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For nearly four decades, players of Dungeons & Dragons have been stereotyped and lampooned for their love of fantasy tabletop gaming. The cross they bear has not been lightweight.
But local actor and gamer Cameron McNary says D&D devotees shouldn’t lurk in the shadows. Dungeons & Dragons, which counts collaboration, imagination, and math among its key components, deserves praise, McNary says. That’s part of the reason he wrote a stage play, Of Dice and Men, about what he describes as “the impact that role-playing games have had on my life since I was 8 years old.”
The fully staged version of Of Dice & Men (which is not related to the book of the same name) premiered at the 2010 Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle and other productions have cropped up in San Francisco and New York since then. Now, McNary is ready to take his play to another medium: film.
The comedy about table gamers is gearing up to shoot for 10 days in D.C.’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs. The film takes place in the kind of suburban setting surely many gamers are familiar with—-but the players are 30-year-old professional types, not teenagers. Its premise almost makes it sound like High Fidelity or The Big Chill for the immersive fantasy crowd, but the filmmakers possess a different vision: They hope to fully convey the enriching experience of tabletop games, both to gamers and nongamers alike.
“When you create this shared world with someone, you start to learn more about the aspects of their personality than you ever would having a beer with someone,” says Seth Polansky, the film’s executive producer and husband to its director, Kelley Slagle. McNary says roleplaying is capable of “free[ing] you up to express parts of yourself that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”
Slagle’s Cavegirl Productions is producing the film. Polanksy, who is a gamer, read McNary’s play and found the characters instantly relatable. He urged McNary to adapt it, thinking its characters would resonate with other adults who spent their adolescent years drawing up character sheets and questing in friends’ basements.
The gaming group at the heart of the film is a Dockers-clad, yuppie sort that finds itself upended by two major life events: one player’s decision to take a job in Berkeley, and another’s imminent deployment to Iraq. There’s a question of will-they-or-won’t-they in one relationship, and a sweetly played acknowledgement that marriage means embracing seemingly ridiculous hobbies once in a while. “What got me around was the story… without that story, the heart of the film wouldn’t work,” says Polansky.
The wartime peril facing the enlisted gamer deals the biggest blow. But as they digest the news, the players gab back and forth, bantering in a shorthand derived from gaming and their shared histories. The game, it turns out, provides the characters (and the play) with much-needed catharsis.
The play’s stage production relied on props and other devices to portray how each player envisions a game. The film version, though, has actors appear as their in-game avatars—-like a dwarven warrior priest, a paladin (a divine knight), and a hobbit-like halfling rogue—-in full costume. And in the movie’s climactic battle, players face a dragon, which will appear just off screen.
All of that requires money.
“We’re walking the very fine line between showing something that’s believable and showing something that’s stupid and not right,” says Polansky.
Their vision pushes the film’s budget skyward. While the movie is still tiny compared to Hollywood fantasy films, the crew would like to use green screens and real armor to lend the project the fantastical element it requires. Cavegirl is self-financing it, but it has also launched an Indiegogo campaign with a goal of $30,000. As of today, six days remain in the campaign, and it’s raised a little more than $8,000.
McNary was once hesitant to bring his play to the screen, but he’s totally on board now. “Part of the mission… has been to share my joy in this thing,” McNary says. “And the more people I can reach, the better.”