Episode 214: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

realneil.png

 glazomaniac

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. 

stray observations:

  • 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. 

commentary notes:

  • 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)

 

Discussion:

  • Loki100

    I love this episode. I really do. And one of the things I think it is interesting is that there's a degree of continuity between their role playing styles and their video game playing styles in Digital Estate Planning.

    In both Jeff is incredibly straightforward, trying to get to the end. Britta is obsessed with exploring the world. Shirley tries to apply manners (and fails).

    Britta is, depending upon your tolerance levels, either the best player or the worst. She's the player who prioritizes the actual quest the lowest, and her personal character the highest. So she's really happy to go off book and fixate on helping the gnomes rather than fighting the dragon like they are supposed to. If your dungeon master is the kind who really likes his game on the rails, he'd hate her. My guess is glazomaniac would love nothing more than to play with her since she'd happily spend 30 gaming sessions trying to negotiate a peace treaty between merepeople tribes, when she was just supposed to quickly grab a mcguffin and run.

  • all but chang and neil and annie are pretty bad players in one regard: they're all blatantly playing themselves. chang might be, too, but it's really impossible to tell with chang. he certainly goes all out in his introduction, though. 

    that said, britta would definitely be the most fun to game with. i am tempted to lay down a long comment about the merfolk and their differences just for your entertainment, but it'll have to wait til after work. shew as playing herself, but herself is so much fun in a high fantasy setting.

    troy seemed pretty clueless the whole way through. the only in-character action we got was his introduction (in the video game, he never stopped jumping. i'm not sure how that connects, but it was adorable). jeff was entirely himself the whole time, focused, as you say, on getting to the end. shirley just tried to be polite, and it did get the introductions rolling, but after that, her main contribution was being glad pierce was dead. pierce was literally playing himself, which means he roleplayed well, i suppose, but he cheated, so fuck him. 

    annie, meanwhile, was being herself when she threw herself into being hector the well endowed for her one main scene. i can only assume he was a bard and a lothario.

    neil, on the other hand, seemed to be playing a paladin, i think. possibly just a knight of some sort, but he seemed to be playing lawful good, so i'm going with paladin. that fits with making him the hero and eschews the trope of the outcast nerd being instead an all powerful wizard. he's a brave and noble warrior in his fantasies.

  • That was fast! Here's one interpretation of the pantomime: 

    "I gently cup her right breast, then her left… (sounds like)
    I put five fingers, -pause- in her (points downwards)
    I pull out my huuuuge member
    I flip her over, and giver a smack"
    http://www.avclub.com/articles…

  • on the list of blue ballings the show has managed with annie, this is probably the number one slot, right?

  • SpongyandBruised

    You and I have drastically different definitions of blue balling.

  • i couldn't think of a better way to put it, is all.

  • SpongyandBruised

    Unadulterated fan service like manna from heaven.

  • Confession time: prior to this episode, I thought Dungeons and Dragons was a video game.  That said, it didn't matter to my enjoyment of the episode at all.  So suck it, execs.

    We've mentioned it before, but I really do love that they went to the trouble of making jokes other than "DUNGEONS and DRAGONS! HAHAHA!"

    It's interesting that they debated about Pierce's "tears" line.  It really, deeply makes me uncomfortable every time I watch it.  On a superficial level, I'd totally choose to take it out and avoid that discomfort, but I know that even though it makes me cringe, the story is better and the resolution more satisfying because it does dare to get that ugly.

  • SpongyandBruised

    One of the best lines of the show, I think. Really visceral and physical. Chevy absolutely kills it. 

  • until i listened to the commentaries, i had never given the line much thought, actually. once they mentioned it, i did realize how brutal it was, but it always seemed a little over the top to me.

  • Great review, glazomaniac . I'm glad you ended up with the RPG episode. (I'm not sure what happened to all your capital letters, but I'm gonna guess that Spazophie went over the limit and now we all have to pay an additional $1.25 any time we want to use one?)

