, that sounds like fun.' So there's this huge variety of experiences."
And for Garritano, the show's value would endure and maybe even increase if it shed its competitive nature altogether.
"I feel like the contest component of the series is the least important part," said Garritano. The exposure alone allows finalists who don't win to at least launch Kickstarters with good chances for success. "We could have more of their process art, their play-tested versions, and stuff like that in the series, what it looks like before you get an artist and a designer and then after. The most important part of the series is seeing the games and the progression."
But whether or not Tabletop Deathmatch takes on a new form or even continues at all, Stark, Garritano, De Vere, and their partners all shared a positive experience working together on the show, which they summed up in their own, individual way.
Stark, "It has been a super fun show to work on."
Garritano, "This weird shit is my favorite part of my job."
De Vere, "It didn't give me wrinkles like Strip Search did."