Sunday, September 20, 2015

Nobody's Business

The Edmonton Expo is in four days.

There's very little left to do.  We're set up for the scene, we've got the presentation necessary.  My daughter, I believe, is cosplaying as Sailor Moon.  I am cosplaying as the writer in residence.  The only concern left is a delivery of books that should be here by tomorrow afternoon.  Fingers crossed.

In light of the Expo, I was asked to write about the Dungeons and Dragons television show . . . specifically this episode.  I don't know what I'll say yet; I'm still gearing up to the task.  There's a good chance that I'll say something I should apologize for - but we'll see.

Whenever I hear someone remember this show fondly, which seems to happen often, I find myself in awe.  Perhaps it is because everyone I played with when the show came out (1983) were already 18 and way, way beyond kid's shit.  My memories of the show consists mostly of how really bad my groups considered it to be, how offended we were that a gritty show about D&D had been shat on again (something that hasn't changed) and in particular in which ways the show was nothing like the actual game.

Regarding the linked episode above, I'll keep off the subject of animation quality, voice work and other aspects of production (which are horrifically execreble); I'm also not going to say anything about costumes and the silliness of their design.  I'll stick to game interpretations with which I have a problem.  I'll give the time stamp for when the problem occurs.  I'm going to ignore the title sequence and just start with the show itself (part one), which begins at 01:00.

  • 1:47 - the Dungeon Master tells the party what to do.
  • 2:37 - the mages' powers are limited to his hat (and by extension that the abilities of all the characters are due to their magic items).
  • 3:04 - characters run away from danger before engaging first (one arrow does not equal engagement for D&D players).
  • 3:14 - only barbarians want to fight things.
  • 3:23 - "fighting will only make them mad."
  • 3:37 - fighting is somehow equated to "heroics"
  • 4:30 - in a world where people turn down exchanging bread for talismans (because they're obviously cheap and worthless) there's still room for accusations that the use of magic proves "an evil wizard."
  • 4:53 - peasants are willing to rush off to try to destroy a mage after displaying an obviously powerful talisman.
  • 5:04 - too exhausted to run; obviously, not too exhausted to fight.
  • 6:50 - characters sleep in their armor.

On the whole, mere quibbles.  So much of the show is taken up with anvilicious development and flanderization that it's amazing there was time to have anyone portray any event that can be reconciled with D&D.  And of course, the fact that it was presented as a kid's show in a pre-internet world, when children's programming was hopelessly relegated to infantilization and marketing, meant that fighting had to be something the participants couldn't do.

That's the saddest part of this show - that it was designed around a game with a fundamental structural dependency on fighting in a media where fighting could not be discussed.  Television has always been funny this way.  As elementary age boys in an upper middle-class neighborhood, the favorite game was always 'guns.'  The television we watched was full of six-shooters, phasers and spy pistols, so those filled our pockets.  Guns meant running across open lawns, diving over fences and dying - mostly dying - in spectacular ways.  Twitching one's body while running off a five-foot ledge to a slope of grass, skidding to a halt and then holding the 'death pose' for the demanded 30-seconds (rules!) was just the sort of thing to cause mothers to rush onto their back porch and scream in full panic.

At seven we understood the pleasure of fighting.  That's part of what we immediately loved about D&D at - in my case - 15.  But television has always tried to pretend that fighting is something children do not do.  And it has always tried to shove that perspective down children's throats.

As children, we ignored it.

Naturally, the D&D show was nothing like D&D.  How could it be?  Even if the writers had done due diligence (which obviously they did not do), nothing on earth is more executively meddled with than children's programming.  There are too many legal landmines for it not to be that way.  The error, of course, was that D&D was promoted as a children's game.  It is still promoted that way.  It will always be promoted that way.  It doesn't matter that it requires more time, effort, ability, expertise, background and practice to manage it than bridge or football pools . . . this is simply the way the world insists on looking at the game.  This is why every nerd portrayed playing it on television always emphasizes the fantastical, silly aspects.

When a dragon is presented in a children's show, it is a fat, dumpy thing that clumps around breathing harmless fire.  It isn't that dragons can't be scary.  We can see a bit of the fear in a movie sort of aimed at adults, where an effort is made to sort of cause the dragon to be aggressive, moving like a clumsy snake and breathing hot fire between talking like a serial killing university professor.  We can make it burn down a town.

