Joe Manganiello Wants Dungeons & Dragons to Be "Badass" Again

Actor and director Joe Manganiello, one of the biggest D&D fans on the planet, talks to Inverse about bringing back heavy metal to the tabletop game.

Wizards of the Coast

For those entrenched in the hobby and lifestyle of Dungeons & Dragons, they know actor Joe Manganiello is one of them. The 42-year-old actor, best known for his roles in True Blood and Magic Mike, has embraced the hobby he first loved as a kid until the acting bug got him to Hollywood.

There’s a natural connective tissue from tabletop roleplaying — a social hobby involving improvisation, creativity, problem-solving, and yes, acting — to working as a creator in film and TV. But Manganiello doesn’t think there’s that much of a direct line from the game room to the audition room.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the reason why. I didn’t play D&D and go, I wanna be an actor,” he tells Inverse. “That happened independently. I made films and that’s how I got into acting, but unbeknownst to me, especially when I started producing and breaking stories for pitches and scripts, I realized all of those muscles I developed from game mastering as a kid. So in hindsight it was absolutely instrumental in my development as an artist.

He continues, “It was a way for me to work it out, in a way I understood, creating characters and stories could be something I could do for a living.”

Now, in a TV studio in Los Angeles, Manganiello is besieged by all things D&D. He stands before an elaborate castle set and intricate miniatures with “Dwarven Forge” in fiery engraving. This is D&D Live: The Descent, a weekend celebration featuring celebrity gamers and streaming personalities, including Manganiello, who will play the game’s newest adventure, Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, on the internet for millions.

The day before D&D Live, Inverse caught up with Manganiello about his love for the hobby and Arkhan the Cruel, his own dragonborn paladin/barbarian becoming an official character in Dungeons & Dragons lore.

Joe Manganiello in his D&D Dungeon

Beyond D&D

What’s it like having your own character become an official Dungeons & Dragons character?

It’s “in shock” fun. As a kid I wanted [Principal Story Designer] Chris [Perkins]’s job. That’s what I wanted to be. So for me to get to collaborate and tell a story in this medium that was instrumental in my development as a storyteller, to be able to moonlight just for a brief period of time the job I wish I had was amazing. I put everything I had in it.

I worked with Max Dunbar, the comic book artist, tirelessly figuring Arkhan’s crew. There’s all these sketches and amazing drawings, and then taking those drawings off to WhizKids and Gale Force. I would quit what I do for a living to do that if I was asked.

Do you see hope to one day author your own adventure for the game?

It all boils down to my time. I have this other job that is an all consuming, seven days a week, 24-hour a day job you can’t escape form. Do I want to write a series of graphic novels? Do I the story laid out? Yes. Have I talked with the artist I wanna work with? Yes. Do I know when I would be able to break myself away from my schedule to do that? I don’t know. If I could figure out a way to seep faster then yes, I do want to do it. I think it is burning inside me and it’s gonna keep burning until I do it. I just have to figure out the right time.

You have a clothing line called Death Saves that you presented on Colbert. What was your creative ambition with Death Saves?

Death Saves was a way for me to continue being creative in a strange way that made a lot of sense to me, that I could do in between my other job. I’m constantly looking for things I could do in between.

The line was a return to a heavy metal aesthetic. To me, fantasy and heavy metal went hand in hand. Frank Frazetta’s artwork that became Conan and Tarzan, that was fantasy to me. The red box cover of Larry Elmore, it was scary. It was frightening. A lot of the First Edition artwork reminded me of all the heavy metal album covers I grew up with. There was a move away from that as people became scared of what “the devil” was doing to us all in the ‘80s, which we now know isn’t the case and was unfairly blamed. I thought it’s as good a time as any to head back into that.

It is pretty telling that the new adventure, Descent Into Avernus, literally takes place in hell.

I think it’s indicative of, we’re at a place where we’re far away enough from the ‘80s and the obstacles Dungeons & Dragons faced in the Satanic panic where we can have an adventure in hell. We can do it! And lean back into a really scary environment to play in.

What was missing in either fashion or tabletop that you hoped to restore with Death Saves?

I knew there was an entire generation like me who loved that aesthetic and a younger generation buying everything with a skull on it that, Japanese and hip hop street wear designer were putting on the shelves. And a lot of it, I noticed, was done in an inorganic way by people who I don’t think grew up with it the roots of the artwork.

I started this line because I wanted to make D&D badass. I wanted to make badass creatures and characters and in that art style. I wanted to put out of work heavy metal album artists, because there aren’t albums anymore, I want to put these guys back to work reimagining those characters. And also go out and get licensing agreement with the Frazetta girls and use their father’s artwork to introduce that young generation, This is where it started. And having a licensing agreement with Dungeons and Dragons has been so much fun. To make wearable artwork you can wear and hide in plain sight.

They do look like shirts for metal bands.

If you’re not a D&D fan, you think orc is the name of some Norwegian metal band. But to a D&D fan, I wanted to create something that people could wear anywhere.

You said on your Colbert appearance that you would play with him when he’s in town. Did you guys get to play?

He came out for the Emmy’s and I was away working. I was out of town filming and we haven’t caught up. We need to play. We need to. I’m gonna see him this summer in New York.

Your wife gifted you an original piece by artist Jeff Easley of Arkhan. How does she feel about the game?

She’s happy she knows where I am. I’m not at some casino gambling my life savings. For me and my friends in L.A. in entertainment, our poker night is D&D. We’re a bunch of married guys who play D&D. We hang out in the basement, our wives at home, and we do our thing.

It was amazing she got connected to Jeff Easley. She knows how much of my childhood was spent with my head in these worlds as an adult. When I opened it, I had no clue. I could not believe that that was happening.

She doesn’t understand it. When I’m done, she goes, “Did you win?” and I go, “I didn’t die.” She’s like okay, I still don’t get it. But when she sees one of the guys who created Game of Thrones coming over to my house to play, she’s like, okay, this must be real.

This interview is edited for clarity.