Dungeons & Dragons & the Devil

I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons last year. The highlights of our game night included pizza, beer, and hanging out with a bunch of cool nerds. It was fun, but part of me expected something more.

Like the ascent of the dark lord Satan.

You see, I first heard of D&D in the mid-90s during a late night car ride, while listening to Unshackled on our local Christian radio station. If you’re not familiar with the program, it features dramatic retellings of people’s troubled life stories and their conversions to Christianity, which “unshackled” them from the demons of drugs, or gangs, or in this case, tabletop RPGs.

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

Some of the original “Unshackled” voice actors in the 1950s

I was unable to find the episode online — as you’ll see if you click above, the Unshackled website leaves a little something to be desired — but I recall the story’s general arc. A socially awkward young woman starts playing D&D as a way to make new friends, only to discover that the game is a gateway to dark occult practices. The B-movie style voice acting and the mood music provided by a Casio organ really cemented the idea in my mind that a 12-sided die was an instrument of the devil.

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Pamphlet published by anti-occult organization “Bothered About D&D”

Since then, fundamentalists have attached satanic panic to other geek interests, like Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering, but despite the fact that its popularity has long since waned (playing D&D when you own a perfectly good Playstation is analogous to a hipster with a new Macbook writing a letter on a typewriter) Dungeons & Dragons remains the occult gateway drug par excellence in the conservative Christian consciousness.

This is due in no small part to Jack Chick. Chick is an old-fashioned fundamentalist who has been made internet-famous through his so-bad-they’re-good evangelistic tracts. These mini comic books highlight a whole range of “sins,” from homosexuality to Halloween to Islam.

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

From “Boo!” by Jack Chick

One of the Chick tracts that’s been most widely circulated online is entitled Dark Dungeons. Like that radio show that scared 7-year old me away from the evil world of RPGs, Dark Dungeons tells the tale of a girl who gets sucked into the occult through D&D.

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Like most Chick tracts, it ends in tragedy and a dramatic conversion.

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The cult status of Dark Dungeons has inspired a soon-to-be released film by the same name.

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According to the creators:

Dark Dungeons the movie is an adaptation of the comic Dark Dungeons that tries its best to stay true to the spirit and word of the source material given the limitations in adapting a comic to live-action and in expanding a 22-panel comic into an interesting and exciting motion picture. Many of the scenes and dialogue from Dark Dungeons the movie are lifted straight from the comic.

The movie seeks to achieve satire not through exaggeration, but through verisimilitude. As the panels above show, it would be difficult to make something more ridiculous than the original. While the satirical intent of the film is clear through the information provided on the website, I believe that when the film is viewed outside of this context, we will be faced with an example of that old internet adage, Poe’s Law.

Poe’s Law states that it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing. Take a look at Objective: Ministries and Rapture Ready. It takes a well-developed sense of humor and a high level of literacy in the language of Christian fundamentalism to discern which one is a parody. (I’ll take your votes in the comments — know that I grew up in fundamentalist evangelical culture, and I still had to fact check to make sure I was right).

The nature of fundamentalism is that it is so extreme that it effectively self-parodies. If I had not known the origin of the Dark Dungeons tract, I would have read it as well-executed satire. The other side of that coin is that some people may encounter Dark Dungeons the movie and read it as a sincere attempt by fundamentalist Christians to reveal the evils of D&D. Hell, for all I know, Unshackled is the best and longest-running parody of fundamentalist culture ever created.

The Dark Dungeons filmmakers have compiled a pretty great collection of videos on their website featuring fundamentalists condemning D&D. You should also check out Mazes and Monsters, another reactionary take on D&D that basically consists of an hour of a young Tom Hanks LARPing in a cave. Sincere or satire, this material all makes for comedy gold.   Dark Dungeons comes out on August 14 – your D&D party or your local evangelical youth group be equally entertained.

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“Anti” matters — “Veronica Mars” had to answer its own call for complex female leads

Veronica Mars: The Movie

Kristin Bell as “Veronica Mars”

The Veronica Mars movie makes its debut in theaters (and for instant streaming) this Friday, March 14.

Fans of the show, many of whom contributed to its record-setting funding on Kickstarter (the project reached its minimum $2 million goal in under 11 hours and had raised almost $6 million by the end of the funding period), couldn’t be more excited — including me!

In preparation for the big day, I’ve been rewatching the series with my boyfriend, who’s never seen it before. And it is still excellent.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the show, “L. Hamre” on IMDB summarizes it thusly:

The murder of high-school student Lily Kane shook the seaside town of Neptune, California to the core. For once popular girl Veronica Mars, it meant the loss of her best friend, and being ousted from the affluent crowd that she once thought were her friends. Her father, Sheriff Keith Mars, found himself voted out of his job after making some unpopular accusations about the murdered girl’s family. In response, Keith opened his own private detective agency. Now, Veronica, with her sardonic wit and a few new friends, works as his assistant while also navigating life as a high school (and later college) student.

