Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Defense of D&D Movies and Some Commentary on Playing Styles

Ever since I purchased a copy of Thousand Suns, I have been a big fan of James Maliszewski. It was obvious from this product, and his excellent Shadow, Sword, & Spell, that he and I share a deep affection for many of the same things. It didn't take me long to enter his name into a search engine and find his excellent blog Grognardia where he shares his love of Old School gaming and pulp fiction with an engaged and passionate audience. I'm a big fan of the site and cannot recommend it -- or the two games mentioned earlier -- highly enough.

Though we share affections, his explorations into pulp and old games usually discuss things found on my book shelves, I don't always agree with his critical opinions of new gaming systems. James is an ardent advocate of not merely "old school games," but also of what he considers "old school play." While I advocate owning and playing older games, I have no preference for old or new style play. James is a knowledgeable critic of the gaming industry, and I am a devoted Pollyanna.

A perfect Case Study for how our hobby opinions differ is his recent post regarding Dungeons and Dragons movies. In a post entitled "The Pointlessness of a D&D Movie," James argues that -- regardless of the quality of a D&D movie -- there is no real point to making a D&D movie since any such film would be D&D in name only. In his opinion, it would be difficult -- if at all possible -- to make a film that truly captured the essence of D&D. He argues that any D&D movie would likely be a "generic" fantasy film as much as it would be a D&D film. Therefore the exercise is largely pointless.

I both agree and disagree with his argument, and I disagree strongly with many of those who posted comments on his site -- especially with regard to what constitutes the "feel" of D&D.

While James is correct that most attempts to create a D&D inspired movie would likely be "merely" generic fantasy films, he would be wrong if he thought it were necessary that a D&D inspired film would be a generic fantasy film. To be fair, James asks his audience to give him an example of what such a film would be like rather than to assert that it is impossible.

In my opinion, a D&D inspired film would take one of two forms.

In the first case, one could create a film inspired by the intellectual properties associated with the D&D brand. One could make a Mystara, Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Birthright, Eberron, Dark Sun, or Planescape movie. To be fair, it would be possible that any film set in these creations might end up defaulting to generic fantasy, but it isn't a necessary condition. A Greyhawk film that focused on Zagyg's quest for immortality, Iuz's plans, or on Mordenkainen and friends would be different enough in character to matter. Similarly a Forgotten Realms film about Drizz't or based on Paul Kemp's "Shadow" series would have as distinct a tone as is possible. As for Eberron, Dark Sun, or Planescape, each of these has a character so unique that they would stand out on their own. These settings are rich for exploration and would also have the marketing potential to bring in new gamers, as they have directly related products.

In the second case, I can imagine a film akin to Andre Norton's Quag Keep, L. Sprague DeCamp's Solomon's Stone, or Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame. In this scenario, players of a D&D game would be transported into a mystical world -- or the actions of players in the real world would be interposed on characters in the fantastic. I also think one could do something like the Gold web series where gaming is used as a setting for a larger story.

From a marketing perspective any of these would be desirable. The purpose of a film is to help build brand and provide revenue and this would be easily possible with any of the above strategies. Which comes down to the crux of it. It isn't pointless from a business perspective to make a D&D film because it can bring revenue for shareholders while providing entertainment -- and employment opportunities -- for stakeholders.

Almost no one reading James' blog approached the question in the above fashion. Looking at the responses from James' readers though, one is taken aback by a couple of things. First, the venom some of his posters had for existing D&D entertainment enterprises. Commenters disparaged the D&D movies, the Dragonlance animated film, and the D&D cartoon that aired in the 80s.

In future posts I will discuss the various D&D movies individually, but let me just put forward the following. I think that everyone involved in making those products wanted to make something entertaining, and many of them were gamers themselves. I agree that the first D&D movie was a disappointment (though it also had moments). I think that the second film was much better, and on a fraction of the budget. I think that the flaws of the Dragonlance movie stem from weaknesses in the first Dragonlance novel (the weakest of the first six books) and that the film is actually a good translation of that book. I deeply enjoy the cartoon series, as do my twin daughters. Lastly, I eagerly await the next D&D film and know that the people working on it want to make a good film. But I will elaborate on all of these in the future.

