The Best D&D Movie
Has neither dungeons nor dragons
Ghostbusters is the best Dungeons & Dragons movie ever made.
Sure, the caveats: for a specific kind of D&D, based on movies I know, assuming you don’t get stuck on the fact that it doesn’t look like D&D, etc. But bear with me. Ghostbusters is the best Dungeons & Dragons movie and it has a lot to teach about how to run the game.
The first lesson: intertwine the characters and the world.
I spent a lot of time looking for the right word here, and ended up with intertwine because it describes how the characters are related to the big crisis of the dimensional blah blah blah. The three/four Ghostbusters are important to the plot of the film, but not necessary for it.
Look at it this way: if somewhere about halfway through the movie Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddmore all died there’d still be the possibility for a great movie. Sure, we’d all miss seeing Bill Murray ham it up, but we’d still have a New York with paranormal activity flaring up all over the place. Maybe we’d have Janine recruiting new people to strap on proton packs. Maybe it’d just be the story of people surviving in a ghostly Manhattan.
Compare this to, say, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Another great movie, but one where without Indiana Jones the movie would just end. Let’s say Indie gets seriously wounded in Venice. The Nazis would either completely fail to find the Grail, or find it and get to the same ending: the temple collapses, the Grail is lost, The End.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade relies in part on the audience rooting for Indie, or at least wanting to see more of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery acting at each other. And in this it’s totally successful: it’s a wonderfully entertaining movie.
But in (most versions of) D&D you don’t have that sort of guarantee that the player characters will carry that weight through their successes and sheer interesting ness. This goes for many games: you can’t be sure what will happen, so you have to create an environment where many things can happen and still be interesting.
The situation in Ghostbusters is interesting enough to exist without the main characters, but the main characters are caught up in it. This is how you design adventures: you make something that is interesting itself, but that intertwines with the player characters. Something where, if the Ghostbusters die, you can keep on going with a new set of characters.
Which brings up the second lesson: put the characters in the way.
Ghostbusters starts with the characters as the active force. They’re presented with opportunities, and they take them. But eventually things build up to the point that the characters can’t ignore it. By the time we start hearing about Zuul things have snowballed to the point where anything the Ghostbusters do would be interesting. If they tried to ignore all the craziness around them that would still be an interesting thing to watch.
This is the point in play where the characters’ actions have tied them to adventure. The classic example of this is the dungeon crawl, where the players reach a point that even turning around and leaving is an adventure itself.
What happens to the characters in Ghostbusters is what (ideally) happens to people playing a game: they show up because they want to play, and stick around because they’re caught up in play. The Ghostbusters start out as people who want to learn about a thing, but eventually get so caught up that just seeing what happens next is entertaining.
The ultimate bit of adventure design (which is game design) is making something where inaction is still action. Where choosing not to act is still a meaningful choice. Where the characters get to crack wise in the face of demons (in the form of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man).
Which brings up a final lesson: don’t take it too seriously.
Ghostbusters is a movie where mankind (or at least Manhattan) is nearly wiped out by the ancient machinations of some dark cult. But it’s a comedy.
There are a lot of layers in which Ghostbusters doesn’t take itself too seriously, and those all add up to make it deeply enjoyable even with the stakes so high.
The character’s don’t take it too seriously. The Ghostbusters are fighting for their lives for much of the movie, and they’re still joking about it. Even in the face of extraplanar entities bent on their destruction they say things that are — at least to us the audience — hillarious. Maybe it’s not realistic, maybe it’s a coping mechanism, but it’s definitely funny.
The writers don’t take it too seriously. The background of the movie is something I forget every other time I watch it. Some architect, a dark cult, dimensional harmonics or something like that. Earlier I glossed over 90% of why the movie happens with “blah blah blah” and the movie still works. If we didn’t learn the how (weird construction) and why (evil architect) the entire movie still works fine. The situation doesn’t require — or benefit from — a carefully inspection of how it all fits together. This isn’t Primer.
And as an audience we don’t take it too seriously. There’s enough going on that we don’t sweat the fact that for most of the movie we don’t know why any ghost activity is happening, and the investigation into why it’s happening isn’t a significant part of the plot. Everything about the movie says to you “just sit down and enjoy, don’t worry about it too much.” And unlike in self-consciously bizarre movies it doesn’t push that on you: you’re along for the ride, but you don’t have to put too much into it.
All of that together adds up to how I like to play D&D. It’s not the only way to play D&D, or the only way to play RPGs, but for this genre of D&D (and the other games that fit it) Ghostbusters is a master class on how to run the game.