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A couple of days ago, I posted about art history class at the University of Maryland. TL;DR: I attended that class only three days: the first day, the penultimate day, and then the last day for the final exam. None of those days provided meaningful instruction on the topic, yet I passed the final exam with complete, utter bullshit.
This won’t go over well with some elements of the interwebs, but it’s a 100% true story.
At the University of Maryland (go Terps!), no matter what your major, each student had to take two classes from each of four categories of classes in order to graduate (plus two semesters of English). For a physics major, meeting the math and science requirement was easy, but the artsy-fartsy requirements took some work. I selected Latin because I had three years of Latin in high school (easy A!), and then took <throws dart at the class catalog> art history.
I showed up to the first day of class. Then I showed up to what I thought was the final exam, but it was actually the last day of actual class. So, I had to show up one more time for the final exam, which was walking through the university’s art gallery and discussing the art. I’m pretty sure I was supposed to say something like, “This is a Victorian era painting inspired by the Bakersfield style of brush stroke” or some shit like that. All I can remember was critiquing the art from a purely subjective point of view. You know, stuff like, “Oh, it’s a great use of color,” “What fine craftsmanship,” or “I’ve done better myself.”
That final exam was our entire grade, and I passed. I didn’t get an A, but I passed. How the hell did that happen? I completely made up everything I said. Do you think that I could have done that with, for example, calculus?
“Addition and subtraction? That’s for the plebians. We of the elite members of the society use scelpenation to calculate our sums. Let me tell you how it works. . . .”
Of course, I couldn’t. I’d get an F- and be beaten with reeds. Mathematics is objectively true. Just hold up two fingers with each hand and bring them together as many times as you’d like. The two pairs of fingers will always become four fingers. Sorry, but some degrees are worth more than others. Let’s face it: They just give art history degrees to anyone.
Bathroom stalls have two primary forms of coat hooks (that I can remember). One of them always makes me think of a mind flayer. The one in my office looks like a mind flayer that’s been hit in the head too hard.
Oh, no! I used mind flayer in a sentence! WotC’s gonna sue me!
I saw the D&D movie yesterday. I didn’t like it as much as my average social media contact did, but it was fun and worth watching, and I’ll watch it again when it hits Paramount+. This post is loaded with spoilers, but I’m keeping them relatively mild. Still, proceed at your own risk. TL;DR: I give it a solid B grade.
Up front, I want to say that this represents a major step forward for the franchise. In fact, can we just pretend that the other movies don’t exist? I own the second one on DVD and have seen it only once. I can watch it any time I want, and I do exactly that. I watch it every time I want, which is never. But moving on, there are a couple of things I wanted to mention, but I saw the movie by myself, so I didn’t get a chance to talk to anyone about it.
My Favorite Character: The Paladin
For someone like me, this is less a movie and more a homage to the game of D&D, so my favorite character was the paladin. Why? Because the movie made the archetypical paladin, which is a class best summed up by Louis C.K.’s “of course, but maybe” bit. If you don’t already know the bit and don’t click through, this may not make sense.
Of course, paladins are great. Of course, they are. They’re so concerned for everyone else’s well-being and will sacrifice their own. But maaaaaybe they’re all really annoying to be around. But no. Of course, we all love paladins. These people are champions of good, justice, honesty, and virtually everything good in this world. But maaaaaybe if they have such high charismas, they should be expected to learn social skills.
Zenk was the archetypical paladin. You should and will love him, but god dammit he’s annoying.
Legacy v. Modern Gamers
I’m on a real 1st Edition (“1e”) kick, and one of the things that bugs me about modern gaming is the aversion to PC death. This movie had a brilliant opportunity to show modern gamers the value to PC deaths, and when I thought they were going that way, my heart skipped. (Perhaps I should have a cardiogram just in case.) Unfortunately, in typical 5th Edition fashion, they pissed that opportunity away on a cheat. In the process, the cheat mirrored elements of our real-world society that have attention spans too short to remember what’s most important, even if it’s their primary goal in life. This was a major point of failure as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t merely a bad decision, but one that by itself keeps this movie out of the A grade range. It reminded me of my greatest pet peeve with respect to modern gaming.