What we can't do, even in an adult movie with a dragon in it, is show the smashed and burnt bodies of the dead, as they're dying, like we can in a war film.  People will pay to watch tank shells splitting bodies in two or to see people cut to pieces by bullets, but no one's going to put up with that shit from a movie with a dragon in it.  Because this isn't horror, this is fantasy.

Yet - and here's something that most D&D players never really grasp - role-playing is horror.  It is what we would never choose to do in reality - court death, see it as acceptable, take pleasure in destroying an enemy and callously make plans to do it all again.  For gain.  It is viscerally satisfying to act as brutally as we wish for purely selfish motivations.  This is what the game taps into.  And the more advanced the game, the greater the agency for pursuing that selfish intent.

Films and television can't represent that because the 'good guys' can never be that way in that media.  The 'good guys' can't possess the motivation that D&D demands as proof of winning.  It is a game built in an underground and pursued habitually in an environment where authority and morality have no voice.  Where 'right' and 'wrong' are limited to what a small number of quiet players accept as the gameplay they want.

A great reason for the success of expos and gaming cons comes from the sense of free-spirited lawless associations that arise from people dressing as they want and playing up the characters they want, without the usual discourse and condemnation that follows from social rule-makers.  Role-playing represents a form of media where executive meddling is impossible above the level of the DM, where hours can be spent in the company of others who are okay with arson, murder, genocide and the like.  It is the only group activity that allows a meeting of the minds in this way.

But this is a great secret, isn't it?  We're supposed to pretend it isn't going on this way around gaming tables.  Every once in awhile someone on the net gets upset because someone mentions rape or infanticide and there's a back-and-forth.  Doesn't mean anything, however - because if six adults can agree that the castration going on in this role-playing game, tonight, is fantasy and nothing more, then the rest of the world can fuck off.  Ain't nobody's business but the players.

That makes role-playing a dangerous game - in the eyes of the controllers and the pundits.  This encourages such people to proclaim, again, that RPGs are on their way out.  Or that the only people still playing them are children.  Or whatever other lie that wants to be said.

But we at the tables know different, don't we.  We know that when Eric the Paladin says, "I make a pass at Lorne - how does he feel about that?", we don't have to take a public sampling to find out if the players having sex is okay.  All the DM needs to do is roll a die.


JB said...

Great post. Good luck at the Expo!

Ktulu said...

Very well said! And I have a sick fondness for the show that is more of a morbid fascination at its failing than anything. But I did let my young girls watch it and they have a strange love/hate for it, as well. Both are too young for DnD as of yet, but the show did at least get them into the idea of Rangers and wizards. Though, the current TMNT show on Nickelodeon does a better job showing a DnD group than the DnD cartoon ever did. Even when they're NOT doing a DnD parody episode.

Fuzzy Skinner said...

You make an excellent point about genre determining the suitability of violence. Generally, if you want anything other than good guys being conflicted or traumatized by their use of violence, you have to look outside of the 'mainstream' media. I'm partial to the Italian fantasy movies from the 80s; they might be crappily made and full of laughable costumes, but at least the heroes of many of these movies display something other than pure altruism and pacifism.

(I almost specifically mentioned Hawk the Slayer - a movie which pretty accurately depicts several of my past D&D parties - but that film, though it walks like an Italian film and quacks like an Italian film, was made by an almost entirely British cast and crew!)

Alexis Smolensk said...

I remember Hawk the Slayer well - it was standard afternoon Saturday television movie fare for about a decade, at least in this country. I would have watched it, oh, perhaps three times? Definitely a better effort than garbage like Krull (another British-American effort by Peter Yates of Bullitt fame and the tv show The Saint). Still, HtS wasn't great. Fantasy movies were a ceaseless disappointment in those days.

Preston Selby said...

Perhaps proving your point; I hated the D&D cartoon when I saw it at about age 13, for pretty much all the reasons you point out.
Now I kind of enjoy it though. I really like the gonzo fantasy landscapes.
I think the rest of the art and production was pretty par-for-the-course for Saturday morning fare.

What's weird is that Gygax was an executive producer for the show. I wonder how that felt for him, how far his influence went and so on.