Dungeons & Dragons has defied the odds and turned forty this year. A niche game that might take a decade to complete, its mixture of imagination, dice, paper and pencils seemed no match for the rise of the Digital Age and quick satisfaction. But tabletop gaming (and RPGs) bit their thumbs at the odds and became kinda cool. Celebs like Wil Wheaton, Sam Witwer, and Chris Hardwick have met up for a round of Dragon Age on TableTop, and the popular web series is now cooking up a spin-off RPG show after their super-successful crowdfunding campaign. But the RPG has not only infiltrated the back-room geek realms of the Internet.
Though it never made much progress on film, save for the rare appearance in films like ET, D&D has become a television pre-requisite. Forget about musical episodes; if geeks are present in any noticeable way, there will be an episode or scene devoted to a D&D quest where the nerds lure newbies to the dice. It’s a game that’s set up deadly enemies, revealed inner weaknesses and unveiled fans in the least likely of places.
Now I must admit – I have never played Dungeons & Dragons and have little desire to (unless it’s the ridiculously addictive board game offshoot, Lords of Waterdeep). My patience has no time for long quests. Nevertheless, some of my favorite television moments revolve around D&D (and television’s facsimiles of it). I love what it inspires in its fans, and the creativity that often stems from it. The RPG has become an excellent platform for revealing new aspects of seemingly rote characters, and challenging others to lighten up and live beyond the norm.
The Venture Brothers, “Past Tense”
When an old college classmate dies and Dr. Venture and Brock Sampson attend the funeral, they get taken hostage – not because of any terrible dalliance, but because Rusty once had graph paper sex with Mike Sorayama’s crush Leslie, who later stumbled out of Rusty’s room after a night with ladies’ man Sampson. The absurdity makes the episode not only one of the more original uses of D&D, but also an example of its reach. There are dragons and barbarians, but pimply dudes can also use the dice to expand their sexual prowess, which is no less safe from the lure of other boys’ hormones.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Chosen”
When the end of days is upon us, some will have sex, some will sleep, and some will stay up all night playing D&D. At least, that’s what Buffy taught us when Joss Whedon wrapped up his popular series. It’s surprising that the game didn’t enter into the fray sooner, but the foray was inevitable as the Summers’ household began to hold an increasing number of geeks. Role playing offered some comic levity before the fight, including the classic Giles line: “I was a highly respected watcher, and now I’m a wounded dwarf with the mystical strength of a doily.”
The IT Crowd, “Jen the Fredo”
Jen doesn’t quite realize what it means to be the company’s “Entertainment Manager” when she takes the job and replaces the entertainment via erotic lady parts with “The Vagina Monologues.” In desperation, she turns to Roy and Moss for help, and the evening’s entertainment becomes an epic RPG quest with Moss. The guests are apprehensive, but in the end, thoroughly obsessed. And Moss, meanwhile, gets to use the game to try to bring Roy out of a romantic depression.
Community, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”
Dan Harmon’s Community is one of the few shows not only to play D&D, but to structure an entire episode around it. Instead of playing for laughs, the game becomes a method of empowerment, camaraderie and battle as the group condemns Pierce for his cruel, cheating intrusion, and ultimate pities him on the lead of Neil, who tries to befriend the old curmudgeon. The episode successfully portrayed the dynamics of its players, but was also a great exploration of the reach of imagination. A show known for its insane visuals was just as potent when its players were simply sitting around a table, playing out a drama in their minds.