We’re about halfway through season 1, which aired on UPN in 2004-2005, and we’re both loving it.

For me, it’s especially fun to watch it with my significant other because he’s a filmmaker who’s actually dealt with actors, scripts, lighting, editing, all that good stuff — and, most fun of all, he’s a fan of classic noir (which I knew little about when I first watched the show).

Veronica Mars sits squarely in the noir genre — it’s got the traditional dens of corruption, questionable authority figures, greed and excess at the expense of the downtrodden, extreme wealth disparities, long dark shadows, rainy streets (sometimes — I mean it is Southern California), snarky private investigators and seedy underbellies.

There’s one major element that makes it different from most noir stories, though — its protagonist.

Can you guess? Here’s a clue – below is how tvtropes.com describes the main character in noir:

“The Anti-Hero is the most common protagonist of the Noir — a man alienated from society, suffering an existential crisis. Frequently portrayed as a disillusioned, cynical police officer or private-eye and played by a fast-talking actor, the Anti-Hero is no fool and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He faces morally ambiguous decisions and battles with a world that seems like it is out to get him and/or those closest to him.”

Yep, in Veronica Mars, our anti-hero ain’t a “he”.

Unlike the majority of noir stories (think of The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep, anything else written by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler), Veronica Mars features a female lead as its hardboiled detective.

And this is pretty cool — not only because there’s still a dearth of shows with female leads (even more so back in 2004), but also because of the roles women are normally confined to in noir — the “femme fatale”.

The “femme fatale” is a villainous woman who may pretend to be a damsel in distress, but actually uses feminine wiles to ensnare, manipulate, and harm male characters. This traditionally included the anti-hero, who sometimes does, and sometimes doesn’t, resist her charms — but even if he does become entangled with her at one point, he always repulses her in the end.

From the beginning, Veronica Mars upends this convention simply through the gender-swapping of the protagonist. (And no, they didn’t swap Femme Fatales out for Phallic Fatales, either — though it’d be fun to say). Rob Thomas, the series creator, knew this going into it:

“Thomas initially wrote Veronica Mars as a young adult novel, which featured a male protagonist; he changed the gender because he thought a noir piece told from a female point of view would be more interesting and original.” –Wikipedia

But what makes this switch so successful is that, in every other way, Veronica truly embodies the traditional anti-hero. She isn’t a typical female character given a different label but with the same ole’ character traits still clinging to her.

Veronica certainly fits the cynical, disillusioned bit — she was abandoned by her mother, unraveled a murder mystery involving some of Neptune’s most “upstanding citizens”, saw her supposed friends abandon her in a time of need, and is now determined to see the world in black & white — and refuses to forgive.

Veronica does things no well-adjusted, reasonable person would do. She isn’t above running a background check on her father’s girlfriend, asking her best friend to risk expulsion for swiping students’ files from the school office, manipulating her new police officer boyfriend for access to evidence, or stealing her ex-boyfriend’s medical history from his doctor’s office.

And yet, we still root for her. She’s still the protagonist and viewers can still empathize with her. But we can also tell that her life — one that’s lived with gritted teeth and with a chip on her shoulder — isn’t something we’d really want to be living.

In fact, her father — the “official” private investigator who, on the surface, perfectly fits the noir protagonist role — is often a voice of stronger caution & morality. He’s the one who cautions Veronica that there are boundaries she shouldn’t cross, that there truly are shades of gray, and that most people still have some good in them. Veronica, of course, doesn’t listen.

Veronica has problems, and sometimes makes bad decisions. A lot of us would be justifiably leery of being her friend or dating her. In addition to smart, resilient, insightful, and funny, she can be weak, vindictive, petty, and foolish — like any male anti-hero (just think of Sherlock, Dexter, Tony Soprano… even Tony Stark will do).

But boring? Clichéd? One-dimensional? Most definitely not.

Veronica is an anti-hero first, and a female lead second. But this is why it’s important that she’s a “she” — Veronica Mars proves that a character doesn’t have to be simplified, flattened, or dumbed-down because the character’s a woman. Veronica doesn’t settle for being the “Strong Female Character” trope (she’s more than a princess who knows kung-fu). Instead, she’s still just as complex and flawed as the traditional male anti-hero.

Rob Thomas didn’t decide to have a female lead and then pick what her character could be from the existing pool of “women’s roles”. Instead, he started with a nuanced, complicated, challenging role, and then challenged its tradition by casting a woman in that role — to see what would happen. He thought it would be more interesting & original, and it was.

Unfortunately, few writers seem to have believed him & stepped up to the plate.

