The Representation of Role Playing Games in Youth-Focused Popular Culture
This article was originally written for and published by www.gamingedus.org by Mary Maliszewski on April 10, 2016. It has been reproduced here with permission from the author. Also worth mentioning is that the author was 16 years old when this was written.
(Editor’s Note: This post assumes some familiarity with role-playing games and Dungeons and Dragons in particular. For an overview of RPGs and D&D, see this link for more information.)
Since the release of Netflix’s Stranger Things earlier this summer, many geeks of the Internet have been rejoicing. Some speak highly of the references it makes to classic movies by Steven Spielberg. Others marvel at the well-written scripts and emotional depth of the characters. Still others praise it for being able to capture the atmosphere of the 1980’s so well. Everyone seems to be taken with Stranger Things – everyone, that is, except for my dad.
Though he hasn’t actually watched the show, he is less than impressed by everything that he is hearing about it and doesn’t seem to buy into all the hype. One of the things that he seems especially unimpressed by is their portrayal of the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. As an avid role-player himself, he could say with near certainty that the eight episode miniseries did not depict the game very accurately, as the characters insist that only “a roll of thirteen or higher” can defeat a demogorgon.
Talking about this got me thinking about other media portrayals of tabletop games and made me wonder how accurate they are. Though it’s not uncommon to find a TV show or movie that references Dungeons and Dragons, it is rare to find one that can do it well. Because D&D tends to be thought of as a geeky hobby and is not as widely played in the twenty-first century as it was in the past, not many people have the knowledge necessary for creating a program that can correctly portray the game.
That said, this fact doesn’t stop people from trying. Three of my favourite cartoons contain episodes that attempt to replicate the D&D experience, with varying degrees of success, and while I enjoy them all, I thought it would be interesting to analyze them and see what kind of impression they give to non-players.
Each cartoon will be examined using the same criteria. After providing a brief synopsis of the episode for context, I will try to answer a series of questions to determine how true to the spirit of role-playing each show is. These questions include which characters role-play, what non-role-players think of them, whether the game includes equipment such as miniatures, dice or a board, whether there is any slang or jargon associated with the game, if there is any mention of LARP (Live Action Role-play, a style of role-playing that is commonly overemphasized) and what kinds of monsters and creatures are show in the game.
The three shows that I will be talking about include Disney’s Gravity Falls, Nickelodeon’s 2012 reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Hanna Barbera’s Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
In the episode Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons, twelve year old Dipper Pines and his great uncle, Grunkle Ford, bond over their fondness for the eponymous game and begin a campaign. While playing, however, Dipper’s other uncle, Grunkle Stan, inadvertently causes Probabilator the Annoying, a character from the game, to come to life and start causing trouble for the family.
Who plays the game? The game is played by Dipper, a socially awkward twelve year old, and Grunkle Ford, called the “world’s nerdiest old man” by his brother Stan. Both characters have been consistently portrayed as intellectually inclined and interested in things that other people would think of as strange, odd or, in some cases, simply boring.
What do non-players think of the game? Non-players, such as Dipper’s sister, Mabel, and Ford’s brother, Stan, tend to mock the game for its emphasis on math and writing. Even Soos, an overweight geek who still lives with his grandma, admits that he thinks Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons is “kinda nerdy.” By the end of the episode, however, both Mabel and Stan have warmed up to the game a little. Stan apologizes for being rude, telling Dipper that though the game is too nerdy for him, it’s “just the right amount of nerdy for [Dipper] and [Ford].”
What equipment do the gamers use? The game is played on a board. Figures resembling chess pawns seem to be used in place of miniatures. Cardboard standees are also used to represent the game’s villains. A variety of dice are rolled during play, the most notable of which is “thirty-eight sided.” In one scene, Dipper can be seen taking a card from a deck while playing, though the purpose of these cards is still unknown. Graph paper also appears to be a very important tool for players of “D, D and More D”, as Dipper frequently uses it to draw maps of the dungeon and make graphs on.
Is there any sort of slang/jargon? “Damage points” are mentioned during Ford and Dipper’s gaming session. Dipper also mentions that Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons has had several “editions”, including the “controversial” 1991-1992 edition and Diggity Dungeons and All That, an edition in which the creators of the game tried to make it cooler so that it would appeal to a broader audience.
In one scene, Dipper mentions several other game mechanics, including “Quadrants” that a player has a dominion over and “Statistical Analysis Power Orbs” which are in some way connected to the amount of quadrants the player controls. These terms are only used once, likely to illustrate how complicated the game would seem to an outsider.