A Funny Joke with the Same Problem
There’s a joke used in the movie that made it on one of the social media/television spots. It’s where they use a spell to speak with the dead. It was a remarkable failure, and hilariously so. However, they cheated their way out of it. Why? Because modern gamers can’t take a loss. It’s not just death, but some gamers get angry when their character takes a single point of damage (or even no damage!) or miss a puzzle. Modern dungeon masters are expected to avoid character failure of any sort, even when it’s the players’ own damn fault. Sure, the game/movie must continue, but the characters should have to admit they screwed up and find another way forward.
Speaking of Pet Peeves
My largest pet peeve about the prior movies was their overt discussion of game mechanics. That was the one thing I didn’t want in this movie. It’s a fourth wall break, and one that’s completely unnecessary. As a long-time gamer, I don’t need to be told that the character just used Misty Step, and for non-gamers watching the movie, naming the spell won’t add anything to the movie. So in the third movie, Book of Vile Darkness, when the main character asked to purchase a sword, and the shopkeeper asked him whether he wanted one at heroic tier or paragon tier, that was really stupid. That is, even in a world of monsters and magic, no one would talk that way.
This movie avoided such stupidity. In the rare instance where they discussed mechanics (for example, the aforementioned Speak with Dead scene), it served a purpose both to the audience and to the other characters. In fact, the only time language was used that was superfluous to the characters was the discussion of the history of Thay. However, that’s something every movie does because the audience needs the exposition. The characters say, “Yeah, yeah; we knew all that” so that they don’t look stupid, and the audience goes along with the fiction because, in the end, it’s a movie, and audiences know that they need the education. This was definitely something important that this movie got right.
Again, they pissed away something that could have improved the movie. You can certainly play the game with four PCs, but you really should have five: a healer, a soldier, an arcane caster, a rogue, and a fifth that doesn’t exactly fit neatly into one of those categories. This is especially true of a movie meant as a love letter to the game. Well, they had a barbarian and a druid that focused on melee, a sorcerer, and a bard that almost never touched a weapon. In fact, all the bard was to the group was a guy who made plans. Don’t get me wrong; he was a fine character, but as someone who likes bards more than any other class in most editions, he didn’t display most of the characteristics of a D&D bard. Moreover, there was no healer in the bunch, not even the druid or underused paladin. For fuck’s sake, they asked the sorcerer to heal someone, and his explanation for why he couldn’t was because of the nature of the injury, not because, you know, he’s not a cleric. But if the producers want to house rule sorcerers as healers, fine. It cuts against everything we’ve seen in every edition, but that kind of flexibility is what RPGs are all about. So why didn’t the sorcerer heal anyone? Because he wasn’t house ruled. He was just a standard sorcerer. There were no healers.
But my main concern here, as small as it is, is that I would have preferred to see a party of five with one of them using healing magic at some point. Instead, they went on one of their minor quests with the paladin. To give him his moment to shine, he did most of the heavy lifting on that quest but then left the group. He wouldn’t have made the story too complex by sticking around.
This movie is loaded with references to the game and tons of Easter eggs. Like I said, it’s more that than it is an actual movie. You can make a game out of spotting them.
EDIT: A Note on Faithfulness to the Game
Some have nitpicked the movie for not living up to game mechanics, and others have responded by saying “it’s a movie, not a game.” But it’s a movie that’s not only based on a game, but it has the name of the game in its title. If this is billed as a Dungeons & Dragons movie, then it should be based on the game. Otherwise, this might as well be a Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings movie. Maybe it’s just overstatement typical among the way Americans (everyone?) argues, but the counterarguments don’t seem to appreciate that fact. In fact, someone well known in the industry was taken to task (by someone else I’ll say is well-known) for criticizing the movie. “Are you a cinematographer?” she asked. What difference does that make? Are we not permitted to criticize a movie because we aren’t professional filmmakers ourselves? And if so, wouldn’t that mean that you have no right to complement it unless you’re a professional filmmaker? Are we not allowed to voice our opinions without filmmaking experience? That seems ridiculous.
