Ego Check: Crew of Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary

Would you like to sit down in your cozy home theater and watch a feature-length film about the history of Dungeons & Dragons? Would you like to see hours of footage from interviews with major players who were there during the tumultuous journey of the game from creation to today? Would you like to go back in time to see how Dungeons & Dragons was portrayed in the media around the world during its boom period and also during times of dark controversy? Would you like to learn just how much Dungeons & Dragons has influenced our modern world?

Filmmakers Anthony Savini, Andrew Pascal and James Sprattley are currently working to give you this opportunity with Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary – and they need your help.

I was able to communicate with the three filmmakers to learn about their motivations for starting the project in addition to their plans (and dreams) for reaching a final product. I quickly learned how passionate they are about the subject content – and the respect they believe Dungeons & Dragons has not received. They view the history of D&D as a riveting tale – and a force that has shaped many aspects of modern culture.

Below, the team for Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary scratches the surface on the scale of their production and discusses some of the major themes they plan to tackle in the film. As someone unfamiliar with the twists and turns in the history of D&D, I am hoping they are successful!

The website for your film features the following statement regarding the history of Dungeons & Dragons, “The way you have to imagine it is to take the story of Facebook, add the Hatfields & the McCoys, throw in some VH1’s Behind the Music and then make sure everyone has forgotten what really happened.” That is a delightful tease for those – like me – who are uninformed about the history of D&D.  What led you to take on the task of unraveling and documenting this story? Out of all the topics in the world, why shine a spotlight on D&D?

James Sprattley: Speaking for myself, I became interested in this project when Andrew first shared the idea with me.  When I heard about the hostile stories with TSR’s history, the controversy in the media with Anti-D&D groups and the power struggle between corporate officers for control of TSR, I said, “Wow, this is a fascinating story!” And I’ve wanted to know more ever since.

I’m a newcomer to playing the game, and have experienced several campaigns with Anthony and Andrew over the past few years.  I first heard of Dungeons and Dragons when I was in Junior High School, but never played the game back then.  My friends and I were spending our free time outside of chores and homework skateboarding with friends, engaging in youth sports activities and collecting and sharing records and cassettes.  Fast forward several decades and you can find me entrenched playing video games, such as Halo, Call of Duty, Half-Life and Portal to name a few, which to my pleasant surprise has identifiable characteristics similar to Dungeons and Dragons. This is especially true when playing in multiplayer campaigns, even when we are all in different locations across the country.

A funny thing I discovered about playing D&D the first few times is that I used to think to myself of the similarities that D&D had with my aforementioned video games, then it hit me, “Could D&D’s genetics be engrained into today’s video game mechanics, and where else would I find these D&D traits in our tech-involved society today?”  Well, as we continue our research I must say the revelations are surprising.

It seems you discovered the DNA of D&D present in many aspects of today’s video games. Character creation featuring unique skills for different character “builds” and level progression to acquire new abilities are taken for granted as standard features in many video games. I imagine people unfamiliar with the history of D&D might ask, “Well, hasn’t this style of game always existed?” What have you found that indicates Dungeons & Dragons is – as you say in the synopsis for the film – arguably the most influential game in history?

Anthony Savini: Before D&D there were small elements of some of the mechanics in place. Most of these mechanics came from war gaming. The easiest to see would be hit points or armor class. But a lot of these concepts would have stayed in war gaming if D&D hadn’t brought them to mass culture. A great book to read for insight on how influential and revolutionary this game was in the 1970’s is Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King & John Borland. This is a book about the beginning of the computer gaming industry. It has nothing to do with tabletop gaming and the first thing they talk about is D&D and it continues to be a theme through a good part of the book.

Anthony Savini, James Sprattley and Andrew Pascal

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a time for revolution in many ways. Some of those revolutions were obvious at the time while some of them weren’t so obvious until we look back and think about them. Now, I’m not saying that if D&D didn’t come along we wouldn’t have all these very important mechanics in games today. Someone would have eventually stumbled upon them in war gaming or just made them up themselves, but D&D put everything into one package – mechanics of war games, immersive individual play and social gaming that could be “massive.” For example, you could play D&D with someone in Wisconsin or London and still have the same sort of experience because roleplaying now had rules. This was revolutionary.

