Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves Is a Brilliant Campaign on the Big Screen
The D&D movie met and exceeded this fan's high standards by a wide margin.
I got really into playing Dungeons and Dragons about four years ago, and since then, it's become a major part of both my personal and professional life. If you're familiar with my work here at SUPERJUMP, you know that I write all about how to play the game. I've played a wide range of characters and even stepped up to the plate to DM, so you could say that this is one of my major passions.
So, when a D&D movie was announced, I was excited but also concerned. This game is so complex and interactive; how could you translate that authentically into a movie format? So I tempered my expectations but still went to see Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves on its release day.
Boy, do I have a lot to say about this film.
A Campaign Worthy Plot
Our story follows Edgin and Holga, prisoners of Revel's End who manage to escape and go in search of Edgin's daughter to reunite with her after a heist gone wrong. They quickly discover, though, that one of their old colleagues, a rogue named Forge, has ascended ridiculously quickly to being the Lord Neverwinter, ruling over one of the most important cities in the Sword Coast. He's even managed to convince Edgin's daughter her father abandoned her on purpose.
Not only that, but it appears that Forge is working with a dangerous woman, Sophina, who is known to be from Thay, a country overrun by evil necromancers known as the Red Wizards. This woman has her own plans for the upcoming Highsun Games, a series of gladiatorial challenges that attract the biggest wealths in the land to bet and watch the spectacle.
Now it's up to Edgin, Holga, and a few trusted (read: desperately convinced) companions to bring down Forge's reign before Sophina can do any damage.
This story is so classically Dungeons and Dragons that I could barely believe it. From usurping the power of a key NPC for many campaigns to introducing one of the most classic BBEGs in the setting, the writers really, truly seemed to know exactly what they were working with and who they were writing for.
On top of that, the pacing was perfect - it felt like watching a D&D campaign happen in relatively real time. I could almost see the players making decisions and the Dungeon Master compensating for them. Take for example the opening of the movie - the escape from Revel's End. Not only is the escape attempt completely off the wall insane and mildly botched but still successful, but it's also totally unnecessary; if Edgin and Holga had stuck to the script, they would still have gotten out! This plays into the popular Rule of Cool; if it's silly, unnecessary, or slightly mechanically suspect, but the results would be really cool and/or really funny, then by all means try it.
Realistic Player and Non-Player Characters
When Wizards released the NPC stat blocks for the movie's main characters, I was a bit confused and skeptical about how they would play out on screen. I am happy to report that these fears were unfounded (and those stat blocks are weirdly inaccurate, but whatever).
All of the characters felt like real D&D player characters. They had fleshed-out backgrounds (that they exposition-dumped like players do in a first session, thank you for the accuracy there), strong mechanics, interesting inventories, and acted in strange, out-of-the-box ways that only make sense if you as a player know exactly what rules you're breaking. And that's the key in my mind: every move felt like a player's decision in a really pleasant way. I enjoyed the fact that I could tell when someone"rolled" really well or really poorly.
The notable exemptions to this are Xenk and Sophina, who are played like NPCs. I actually really liked this about them as characters; they're not as wild and spur-of-the-moment as the player characters, but they also have clear stories and motivations of their own that are explored well and given appropriate weight in the narrative. Xenk is a prototypical paladin, which made me laugh; I've played with characters just like him. Sophina is a brilliant, unnerving villain who felt perfectly matched for the party's abilities; she's just subtle enough to be fun without being so subtle as to come out of left field.
My biggest complaint about the characters is actually quite nitpicky: Edgin is a bard who doesn't cast a single spell through the entire film. We don't even get a good Vicious Mockery in!
The Movie Monster Manual
Of course, one of the things people were most excited to see in this movie was the monsters - and boy did they deliver! Some of the most iconic monsters in the game were featured in ways that felt genuine and genuinely fun. Let's work small and build our way up.
