Reading the Game

By Kyla Ward

Part One: Save vs. Spiels

It can be disconcerting for a player of role-playing games to open a novel or put on a DVD and see her hobby depicted in a way that she barely recognizes. Such as when Inspector John Coffin encounters miscreants playing Vices & Virgins in Gwendoline Butler's Coffin Underground. Or when the Greatest American Hero attempts a game of Wizards & Warlocks only to end up wrestling Arabs on a mini-golf course. Equally, it is delightful to encounter such a loving depiction of a convention as in John Ringo's Princess of Wands, or of gaming group dynamics as depicted in Robbie Fraser's GamerZ.

The first Dungeons & Dragons rules by E. Gary Gygax were published in 1974, and shortly thereafter role-playing games started appearing in novels, films, and television shows. That is, in fictional narratives, as distinct from news reports, psychological analysis, and the various other commentaries they received. For a game that consists of constructing fictional narratives, this may seem a little redundant. Nonetheless, the examples already given are part of a strange micro-genre that formed alongside the games and changed as they changed, interpreting and reflecting, sometimes influencing them in turn. This article looks at some of the highs and lows.

Narratives of role-playing—again, as distinct from campaign chronicles or straight fiction set in gaming worlds—tend toward three basic themes. The first is "It's not just a game, it's ALL REAL!" This is a fairly straightforward concept. The game is a link to a fantasy realm and the players themselves must brave the challenges they intended to meet by proxy. Culture shock ensues, especially for whoever was playing the lizard man. Here's a little sample from the grandmother of them all, Andre Norton's Quag Keep.

"Games!" spat the wizard. "Yes, it is those games of yours, fools that you are, that have given the enemy his chance. Had it not been that I, I who know the Lesser and Larger Spells of Ulik and Dom, was searching for the answer to an archaic formula, you would already be his things. Then you would play games right enough, his games and for his purpose."

Quag Keep was Andre Norton's idea. An established writer of science fiction and fantasy, she approached E. Gary Gygax about writing a novel based around his increasingly popular invention. Legend has it that he went round to her house and ran a game to give her the feel of things. The result came out in 1978 from Atheneum Books. The Keep's fantasy realm is actually the original D&D setting of Greyhawk, and there are enough first edition mechanics on display to make the veteran go misty with nostalgia. It is also very much an original and rather quirky novel that just happens to feature a twenty-sided die in the climax. The recent Tor reprint was welcome.

The second theme is "It's just a game, but the mystery is real!" To the standard detective story, with its motivating crime and subsequent investigation, role-playing adds a whole new level of intrigue. In the game, the cavern is a cavern, the dragon a dragon. But could these symbols stand for something else in the real world, and could the treasure also be real? Coffin Underground (Collins Crime Club, 1988) is one of this kind and a first rate thriller, even if the author didn't have a clue about RPGs.

And the third theme, "It's just a game, but these lunatics think it's real!" Enter Mazes and Monsters, or the steam tunnels if you prefer the news stories that inspired the novel. Rhona Jaffe's novel Mazes and Monsters (Delacorte Press, 1981) is notorious for bringing the still-infant hobby to mainstream attention, and in the worst possible light. Here is the supposed font of all rumors of motiveless violence, terminal character identification and hopeless nerdishness. Yet at its heart, Mazes and Monsters is a thoughtful, low-key story, mainly concerned with the characterization of its cast of college students and their parents. Kate, Daniel, Jay Jay, and Robbie certainly play "M&M," and they go so far as to stage a live-action version in the local cave system.

There was no need to sit in their customary circle to ask the Maze Controller where they were—they were there.
"Which way shall we go?" Daniel asked the group.
"Right," Kate said. "To the water." She tried to will herself deeper into the game, to become Glacia, no longer Kate. Glacia wouldn't be afraid. A part of her was thinking that the sound of water perhaps led to a hidden pool, and that Jay Jay would want them to see this. . . . The other part was trying to block out Jay Jay, and to make this game, which was real, as real as the imaginary one they had played in the dorm. She felt that separating the real from the fantasy was a way of keeping her sanity, but if she didn't let herself get into the game it wouldn't be any fun.

