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Games on Film: The Dungeon Masters

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Since Digital Monkey Shines examines the intersection of film, games, and other media, it’s a natural consequence that a films that deal with gaming and gaming culture deserve a close look.  It’s the start of another themed series for DMS, which I’m calling Games on Film.

Today, we’ll start with the 2008 documentary The Dungeon Masters, released on DVD in 2010.  It is viewable on demand at FilmBuffOnDemand.

If you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a golden age for documentaries.  Thanks to improvements in technology and the corresponding decrease in prices for equipment, it’s now possible to assemble a professional-looking film for a very modest investment.  The cost of production has long been a difficult hurdle for documentary filmmakers, whose films have long struggled to make earn back their expenses as commercial products.

Documentary film makers are now, more than ever, able to put their lenses into the darkest, most obscure corners of everyday human experience.  The director of Dungeon Masters, Keven McAlester, presents a portrait of three game players in both their fantasy and real environments.

Everyone who’s ever crossed paths with the more enthusiastic elements of the roleplaying game participants will have to restrain their urge to groan in frustration.  To some degree, the roleplaying community deserves its stereotype of the socially marginalized but, just like any stereotype, there are plenty of people who don’t conform.  I understand why we get to follow these three particular representatives of the hobby–they’re more interesting than a normal guy who holds a normal job and knows how to get along well with all types of people.

This film’s rogue’s gallery consists of Richard Meeks, Scott Corum, and Elizabeth Reesman.  While each of their situations has a distinctive arc through the documentary, they share a common malaise of the lower-middle class.  One’s need for escape is the resonant theme throughout the film, although there is little follow-through on the idea.  The Dungeon Masters fails to communicate the enjoyment that playing games brings to these people, which means it fails to understand the role of gaming on more than a facile level.

Richard Meeks and Scott Corum are both solidly middle-aged, apparently coming into Dungeons and Dragons in its earliest hey-day.  By the time they are filmed, life seems to have passed them both by.  Meeks works in a mundane job for a local utility and is in the reserves while Corum works part-time as an apartment complex manager.  Very early on we get the feeling that Meeks may be a powerless man who uses his role as gaming referee to exert some kind of control over people.  What little we see of his wife hints at a power dynamic, that she treats his interests as juvenile.

And yet, Meeks is the most animated of the three subjects when shown in his element leading a game.  Unfortunately, the directors choose to follow his attempts to restart a game that had been played for years before with a group of friends in Florida.  The original game ended in a Total Party Kill (TPK), in which Meeks created a situation that led to the death of every player’s character.  The reunion returns to an old source of discontent for Meeks and he ends up writing a dramatic sermonizing I-quit-because-you-people-don’t-play-right letter.

Corum becomes the most accessible of the subjects because, despite his admitted failures at a few careers, he still strives to make a dream come true.  At this point in his life, he has chosen to work on publishing a fantasy novel.  Anyone who’s tried to write a novel sees the warning signs right away–his manuscript is far too long, his craft comes across as amateur, he relies on the opinions of partial readers like his father, and his agent doesn’t seem to have much of a record.  Along with the writing, he gets wrapped up in creating a cable-access television show based on the premise of a failed super-villain hosting a cable access show.  As bad as it sounds, you can actually see a glimmer of talent among all the obligatory shoddiness of the first episode of the show.

Reesman, only in her early twenties, is the would-be foil to these two dreamers.  We first see her in full convention gear: black body paint, elf ears, and platinum-blond wig.  Then she speaks, her voice a monotone drawl that seems to be terribly effective at making one’s thoughts wander.  Eventually we see her in natural state, and it’s surprising how anonymously she presents herself, a marked contrast from her Drow getup.  Then, as if to give us nothing but an excuse to arm-chair psychoanalyze, she proceeds to recount a series of failed relationships, miscarriages, slime-ball bosses, and other travails.  She complains about men liking her for what she does (i.e. gaming) and not who she is.

And therein the documentary raises a fundamental question.  What do roleplaying games do for these people?  As outside observers, we can only collect circumstantial evidence.  From what we see, the reality of each of the subjects presents qualities that one would wish to escape from–under-employment, the tension of relationships, specters of past failures and regrets, shoddy living arrangements, and general existential ambiguity.

What we can’t really measure the effect playing Dungeons and Dragons or other roleplaying games has on the inner lives of the subjects.  In my experience, roleplaying games had several aspects that I enjoyed–the social element of hanging out with friends; the excitement of learning something filled with minute detail; the activation of one’s imagination; the satisfaction of problem solving, the dissection of personalities, plots, and the arts of storytelling.  To its credit, a roleplaying game works for people because it engages them in an active way.

