Dungeons & Dragons, the classic role-playing game perhaps most popularized in recent years by Stranger Things, has just released its new movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Well, technically, it releases on March 31, but Amazon Prime customers were able to get into an early screening on Sunday, and I made sure to get a seat.
D&D has had a rocky path to get to this point. You see, there have actually been three D&D movies before. There was the first theatrical film in 2000, which reportedly pretty bad (although I saw some D&D nerds rate it as high as mediocre). There was Dungeons & Dragons 2: Wrath of the Dragon God in 2005, and there was Dungeons & Dragons 3: The Book of Vile Darkness in 2012. The first of those had a limited theatrical release, but both of them were mostly straight-to-DVD and straight-to-Syfy Channel. And both of them were also reportedly pretty bad. (The words “straight-to-Syfy Channel” should be a big red flag.)
Then, after this new movie was announced, the game’s maker, Wizards of the Coast (a subsidiary of Hasbro), found itself in hot water with the OGL controversy in January. (See e.g. here for all the gritty details.) This led some fans to call for a boycott of the movie, even after Wizards completely backed down, but those calls have mostly disappeared amidst the excitement for the movie. And you know what? That excitement is justified. This was a pretty good movie.
Oh, and one other thing: you do not need to know anything about D&D to enjoy this movie. It’s a good fantasy film on its own merits.
My rating: 4 out of 5.
So, I do have to give a shout-out to Nerd Immersion’s review of the movie. I wrote most of this review before I watched theirs, but they helped make sure I had a clear perspective from people who are much bigger D&D nerds than I am. I’ve only played the game a little bit, and I’m not deep into the lore either. I understood a decent number of the references and gameplay jokes, but they covered a lot more. Even so, non-players may still notice a few things like the actual use of the word “backstory” in the opening scene, or the use of Chekhov’s Potato, or the obvious reference to the Portal Gun.
And this is why I said you don’t need to know anything about D&D to enjoy this movie. Pretty much all of the lore, the places, the organizations, even the villain-behind-the-villain Szass Tam—those are all from the official D&D playbooks. But none of that is necessary to understand the plot. They explain all the stuff you really need to know.
So, what’s the actual story? Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) are a pair of thieves who break out of prison (using a stupid and largely counterproductive plan) to try to return to Edgin’s daughter, Kira. Edgin was trying to steal a Tablet of Reawakening to resurrect his wife, who was killed by the Red Wizards (whose weapons can block the ubiquitous resurrections that happen in D&D). Only, the pair were caught after their partner Forge (Hugh Grant) double-crossed them. Now, they have to steal the Tablet from Forge, restore Edgin’s honor, and stop the Red Wizards from carrying out their nefarious plot, all without dying in the process.
To do this, they team up with their other partner Simon (Justice Smith), an incompetent sorcerer, and his ex-girlfriend Doric (Sophia Lillis) a tiefling (half-demon) druid who doesn’t like humans, but really doesn’t like Forge. And they enact an Ocean’s
Eleven Four-style plan to take Forge down.
And like I said, it worked pretty well. There were a few plot holes, but they mostly didn’t break the immersion for me (although Nerd Immersion said otherwise).
Now, obviously there’s a big difference between gameplay mechanics in an RPG and good storytelling in a movie, so you can expect they won’t follow the rules exactly. (And that’s not even counting how D&D divides up the world into 5-foot squares and time into 6-second increments.) But I was surprised how far they strayed from the RPG. Most notably, Edgin is a bard, which is normally a spellcaster in D&D (long story), but he didn’t do any magic and had to seek out a sorcerer to help (although he did have secret agent-type training and a “reinforced lute”). And the druid, also a spellcaster, didn’t do any magic either except for turning into animals.
But there were a lot of other gags and in-jokes that did make it feel like a D&D session, like the aforementioned “backstory,” or a certain scene where rocks fall (although only one person dies), references to how limitations on spells like only asking five questions “seems kind of arbitrary,” or explaining a trap in detail and then triggering it by accident. Also, I thought having a character named Simon the Sorcerer was some kind of historical in-joke, but they didn’t really do anything with that.
Where am I going with this? I guess I’m saying they could have leaned a little more into the D&D gameplay worldbuilding, but they mostly did a pretty good job of balancing it with good narrative storytelling, and the finished product turned out pretty well.
Nerd Immersion speculated that she was a homebrew Druid with different abilities. Turning into an Owlbear (as opposed to a regular bear) is also not in the standard rules, and the directors said they applied the Rule of Cool for that one.
The Vox Machina cartoon does that pretty well, although it is dramatically less family-friendly.