The D&D brand operates on a different plane of existence than other RPGs. While other companies made their big announcements and rolled out their newest projects at Gen Con last week, the biggest news in RPGs broke on the Monday following Gen Con: a settlement was reached in the proceedings to sort out who had the rights to a D&D-based movie.
The ruling came at a time when the idea of storytelling within D&D was foremost in my mind. I had just delivered seminars aimed at helping DMs navigate the thorny problem of delivering story at the gaming table while at the same time pulling story from the players. I was also writing an article about story flow, comparing how different mediums—particularly RPGs, novels, and film—facilitate and require different types of pacing techniques to effectively present the material to their audiences. Just within the RPG field, I was wrestling with the concepts of pacing differences between D&D sessions lasting one hour, two hours, four hours, and eight hours, and between RPG campaigns of varying lengths. Add to that the concept of player agency in the ongoing narrative, and my mind was whirling with theories and possibilities. Then the news of the D&D movie rights being settled turned my thinking on a whole different axis.
D&D is a game, first and foremost. However, it is built (sometimes quite directly) on the spines of some of the greatest fantasy literature ever written. And, to its detriment or benefit, some of the not-so-greatest. Regardless, the pace of the game originally, by design, matched the pace of that literature. For every battle with orc hordes in Moria, there were multiple descriptions of elven history. For every page of rules in D&D history, there are 100 pages dealing with the details of settings and game worlds, of PC and NPC backgrounds and personalities, of the deities and divine/infernal creatures who control the cosmos. Drizzt is nothing without Lolth. Elminster is nothing without Mystra. Gord the Rogue was nothing without Tharizdun.
Swords & Scripts
What both worries and excites me about the prospect of a fully realized D&D movie is that the game is one thing, and the brand is something else, and the collective societal consciousness surrounding both is fractured and contradictory and quite the untamable beast. What makes a great D&D story at the gaming table isn’t what makes a great story in the theater or on a novel’s page. What’s more, audience expectations of what a D&D movie should and could be like couldn’t be more varied.
Comic books were able to make the transition from page to screen because the superheroes and supervillains of that medium were able to escape the pages, transcending the genre and conquering our collective consciousness. When average people who have never lifted a comic book in their lives think of Superman, they don’t see the medium of comic books: they see the handsome guy in the flowing cape who stands for honor and justice. They don’t think of “Comic Book Guy;” they think of George Reeves or Christopher Reeve or Dean Cain or Tom Welling or Henry Cavill.
D&D has not been able to make that transition yet. When average people think of D&D, many still think first of awkward teenagers swilling Mountain Dew in basements and rolling funny dice. And sometimes that, unfortunately, is the best case scenario.
For a D&D movie to reach the largest possible audience and be considered a success by movie standards, it essentially cannot be the D&D movie that die-hard D&D fans would want. The gap between the sensibilities of the average movie-goer and the D&D player, in terms of a D&D-inspired story is just too wide. The latter is forged at the gaming table, while the former is based on a collective concept of where the fantasy genre fits into the cinematic zeitgeist. But that doesn’t mean the movie has to necessarily be an either-or situation—a path exists to make both the average movie-goer and the D&D fan happy.
“Dial X for Xanathar”
The approach that Hasbro needs to take is to make ensure the movie is as appealing as possible to the average movie-goer, and then make products for the various levels of D&D fans to cover their needs and desires. And that is where we come back to pacing. A D&D movie—to appeal to the broadest movie-going audience—needs to be fast-paced, fun, and not too steeped in game lore and mechanics. A two-hour movie does not have the time to get into the deeper and more dramatic parts of what a D&D game can be.
That depth, which many of the D&D players would want, needs to be handled in the medium that they consume: D&D adventures and rulebooks and campaign guides. These products also need to be more than afterthoughts loosely connected to the movie and tossed out like scraps on a website. They must be carefully planned to make the movie offering deeper and richer both during the viewing and after, when we are sitting around the game table playing those adventures ourselves.
If there is not a D&D Encounters season tied in to the story of the movie and leading up to the movie’s release, that is a huge opportunity missed. If there is not another D&D Encounters season continuing the story that is played out in the movie, then Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast have missed their chance to launch D&D into a new place within the entertainment world.
D&D, more than ever, is poised to break through its niche audience into the mainstream—as comic book stories already have. If the movie is handled thoughtfully and carefully, with all of the various audiences in mind—and if all of those audiences are catered to in their own media and at their own pace—what is a potentially doomed endeavor can transcend the various media and present D&D in a new light, in both spirit and substance.