The D&D movie wasn't what I expected. Sure, the trailers make it look like tongue-in-cheek fun. But honestly? I was doubtful that the film would be something we'd still talk about after launch - or that it could translate how it feels to play the best Dungeons and Dragons books.
Reader, I was wrong. This is probably the closest you'll get to the vibe of playing at a table without actually getting a party together or tuning in to something like Critical Role. You can practically feel the Dungeon Master rolling dice behind that (silver) screen.
When it was first announced, I wanted Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves to be like The Lego Movie - the kind of story balancing our 'real' world with a fictional one. How else could you capture that unique sense of camaraderie (or of stupid plans gone wrong) you get while going on imaginary adventures with your pals? For instance, the Jumanji sequels come to life because they focus on kids learning something about themselves through their experience in the video game… along with a few knowing jokes at the expense of tropes such as cutscenes or bonus lives, of course. So far as I was concerned, that formula would be a slam-dunk where one of the best tabletop RPGs was concerned.
However, it turns out we didn't need all that. Despite lacking cutaways and meta winks about rolling natural 20s, the D&D movie felt just like a group of friends playing the game. Whether it's the characters agreeing that D&D's whole 'five questions only' for the Speak with Dead spell is arbitrary, or consistently messing up their plans and having to come up with another one on the fly, Honor Among Thieves is the most accurate portrayal you could get of an average session.
Want to bring the Honor Among Thieves crew into your home-games as NPCs? Now you can. The D&D movie character stats have been revealed, and they include a special ability that allows you to use improvised weapons. Does this technically mean you can kill someone with a cheese wheel? Yes. Yes, it does.
In fact, the team behind this film clearly have enough experience with Dungeons & Dragons that DMs will get involuntary flashbacks. The graveyard scene revealed in promo footage (where Chris Pine's Bard fluffs his chance to question a corpse using Speak with Dead) is a great case in point. It's exactly the kind of moment that makes even the best Dungeon Masters go, "uh, what now?"
This leads us nicely to Regé-Jean Page's Xenk, who is the definition of a DM-created NPC designed to drop exposition and keep (or get everyone back) on track. As opposed to what marketing and trailers would have you believe, he's not in the movie all that much; instead, he's a helping hand when the crew needs it most, giving valuable backstory on the baddies before happily sauntering off once everyone is on target again. It smacks of a DM getting so exasperated at the party coming up with bad plan after bad plan that they invented someone on the spot to help.
Speaking of which, those 'bad plans' will be incredibly relatable to Dungeon Masters everywhere. A lot of the fun in D&D is seeing your players hatch increasingly ridiculous - or unnecessarily complicated - plots to achieve their goal, and those are here in force. Indeed, one of them kicks off the film (minor spoilers ahead). Having been imprisoned before the movie starts, we follow our heroes in jail telling the board their backstory in an attempt to be pardoned. However, it's all a way of killing time until an aarakocra birdfolk judge turns up so they can kidnap him and fly out of the window to safety. Which all sounds like a brilliant escape route… except their release had already been approved. It's exactly the sort of overcooked, face-palm idea DMs will have seen at tables around the world, and I love it. Besides being funny, it's painfully true to the feeling of the game.
You see, it wouldn't be D&D if schemes didn't go wrong to hilarious effect. The movie doesn't shy away from this, and it's all the better as a result. If anything, it works so well because it embraces the chaos. The group constantly pivots from one plan to another due to something going pear-shaped, and that's probably the best representation of the game you could ask for. Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, these characters are losers in the most endearing way possible.
What's it like to build a new story in a very well-established universe? We chatted to the writers about expanding the existing D&D world.
The D&D movie isn't quite as good as that film, true. But the chaotic energy is identical, and if you ask me, mimicking it was the development team's best move. While po-faced quests to save the kingdom may come to mind when Dungeons & Dragons is mentioned, balancing goofiness with world-ending threats is arguably a better representation of how sessions play out in reality. Honor Among Thieves gets that, and to my mind, this is why it works.
Yes, I was excited for any potential follow-up once the credits rolled. And the movie's battles against evil are engaging. But more than anything else, the carnage of it all has me psyched to get back around the table and roll dice with my friends.
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