The Dungeon Master’s subjects clearly have an affinity for their hobby.  Perhaps their connection with “reality” is too tenuous at times.  Maybe they aren’t the perfect versions of themselves.  Their ideas of social norms can be different in the insignificant dimensions.  It doesn’t seem fair to somehow treat their particular spot of happiness any less respectfully than anything else that people use to mark and pass their time on this earth.

Written by Bill

March 24, 2011 at 3:28 am

Posted in Movies, RPGs

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Five Things I Learned Playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

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d4, d20, and d10

This is a follow-up of sorts to my post From the Red Box to World of Warcraft in Eight Steps.  In an off-hand remark, I mentioned how many things I learned playing AD&D in high school.  Now it’s time for ugly details and disclosure.  Because people like to read things in a silly list format, here are five of the things I learned playing AD&D:

1.  Probability

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that AD&D, with the help of a few good teachers, put this rural kid on the east coast working in places like Philadelphia and New York and experiencing things out in the big world.

It started with the dice.  Playing AD&D I developed a very firm, intuitive understanding of probability.  For example, I might not have had the formal language to explain it, but I understood the difference in variance between rolling one die vs. rolling three.  In other words, the act of adding up independent dice rolls invokes the Central Limit Theorem, which means that rolling that 18 STR on three rolls really was quite special and not the same as rolling 18 on an imaginary 16-sided die numbered 3 to 18.

Another important aspect of probability in D&D is the sort of subtle manipulation of likelihood that happens in random event table construction.  Say you were rolling a ten-sided die for a random potion to be rewarded to an adventurer.  Perhaps a desired outcome as the DM was to reward high-utility healing potions while retaining the element of chance (or even booby prizes, as was often the case in AD&D).  Given ten possible outcomes of the roll, you could assign four of the outcomes to be a healing potion, creating a 40% chance outright.  This is simulation in action, and it often raises the question as to what the best model for reality (fantasy or otherwise) is.

I went to college and found my way into mathematics, but things didn’t click for me until I took the major’s class in probability and the follow-up course on mathematical statistics from Dr. Asimow.  Probability and statistics remain the most intuitive and entertaining part of mathematics to me to this day.

My mathematical inclinations directed me into pursuit of actuarial science, which is an amalgamation of finance and probability used to predict the future.  Very broadly, actuaries make sure insurance companies have enough money on hand to pay the company’s obligations and charge a competitive and sustainable price for products.  My area of specialty was pension plan funding and accounting.  The dice we rolled?  Lifespan, as modeled in actuarial tables.  Does the fighter get a battle axe +3? What will next year’s cost-of-living-adjustment cost the company?  It’s all just probability.

I worked for seven years in the business before the call of academia pulled me away.  The people I met, the places I went, and the things I did as an actuarial analyst are a key part of my personal history.  I don’t think I would have gotten there without AD&D being a part of my mis-spent youth.

2.  How to use an index

As a business model, Dungeons & Dragons exists because it sells books.  Nowadays the owners, Wizards of the Coast, revise the rules often to keep sales going.  Back in the first edition of AD&D, TSR opted for complicating their rule set with additional volumes handling special situations.  It’s like modern (i.e. 4th edition)  D&D is software, while the first edition of AD&D was tax code, becoming more byzantine the longer it existed.

The core set of rules was and still is defined by the player’s and referee’s (DM’s) manuals, each having in excess of 200 pages.  The level of detail with which rules are written can be amazing, but practical game play requires a referee to have good skills looking things up quickly.  Thus, the index became the most worn part of the manuals.  Now that I’m a librarian I have a great appreciation for the index.  It’s a great piece of technology that creates access to information, and even a simple index must address the vagaries of language by controlling vocabulary.

3.  It’s great to do things with friends

Something that is really lost in the CRPG implementations of the pen and paper experience is the fun and extracurricular goofing off hanging out with your friends.  Even a guild in a MMOG doesn’t quite replicate the experience, as the guild only exists as within virtual space in most cases.  A few of my friends, myself included, became pretty good improvisers in theater (several high school all-state acting awards to our credit).  In that theater experience I overcame anxieties about speaking to groups of strangers.  Much of it came from entertaining one another around the table with tales of stereotypical dwarves and semi-literate fighters lobbing their scimitars at anything with more or less than the appropriate number of limbs.  By provided a sandbox for some-what structured storytelling, the game actually encourages a great deal of creativity, which leads to memories and an improved ability to express oneself.