Despite typical gaming stereotypes, the characters are depicted as bright, athletic, notably good-looking, and sexually active. It's actually quite an attractive picture. When Robbie turns out to be suffering a serious trauma, predating the game, he copes by "becoming" his character, and the only ones to realize are his gamer friends who immediately go to his rescue. When the police suggest that the game has inspired someone to murder Robbie, thus explaining his disappearance from campus, no one is more shocked. The book attempts to analyze RPGs—the word "psychodrama" turns up before the end—and concludes they are a means by which adolescents work out their insecurities in the face of the adult world, and which most successfully outgrow. What it doesn't do is provide a clear picture of how the game might achieve this, or how it is normally played.

Although this is nowhere acknowledged, the book certainly drew inspiration from the genuine case of James Dallas Egbert II, a student who ran away from Michigan University in 1979. Or rather, from the newspaper headlines based on hearsay that James had gone down into the university's steam tunnels to play out a live version of his favorite leisure activity. In fact, he had gone to Mexico. The story of James Egbert is complicated and sad, but nothing in it suggests he believed he was a cleric. If any confusion of fantasy with reality was occurring, it was over at the National Coalition Against Television Violence, which was heavily involved in anti-gaming activism at this time. An untitled pamphlet released in 1985 lists examples of RPG-related crime, including the disappearance and probable death of a student on a college campus in 1980, linked to the "violent Mazes and Monsters role-playing game" (quoted in Games Don't Kill, Greg Stafford, The Games Manufacturers Association, pamphlet released 1988).

That Mazes and Monsters was adapted for film in 1983 (dir. Ray McDermott, McDermott Productions assoc. Proctor & Gamble) suggests just how hot the topic was. It is not the first appearance of an RPG in a feature film—that prize goes to ET (Steven Spielberg, Dreamworks) in 1982. But it is certainly the first film to focus on gaming. It stars a young Tom Hanks as Robbie. The gravitas with which he delivers lines such as "I'm a holy man; I never kill unless I cannot overcome the monster through reason or spells," leavens what could have been a very silly exercise. Although it may be responsible for the misconception that D&D is played by candlelight in darkly draped chambers, it's not a terrible film. Skullduggery (dir. Ota Richter, Wittman/Richter Films Inc., Media Home Entertainment), however, is. Coming out the same year, sharing an actor, and featuring a very similar-looking D&D table, the precise relationship of the game to the story is extremely confused, as is everything else about the film. It is entirely unclear whether the curse which turns the protagonist into a serial killer was imposed by the game, or by a genuine sorcerer, or exists entirely in his own deranged mind.

Another early novel was Hobgoblin (John Coyne, G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1981). Hobgoblin combines "the mystery is real" with "they think it's real" to create sheer gothic horror. After the sudden death of his father, Scott Gardiner is forced to move from the city to the rural town of Flat Rock, where his mother has found a job at the area's sole attraction, Ballycastle. Ballycastle is the real deal, transported stone by stone from Ireland to America in the 1900s. This serves only to feed the alienated boy's obsession with Hobgoblin, an RPG based on Irish myth. The twist is that evil actually does lurk at Ballycastle and Scott's obsession stands him in good stead.

The author did his homework. The Hobgoblin RPG has a fascinating setting and detailed mechanics. Coyne also has a much better grasp than Jaffe as to why and how people actually play, and the role-playing as seduction sequence is a highlight.

Scott shook his head, gestured to his paladin. "Brian's not like that."
"Like what?" Valerie pressed. "He doesn't go around sleeping with girls for no good reason."
"Doesn't he?" she teased.
Scott shook his head. "Come on, let's play."
"We are playing. We're trying to decide if it's better strategy for Brian Boru to fight the highwaymen or sleep with Marie."

