Real DM Reacts to Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves 

Paramount Pictures

The new D&D film Honor Among Thieves, is finally here. And it is absolutely fantastic, too. The film has an intuitive understanding of what makes playing D&D with friends so much fun, and it nails the witty banter and likable characters you need to sell a big-budget blockbuster. Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez steal the show as Edgin and Holga, respectively, channeling their charisma and brawn in a fun, breezy adventure.

But is the film a good representation of what a real campaign would look like? The thought crossed my mind as I watched the movie, given that I run a ton of D&D campaigns for my friends. I’ve been a Dungeon Master since I was in grade school, and I’ve given a lot of thought to translating cinematic action to my dining room table. It’s fun to think along the other axis, seeing how well a cinematic experience captures the realities of tabletop role-playing.

So, let’s break down the story beats in Honor Among Thieves and see how it stacks up against a hypothetical D&D module containing the same adventure. In short, is Honor Among Thieves a plausible tabletop adventure, or does it have too much Hollywood DNA to make for a fun playing experience?

The Backstories

Honor Among Thieves sets the tone right away with its introduction of Helga and Edgin in prison in Icewind Dale. This feels like a classic “session zero” experience, with Edgin getting a great chance to flex his persuasive skills in front of a fantasy parole board. It’s also a chance for him to explain the party’s backstory to both his jailors and the audience, and it dovetails with the way a player might explain his backstory to a DM.

If you had a player as charismatic as Chris Pine at your table, you might let him have some significant creative leeway with his character. Things like his adventuring background, tangling with the Red Wizards, and running with a crew for years before the adventure began are all things a DM might allow an experienced, engaged player to do. 

While it’s presented on-screen as Edgin just telling a story, this would likely be a collaborative experience at the table. The DM and the players would all work together to establish their backgrounds and make Edgin’s monologue flow neatly when his player pulled everything together to set the stage for the adventure. For instance, Simon and Helga’s players would have a lot of input regarding their roles in Edgin’s backstory, setting the stage for their later character growth.

Escaping Icewind Dale

The first third of the movie is driven by just Edgin and Holga alone, which isn’t too unrealistic for a real campaign. An experience D&D player can picture the DM and two invested players being eager to play a few sessions while Simon and Doric’s players are indisposed and can’t join up yet. Still, the adventure of escaping from the prison and returning to the southern region of the Sword Coast from Icewind Dale would be a classic RPG romp.

The players would have plenty of options in the tower. They could ambush Jarnithan, as Edgin and Helga do in the movie, or they could wait and see if they get parole the lawful way. They could also try to find another solution, such as sneaking out at night. 

The next leg of the campaign could also be a fun journey that the movie essentially skips past, escaping the frigid northern lands of Icewind Dale. Helga could get her axe bloody on several local monsters, and Edgin would get to keep her spirits high with his strumming lute.

Forge and the Party

Forge Fitzwilliam and Sofina are an excellent pair of villains, each representing two sides of the iconic tabletop bad guy. Forge is the fast-talking, smooth, loathsome scoundrel who betrays the party. Sofina is the unreadable, stoic operator behind the scenes, who the party knows little about aside from how evil she is. 

After their encounter with Forge, Edgin and Holga quickly team up with Simon and Doric. This could easily be explained as these characters’ players finally getting their schedules free for Saturday nights so the adventure can begin in earnest. From here, the party really gets moving, as four players make for a much more balanced party in a variety of encounters.

One notable thing the film gets wrong, though, is that characters are often depicted on-screen as handling combat encounters all alone. Holga has numerous scenes where she just clobbers enemies, one after another, with no backup from her companions. This is far from realistic for D&D, in which a lone player dominating the spotlight like this would be both tactically unsound and frowned upon by the other players.

Accounting for Bad Rolls

Another interesting note from the film is that, given the narrative flow of big-budget blockbuster films, very few characters seem to get stricken with terrible dice luck. In an early fight scene, Edgin seems completely unable to get his hands free from his restraints as Helga desperately fights off a huge contingent of armed guards. 

Experienced DMs know this awkward shuffle–Edgin’s player is rolling nothing except 1s and 2s on his athletics checks to break the rope binding his hands. While the film plays this scene for laughs, this is often a frustrating moment for players. Ed keeps his cool in this scene, indicating that his player is used to these kinds of poor luck streaks. The DM running the campaign would have to account for his inability to free himself, though, and might reduce the encounter’s difficulty on the fly to help the players keep up.

In other scenes, though, it feels like the players are nearly incapable of failing their attack rolls. This makes for a better movie, to be sure, but it’s something that D&D players have picked up on. There’s nothing quite like an incredible fight sequence falling apart because the dice just won’t cooperate. 

Xenk and the Underdark

The party makes a lengthy detour into the terrifying Underdark in the film’s second act. They’re accompanied by Xenk, a mighty paladin who makes short work of every enemy he comes across. DMs would recognize the kind of character Xenk is right away: he’s either a character the DM played in a previous campaign or he’s being played by an accomplished player who’s just visiting for a single session and is far higher in level than the rest of the party.

Xenk also commits a few cardinal sins in the world of tabletop gaming. He’s overpowered, to say the least, and not just because he’s playing the notoriously unbalanced paladin class. He’s got a tragic backstory, a humorless disposition, and the uncanny ability to trivialize combat encounters all by himself. 

No DM should ever let a character dominate an encounter the way Xenk does in the battle against the Thayan knights. If Xenk is being controlled by another player, they’re being a glory-hog, which is bringing the excitement at the table down. If he’s being played by the DM, it’s even worse: this means he’s the DM’s self-insert character, showing off in front of the players for no reason.

The Heist and Final Fight

The heist of Forge’s vault would be the best part of a hypothetical Honor Among Thieves module. There are just so many wonderful variables at play in this scenario. Forge has a contingent of wealthy elites visiting Neverwinter for a gladiatorial spectacle. The players could charm their way past the gates, posing as one of these dignitaries. There’s a fighting arena–it’s not a stretch to picture the party sneaking in by posing as a team for the festivities.

Of course, there’s always the stealthy option. Simon could use an invisibility spell to sneak them all through the castle doors. This section is just so rife with opportunities for an enterprising party that it really sells the film’s love for the source material. And, naturally, there’s the decision the party has to make on the boat: do they make off with their ill-gotten riches, or do they turn back and face Sofina in a climactic final battle?

And the final fight with Sofina on-screen is delightful. Unlike the other combat encounters in the movie, all four party members finally work together, using their unique skills to take the wizard down. In classic D&D fashion, the spellcaster Simon largely dominates the fight, and the bard Edgin is relegated to mostly taunting the villain and bashing her with his lute. This scene is authentic tabletop combat at its finest.

Closing Thoughts

Honor Among Thieves is the best representation of a D&D campaign ever put on the big screen, but it’s still got room to improve in a variety of ways. If the film gets a sequel, I would love to see it tone down the “single character against everyone” scenes in favor of more teamwork from the party. 

At the end of the day, D&D is a game of collaboration and storytelling. The party has to work together to solve problems and achieve their goals, so splitting them apart and having them work in separate locales is far from capturing the true essence of tabletop storytelling.