Following a trio of tabletop role-playing-game enthusiasts, Keven McAlester’s documentary The Dungeon Masters turns on the pat irony that three people in control of their fantasy lives aren’t in control of their real ones. Though it opens at GenCon, the annual gaming convention in Indianapolis, and occasionally shows its subjects presiding over character sheets and 20-sided dice, the film doesn’t show much interest in the rules of Dungeons & Dragons or other RPGs, and only takes a cursory glance over the worlds they create. In one sense, that’s limiting: Understanding the creative investment dungeon masters have in their games is an important window into who they are and why they’re so much more engaged and functional—even brilliant—in a fantasy world than in their humbling everyday lives. Through McAlester’s unsparing lens, their gaming obsession isn’t cast as some quirky/blissful escape from workaday drudgery, but more often an aggravation (or symptom) of their dysfunction.
After a brief survey of the costume-filled halls of the Indiana Convention Center, McAlester decamps to the modest—or downright decrepit, in some cases—homes of his three RPG wizards. Scott lives in a cramped, cluttered apartment with his wife and son, and though he claims to work as apartment manager for the building, he spends most of his time laboring over a 600-plus-page fantasy novel and planning a public-access show called Uncle Drac’s Magical Clubhouse. (It’s about a failed supervillain turned public-access host, and features ninja fights.) Married to a woman with no interest in his RPG obsession, Richard is trying to get away from gaming; he abruptly ended his last game by luring characters that players had spent years developing into a “sphere of annihilation.” Elizabeth, a much younger LARP (Live-Action Role Playing) and World Of Warcraft enthusiast, lives in a trailer on the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast and disappears into a drow getup that involves smearing her body in black makeup and donning a straight blonde wig.
Working with Lee Daniel, who frequently serves as Richard Linklater’s cinematographer, McAlester evokes the crumbling backdrops of his subjects’ homes and cities as carefully as he dissects their personalities. Sometimes he’s guilty of laying the ugliness on too thick—a shot of the missing “I” over the entrance to the Indiana Convention Center makes it (and the attendees) seem extra-pathetic—but at least he resists putting a shine on lives that are troubled by severe economic and family problems, and further aggravated by delusion. His film isn’t an argument against geekery, per se, just against the all-consuming kind.
Key features: Outtakes that are as strong (and funny) as any scene in the movie, but didn’t make the cut; “Not Quite Outtakes” that look at other odd and fascinating GenCon attendees, and the trailer.