Lost Movie Found: We Played D&D in the 1980s

Geek Culture People

Recently, I uncovered this movie — one that I hadn’t seen in probably 30 years.

Yes, this is an actual (and silent) movie from a real Dungeons & Dragons session, shot by me, on a Super 8 camera, in Lee, New Hampshire: my hometown back in 1981. The scene probably takes place on a Friday night, because that’s when my gang played D&D.

At age 15, I was a budding filmmaker and animator. I wanted to be the next Steven Spielberg. I had purchased the camera myself and set out to document my world. At the time, much of my world was filled with Dungeons & Dragons.

The author (left), circa 1981.The author (left), circa 1981.

The author/budding filmmaker (left), circa 1981.

So here we are again. Eighth grade, or freshman year in high school. The guys in our D&D gang included: JP, Bill K., Bill S., Dean, John, Mike, Eric H. That’s me at minute 1:02: the kid to the left, with the green and white striped polo. Awesome!

Check out all the dice. The flannel shirts. The cake. (It must have been someone’s birthday — perhaps mine, since this was shot at my house.)

We are rolling dice. We are eating cake. We are playing D&D (and, it seems, another beloved role-playing game too, called Gamma World, which was set in a post-apocalyptic world).

And look for the classic Mountain Dew can at 1:54. Yes, geeks did actually drink Dew back then. Now you have proof.

Yep. Geeks drank Dew, back in the olden-days.

D&D was important to me then. I was an introvert, shy and uncertain. Fairly smart and creative, but socially lost. Real life thus far had taught me that in the transition from adolescence to the adult world, my fate was going to be chaotic, either chaotic good or chaotic evil. Guidelines for success were arbitrary. But in the world of D&D, at least there was a Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. We knew what we needed to roll to succeed or survive. Rulebooks and the possibility of predicting outcomes offered comfort. Words like halberd and basilisk became part of my daily vocabulary. When I wasn’t sleeping or in class, I’d draw maps of my Middle-earth-like lands, plan the exploits of my characters and scheme elaborate back stories of my world.

Make-believe as they were, the skirmishes and puzzle-solving endemic to D&D had immediate and palpable consequences. By role-playing, we were in control, and our characters — be they thieves, magic-users, paladins, or druids — wandered through places of danger, their destinies, ostensibly, within our grasp.

Rolling the dice, 1981-style!

Who needed popularity, or a hot prom date, when you could raise the dead? When you could enter the Island of Doom, destroy evil and come back alive, laden with treasure?

All right — I admit the movie is poorly shot. Half of it’s out of focus, shaky and underexposed. Yet there is a pull to this old footage. A hold it has on me. I roll a saving throw against Nostalgia … and I miss. Nostalgia defeats me.

I’m OK with that. I like being returned to that era — to see again the shirts we wore, to imagine the silly Monty Python routines we would cite endlessly, and to replay the D&D we played, again in my head.

The gang’s all here. And I wish I was there and back again, with them, again.

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