Review: ‘The Dungeon Masters’

There are plenty of books and articles that describe “player types” who play tabletop role playing games, specifically Dungeons and Dragons. But it takes a special combination of storyteller, performer, and creator to become a Dungeon Master.

If you’ve been to a popular arts convention like Gen Con, you may have passed, seen, or met any of these people. Richard seeks closure from when his last game group fell apart after he allowed the entire adventuring party of characters to be killed off. Elizabeth paints herself up to be a dark elf but fears that the men in her life only see the makeup and not the young woman underneath. Scott has aspirations to become a recognized author and is creating his own cable access show, but neither comes easy even when every detail is planned out in your head. As Dungeon Masters, are the games they run merely an escape from reality or the inspiration they draw upon to succeed in their real lives outside of their favorite game?

With footage collected at and between the 2006 and 2007 Gen Con conventions, The Dungeon Masters explores the lives of three individuals who are more than just the game they play. With the living and job situations of all three people, it would have been simple for the director and editor to point the finger and suggest where these people are in their lives is due to their obsession with a game. Instead, the camera’s eye presents evidence without judgment as it reveals the influence of the game as well as insight into their personal characters. In the end, the qualities that make a Dungeon Master also make for an interesting individual.

Like anyone else who devotes their time to a hobby, these three people have real jobs, real families, and get by as best they can on exactly what they’ve got. The scene showing how Scott “might” go about punishing his dice (should the need arise) may seem obsessive, but as with any superstition, if you believe that someone else taking your dice without permission can taint their rolls, then it does! Is this any different than a baseball player that always wears his favorite socks or the tiny rituals performed by fisherman to ensure the next casting of their nets will yield a great catch? You would be equally hard pressed to find a craps player in Las Vegas who doesn’t believe in “dice karma.”

The film only touches on what really goes into being a Dungeon Master, and this is perhaps its one true failing. Did the film makers assume that the viewers would already understand this? If Dungeons and Dragons were a sport, the Dungeon Master would not only be the referee but also the coach as well as all the players on the opposing team. If the game were compared to putting on a theatrical play, the Dungeon Master would be the playwright, the director, and all of the extras. Where the film succeeds, however, is in revealing the motivations for wanting to hone such skills, whether it’s to be recognized for one’s creativity, used as a benchmark for the people one associates with, or simply to wallow in the power others give away freely by putting their time and trust in someone else. For the average Dungeons and Dragons player, it’s rolling the dice that builds character, but the Dungeon Master must come to the table already prepared for certain uncertainty or quickly lose the confidence of those around them.

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