DVD Review: The Dungeon Masters

Hey there…

People who play roleplaying games sometimes get a bad wrap. We get accused of practicing witchcraft or blamed for the suicides of individuals with mental illness, when all we’re doing is getting together to pretend we’re someone else for a while and hang out. “It’s a game, people” seems to be our regular response to this controversy, but that doesn’t stop some folks from trying to stop creativity and free thinking by banning books.

The Dungeon Masters is a new documentary from director Kevin McAllester (You’re Gonna Miss Me) that shines a light on the lives of three gamers – Richard, Scott, and Elizabeth. Though not typical of those people I’ve met in my nearly 30 years gaming, these three present a unique cross section of roleplayers from across the country.

Each of the three subjects of the documentary is involved in roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons. D&D was introduced in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Now on its 4th edition, it has spawned two feature films and hundreds of books. Games such as D&D provide a creative outlet for thousands of imaginative and creative people around the world to escape the realm of the mundane and experience the fantastic for a time.

D&D is traditionally a table-top roleplaying game, meaning that a Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM) leads a group of players, each with their own Player Characters (PCs) on an adventure in a make-believe world. Games like D&D provide a structured, yet open-ended, set of rules so that everyone plays fair and doesn’t just start changing the rules as they go. PCs have characteristics to define their strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. And the players, in a way similar to actors on stage or screen, describe their characters’ actions and speak for them.

Scott is a gamer seeking a way to provide for his wife and son through his hobby as opposed to his job as an apartment complex manager. But as most of us with the same dream have learned one way or another, that’s tough to do. As a result, he spins the imagination he uses for gaming into a fantasy novel and tries to get it published through an agent.

Richard’s life is a little different. A reservist, he spends most of his time thinking about GMing his weekly roleplaying game sessions. GMs basically control everything that the player characters see in the game – from the rest of the population of a town or city to the monsters and even the weather. And Richard seemed to take a very adversarial approach to his games – going so far as to kill all the PCs in the game when they went into a Sphere of Annihilation and obliterated themselves, which put a strain on his group that bled even into the next group Richard GMed.

And Elizabeth is a different case all together. She, even more than the others, likes to inhabit her characters fully to the point where she dresses up as a Drow (Dark) Elf with face paint, a wig, and a costume. Elizabeth also plays World of Warcraft on the computer and enjoys Live Action Role Playing or LARPing with other individuals who like to wear costumes and wield fake weapons to get further into their own characters.

Where all of these people fall down a bit is with personal relationships outside the game. Scott’s wife seems to be the main breadwinner of the family while he chases his dreams of being a famous author and having a successful cable television series. Richard’s dedication to running his game meant less time to spend with his wife and within his church. And Elizabeth went from relationship to relationship seeking someone who would accept her as she is as a person and not just as a character.

Though I understand that overall there’s a positive message to the documentary that shows that change is possible for these people and they can mend fences to gain stronger relationships, I’m concerned that it portrays all gamers as socially dysfunctional, damaged individuals disconnected from the real world.

In my own personal experience as a gamer, I have spent time with many different types of people. And yes, there have been some odd folks like the guy who was occasionally on acid or the self-professed Wiccan. But for the most part, they’re just normal people. Most of the gamers I’ve met since college have had jobs, relationships, and are as ordinary as anyone you’d meet on the street. Some, like myself, even have families and still find time to game.

So the documentary seems skewed to me towards the more extreme ends of “normal” gaming behavior. Are there gamers who behave the way the people in the documentary do? Yes. But I can without hesitation say that I’ve never met anyone who tried to run their own cable television show.

Quality-wise, the documentary is very well shot. Most is in widescreen, with older video clips worked in here and there. In addition to the film itself are many outtakes that didn’t make their way into the final cut. I can honestly say that 99% of them would have made the subjects of the documentary seem even more unusual or crazy than they already do.

If you’re a gamer, I would strongly suggest you check out The Dungeon Masters to see how our hobby is being viewed in this case. The documentary provides an unflinching glimpse into the realities of these three lives and how they try to balance their hobbies and real life.

If you’re not a gamer, but know someone who is – I would encourage you to watch this documentary with them so they may provide a different perspective on gaming in their own lives. Use The Dungeon Masters as a starting point for a conversation about roleplaying – not the end.

But either way, I’d encourage you to check out The Dungeon Masters when it’s released on DVD August 3, 2010. For more details, check out the info page at Antidote Films here.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. If you want to pick up this DVD when it’s released, check it out below:

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