Once again, Wizards of the Coast is trying to put out an official Dungeons & Dragons movie, this time with Warner Brothers. This will be the fourth attempt to do this and, if we're being honest, expectations are probably not very high. After all, the previous three fell flat on their faces.
The first, produced and directed by Courtney Solomon, was actually an impressive achievement - Solomon had acquired the rights and raised the funding for the movie himself, making it as an indie film with a $44 million budget. Unfortunately, it also had several story and character points missing from the screen due to the production running out of money and its director being new enough to film-making that he removed critical character moments for the sake of pacing. While, to be fair, it was an entertaining movie, it wasn't a very good one and the trailer was arguably better than the film itself.
The second attempt, Wrath of the Dragon God (2005) held together a bit better as a story - it wasn't missing critical character or plot scenes - but it was also less entertaining than the first with a much lower $12 million budget. The third, The Book of Vile Darkness (2012) had the same budget as the second, and while it was better than the previous movie, it still wasn't great.
All of these movies floundered when they tried to capture the essence of Dungeons & Dragons. And yet, there was movie that captured the experience so well that it really is the Dungeons & Dragons movie, even if it doesn't bear its name: The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising (2008).
Dorkness Rising was Dead Gentlemen's second attempt to make a movie about gamers and roleplaying games. The first, The Gamers (2002), was a short film that was entertaining with a clever twist ending, but suffered from the relative inexperience of its filmmakers - it was fun, but not really good or well acted. With Dorkness Rising, Dead Gentlemen's extra years of practice in filmmaking paid off - the writing was superb, the acting and direction was good, the comedic timing was excellent, and there were only a couple of scenes where the movie's low budget was felt on the screen.
But why did Dorkness Rising succeed where three official Dungeons & Dragons movies failed? The answer is simple - it had the one thing that the other movies lacked: the players.
As anybody who has played any tabletop RPG will know, the experience - and what makes it special - is not really the story that's being told in the game. It's sitting around the table with your friends, rolling dice that for all intents and purposes wants your characters dead, and the bizarre situations they help create. It's busting a gut laughing as one of the player characters survives falling into a pit of spikes and then attempts to loot the other bodies there, or as the Dwarven Warrior who thinks he's an Elven Ranger ends up doing better on his rolls than the actual Elven Ranger, or as the Dungeon/Game Master rolls his eyes as he suggests that maybe the party should try jumping across the 6 foot gap instead of spending half an hour trying to figure out how to improvise a bridge.
(And yes, all of those things happened in games I played in, and the Dwarven Warrior with identity issues was one of my player characters.)
But there's more to it than that. It is possible to create a perfectly serviceable Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance movie, but it won't be a Dungeons & Dragons movie. The game mechanics that are so critical to the experience and enable the shared storytelling in a tabletop RPG or a video game are often not suited to telling a story in another format, and bog down the action or destroy suspension of disbelief with their presence.
The minute you include the players, however, all of these mechanics - along with the experience they create - become a vital part of the movie. It becomes a movie about the game itself, both the story being told in the game world and the friends sitting around the table playing it out.
And because it had this, with a fraction of the budget of any of the official Dungeons & Dragons movies, Dorkness Rising captured the essence of the game, with the movie at least as much about the players as it is the characters and the fantasy story they're in. But it and its sequel, The Hands of Fate - which does for collectible card games what Dorkness Rising does for tabletop roleplaying games - do a lot more right. They are legitimately funny comedies that laugh with their characters instead of at them, and these characters are relatable as people. They also tell a fantasy story involving a full multiverse with a jaw-dropping cliffhanger at the end of Hands of Fate that not only brings all three Gamers films together but also their fantasy worlds, transcending the limitations of the game and the original story. And, most of all, they capture why we play games, and make us want to play more - they even managed to bring back Legend of the Burning Sands for a short time as the in-movie game Romance of the Nine Empires, which was published by AEG as a Kickstarter stretch goal, and did well enough to warrant an expansion titled Arcane Fire.
If Wizards of the Coast and Warner Brothers want to make a Dungeons & Dragons movie worthy of the name - and the gamer community - then they would be well advised to use Dorkness Rising and Hands of Fate as their template. The movie should be a comedy, not just because playing the game is fun and joyful and comedy is a fun, joyful genre, but also because the best D&D games are the one where great funny moments happen. It should have both the players and the fantasy because, in the end, that is what the game is all about. And, most of all, it should capture - just as Dorkness Rising and Hands of Fate did - why we play and why we keep playing.
Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, and Garwulf's Corner. His newest book, An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture, is available in print and Kindle formats. He also has a Livejournal and is on Facebook.
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