Dungeons and Dragons: if you've never heard of this game, you've
probably been living in a cave for the past thirty years. But even
though D&D is a lot more mainstream now than it was in the 1970s
and 1980s (when I started playing), many viewers probably don't know
a whole lot about this game, in which players take on the roles of
heroes who have adventures in a fantasy world. Jesse Spiro's
documentary The Dungeons and Dragons Experience is a
fascinating look at the game and the people who play it, taking
viewers on a guided tour of the world of D&D.
Spiro explains what D&D is all about in an interesting and quite
effective way: not by describing the rules of the game, but by
interviewing players and letting them talk about their experiences.
The various participants have a variety of different perspectives and
cover a broad range of ages, but they have one thing in common:
they're all intelligent, quite articulate people... which is really
not that surprising, given that they enjoy playing a game that
focuses on using imagination and being creative.
Spiro also takes his camera into actual game sessions, showing the
interviewees as they're playing: this effectively both de-mystifies
the game and shows what's so fun about it. We can see that the
Dungeon Master (the referee) is very much a storyteller, evoking a
world that the players collectively participate in and help to
create, at the same time. As a DM myself, the interview footage
really captured what I love about the game: it's fun to create an
interesting, rich world with the elements of an exciting storyline,
but it's when the players get involved that the story comes to
life... and often goes in unexpected directions. As the players and
the DMs explain in their interviews, and as we see in the games
themselves, D&D is a collaborative, social experience... and as a
game, it's unique in offering challenging play in a totally
non-competitive environment. With D&D, there are no winners or
losers; the fun really is in the experience of playing.
The Dungeons and Dragons Experience doesn't limit itself to
exploring what it's like to play the game. We learn about the origins
of the game in tabletop war games where
players reproduced historical battles; D&D was invented in the
1970s when Gary Gygax and his friends had the idea of playing not
generals, but individual heroes, and of setting their adventures in a
fantasy land rather than real history. The documentary touches on a
number of other interesting topics, such as the 1980s anti-D&D
mania (which was fueled by the media's sensationalizing of an
incident that turned out not to be related to the game at all),
gaming conventions, and live-action role-playing.
Another interesting aspect of The Dungeons and Dragons Experience
is that it explores the ways in which the game encouraged creative
tendencies in its players, often leading to productive careers or
business ventures, from the art career of Donato Giancola to the
small businesses started by avid players, creating and selling things
like dice, miniatures, or props.
The Dungeons and Dragons Experience does an excellent job at
managing the tricky balance between explaining too much and assuming
too much: the result is a documentary that is equally enjoyable for
both viewers who have never heard of D&D and those who are avid
players of the game. Avid D&D players will be particularly
delighted by some of the interviews that Spiro has managed to snag
for the documentary: artists Donato Giancola and Larry Elmore,
writers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (authors of the Dragonlance
novels), and D&D's creator, Gary Gygax.
All in all, The Dungeons and Dragons Experience is an
extremely polished and well-crafted piece. It's not entirely perfect
– for instance, the voice-over narrator sounds a bit hokey at
times – but it really does an outstanding job of presenting its
material. With a running time of 60 minutes, the documentary moves
along at a brisk (but not rushed) pace; there was undoubtedly a lot
more that Spiro could have covered, but he's wisely chosen to err on
the side of quality over quantity: it's not such a bad thing to leave
your viewers wishing for more.
I was very impressed with the quality of the video transfer for The
Dungeons and Dragons Experience. The documentary, which is
presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, looks consistently clean,
bright, and sharp.
The soundtrack for the documentary is satisfactory overall. Depending
on the environment that the interview took place in, some of the
interviewees sound a bit flat and muffled, but this is undoubtedly a
limitation of the source material. For the most part, the sound
quality is quite solid, and certainly the voices are always easy to
About four minutes of additional interview footage with Gary Gygax is
included: he offers a few more thoughts on "family lore"
and reflects on childhood games of cops and robbers.
always nice to discover a surprise gem of a film, and The Dungeons
and Dragons Experience is one of them. The documentary takes a
thoughtful, fair, and very interesting look at what it's like to be
involved with the role-playing game known as D&D. Whether you've
been an avid player for years, or you've never really heard of the
game before, this documentary is well worth watching. Highly