Is there any mention of LARP? When Dipper asks Soos if he would like to play with him, Soos explains that he prefers FCLORP (Foam and Cardboard Legitimate Outdoor Role-play) to “that pen and paper stuff.” There are two brief scenes in which Soos is shown FCLORPing, alongside Toby Determined, Sheriff Blubs and Deputy Durland, all of whom are fairly pathetic characters. From these scenes, we can assume that FCLORP is seen as an even dorkier hobby than Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons.
What kinds of monsters/characters are in the game? Many traditional fantasy monsters, such as ogres, fairies, elves, unicorns and gryphons, appear during the episode, though there are also many other creatures. Three notable ones include Probabilator, an evil brain-eating wizard who serves as the game’s mascot, the Centaur-taur, a horse-like monster conjured by Mabel, and the Impossibeast, a frightening creature, banned in most editions of the game, whose only weakness is a roll of thirty eight.
Player characters are not discussed in great detail, so it is unknown what kinds of races or classes are available for players to choose from.
Other Notes The rules of Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons, if any exist, seem to range from complicated to almost nonsensical. In one scene, Dipper explains that players don’t have any pre-set moves and must make up their own attacks during play. Because of this, comedic spells such as “Super Hot Flamey Sword” and “Death Muffins” are used in place of iconic attacks from Dungeons and Dragons.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The episode Mazes and Mutants opens on the turtles sitting around the kitchen table, playing a game that they found in a dumpster on the surface. Believing that LARP is the next level of role-playing, the four brothers set out on a make-believe quest in the sewers, but end up being sent on a real quest by the illusion-casting Sir Malachi, a lonely mutant sparrow looking for someone to play with.
Who plays the game? All the turtles engage in tabletop role-playing and LARP, though Leonardo, the team’s leader, and Michelangelo, the youngest of the brothers and a fan of the fantasy television show Crognard the Barbarian, seem to be the most into it. The game was also played by Sir Malachi before he was mutated.
What do non-players think of the game? Master Splinter doesn’t really approve of Mazes and Mutants, saying that he can’t understand why they are interested in fantasy “when [their] lives are already fantastic.” He also seems to think the game is a waste of time, since they have more important things they could be doing, such as searching for the lost canisters of mutagen.
What equipment do the gamers use? The game is played using a board, with paper figures on plastic stands being used to represent the player characters and the monsters that they are fighting. Twenty sided dice are used to determine the power of attacks. Maps of the dungeon appear to have been drawn by the players so that they remember where rooms are and what’s in them. While serving as the game master, Leo uses a divider with a variety of charts and graphs on the inside to prevent the others from seeing what he’s doing.
Is there any sort of slang/jargon? “Hit points” are referenced when Raphael’s character loses some health to an enemy’s attack. Some attacks can be “critical hits” if they get high enough dice results. By contrast, attacks that don’t get very high results are jokingly referred to as “critical fails.” The person running the campaign is called the “game master”. Though this term is not actually used in the episode, “modifiers” are referred frequently, such as a “Magic Sword +3” and a “+1 Ring of Awesome.”
Is there any mention of LARP? The main plot of the episode revolves around a LARP session that the main characters partake in. The term is even helpfully defined in the episode for viewers that might be unfamiliar with it. Mikey describes LARP as the future of role-playing and convinces the rest of the turtles to fashion costumes out of trash to add authenticity to their game. Though these costumes and many of the other props used are rather shoddy, all the turtles (save for Raph, who isn’t very enthusiastic about LARPing) enjoy themselves.
What kinds of monsters/characters are in the game? While LARPing, Leo plays a knight and Donnie plays a wizard (assumed to be human), while Raph plays a dwarf barbarian and Mikey plays an elven thief.
The monsters they fight, aside from Sir Malachi himself, include “monkey goblins” that resemble Dr. Tyler Rockwell, a mutant ape that the turtles once encountered, and a dragon that resembles their friend Leatherhead, a mutant alligator. Leo also creates a dummy meant to be a stand-in for a “tree troll” monster.
Other Notes While fighting Sir Malachi, the sparrow wizard uses several spells not found in any real life role-playing game, such as “Egg Bombs of Power” and “Magic Fists.” It is unknown whether these are spells that Malachi made up himself or whether they come from Mazes and Mutants.
Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated
In Web of the Dream Weaver, an episode that takes inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons, Labyrinth and Nightmare on Elm Street, Mystery Incorporated begins investigating a series of mysterious happenings involving former Crypts and Creatures players whose dreams have been plagued by a sinister figure called the Dream Weaver.
Who plays the game? In addition to the group of Crypts and Creatures players (consisting of Sheriff Stone and three of his childhood friends) being tormented by the titular monster, Shaggy Rogers, Mystery Incorporated’s resident slacker, is also interested in the game, though he stopped playing some time before the events of the episode, due to his growing obsession interfering with his social life.
