While driving back to the Valley from Albuquerque Sunday afternoon I listened to a variety of podcasts. I rarely play music on long drives because it’s too easy to get distracted. Podcasts, like news radio or audiobooks, keep me engaged and focused. My favorite one of the trip was “The Adventure Zone,” a show about the McElroy brothers playing the pen-and-paper game “Dungeons and Dragons” with their father. Two days prior I watched online the creators of The Penny Arcade Expo play the game live in front of thousands. The pair of events got me thinking about other “D&D” adaptations and how the upcoming feature film will fail.
Some would say that’s a bold claim considering the movie is barely in pre-production and little details are known. However, given the franchise’s history and mechanics I can tell that it won’t work.
Every game of “D&D” is live improvised theater. Literally anything imaginable can happen in a game’s campaign since there isn’t a physical board to play on. A Dungeon Master sets up quests for characters to go on, monsters to fight and cities to explore. Players decide how to best approach an encounter, usually through talking or fighting via a dice roll, and how to move the plot forward.
Though the DM is technically in charge, they’re just as clueless as the players as to what will happen next. They could plan out an elaborate dungeon for the group to explore but the group may want to go in a different direction and never even see the entrance to the dungeon.
The fast banter and ingenuity displayed by both players and the DM is why a podcast such as “The Adventure Zone” is successful. A good session isn’t about beating the DM but about telling a story collaboratively. Justin, Griffin, Travis and Clint McElroy spin a tale that’s hilarious and enthralling. It seems like every group of friends has their own podcast they created to share their own campaign.
Watching or listening to others play is a blast, but it still can’t compare to delving into a dungeon with one’s own friends.
I first got into “D&D” with a group of friends in college. At one point we couldn’t figure out how to sneak past powerful castle guards so we decided to throw an ice cream social. Since this was set in a medieval fantasy world like “Lord of the Rings” we first had to invent ice cream. A few lucky dice rolls later and the party was in full swing. Having poisoned the guard’s ice cream, we could then walk in through the front door without drawing a sword or casting a spell.
I have yet to do something so ridiculous in the game since. We still talk about the plan and have in-game references to the event. Our DM could have easily thwarted our idea from the start but he decided that wasn’t fun. This line of thought creates a living narrative and dynamic world that’s wholly unique to each person’s own campaign. No two sessions are ever played alike.
Unfortunately, the movies have yet to capture that aspect of the game. The previous films were critical and commercial flops so there’s no reason to believe that it’ll be different this time. The first film landed in theaters in 2000 and featured acclaimed actor Jeremy Irons and comedian Marlon Wayans. Though the star power couldn’t save it and it fell $10 million short of breaking even. For some reason executives thought it deserved a made-for-TV sequel in 2005 and a direct-to-DVD sequel in 2008.
The films failed because fabricated tension can’t compete with a dice that lands on an inopportune 1 or a successful 20. Heroes can have setbacks or triumphs in the story, but it’s not the same as a roll that creates a ripple throughout the entire game. The movie feels ridged because, when compared to the malleable game, it is.
A written script binds the actions of the actors and drains the magic. The actors know exactly what they’ll be saying, who they’ll be saying it to and how they’ll reply. A director tells them where to stand, how to look and if a line needs to be delivered again. There is no opportunity to go into uncharted territory. Something like our impromptu ice cream party could never exist on screen.
You’d think the designers of the game would understand that the nuances couldn’t translate. Instead, fans will be left with a stagnant flick that’s “Dungeons and Dragons,” in name only.
This column was originally published in the September 7, 2016 edition of the Valley Courier.