Appearing in 1983, The Sleeping Dragon (Joel Rosenberg, Signet) is the first of the Guardians of the Flame series, totaling ten volumes to date. But the initial three books form perhaps the classic example of "It's ALL REAL!" An unnamed fantasy RPG links a disparate group of college students. James, Karl, Doria, and the rest all have their problems, for which the game provides a welcome distraction until the night their GM announces he has something special planned. Soon enough, the group are in not-so-scenic Lundeyll, in the bodies of their characters and with the distant Gate Between Worlds their only route home. This may sound similar to Quag Keep, but where the change of world was a prelude for Andre Norton, it is Mr Rosenberg's main theme. He concentrates especially on the fact that many typical fantasy tropes are or should be unacceptable to the average contemporary westerner, and that what is fun as a game may not be in real life. Just because Karl now has the skills of a fighter, should he kill a man? Can he, even when his life is at stake? And just because Doria's cleric believes in a beneficent deity doesn't mean Doria shares that faith. The Sword and the Chain (1984) and The Silver Crown (1985) complete the arc, after which the "reality" of the fantasy takes over.

The 1980s were also good for mysteries. The Anodyne Necklace (Martha Grimes, Little Brown & Co., 1983) is of the quaint English variety, which sees Richard Jury, the author's regular protagonist, faced with a dead girl, a peculiar map, and a host of eccentric locals, including those who meet to play "Wizards & Warlords" in the local pub—the Anodyne Necklace of the title. It is a pleasant enough read, although unlikely to enlighten anyone as to what role-playing actually involves.

Bimbos of the Death Sun (Sharyn McCrumb, TSR Books, 1987) was recently reprinted by Ballantine. It won the 1988 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best original mystery and so despite its in-house origins reached a wide and mainstream audience. Set at the Rubicon science fiction convention, there is as much role-playing going on as anything else, including murder. In fact, gaming becomes essential to the plot, such that the mechanics are explained in clear, comprehensible terms and actual tabletop play is depicted as well as LARPing. The question of why people indulge in science fiction and fantasy, especially through role-playing, is one of the overall themes of the book, and while it doesn't exactly glamorize the subculture, treats it with care and a definite familiarity.

A detective with an ostensibly similar problem is Jim Taggart, the couth and canny protagonist of the long-running British TV series bearing his name. In the 1989 episode "Flesh and Blood," young Janie Ross is murdered on her way home from a role-playing session during which "Valeria the fighter" was also killed. The circumstances of Janie's death seem to mirror those of her character. This five part story (Episode 1, Season 3, by Glen Chandler, dir. Allan Macmillan) is about three hours long, and even though the role-playing ends up taking a back seat to bank robbers and the IRA, its portrayal of gaming is detailed and accurate. It shows another draped and candlelit chamber but luxurious instead of campy; it's no wonder the group of students and professors from Edinburgh University use it.

The mystery continued across a number of even less likely television shows. The Greatest American Hero ("Wizards & Warlocks," Season 3, Episode 40, 1983), The Powers of Matthew Star ("Swords and Quests," Season 1, Episode 21, 1983), and The Littlest Hobo—yes, a show about a clever Alsatian dog ("Dragonslayer," Episode 12, Season 5, 1984) all produced various acronyms. There was also a Wizards and Warriors (CBS Productions, 1983), but that was a rare attempt at bringing full-on swords and sorcery to the small screen, which illustrates a relevant point. Fantasy is expensive to film, especially if it's not going to look incredibly silly. Role-playing, especially LARPing, can be portrayed comparatively cheaply . . . and look just as silly. Oh, and the 1985 movie The Dungeonmaster (dir. Dave Allen and six others, Ragewar Productions)? Nothing to do with gaming and rather tedious. However, A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (dir. Chuck Russell, New Line Cinema, 1987) features Will Stanton, the wheelchair-bound Wizard Master whose dream warrior form is a robed spellcaster. Unfortunately, Freddy doesn't believe in fairy-tales.

It is interesting that the majority of these outings predate the infamous Sixty Minutes segment on "the game of death," which ran in 1985 in the USA and was recut with local material for an Australian version of the show a year later. Sixty Minutes gave gaming the same rap sheet—violence, character identification, and bright but dysfunctional male players—as fictional works like Coffin Underground. It can be seen as the culmination of a process, of mainstream culture responding to a new idea by creating a kind of myth or stereotype that could henceforth be used as shorthand. No one source can be blamed, although the extreme ideas contributed by the religious right doubtless had their effect. What is indisputable is that the myth of role-playing, although neither accurate nor flattering, was pretty potent for something that was, after all, just a game. This myth made role-playing into a major social issue at this point in time—not up there with drugs and teenage pregnancy, but nonetheless worth a segment on a national current affairs program.

