Why does television portray Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) as un-cool by putting it in the hands of nerds? Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the iconic game grew out of the war-themed, strategy-heavy board games introduced in the 1950s by Avalon Hill, as well as from the miniature war games hobbyists enacted with figurines and battlefields crafted to scale. The Strong owns several copies of the original “white box” edition of D&D, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, which implemented a system of rules and practices through which players could pursue an ever-expanding series of fantasy adventures. I can’t imagine who wouldn’t want to give it a try. But anecdotal evidence shows that role-playing games (RPGs) aren’t for everyone. And if your D&D education comes from television, you’ve seen primarily characters with atypical social skills who find themselves more at ease and empowered in fictional worlds than in real life. Considering the memorable episodes below and our collective experiences, is there some truth to that?
30 Rock: “St. Patrick’s Day”
The nerdy, unglamorous television writers, avoiding near-certain harassment at New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, involve themselves in a game of “Colonizers of Malaar,” a hybrid of D&D and The Settlers of Catan described as “a strategy board game from the makers of Goblet Quest and Virginity Keep.” The camera tracks over the fog-shrouded game board in homage to the quasi-medieval Game of Thrones aesthetic. Miniature figures and gold coins litter the board. Dice rolls produce bizarre results (Jack: “Three again?” Frank, consulting the rules: “And your yak has smallpox.”). Observing the game-play, company bigwig Jack Donaghy learns lessons about supply, demand, and negotiation that translate into innovative corporate strategies.
Robot Chicken: “Cracked China”
In the sketch “RPG Reversal,” fantasy creatures in a medieval castle play a D&D campaign about boring humans. A brutish but panicky goblin rolls the dice to save his character from a computer problem at his accounting firm—clearly the most urgent concern imaginable. You have to ask: why would these exciting, unique characters want to be us for a day? The scene contrasts humans’ rich inner worlds against their mundane lives.
Community: “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”
Community-college friends propose a game of D&D to cheer up a classmate, Neil, who’s bullied for being overweight. The newly initiated players (perhaps acting as proxy for skeptical viewers) can barely suspend their disbelief long enough to meet the fantasy characters their Dungeon Master, Abed, has created for them. Nevertheless, the characters play an epic game, literally saving Neil’s life. In an era marked by increasingly horrific aggressive behavior among young people, it is heartening to see an example (albeit fictional) of people coming together to honor a person’s individuality rather than laugh at it.
Do these depictions jell with your past or current perceptions of RPGs and their fans? The D&D players at my high school were reserved, offbeat kids who spent their after-school hours in the cafeteria instead of playing football or running student government. But my own friends played, too, most weekends in Joey’s basement. They were sweet, smart people, neither jock-level popular nor on the bottom rung of the social ladder, who approached each campaign with the same attention to detail that informed their film appreciation and musical achievements. They didn’t seem weird to me. Likewise, anyone who spent time with the cafeteria kids would have understood what made them tick, though I never gave them a chance to show me. Fortunately, while portraying D&D as the official sport of dorks everywhere, television has given the so-called outcasts a shot at redemption. In my next Screen-Play post here on Play Stuff blog, I’ll share some examples, including the marvelously executed D&D scenes from Freaks and Geeks.
This post is Part Two in Lauren Sodano’s Screen-Play series.