June 28, 2012 by deadorcs
So last Thursday (I believe), this showed up.
You might need to watch it again to let the weight of that sink in. That’s right, Hollywood has made another Dungeons & Dragons movie. This offering is called, “The Book of Vile Darkness”. I’m not going to posit whether or not the title has any relevance to the artifact (in game) or the book (of the game) that go by the same name.
While I’m tempted, I’m not going to go off on a huge nerd rant about how horrible the movie looks like it’s going to be. As someone pointed out to me on Twitter, the movie could be great fun if you’re intoxicated and want something to riff on for 90 minutes. I get that. I also don’t want to throw out a whole list of people that could be blamed. Business decisions such as licensing I.P (intellectual property), writing scripts, or choosing networks are all pretty pointless targets. I figure in the movie business, if you have the money to make something, you’re going to make it, regardless of how great it turns out to be.
I will say this, though. The movie doesn’t seem like a big improvement over the first two. Dungeons & Dragons (the movie) came out over 12 years ago, and Dungeons & Dragons – Wrath of the Dragon God came out 7 years ago. You’d think in that much time, production values on even a television release would have been improved.
Judging from trailer? Apparently not.
Nevertheless, this post isn’t really about the movie trailer. When the movie is released (either in theaters or on a television network), you’ll either watch it, or you won’t. My personal feeling is that I won’t care for it, but of course, your mileage, etc.
Instead, what I’d really like to talk about is how a successful D&D motion picture franchise could work. Spoiler alert – you don’t mention D&D and you don’t go for the big screen. Before I get into how that would look, let’s lay out some background.
Kids, if you’re playing a role-playing game, please notice that the rest of the world thinks you’re a little weird. You’ll find that most people are cool with “a little weird” (as they’re a little weird themselves) and some are pretty mean about it (out of ignorance, fear, etc.). Openly admitting you play Dungeons & Dragons in a board meeting will have those at the table looking at you as if you’d just grown a second head. Half will think you’re socially corrupted and half will think you’re probably trolling the group and making a really bad joke.
One person at the meeting will email you later in the day asking you if there’s an opening in your game.
The point is, while our community is pretty great at promoting ourselves and what we do, we’re still not really accepted by society as a whole. Part of that is due to the bad rap the hobby received in the 80s, but I think it continues due to ongoing stereotypes of socially awkward kids & adults who never grew up, and never really wanted to take on any adult responsibility, preferring instead to live in a fantasy land of play acting. Personally, this viewpoint is bullshit, but the perception is very real.
This is important to realize because movies & television are a reflection upon our society. If an activity is looked upon with frequent ridicule, then movies upholding that activity are going to be equally looked upon with ridicule or will feature ridiculing those activities as part of their content. Some strides have been made when portraying role playing games (Community, Freaks & Geeks, Big Bang Theory), but these are all comedy shows portraying the hobby with a comic background. It’s like, “Aww…look at the geeks playing this nerdy game. They’re socializing! Now add some awkward comedy to prevent people viewing this from feeling strange!”.
Harsh? Perhaps, but I’ve been playing RPGs for over 30 years. I’ve not seen a lot of change in public attitude in that time. At this point, if you shout, “I play Dungeons & Dragons!” you’re going to get weird awkward looks. Now, you can argue that all of that is beside the point. That you should take pride in your hobby (whatever it is) and wave your freak flag high. I actually agree with that. We should be no more ashamed of our hobby than anyone else (mimes REPRESENT). However, if we want our role-playing games to come to life, we’re going to have to be a little less obvious about it.
RPGs Are Unique
Unlike books & plays, bringing an RPG experience to the screen would be a fairly unique experience. After all, when you play an RPG, the players & the game master essentially practice a form of collaborative story telling. In most cases, when you sit down at the table, you don’t know how the story is going to end (or even if it WILL end). This is completely different from books & plays which tell a linear story. This is why I think adapting a movie to an RPG is (arguably) doomed to failure. The target audience is always going to be trying to collaborate with the story. Since that’s pretty much impossible with today’s media, the audience is always going to be disappointed.
Instead, why not treat RPGs (and particularly a known property like Dungeons & Dragons) as background legerdemain instead? Build a story (or better yet – a set of stories) not around the property, but about what is made during the USE of the property. I actually think this would work pretty well. Let me show you how.
How To Make A Proper Dungeons & Dragon Television Series
Well, the first thing you do is give up on the idea of this thing being a movie, and instead embrace a television series. The episodic nature of D&D games lends themselves to a series that has short arcs or no arcs at all (1 story per episode). This mimics the way many RPG games work. Television series like The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, or Tales From The Crypt are excellent examples of this kind of story telling. For additional freedom, it might be helpful to have the series on a cable network like HBO or Showtime.
Next, find a team of skilled writers that are willing to play the game as a form of the research they need to do. Doesn’t matter which RPG game, really, but since we’re talking about D&D, then dammit, they should be playing D&D. Use the setting the DM used (module, etc.) and then write into the script the basic events that happened in the game. Of course, I’m not talking about a blow by blow retelling. Instead, work events like a character dying, or the defeat of some terrible monster into the story. The writers can elaborate if the “research game” ends in a brief TPK, but at the same time, they shouldn’t “sugar coat” the in game events for the purpose of “tidy” television. Hell, people died or ended up with horrible fates all the time in shows like The Twilight Zone or The Hitchhiker. It’s okay to do this.
Most important. Regardless of the elements used in the game, NEVER IDENTIFY THE GAME. No one cares about (and will be turned off by – see above) elements in the story that come from D&D. HOWEVER, if you include certain subtle elements, you can pay fan service to members of the audience who recognize that thing you’re writing about. An example of this is calling an episode, “Slave Pits of the Undercity”. It’s the name of a D&D module, right? However, if you’re not familiar with D&D that bit will blow past, but it will give a great nerdgasm to those that HAVE played the game.
The end result is that you have a television series doing obviously D&D things, but in such a way that the ordinary audience simply enjoys a short fantasy related story while fans of the RPG, get an entirely different level of enjoyment. Too often, a fantasy series tries to tell an epic story. Legends of the Seeker, Merlin, even Game of Thrones falls into this category. Sadly, while all of these programs have various levels of quality and elements of D&D, they’re not D&D programs.
One final note. The only program that I’ve ever seen that I thought mirrored the behavior of an actual RPG, was Firefly. It might be coincidence, but the universe Whedon created looked a LOT like the Traveller universe in many of its elements. I’d like to think that Whedon actually played Traveller sometime in his past, but of course, I don’t know this for certain. In addition, the way the FOX network (intentionally or just out of happy stupidity) aired the episodes out of order, made it feel more like an RPG game, than watching a sequential series with an obvious story arc. For me, it remains an example of how to do a genre series correctly.
When it comes down to it, only you can decide whether or not you’ll enjoy The Book of Vile Darkness. Hopefully one day, some team of writers will come forth and create a program where I can stay riveted to the screen and shout, “Now THAT is D&D on the TV”.
My name is Randall Walker and This Is My Game