First, I must say that I am ridiculously impressed by the number of practical effects used in this movie for creatures and character makeup. The one that caught my attention the most was the practical puppet costumes for the Dragonborn; perhaps I'm a little biased, but it was my favorite effect in the film. These costumes really sold the mass and complexity of these people, differentiating them based on color and age. Beyond these, though, there were also practical puppet costumes for Aaracokra (JOHNATHAN!) and Tabaxi. It was amazing to see the level of skill and physical animation that went into bringing these magical species to life.
Next, I was stunned to see so many excellent common monsters appear for our party to fight or avoid! The standout for me was most definitely the displacer beast (and not just because I have a plush of one on my desk); these fey-adjacent felines moved impressively fluidly and seeing them use their illusory powers was brilliant, especially when those illusions were seen through (as an aside, I loved that the illusions only broke when touched - way to stay true to form!). I also loved the depiction of the classic mimic chests; they're every party's dungeon crawl nightmare, so I would have been disappointed not to see at least one. Of course, I can't neglect to mention the gelatinous cube and the amazing way it was used in the film; its appearance absolutely screamed of D&D tomfoolery and, as far as I am aware, it was perfectly rules-as-written playable, which made me laugh.
Finally, the best of the monsters, the dragons! We only see the black dragon for a few minutes, disappointingly, but what we do get to see is very well-choreographed and excellently animated. I loved seeing the acid-breath weapon in action - I really wish we could have seen more! As for our humongous red dragon friend, I have to say I was giddy watching his scene. His size is mentioned as being way above average and is implied to be due to his eating unlucky adventurers, which is perfect. For him in particular, I was excited to see the limitations of breath weapons in action; we could see each time he failed to recharge the weapon and what he chose to do instead, which was excellent writing. My only complaint is that neither dragon spoke. In this game, dragons are sapient and frequently boast to their victims before frying them; it would have been fun to see that happen here, especially with such ancient and powerful dragons.
Impressive Interweaving of Mechanics
It's difficult to translate games into movies; you have to remove the interactivity but keep it interesting and authentic, and for things like video games, that's very difficult to do. With D&D, however, it's more similar to working with a book-to-movie adaptation, which is why I think this was more successful. That being said, the entire movie did an excellent job of weaving real game mechanics into a movie setting.
To start with, the spellwork, which is iconic for this franchise, is completely on point. Not only were my career DM partner and I able to identify spells immediately, but we were also pleased to see them function in exactly the ways they do in the game, down to the distance from which they can be cast and the number of targets they hit. The visual effects of the spells were, of course, amped up for the big screen, but the mechanical effects were largely the same, which was very cool.
Take for example the spell Chain Lightning. This is used by Sophina during a fight, which makes perfect sense given her class and expected challenge rating. This sixth-level spell lets you choose a target to hit with a ball of lighting, which can then jump to up to three other targets nearby. It takes an action to cast, and an action in the game is six seconds. We were thrilled to watch Sophina cast the spell, have it hit, and successfully chain it to three other people in a quick, six-second clip. Not only did it look amazing, but it made sense according to the rules.
My favorite example of this mechanic following, though, is watching Holga fight. Holga is a barbarian - our guess is Path of the Berserker - who appears to have taken Tavern Brawler as a feat, and I know that all from simply watching her moves. She's martial focused, using an axe and her fists more than anything, but is extremely capable with improvised weapons - stones, bits of armor, chains, hot metal, anything she can get her hands on. She hits at about the right rate as well - 2-3 hits every six seconds - and can definitely tank damage when she needs to.
It was so cool to be able to pick out specific mechanics that we knew on the screen and to be able to take the movie apart move-for-move from the perspectives of players and dungeon masters.
I went into this movie with limited expectations. Game-to-movie adaptations don't have the best reputation for going well, after all, and D&D has already seen its share of (to put it charitably) mediocre screen time.
I am beyond pleased to have had my expectations blown out of the water. It's so clear that everyone who worked on this film, from writing to directing to animation and beyond, knows and loves this game. Even those who didn't know it originally - namely, many of the actors - grew to love this fun make-believe, and it very much shows in every performance and every detail of the visual and sound design.
I can confidently say that I would happily watch many, many more movies like this one, especially if they all followed unique campaign plots or explored different areas of the D&D universe. Well done, Hasbro. Well done.
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