Still, even acknowledging all that, the first question you should ask is, “What edition of D&D?” The various editions of D&D are very different from one another. Which edition should the film emulate? The classic OD&D or 1e for reasons of appreciation of where we all come from? The current 5e for reasons of marketability? A combination of them all? How should that combination be weighted? Also of note, dungeon masters have always house-ruled their games, meaning my 1e may be very different from your 1e. And besides, there always has to be some license given to filmmakers adapting source material to another medium. So, lighten up, Francis. This isn’t going to be exactly the game you play, but it’s faithful enough to the source material that everyone recognizes it. If you don’t like it, fine. I’m clearly no Wizards of the Coast apologist. But if you don’t like it because you have an axe to grind, then you’re robbing yourself of fun. Don’t ruin ours.
It was fun. It was worth my time and money, but it could have been better. I’m sure we’ll get a sequel or two, so maybe those will be.
For some strange reason, Americans (or at least my social media connections) love to trash on America. Actually, I know the reason. Everyone wants what they can’t have and takes for granted what they do. For this post, let’s put aside misconceptions about foreign countries and mischaracterizations of our own. Let’s assume that you’re lamenting over legitimate problems we have and how much better they have it somewhere else. Fine, but try not to forget that they get wrong and we get right . . . or at the very least, less wrong. Here’s one, though the merge was actually from 50 to 20 lanes.
Then there’s that whole “no concern for civil rights” thing. Just sayin’.
A few weeks ago, I hosted another 1st Edition Dungeons & Dragons (“1e”) game at my home. The group spent over an hour at the start of the session just reminiscing about the good old days when most of us first met. This was during the era of 4th Edition. Inevitably, the subject of synDCon came up. synDCon was the gaming convention financed primarily by Vic and me. The two of us did almost all the work of running the convention once it began. It was large enough that we had everything represented (see below), yet still maintained the coziness of conventions like Winter Fantasy.
synDCon Was Awesome
I need to put my modesty aside for a bit and say that we pulled off something magical (pun absolutely intended). In our first year, we took advantage of a holiday and put on a four-day convention. We provided tons of organized play: Living Forgotten Realms (4e), Pathfinder Society, and Heroes of Rokugan (Legend of the Five Rings). We also had individual games from less popular RPGs being run here and there, tons of card games (including, of course, Magic the Gathering), tons of board games, and we were the official DC-area convention for Munchkin. We had special events, a LARP, dungeon delves I wrote based on classic 1e adventures, and live music on Saturday night for one of the cons. Our slots were staggered so that slots didn’t start every four hours but rather every two hours. If you wanted to sleep in a bit, you could. You’d just start playing at 11 am instead of 9 am, but there were enough 2-hour slots of other things to do that you could still get three slots of gaming in.
It wasn’t run in a convention center, nor in the basement of a mediocre hotel, but rather in a really nice “hotel and executive meeting center” right across the street from a Metro (subway) stop in Rockville, Maryland. As the county seat for Montgomery County, there were tons of restaurants, et al. in the area, including a gaming store down the street. Of course, we had a gaming store as our in-convention vendor both years, and we generated about 200 attendees both years. Our attendees represented everywhere in the United States east of the Mississippi (e.g., Florida, Georgia, and Ohio), but we gave an award to a guy named Matt for having come the farthest for the con (Alaska).
We had tremendous support from volunteers that helped organize the detail while Vic and I focused on the big picture, and we’re forever indebted to those friends, but I’ll be damned if my feet weren’t atrociously sore by the end of both cons.
Seriously, it was stupendous, and everyone that attended and commented on it said so.
A Slight Diversion Before My Point
I’ve been thinking of doing something other than a Vegas blackjack trip for my fall vacation – I say this every year, so we’ll see if I follow through – and was considering an RPG gaming convention instead. Because I wanted to play 1e, I was initially thinking about GaryCon, but a friend pushed me towards GameholeCon. It was an easy sell because the timing would be better. GaryCon would interfere with Winter Fantasy, but GameholeCon would slide right into the Vegas slot (again, pun absolutely intended). The trouble is that Winter Fantasy and synDCon have spoiled me. I have no intention of going to a convention and paying between $100 and $200 per night for my hotel room if I’m staying at least 2 miles from the convention. That’s ridiculous. It’s like GenCon on a smaller scale. The city is obviously not big enough to handle the convention. So, I decided to look into other options.
