Episode 214: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
advanced dungeons and dragons – season 2, episode 14
gather close that you might harken the story of the story of
fat real neil…
i have been roleplaying for a long time, though only a bit of it was with actual advanced dungeons and dragons (ad&d). there are as many ways to roleplay as there are to make a sandwich (trust me on that metaphor–it means a lot of ways), but ad&d is not only the most popular and famous, it's also the original. while this episode claims they are playing ad&d, for the sake of television narrative, they eschew the basic rules and create a more convenient system that drops most of the dice rolling and mechanics in favor of telling a more compelling tale. however, unlike many, many tv shows that try to depict roleplaying, they still manage to get the feel of ad&d down fairly well.
as most of you know, the suits very strongly objected to the existence of this episode. dan harmon spent a good chunk of money on it and fought tooth and nail for this episode. all he knew starting out was that he wanted an episode about ad&d that used the game as a backdrop and not as the butt of a joke. it took a connection with wizards of the coast (the company that currently owns ad&d) to get past the lawyers and bullshit and get permission to use the name "advanced dungeons and dragons." harmon had played as a youth and clearly has a reverence and love of the game, but also a perspective of how people who don't play see it.
according to the commentary, by chance, harmon had been told how well charlie koontz had done as fat neil just prior to writing this episode, and he decided to use him as the centerpiece of the episode. instead of writing an episode where we see what is in the heads of the characters as they play ad&d or an episode where the joke is that they play ad&d, they instead ended up with an episode where we watch them sit around a table playing ad&d while the story and humor come from the characters.
all of the characters get to do a little bit in the episode (with shirley getting the least to do), but it's mostly about real neil, pierce, and jeff. the story is instigated by jeff's noticing neil's depression, spurred by his feeling bad for having saddled neil with his nickname. it escalates when pierce discovers the game and reacts poorly to having been excluded. one reason this episode works so well is that both the show and ad&d, when done right, bear the same theme: community, specifically the transformative power of coming together as a group. in ad&d, it's about telling a story together (as abed accurately points out at the start of the game). in the show, it's the tale of the redemption of jeff winger through the unlikely friendships he finds at greendale. when these things come together, we get one of the best depictions of these themes that the show has ever done.
the theme of inclusion/exclusion in a community comes up repeatedly through the episode. neil's introduction places him as a lifelong outsider. jeff is introduced as the liar, son of william the barely known, cluing you into his misfit aspect. it also makes a point of noting that pierce was excluded from the game, and why. (indeed, all of the characters are introduced with epithets noting their defining flaws, casting them all as misfits, with chang being accidentally included.) each pivotal moment after that then revolves around these themes: pierce's arrival calling them out for excluding him, pierce's argument with jeff and abed in the hallway ending with pierce being separated again from the group, the reveal of why jeff did this for neil in the first place, the unified effort to defeat pierce at the end via pity, and, most importantly, when neil invites pierce to another game.
on the commentaries, harmon claims that neil is a symbolic character, a la saving private ryan, and that he's not supposed to be human and relatable. on that particular purpose, they failed completely: there are few characters more relatable in the whole series than neil is in this episode, to me at least. neil spends the whole episode being nothing but kind, even in the face of absolute cruelty. even his moment of victory is one of mercy and goodness, pitying pierce for the pain that turned him into a villain. the character pierce is playing is slain not by neil or the other player's characters (pcs), but by the dragon he had enslaved (yes, neil freed the dragon, but that was an act of kindness, too, in the context of the game's story).
so we have pierce's arrival. he walks in, deeply offended at being excluded, and takes his rage out on neil. he storms into the game and starts playing without really knowing how. had the group included him in the first place, he probably would not have done well or played nicely, but he makes it very clear that neil's having taken his chair (implying that he was pierce's replacement and reason for the exclusion) is why he singles neil out so harshly.
the talk with pierce in the hall culminates with jeff threatening to kick pierce out of the group. it also features a rather interesting exchange. pierce outright says he doesn't like to be excluded and asks jeff if he does, to which jeff replies "yes!" rather emphatically. while this is probably the second funniest part of the episode (behind the sex scene), it also says a lot about jeff. if the show is the story of how jeff learns how to be a human being and accept being included, this moment tells us that despite the evident kindness of his actions in this episode (as far as we know at that point), he's still not quite there yet. it's this discussion that also drives pierce to full villainhood for the episode, where he decides to cheat at the game after he gets separated.
(as a long time gamer, it's a pretty egregious crime in my eyes the way he cheats at the game later on, by the way. we call it meta-gaming, and it's deeply frowned upon, using out-of-character information for your character's benefit like that.)
upon pierce's return, using his ill-gotten knowledge (a blatant high fantasy trope done well in this context), he proceeds to seemingly defeat the group with ease. he glories in winning ad&d, which is counter to the very idea of the game (usually). if ad&d is about people coming together to tell a story, the only "win" is the completion of the story. no single player comes out on top–their characters might end the story with a happier ending, but a truly well done roleplaying game is successful when the story has played out by its own narrative logic and the characters' decisions. pierce's victory is counter to the themes of the game and the show, and neil, an apparently avid gamer, sees this even at his lowest moment.