    As you explained so well, AD&D is one of the most thematically perfect, pureCommunity episodes. It seems that nearly everyone who watches it completely understands the use of a normally untelegenic passion like Dungeons and Dragons to underline the bonds and conflict between the group, and how they are constantly, creatively inventing their own world and how a big part of the joke is they don't even realize they could stop anytime, even though cool kids like Jeff and Britta would probably stomp all over something like this game if it were being played by anybody else. (Also, as SBT explained to me about a year ago, it's a surprisingly successful example of sound-dominating-image which isn't very common on TV, at least not to this degree.)

    The reasons I don't consider it an elite episode (which I have to admit are kind of petty when weighed against the evidence): Not enough movement (the show excels when the characters are in motion and shifting around each other a lot); Not enough high stakes sexual tension (the best episodes tend to be built off the axis of Britta/Jeff/Annie, with the other characters involving themselves around that paradigm); For me, personally, I could see where it was going from the first time I watched it, and it really took multiple viewings to appreciate the novelty of it. On a visceral level, AD&D doesn't –feel– like Community in the same sense that "Modern Warfare," "Cooperative Calligraphy," or "Romantic Expressionism" do.

    But maybe as TV gets more and more glibly experimental, AD&D will feel like a more impressive and singular accomplishment than something like "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" because it's so focused on internal conflicts, moral decisions, and jokes that require trust and foreknowledge of the characters. I feel like such a still episode, with it's high concept partly disguised, one where everything happens while seeming like nothing's happening, is closer to what sitcoms presented through most of their history. But stuff like Community has changed the genre to a much more kinetic, slick, active form, so that "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" is, in spite of it's typically progressive and adventurous format and emotional stakes, kind of a throwback to what Community was purposefully evolving past at the same time.

  • i almost never use capital letters. as they say, capital letters are the difference between helping your uncle jack off a horse, and helping your Uncle Jack off a horse. you can see which side of that divide i prefer to fall on.

    also, i see what you're saying, but it's actually touching on something i had considered putting in the review: this episode is a stealth pizza episode. it has amazing sound editing and a new version of the theme song, but it's really just an episode where they all hang out and play a game to help a friend. there's no real theme. the closest we get to high fantasy is chang's make up. there's no video game, no christmas special, no paintball war. 

    i like that they subverted their own tropes here, personally. if i had been in the trenches of the communist zone when this episode was announced, i would have assumed we were going to see what they saw in their imaginations as we went through the game. that woulda been fine, i am sure, but the fact that they didn't do it that way, the fact that we see them actually play the game, that ends up meaning a lot more to me as a gamer.

  • Yeah, I totally thought the episode would be actually seeing what was going on in the game a la AUC, which is kind of the inverse of this episode, but it's totally better that they just stay in the room (and good point about the sound dominating image–I hadn't thought of that).  It's interesting that of the two episodes, I'd totally watch what happened in the study room while we were off on Planet Abed, but I don't really feel the need to see the story created in AD&D acted out.

  • Why must you make me disagree with you?

    I think those reasons against it being an elite episode are a bit unfair. It may not have everything that makes the show great but it has most. High stakes sexual tension is specific to very few episodes such that I don't think it can be called a Community essential. Mixology, Intro to Stats, AUC and Poultry don't have it and they are elite episodes.

    I also think you greatly underestimate the episode's ability to animate its "untelegenic" conceit. The sound and directing have been mentioned; they elevate what could have otherwise looked like a 50s stage play translated awkwardly to film. But the acting is important too; the cast is impressively expressive for a bunch of people sitting around in their chairs. The episode calls for several emotional turning points and they are all done justice: Think of Jeff's impassioned call to find the Pegasus; Britta curling up to talk to Kyle; Abed rapt by Annie's sex story and then slumping into his bed after being satisfied; the way they gradually get more engrossed by the game become more animated themselves; the tension of them pitying Pierce, needing one final roll and then erupting upon victory. These are all indelible images for me.

