The Gamers: Dorkness Rising DVD
Some four and a half years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing The Gamers, the progenitor of -- and a sort of prequel/sidequel to -- The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. Despite what one might think, the two films are quite different in style, and I think they need to stand alone for the purposes of a review. Thus, while I will refer to the original in a few places, you won't see me saying anything like "Dorkness Rising is a better movie" or "The original was maybe just a tad funnier." I think both statements are true, but I also think they're beside the point.
In fact, everything about TG:DR is of higher quality than TG. This includes the DVD case, the opening credit sequence, the previews of other movies, the special effects, the music (by Midnight Syndicate) [Ed. See first comment below], the DVD menu, and even the FBI warning. Most notably, the movie has much stronger writing than the original, with a clearer plot featuring arcs for each of the major characters, both "real world" and "in game." I think Matt Vancil is on a nice trajectory towards establishing himself in Hollywood someday, should he wish to inflict that upon himself.
TG:DR opens with the party already deep inside the dungeon, exploring the world set up for them by their Dungeon Master, Lodge (Nathan Rice). Fortunately for the viewer, we get an immediate sense of the quality of the production, with excellent special effects, sound design and even stuntwork. Unfortunately for the group in the movie, the module Lodge is running appears to be a bit unbalanced... in favor of the monsters, and the end result is a total party wipe.
The remainder of the film documents that same group's attempts to overcome the dungeon (to "win," in fact, according to one character), with the same real-world/in-game world split that made the original Gamers so much fun. We see the same scenarios from the perspective of the characters as well as the players, and although this film does not merge the two (as the original did at the end), hilarity does ensue. Worth noting here is that Mark (Chris Duppenthaler) has a few short cameos here where he recollects the events of the first film, although otherwise the two storylines are separate, much like Clerks and Chasing Amy sort of brush up against one another without getting too intimate.
The film features plenty of gamer jokes, most of them here at the expense of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 (and I really wonder if this film could have been made with 4th Edition as the ruleset; I doubt it). The film includes: several nods to Nodwick; several instances of Charisma coming into play (or not, as the case may be); a lengthy exploration of how crappy bards are; a look at why eastern monks are in an otherwise western-influenced ruleset; and so on. Most geeky, and funny, are the scenes in which 3.5's imbalanced mechanics are made clear, such as one fight scene where Joanna's fighter Daphne massacres an entire field of goblins thanks to a combination of the Improved Initiative, First Strike, Expanded Critical, Critical Momentum and Precise Strike feats combined with Int and Dex bonuses. One almost expected her to take on Pun-Pun the Kobold at some point.
Several running gags also dive into the issue of females in games, both at the table and in-character. The lead female Joanna is gawked at for entering a game store, criticized for trying to make up her own character (though, as pointed out above, she does just fine min-maxing), and treated as foolish when she tries to talk to worthless NPCs. On the flipside is the character of Luster, a female sorceress played by both Christian Doyle and Jennifer Page, the actors switching out whenever Gary (who's playing Luster) forgets he's playing a chick.
But aside from the humor, there are also two other narrative threads that run throughout the movie, and it's their presence which sets this film apart from the original.
The first is the ongoing Gamist/Narrativist debate between Cass (Brian Lewis) and Lodge as the movie progresses, an argument that it seems Lodge ultimately wins. Cass, the Gamist player, consistently insists that the game should be played for the sake of the game, and to that end the rules should be followed since they are the basis for his understanding of fun. For Cass, the module is a challenge that can be won; for him, D&D is about playing, not role-playing, a philosophy that ultimately comes to a head when a Wish spell gets "wasted" on an NPC. Lodge, the Narrativist writer and GM, takes the position that "story trumps rules," even if that means disregarding portions of the Player's Handbook, ruling that clerics can suddenly lose magic, disallowing elves and/or monks, etc. He's delighted to see Joanna role-playing and interacting with his NPCs, and you can sense his disappointment that Cass doesn't seem to be interested in the story -- just the monsters and the treasure.
Of course, while it seems Lodge ultimately wins the debate, there are enough back-and-forth moments to make it clear that it's never so clear-cut as all that. Lodge himself, playing Sir Osric the paladin babysitter, is able to allow his character to be led away on a few occasions so the rest of the party can do nefarious deeds without risk of retribution. And when Cass uses feline interference to make a miniature adjustment, everyone -- including Joanna -- seems to allow it, for the sake of the game.
Joanna is also at the center of the second new thread that appears in the film, that being the sense of a larger narrative focused on the players and their lives, rather than just the game itself. Time elapses in this movie, days go by, and we get to see the players in their off hours (in comedic fashion). They even briefly play other games: the players, minus Lodge, dabble with Time Felons (where you go back in time and kill historical figures) and later Lodge and Joanna play a board game involving Ninja deliverypersons fighting pirates as they deliver pizzas; I can only assume that this latter this is an homage of sorts to my own Ninja Burger, for which I am grateful (and for the record let me state that if Dead Gentlemen ever want to do a Ninja Burger movie with me, I'm all ears; take that, Wikipedia).
But even outside of gaming, Lodge and Joanna seem to have a deeper relationship blossoming, and although the film doesn't show it, we get the sense that they ultimately end up together. Indeed, at a showing of TG:DR at Gamestorm, I asked actor Christian Doyle about this issue, and he confirmed my suspicions: at least one scene in which Joanna wakes up after spending the night at Lodge's house was left on the cutting room floor. Whether this cut was for the better or not, I don't know; suffice to say that I think the sub-plot is prominent enough that it bears mention, even in a comedic film like this. It's overall handled well, with just the right amount of awkwardness one might expect from a gamer relationship.
None of this is to say that TG:DR is a documentary or a dramedy in any sense of the word. It's a comedy through-and-through, and a funny one at that. The film not only shows a maturing Dead Gentlemen Productions, but a maturing game community that likes to laugh at itself. Not only are there cameos in the film from the likes of Monte Cook, but the adventure featured in the film also saw the light of day as a real module: namely, Dungeon Crawl Classics #20.5 The Mask of Death.
At the aforementioned Gamestorm showing, it was pointed out that there are several future "Gamers" projects planned for Dead Gentlemen Productions, but they all seem to be contingent upon the success of TG:DR. To that end, I can only encourage readers to check out The Gamers website and pick up a copy. Given a choice between this and Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire, I'd go with The Gamers: Dorkness Rising any day.