The Dungeons & Dragons Experience DVD
Whereas the other Gaming DVDs I've reviewed take occasional sharp pokes at themselves, the 60-minute-long Dungeons & Dragons Experience has no such silly laugh-out loud moments. This is a serious documentary which approaches the issue from a more scholarly point of view. Which is not to say that it's less entertaining -- far from it. It may very well be my favorite of the lot.
The Dungeons & Dragons Experience (2004) - $15
by Jesse Spiro
The Dungeons & Dragons Experience is hard to find. I first heard about this Role-Playing documentary on Slashdot.org. Thankfully that post included a link, because otherwise I would have had a hard time finding this, even with the almighty Google. It's almost as obscure as the infamous Arneson documentary Dragons in the Basement, which apparently aired once at GenCon 2000 and hasn't been seen since. Hopefully this review will go some way towards making sure The D&D Experience does not suffer the same ignominious fate.
This is the third documentary on RPGs that I've reviewed, the first being Uber Goober and the second being Life With the Dice Bag, both of which are featured elsewhere on this site. Like the other two, TDDE offers an overview of the role-playing experience, covering the basics such as what role-playing is, the fascination with dice, and the ubiquitous interview with Gary Gygax. Unlike the others, however, this documentary takes itself a bit more seriously. Whereas the others take occasional sharp pokes at themselves, the 60-minute-long TDDE has no such silly laugh-out loud moments. This is a serious documentary which approaches the issue from a more scholarly point of view. Which is not to say that it's less entertaining -- far from it. It may very well be my favorite of the lot.
However, if you do not play Dungeons & Dragons, this DVD will likely not interest you. The DVD opens with a trip into a cramped basement to retrieve a box full of Dungeons & Dragons books -- 1st Edition AD&D, to be precise. Yes, this disc features Old School gamers using Old School rules. One might suspect it were filmed back in the 1980s from the character sheets and rulebooks we get a glimpse of throughout the documentary, not to mention really archaic references like the term "Fighting Man" and percentage scores for Thief abilities.
Where Uber Goober and Life With the Dice Bag were constructed mostly of street-side and Con-side interviews with game players and designers, The D&D Experience focuses instead on an actual gaming group, interviewing the members and interspersing their insights with actual footage of the group playing Dungeons & Dragons. Though the disc does eventually get to GenCon and the infamous Mazes and Monsters, such topics are only addressed briefly, as more of a part of the overall experience, rather than becoming a focus. This DVD is about talking to gamers and showing what it's like to game, and to that end it succeeds quite well.
We begin with a quick two-minute history of the game, beginning with 18th Century Prussian wargames, moving on through H.G. Wells' "Little Wars" and the Castles & Crusades Society to Arneson, Gygax and TSR. We then meet the gaming group we'll be spending the next hour or so with, as they explain their motivations for gaming (exploring other personalities, pushing the limits) and discuss the fact that things can be taken too far, with people who get too deep into their characters.
The bulk of the disc's first half is, however, devoted to the Dungeon Master, exploring his (or her) motivations and the importance of this central figure in the cooperative gaming experience. One suspects that the DMs interviewed are very good at what they do, willing to devote hours and hours creating maps, entertaining players with silly voices, allowing their groups free reign but able to gently nudge them back in the right direction when needed. Ultimately, we are told, a game's success or failure rides with the DM -- the best gaming system in the world won't keep players around if the DM sucks at his job.
It's about 25 minutes in before we hear the C word. Convention, that is. We are introduced to the concept of Living Greyhawk, wherein regions of the United States represent regions in the imaginary world of Greyhawk, and players who wish to have their characters adventure in other countries must physically travel to do so. We then spend a few moments at GenCon, with the camera telling the story, the narrator bowing out as we glimpse the costumes and the crowds. Somewhere in that chaos we meet artist Larry Elmore, Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weiss (artist, game designer and story editor, respectively, for TSR's Dragonlance line), who discuss their impact on the Dungeons & Dragons world.
No gaming documentary would be complete without mentioning the obsession with dice, miniature painting and Mazes & Monsters, and TDDE covers all three, albeit thankfully quickly and concisely (about three minutes devoted to each). The Mazes & Monsters material is covered quite well, however; if you know nothing about William Dear, James Dallas Egbert and "The Dungeon Master," this disc provides a good quick overview of the issue without getting defensive. The point is made just as well by choosing not to make it an issue, letting the brief summary speak for itself.
The latter third of the DVD focuses mostly on some of the negative aspects of gaming: Dungeon Masters who, in attempting to entertain, get a bit too far inside the heads of their players, drive some to quit the game; players who enjoy playing evil characters who pillage, murder and rape; the apparent lack of an ethos in D&D, leaving it to players to freely choose good or evil despite the fact that it is a potential tool for teaching such values (a point on which I disagree); and the ever-popular issue of Girl Gamers, and the fact that they are less inclined to game because they are more sheltered and self-conscious than boys (or so says the interviewee).
The disc closes (as all seem wont to do) with an interview with Gary Gygax, discussing the origins of his name and his impressions of the importance of role-playing (encouraging reading, learning, and overall good times). The final words have a random 15-year veteran of gaming thanking Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons. What more can be said?
Of the three DVDs I've reviewed here, this definitely features the best cinematography, production and editing. Which is not to detract from the others, but merely to say that this goes above and beyond what I'd come to expect from a gaming documentary. Audio and video are interwoven quite effectively in a definitely non-amateur style. Voiceovers fade in and out over different shots, and the camera pans in and out as scenes shift, so rather than getting a series of static shots of people holding microphones and talking into the camera, we get a more smooth overall experience. The background music features selections from among Wagner and Grieg's more famous works, providing a nice overall feel without being intrusive.
Though it affects the overall viewing experience little, it's worth mentioning that the DVD case art and the DVD menus are also quite well done. Disc extras include only two short interview excerpts featuring Gary Gygax, but the material (covering Gary Gygax's family name, derived from legends of Goliath, and the true origins of Role-playing, in a Cops and Robbers game run by his childhood neighbor) is fascinating stuff.
This DVD will have the most appeal for hard-core, Old School Dungeons & Dragons players, who are more familiar with 1st Edition AD&D and the experience of gaming under that system. While the topics discussed are just as relevant to D&D3e and other RPGs, everything seems pointed towards the gaming experience of the 1980s, and perhaps to those who carry on today gaming as if Reagan were still in office. The interviews are with people much more familiar and relevant to those who got started two decades ago, the scenes of gaming are filled with the language of yesteryear, and the overall feel is for the way things were, rather than the way things are now.
For the non-gamer, this is still an entertaining journey into role-playing. At 60 minutes, it's a third shorter than the other DVDs I've covered, and may be a more tolerable viewing experience for the impatient. It's also the most unbiased of the three DVDs I've covered, and as it avoids the geekier, more awkward, more negative stereotypes brought up in Uber Goober and Life With the Dice Bag, it's possibly the best option for convincing the doubtful that this hobby we all love is truly worthwhile.