Tabletop Features
Inside the Lost 1980s Dungeons & Dragons Movie Gary Gygax Loved

Jon Peterson | 10 Sep 2015 19:30
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The Nightking then reappears and summons four walls of flame around the party which encroach ever nearer. Tom, in desperation, remembers the ruby in his pocket which he had earlier plucked from the ruby dragon's forehead. He now brandishes it at the Nightking, who is unphased: "The pity is, you don't know how to use it." But suddenly, the Child "soundlessly chants an incantation" activating the ruby, unleashing a flood that fills the room and a huge stream of water which lifts them all up into the air. Tom, Margot, Fearless, the Child and Drobni (who carries Odo's body) travel in this watery fashion, apparently through the ocean, until they reach the island of the Master.

There, the Master embraces the Child, and confers his power to him. As the Master's soul leaves his body, he touches Odo to release his spirit, and their two souls visibly ascend together. Now, the Child announces that he must send Tom, Margot, and Fearless home. Tearful goodbyes are said, and the Child insists that "nothing is to go back with you... not even memories," but he lets Tom keep the ruby. After the camera spins and spins, the three find themselves back at the archeological dig site. Their memories rapidly fade, but their bond of friendship never will. "Oh God, I love you both so much," Margot gushes. Then she discovers that the ruby is making a sound, that it talks and "it remembers," and so the story ends with the three of them "sitting in the desert in the bright sun, holding one another, listening to the ruby speak."

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When Gygax wrote in the June 1983 Dragon that the script was "intended to capture the essence of the Dungeons & Dragons game," how close did he think it came to that mark? None of the main characters wields a weapon, casts a spell, picks a lock, uses a magic item, or indeed does much but flee danger. Aside from Tom taking the ruby, they resolve problems only by praying to the Onelord. You don't feel like they are player characters, you feel like they are spectators, just watching powerful forces play out, which is exactly the opposite of playing Dungeons & Dragons. It reads like a children's fantasy book where everyone depends on the grown-ups: more of a Narnia than, say, than a Lankhmar, but even Aslan makes you fight your own battles.

Yet Gygax heartily endorsed the finished product. "The script is a remarkable piece of work," he continued, "one which could well lead to a film as successful as Star Wars or E.T. It will do a world of good for our hobby." But that was not to be. By the spring of 1983, TSR had fallen on hard times. The D&D fad had peaked, and after a string of expensive and unsuccessful acquisitions the year before, TSR posted its first loss and began downsizing rapidly. It also reorganized its media properties into a spin-off company, which Gygax oversaw personally, leaving the game itself in the hands of his business partners.

Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Company famously created the 1983 Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon series. It is probably no coincidence that it focused on a group of adventurers from our world who travel through a magical portal to a world of fantasy-though they at least wield weapons, cast spells, and act as adventurers.

Despite years of further efforts, Gygax never managed to get this script optioned, let alone produced. So ultimately, we have no finished film to compare against Star Wars. But we might wager that if the film had been made, Gary would have owed us his promised apology.

Jon Peterson is the author of Playing at the World and studies the history of wargames and roleplaying games. You can follow him on twitter at docetist.

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