Beyond the Game – D&D in Other Media, Part 1

Ever since getting into Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve been fascinated by every portrayal of RPGs in movies, on TV, in comic strips, and in other forms of media. I remember getting ridiculously excited when I saw a commercial for the game on TV or in comic books. So when shows about D&D started appearing, or when D&D got referenced in a movie, it always caught my attention.

Here then is a little look at various media and how the game has fared in it, for better and for worse. While my list is by no means complete, I’ll certainly include a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Movies, Big & Small, Good & Bad

I don’t think there’s a genre of media in which my beloved hobby has been treated with more widely differing attitudes than the movies. Some movies have been pro, some con. Some movies have been fantastic, and some have been downright terrible.

The first time I can ever remember D&D being mentioned in a movie, though the name is never spoken, is in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. I’ve seen modern evidence that it may have been Tunnels & Trolls, but come on…who didn’t think they were playing D&D, if you had any idea what those kids were doing at all.

That same year, the terrible made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters was released. Based on the Rona Jaffe book of the same name, this movie is notable only for an early Tom Hanks performance as Robbie, a troublde college student who becomes completely unhinged while playing Mazes and Monsters, a D&D-like RPG. This movie was based on inaccurate media reports about the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III from Michigan State University, and it comes across as ignorant if not openly hostile towards the hobby.

(If you don’t know Egbert’s sad story, the basic facts were this: he was a 16-year old gay kid who found himself moved up to college. Battling depression, pressure, and drug addiction, he decided to take his own life, failed at doing so, and ended up going into hiding. His parents hired a private investigator named William Dear to look into it, and Dear, not wanting to burden the family with scandal about drugs and homosexuality, suggested that D&D might have had some influence on Egbert’s disappearance. The media ran with this, suggesting that Egbert might’ve been killed because of D&D, might’ve been playing in the steam tunnels under Michigan State, and basically began the witch hunt against D&D that persists to some degree to this day. If you don’t think it’s still going on, check out this article about the Boston Herald’s amazing “coverage” of the Amy Bishop story. I am ever so proud of my hometown newspapers at times. *roll eyes*)

Two movies have now had an official Dungeons & Dragons title. In 2000, we got Dungeons & Dragons. I…yeah…the less I say about this movie, the better. At least Marlon Wayans seemed like he was having fun with it, but Jeremy Irons didn’t so much chew the scenery as chew it, swallow it, digest it, and shit it back out. Terrible, Mr. Irons. Just terrible. The 2005 made-for-SciFi channel semi-sequel, Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God, has a dreadful title, but it’s actually a lot of fun. Put aside the bad CG effects for a moment…it’s actually got a sense of humor, some decently written dialogue, and a lot of references to old D&D modules that made me crack a smile. This year, we’re supposed to get Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness. Fingers crossed for a movie that’s at least a fun watch.

Ironically, my favorite 2 movies about D&D are both direct-to-DVD pieces, and one of them never says the name of the game. I’m speaking, of course, about The Gamers and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, both from Dead Gentlemen Productions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the original Gamers movie. Every time I realized one of my friends hadn’t seen it, we pulled out the DVD and watched it. As much as I loved the original, however, Dorkness Rising blew me away. The acting, effects, script, and production values made such a tremendous jump between movies that it’s hard to go back to the original now. Do they mock the gaming community a bit? Yes, a bit. But it’s a kind of self-mockery. It’s the kind of mockery that lets you know that the director and crew were teasing, with love, about something they know and have a lot of affection for.

The Idiot Box

Dungeons and Dragons had its first official media tie-in with a book, but its best known leap into mainstream must be the eponymous cartoon from 1983-1985. I remember being taut with anticipation when I heard about it. D&D? A cartoon? Stoked!

Of course, I had somehow forgotten that this was the early 80s, when every G.I. Joe pilot shot down by Cobra parachuted to safety and everyone had a cutesy animal sidekick. I quickly realized that no one in the D&D cartoon carried a sword, that the group didn’t have a cleric (because they didn’t need one, really…no one ever got hurt), and that the group was being followed around by a unicorn voiced by Frank Welker. Despite this, I watched, and I must admit, especially when looking back on those episodes with the recent DVD release of them, the writing got a lot better after the first season. It’s hard to believe, though, that this innocuous series was considered controversial at the time, due to the “level of violence.”

Beyond this, no other TV series have been based specifically on people playing D&D (unless you count the Web-series “Gold”), but there have been some gems where D&D has been referenced, even having whole episodes based around it. There was a very memorable segment of Dexter’s Laboratory entitled “D & DD” in which Dexter’s sister invades her brother’s “Monsters & Mazes” game, much to his chagrin and everyone else’s pleasure.

There have been other more recent and memorable depictions of D&D, including the rather painful clip of Reno 911, where Patton Oswalt, one of my favorite comedians, flees the police while crying out “I’m wearing Boots of Escaping!” In the “Bored of the Rings” episode of the Sarah Silverman Show, Brian mistakes his boyfriend Steve’s note ”D.D.” on the calendar as a note that it’s D&D day (it was meant to be a Day Date to see Rush and have a picnic lunch.) And of course, the recent “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” episode of Community was a shockingly positive and funny look at the game. (“I won! I won Dungeons and Dragons…and it was advanced!”)

For my money, however, the most realistic and charming depiction of D&D in a TV show must be the “Discos and Dragons” episode of Freaks & Geeks. In this episode, Daniel, something of a cool, tough kid at school, ends up befriending the usual clique of Geeks over a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Sam Weir, one of the show’s principal characters, describes the experience perfectly. “We sit around…crack jokes and eat junk food all night, while we’re fighting dragons, saving princesses and stuff. It’s pretty fun.” Daniel enjoys playing his character Carlos the Dwarf so much that he proposes they play again the following night, prompting the geeky kids to wonder if he’s becoming a geek, or if they’re becoming cool guys.

More to Come

I just realized that I’ve only covered 2 forms of media, and I’ve already written over 1200 words. So I think I’ll save something for a second article. Have I missed a favorite movie or TV show of yours that references the game or RPGs in general? Let us all know what to look for!

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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