There Aren’t Any
Sadly, I went through all my options I could find online, and nothing quite matches the magic of Winter Fantasy or synDCon as far as I can tell. The lists were not complete – Winter Fantasy wasn’t even mentioned (?!) – so maybe there are some other cons out there, but I can’t find them. The cons are at least one of the following: in an inconvenient or excessively crowded location, lack inexpensive parking, or focused on only a few things (usually the shiny new things of the day). Some are also not “cozy,” which I define as between 200 and 350 people. It’s large enough that there can be plenty to do, and you can meet new people, but small enough that you’ll always be able to find your friends and hang out with them. Winter Fantasy doesn’t even satisfy all of these characteristics perfectly – I tried to run 1e but only one ticket for only one slot of three was sold – but it’s as close to perfect as I think practical for a cozy con. It’s also in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I’m fine going out there, and I will every year they’ll have me, but I find it odd that an area with as big a gaming community as DC doesn’t have something like this.
And this is my point. DC needs a convention like synDCon or Winter Fantasy. Such a con isn’t going to hit the radar scope of the big players (i.e., Wizards of the Coast and Paizo), but it’ll appeal to plenty of players. The DC area is filled with them. Our Gamers’ Syndicate gaming club had over 200 people that identified as members, and we ran game days every single weekend in as many as five gaming stores at a time. While organizing synDCon, I learned of several other groups just as large that had never even heard of us. They were organizing at other stores. This area has an abundance of gamers, and I suspect there are even more here over 10 years later.
Will There Be a synDCon III?
That’s the magic question. I’m happy to organize it, but as we discussed at the game session, my demands are high. First off, I want to do it right or not do it at all. I’m not willing to put together a con in “the basement of the Best Western.” No offense to the chain in general, but that happens to be a hotel we visited that would be the site of a con not worth having. It was downright gross but not unlike venues of cons I’ve attended in the early 2000s. No thanks. Second, having learned from my experiences with the first two, the only way I’d do it is if I had a number of additional owners willing to slap down cashier’s checks for at least $2,000 each (or more depending on how many people commit) and having signed an operating agreement that prevents them from every cashing out that initial investment. That is, I need a sizeable stable of people willing to commit whole-heartedly so that I know I’ll have both the funds and the work ethic necessary to make this doable. Trust me when I say that it’s not enough that someone throw money at me. I need to know that they’re committed to doing the work necessary to pull off a great con. Because it’s been over 10 years, I don’t know what the minimum acceptable number of owners would be, especially without knowing exactly how much each would be willing to contribute up front, but I do know $2,000 is enough to motivate most gamers to stay the course and do what they could not to throw that money away. Any of them willing to drop $2,000 are likely to take it seriously.
Another thing I remember is that no one wanted to be the guy, the “convention coordinator” or CEO who had to make the calls when weird situations arose. While I’m happy to be that guy, I’m not willing to be the one that puts out the feelers (beyond this post, I guess) and see if there’s interest. If I thought my odds were better than 50% of finding such interest, I would, but I don’t think there are enough people willing to make this kind of commitment, so why bother trying? I did my part for king and country, and wound up with a small, overworked group. If this is meant to be, then someone else will have to get the ball rolling. So, while I’m not the one destined to put this together, I strongly suspect there’s a market for it, and my recent thoughts and conversations on the matter sure leave me wishing someone would.
If that’s you, drop me an email when you think you’ve got something real.
Yeah, you read that right. Captain Kirk and William Shatner were both born on March 22. Shatner was born in 1931, and Kirk will be born in 2233. This may be out of place considering that I’m writing this post on May 7, 2022, and who knows what will happen to my captain (or me) between now and then, but I wish them both well . . .