Honor Among Thieves
Entertainment One | Paramount Pictures

‘Dungeons and Dragons’ Movie Will Show Game in New Light

The upcoming 'Dungeons and Dragons' movie promises to present the hit role-playing game in a new light on the big screen. Why does this matter for longtime fans of tabletop games?
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During San Diego Comic-Con in July, Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro showed off the first trailer for the upcoming Dungeons and Dragons film, Honor Among Thieves. The movie will star Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith, Regé-Jean Page, Sophia Lillis, Chloe Coleman, and Hugh Grant, who all look like they’re having a blast in the film’s trailer.

Notably, this isn’t the first time Wizards of the Coast has taken a crack at a D&D movie. In 2000, a Courtney Solomon-directed film, Dungeons and Dragons, hit theaters. The movie was a critical and commercial failure, despite starring big-name actors like Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans, Thora Birch, and Jeremy Irons. It still spawned a made-for-TV sequel and a direct-to-DVD third installment, though neither of these films registered more than some cursory views from curious superfans. 

Since that ill-fated movie came out, D&D has undergone a serious metamorphosis in the public eye. Where the game was once viewed as a dorky pastime that only social rejects would engage in, it’s now one of the most popular tabletop games in the world. Will the new movie capture the things that make the game great, or will it flop like its predecessor?

What Is ‘Dungeons and Dragons’?

If the idea of a tabletop role-playing game sounds foreign to you, you’re not alone. While D&D is more popular now than it was twenty years ago, it’s still something of a niche interest. Maybe you’ve heard the name and seen references to the game on TV and in movies, but you might not be familiar with the ins and outs of tabletop gaming. 

In a nutshell, Dungeons and Dragons is a social game you play with friends around a table–or through digital interfaces that replicate a table. One of the players takes the role of Dungeon Master, or DM, and creates the storyline the others will experience. The DM playacts as the various non-player characters (NPCs) and monsters that the characters encounter.

Players create fictional characters to act as their avatars in the game. This process is overseen by rules governing the stats and powers each character gets from their background and training. A dwarven fighter will play very differently than an elven mage, for instance. This process allows each player to breathe life into their unique avatar and express themselves in a new way among their friends.

Hugely Influential

To call D&D merely influential would be an understatement. The game has inspired essentially every video game RPG ever created. The original Final Fantasy is essentially a digital port of the earlier editions of D&D, down to its use of “spell slots” to track magic users’ available spells. If you’ve ever played a role-playing game, you’ve encountered mechanics that were created and popularized by Dungeons and Dragons. 

Even mechanics that some players take for granted originated in the first edition of D&D. Experience points that players earn for defeating enemies, hit points that track a character’s vitality, and the use of numerical levels to indicate a player’s strength are all D&D mechanics that have spilled over into nearly every video game. 

That’s not even to mention the types of storytelling that the hit role-playing game helped inspire. Since D&D is a collaborative storytelling game, it encourages a unique type of narrative that emphasizes improvisational acting and teamwork. If you love The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, then you’d love the free-form party dynamics you’d find at any D&D table. 

Backlash and Satanic Panic

In the 1980s, D&D experienced a massive upswing in popularity. Young players gathered in basements and gaming clubs to explore dark dungeons and slay monsters together. However, there was a massive backlash in the mainstream media. Many outlets conflated playing tabletop RPGs with Satanic religions. The games’ use of demonic imagery and seemingly occult practices didn’t help this perception.

The backlash was so intense that the game’s original owners, TSR, removed the words “devil” and “demon” from the second edition of the game. D&D went from being a relatively unknown but innocuous tabletop game to being synonymous with moral degeneracy and social outcasts. Media from the 80s and 90s often depicts D&D players as irredeemable dorks who won’t have a social life unless they stop rolling dice in their parent’s basements. 

