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Friday, 12 July 2019

Review Round-Up: Eye Of The Beholder; Reaver #1; World Of Darkness

Eye Of The Beholder - The Art Of Dungeons & Dragons (2019): It was a given I would eventually see this documentary about the art of Dungeons & Dragons, but once I realised that the first person featured in the trailer (and it turns out the film) is someone who has actually run a game for me - Jeff Dee - then I knew I had to watch it sooner rather than later.

This wonderful hour-and-a-half film, packed with some of the most iconic art from our hobby as well as interviews with the great and good, charts the development of Dungeons & Dragons visuals from the game's first appearance in the '70s right through to today.

With input from the artists themselves, along with gamers, historians, and collectors, this is a measured overview of the changing face of the game, and how it helped define "fantasy art" for the general public.

It also takes a look at how different campaign settings (particularly Planescape and Dark Sun) were driven by the work of single, definitive, artists, while in the broader game traditional creatures were being redefined with each edition.

I did notice that whenever there was an insert shot of people actually playing the game, it was always 5e, even if they were flicking through older rule books, and this film is only interested in official artworks from TSR - and later Wizards of The Coast - products (although I caught a sneaky glimpse of a Dungeon Crawl Classics book in a drawer at one point).

Aside from a few light-hearted barbs at "management suits" not "getting it" on occasion and the unfortunate occurrences of original art being thrown in the trash (echoes of the fate of comic book art at DC and Marvel from back in the day), Eye Of The Beholder is a very upbeat, inspirational, documentary about the importance of the illustrations that have helped shape the imaginations of several generations of gamers.

Reaver #1: In a fantasy world in the grips of an on-going war, one side learns that the other is using blood magic to spy on them.

A creepy conjurer suggests sending himself, his assistant, and four criminals (a soldier being punished for a moment of cowardice, a sociopathic noble, a cannibal, and giant berserker) on a suicide mission to take out the opponent's magic at its source.

Unfortunately, as the last page reveals, there is a flaw in that plan...

Continuing the RPG vibe from above, Justin Jordan's Reaver (published by Image Comics) is the perfect low-magic, gritty, action - with a rich vein of wry, dark humour - that encapsulates the kind of adventures I love to see unfolding on my tabletop.

And so, unsurprisingly, I love this comic and can't wait to see what fate has in store for Hell's Half Dozen.

Major kudos also to Rebekah Isaacs, co-creator of the title and artist, for the gorgeous, dramatic, and visceral artwork - which makes me think of the 1980's Dungeons & Dragons adverts Bill Willingham used to draw.

World Of Darkness - The Documentary (2017): When Eye Of The Beholder finished on Prime Video, the next recommendation was World Of Darkness.

This was a documentary I'd known about since it was first released, I just hadn't gone out of my way to watch because my interest in the actual game was peripheral at best.

The film does a great job of exploring how the game grew out of a reaction to the urban decay of America's Rust Belt, then capitalised on the underground club culture, broke down the stereotypes of who gamers were, the (usually unacknowledged) impact the game had on vampire-themed films and TV shows, and how the World Of Darkness games managed to popularise LARPing.

What it's not so good at tackling - and has always been my issue with White Wolf's Vampire games - is the appeal of playing not just monsters, but creatures' whose raison d'etre is to feed on the lifeblood of humans.

To me, that's an anathema to what I want from a game.

I want to be a hero (hence the name of the blog, see?), even if my character sometimes plays a bit dirty and brutal to achieve his goals.

For instance, I love the TV show Hannibal, but I have no interest, whatsoever, in playing - or running - a game where all the characters are serial killers.

I want to roleplay games where we're hunting serial killers and vampires...

And, for me, this has always been a stumbling block to really emotionally investing in the World Of Darkness games, and particularly Vampire, which this documentary mainly focuses on.

I have no issue with the games per se, and there's many aspects of this documentary that pique my interest (from the admirable conflation of LARPing with tabletop games to the emphasis on roleplaying over "roll" playing), it's just the milieu doesn't work for me.

It's unfortunate that some of those interviewed for this film look down their noses at other, more traditional, systems, as though it's a zero sum game and World Of Darkness can only succeed by diminishing other games.

Instead of sticking to what makes the White Wolf books and games different (and most of the interviewees do this), a minority opt to run down the work of others.

This then leads to an inescapable schadenfreude in some of the anecdotes the documentary lays out, from the snooty attitude to the perceived limits of Dungeons & Dragons (given the stellar success of that IP these days) to the irony of a company that promoted the 'counter culture' going all corporate and turning on its fans.

Like a stone skimming across the surface of a deep pond, the World Of Darkness documentary touches on a lot of fascinating elements in the rise and fall (and hopefully rise again) of these games, but never dives down too far into any of this.

There's clearly enough story there for a multi-part TV series, and an 89-minute documentary can only go so far.

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