Andrew Pascal: The influences of D&D are so subtle and far-reaching that it still surprises us what people tell us how they have been influenced by this game.  Beyond the obvious game mechanics of today’s first-person shooters, RPGs and MMORGPs, we’ve seen the influence on how people live their lives. We’ve met firemen, engineers, teachers and other professionals who outright have said that they are doing what they are doing because of the game. The game creates everyday heroes – people who want to do good things and make a difference in the world. Obviously a lot of that drive comes from the individuals themselves, but it’s certainly arguable that D&D gave them their first taste of what being a “hero” feels like.

You can also trace the game’s influences with today’s taste-makers and media professionals. There’s a certain short-hand in Hollywood with film-makers who played (or still play) D&D. They are all discovering each other and realizing that they are legion. Except now – instead of hiding their nerdy histories – they celebrate it. The folks who played back in the 1970’s and 1980’s are now in positions of power in Hollywood. They are the ones green-lighting films such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises and shows such as Game of Thrones. These films and shows are changing the culture in a very profound way. Those of us who have grown up with fantasy in our lives have taken it for granted but there are generations out there who are just now discovering it and loving it. There’s a reason why when J.K. Rowling introduces a cloak of invisibility into her stories, we as D&D players already know what that is. We don’t need it explained because the DNA is already in place. But to everyone else, it’s new and exciting. And from a sales point of view, the masses seem to want even more.

What we also love about Ethan Gilsdof’s book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, is the universal story he tells of the effect this game – which many of us abandoned after our formative years – and how it really became the backbone of who we are as individuals and adults. The recent “geeks shall inherit the earth” zeitgeist is an honest assessment of where we are as culture. It’s why shows like The Big Bang Theory and House are popular; they are, after all, shows about nerds. When people create a profile page on Facebook or OkCupid, they might as well be creating a character sheet. In essence, they are creating – in Ethan Gilsdof’s words – a character and a better version of themselves.

All of you mentioned how D&D, which was created almost 40 years ago, has reverberated throughout culture and continues to shape our modern world. So how it is possible that a definitive history of this game and those who shaped it over the years does not exist?

Andrew Pascal: We are baffled by this phenomenon as well. There have been good attempts at making a D&D documentary, including The Dungeon Masters and The Dungeons & Dragons Experience, but they seem to stop at the “characters” who play the game and not really cover the sometimes controversial history of the game. Perhaps those were choices the film-makers made; those films are still compelling to watch, especially if you’re a gamer. But there were inherent things that we quickly discovered that were barriers to that approach – namely that filming actual game play is boring. There’s nothing more frightening for a film-maker to shoot than a bunch of people talking at table. It’s very hard to make that compelling, and game play is all about that. Peter Adkison has a Facebook group that explores that very question. When we spoke with him at Gen Con, he said it’s really the game system that needs a re-haul – not the film-making. He challenged game designers to create a game that would make game play more visual. I hope someone takes him up on it.

Anthony Savini: The funny thing is that we thought the same thing when we started. The first thing we did was look into other documentaries about D&D to see if it had ever been done. It took a bit of time to feel comfortable it hadn’t been done, and needless to say we were surprised. Why it hasn’t ever been done, I’m not sure. I have theories. I think a big stumbling block is to the uninitiated D&D seems nothing more than a fad that faded away many years ago. Also, and this is a big part of it, there are a lot of wounds in various stages of healing created during the making of this game. There were sour feelings almost from the beginning and some of those feelings are as powerful today as they were back then.  When things like that happen, it’s hard for people to talk about their part in a story.

There was the film Dragons in the Basement, though it was never been finished or released. There have been books to cover the history, and recently there are books that are nothing less than comprehensive. In fact, we are offering two of the books, David Ewalt’s Of Dice & Men and Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World as Kickstarter gifts.

Andrew Pascal:  The other thing is that everyone has a story to tell as far as their personal experience with D&D. It would have been very difficult for us to decide, “This story is better than that one,” as they were all amazing stories. So we decided immediately not to go for the “personal” story. We didn’t need the stories as the Gary vs Dave and the Gary vs TSR story is so compelling. We knew we had our through-line from the get-go.

We found out very quickly the only problem was the lack of archival footage and pictures. They just don’t exist! At least not online, and not through the traditional means that we have access them. We literally have to ask the old-timers for pictures from the era. And as Tim Kask has said many times (and I paraphrase), “Who thought to take pictures, what we were doing wasn’t historical, it was just us trying to make a living.” So pictures (forget video or film) don’t really exist except in private collections. Because of this, it’s very difficult to tell the story and make it visually interesting as one can only look at a bunch of talking heads for so long.