But from the very start, positive portrayals and stories breaking the stereotypes of, for instance, gaming as an all-male hobby, appeared right alongside the myth. For every author who portrayed a coven of mysterious kooks or criminals, there was one who knew and loved her subjects, even on television. In The Littlest Hobo, the LARPing kids dub the protagonist a Blink Dog—thus proving the writer had at least read the first edition Monster Manual. Of course, none of this stopped the National Coalition Against Television Violence from attempting to have mandatory health warnings placed on the D&D game books and even on the D&D cartoon (reported in "Critics Link a Fantasy Game to 29 Deaths," W. G. Shuster, Christianity Today, 24(8) 1985).

The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon (Marvel Productions / Dungeons and Dragons Entertainment Corporation, 1983-1985) should be taken seriously for a number of reasons. With twenty-three sequential episodes (plus "Requiem," the unproduced finale) over three seasons, it forms perhaps the longest example of "It's ALL REAL!" Hank, Eric, Sheila, Presto, Diana, and Bobby are a group of ordinary teenagers (and one tag-along child) when they spot the Dungeons & Dragons ride at the amusement park. But in a sequence summarized at the start of every subsequent episode, the ride decants them into a world where in order to survive they must take on the roles of Ranger, Cavalier, Thief, Magician, Acrobat, and Barbarian (the Cavalier and Barbarian classes only became official in 1985 with the Unearthed Arcana supplement, but much of the relevant material had already appeared in Dragon magazine). Their only guide is the Dungeonmaster, a gnome-like figure with a fondness for cryptic clues. But completing his quests is their only chance of returning home.

As an official TSR production (E. Gary Gygax was co-writer, and it doesn't get much more official than that) it can be seen as part of the gaming industry's efforts to present the hobby in a positive light. The need to avoid depicting death and injury in prime time caused some convolutions, but having said this, it is one of the meatier cartoons of the period. Moral choices and tensions amongst the characters are the order of the day, especially between the heroic Hank and the disgruntled Eric, not to mention a villain who rides a Nightmare and has a Shadow Demon as a servant.

That other official TSR production, the then print Dragon, also contributed to the industry's efforts to define itself. "The Ordeal" (Atanielle Annyn Noel, Dragon #79, November 1983) is a brilliant short story, concerning a gaming group with one irritating member. On Halloween night, the others decide to teach him a lesson and end up learning something themselves. And in "Doomsgame" (J. B. Allen, Dragon #107, March 1986), Thron the barbarian and Sheona the sorceress have a domestic dilemma. Their children, instead of training in the ways of battle and magic, are obsessed with a game (incomprehensible to the parents) called "Teachers and Classrooms."

To the March issue of G.M. Magazine (Vol. I No. 7, 1989), an independent British publication, fantasy author Storm Constantine contributed a short story entitled "So What's Forever?" which can be described as "it's ALL REAL! AWESOME!!!" But that same issue includes a much shorter piece entitled "Fantasy" by Unknown. The editor confesses that they lost the cover letter, which held all such details. To compound their error, here's a quote:

Fantasy, no problem. How do you want it? In chunks, frozen, sliced, bottled, essence of, gift-wrapped? . . . No, wait a minute, I know just the thing for you . . . boxed fantasy, everything you need to embark upon fantastic dreams in one handy package, isn't it marvellous? Unless you want to wait for the new deluxe edition of course.

What was happening here, in these stories, is that role-players themselves were starting to reflect on their hobby. Although empathy is certainly present in The Sleeping Dragon and Hobgoblin, it is when the actual players took up the challenge of portraying themselves that things really started getting bizarre.

