CHRIS: The Dungeon Masters (McAlester, US, 2008)

For us, the movie came down to an essential question about creativity.  Because if you’re an adult in America and you get paid to be creative, people look at you like you have it made.  But if you aren’t getting paid for it suddenly people laugh at you.  When you think about it, it is pretty brave to keep the creative spark alive in your adult life when it’s not your job.  And these are incredibly creative people.

Phil Hill – Producer

As I approach number 50 in my list of 100 post-Star Wars films, you’ll need to forgive an indulgence, after all this is a personal list. Many of us graduated from playing with Star Wars action figures to playing Dungeons and Dragons; sat in our bedrooms with pencils, character sheets and funny-shaped dice escaping into worlds created by a Dungeon Master (DM). The world of film has not been kind to us Fantasy Role-Playing Gamers (FRPG). One of the earliest efforts was MAZES AND MONSTERS (1982) a moral-panic that scared our parents into believing that we would descend into Satanism before getting lost in the labyrinthine network of the sewage system. We are still boycotting Tom Hanks films as a result of the misrepresentation of our hobby. A more positive appearance, of course, was in the early scenes of ET (1982), where the kids were playing D&D around the kitchen during the infamous ‘penis-breath’ episode.

Kevin McAlester’s film is a brilliantly composed documentary that reveals such perfectly judged empathy with his subjects that it is impossible resist being drawn into their worlds. Instead of concentrating on the history of the hobby, it looks at the people who play the games. The film understands that the nuances of the game are affected by the people who play it. In FRPGs the DM is part referee, part story-teller, part thespian and all-round entertainer. A good DM is able to create fun for the other players of the game and have a film-directors’ eye for an entertaining set-piece. The result of all of these demands, they are usually messianic figures with an inherent God-complex who like to control everything. The reason why the games, and this film, is so compelling is that it concentrates on what different personalities bring to the experience. Despite its reputation for attracting the socially-awkward it actually depends on highly developed social skills, but the film reveals the passive/ aggressiveness in the relationships that the gamers have with their partners revealed through wounded glances.

The film follows a year in the life of three role-players who first appear at GEN CON, the largest games convention in the world. Richard, Elizabeth and Scott are introduced while they are in the middle of a game. Richard’s style of play is to create a sense of jeopardy through the desire to see all of the player’s characters killed during the session. Early on, he talks about how he turned his back on a group of friends that he used to play with in Florida. He killed all of their characters via a magical sphere of annihilation, “because they got greedy.” By day, he is a regular, upstanding citizen, holding down a job in the military and living in his neat suburban home complete with a white picket fence. By night, he is an old school gamer and part-time nudist. There is a touching moment, when he returns to Florida and it is revealed that he turned his back on more than just his gamer friends when he left.


Elizabeth is a more immersive DM and likes to get into the characters of the world that she creates, by adopting a cod-medieval inflection and a mysterious tone. For most of the film she is dressed a Drow, a dark elf, who belong to an underworld where men are slaves to women. Around her home there is the evidence of the specially formulated black make-up that she has created after years of experimentation. The smudges on the wall and pillows are a reminder of how central role-playing is to her every-day life. When she is not playing around the kitchen table, she is on World of Warcraft and when she isn’t online, she’s in the woods LARPing (Live Action Role-playing). Later in the film she removes the make-up and its then that you realise that she is a sensitive, intelligent woman who has ended up in some unhappy relationships. She talks of getting married too young and her subsequent escape from brutal violence and she still appears to be running away.

Scott sounds like a brilliant DM who is effortlessly creative, witty and generous towards his players. He works as a superintendent of a building where he lives with his wife and son. He is a puppeteer, comic-book artist and an aspiring novelist who has decided that it is make-or-break for his ambitions to become a full-time writer. In a bid to increase his profile he decides to make a cable television programme, named UNCLE DRACK’S MAGICAL CLUB HOUSE, a cookery show hosted by a failed super villain who is attacked by ninjas half-way through every episode. Scot’s wife provides a great deadpan scorn his ambitions, however he’s such an interesting character that it’s hard not to be convinced by his certainty and drive.

When the film returns to GENCON at the end of the 12 months, we see Scott disappearing into the crowd, accepting his fate with a stoical bitterness, while Elizabeth moves gracefully up an escalator, in full Drow gear, smiling for the first time in the film, thanks to a positive new relationship. Richard is back at home, packing away his many role-playing supplements as he has decided to turn his back on the hobby. There’s an off-stage cheer from his wife as he says that he will be no longer be playing. He can’t quite bring himself to throw them away.

He’ll play again, we always do.

5 responses to “CHRIS: The Dungeon Masters (McAlester, US, 2008)

  1. Never played D&D, for a few months in 1993 I started collecting Warhammer but everyone seemed more interested in painting the miniatures than actually playing. Then computer games like Command & Conquer and Warcraft II came along which were more than enough to waste weeks and weeks of spare time on.

  2. Pingback: Starburst Memories: Tired of reality? | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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