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December 07, 2010 | David
NOTZK writer & director Rick Robinson talks about the challenges of making a TV show about a tabletop rpg.
The creators of GOLD: Night of the Zombie King play the game. Not once or twice to get a feel for it, but as much as we can given the pressures of life, fatherhood, careers, second careers, etc. So when it was time for us to tell a story of a group of friends who come together to game, it wasn’t going to be Mazes & Monsters.
But given our experience, you’d think it be easy to tell that story - a good roleplaying session is packed with all kinds of life-or-death drama: traps, combat, keeps, bugbears, etc. all rear their ugly heads as the heroes (or anti-heroes) rise to the occasion (or get TPK’d, which is dramatic in a everything-ends-badly, Coen-brothers kind of way). But as David, Andrew, Frederick and I discovered, there are hurdles:
Overcoming those hurdles was in the front of our brains every minute as we wrote the scripts, planned our shots, and directed the show. Here’s what we did:
Making it active
One thing we wanted more of in Night of the Zombie King (as opposed to GOLD) was actual gaming - more combat, more arguing about strategy, more inserts of dice rolling. In GOLD, we’d bounce from the characters’ personal travails to short snippets of gaming. GOLD is a big ensemble show, a serio-comic tapestry, and David and Andrew (I was only an actor in that one) bounced from hikes in the wilderness to G&G training sessions, so outside the prologue, there weren’t any prolonged scenes of guys sitting around a table. Zombie King, however, was to be more tightly focused and the scripts featured long scenes of the five characters playing the game. As we’d split the directing duties by episode, we all went off to plan to make these scenes dynamic.
Frederick, the director of episode two, had the first gaming scene and didn’t think trying to shoot a whole webseries over the course of two weekends was hard enough, so he decided to make the make first two pages of gaming a one-shot. We went hand-held for Zombie King (just like GOLD) and Andrew had MacGuyver’d a PVC pipe rig for his T2i to shoot the thing smoothly, despite the Canon’s DSLR’s lack of heft, which made this kind of shot possible. Andrew swept around the actors, catching each one in frame as they drew focus and bounced around from dice to players to DM as they tried to solve their wight problem.
Frederick also blocked this scene actively to accentuate the effect. Players got up out of their chairs to get food, wandered over to look at other players sheets, paced back and forth, and other things to add movement to these first couple of pages. He also hid an edit halfway through in a quick camera pan, so he could use different takes for the two halves of the scenes and limit the window that this ballet of actors, camera and equipment had to be perfect and let the camera move across the table in a way the camera operator could not physically accomplish. That this critical introduction to the gameplay is exciting visually and traverses the entire gaming landscape is of paramount importance - Frederick shows us right off that the game is active and exciting, without anyone having to say it out loud.
In general, all three of us stayed tight on the actors when the stakes of the game were at there highest. This creates a lack of breathing room, of distance for the audience. A shot of the full table and we observe the game from of safe distance. Close-up on Brian, looking just barely to the right of camera, and the audience is in the thick of it, as uncomfortable as Jaz.
In the end, we relied on camera movement, both subtle and dramatic, as well as the talent of our actors to hold our interest while simply sitting around a table.
Telling the story of the campaign
The one’s tough. There is an obvious solution, one that works for other folks telling RPG stories in the indie space - dramatize the action on film with the actors playing their characters. At it’s best, it can be absurdly funny, like when Boba Fett, level 1 thief rises from his bedding with his elven boots to sex up one of his fellow party members (if you haven’t seen this - go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhmUj9QJ9RM). But it wasn’t really the tone we were after. It’s also difficult to go everywhere you need to go using this device because budget constraints are too tight for most of us. Outdoor journeys and fights with highwaymen, sure. Underground fights with umberhulks? Not so much. GOLD didn’t need to tell the story of an overall campaign because in its world each game, each single crawl was an individual test, like a single basketball game. To generate tension, we didn’t need to know the big picture, just the immediate facts. Zombie King had to feel like it was part of larger campaign because it was the continuation of a long-running game from many years before.
We couldn’t tell the whole story of the adventure, obviously. Too much exposition. But the party’s biggest decisions needed context, and we needed to associate each player with his character. The minis became extremely important in this and we were lucky to have had them painted by James Paul Xavier, (Art Direction/Sam St. Croix in GOLD) because they looked great, even close up. David (who directed episode 1) tried to marry character to figure with his shot where he follows Martin around the table, setting each figure in front of its player. When the map is shown later, we have some idea who’s piece is surrounded by little metal skeletons. Martin says the character’s names a lot, followed by a shot of the player to reinforce. By the end of Episode 2, the audience should know Jaz’s character name is Melchor. If you don’t, we’re in trouble going into episodes 3-6.
Even though we couldn’t tell you the whole story of this campaign (I’m sure David will oblige you, at some point, in this space) we needed a few important details, like the setting, the main objective, the principal big bad, and important details of the character’s history in the Realm of Terror. Jaz is a fallen paladin. This isn’t their first dance with Darkmoon the dracolich. And while Martin gives us the setting in episode one, the rest of these details come out over time, so that the history and the story is revealed gradually and that many of these details come out in active moments of conflict. We want you to feel like there’s a rich history and story without anyone sitting there telling you ‘so here’s what came before...’.
Making the stakes high
GOLD never had to force high stakes, because the conceit of the world is that Goblins and Gold is a competitive sport and that each match, won or lost for the team has a dramatic impact on the players’ lives, both personally and professionally. Their careers are at stake, in addition to their sense of self-worth.
In Zombie King, it’s a game amongst friends, so we had to find ways to make the in-game action extremely important to out character’s psyche, especially our protagonist. Each character comes to this mini-reunion with an agenda, and it was important to the gaming scenes that much of the score-settling and opening of old wounds took place as direct result of the action on the table. We also tied their own journeys to the stories of their characters. The adventure is a return home to their old keep, a place that’s that become corrupt in their absence. Jaz’ character’s fall from grace matches his own. Little details are sewn in so that when things begin to fall apart for the Goblins & Gold characters, it’s a powerful blow to players. Jaz needs to succeed, not just in killing the Dracolich, but also in bringing his group back together for reasons that go beyond the game. Hicks has held this old campaign in such high esteem for so long that its failure to meet his expectations would damage him.
In Night of the Zombie King, we wanted to create a drama (relax, it’s funny, too) about coming home again. About confronting our past and healing the wounds that time can’t mend. About old flames, and old friends - about playing the games we thought we had left behind in our youth. These aren’t new themes, but this story is about people who play our games. And we wanted to stand out from some of the other stuff in our space by making the players and the game they play grounded and authentic.
GOLD: Night of the Zombie King