Part Two: I Grapple the Concept

Comics proved a useful vehicle for the gaming crowd to self-represent, no doubt thanks to its low entry cost and familiarity with the fantasy and science fiction genres so important to many RPGs. Nevertheless, the first game-inspired comic was Dark Dungeons, the infamous CHICK Publications tract that equated playing D&D with occult indoctrination and suicide. Always interesting for its choice of female protagonists, in 1999 the strip was informally reissued on the web as the parody Dork Dungeons by W.T.F. of Chyx Publications, presenting the same art with a new script that vastly altered Debbie's progress. ("Debbie, your cleric has been raised to the 80th level. I think it's time you started playing a really dorky game." "You mean we're going to play Vampire: The Masquerade?")

The first major comic about gaming by gamers was Knights of the Dinner Table, which made its first appearance in the small press magazine Shadis. Legend has it that the strip was created by the editor, Jolly R. Blackburn, as filler and it was indeed replaced after a few issues. Readers, however, successfully demanded the return of the gaming group and their misadventures. The comic panels depict the hapless players at a table with their GM playing Hackmaster with amusing results. Their sessions provide a prospectus of everything that could possibly go wrong in an RPG, from adverse character loss syndrome to the time one character's use of the word "zephyr" led the group to create a monster out of thin air.

By 1996, Knights of the Dinner Table Magazine was created as a vehicle for the Knight's ongoing saga, and strips began appearing in Dragon. The magazine is still going, having topped 150 issues, and the world that was initially restricted to a kitchen table has blossomed into an entire social order, complete with professional gamers and the Hackmaster Help Line.

1992 saw another entry in the role-playing comic field, in the independent magazine Australian Realms. Commencing as prose in #6, the "Adventures of the A-Team" by Andrew Daniels concerns a typical party of characters undergoing a typical fantasy adventure—but fully aware that this is the case.

"Her," corrected Zeek . . . "A thousand perfectly useful deities to choose from and I get a Master who invents one of his own. Not only that, He makes me the only character alive who actually believes in her. What kind of a start in life does that give you?"

From #9 onwards the A-Team became a comic drawn by Scott Edgar. It ran for only 19 episodes but a compilation including previously unpublished material and miniature figures was released in its honor.

In 1997, another comic strip made its first appearance in Shadis. Written and drawn by John Kovalic, Dork Tower concerns another dysfunctional gaming group with GM Matt attempting to impose his vision upon his human friends Ken and Igor, and Carson, whose identity as a muskrat goes generally unremarked. The game is Warhamster and what this lot do to Matt's plots, let alone The Lord of the Rings, is criminal. But the presence of vampire LARPers and various mundanes provides plenty of external complications, including the romantic variety. By 1998, the title had its own comic book and a spin-off entitled "Shop Keep" running in Dragon. The print comic ceased at #36 but the ongoing story has found various other homes.

All these comics were created by gamers and aimed at gamers with, initially, no real thought of the outside world. They can be seen as a product, not just of the authors' sense of humour, but of the self-awareness of the gaming subculture that started showing in short stories during the late '80s. There have been many others: Nodwick and The Order of the Stick are both thoroughly grounded in RPG culture, though strictly speaking these are both campaign chronicles.

But the outside world hadn't gone away. On the contrary, it was providing gamers with useful quotes:

Homer: And then I was slain by an elf.—"Homer Goes to College," The Simpsons, Season 5, Episode 3. 1993.

Jose Chung: Aren't you nervous telling me all this? Receiving all those death threats? Blaine: Well, hey, I didn't spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage.—"Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'", The X Files, Season 3, Episode 20. 1996.

A later X-Files episode, "Unusual Suspects" (Season 5, Episode 3), depicts Lone Gunman Richard Langly DMing a game with cash stakes.

The transition of role-playing from an Issue to something that could be referenced humorously with the expectation that a mainstream audience would understand it, is significant. Even if what was understood was the same irritating stereotype. But then again, Langly was a popular supporting character on The X-Files, one of the most broadly popular television series of the decade. In the same vein, Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon (William Heinemann, 1999) features Randy Waterhouse, an entrepreneurial programmer and cryptographer who spent much of college role-playing. The stereotype of the nerdy gamer agrees, but again, Randy is the hero of the novel, and his college experience prepares him for gaming in any field of play.

