Despite being a household name, DnD has received a surprisingly bad rap over the years. Denigrated as an unholy corruption of youth or the laughable pastime of basement-dwelling nerds, it’s taken several decades to finally see it rewarded with the wide respect it ultimately deserves.
And, let’s face it, live-action adaptations haven’t exactly been kind to DnD. While fantasy epics such as Lord of the Rings, The Witcher, Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, have been afforded eye-watering budgets and impressive casts to bring their unique worlds to life, DnD didn’t get the same luxury.
Those of us old enough to remember the dark times of 2000s’ Dungeons & Dragons, still wince when we think back to Jeremy Irons growling cringeworthy dialogue such as “Destiny! Come to me!” with all the gusto of someone choking on a spoonful of mayonnaise. And fewer still realise that the film had two equally terrible sequels. Just take my word for it, don’t look them up.
So, before the first scene was even shot, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves had a lot of competition to cut through, as well as a lot to make up for. And I’m happy to say, it doesn’t disappoint.
A film directed by fellow adventurers
What makes Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves uniquely impressive is the fact it’s helmed by a pair of directors who are long-time fans and players. As such, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley decided not to follow established adventures like the Lost Mines of Phandelver or Dragon of Icespire Peak, but really steep this tale in the feeling of an actual DnD game.
And we know what that means. It means a band of misfit friends stepping into the unknown, a quest in their hearts, a handful of coin in their pockets, and all the humour that can be sapped from every single encounter and exploit.
Yes, there are traps, puzzles, fights, mystical creatures and intrigue at every turn, but the sense of mischievous comedy and silliness never wanes. We get the heartfelt earnestness that fits the character backstories but also the myriad bickering, novel plan-making and a spattering of bad dice rolls that ruin everything, rather than the specific trappings of “the book says you can’t do that.”
Striking the balance between fan service and the uninitiated
Speaking of hardline DMs, let’s talk about the audience, which can be bisected into those in the know and the average cinemagoer. As stated earlier, this movie has a lot to juggle, and one of these not-so-insignificant tasks is appeasing the fanbase without alienating the uninitiated. After all, there’s nothing more obnoxious than constant in-jokes that make the majority of those watching feel left out.
In truth, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves walks that line very carefully. On the one hand, the production design is littered with easter eggs (and possibly a few too many on-the-nose homages). Not to mention the trailer sparked the whole Druid-Owlbear debate. Familiar spells, locations and races are given their time to shine but they’re effectively translated into a universal relatability that allows everyone to feel included.
Case in point, when trying to locate a magical artefact, our heroes dig up a corpse and use the Speak with Dead spell. And rather than relying on some pre-existing knowledge to appreciate the scene, the script masterfully recreates an encounter many players are all too familiar with: accidentally asking dead-end questions, and then arguing over why you only get five in the first place.
But then there’s the other half of the audience.
Can you capture the essence of DnD in a 2-hour film?
What about the ones who have been waiting a very long time for this kind of release? Can it live up to their hopes and expectations? Well, much like any campaign, it depends. The problem with a system that allows you to go anywhere, be anyone and do anything, is that every single game is different. And trying to capture that will always amount to failure.
What’s more, a lot of contemporary players will have been spoiled for choice with countless recorded sessions featuring beloved voice artists, in the form of Critical Role and Dimension 20. As well as a host of fantasy tales that span multiple films or several seasons of television. Not to mention the evolution of video game engines that create stunning worlds to explore without the need for imagination alone.
How can one 2-hour film match that? How can it stand out from the crowd and prove itself worthy? The simple answer is, it can’t. And that means, some of the film’s most vocal critics will be a lot of hardcore DnD players. Are they wrong and unjustified in their assessments? Not entirely, but considering what the movie accomplishes, and the breadth of possibility that can spread out from this foundation, maybe it’s worth pausing for a moment before tearing into the minute details.
Especially when a lot of the film’s detrimental points still somehow feel indicative of a well-played TTRPG. To explain, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves has a plethora of what can only be described as ‘questionable accents.’ And while these may stick out like a sore thumb in other productions, that’s part of the charm of the game. DMs with their stock tavern owner voice, or an NPC that prompts the party to ask through stifled chuckles, “And from whence do you hail, exactly?”
The same can be said of the central characters. In other movies, they could come off as flat or two-dimensional, but here it feels comfortable and familiar – we’ve all played with a barbarian who turns to the magic user in the party and bluntly (but sincerely) asks “Why can’t you just solve the problem with magic?” Because to a barbarian, there’s only ever one solution, right? And having the cast play their roles in an actual game of DnD before shooting the movie? Genius.
Despite any stumbles or flaws, this movie succeeds in capturing the goofiness, the excitement and the interpersonal interactions that remain embedded in your mind after a mountain of saving throws, levelling up and long rests.
And, most importantly, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves does what any good DnD campaign should: it doesn’t ostracise newcomers. But instead makes room at the table, hands you a drink and, with a wicked smile, says, “Welcome to the fun. Who do you want to be?”