Sunday, August 1, 2010

Video review: "The Dungeon Masters"

"The Dungeon Masters," a documentary that was partially shot at GenCon in Indianapolis, is not really an exploration of Dungeons & Dragons and other forms of role-playing games (RPGs). Instead, it's an intimate, in-depth portrait of three individual gamers.

I admit that I was expecting a broader look at the gaming phenomenon, and if that's what you wanted, then director Keven McAlester's film will likely disappoint you.

It starts out leading you down this path, as we're introduced to the world of tabletop gaming at GenCon -- one of the biggest gaming conventions in the world -- in Indy in 2006. We get to see a lot of people dressed in funny costumes, huddled around a table listening to descriptions of fantastical worlds, with a fistful of odd-looking dice waiting to determine the fate of their actions.

Briefly, the film explores the appeal of creating characters with amazing supernatural abilities, and role-playing them through challenging scenarios. It's entering a world where you can become any kind of hero -- or villain -- you ever dreamed about.

But it soon becomes clear that McAlester was just using the convention as an open casting call to find interesting people. And he certainly found a trio of them.

Elizabeth Reesman stands out as the most instantly memorable, for obvious reasons: The 23-year-old often goes around with her skin stained an ebony black and her hair hidden under a stark white wig. Reesman likes to live-action role play -- or LARP -- as a drow elf, an evil underworld version of the creatures of light and goodness seen in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.

She's unemployed, lives with her parents, and seems to trip from relationship to relationship without ever putting down some solid roots. Reesman spends much of her time playing online RPG like "World of Warcraft." (One aspect I do wish the film spent more time on was the relationship between old-fashioned tabletop gaming and the online kind.)

I haven't played D&D for about 20 years now, but I do know that if I still did, Richard Meeks is exactly the sort of Dungeon Master I wouldn't want to have. DMs, also called Game Masters, act as referees, arbiters and architects of the games through which they guide players. You might guess that the position lends itself to the potential for abuse, and Meeks epitomizes the pitfalls.

Meeks doesn't just want to call the shots, but be the center of attention. He seems to take the greatest delight in killing his players' characters. He constructs difficult -- some would say impossible -- challenges, and punishes players for not behaving in the way he thinks they should.

He recounts one of his most infamous episodes, where he thought the players were being "too greedy," so dreamed up a "sphere of annihilation" to instantly, and permanently wipe out the characters they'd spent years playing.

As we get deeper into Meeks' story, we learn that he's a seemingly regular middle-aged guy with a nondescript job in the sanitation department, an Air Force veteran who abandoned his first family with hardly a backward thought. He grew up in a fractured home full of abuse, and in some ways he's spent his life saying good-bye.

By far the most compelling DM is Scott Corum, another middle-aged guy with a wife and family. Corum is witty and has a droll, charismatic presence. He works (barely) as an apartment complex manager. But Corum's real vocation is hobbies. He's constantly flitting from one creative outlet to another, never sticking with any long enough to make it his true calling.

He's a Christian puppeteer, certified master hypnotist, and currently is trying to make it as an author. Corum has just finished the rough draft of a book he's been working on for two years, and his attempts to get it published are achingly naive. And yet, somehow his pathetic pursuit ennobles him, since it gives him a purpose he seemed to lack.

Unfortunately, when things don't happen immediately, Corum soon finds a new hobby: Creating a cable-access TV show about a failed super-villain.

I've always said the best thing a documentary film can do is introduce you to community of people who may seem strange and even laughable, and help you understand who they are and why they do the things they do.

"The Dungeon Masters" fails as a journalistic exploration of gaming. But as a glimpse into the lives of the people behind the dungeon master's screen, it rolls high. (Not a 20, but enough to score a hit.)

"The Dungeon Masters" DVD comes with a modest but entertaining package of video extras.

There's a set of outtakes, mostly discarded moments following our trio of main characters. Mostly these scenes announce their own reasons for being left out of the film, but there's several pretty hilarious moments -- mostly involving Corum, who has a lot of funny stories, and tells them well. If he had a cable access show in my neighborhood, I'd watch it.

Additionally, there's some more material, mostly random bits of interviews from GenCon that didn't make the final cut. The most interesting are interviews with three other people who were apparently considered as main subjects. I would happily watch another documentary feature about this second trio.

Movie: 3 stars out of four
Extras: 2.5 stars

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