Another thing that struck me in the posts, in addition to the venom aimed at existing attempts, was the vision many of James' commenters had for what constitutes "D&D narrative."

Some examples include this one from commenter Johnstone:

A group of adventurers arrives at the mouth of a dungeon. They enter and explore rooms, get around traps, fight monsters, run away from monsters, find gold and treasure, and Black Dougal dies from poison. Then they fight two or three dragons at the end, after which only the fighter and the thief are still alive. The thief backstabs the fighter, grabs (some of/the best of) the treasure and books it. The end.

This one from Reverence Pavane:

Well a good movie about D&D would probably go back and examine the basic tropes of the game, rather than trying to fit a plot to the games. Such as the existence of dungeons. The fact that adventurers form up in small teams of highly egotistical individuals to go down into the dungeon and slay things, loot their victims and furnishings, and then return to the tavern.

This one from Lord Gwydion:

Personally, if I were to write a D&D script, I'd focus on these things:

No big 'save the world' plot.

No 'revenge' plot (although a subplot might involve revenge).

No 'hero's journey' plot.

Those three stances alone mean it would not be made by Hollywood (or they'd hire someone to come in after I was done and add all of those back in).

Each of these, and a couple of other posts, exemplifies a particular view of what constitutes the spirit of D&D play. They also depict a way of playing D&D that I haven't personally experienced since I was in high school. That doesn't mean that this style of play is an "immature" or "childish" way to play the game. In fact, this was a way of playing D&D that was popular among the adults who taught my friends and me how to play the game, but it was one my friends and I abandoned for heroic adventure. It is also a game style that is supported by the rules. One cannot help but to expect a game that gives experience points for how much money you acquire, in addition to how many creatures you kill, will do anything other than foster a "mercenary" style of play.

I call this style of play "D&D as Tomb Raiders," and I don't much like it. I understand that many do, but I think it goes against the grain of what the game is about. I blogged about J. Eric Holmes' opinions regarding game balance and the games spirit last week. To me D&D is a game of "Heroic Journeys," battles against evil, saving the world, and fighting the good fight. It isn't about wandering mercenaries plundering loot -- that's Tunnels and Trolls. D&D is a game that features Paladins battling the hordes of Hell.

In his book Role-Playing Mastery, Gary Gygax writes about how each role playing game rules set has its own "spirit." This spirit cannot often be described in bumper sticker terms, but it is something that will permeate the statistics, mechanics, descriptions included within a game. According to Gary, a game master, and player, is charged with learning more than just the rules of the game, but is also charged with learning the spirit of each game and attempting to play accordingly.

As I mentioned earlier when discussing the recent discussion at Grognardia, one might come to the conclusion that the spirit of Dungeons & Dragons was one of selfish mercenaries, tomb robbers, and skallywags. But this isn't the spirit that Gygax describes. He describes the spirit of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as follows:

I shall attempt to characterize the spirit of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. This is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people. Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarfs, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominant force in the world. They have achieved and continue to hold on to this status, despite the ever-present threat of evil, mainly because of the dedication, honor, and unselfishness of the most heroic humans and demi-humans -- the characters whose roles are taken by the players of the game. Although players can take the roles of "bad guys" if they so choose, and if the game master allows it, evil exists primarily as an obstacle for player characters to overcome...the goal of the forces of good can only be attained through cooperation, so that victory is a group achievement rather than an individual one.

I eagerly watch a D&D movie that embodied Gygax's D&D spirit, and I prefer to play in games that do so as well.

To me "classic D&D" is about saving villagers from ravaging hordes of Giants, only to learn that these Giants were being displaced by Dark Elves, and that the Queen of the Demonweb pits was weaving sophisticated plans that would bring down the forces of good in the world.

That style of play isn't for everyone, but it is a style of play that is fun and would make some good movies.

Of course a dark, brooding, heist film would be pretty good too.
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