D&D Documentary to Explore ‘the Most Influential Game in History’

Geek Culture People

How did a geeky hobby involving dice, graph paper, and a bowl of Cheetos roll a natural 20 to become the killer game of its era?

How did its shock waves roll into the realm of videogames, influencing a generation of computer programmers who would come to rule Silicon Valley?

How did the game, which has earned the praises of writers, actors, musicians, and others in the creative economy, go on to influence everything from teaching pedagogy to the treatment for PTSD? You could even argue that were it not for this game, we wouldn’t have “lite” role-playing activities like Facebook and online dating.

Of course, I’m speaking of Dungeons & Dragons, the groundbreaking hobby that essentially invented a new genre of entertainment called the fantasy role-playing game, and went on to have a vast and various influence on the cultural landscape of America, and the world. But the history and legacy of D&D has never properly been told, at least on film.

The filmmakers behind Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary (which we have written about before) want to change that. Their project aims to tell the true and comprehensive story of D&D, as a cultural phenomenon, from its humble origins in the basements of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to flirtations with Hollywood fame and erroneous claims D&D warped a generation of kids, even driving them to ruin, Satan and death.

And, if you’re headed to Gen Con in Indianapolis this weekend, you can see a sneak peek of the documentary on Friday at 4 p.m. in the The Westin Indianapolis Capitol I room. (Watch the trailer above.)

“It’s arguably the most influential game in history. Arguably,” the producers wrote in the synopsis of their project. “At least that’s what we’re trying to show.” The film will be an “analytical exploration of its history, appeal and effect,” told via interviews with people “who lived this story.”

The trio of filmmakers includes Andrew Pascal, Anthony Savini, and James Sprattley, all veterans of New York City and Los Angeles film and television productions. The three will be on hand to screen a 12-minute chunk of their unfinished film, in advance of launching their Kickstarter campaign on Aug. 17 to raise money to finish it. A co-productuion of Iconoscope Films (founded by Pascal and Sprattley) and Westpaw Films (Savini’s company), the completed version of Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary (aka D&D: AD) will be feature length, and shot on HD in the style of documentaries such as Food Inc. and Inside Job.

On location interviewing Nicholas Fortugno for Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary. Image: Iconoscope Films/Westpaw Films

At the Gen Con event, a panel and Q&A will immediately follow the screening, featuring special guests James Lowder (fantasy author), George Strayton (author and screenwriter), David Ewalt (Forbes editor and author of the forthcoming OF DICE AND MEN: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It) and moderator Tavis Allison (co-creator of Adventurer Conquerer King game system), all of whom are in the film.

The filmmakers, with Gary Gygax's widow, Gail Gygax.The filmmakers, with Gary Gygax's widow, Gail Gygax.

The filmmakers, with Gary Gygax’s widow, Gail Gygax. Image: Iconoscope Films/Westpaw Films

Other featured interviewees in D&D: AD include Gail Gygax (widow of Gary Gygax, the game’s co-creator), Ernie Gygax (Gary’s son), Peter Adkison (Wizards of the Coast founder), Alexis Ohanian (Reddit co-founder), Stefan Pokorny (Dwarven Forge founder), David Megarry (creator of Dungeon!), Paul Stormberg (memorabilia auction site The Collector’s Trove), Gabe Zichermann (Gamification Co), Ta-Nehisi Coates (senior editor, The Atlantic), Michael Mornard (early D&D player), and Nicholas Fortugno (game designer and educator).

Also interviewed are gaming legends Tim Kask (Dragon Magazine editor), Frank Mentzer (founder, Role-Playing Games Association), Mike Carr (D&D Basic set contributor), and James M. Ward (Gamma World creator, among other games), all game designers, writers and editors at TSR, the company that published D&D and other role-playing games. [Full disclosure: I have been also been interviewed for this documentary.]

Savini, the film’s director and director of photography, added that he’s making the film because “there was a compelling story and an amazing legacy that hasn’t been truly covered in a film…. This is a game that has touched everyone’s life in someway, but so few people are aware of it. If we can shed a little light on D&D’s influence, that would make me happy.”

“By 1985, TSR had revolutionized the gaming industry and was selling upward of 100,000 copies a month in 22 countries,” the producers said. “By the end of that decade, D&D had become a cultural phenomenon. TSR estimated 90 million people were playing D&D worldwide.”

The filmmakers describe the creative hotbed that was TSR as “Andy Warhol’s Factory for the geek set.”

The Gygax residence in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Film crew at left.The Gygax residence in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Film crew at left.

The Gygax residence in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Film crew at left. Image: Iconoscope Films/Westpaw Films

Another question the movie will try to answer: Who really invented D&D, and will the heirs to these creators ever make peace? It is agreed the game was co-created by Gygax and Dave Arneson, but who exactly contributed what to D&D’s development has been widely disputed. Then came the unfortunate events leading to TSR’s bankruptcy, and eventual sale to Wizards of the Coast in 1997.

“The story of TSR is one of unfortunate events, hubris, betrayal, greed and heartbreak,” the producers said. “By the end of the 1980s, most of the people who built the company had been forced out, many living only with the legacy and none of the riches.”

D&D: AD will help unravel the Rashomon-like creation myth of D&D. But the filmmakers also want to demonstrate how many aspects of modern culture we take for granted — from the way videogames are structured to how cooperative role-playing exercises have infiltrated your office — all have roots in D&D.

“For a lot of people it’s still a joke and they think if you admit to having played D&D it’s like admitting you are a complete social outcast,” Savini noted in an e-mail. “When they find out that most role playing, and not just in games, but Facebook and a lot of tech culture, owes a big part of its development to D&D, they are amazed. When I point out to young gamers that the health bar they obsess about and the attributes they agonize over in Diablo III or Skyrim all begin at D&D, it’s hard for them to imagine it, to wrap around the idea that this is a relatively recent idea and hasn’t always been a part of games. The story of the game itself runs a close second. Everyone loves a good story.”

New York City-based Savini (director/director of photography) calls himself a “5th Level Director/7th Level Director of Photography.” He’s an award-winning cinematographer on projects for NBC, PBS, History Channel, Discovery, TLC and BBC1, and has worked with filmmakers such as Ken Burns, Ric Burns and Bill Guttentag. He co-directed Mole, which won the best “Best Horror Film” at The Los Angeles Film Festival. The also shot the forthcoming Bad Parents, starring Janeane Garofalo.

Michael Andrew Pascal (writer, co-producer), also based in NYC, is a “2nd Level, Halfling Producer/6th Level Writer,” who was “raised on a steady diet of Monty Python, D&D, Tolkien and Lucas/Spielberg films.” He directed his first feature film, Spin the Bottle, in 1999 that aired on Showtime. He’s worked as a Camera Assistant on TV shows, films and commercials such as Law and Order.

James Sprattley (co-producer), based in Los Angeles, is a “6th Level Half-Elf Producer,” who has worked in the film industry for the past 20 years, served as director of photography on music videos, commercials and short films. His producing credits include the feature film Ronnie, which was selected for the 2002 Slamdance Feature Competition.

More informaton on the film, go to their Facebook page or website. For more info on the Gen Con screening, see the invitation.

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