In fact, I tried to come up with more examples of female anti-heroes, and this is what my google search turned up:Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 9.29.18 AM.png

Though there have been a sprinkling of post-Veronica female anti-heroes (Nancy Botwin on Weeds, Olivia Pope on Scandal, anyone from Girls [though their anti-hero traits are largely reviled]) this list is cosmically dwarfed by the crop of complex male anti-heroes who have appeared since — just think of the likes of Walter White, Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, Dr. House… or the male lead of pretty much any HBO show. (Did you even need the names of their shows, by the way? Probably not, because they’re insanely popular).

The desire for these characters is clearly there, as is the frustration with their still-miniscule presence.

But ten years after Veronica Mars first aired, one of the most exciting anti-heroines to succeed her is, well… herself. The relative dearth of suitable successors is likely one of the reasons fans have clung so fiercely to the original, and why they were so eager to support her return to the silver screen.

Veronica Mars the TV show proved that the character could be built, and built to last through hundreds of storylines. Veronica Mars the movie, whose crowd-funding was so successful that Zach Braff shamelessly swiped its strategy for his own film, proves that viewers will pay to see them.

So, screenwriters: step up your game. Rob Thomas already showed you that it’s possible to cast a woman in a complex role. $2 million in 11 hours showed you writing her can pay well. So, what exactly are you waiting for?

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References & Further Reading:

Friday Feature: Outerlands

I don’t think we’ve ever featured a Kickstarter before here on the Playground; but this one is pretty special.

 

 

Outerlands is a proposed six episode documentary series on the culture of video games by Area 5 Productions. To oversimplify; they want to make something akin to the “This American Life,” of video game culture. These guys are storytellers, and fantastic ones at that. They have a love and passion for the topic matter and have a unique visual style that sets them apart from other documentarians.

 

 

What makes their pitch different from many others is that they don’t just want to talk about games. They want to talk about everything around them as well; the people involved, the niches that have arisen, and the unexplored corners that many of us don’t even know exist. On the Kickstarter page, they’ve already discussed talking about things like speed runners, the “gamification” of things outside of games, sexuality in the game-space, e-sports, and many other topics. They want to highlight and critically look at every aspect of a passion that many of us enjoy.

 

This is probably my favorite 1Up show episode. It covers the PS3 launch, and boy were times different then…

 

For those of us who have been around a while; Area 5 isn’t an unknown name. These guys are the ones who helped create the 1Up Show back in the day, CO-OP after that, and have been making some of the best documentaries on gaming since then. Their two most recent were the well received I Am Street Fighter, for Street Fighter’s 50th anniversary, and Grounded, a “making of” for The Last of Us. Suffice it to say, Outerlands is their passion project.

 

 

This is a great chance for something we all enjoy to be seen in a different light. to see stories that might not otherwise be told. Outerlands is a great project and I hope that you all will give it a look. These guys deserve the chance to make this.

 

You can support them on Kickstarter HERE

Friday Feature: FTL

Here’s a real life situation I encountered this week, and I think it’s pretty universal:

You’re sitting in your room lazily watching Star Trek: Voyager when you hear the peerless Captain Kathryn Janeway say something like, “reroute all available power to the shields and begin charging phasers!” You begin to think to yourself, “Gosh, I wish I could reroute power through some stuff and charge things to shoot other things…”

Well, the good news for you is that there’s a game that lets you do just that!

Enter the video game, FTL: Faster Than Light.

In video-game classification, FTL is a roguelike space-sim with simplistic graphics and a high degree of difficulty. Its almost flash-game-like graphics make it a very unassuming title in the ever-highly detailed landscape of AAA video games, but as I mentioned when I recommended the Infinity Engine, graphics don’t make a game!

And it’s also worth noting that FTL is definitely not a AAA game. It was kickstarter funded and can now be purchased on GOG.com for a whopping $9.99, but I’ve seen it dip down to $2.49 during their more aggressive sales.

FTL has a vague background story-line but the real fun of the game comes in the trial and error execution. When you play FTL, you’ll almost certainly lose the game a handful of times before making it to the final level. The random encounters and equipment drops mean you can never really count on having the same ship more than once.

Your starting ship isn’t much, but it gets the job done until you find some more impressive equipment.

Occasionally this is a frustrating aspect of the game. It hurts to have a really awesome layout and a great crew only to have your ship boarded by insectoid aliens that just tear it up from the inside out. Sigh.

Such as war, they say.

Dying is just part of the game! Eventually you learn the best way to deal with certain problems, but prepare to see your ship blow up a few times before you do.

BUT, even when you lose a really good setup, you won’t lose much time. The game can be completed in about an hour and a half (if you make it to the end) so you’re rarely going to be giving up more than just a little while and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy the process!