Thursday, November 27, 2008

Poking Fun

I had a housewarming party this last weekend, which went very well. A good friend of mine brought me what has to have been a gag gift—him being a D&D player himself—a copy of the made-for-TV, 1982 film, Mazes and Monsters.

I detect a shudder among those reading.

I had seen this film precisely one time before: in 1982. I eagerly anticipated the movie and was sure to be sitting at the screen when it came on, as it was the first media acknowledgement of the game that I’d heard of. I think there were a lot of us who, ignorant of the content (there was rarely any previous information distributed on ANY media then), were very angry with the film. I know I was. Angry with the message, angry that they got not one detail accurate, angry that the other side of the story was never going to get its say.

This is not a review. I don’t really care about the film itself; all made-for-TV movies are shit. I would like to say that if it were actually possible for players to “lose their sense of reality” within the game, we would all be playing MORE, not less. Would that the game were that engrossing.

Someone on a blog last week (I won’t say who, but he knows who he is) made an excited post about the movie Hawk the Slayer, asking why had he never heard of this movie before? I would answer that it was because he was lucky enough not to have been born in 1964 and thus not to have been 16 when the movie came out in 1980. It, with other films like Krull (1983), Clash of the Titans (1981) and Dragonslayer (1981) were part of a whole genre of cheesy fantasy films that came out in that period—partly, I suppose, because there was a groundswell of interest in fantasy fiction that was making itself clear to those making movies. But oh my god were these movies bad. Those people I played with at the time would grind their teeth whenever the subject of fantasy film was raised, wondering when in hell someone was going to make a good film. The best we had so far was Conan the Barbarian (1982), which was not well loved due to Schwarzenegger, who thankfully speaks about 8 words, total, through the entire film.

But all these films have become cult favorites—even Mazes and Monsters—because role-players have always “embraced the cheese.” As far back as my memory goes, the type of nerdy loner who enjoyed a good Saturday night with a D&D campaign was the same lad who Sunday night would take in a World’s Worst Film Festival at the vintage theatre downtown. There is something about the mindset that says that a really good film is impossible, so I will find really bad films and laugh at them.

I was born stodgy, I suppose, as I’ve never found anything funny in a bad film. I do not titter at bad dialogue, I wince…and then wonder why its not possible to have writers like this taken out and shot, or how it comes to be that people are willing to raise millions of dollars in order to put their shit screenplays on film, and by that time I’m out of the theatre and on my way home. I would rather watch bowling than a bad film.

The embracement of the cheese does not, however, end with the love of film. Many DMs, not blessed with any more talent than the average writer of fantasy screenplays (Uwe Boll comes to mind), produce campaigns which, if movies, would have all the angst of Ron Howard’s Willow (late for the genre, it came out in 1988). Princesses in need of saving, threatened villages, mindless quests, never ending and irrational dungeons (filled with hundreds of traps intended to guard…what, exactly?)…it is all part of the same stale block of Gouda. Most players love it; attempts at anything deeper are doomed to failure, since your personal dungeon master wasn’t born a C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Hell, not even a J.K. Rowling.

(What is it with the initials?)

So cheese is all they have. The protestors against the evil satanic cult of roleplaying should be aware that there are far more moments in a game where the players are making up bad puns about the last monster they’ve slaughtered, or how many times they can “surprise rape” their fellow party members, then fiendishly inventing ways to sacrifice real live victims in the game. At the heart of it, the gamers are the first to poke fun.

The myth of a “serious” campaign, that elusive thing, is the wheel upon which most DMs are broken, as players with their Mountain Dew and cheesies settle into their roles of Dave, Bob and Brian, ready to make hay of B.A.’s efforts. (More initials. Coincidence?)

It is the genre. Whatever Mazes and Monsters got wrong, it did get one thing right: people spouting fantasy fiction at each other around a kitchen look like morons to an outsider, any outsider. And we laugh at morons. Even at the other morons playing with us. Even at ourselves, being morons, while we play. Every once in awhile I find myself muttering phrases from the mouth of some NPC, and I have to wince.