The flip-side of this quality of the game was that we mostly stayed out of trouble through junior high and high school.  All of us have attended college, most of us have degrees and careers we care about.  I think because we had something to pass our idle time with we didn’t feel the tug of drugs or alcohol beyond copious amounts of caffeine.

Yes, I still have the books... $5 for a copy of Oriental Adventures or the Fiendish Folio

4.  Reading and analyzing large amounts of detailed information

A corollary to learning how to use an index, AD&D’s complexity and attention to detail developed my core ability to process information.  My best performance on the GRE was in the now-defunct analytical portion of the exam.  The tuning of my mind to interpret and inquire translated into improved academic writing and research in college, reading legal paperwork on the job, and breaking down the complicated parts of life that people often avoid doing: taxes, investments, reading mortgage terms, understanding medical bills etc.  Very often these things aren’t difficult, merely tedious and overwhelming in their volume.  I’m constantly surprised how many otherwise-intelligent people outsource their handling of them.

5.  Enjoy what you enjoy; damn what “normal” people think

When I started playing AD&D in the 1980’s the game had a bit of a bad reputation due to very reactionary conservatives who conflated a mostly-innocent game with Satanism.  Today it still carries a reputation of being a “geeky” pass time, although I find the appellation silly in today’s culture given how many people under the age of forty regularly play computer games that could be described as equally frivolous.

Denying yourself things you enjoy, things that aren’t counterproductive in your life or the lives of those around you, is just an exercise in killing passion.  Without passion, what do you allow to fill your life?  I’m not certain there is anything better and I know there a lot of people who want to fill your life on your behalf.

So that’s what I’ve got.  If the math stuff seem long winded, you have no idea how much I had to rein myself in on that topic.  As always, I’m always looking for someone to comment and share their thoughts.  Extra credit to the first comment that brings up a life lesson from D&D that I forgot!

Written by Bill

October 23, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Posted in RPGs

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From the Red Box to World of Warcraft in Eight Steps

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In honor of the re-issue of the D&D Basic Set (also called the Red Box), here’s a remembrance.

Step One

It’s 1983 or thereabouts and I had slipped away from my parents at Buttrey’s (the horribly named grocery store in my home town) to look at the toy aisle.  We didn’t have a real toy store in town, so a kid was left wishing for toys found in pre-Walmart discount stores like Alco or the grocery or the Christmas catalog from JC Penny.

A red tag-board box with an fantastic illustration of a dragon on the cover caught my eye.  I cajoled my parents into buying it.  Who knew what effect this chance encounter with the D&D Basic Set would have on my life.

After crayoning my dice and playing through the single-player adventure in the player’s guide, I realized that the game was really meant to be played with others.  This posed a problem, as the neighborhood kids mostly entertained themselves by riding around on their bikes and digging holes in the piles of dirt left by construction in our still-developing suburb.  There was no chance of getting them to sit still and play a game which required so much reading and had all those rules.

Thankfully, I had recently made friends with Mike J., whose mother knew my mother at work, and we ended up half-assing our way through the rest of the adventure with him DMing and me running a whole party chasing after the nefarious chaotic  magic user Bargle.

Dear old Bargle, no other villian could ever measure up to you and your dastardly Charm Person spell.

Step Two

We had computers in the house from the availability of the VIC 20 onwards.  My father spent countless hours typing in code from Compute magazine into the Commodore 64 so I could play games, rather than let me have something as uneducational as an Atari 2600.

One of those traveling convention-center sales kinda-scams came to town one weekend to sell computer games on floppy disks for low prices.  One of the games I came home with was labeled “The Amulet of Yendor”, which was really a port of Rogue.  It was the first computer game I played that presented the essentials of a D&D game, albeit in ASCII characters.  Rogue still exists and anyone with an interest in vintage computer gaming should experience it at least once.

Step Three

I stuck with the boxed D&D sets for several years, eventually acquiring everything through the black box master level set.  I rarely played with others, spending much of my time designing adventures.  Things didn’t really come together in pen and paper roleplaying for me until I went to junior high.

Finally, I found other people who had a similar capability to use their imaginations, sit still at a table for a few hours, and remember complicated rules.  By the end of 7th grade, I was playing a near weekly game with Mark R., Troy S., Brian M, and Joe L.  Being such mature scholars, we eschewed the basic sets for the much more costly and arcane Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.  Every month or so I’d acquire another manual and expand my massive rule set with the trivia of Deities & Demigods or recently Unearthed Arcana.

