Like a lot of people, I raced through Stranger Things on Netflix in a weekend and absolutely loved the freaking thing. Story, tone, setting, details and music all combined into a perfect warm broth of nostalgia and entertainment. I just wrapped myself up in it like a comfy blanket and enjoyed my time in that perfectly imagined world. Don’t worry, I’m not going to discuss any actual spoilers, but I will say there is some Dungeons & Dragons being played, and it’s handled pretty damn excellently. This made me ruminate again on a topic that crosses my mind every so often. How does the media, and specifically film and television, portray Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games in general? Are they laughing at it, honoring it, terrified of it or just ambivalent towards it? How has this portrayal changed over time? What trends does it speak to? And how does the treatment of roleplaying in these works of creativity and art reflect on the creators and the audience they’re speaking too? To answer these questions, and bore you kind folks to tears, I’m going to be taking a look at all the D&D in media I can, and waffling on about it because that is what the internet is for (well, besides porn, porn and cat videos).
I’ve been playing roleplaying games and miniature wargames in some form pretty much my entire life. In addition, or possibly because of, I’ve been a huge socially awkward and insecure nerd for most (alright, probably all) of my life as well. Therefore, how the nerdy things I loved were perceived by the wider world mattered to me, probably far more than it should have. This was especially true in my more formative teenage years. I wanted so badly for what I did, to be somehow valued by those around me, even as I pretended to revel in its niche and dangerous status. You see, I wasn’t that good back then at the “No one likes us, we don’t care” attitude that many successful weirdos cultivate. I had a buddy in school that had it down pat. His name was Paul. He had sketchy long hair, wore Slayer shirts in Middle School and had a steady girlfriend before I’d had my first real kiss. He didn’t give a shit what other people thought. I was not Paul. I cared, probably too much, but I was a teenager so no surprises there. The thing is, television and movies work both as a reflection of societal views, and also a shaping force of them. How television and movies dealt with a particular subculture would actually help define how that subculture was viewed outside of the particular medium, and I had a vested interest in how I was viewed. Dungeons & Dragons was almost never a part of mainstream media (except as part of the ‘Satanic Panic’), so was conspicuous by its absence. What I loved and spent my time on didn’t really exist to movies and television characters, and when it did, it was often a derogatory reference or insult. There was a D&D cartoon, but that was squarely kids stuff. Geeky fantasy stuff in general, baring the odd exceptions, was for the most part viewed as something for children or virginal shut-ins.
You have to remember this was a time before Lord of The Rings movies, Game of Thrones, the glut of comic book franchises filling the theatre or widespread acceptance of video games as an immersive story telling device. The way RPG’s, and even fantasy worlds and nerd media overall are viewed is at a pop culture zenith right now. Because of this, we see more and more media incorporating the themes and trappings of roleplaying games than ever before. They’re gaining (or some would argue have gained) that acceptance within the wider world I craved as an attention starved teenager. Although I’d like to think I’m in the phase of my life where I’ve learned to no longer give a shit, the truth is, I still weirdly care pretty deeply about how the hobby is portrayed in film and television, partially because it was absent for so long. I’m no longer desperate for legitimization of the hobby, either because I’m personally stronger now, or the rising tide of nerd culture has lifted it with all things and removed some stigma, but its treatment in the media is still fascinating to me, which means I’ve decided to write about it.
Case Study 1: Key and Peele – Season 1, Episode 4, Dungeons and Dragons and Bitches
First off, why am I not writing about Stranger Things? Well it’s simple really, when I discuss D&D in that series, I’ll be going on a giant spoiler filled rant about the awesomeness of the show and how well it incorporates various aspects of the game into its characters’ lives and worldview. Even though everyone reading this should have watched it by now, I know many haven’t, so I’m giving a little more time for folks to get that done and starting with something simpler (and can be watched in 3 minutes). I also wanted to start with something shorter as I’ve already spent a whole lot of words introducing things. Good? Good.
Why choose Key and Peele though. First off it is fucking funny. I’m a big fan of the comedy duo, as they have some pretty staggeringly funny sketches that both go unexpected places and I enjoy the hell out of them. Like most sketch comedy, there are big misses, and the material can be uneven, but I find a lot more highs than lows with Key and Peele. Dungeons and Dragons and Bitches features Keegan Michael-Key as the Dungeon Master who is welcoming his cousin Tyrell (Jordan Peele) into a session of his regular Dungeons & Dragons game. Things go poorly for the Dungeon Master as the game quickly gets out of control, and he watches his carefully built world corrupted and driven off a cliff (in a sick SUV) by Tyrell and the rest of the players. This clip directly attacks one of my recurring themes with Dungeons and Dragons in the media, the question of humor, and are they laughing at it or laughing with it. At its core, does the portrayal come from a place of love for the material and experience with the games? Is it nuanced? Or, as is sometimes the case, just punching down at a bunch of nerds? Which side of the “laughing at vs. laughing with” line something falls on oftentimes determines love or hate for me.
