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.

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