We played fairly regularly almost all the way through high school, even attempting to make the adjustment to the 2nd edition before giving up.  Sometimes we’d experiment with other games, but AD&D was the core.  Looking back, I’m surprised at the skills that I learned playing AD&D, but that will have to wait for another post.

Step Four

As I was cutting my teeth on AD&D with my friends, computer game makers were kicking off the CRPG realm.  My earliest obsession with CRPGs came when I played The Bard’s Tale at my friend’s house.  I can still tell you that the password to get into the sewers was “Wine” and that you could pull the floppy disk out of the drive and flip it over to force the shop inventory to list everything in the game.  As a CRPG it got the character advancement right, but combat was non-tactical.  Attack Group A, Attack Group A, Attack Group A, Use Firehorn on Group B, Defend, Defend (or Spell MIBL when I earned it).

Step Five

Short on the heels of the Bards Tale and its sequels was the Pool of Radiance, the first branded D&D game.  I didn’t even know about it until I saw it at my Cousin’s house during a Christmas visit.  Finally the “official” rules had been translated to a computer game.  I got my mitts on it as fast as possible and played almost nothing else.

I couldn’t tell you the plot, but it was very hard to survive at the onset with a party of first-level characters.  Eventually you learned a survival strategy consisting of the sleep spell and archers.  Once you got a magic user to 5th level, a lot became possible with judicious use of the fireball spell.

Perhaps a dozen of the SSI gold box games were made, including a fascinating Rogue-like game called Dungeon Hack in which dungeons were randomly generated and explored in a pseudo-first person POV.  While the graphics and sound could be improved, it was hard for me to believe that the core mechanics of D&D on the computer could get better.

Step Six

As I got older and left for college, I drifted more into strategy games like the original Civilization and Colonization.  At some point in my freshman year in 1992, I asked a friend what those guys who were always in the computer lab outside the science library were up to.

And thus I was introduced to MUDs, MUSHes and MOOs.  I’d poked around the internet a bit once I got a network account as a Freshman.  As far as I could tell it was an oddball collection of content on something called Gopher, a chaotic collection of usenet forums, and email I couldn’t use because I didn’t know anyone else with an address.  Only when I first connected to a now forgotten dikumud, did I grasp the power of networking.

For the uninitiated, MUDs were text-only roleplaying games played on a server.  They roughly adapted D&D rules, although the codebase was sufficiently open that each server developed its own unique ruleset.  By the time I discovered them, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of servers running various MU*s.

MU* communities were sufficiently different from later online game communities, probably because of how uninviting the interface was and the general limitation on population due to the technology of the day.

I eventually became a builder for Perilous Realms, which I’m amazed to say still exists.  I can’t say if my region (The Ponytail Archipeligo) ever made it into production, but I never did get it populated with mobiles.

Step Seven

This step comes much later, as I went to graduate school and got out into the workforce and was too busy for games that I felt I’d outgrown.  In the interim, I missed some developmental steps in online CRPGs like Ultima Online and Neverwinter Nights.

Sometime around 2000, I got the itch for my old MUDding days and did some internet searching.  I found a game called Everquest.  I coughed up the dough for the game and logged in.

My initial perception of the game that it was merely a graphical wrapper around a shoddy LPMUD.  The graphics were 3D, but pretty blocky.  The game was especially unforgiving compared to modern MMOs.  I nearly gave up when I realized the world was populated by cretans, but then the Firiona Vie server opened.  It was to be a haven from the d00ds, a special server for roleplayers.

Boy did it have some drama…

Still, it and its sequel started a new heavy obsession for me for a period of about four years.  Eventually I realized how badly it was sucking away my time and social space and stopped playing.

Step Eight

I had to stop with something people are familiar with, so the final step is the World of Warcraft.  To an early MMOs player, it was merely a well-refined version of the Everquest formula with famliar lore and ready-made fanbase.  It didn’t really innovate, just expanded upon and refined the MMO model created by early games like Everquest and its contemporaries.  I may have only lasted a month or two before I realized I’d lost interest in the genre.

Maybe it was that I was getting older and not interested in spending my time with the teenagers who form the primarily population inhabited these games.  I spoke to a college student a few weeks ago about computer games and he lamented how many games were simply clones of World of Warcraft, including Dungeons and Dragons Online.  I pointed out that all fantasy MMOs have a linneage that can be traced back to Dungeons and Dragons, but I don’t think he understood…

Written by Bill

October 5, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Posted in PC Gaming, RPGs

Tagged with , ,