As the new millennium got underway, Knights and Dork Tower both developed a substantial web presence, there to be joined by too many 'zines and web comics to count. The new media, with its unprecedented ease of production and scope of distribution, was always going to impact spectacularly on the computer/nerd/gamer equation. The emergence of MMORPGs is beyond the scope of this article, although there are signs that some of the old RPG myths are being recycled. But initially, it seemed that some people were more interested in looking back. The TV series Freaks and Geeks (2000) is set in 1980, and D&D and the myths surrounding it appear through a reminiscent haze. "Discos and Dragons" is the eighteenth and final episode. It sees the arch-freak Daniel DeSario condemned by the guidance counsellor to join that geek stronghold, the Audio Visual club, just as they are slavering over the release of Deities and Demigods. As a friendly gesture, the geeks invite him to join their campaign. The twist is, Daniel enjoys the game and announces his intention to take his dwarven fighter on to further adventures. The game makes a similiarly nostalgic though briefer and far more bizarre cameo in That '70s Show ("Radio Daze," Season 3, Episode 14, 2001).

In 2002 The Gamers, a short film written and directed by Matt Vancil (Dead Gentlemen Productions) arrived. In Part I of this article, mention was made of how silly cheap or ill-considered fantasy can look on screen. The Gamers makes this the point. Vancil was a student at the time and the production is amateurish, although special mention should be made of his success in capturing a natural 20 on film. But no amount of polish could be more suitable for this "tale of epic fantasy," as filtered through an unnamed game system.

GM: You're going to backstab him with a ballista?
Phil/Nimble: Uh huh.
GM: With a fucking siege weapon?
Phil/Nimble: Uh huh.
GM: Okay, there's got to be a rule against this.

Every stupid thing that rules-lawyering and back-pedaling can achieve is discussed at the game table, then gleefully enacted in sequences set in the fantasy world, wherein the PCs respond like puppets to the players' and GM's sometimes conflicting instructions. Depicted like this, the humor can be shared by everyone.

It was followed in 2003 by Gamers: The Movie(dir. Phillip Broste), GamerZ (dir. Robbie Fraser, Pure mAgic Films, 2005) and Gamers (dir. Christopher Folino (Sideshow Productions, 2006), The Gamers: Dorkness Rising (aka The Gamers 2, aka The Gamers: Second Edition) (dir. Matt Vancil. Dead Gentlemen Productions, 2008) and THAC0 (dir. Bill Stiteler, 2008). The Dungeons & Dragons movie (dir. Courtney Solomon, 2001) possessed the tagline "This is no game," which was at least accurate.

One of the most interesting of these films is GamerZ. It is a completely professional outing that had a British cinema and DVD release. Ralph is an obsessive gamer as well as a talented student when he arrives at Glasgow University. Cue the steam tunnels? Not exactly. Ralph may have aspirations but real life is way too robust, complex, and sometimes funny to let them go unchallenged. There is no doubting this film's credentials—the play sequences are spot on and the amount of genuine gaming material on display particularly impressive. And it looks beautiful. The fantasy sequences are narrated by Ralph (with interjections from his players), over "shadow plays"—a mix of expressionistic artwork and live silhouettes. Although it has aspirations to humour and drama, it works primarily as a character piece, which is only appropriate.

The Fellowship of the Dice (dir. Matthew Ross & Matthew Mishory, Tough Cookie Productions, 2005) has a truly weird premise. Beautiful, blonde Elizabeth has been sentenced to six months house arrest for partying long and too hard. Desperate for something to do, she accepts an invitation from a strange man to come to his place for a game. Luckily for her, it turns out to be 3W—Wizards, Warriors and Wyrms. The film is shot in mockumentary style, as though Elizabeth's arrival just happened to coincide with the night the crew were there to record the game. The sequences covering her introduction to and gradual immersion in the fantasy are interspersed with vox pops apparently taken from genuine gamers at genuine conventions.

