Dungeon Mastered 

Maybe a new movie version of Dungeons & Dragons could finally get right what is beloved about the game

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click to enlarge The best-forgotten Dungeons & Dragons (2000)
  • The best-forgotten Dungeons & Dragons (2000)

I suspect the way that most Americans gain most engaging and immersive exposure to the worlds of fantasy comes not from books, but from role-playing games. Most of those immersive experiences no doubt originated with campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing game created by a group of war-gaming enthusiasts and first released in 1974. Sure, people have immersed themselves in Tolkien's works and other fantasy stories for generations but, in the past 40-plus years, it's estimated that more than 20 million people have played D&D. Those 20 million have used the game setting to tell millions of stories, and go on millions of adventures.

For those unfamiliar with the game, Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop role-playing system where one player takes on the role of "Dungeon Master," orchestrating an adventure for the rest of the players. Each player, in turn, adopts the persona of an individual character, acting as that character. Using a detailed set of rules and many-sided dice, this Dungeon Master describes the world and surroundings and bad guys, and the players offer their creative responses to those situations. It's imaginative gaming of the highest order; if you've ever played with a good group of players, you know it's more fun than you'd have guessed.

With so many people invested in their own characters and stories in this massive shared world (a world that is overseen these days by a company called Wizards of the Coast), it makes sense that film studios would want to make another fantasy movie with brand recognition and franchise opportunities. And Warner Bros. announced recently that all of the lawsuits regarding the rights to make a Dungeons & Dragons feature film have been worked out, and a new movie is coming—which should be good news for everyone.

So far, only one D&D-based movie has been made—and it would probably be better if we forgot it. I only wish I could, though. I was there on opening day in 2000, witnessing the horror for myself. Starring Jeremy Irons, Thora Birch and Marlon Wayans, this movie was about as bad a fantasy as you could get. Based on this film, you would have every right to be suspicious of any upcoming D&D films.

But you also have to remember the years during which that film was made. This Dungeons & Dragons movie came out a full year before Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In the past 15 years, we've had six films set in Middle Earth, eight in the Harry Potter-verse, a few seasons of Game of Thrones and a handful of other fantasy realms. It's been a sea-change in how sword-and-sorcery stories are filmed, as well as how they're perceived by general audiences. Modern-audience expectations of a fantasy film will force them to give us a much higher-caliber movie.

Since Warner Bros. is the studio that gave us those Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as well as Harry Potter, it would make sense for us to get excited for this new chapter of film for the most popular fantasy-gaming franchise ever created. We can't hold the sins of the 2000 film against the potential of a new film. And—maybe, just maybe—those who are fans of good cinema and well-done fantasy films might get a new franchise that has infinite stories to tell.

There is a legitimate concern, however, that this film will bomb no matter what they do with it. The chief interest people have in the game is that they're able to participate in the storytelling. This might be the single most significant obstacle facing movies based on video games, but I think this is a different case. Role-playing gamers love consuming media that will inspire their own games and stories. It doesn't work that way with video games; you can't watch a Resident Evil movie and think about how much differently you're going to craft your next play-through of the game. With Dungeons & Dragons, there's every chance it could tap into what makes RPGs great in the first place, inspire people to take up imaginary arms with imaginary characters and enter the world of tabletop role-playing.

Currently, no release date is set for the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons film. However, if you are so inspired, you can get core rulebooks and/or a starter set for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons at game specialty stores and bookstores across the valley.

Bryan Young is the editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com

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