In the last ten years, Dungeons & Dragons has grown from a niche and nerdy hobby into a powerful pop culture force. If you can’t find a party of your own – or if you can’t get enough of tabletop gaming – there are dozens of actual-play podcasts and shows these days, many of them featuring talented voice actors and comedians, along with surprisingly slick production values.
But officially licensed D&D media tends to be… well, let’s just say I’d rather fight the Tarrasque armed only with a broom than watch the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie again. At least it’d be over quickly.
Why have D&D movies and TV shows of the past failed so hard – and will Honor Among Thieves roll a nat 20 or another critical failure?
Forty years ago, the original publisher of the game, TSR, teamed up with Marvel Productions and Toei Animation to launch an animated TV show. The show followed a group of six kids who are – wait for it – transported into the game for real! Their main quest is to find a way home, but over three seasons and 27 episodes, the party has to deal with a ton of fetch quests for NPC.
Although an evil wizard named Venger is the main bad guy of the series, honest-to-goodness Tiamat also shows up. What’s really wild is that Frank Welker – the OG voice of Fred Jones who also took over the role of Scooby-Doo in 2002 – provided the vocal effects for Tiamat and Uni the Unicorn.
The series was canned before the final episode went into production, so audiences never found out if the kids made it home. All things considered, it wasn’t that bad. Sure, the action kicks off with basically zero context and the kids’ voices are all a little annoying, but the scenery looked great and the show made use of actual creatures from the Player’s Handbook. Unfortunately, the 80s also saw the rise of Satanic Panic in the United States. Despite relatively strong ratings and plenty of opportunities for merchandising, the on-screen violence and off-screen moral pearl-clutching led to the show being unceremoniously canceled.
Mazes and Monsters was very loosely inspired by the real-life saga of James Dallas Egbert III, a college student and RPG enthusiast whose disappearance was blamed on D&D. The idea was floated by William Dear, the private investigator hired to find Egbert in 1979. Dear told media outlets that he believed Egbert had lost the ability to tell fact from fiction and had become convinced that the tunnel system under Michigan State University was a dungeon filled with monsters.
Even though it had no basis in reality, Dear continued to push his theory that Dungeons & Dragons had warped Egbert’s mental state. The young man was found alive in Louisiana, but a year after his disappearance, Egbert died by suicide at the age of 17. The truth was buried in a storm of sensational headlines, and in 1981, Rona Jaffe published a fictionalized version of Egbert’s story in Mazes and Monsters. The movie adaptation starred a young Tom Hanks, and the stigma against Dungeons & Dragons became entrenched in the public imagination.
It took nearly 20 years to get a version of Dungeons & Dragons on the big screen, and audiences received… this. Director and producer Courtney Solomon’s passion project struggled to make it across the finish line, and when it finally premiered, the film was an absolute bomb. It’s not even in so-bad-its-good, midnight-movie territory.
The biggest issue, in my opinion, was Solomon’s decision to create a generic fantasy setting instead of settings that would have been familiar to players. The monsters and magic function differently, too, in an attempt to make the action sequences more cinematic. The result was that RPG fans were frustrated and disappointed, while audiences at large were unimpressed by a run-of-the-mill epic fantasy that felt more like the goofy, scenery-chewing moves of the 80s than something truly special. After the film flopped, Solomon claimed that he’d never wanted to direct it, only produce, and that meddling from both the studio and TSR, which held the rights to Dungeons & Dragons at the time, ruined everything.
The film lacked the sense of fun that happens when playing a home game with your friends—or when enjoying an actual-play show hosted by professional storytellers. Dungeons & Dragons isn’t just about swords and sorcery; it’s about creating something weird and wonderful with your friends. Although many of the stories begin with something that looks like the traditional hero’s journey, they usually break away from familiar patterns pretty quickly. In part, that comes down to having dice rolls add a random factor to the collaborative storytelling. But it’s also because people are unpredictable. They make wild choices, veering from comedy to tragedy back again – and there are no main characters. It’s all about the party.
While Stranger Things isn’t the only reason our beloved tabletop RPG went mainstream, it’s impossible to overestimate the boost the Duffer brothers gave the game by choosing to feature it so prominently in the show. Wizards of the Coast recognized a good thing when they saw it and released this vintage-style starter set for new players who want to try the game for the first time.