Blonde, busty girls joining gaming groups would seem to be a fantasy with broad appeal. Astrópía (dir. Gunnar B. Gudmundsson, Solar Films) was made in Iceland in 2007 and is absolutely charming. The title is the name of the gaming shop into which Hildur walks, seeking employment with a very limited skill set. As it happens, Hildur had been living in a fantasy world of wealth and glamour for some time, before the arrest of her boyfriend brought her down to earth. She fantasises constantly, about romance, adventure; even a child's fairy tale can ensnare her (this has the interesting effect of normalising the switch to "inside the game"). But with the assistance of a good DM and some spectacular Icelandic scenery, she finally finds her true role and in the process gains a "real" life. Astrópía is a full-scale feature film and features a large number of serious fantasy LARPers. It was marketed in the US under the title Dorks and Damsels.

Amidst all this cinematic activity, the literary world had not quite forgotten role-playing. Author Joanne Harris is better known for romantic novels such as Chocolat, but judging by "Waiting for Gandalf," a short story in her collection Jigs & Reels (Doubleday, 2004) she too has had exposure to serious LARPers.

On a bad night, it's raining; you've sprained your ankle; there's dogshit on your adventuring boots and you can hear faint karaoke from a nearby pub; then a police car draws up to investigate a report of a disturbance and as the most experienced member of the group, you're left trying to explain to the duty constable precisely why you're traipsing round the woods at one in the morning dressed as a goblin and covered in mud.

This is a beautiful little piece, well worth the tracking down.

The extremely belated sequel to Andre Norton's first foray into RPGs mentioned above, Return to Quag Keep appeared in 2006, a collaboration between the late Ms Norton and Jean Rabe, the author of several novels set in the Forgotten Realms campaign world. Starting more or less where the first book left off, it fills in a lot of detail about the gamer heroes (whose earthly memories have now been restored), who called them here and why. The tone of this volume is very different and not just because it's no longer first edition rules. There is now nearly three decades of role-playing culture to accommodate and Ms Rabe gives it a serious try. This is quintessential "It's ALL REAL!"

This category could also be said to cover Princess of Wands (John Ringo, Baen Books, 2006). But in Barbara Everett's case, the usual situation is reversed. The "God's warrior" heroine has only come to the convention in search of a necromancer, who has been sacrificing gamers to a Babylonian demigod. She's an interesting creation: a suburban mother from Louisiana, whose unconventional upbringing has left her a first class shot, an excellent martial artist, and a devout Christian. This is a version of the "real" world where the supernatural exists and belief equals power. All that aside, the work is the most detailed and loving compilation of convention lore and characters since Bimbos of the Death Sun.

A lower-key but equally loving depiction of actual, table-top play takes up nearly an entire episode of the television series Community ("Advanced Dungeons and Dragons," Season 2, Episode 14, 2011). We're talking about a group of casually dressed adults of both sexes seated round a formica table in a well-lit room, spiced up only by sound effects and the overacting of Chevy Chase. The game has been arranged especially in support of Neil, whose depression has alarmed his classmates at the community college. Most of the group are new to the game, but are soon using it to play out the conflicts amongst their social group, eventually resolving Neil's problems in a manner none could have ever anticipated.

The popular animated series Futurama features role-playing games. In the movie-length Bender's Game (dir. Dwayne Carey-Hill, 20th Century-Fox Television, 2008), Bender the robot joins a D&D game in order to prove he has an imagination, and is immediately obsessed. Soon, the entire cast are romping through the realm of Cornwood on a quest to melt down the great die of power in the plastic from which it was made. In "Anthology of Interest I" (Season 2, Episode 20, 2000) E. Gary Gygax "appears" as one of the Vice Presidential Action Rangers, protecting the space-time continuum by any means necessary, including a +1 mace. This story only occupies part of the episode but is memorable for the way Gary Gygax has to roll dice to determine his actions. This tactic is also exemplified by Sheldon Cooper in an episode of The Big Bang Theory ("The Wiggly Finger Catalyst," Season 5, Episode 4, 2011). D&D pops up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Chosen," Season 7, Episode 22, 2003) and The IT Crowd ("Jen the Fredo," Season 4, Episode 1, 2010). "The Girl with the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo" is the title of episode 20 in Season 7 of Supernatural (2011) but the tattoo (of Princess Leia straddling a d20) is indeed the only connection. "Dungeons & Dragons" is the title of episode 6 in Season 1 of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, where the myth of gaming causing violence and social alienation turns full circle.

