Dungeons and Dragons threads its needle

· 1440 words · 7 minute read

Al and I went to see Dungeons and Dragons yesterday.

I warned her, going in, “there is going to be some savage nerdery in the audience.”

I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated Lord of the Rings feature when it came out in … 1978? Someone sitting behind me narrated the entire movie (and its assorted successes and failures) for its duration. That was a formative experience for young me. I will talk your face off about a given adaptation once we are clear of the theater, but sit in stony silence during the viewing.

Before pulling further on that thread, just some thoughts about the movie:

I was first exposed to D&D when I was eight or nine. Dad was in seminary and his friends all played, but it was too adult for the kids, and Dad’s frenemy – the local Dungeon Master for Life – told him it was his observation that I had no imagination and wouldn’t take to the game anyhow.

I first played the game in eighth grade. It was an accidental thing. We moved to Indiana in the middle of the school year, and the only tables in the lunch room with space by the time I got there each day were the two “D&D tables” tucked away to the side. Given the judgment of dad’s frenemy I wasn’t sure I could hang, but the alternative was trying to find a spot in the mostly pre-sorted tables away from the edges of the cafeteria.

Each table had a distinct character.

The crew I fell in with preferred a play style that was broadly rules-oriented but privileged narrative flow over correctness. We did not calculate the weight of our equipment or encumbrance rules. Phil, the dungeon master, was a stickler on appropriate alignment behavior, though, and had a conception of how a Paladin should behave that I swear to god George Lucas stole for the Jedi in the prequels.

The other table was way more rules-oriented and were considered the more rigorous party. Jack, the dungeon master, didn’t ease up on much.

Phil ran a light game. His narration had a broad, slapstick style to it. If you really botched a saving throw or had a catastrophic encounter and somehow managed to get completely mugged by a couple of kobolds, you sort of traded your dignity for your life.

Jack, by contrast, abided by every roll and just straight murdered players. Your favorite 13th level Paladin got iced? Suck it. You could keep playing, but with a low-level character who acted as a boat anchor and liability for the survivors. Jack was known to play with some high school kids who ran an evil campaign, and his stories were dark.

The two crews stuck to their tables during the week. Every few months we’d get together for a sleep-over and a one-night campaign, where it was generally agreed that Phil’s “narrative first” approach worked a little better given the time constraints and general punchiness by the time you got to the end-game around 4 or 5 a.m.

I favored Phil’s approach. When I made my own game system it was built around six-sided dice and was pretty heavily influenced by Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!, which was descended from one of his ’70s-era microgames (wrong Steve Jackson, thanks, Ed – mph). It wasn’t about wrapping rules around miniature gaming – Jack had maps, Phil eschewed them – but instead about adding a little entropy to a shared improvisational story-telling exercise.

Over the course of my gaming career I pretty much sorted everybody into “Jack” and “Phil” camps, broadly. After starting with D&D, I moved on to Boot Hill, Traveler, Top Secret, Space Opera, Marvel Superheroes, and a heavily narrative-inflected Car Wars. Some crews were meticulous rules people, others not. Some of them loved their rules but kept the story light, others told pretty dark stories but favored the narrative. Some were very welcoming of newcomers, able to be patient with the sorts of things new players do before they sort of get into the flow. Some were very “only the experienced need apply,” and only let you bring high-level characters into their campaigns if you’d brought them up from scratch.

I’m going into all this diversity, because I went into the movie wondering whether it would make any sense. There are definitely some set dressing things that will be familiar to multiple generations of D&D players, but there’s so much variation in how people play that I’d be hard pressed to write down the criteria for “faithful to the game.”

It managed it, though, or at least it recreated a style of play I’ve seen a lot among dungeon masters who are good at keeping the party moving, turning the pot up to a poil, and keeping control of the situation as an increasingly frantic party cooks up increasingly implausible solutions to whatever is coming at them.

The characters all sort of map to their “classes” without “Use your barbarian might, Holga!” meta-dialogue. There’s an NPC. One of the characters pretty much screamed “hey, emo neuro-divergent zoomers, look how much fun you could have pretending to be yourself, but with a backstory that isn’t contradicted by your Twitter history!”

It reminded me of when some new fantasy movie would come out, and we’d take a little time out from our lunch time game to sit around dissecting the characters (what level? what class?) and any spells (“it was definitely a magic missile, but heavier damage”) or weapons (“that’s an ego sword, for sure … I’d say +1/+3.”) Except it also synthesizes the past couple of decades of fantasy movie stuff (you get the Jacksonesque dungeon interiors and boom-shot landscapes, you get the MCU wise-cracking and one late scene that could have just been different CG models wrapped around Loki and the Hulk) and maps them back into D&D.

So … savage nerdery.

Decades of Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Marvel, DC, etc. adaptations have conditioned into me a certain cringing wariness. Not about the properties so much as the fans. Or maybe what the fans will do to the properties. I found the Harry Potter movies incredibly tedious, and fans of the franchise suggested to me that it was because they were simply too faithful. I didn’t get too worked up about Lord of the Rings and the way it inflected from a fairly faithful Fellowship to oliphant-trunk-surfing Legolas because the fans were out for blood the second Peter Jackson was announced as the director and he knew it: He had to keep them from denouncing the first one so he could capture the normies and get on with making an LotR that worked more as action-adventure in the later installments.

But I’ve sat in theaters where you can hear and feel people seething. And I have an internet connection. Even if you don’t care that the gatekeepers and pedants are upset, you can’t help but know they are.

In yesterday’s matinee, though, the crowd ate it up. I could hear people comparing notes whenever a new creature appeared or some particular location was mentioned from the established lore. People name-checked spells and relics. Al sat next to two people who were engaged in running commentary the entire time. I couldn’t quite hear them except when something really delighted them and they started cackling and bouncing up and down.

I don’t judge. It was fun. It leveraged the strengths of being of a property – some aesthetic stuff, creatures from Monster Manual, locations, classes, spells – but preserved the strength of D&D (and RPGs generally), which I would argue is its capacity to accommodate all those diverse playing and narrative styles. Where comic book movie properties have harnessed the multiverse hack that comic publishers were forced into, both to permit constant re-creation and renewal of their IP, and to slip out of the unforgiving canon pedantry that makes Star Wars and Star Trek difficult, D&D simply is a bunch of different things to a bunch of different people. It is not hard to imagine an MCU-like multi-format franchise wrapped around D&D.

When we walked out – me as someone who’s been around D&D and RPGs for 42 years, Al as someone who has never played a minute of anything – I was saying “that seemed to capture the spirit and it was a fine light fantasy movie,” and Al was saying “that was fine. I expected some sort of comedy/adventure thing and that’s what it was. Was it like the game, then?”

Sure. Somehow, it was like the game.

Seems like “mission accomplished.”