And the final piece is that because Gary and Dave have passed away, we can’t get the story from them. We need to speak with people who were there and people who were with them and to rely on their personal accounts of things that happened more than 40 years ago. I can’t even tell what I had for lunch last month, much less 40 years ago! Plus, versions of the story – depending who you are speaking with – change even from the people who say them. We have found instances of something someone said in one publication being contradicted by the same person in a different publication published years later. Truth changes as time goes by.

So, the short answer to your question would be, it’s easy to tell people how this game is so influential, but difficult to explain why.

James Sprattley: I agree with Andrew and Anthony, and I must say from my experiences with games of my childhood days, there was a significant transition from the physical board games I’ve played as a teenager, to a new form of gaming in computer-games/video games.  It felt like an overnight transition happened when I discovered Galaga, Space Invaders and Asteroids as my new games to play, while my favorite board games such as Risk, Monopoly and Battleship were beginning to be neglected and forgotten.

One of our interviewees, Nicholas Fortugno, commented on how anyone under the age of 35 today were most likely never exposed to Dungeons and Dragons as people knew it to be an RPG.  Thus, from a historical perspective, I would say the D&D’s cultural contribution has been upstaged by a generational gap in today’s technology serving as the vehicle to convey a gaming foundation by a visual means on a screen and not within the player’s creative mind.  In a sense, you can parallel the neglect caused by computer-based games with board games (D&D) by its losing a foothold in the gaming marketplace.

With today’s generation of gamers unknowingly playing their favorite video games that have, as Andrew stated hold the DNA of Dungeons & Dragons in its mechanics, why would there be any historical acknowledgement that it’s deserving? Throw in the tumultuous corporate environment of those who were at the heart of D&D’s evolution and TSR’s future at that time, and it’s amazing that this story even exists to be discovered and told; especially when those people who were involved are either deceased, may not speak of the experiences voluntary or they’re contractually bound not to do so.  So, yes, there have been other documentaries about D&D.  Probably like what we were originally set out to do ourselves, until we started digging for information and slowly started to uncover what we believe is the truth behind the most unique board game, Dungeons & Dragons.

I believe a factor related to the lost history you are attempting to unearth is the pervasive negative stereotypes that have gripped D&D for the past 30 years. For a game that has influenced culture in so many ways, it does not have the acceptance, understanding or respect it would seem to deserve. I previously asked Mike Mearls, Senior Manager of Dungeons & Dragons Research and Design Team, why D&D has not gained mainstream traction in our culture over the years. He responded, “The number one thing to combat some of the negative stereotypes is creating a much better sense of awareness and accessibility.” What have you found thus far in your documentation of the history of D&D as the primary reasons for D&D never breaking through to a mainstream audience even though the game echoes in many facets of culture that are hugely popular? 

Anthony Savini: I would argue that D&D did break through to the mainstream in the early to mid 1980’s. According to Jim Ward, TSR estimated that 90,000,000 people were playing D&D worldwide at its peak in the late 1980’s. They were selling 100,000 copies every month. There was a D&D cartoon on CBS when there were only three networks and it meant something to get a show produced. Some of their books were some of the best-selling books of the time. It was in the film, E.T., which was one of the biggest movies of all time.

So I guess the question for me becomes, “What happened? Why is it where it is today?” I don’t think there is a good or quick answer for that. It ranges from poor decisions at TSR to the typical pigeonholing that happens once a “fad” has faded.  Your question to Mike Mearls was a good one and it’s even tougher to answer. I think he’s right. Forgive me if I get a little philosophical here. I feel like bringing D&D to mainstream today is a hard battle. D&D, as a tabletop game, is fighting an entire industry it helped birth. CRPGs and MMOs are as (if not more) immersive and much more flashy. It would be like our documentary opening in a festival filled with Hollywood blockbusters.  That’s at the crux of a lot of tabletop games’ problems.

So, why is D&D not mainstream? Blame it on anything from easy satanic labels that have held since the 1980’s or the simple fact that it’s easier to play an hour of World of Warcraft with a group of friends online than to get them together around a table for a night. Both are probably right but neither is the whole answer.

By the way, the rise of PC bangs is really a call out to games like D&D to figure out how to make it happen. Remember back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s when people would serial cable a few computers together and play Doom or some other game together in the same room? PC bangs are the same idea, but on a large scale. I believe they started in South Korea and they are slowly spreading to the US and other countries. It’s a way to play an online game, but be social at the same time. When we were at Gen Con last month I met a couple from North Carolina that wanted to open a PC bang. The guy told me “It’s one thing to jab at your friend online, it’s a whole other thing to do this.” He leaned back, stared at me and said “I just owned you!” That’s great and it is exactly the kind of interaction that MMOs have been missing. In the end people want to be social. That is what D&D has over its flashier cousins. It just needs to figure out how to do it.