What do non-players think of the game? Fred describes Crypts and Creatures as “that nerdy fantasy role-playing game that nerdy nerds play.” This phrase seems to sum up almost every non-player’s attitude towards the game. After Shaggy reveals that he used to play “C&C”, the other members of the gang can be seen smirking at him. Later in the episode, Scooby Doo jokingly calls Shaggy “Shagdalf” and begins giggling at him for sympathizing with someone whose C&C character was killed.
What equipment do the gamers use? Much like in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the game is played with a twenty-sided dice and a board. Miniatures in this cartoon appear to be small plastic figures, much like real life minis. This show is also the only one of the three in which character sheets are used to keep track of stats and damage.
Is there any sort of slang/jargon? Web of the Dream Weaver makes extensive use of role-playing language. In addition to naming all of the game pieces above, terms such as “critical hit” and “level” are used. A young Sheriff Stone tells his friend, Hobert Fice, to make a “saving throw” to determine whether his character would survive a fatal attack. Shaggy uses the phrases “off hand” and “main hand” to describe a character’s dominant and non-dominant hands. On the Dream Weaver’s character sheet, the number of “experience points” you gain from defeating him are clearly visible and modifiers are mentioned when Shaggy declares that his character needs some “+5 Forks of Feasting.”
Is there any mention of LARP? Unlike the previous two cartoons, no overt references are made to LARP, though Shaggy does try to cast a magic missile in real life the way a LARPer would.
What kinds of monsters/characters are in the game? In Sheriff Stone’s old Crypts and Creatures campaign, the player characters seemed to be a human ranger, an elf mage and a dwarf fighter. They fought against an army of goblins on their way to battle the Dream Weaver himself. Shaggy also mentions that there are bugbears in Crypts and Creatures, as he became convinced that his science teacher was one after he had played the game for too long.
Other Notes Though some of spells used by the Dream Weaver are made up, several of them, such as “Polymorph” and “Flesh to Stone” are real. Other real life Dungeons and Dragons terms used include “Detect Magic” and “Night Vision.” One of players in campaign also mentions that he’s going to have his character check for traps before he enters a room.
So, what’s the verdict? Which of these cartoons portrays role-playing games the most accurately? Well, the cartoons are actually organized in this article from least to most true to life.
While Gravity Falls is amusing, the game it shows bears fairly little resemblance to actual role-playing games and the episode paints the genre as a whole in a fairly negative light. Mabel calls Dungeons, Dungeons and More Dungeons “Homework: The Game” due to all the calculations that the players must do during the course of play and though she eventually develops fonder feelings towards the game, the episode’s message still seems to be that only nerds can truly enjoy this sort of hobby.
Ninja Turtles is a step up in both departments; the game-play is more realistic and the impression that is given is slightly better. However, there are still some nits to be picked. LARP is greatly overplayed and it is implied that most Mazes and Mutants players are lonely and friendless like Sir Malachi.
Mystery Incorporated is arguably the best example of the three, though it’s still tinged with a bit of geek-shame. The on screen game-play is fairly lifelike and the vocabulary used by players is accurate. Even though the writers seem to know their role-playing games, gaming is still seen as an embarrassing pastime rather than treated with some degree of respect.
I now conclude this informal study with several things in mind: firstly, that cartoons are capable of portraying role-playing games in a fairly realistic manner if they put their minds to it. Secondly, that even when this is achieved, it’s difficult to portray it as anything other than a geeky hobby, since gaming has had that reputation for years. And thirdly, though I hate to admit it, a good time for the audience is often more important than adhering strictly to the rules of the game. If liberties need to be taken in order for the story to be more interesting, so be it.
Addendum by AML:
This article can act as a discussion prompt. Some questions that can be asked are:
- How does “a media construction of a media construction” (i.e. an animated TV program about a hobby) enhance or dilute the understanding of the hobby?
- What opinions might the intended audience of these TV shows form of the hobby of RPGs? Audiences negotiate meaning. What possible meanings may emerge?
- Were any of these representations sponsored by the company that created D&D? How might you be able to ascertain this?
- What value messages are transmitted based on the representation of this hobby in these TV programs? If asked to complete the sentence “Role playing games are …” or “People who play RPGs are …”, what might people unfamiliar with the game who have watched this show say?
- What are the possible social and political implications of these representations?
- How does the unique aesthetic form of an animated TV show impact the representation of the unique aesthetic form of role-playing games?
For other examples of how other fans have interpreted the representation of RPGs on TV / film, (that you can use to compare and contrast with this article) see:
(These lesson ideas are adaptable to elementary and secondary school classrooms – ed.)