Doc of the Day: The Dungeon Masters Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: The Dungeon Masters

Posted in Days of Docs by - July 13, 2012

Did you ever wonder what the average Dungeons & Dragons player might do in their normal lives? Wonder no longer!

Dir. Keven McAlester, 2008, 88 min

I have confessed in the past, and will continue to attest in the future, to my status as a half-proud/half-reluctant geek/nerd/dork/whatever. I’ve been into many things of the fantastical persuasion, but I’ve always taken a bit of comfort in the idea that, no matter how deep into this culture I’ve been, I’ve never been as into it as “certain people.” World of Warcraft addicts, LARPers, people who play pen-and-paper roleplaying games in general; these are the people I’ve been able to look at whenever I felt ashamed of myself. “At least I’m not that far gone.” Since The Dungeon Masters is about these people, I thought it could be something of a morale booster. It’s not.

The movie isn’t really much about D&D. Its three protagonists are all heavily involved in the game, but it concentrates mostly on what they do outside of it. The introduction to D&D is so cursory that I feel a lot of people not in the know won’t “get” how the game really works. It’s not much of a problem, though, although it means that there’s some dangling context when a guy talks about “punishing” his dice by smashing them (…And lining up the other dice to “watch” the one die be “punished.” Uurrrrrgghhhhh). The question is “what drives someone to invest so heavily in a fantasy reality?”

The answer that may jump to you may seem to pat and simple, but based on this doc, it seems to have some basis in truth. Yes, it appears that heavy roleplayers are indeed looking for an escape from their miserable normal lives. And these three aren’t just players. As the title says, they’re dungeon masters, or DMs. In case you don’t know D&D (I know, even though I don’t play, because when you’re one kind of nerd, you sort of absorb other aspects of nerd culture through subconscious osmosis), DMs are the people who control the games, who make up scenarios for the other players to respond to. In the game, they have the control that they desperately lack in their real lives. Their behavior in D&D seems to reflect how they’ve been run over in reality.

Scott Corum is an aspiring novelist hobbled only by his lack of literary competence, and any Stephanie Meyers-ian luck that may allow him to transcend that incompetence. He’s the dice-smasher, and he’s the most well-adjusted of the main trio. D&D lets him exercise his creativity. Elizabeth Reesman has suffered from a string of awful, sometimes abusive relationships. She really loves to smother herself in black makeup to play a “dark elf” character in her game, and I really hope that she only put on the makeup to do normal things around the house for the film crew, and that she doesn’t normally do it. But in the D&D universe, dark elves live a matriarchal society, and this pretend gives her a feminine power she’s never had before. Richard Meeks brings an extraordinary amount of sadism to the games that he runs, looking for any opportunity that he can find to kill the other players. This follows his real-world pattern of coldly leaving people, including his family.

As you can see, the protagonists run the gamut from pitiable to downright unlikeable. This movie is something of a cringefest, and I frankly can’t make out what the intentionality is here. I don’t doubt the filmmakers motives to honestly explore why these three throw themselves so thoroughly into this game, but it’s just such a relentless parade of humiliations and heartbreaks that it just seems set up to affirm all the worst stereotypes of roleplayers. They didn’t have to include a completely well-adjusted, drama-free player as a “balance,” but it feels so hopeless.

Honestly, pretty much all entertainments are some kind of refuge for everyone. That’s why art exists in the first place – to allow us to process life’s difficulties. D&D players aren’t really all that different from any of the rest of us. If The Dungeon Masters had managed to reach out and find that little bit of universality, it might have sit better with me. As it is, the documentary is almost an exercise in unpleasantness.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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