Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

February 10, 2014 at 11:05am

Nerd Alert!: "RoboCop" and the definitive history of Dungeons & Dragons

Dumbed-down shoot-em-up … Robocop. Photo credit: StudioCanal/Sportsphoto/Allstar

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Courtesy of your friends at Omni Consumer Products, this is Nerd Alert, the Weekly Volcano's recurring events calendar devoted to all things nerdy. I myself am a Star Wars fan, mathlete, and spelling bee champion of long standing, so trust me: I grok whereof I speak.


My colleague the Rev. Adam McKinney saw fit to neglect Wednesday's reboot of RoboCop in last week's Nerd Alert column, and I imagine it's because - like me - he doesn't think it'll be any good. Some movies don't need to be remade. The trailers make this new version look like a borderline-competent, dare I say interchangeable, action movie, but they don't show a hint of satirical wit. That was what made the '87 original stand out. God knows it wasn't all those obscenely gory squib hits; it was the worldview that demanded them. Director Paul Verhoeven, as subtle as a brick in the eye, reveled in violence and amorality with a wink so obvious even teenagers could tell he was kidding. I know the difference between violence and ironic violence is a subtle one, but the problem here is, it might be so subtle the reboot's director, José Padilha, didn't realize it was there. On the other hand, he did study English literature at Oxford, so maybe I'm selling him short. In other words, perhaps I'd buy his movie for a dollar after all. I mean, it's not like any of us thought The LEGO Movie would be worth a flip.


Because I don't have HBO and I'm not a shameless scofflaw, today's Blu-ray and DVD release marks my first opportunity to watch Season 3 of Game of Thrones. I have successfully, one might say miraculously, avoided all spoilers. Ergo, all I know is some people will be killed, red is not the luckiest color in Westeros and nameless wenches will bare their breasts. Like, a lot of them. All the damn time.

If you're a geek of a certain age, chances are you spent many if not most Friday nights tossing 20-sided dice, absorbing Domino's pizza, and pretending to be a 10th-level Elf Druid with your friends. Yes, I'm talking about Dungeons & Dragons, the role-playing fantasy game you came to know and love as D&D. Unfortunately, I was a Jehovah's Witness at the time, and we were forbidden from playing the game. (Apparently it opened our minds to demonic attack by making us want to be thieves or assassins for a living. I know. That didn't work out, largely because it's hard to major in assassination and/or thievery in college. Phoenix online college doesn't count.) Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered the game's co-creator, Gary Gygax, self-identified as one of Jehovah's Witnesses.

That's just one of many thousands of interesting factoids in Playing at the World, a book by game enthusiast Jon Peterson - and it's buried in a footnote, no less! This nautical anchor of a tome offers the definitive history of D&D and its wargaming forebears, then contextualizes it by recounting the study of game simulations since chess.

I'm not a book critic. I'm a theater critic. I don't want to be a book critic. I write books myself, so the last thing I want is to unload the uric acid of skepticism into yet another pool in which I myself am swimming. (That's called a metaphor, lads.) But when the publisher of this August 2012 release offered me a copy to peruse, I was too big a nerd to say no. The fact is it's like reading a doctoral dissertation. On the minus side that means it has the mass and density of a neutron star. Not a detail is missed. But on the plus side, not a detail is missed!

This guy really does know his stuff. After three weeks of intense effort I'm about 100 pages into his 630-page book, plus appendices. It won't make you or anyone else a better RPG player. It won't teach you strategy - though it does touch ever so briefly on modern game theory - but it will fascinate you for hours on end. It includes, for example, a thorough retelling of the early history of published science fiction and fantasy, during which Peterson makes a compelling case for the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island on early genre fiction (by way of H. Rider Haggard). But I digress! Bottom line: if you're an RPG fan, Playing at the World will be an indispensable addition to your nonfiction library.

Until next week, may the Force be with you, may the odds be ever in your favor, and may the Rite of Rebirth bestow blessings of Bahamut upon you. I have a plus-seven against dragons and wyverns!

Filed under: Nerd Alert!, Books, Screens,
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