Dungeons and Dragons Bitches hits just the right side of that line and is obviously coming from a place of love and experience. There is too much that feels right about this game to imagine either the writing staff, or the stars themselves, not being D&D players at some point. It starts with one of those most awkward of Roleplaying moments, the introduction of not just a new player, but an outsider. Someone not of the life. A civilian. If you’ve played games long enough you’ve been part of one of these sessions, and they can go any manner of directions. You have to play with a visiting family friend, a younger relative, a friend from another social circle (one of your “skateboarding friends” is shockingly going to meet all your nerdy “gaming friends”). It’s awkward as all hell. Suddenly a floodlight of “normal” society has been shined on your dark and geeky corner, inside jokes and heroic fantasies. How will this new person react? Will they even like it? If they hate Dungeons & Dragons will they now think less of you for spending so much time doing it? Why should you care? Why are you even trying to impress this person, they should be impressing you right?
Now anytime someone new arrives in a social scene (and that is what a RPG group is, a tiny insular social scene), there is this weird process that can be kicked off. Is the new person desperately seeking acceptance from the social group? Or, is the new person a fucking cool dude (or cool lady) and the social group is actually seeking acceptance and recognition from them. This is a simplified version of what is happening, there is a lot of nuance I’m not getting into but it is a useful framework to think about social scenes and how folks enter them. In this clip, we see it play out quite plainly. The DM wants to assert his authority and Tyrell just wants to play a giant named Kanye who is “all big.” Almost instantly the group sides with the new guy, who’s “Only gods are money and bitches” seeking approval from Tyrell and living the life for their characters (and probably themselves) they just decided they’d always wanted. Straightaway, the game is off the rails. Players are drinking Alaze, riding in SUV’s and getting bitches. This is the DM’s nightmare. He was the all-powerful creator of this game world, the shepherd for his flock of players, and now they’ve been tempted away by another. You can see his frustration build as his dreams of incorporating this new player into his stable eco-system crumble before him. Finally, he just gives up and lets the lunatics run the asylum.
Something that stands out for me as authentic about this experience is, ignoring some of the over the top cringe worthy body language from the players, I’ve been in exactly these situations. Especially during my teenage years, so many campaigns devolved into rampant lawbreaking, awkward exchanges with the opposite sex and casual murder that it has put me off some forms of roleplaying probably for life. I’ve seen games go south almost as quickly as the clip, and you can actually break down the bit and learn some valuable lessons about do’s and don’ts for an RPG session. First, it exposes how the story in a roleplaying game is a shared social experience, and the players have responsibility in its direction and events. Here we see a Dungeon Master trying his best to acquiesce to player desires while putting them on track, but the amount of hobbit slapping, theft and wench chasing makes it impossible. The story is the result between the DM’s direction and the player’s actions, both are responsible. Also, it shows how necessary agreement of tone is before a game to avoid catastrophe. DM wanted a heroic fetch quest but the players just ended up wanting a lawless good time. Best to get on the same page beforehand. And finally, players will roll 20’s when you least want them too. Hobbits dicks will be slapped off yo.
Overall, in the larger context of Dungeons and Dragons in the media, this clip represents a softening of the messaging. It was released in 2012, and was riding the wave of geek culture including the MCU (Avengers had been released at this point), Game of Thrones, technology superstars and the Star Trek reboot. Nerds had been classified as being sort of cool, in some weird cultural acceptance point of view where dollars spent equaled cultural cache. Don’t get me wrong, we’re laughing at some nerds in this, as we all do regardless of how nerdy we actually are. This feels somehow different though, we’re laughing at them because we know, somewhere at our core, we are also them, and therefore, are laughing at ourselves.
The wardrobe is sadly spot on. We have what looks like a World of Warcraft shirt and some casual tie-dye. I’ve seen more tie-dye on gamers than just about any other group and that includes beachy potheads.
Without Tyrell they’d be at two players and one Dungeon Master. I’m not saying I’ve never played in a game that small, but it is pretty pathetic. That desperation to game, even with a tiny group, felt real to me.
“Eye of Odin opens up, 16 titty’s fall out”
Hoping to do a bunch more of these. Currently on the list is …
- Freaks and Geeks
- Stranger Things
- Big Bang Theory
- Mazes and Monsters
- Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon Series
- Zero Charisma
But I’d be excited to hear other suggestions. Even if they’re just references, scenes etc…Leave a comment about anything you want really.