when pierce spills the beans about jeff, neil seems to be utterly crushed, but when pierce declares the lesson of the day is "invite me to your crap," that's when neil takes his turn to feel sorry for pierce. that's the turning point for neil. pierce's hollow, shallow villainy is undeniably revealed in that moment to be a symptom of his loneliness, the same condition that drove neil to suicidal depression to begin with–the loneliness that comes from being denigrated by every person you've ever met for a superficial physical condition. that's why in the very end, after a random roll of the dice gives him victory, he not only tells pierce it's the best game of ad&d he's every played, but also invites him to another session.
on the list of best moments of the entire series, neil inviting pierce to game again is definitely in the top ten.
the episode's story is impressive. it's incredibly well written, and the characterization is some of the best the show has given us. but the technical side of this episode is equally impressive. much has been said about the sound effects and music of this episode, but i have to give it its due myself. the effects of the arrows flying through the air, the dragon noises, the blades being drawn, and so on, do a lot to give the feel of a roleplaying session's immersiveness. in a good session, the whole world melts away and you just find yourself there. you stop hearing the dungeon master (DM) and start just seeing what they describe, and when you talk in character, you're really someone else. obviously, the show can't do that, but the music and sound effects do an incredible job of suggesting that.
meanwhile, the camera work does a lot to make what is essentially a bunch of people sitting around a table to feel instead like an epic adventure. between well chosen angles and zooms, combined with the rousing score, the episode feels far more like a journey than something that is very nearly a bottle episode should reasonably do. in the commentary, they talk about the high fantasy epic movie feel they were going for (especially on the intro) and get into the technical details. every dramatic moment in the game they play is heightened by the russos' expert direction.
my only complaint for this episode is that it's not absolutely perfectly balanced between the characters. it's a very strong episode for pierce, jeff, and neil, and a decent one for abed and britta. annie gets one of her funniest moments in this episode, too, but troy and shirley get the short end of the stick. still, even this flaw is relative.
abed basically carries the episode as the DM, as it should be for any ad&d episode. his character works as a DM for a variety of reasons: he's devoted to storytelling, he's the most likely of all of them to have experience gaming, and his experience pretending to be other characters would make him most able to handle all of the non-player characters (npcs). the best jokes are his apparently poor naming ability and his gnome impersonation. i could listen to him speak gnomish for years, personally.
britta's on top of her game as lavernica the goblin/gnome rights activist, and annie has the epic, hilariously pantomimed sex scene that is by far the funniest part of the episode (also, subject to a thousand thousand thousand hours of lipreading and speculation by the fanbase, i am sure). troy has some good lines ("something to jenga") and shirley mostly gets by on reactions ("just gonna let this hate crime go?"). chang's best moment is his make up and his in-character introduction, which is a fairly innocuous use of chang. all in all, since this is a story of neil, pierce, and jeff, the fact that the episode focuses on them barely registers as a flaw.
i think i just talked myself into liking this episode far more than i did before i started writing this.
- is there a kickpuncher roleplaying game shown during the intro?
- "julian assange is a modern day thomas payne." <– i think this is what britta says in the intro. did this come out before his sex scandals did?
- abed's description of how ad&d works really is a wonderfully succinct way to explain roleplaying in general.
- "i have three armors, boots, a belt, a torch…" "wait, let her finish."
- "i attack them, using my… additional notes." "it has no effect." <– i love how no one says anything more about this.
- "you're the at&t of people!" <– is this the first time troy calls her that?
- "what am i not good at?" "sex." <– jeff's reaction to this is so funny. he's surprised, but he doesn't seem offended. it's almost like he's curious. also, this is another indication that he and britta are secretly hooking up.
- "i wait 14 turns."
- "everything in this game is silly." <– quite possibly the most succinct explanation of how i assume outsiders view ad&d.
- i like that they make a point of mentioning that it's a red dragon. i don't know if most non-gamers/high fantasy nerds even know about the whole color classification of various dragons, so it seems like the sort of detail that would only matter to gamers.
- "i dunno, promise to fill it up before we bring it back." <– this prompts very disturbing imagery in my head.
- troy taking notes during the sex scene is probably my favorite reaction shot. the four fingers annie holds up is my favorite pantomime.
- i feel bad for garrett in this episode.
- jeff calls britta out on getting emotional about kyle the gnome's death. she has the same reaction to his crying over horsebot-3000. symmetry!
- a tail is definitely better than huge ears. this tag is all right, but nothing special.
- ludwig recorded the music with a live symphony orchestra.
- joe russo knows the study room set better than anyone else, apparently. he also did "calligraphy."
- they claim game of thrones was inspired by this episode. "those books were written really fast" is even funnier if you know how fucking long it takes grrm to write them.
- the guy they knew at wizards of the coast was a huge community fan, which is part of how they got permission to use ad&d in the show.
- originally, pierce was going to be an expert at ad&d, having played with gary gygax and hugh hefner back in the day.
- harmon is proud that jeff, the douchiest character in the show (his words), still has the basic human compassion to know that it's wrong to let people kill themselves. that's an interesting distinction to make. while i think most people understand this, i think jeff's actions to save neil show a capacity for long term thinking and accountability a lot of people don't have.
- it as apparently very uncomfortable to hear neil get evicerated by pierce. chevy chase was uncomfortable with many of the lines, and the people on the set would react when he said "baste your cheeks with your gravy tears." harmon was unsure about including it, but he was convinced that it would be best to go all out.
On the A.V. Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/digital-estate-planning-the-first-chang-dynasty-in,73676/#comment-692650143 (page 556)