The game fell into relative obscurity throughout the 90s and 2000s, and, aside from the aforementioned movie, made few forays into mainstream culture. The game’s third and fourth editions were popular among enthusiasts, but D&D stayed a niche interest until the launch of its fifth edition in 2014. Then, something unthinkable happened: tabletop RPGs went mainstream. 

‘Critical Role’ and Mainstream Success

When Wizards of the Coast released the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons in 2014, it wanted to recapture the feeling of the earlier editions while streamlining the rules for a modern audience. A generation of gamers had grown up with mechanics like character classes and experience points as a fundamental underpinning of video game RPGs, so Wizards rightly figured that players from most backgrounds could grasp the basics of the game.

Fifth Edition brought the game back to its roots, emphasizing exploration and creativity over granular character-building and math-driven combat. It’s a streamlined game that has remained enduringly popular, selling millions of books even eight years after its initial release. The game has also greatly benefited from internet creators live-streaming their home D&D campaigns, giving curious newcomers their first look at what the game looks like in action.

The most popular of these streams is Critical Role, a campaign led by veteran voice actor Matt Mercer. Critical Role’s videos rake in millions of views, and the campaign has become a franchise in its own right. You can buy toys based on the player characters, and the group has even partnered with Wizards of the Coast to create official tie-in books with Dungeons and Dragons

The Nerds Won

At one point in time, “nerdy” pursuits like reading comic books, watching Star Wars, and playing D&D were considered as uncool as possible. These days, Marvel movies rake in record-breaking sums of money, and Dungeons and Dragons is big business for Wizards of the Coast. In short, the nerds won. It’s not surprising that Wizards of the Coast’s parent company, Hasbro, has finally signed off on a massive, big-budget movie to bring D&D to the big screen. 

The film’s director, Jonathan Goldstein, explained during Comic-Con that the film offers a unique opportunity to adapt some of D&D’s most iconic spells and monsters to the big screen. ‘It’s the chance to bring to life these creatures, these places, these people that we’ve only been able to sort of imagine in our heads and to give solid matter to that,” Goldstein explained.

In the film’s trailer, this is immediately evident when a black dragon soars over an army, opens its cavernous maw, and breathes out… acid. 

Years of pop culture and myth have primed audiences to expect dragons to breathe fire. They’re dragons, right? Big, flaming lizards! But, in D&D, only one variety of dragons breathes out flames, and that’s red dragons. Black dragons, like the one in the trailer, breathe acid. Seeing such a creature depicted on the big screen is a treat for D&D fans, and helps visualize an iconic monster.

Bringing the Tabletop to the Big Screen 

The trailer for Honor Among Thieves shows numerous iconic spells and monsters in a short span of time. One thief uses Dimension Door to phase past a castle’s defenses. A mage vanishes from the thick of a melee using Misty Step. At one point, the group dives headlong into a Gelatinous Cube to avoid a stream of deadly magic.

The connections aren’t just visual, either. The trailer shows that Honor Among Thieves’ writers and directors know the tone and storytelling tropes that make D&D so much fun. Chris Pine is playing a bard, a musical warrior who serves as the mouthpiece of the party and uses his charms to get them into and out of trouble. The party’s druid easily jumps from shapeshifting and thrashing enemies to jumping on her horse to ride to the next battle.

Dungeons and Dragons campaigns are typically irreverent, free-wheeling affairs, focusing on the freedom-loving misfits who would be side characters at best in a heroic tale like Lord of the Rings. Fantasy movies about noble heroes who bravely dive into danger are a dime a dozen, and it’s encouraging that Honor Among Thieves knows this. 

A Dungeons and Dragons movie that focuses on a band of lovable misfits who have found their preferred family is exciting for longtime fans of the game. The Fellowship of the Ring might be the Hollywood idea of what a D&D party looks like, but Honor Among Thieves hits the nail on the head with its bumbling outcasts. Guardians of the Galaxy but in Middle-Earth is the perfect movie we didn’t know we needed.