Which is why no one is ever going to take this game as seriously as many of the bloggers or game pundits would like. It will never be cool. It will never be hip. It’s just such an easy target.


sirlarkins said...

::raises hand::

Yeah, that would be me who posted the Hawk clip. :)

Funny you should mention KoTD, since apparently that very movie was mentioned in the comic (as being "based on solid RPG fundamentals").

I actually agree with you on bad films being a waste of time; I look at movies like Hawk as being more like artifacts of classic trash pop culture, of which I am a fan. Same reason I'm watching the Dance Party ( marathon on a local TV station today while I baste my turkey.

Of course, it probably helps that there have been several fantasy films made lately that benefited from better budgets and production values, that we can look back at these cheesy efforts and chuckle about them rather than shake our fists and lament that these are the only celluloid representations of the fantasy genre available.

Strix said...

Mazes and Monsters is, IMHO, an iconic piece given the genre and the time it was made. That doesn't mean it's a good movie or that it got things right. What it did do right was capture the prevalent social attitudes and biases towards the game at that time. These are biases that still remain today. Mazes and Monsters, as bad and as inaccurate as it is, is simply the first mass media product that plays on these attitudes. For that reason it is an important movie.

Mazes & Monsters references the, "Steam tunnel incident" and several "actual" disappearances of D&D players. While the popular media at the time blamed D&D, each case was later discovered to have key elements of drug addiction, abuse and depression that the mass media glossed over or completely ignored.

When M&M was made I was already familiar with the events that the movie was based on. The group I played with knew in advance that it was going to take the position it took. After the movies release we were all made to undergo psychological interviews by our guidance councilor and anyone in our small town who played the game were all subject to labels of "schitzo D&D players" and the like.

Ironic perhaps, but our group grew after the release of M&M, as did the number of people who hung out at the local comic shop cum. game store. People everywhere started playing D&D after that movie came out. Was it simple curiosity or something else?


Alexis said...

Let's not be generous with our praise. Mazes was hardly made with the elucidation of the public in mind. Rather, a group of second-rate television producers got together and said, "Hey, people are afraid of this. Let's make a movie and exploit that fear."

It might have been better if one word had been said that such fears were baseless. The movie never bothered.

I'll save my praise for the first movie that portrays roleplaying as a positive thing...haven't seen that yet. But I did say we look like morons playing this game.

Dwayanu said...

"Gamerz" is something else!

As to the latter observations, it may be that in general bad literature makes for good RPGs. There's a problem in that the demands of performance art differ from the demands of a game.

Carl said...

The demands of readable fiction also differ from the demands of a game. I see a lot of RPG material by writers who (it seems to me) would rather be writing books, but for whatever reason they don't. As a result much of the RPG materials I see on the shelves is bloated with "back story" and "character development" and other crap that I find to be pedantic, and kind of stupid.

By contrast, I've found in general that the dumber the movie, the easier it is "adjusted" to an RPG session, sessions or campaign.

Star Wars, for example, is a pretty dumb movie. Oh yeah, I know, I love it, too and own the entire set on DVD. I demanded my parents take me to see it several times when it was in the theatres, etc. Regardless, it is pretty dumb compared to a space opera like 2001, or a tale of heroism like Lawrence of Arabia. But, it is a fantastic campaign template and nearly every scene can be neatly lifted from the movie and used with little modification to the delight of your players.

Contrast this to Lawrence, which is a great movie and action-packed, but is nearly impossible to wedge into a campaign. The emotional depth of the movie is such that it just can't be depicted around a gaming table, and without that emotional depth, there's not much there to use.

I generally don't like bad movies. I think the worst one I actually like is, "Predator." It's a cheeseball of a movie, but it's a good action flick, well-edited and nicely shot. I kind of like, "Evil Dead 2" but that's such a nerd standard that it's practically a gimmee. Also, Bruce Campbell is in it and Bruce Campbell could very well be the greatest actor of his generation.

Hawk the Slayer? Ator the Fighting Eagle? No thanks. I'll watch Record of Lodoss War if I want cheesy fantasy.