The movie starred a 26-year-old Tom Hanks in his first major leading film role.
The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe. Jaffe had based her 1981 novel on inaccurate newspaper stories about the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III from Michigan State University in 1979. Media accounts differed substantially from Egbert's actual story. William Dear, the private investigator on the case, explained actual events and the reasons behind the media myth in his 1984 book The Dungeon Master. Jaffe wrote her novel in a matter of days because of a fear that another author might also be fictionalizing the Egbert investigation.
The film premiered on CBS in 1982. It stars Tom Hanks, Wendy Crewson, David Wallace and Chris Makepeace. The film is currently available on VHS tape, DVD and Amazon Prime.
Like the book on which it is based, the film treats the playing of roleplaying games as indicative of deep neurotic needs. At least one protagonist is (or at least appears to be) suffering from schizophrenia (or some analogous condition) and in the end, the attainment of adulthood by other players is accompanied by the abandonment of role-playing games.
The film opens with a scene that is repeated later in the film in which a reporter meets with police searching a cavern. He is told a game of Mazes and Monsters got out of hand.
Robbie Wheeling (Tom Hanks) starts college at the fictional Grant University and soon develops a group of friends, all of whom have their own personal problems and issues. JayJay (Chris Makepeace) feels marginalized by his mother who constantly redecorates his room since she can't make up her mind about the best look. He constantly wears strange hats to try to coax a reaction out of people; Kate (Wendy Crewson) has had a series of failed relationships; Daniel's (David Wallace) parents reject his dream of becoming a video-game designer; and Robbie's alcoholic mother and strict father fight constantly, and he is still tormented by the mysterious disappearance of his brother, Hall. They are fans of a game called Mazes and Monsters, a fantasy roleplaying game that had previously caused Robbie to get kicked out of his last school when he became too obsessed with it. Though he is reluctant, the other three students convince him to start playing again with them.
Through the course of playing the game, Robbie and Kate begin a serious relationship, in which he confides in her that he still has nightmares about his missing brother. Eventually, JayJay, upset by feeling left out by his friends, decides to commit suicide in a local cavern. In the process of planning it out, he changes his mind and decides the cavern would be better suited to a new Mazes and Monsters campaign. He dramatically kills off his character to force them to start a new campaign, in which he describes they will be living out their fantasy.
During the actual spelunking, Robbie experiences a psychotic episode involving the last time he saw his brother, and he hallucinates that he has slain a monster, called a Gorvil. From this point forward, Robbie believes he is actually his character, the cleric Pardieu. This leads him to break off his relationship with Kate (to maintain celibacy), and to start drawing maps that will lead him to a sacred place he has seen in his dreams called the Great Hall. In his dream, the Great Hall tells him to go to the Two Towers, which is in fact the World Trade Center, and he believes that by jumping off one of them and casting a spell, he will finally join the Great Hall. After arriving in New York, Robbie is mugged and ends up stabbing his attacker, he then sees his bloodied clothes in a window and breaks out of his delusions for long enough to call Kate from a payphone. His friends report him to the police while concealing their trip into the caverns, and eventually deduce his location in New York and stop him from jumping off the south tower observation deck using the game's rules, once again pulling him out of his delusion. It also turned out that Robbie's brother had died after running away many years earlier.
The movie ends with the friends visiting Robbie at his parents' estate, hoping to pick up their friendship where they left off. Though he is now in regular counseling, it is implied that Robbie will live out the rest of his life trapped in his imaginary world believing that he is still Pardieu, that his friends are really their characters, and that he is living at an inn (actually his parents' home) and paying for his boarding with a magic coin, which "magically" reappears in his pouch each morning. He then tells his shocked friends of a great evil lurking in the forest across the lake, believing that it threatens the lives of the "innkeeper" and his wife. The three, feeling sorry for Robbie and guilty for their role in his psychotic break, decide to engage him in a "game" of Mazes and Monsters, letting Robbie dictate the events to them as they head off on one last adventure.