Roleplaying Game Movie Night #14: High Road

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

This is the music video for the song High Road, by the band Mastodon, released in 2014. Watching this after seeing so many movies about larp feels strange. It’s like the condensed essence of a certain type of American larp movie. If you want to know what many larp movies are like with the bare minimum of effort, watch this.

Research Blog Antarctica #131 – Southern Exposure

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Non-fiction: Alia Sorensen: Southern Exposure (AuthorHouse, 2005)

Southern Exposure documents writer a year of Alia Sorensen’s working life on Antarctica in the early 2000’s. It’s not an ambitious book, and perhaps that’s its strength. Sorensen worked both a summer and a winter at McMurdo station in the kitchen.

The book’s perspective is on describing the working culture and conditions of the people who make an Antarctic station run. I’ve always liked these blue collar accounts of life on Antarctica, and there are not too many of them around. Sorensen’s lack of artifice means that you get a clear idea of how everything is.

At the end of the book, there’s a pointless and overlong account of tourist activities in New Zealand and Australia. These can safely be skipped.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #13: Peter Watkins

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

The British director Peter Watkins has made three movies that are quite interesting from a roleplaying perspective, The Battle of Culloden (1964), Gladiatorerna (1969) and La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000).

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(The Battle of Culloden)

The Battle of Culloden and La Commune (Paris, 1871) are interesting because of the way they were made. Both have historical subjects, and both involved large-scale recreations of the events they documented. The idea was to recreate the battle of Culloden and the Paris Commune in the style of historical re-enactment, and then do a movie about it documentary style.

The only element out of time in each movie is the camera crew, interviewing participants and shooting as events progress. From the way the interviews play out, it really looks like the people participating in the enactment are in fact larping.

Both are also good movies. The Battle of Culloden is one of the most savagely anti-war films I have ever seen, with unrelenting focus on the miseries that followed medieval warfare. La Commune (Paris, 1871) is 345 minutes long, but the duration pays off in its depiction of life in the Commune.

There’s a good documentary about the making of La Commune (Paris, 1871) called The Universal Clock: The Resistance of Peter Watkins.

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(La Commune (Paris, 1871))

The third movie, Gladiatorerna, is a scifi mockumentary set in a fictional future where the great powers of the world have stopped waging war and have instead started organizing games in which teams of combat specialists take on each other.

The way the setup is depicted is very interesting, and there’s a lot of attention being paid to how the whole thing works. We see the game master rooms, how enviromental hazards are activated, and the decisions that go into setting up each game.

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(Gladiatorerna)

The movie would be a solid basis for anything from a milsim to a fullscale larp. Its ideas develop admirably, and its interesting to see its characters both go along with the game, and rebel against it.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #12: Community, The IT Crowd, Full Battle Rattle, The Last of Sheila & Midnight Madness

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(Full Battle Rattle)

Full Battle Rattle is a documentary movie released in 2008 about a fake Iraqi village built in the Mojave Desert built by the U.S. Army for training purposes. Its not larp or roleplaying, but pretty close.

Amazingly, the village is populated by actual Iraqis, refugees from the country ravaged by the very same war the soldiers are training for. Insurgents and occupying soldiers are played by real soldiers.

The simulation doesn’t seem to have proper individual characters, but its social dynamics and game master techniques place it somewhere between larp and milsim.

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(Community, episode 14)

The tv series Community has had two episodes in which roleplaying features prominently, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (season 2, episode 14) and Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (season 5, episode 10). They represent some of the best use of roleplaying games in a tv show I’ve seen.

Both episodes use the idea of the characters playing D&D to tell multilayered stories not about what happens in the fiction, but to the players as they play the game. The episodes grasp the metanarratives created in any act of roleplaying very well.

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(The Last of Sheila)

The Last of Sheila, an American movie made in 1973, is the story of a group of Hollywood people invited to a yacht to play a game. Each of them is assigned a secret, and in each of the ports the yacht calls in, there’s a chance to find out what someone is hiding.

The basic setup of the game looks like a very rich people’s treasure hunt, and its fun to see the character running the game happy when it works and cursing when his design has issues. The game master experience is on display, even if his attitude is a little diletantish.

The movie has many ideas that have since surfaced in alternate reality games and other types of organized urban adventures. Typically for a movie like this, the game becomes real.

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(The IT Crowd, season 4, episode 1)

The geek comedy IT Crowd has one episode in which tabletop roleplaying has a significant role, Jen the Fredo from the fourth season. Other stuff happens in the episode too, but one character, Moss, runs a tabletop adventure for a group of guys who are intially reluctant to play.

The fun thing about this episode is that the magic of roleplaying carries them away, and soon we see dudely business types fantasy roleplaying in all seriousness. That is the joke, of course, but it also works as a straightforward demonstration of why its fun.

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(Midnight Madness)

One of the most essential alternate reality game movies (in addition to Westworld and The Last of Sheila), Midnight Madness is about an urban treasure hunt -type game called “The Great Allnighter”. People participate in teams of broad stereotypes: there’s a jock team, a nerd team, a women’s team, etc.