  •  Damn, such a great review, and on the one day I'll be away from my computer for 10 hours!

    Briefly then: I love this episode more than I can express (enough to use it in my fantasy class anyway). It does a great job of highlighting both the "silly" character of role playing (a bunch of grown people pretending to be elves and gnomes) and the incredible feeling of joy and bonding that can come from that. And for my money anyway, this episode (along with Redux, CFS, AUC and Mixology) is a shining example of how Community can mix genuine, heartfelt emotion and drama, and great comedy (take notes, P&R!)

    I think Shirley and Troy got the short shrift because they are the best adjusted of the group: unlike everyone else they don't have to work through their feelings of inadequacy, because they don't really have any.

    I can't express how much I love Pierce here (and Chevy's performance). Not only is he at the height of his petulant child phase (just look at his glee when he says "I won D&D, and it was ADVANCED!"), but his desire to ruin the game is what actually makes him essential to the game's success. I also love his consistent desire to break down the fantasy – he remains Pierce inside the game (I love the "67-year old naked man" joke), and he wants to make Duquesne as fat as fat Neil.

    I actually have more, but I have to go. Damn…

  • yeah, they did a great job of making him a villain in- and out-of-character in terms of the ad&d game. he attempts to destroy their community from the inside and out by maintaining his status as an outsider (being separated from the group, meta-gaming, playing as himself, invoking the fatness, using his knowledge of jeff against neil, and so on). 

  • "I wait 14 turns" and "Baste your chubby cheeks in tears of gravy" are two of my favorite lines in the series. This is easily the funniest episode.

  • Loki100

    My name is… Kyle.

  • i can't decide if lavernica or kyle was the best name abed came up with. i like that they gave neil's character a decent high fantasy name.

  • Loki100

    If there isn't a gnome waiter somewhere in Shem named Kyle, I will be quite disappointed.

  • a put upon gnomish waiter who believes in a rigid racial hierarchy, upon which he is at the bottom. i'll see what i can do.

  • Loki100

    It made me really happy you made my character fluent in Gnome.

  • fun fact: in my setting, gnomes are immune to the explosions caused by their poorly thought out inventions' failures.

  • That was a great review for a great episode. I have never played D&D, so I can't really comment on that aspect of it, but I thought the episode did a great job of paying homage to LOTR style high fantasy as well. It didn't get caught up in "look at me! I'm parodying something!" style shenanigans that some lesser shows may have (which is something that Community has always excelled at), but it used those tropes and flourishes to tell a more fully realized story, just as all the best Community concept episodes have done. That fact, and the dedication to the bit (the music cues, the voice over, the sound effects) are a big part of what makes this episode so great.  

    Plus, it's really fucking funny. 

  • I'm glad you brought your perspective to this, glazomaniac.

    All the highlights have been mentioned so I'll point out some specific things I loved:
    -Troy saying "Ooooh Neil!" and others similarly trying to cheer Neil up the best they can. It nicely reflects the truth that the group came into the game knowing nothing about Neil. There's a moment right after the credits where they're all smiling at Neil but probably feeling skeptical the game would help. It makes their emotional investment in Neil's depression as the game goes on all the more dramatic and rewarding.
    -Charley Koontz's acting is wonderful. I love the timid way he announces his "draw my +3 sword of Duquesne" move.
    -If the show killed off Chang permanently along with Brutalitops I wouldn't have any questions.
    -The montage…"and so it was that the group began to describe themselves walking…" and Neil's "I walk with them". I get chills.
    -The sound of chatter in the elf tavern.
    -I wonder if Abed killed off Kyle just to get that reaction out of Britta. Also, Britta was so Hermione.
    -The overhead zoom shot to mimic the arrival of Draconis.

  • the gnomes were definitely house-elf-esque! abed even did a sort of dobbyish voice. 

  • The "additional notes" quote is one of my favorite Troy moments on the show. It is ranked below Forrest Whitaker face and pretty much all of Football, Feminism and You though.