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- Documentary: The Dungeon Masters
- Rating: Unrated
- Starring: Scott Corum, Richard Meeks, Elizabeth Reesman
- Directed By: Keven McAlister
- Distributor: FilmBuff
The Dungeon Masters Movie Review
Life Is Gaming Is Life
By Rob Vaux
August 06, 2010
A cool new look at the geek phenomenon in DUNGEON MASTERS(2010).
© FilmBuff Productions
The Dungeon Masters does itself a disservice by caving into some of the stereotypes about all the geek boys and girls out there. It follows the lives of three avid Dungeons & Dragons players over the course of one year, covering their real-life trials and travails in between sessions of their beloved hobby. At many points, they appear to be just like every negative portrayal of gamers: social misfits, Peter Pans and starry-eyed dreamers so lost in their fantasies that they can’t connect to their real-world difficulties.
Director Keven McAlester overcomes those impressions with an immense amount of compassion for his subjects. All of them have their problems—both emotional and financial—but they haven’t allowed that to snuff out their creativity, which the game provides an outlet for. The film charts their struggles to find happiness in their lives, and the way their gaming helps them with that.
I pause here to add a few personal credentials. I grew up playing D&D (along with numerous other tabletop role-playing games), and spent a considerable chunk of my career as a professional game designer. I know the gamer stereotype extremely well, and like a lot of stereotypes, there’s just enough truth in it to justify the distortions and falsehoods. The Dungeon Masters fails to note how many gamers defy those assumptions: living happy, well-adjusted lives and still loving their hobby as much as surfers or golfers love theirs. A better balance in this arena would have done wonders for the film.
On the other hand, McAlister goes out of his way to integrate us into his subjects’ lives and show us who they are beyond our quick and easy judgments. To be sure, each of them grapples with some significant problems. 23-year-old Elizabeth is emerging from a horrific marriage, struggling to find a job that fulfills her while living in a coastal Mississippi town flattened by Hurricane Katrina. She periodically dresses as a drow (an evil elf to the uninitiated) and participates in live-action events as well as tabletop gaming. Scott is considerably older: a part-time apartment manager with a curdling marriage and a half-written fantasy novel which he hopes to see published. Richard ranks as perhaps the saddest of the bunch: a “killer DM” whose unflinching approach to the game costs him friendships while hiding deeper psychological insecurities.
The Dungeon Masters takes time to catch newbies up on tabletop gaming, but you don’t need an understanding of the game to connect with the film. Anyone going through tough times can appreciate the trio and their troubles. The game serves as both an escape from their demons and a means of empowerment to confront them. McAlister takes care not to paint D&D as the source of their difficulties, establishing it within a larger canvas of their overall personalities. It never hinders them from dealing with the world, nor does it distract them from the realities of life.
Indeed, like many people’s hobbies, it provides them with a viable outlet to vent their stress and frustration. It also keeps their sense of imagination alive, allowing them to express themselves in ways they couldn’t without the game as an outlet. McAlister approaches it from a definite outsiders’ perspective, but the gamers themselves are the real deal, and fellow hobbyists will spot some telling details amid the scenery (the R.A. Salvatore novels on Elizabeth’s bookshelf, for instance, or Scott destroying one of his low-rolling dice while lining the other dice up to watch).
The final portrait remains achingly sympathetic to all of them. Even when their wounds come self-inflicted or the movie settles for surface impressions rather than more nuanced details, we remain firmly in the trio’s corner. We pull madly for them to succeed and die a little bit when life hands them its inevitable failures. McAlister structures the documentary after classic fantasy novels, with rising challenges leading to moments of darkness and an eventual (if comparatively minor) triumph. It demonstrates how the game they love teaches lessons on life, and how life in turn feeds back into the game. They’re not in opposition to each other, but act together: something few outsiders understand but which The Dungeon Masters—despite some shortcomings–illustrates with thoughtfulness and empathy.