James Sprattley: I have to share an observation I made over the past year from conducting our research and the interviews from the many sources close to TSR and the D&D game itself.  First, let me quickly share my experiences of playing D&D with Andrew and Anthony to give some insight as a beginner.  I admittedly was a bit lost and slightly confused on certain aspects of the game, but I quickly learned that I was able to rely upon the other players for help and guidance.  We were a team focused on a completing a common goal; though each of our characters had specific weaknesses and strengths, we became to rely upon each other to progress in the game.

This experience reminded me of my days of playing sports.  We’ve heard about how no one person wins a game, and how it takes the entire team pulling together to succeed. Thus a social culture of collectivism was crucial to obtaining our goal.  A no-brainer – we see it in all of the multiplayer campaigns with video games today, and to an extent in all of the social media sites as well.  People communicate and share thoughts and ideas to move the forum forward.  The same collective social activities are used in the D&D campaigns I’ve played with Andrew and Anthony over the past years.

For those who know of the D&D and TSR’s corporate history, ask yourself the following question, “Was this culture of social collectivism applied at TSR’s management level to continue the progression and mainstreaming of D&D after its pinnacle in the early 1980’s?” One could speculate – if the same collective social mechanics that were designed for the D&D gamer had been applied at the executive level of TSR, then perhaps the game would have been better positioned to face its threats from the 1980’s with computer/video gaming and the negative press at the time. If so, where would Dungeons & Dragons be today with respect to the gaming marketplace? Personally, I find it fascinating to uncover the answers to these questions!

Andrew Pascal: It’s such an excellent question and both James and Anthony were spot on. What I would like to add is a bit more philosophical in tone, so forgive me in advance for waxing philosophical. D&D is a game based on imagination. As gamers, we all know this and take it somewhat for granted. I have played with many people in my lifetime and have introduced countless to the game. The individuals who have stuck with it or “gotten it” are people who have no problem with imagination. The individuals who don’t stick around to play another game and sort of nod their head and pretend like they’re getting it are those who, in my opinion, have issues with imagination.

Don’t get me wrong, people who have a hard time with imagination – and I’m speaking of deep imagination, the kind that can evoke scenes of giant drakes slithering out of fiery, molten pits as opposed to “a sandwich sounds good for lunch” – aren’t worse or less-off or stupid or short-sighted by any means. They’re just wired differently. They don’t have the capacity to “let themselves go” enough to wrap their minds on what’s happening in a game like Dungeons & Dragons. And that, I believe, is where the great divide is. To those where imagination comes easy, the game is a no-brainer (forgive the pun). It’s an extension of what they do already, everyday; to imagine in a more structured form. To those who struggle, the game is vexing (not harder, not beyond them), just vexing. And for many who “don’t get it,” the first line of attack is to ridicule the form of, “This game is stupid” or, “You guys are nerds.”

It’s only now that fantasy has hit the mainstream that those imaginings that may have been difficult for many suddenly become crystallized and formed. The veil has been lifted. They can see, hear and understand what “those geeks in the D&D club” have already seen, heard or understood for many years.

You have referred to the history of D&D as “a cautionary tale of an empire built by friends and lost through betrayal, enmity, poor management, hubris and litigation.” How would you describe this complex tale to someone like me who did not pay attention to D&D for close to 20 years between the late 1980’s and 4th Edition? And on the other end of the scale, what new information does your documentary contain for those individuals who already know about the multiple twists and turns in the history of D&D?

Andrew Pascal: In the age of Facebook and serial entrepreneurship, the history of D&D and TSR is a great tale of how not to run a business. If you’ve not seen The Social Network, it’s an outstanding movie about a mad genius of sorts who takes an idea that someone suggests, turns it into this incredible thing, creates a multi-billion dollar empire and loses some friends along the way. Now take that story, and take away the riches. That’s pretty much the same story of D&D. This is the Anti-Social Network.

To someone who knows the story, it’s an even better experience. It would be like watching the origin story of a comic book hero in a movie. Everyone knows the story of how Batman or Spiderman become Batman or Spiderman, but it’s still great to watch on film. If we do our jobs right, then we will fill in the details of the back story – of who said what and is what they said really true. We’ve got the historians in David Ewalt and Jon Peterson to make sure we’re telling as honest an account as we can.