This conceptual back flip is demonstrated at no greater length than in the 2008 movie Role Models (dir. David Wain, Universal Pictures, Relativity Media, etc.). A mainstream film starring Seann William Scott and Paul Rudd, it has more fantasy LARPers than even Astrópía and what's more, they are shown as actually LARPing, rather than simply representing the imaginary aspect of a tabletop game. The swords are rubber, the rules are one hit to the limb, and the costumes are in some cases jaw-dropping. Thirty-something executive Danny approaches the game under extreme duress, cursing that his involvement with a Big Brother program has landed him with Augie, a charge so dysfunctional he wears a cape in public and speaks in monosyllables. But once in his adopted world, Augie blossoms and it is Danny who is the strangely dressed weirdo whose disregard of social conventions lands him in deep trouble. How to resolve matters? By the largest rubber-weapon battle for a wooden castle in the history of the kingdoms! This movie doesn't have car chases and gun play: its well-shot action sequences are all LARP combat, which after a while doesn't look silly at all. And although played for laughs, vignettes such as Danny bringing down an arrogant antagonist, only to have the guy praise him for the hit, comment on how involving this game is and suggest they swap emails ring absolutely true.

If this partly random selection of pop-cultural product demonstrates anything, it is that thankfully, cultures evolve. What was frightening becomes amusing, even nostalgic, as general familiarity grows. What emerged on the edges of society migrates towards the center, as students graduate and being that generation's "nerd" or "dork" begins to pay off. Some of the most obvious evidence of this process lies in the books, films, and comics; in short, the narratives inspired by the phenomenon itself. As an activity based in the production of narratives, be they sword and sorcery, science fiction or supernatural horror, role-playing games and gamers found themselves in a unique position to engage with this process and continue to do so to this day. Long may they continue, providing ever more proof that society's fantasy and reality are inextricably intertwined.


Kyla's latest solo release is The Land of Bad Dreams, a collection of dark poetry. Her novel Prismatic (co-authored as Edwina Grey) won an Aurealis and her work on RPGs includes Demon the Fallen. Short fiction, films, and plays—she's been there, as well as a whole lot of cemeteries.

 

 

 

Comments

Great article, and an excellent survey of the literature! I was surprised to see no mention of Dream Park and its sequels, which neatly (and intentionally) straddle "IT'S ALL REAL" and "It's just a game, but the mystery is real" while being immersed in fannish (if not precisely gamerish) culture.

Great article! It's good to see that for every clueless and tone-deaf media representation of RPGers (and geeks in general), we're getting more and more realistic and fair portrayals.

I'm a little curious about this statement:

It can be seen as the culmination of a process, of mainstream culture responding to a new idea by creating a kind of myth or stereotype that could henceforth be used as shorthand. No one source can be blamed, although the extreme ideas contributed by the religious right doubtless had their effect.

Based on my informal, anecdotal knowledge, I wonder which way the direction of influence actually pointed here. I have heard from older gamers that RPGs originally didn't face any stigma or opposition in their churches, and that this only changed after the negative stereotypes became prevalent in the mainstream culture. At that point the opposition was refracted and intensified through the prism of fundamentalist paranoia, but the fundamentalists were not the one who got the ball rolling.

Thank you for this fantastic article. I see all of my favourites here -- Mazes & Monsters, the Greatest American Hero "Wizards & Warlocks" episode, Hobgoblin, Gamerz (a fantastic film) -- and quite a few more obscure sources I hadn't encountered.

Have you seen the 1985 CBC television debate on Dungeons & Dragons?

Have you seen BenX? It's an excellent film, though it's about an MMO, not an RPG). It has themes similar to Mazes & Monsters... though as I say, it's a GOOD film.

Also, FYI, the citation for the article "Critics Link a Fantasy Game to 29 Deaths" contains an error. The volume number is 29, not 24. The article appears on pages 64-65.

Leave a Comment

The following HTML tags are allowed: <em><strong><cite><strike><b><i><a>