Dungeons & Dragons is baked into the DNA of the show, from each season’s big bads, such as the Demogorgon and Vecna, to the echoes of the Satanic Panic with Eddie Munson to, of course, our young heroes playing the game in Mike’s mom’s basement. But tabletop RPGs have come a long way since the 80s. Instead of rolling dice in a basement with your buddies, you can now watch or listen to talented performers play out epic stories in actual-play shows.
In the world of actual-play podcasts and videos, there are a few big names: McElroy, Mercer, and Mulligan. (Handy that they all start with an M, isn’t it?) The McElroys—that’s brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin, plus dad Clint—launched The Adventure Zone as a spin-off of their popular comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me in 2014. They’ve played through four major campaigns, starting with Balance, and a number of shorter experiments, creating a strong community of listeners, cosplayers, and fan artists. Most, though not all, of the seasons use 5e as their base system.
In fact, almost every actual-play show uses Dungeons & Dragons 5e. That’s because the fifth edition, which was officially released in 2014, lends itself so well to improvised storytelling. While there are still rules aplenty—and lots of math—it’s so much more accessible than previous versions. Because the rules are relatively lightweight, dungeon masters have a lot more leeway to create the kind of game they want to run. Some, like Brennan Lee Mulligan of Dimension 20, prefer to use traditional battle maps when possible. Podcasters like the McElroys or the crew behind Not Another D&D Podcast can use the same system to create dynamic stories that take place entirely in “theater of the mind.”
Of course, we can’t talk about actual-play shows without talking about Critical Role. The show originally launched on Twitch as part of Geek & Sundry in 2015 before moving to YouTube and its own production company. Led by Matt Mercer and a who’s who of video game and anime voice actors, Critical Role feels like a home game with your best friends. If your best friends were some of the world’s best performers and storytellers. The success of Critical Role led to Amazon greenlighting The Legend of Vox Machina and ushering in a new era of D&D media that’s actually fun.
Read More: Sorting ‘Legend of Vox Machina’ into Hogwarts Houses
While The Legend of Vox Machina isn’t a perfect series, it manages to capture the elements that make Critical Role and Dungeons & Dragons as a whole so compelling. In addition to the epic battles and impossible feats of magic, it’s also funny – and surprisingly heartbreaking at times. Every character gets a chance to shine, just like the best home campaigns. Oh, and it’s rowdy as all get out, infused with a touch of chaos that’s all too often missing in other tabletop RPG productions.
With overwhelmingly positive reviews from both critics and viewers, Vox Machina managed to take a chapter from the first campaign of Critical Role and turn it into something that both fans and newbies can enjoy. Sure, there’s a fair amount of world-building that has to happen quickly to onboard new viewers, but that’s true of pretty much any fantasy. At just ten episodes, the animated series moves along at a brisk clip. It helps that the cast of Critical Role were already world-renowned voice actors, including Ashley Johnson (Ellie from The Last of Us) and Dungeon Master Matt Mercer, who voices the villainous Silas Blackwood for Vox Machina.
One question remains: Can Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves learn from Vox Machina’s success… or will it be doomed to be another self-serious dud?
Chris Pine leads the cast for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the first big-budget movie based on the game since 2000. Well, you could argue that it’s actually the first big-budget D&D movie since the first film was such a cheap-looking disaster.
Fans of the game will notice a few familiar things right away. There’s a Displacer Beast, a black dragon that spits acid instead of fire, a Mimic, Thunderwave being cast, a Gelatinous Cube, and an Owl Bear. My only quibble is with Doric (Sophia Lillis), the Tiefling druid. In 5e rules, druids can’t Wild Shape into monsters – i.e., Owlbears. They also can’t use Dimension Door, which we also see her cast in the trailer. If you want to see every single easter egg in the trailer, check out this awesome video!
General audiences and fans alike can enjoy the remixed Led Zeppelin song, the gorgeous scenery and great-looking special effects, and Chris Pine’s cheeky narration. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the duo behind Spider-man: Homecoming, made the smart choice to set the action in the Forgotten Realms and use actual spells and mechanics from the game rather than trying to create a generic fantasy epic. From what we’ve seen so far, I’m cautiously optimistic that the movie will strike many of the same chords as Vox Machina. What really sealed the deal for me is when Chris Pine breaks out his little dance at the end of the trailer.
It’s tough to find the right balance between epic battles, satisfyingly deep lore, and chaotic silliness. Preferably all in the same scene. I hope that Honor Among Thieves can pull it off – and even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark, there’s literally no way it’ll be worse than the first movie. A TV series is also in the works from Paramount+, so for better or worse, we’re likely getting ready for a surge of new popularity for Dungeons & Dragons.