A lot of the stereotyping in the movie is pretty rough by today’s standards, but the movie shows the structure of a game like this very clearly. It might even be called a little pedantic in its devotion to explaining how the game works.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #11: Cloak & Dagger

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(Cloak & Dagger)

Cloak & Dagger is an American children’s movie released in 1984, originally as a double feature with The Last Starfighter. It’s about a boy who likes to play imaginary spy adventures that greatly resemble roleplaying games in the backroom of a game store.

As usually happens in these movies, the game soon becomes real, and the boy has to foil an attempt to bomb an airplane.

The movie is both boring and morally questionable. It seems to be about learning how to steal, run into traffic and kill people. Sometimes you just have to shoot people even if you don’t want to, because they’re evil.

The beginning of the movie is fun, with a spy clad in a grey leather jacket arriving with a parachute in the colors of the American flag. Giant dice rolls on the streets as we move from the game to the children playing.

Unfortunately, the good stuff stops after the first five minutes, never to return. Perhaps the only other good thing about the movie is the setting of the game store. It’s a nice glimpse into the period. Amazingly, they have a poster of the Atari E.T. game on a wall.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #10: Zero Charisma

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

(The trailer for Zero Charisma)

Zero Charisma is an American movie released in 2013 about Scott, a thirtyish guy running a tabletop campaign and living with his grandmother. Scott is a temperamental and acerbic guy with a very clear idea of how roleplaying games should be conducted. Eventually, the difficulty of dealing with him drives away even his closest friends.

The movie is a cringe comedy built so that almost all expectations it creates remain unfulfilled. It’s also one of the very rare cases of a movie about roleplaying games that could be called good, or a real film.

The central question of the film is about how to play roleplaying games: are they supposed to be just “fun”, or should we take them more seriously? Scott wants to make games seriously, and encounters a lot of pushback doing so. Even a Gary Gygax stand-in ridicules him. Yet the filmmakers have gone Scott’s route. The movie’s aesthetic choices mirror Scott’s vision of roleplaying, and justify his point of view.

All of this culminates in a non-ending where the viewer is first teased with a triumphant revenge, and then made to watch everything fall flat. Yet life goes on.

Incidentally, the experience of seeing this movie changes a lot based on who you are. In the beginning, it seemed like it might be another example of the rote roleplaying or larp amateur movie in the style of Unicorn City or Game of the Year. That proved to be another expectation the movie first set up and then dashed. Nowhere was the comparison to other larp and roleplaying movies more clear than in a scene where a new member of the group starts playing like an asshole. (“What the hell, I’ll just stab him and steal his stuff.”) In movies like Lloyd the Conqueror, cheating and playing badly is something the hero does to show how cool he is, but in Zero Charisma, asshole playing is asshole playing. Even if Scott reacts badly to it.

My experience was also shaped by who I am in the various roleplaying scenes I inhabit. I started to suspect I was probably the hipster dude, although I liked Scott’s uncompromising “you’re doing it wrong” attitude.

Zero Charisma has a lot going for it, but unfortunately it also repeats many of the routine tropes of this kind of moviemaking. Indeed, it felt like it could have dashed a couple more expectations than it finally did. Its portrayal of women is abominable, some of the nastier geek humor is just shopworn and tired, and it never goes beyond a self-hating conception of who a roleplayer is. Even the hipster guy, who intially seems cool about his hobby, is proven to be ashamed.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #9: Eskapistit

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

(The Eskapistit trailer.)

Eskapistit (eng. Escapists) is a Finnish short film written and directed by Niklas Lindgren, made in 2013. It’s about a guy who has to make a choice between going on a date with a girl he wants to impress and a larp, and later about concealing being a larper from the girl.

It’s a fun little movie, and I appreciate the message of larp empowerment it ended with. Yet at the same time, I have to say I’m done with geek, roleplayer and larper self-hate as a subject matter.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #8: DragonStrike

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

(You can check out the DragonStrike video on YouTube above.)

DragonStrike is a board game published by TSR in 1993. It was a sort of D&D lite, with a group of adventurers exploring a game board. The game came with a video casette explaining the ideas behind the game in the form of an adventure led by a disembodied game master. It’s quite interesting as an example of how to communicate about games of imagination in the form of a movie or a video.

The first instruction the video gives to would-be Dungeon Masters is “Ham it up”, something future generations of tv and movie game masters have taken to heart.

There was supposed to be a sequel set in the Spelljammer world called Wild Space. It was cancelled, but the trailer is here:

There’s a great article about all this on Boing Boing:

In 1993, he recalled, “I got a call from TSR, which my sister owned at that point, and they wanted to do a video — an instructional video for how to play a role playing game. Beyond that, they didn’t really have much idea.” The budget was minuscule, making both live-action and traditional animation impossible. Flint and producer Peter Silver decided to combine the two: shoot actors against a blue screen and “then strip out all the color … insert the background digitally and then put the color back in.” This sort of filmmaking was about a decade ahead of its time. “It’s what they later perfected with stuff like 300,” said Flint, referring to the Zach Snyder adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel. “Oddly enough Frank came in for the screening of it and was kind of hanging around with me when we were shooting it,” he added.