In my never-ending quest for quality entertainment, I find myself exploring a lot of avenues that others have tread before, but were previously unknown to me. More fool, me. I wish I had heard about The Gamers series sooner. It’s prime entertainment for any fan of tabletop roleplaying culture, and gaming in general. This week’s column looks at the flagship films of Dead Gentlemen Productions.
Dead Gentlemen Productions is a group of independent filmmakers based in the Tacoma, Washington area. They formed in 1996 and produced a couple of low budget feature films that won some local acclaim (Demon Hunters and Demon Hunters: Dead Camper Lake), but really made a splash with their series of films and shorts evolving around their The Gamers franchise. While you’re not going to find these films in theaters, you will find some of them in the media rooms at gaming and other geek-related conventions, on YouTube, on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and other venues. By word of mouth, they’ve gained quite a bit of popularity, and for good reason. Despite low budgets and, at times, amateurish acting, Dead Men Productions, distributed through Zombie Orpheus Entertainment, have laid down some superb films made by, and made for gaming geeks.
Their first feature, The Gamers (2002), written and directed by Matt Vancil, runs just under an hour and, while plainly low-budget (reports suggest a total budget of around $1,000), does an excellent job capturing and parodying the tabletop RPG gamer experience. With well-honed adventure plots subverted by players either getting too creative or, worse, trying to game the system, the story jumps back and forth between the college dorm playing session and the fantasy adventure itself. As each character attempts a particular feat, such as pickpocketing someone in the tavern, the real world player becomes the fantasy player. As the party quests to save a captive princess, a young woman in a neighboring dorm room tries to study for an exam and occasionally bursts in on the party to complain about the noise. She, too, has a role in the adventure story as she is apparently a stand in for the princess.
I won’t spoil the ending. It’s cute. Maybe even a little predictable.
It’s fun for what it is–a super low-budget film with cheap special effects and even cheaper makeup and costuming. But it’s genuine in its sense of fun. It’s easy to see why it was such a popular viewing draw at gaming conventions.
The Gamers: Dorkness Rising
Where The Gamers was a simple story that relied heavily on gaming tropes and a gimmicky ending, The Gamers: Dorkness Rising (2008), was a huge leap forward in storytelling and character development. While not a direct sequel, and taking around three years to produce and with a better budget, The Gamers: Dorkness Rising, written and directed again by Matt Vancil, tells the story of a gamemaster and his group of gamers as they struggle to successfully complete the gamemaster’s homebrew campaign. Players blame the GM, the GM blames the players. To solve this, two new players are brought into the game which introduces new dynamics to a gaming group that has gone a bit stale.
As with The Gamers, the story jumps back and forth between the real world players and their fantasy world counterparts. There’s a lot of humor and it’s handled even better than in its predecessor. Gaming tropes such as player vs. character knowledge, min-maxing, cross-gender play, turn-based combat, critical rolls, and so forth all make an appearance. There is the “chaotic neutral” character whose unpredictability threaten the stability of the whole group. And then there’s the great running gag about the weak, death-prone bard which ends up becoming a crucial part to the climactic fight scene.
While the frame of the adventure story serves the narrative well, it’s the personal growth of the players and the gamemaster that make the movie not just fun, but also relevant. And it’s a fan film, of course. In addition to the heavy D&D theme, there are nods to Steve Jackson games such as Ninja Burger and Munchkins, and gamer-based comics such as Nodwick and Knights of the Dinner Table.
Where The Gamers was a fun little snack of a movie, The Gamers: Dorkness Rising is a fully-satisfying meal. It’s no wonder that the success and popularity of this film inevitably led to a Kickstarter-funded sequel.
The Gamers: Hands of Fate
The Gamers: Hands of Fate (2013) takes on a lot. Clocking in at 125 minutes (145 in an extended cut), the movie starts with the same set of players and GM from Dorkness Rising a couple of years later. They’re having trouble continuing with their campaign because of a multitude of real-world interruptions.
They’re hoping an upcoming trip to GenCon will get things moving again. Then enters the Collectable Card Game storyline, Romance of the Nine Empires.
I’m not much of a CCG fan, so I was surprised when I found myself becoming entirely engaged by a feature film pivoting mainly on a stand-in combination of Magic: The Gathering and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.
I think it’s because of what the plot is really about, i.e., roleplaying with a focus on story vs. power gaming with a focus on winning. While there are a number of subplots within the film–a character stalking and abusing a game mascot, a botched marriage proposal, an attempt to “win” the girl, and so forth–what the film is really is the very soul of gaming itself.
I’ve never embraced the CCG community, but I do know that in some games, the cards are more than just scores on a piece of coated stock, but also elements to a story. A game isn’t just two players trying to knock the other opponent out based purely on stats and math, but is supposed to be something of an epic tale of battle as well. A deck can represent a whole subculture within the game. The artwork provides the pieces to the story as players piece them together.
In Hands of Fate, there is a major conflict between the side of the game players who believe in the value of story, and a competing faction who play purely for the winning. Where the storytellers want the story to grow and be enriched, the power players want the game reduced to a tournament style of play with cash prizes. They want to monetize the playing of the game. That’s what the climactic scenes address.
There is a lot going on in this third feature. Add to that incrementally better acting, better special effects, and rather decent writing.
If there’s a lack in this, and the previous films, is its lack of diversity. It’s an overwhelmingly white cast that is almost exclusively male. The films fail to reflect the growing diversity in gaming which is a damn shame. Seems like a lot of missed opportunity there to widen the appeal of the series. I will hand it to the writers, though, in addressing some of the issues of sexism in the gaming world–particularly in Hands of Fate.
There is an open acknowledgement of some of the hostility many women face in gaming–despite women being a large part of the culture now. And where the story could have easily trotted out the tired tropes of “winning the girl” in a couple of plot lines, they successfully subvert the trope and play it in a more mature, realistic fashion. Good for them.
Still… not the most realistic representation of the actual population that makes up gaming and fandom. Even the character based on a Japanese anime character is played by a white dude. Lame.
That aside, they’re fun films, and obviously labors of love.
And it doesn’t stop there. Dead Gentlemen Productions and Zombie Orpheus Entertainment have also put out additional short series including The Gamers: Humans & Households and The Gamers: Natural One.
The former tells the story of fantasy characters roleplaying as characters in our world, and the latter is a cyberpunk-inspired story in which a player’s non-gaming fiancée must prove his worth to her gaming brother. Both are fun, though a bit short. The Gamers gang has also performed a few live performances at gaming conventions, some of which are viewable on YouTube or available for order at their website.
So, where to view?
Quite a few places. When I came across them, it was first on Amazon Prime. It didn’t take long to find everything also available on YouTube. Extended editions, with commentaries, are available at the Dead Gentlemen Productions website, and the videos are also available on iTunes. I’ve included links here for the YouTube presentations as they’re the most easily accessible.
Highly recommended for gamers, and those who love gamers. And hey, holidays are just about here.
Zombie Orpheus Entertainment has a lot of Gamers goodies available at the Paizo website. Check out for a full list.