One of the big questions asked – if not the biggest – is, “Who really invented this game?” Well, we may have an answer. People may not like it, but they will have to watch the film to find out what it is.

Wikipedia told me that Dungeons & Dragons was originally designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson – so it must be true! What have you uncovered that challenges that history?

Anthony Savini: Wikipedia is correct; Gary and Dave were the designers of D&D. I think the confusion comes from TSR removing Dave’s name from editions past OD&D. It’s hard to look back with perspective and understand what really happened back then. There were some contract disputes and a lot of tough times at early TSR. It was fun for the most part, but once Dave felt slighted it became different for him. The game couldn’t have happened without both of them. The question, “Who REALLY designed D&D?” is similar to asking which came first, “The chicken or the egg?”

Andrew Pascal: I second what Anthony is saying, Wikipedia is correct. But the eternal battle between Arnesonians and Gygaxians continues. Why does one side say one thing and the other side say something else if both parties actually agree that it would not have happened if not for the efforts of both men? The argument is in the details. Who actually came up with the revolutionary idea of role-playing as a game or the idea of playing a character? The answer may never be truly found, especially now that the two men who can answer that question are gone. But our theory, which we hope to illuminate and expand on, will have to wait until the final film.

James Sprattley: Honestly, it’s one of the biggest questions we want to examine. It’s generally understood that Gary and Dave were involved with designing the game in the beginning.  I say this because some people may be endearing to either Gary or Dave and may have different opinions with acknowledging the creator(s) of Dungeon and Dragons. What I would like to know is what contributions – during the early development stages – were made by both men that shaped the game into what it was when it launched back in the mid 1970’s. We’re still in the middle of our research to find out this answer – and many others.

Your Kickstarter briefly outlines why you need additional funds to continue filming the documentary. What specific obstacles are eliminated as you receive funding from supporters? And where do you hope the funding takes you in the future?

James Sprattley: The funding will allow us to afford the continuous research as we travel around the country to shoot additional interviews.  It’s important to represent every aspect of the Dungeons &  Dragons experience.  The expense of much-needed archival footage will be attainable for the documentary – not to mention the many interviews of those who were closest to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson during the TSR days in Lake Geneva.  The information is out there and it’s expensive to travel around the country to retrieve it. We’re working hard at it now, and Kickstarter will help us do the best that we can to ensure the Dungeons & Dragons’ story will be best represented by our documentary.

Andrew Pascal: The quick answer is avoiding the painful process of fundraising from individual investors. This can be time-consuming and demoralizing as we go hat-in-hand begging for money. We also run the risk of losing creative control of the project as investors might have an agenda that they would like us to express; it can get sticky. The thing that it also eliminates is the need for us to alert our core audience, the gamers, about the film. Whether or not we meet our goals, we have made enough noise that people in the gaming community will know about the documentary when we go to distribute the film. The built-in audience that we cultivated through Kickstarter will also make it easier for us to sell the idea to an investor. But perhaps the simplest answer is that the funding will take us to the point that we can finally start to complete this film and get it made.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

6 thoughts on “Ego Check: Crew of Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary”

  1. Okay, I confess: Before even digging into this meaty article, I just had to hop down to the bottom here to thank you for this write-up and for helping to spread the word on a project about which I am quite passionate and for which I’m very hopeful and excited to see and to share with others.
    I’m not personally involved with the project except as a perhaps overextended supporter willing to “suck it up” for what by all indications (including my own interactions with the guys at Gary Con this past March) looks to be an extremely well done and *quite* professionally done film on a subject most near and dear to me – and to multitudinous others also, who I hope-hope-HOPE will jump on board in these last few days of the funding campaign to make this most deserving and worthy project happen!
    So then – thank you so very, very much! Seriously.
    – James

    1. James,

      Thank you for your thoughts. It seems momentum for the project really snowballed this week and it looks like their funding goal will be reached, which is fantastic. It seems now that more people know about the project, they also want to see it get completed.

  2. Great article here. I know a little about the history and issues that came from publishing D&D originally, however I cannot wait to see interviews and such with the people who were actually invested in this. However, I’m really looking forward to see an overview of (basically) the creation of role-playing games and (more impressively) their impact in the current generation of video-games and popular culture. That is something that I wasn’t expecting this documentary to cover, but I am pleasantly surprised that they will be delving into it.

    What was originally a project that I was already looking forward to, is now something that I will be diligently keeping on my radar.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: