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The case of the dueling 'Dungeons & Dragons' documentaries

The case of the dueling 'Dungeons & Dragons' documentaries


A contentious split turned one film for the game's 40th anniversary into two

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Sprattley, Pascal, and Haifley.
Sprattley, Pascal, and Haifley.
The Great Kingdom (Facebook)

Yesterday, Kickstarter featured a Dungeons & Dragons documentary as its Project of the Day: The Great Kingdom, a feature-length film about the manipulation and betrayal behind the creation of the game. "It’s a little bit like the Facebook story," producer Andrew Pascal tells The Verge. "One guy came up with the genesis of the germ of the idea, and then the other guy really just took it and ran with it."

The game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson become a worldwide phenomenon from which neither managed to get rich. Instead, a rift grew between them and their respective fans, and they ended up squabbling in a series of nasty lawsuits. The Great Kingdom shows this progression through archival footage, interviews, and reenactments. "Every story has 20 sides," is the film’s tagline.

How true. The filmmakers didn’t plan it this way, but the infighting depicted in The Great Kingdom was mirrored by infighting around the making of the film. The project is Pascal and Sprattley’s second attempt at a D&D documentary, and their second time fundraising for one on Kickstarter.

"Every story has 20 sides."

Originally, the pair raised $195,000 on Kickstarter along with director Anthony Savini in February of 2012 to make Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary. Realizing they had irreconcilable creative and personality differences with Savini, Pascal and Sprattley decided to walk away from the project and start again from scratch.

Around the time Pascal and Sprattley launched the Kickstarter campaign for The Great Kingdom, Savini launched a lawsuit. He accused the pair of nine separate charges that basically amounted to acting in bad faith. According to the complaint, Pascal and Sprattley pocketed some of the funds collected on PayPal for the first project, illicitly worked on the second project during arbitration with Savini, re-interviewed some of the same people who had been interviewed for the first film, and caused confusion among partners and backers.

"Last year there was a falling out among the producers of this film and now two of the original producers have set out to create their own competing documentary," Savini wrote in an update to his Kickstarter backers. "We would never object to competition, our position is that they have wrongfully attempted to use the assets of this film in their own, competing documentary."

The community around Dungeons & Dragons can be acrimonious. Players take sides on everything: Arneson versus Gygax; Dungeons & Dragons versus Advanced Dungeons & Dragons; and in the more recent drama, dubbed the "Edition Wars," a spinoff game called Pathfinder that competes with various versions of D&D. The history of the game is rife with copyright lawsuits and broken friendships. The latest edition of D&D has begun rolling out, and its creators hope that it will unify these various factions.

"They have wrongfully attempted to use the assets of this film in their own competing documentary."

"We like to call it the curse of TSR," Pascal says, referring to Arneson and Gygax’s company. "Gamers are very territorial and they’re very opinionated, and so because of that there’s sort of a natural inclination to form factions and form groups and rivalries and things like that."

Pascal declined to elaborate on the creative and personal differences that led to the split. Savini declined to comment for this article, directing The Verge to the complaint filed in his lawsuit. Though neither film has been fully produced and released, it's possible to glean what the differences will be based on the dueling Kickstarter campaigns and a close reading of statements made by their creators.

Savini’s film, Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary, seems more academic; a "definitive look at Dungeons & Dragons," according to the pitch. By contrast, The Great Kingdom includes reenactments, a focus on the creators’ personal lives, and a sense of humor that’s missing from the original film.

Pascal and Sprattley, who say the film was their idea, also seem concerned that Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary was taking too long to finish. The film was slated for a 2014 release, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of D&D. At this point, December is the earliest it might come out.

Meanwhile, Pascal and Sprattley are aiming to do their film in a year. "Our goal is to finish," they write in their new Kickstarter. "We've worked too hard not to." If they don’t make their fundraising goal, they plan to wait a bit and then relaunch the campaign.

Perhaps Pascal and Sprattley will eventually reconcile with their old director — or at least reach a détente, as Gygax and Arneson did.

"We don't hate each other," Arneson said in a 2004 interview. "We just kept going our own two separate ways."

Update: Original director Anthony Savini sent a statement by email.

We had an agreement that we would all move forward making this film and if we couldn't the film would stop. Never split up the party. Originally, when things started to go south, I tried very hard to keep all of us together. Back then we were three friends making one film. We were also partners under my production company for the first year.Update: Pascal wrote in to respond to Savini's response.

There was never an agreement of this nature made between (Andrew, James and Anthony) that stated if we were unable to move forward in a cohesive partnership that the previous film production or any future productions, including THE GREAT KINGDOM, would cease. James and I put our heart and soul into the creation of these films for the D&D community. It's our desire that not only THE GREAT KINGDOM succeed but that that the previous project is completed and is successful. Our obligations to the [Kickstarter] community that supported us was one of the prime reasons for us to start work from scratch on THE GREAT KINGDOM. We have never and will never use footage or funds from the previous project. And it is because of this obligation that we will offer THE GREAT KINGDOM as a free download to all of our former [Kickstarter] backers.