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21 Apr 2023

Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Theives – April has been an unusual month for HJ and me in terms of trips to the cinema. I think we probably see an average of zero films a month normally (rounding down), but so far we’ve seen two. The first was Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, which we saw on the 1st of April. The second was John Wick: Chapter 4, which we saw just this past Saturday. The film I want to talk about today, though—as you no doubt already know from the title—is the first of these. Why wait nearly three weeks to post a review? Well, for one, I’ve been working on this since shortly after we saw it. I’ve just been really busy with other stuff. Also, film reviews are a good excuse for me to talk about something else besides the film itself, and this one is no exception. Roleplaying games have been an important—if infrequent—part of my life for many years, so I thought I’d work in a little about my experiences as well.

“The filmmakers wanted to make a fun film that was a love letter to D&D but could be enjoyed by both players and non-players alike. In this regard I believe they succeeded.”

I guess the first thing to get out of the way is a spoiler warning. I’m not deliberately going to spoil the film, but I’m also not going to hold back if I need to talk about something in detail to make a point. If you’ve seen the trailers for the film, though, there’s nothing in here that hasn’t already been spoiled by the trailers (and if you haven’t seen the trailers but still want to see the film—skip the trailers and just go watch the film!).

I will admit that I went into this film with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. When the first trailers dropped on YouTube, I wasn’t all that interested. I encountered the first trailer as a pre-roll ad on other videos, and I skipped it quite a few times before finally deciding to watch it. “Hmm,” I thought. “This looks like it could either be good... or a disaster.” But surely it couldn’t be good, could it? Surely this was just a cash grab, an attempt to spin out another cinematic universe as audiences grow tired of the existing universes (I’m looking at you, Star Wars and Marvel). It was no doubt going to reek of corporate desperation and cluelessness. Right?

But the more trailers I watched—and I ended up watching just about all of them, I think—the more I wanted to believe. After all, look at the cast! They’ve got Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, and even Hugh Grant playing the villain at his scenery-chewing best! The special effects look pretty good, and it looks like it should be pretty funny, too! Yet doubts remained in the back of my mind. What if the actors are just there for the paycheck? What if they just picked the best of the special effects for the trailers? What if the humor turns out to be too self-aware or too cringey? The reviews looked good, though, so we took the leap and went to see it.

Since I’ve made a big fuss about how worried I was that the film wouldn’t be good, I’ll save you any further suspense and get the bottom line out of the way: It is good! It is not, as I told some friends, a culture-changing masterpiece on the level of the Lord of the Rings films, but that’s fine, because that’s not what they were going for. The filmmakers wanted to make a fun film that was a love letter to D&D but could be enjoyed by both players and non-players alike. In this regard I believe they succeeded; not only did I enjoy it as a D&D player, HJ enjoyed it as a non-player as well. I think it is a testament to the film that we spent much of the afternoon talking about it, with HJ asking me a lot of questions about D&D to get a better understanding of the world. The film had started with a lot of heavy exposition and world-building, and I was worried that might turn her off, but it actually served to make her more curious.

That being said, I can only talk about what I think makes the film good, so while some of this will be universal, keep in mind that this is from the perspective of a D&D player who is pretty familiar with the game and (to a somewhat lesser extent) the world as a whole. What it boils down to for me is that the film avoided a lot of the pitfalls of big blockbuster pictures these days (self-aware snark, subversion of perfectly valid expectations, etc.) while managing to capture what it feels like to play D&D. Even the exposition-heavy introduction feels like the DM setting everything up with a dramatic speech about how the world has been plunged into darkness and you, brave heroes, are the ones to save it!

It is, of course, a dramatization of a campaign as opposed to a depiction of a campaign, but you can almost see the players behind the characters, a bunch of friends who are just having fun and sometimes giving each other a hard time. (If you’re not familiar with roleplaying games, “player” refers to the actual human being who is sitting at the table playing the game, while the “character” is the persona—or role—that they take on.) And even though the DM (the dungeon master, the person who runs the game) is not a specific character on screen, there were definitely scenes that absolutely felt like a DM just screwing with the players.

The graveyard scene felt to me like the perfect embodiment of all of this—which is probably why it featured prominently in trailers (and why I don’t consider it too much of a spoiler). As the heroes get ready to use an amulet that allows them to speak with the dead, one character (a druid) asks another (a sorcerer) how it works. The sorcerer says that the amulet will allow them to raise a dead person and ask them five questions. “Why five questions?” asks the druid. “That’s just the way it works,” replies the sorcerer. The druid shrugs. “Seems kind of arbitrary.” Which it absolutely is. Why five questions? Why not three, or seven? But that’s the way the spell works, so five questions it is.

The DM messing with the players comes when the bard speaks with the first person they raise. The first question goes well, but then the bard turns to the sorcerer and says, “I get four more questions, right?” At which point the dead guy says, “Yes.” They then waste the remaining questions arguing back and forth and have to go raise another dead guy. It’s funny by itself, but for a D&D player it will no doubt bring back memories of times when a clever DM messed with them.

From the players’ perspectives, one of the things that makes D&D fun is that everyone has to work together to solve problems. Sure, sometimes the “solution” to a problem is to just bash a whole bunch of heads, but often problems require thinking outside of the box or improvising when things go off the rails. Scenes in the film where the characters came up with plans, executed them, and then pivoted when it all went wrong, were thus very satisfying to watch. One of these plans involved the characters deliberately jumping straight into a gelatinous cube (which, again, was shown in a trailer). If you’re a D&D player, you don’t need to be told why this feels like insanity. If you’re not a D&D player... well, remember that scene in the first Star Wars film where Luke, Han, and Leia unwittingly leap into the trash compactor on the Death Star? Imagine if they knew it was a trash compactor inhabited by a monster and jumped in anyway. It would be sort of like that, I guess. At any rate, I was really looking forward to seeing why the characters jumped straight into a gelatinous cube—and it turned out to be part of a risky but pretty ingenuous plan! That was honestly one of my favorite moments (among a lot of favorite moments).

The scenes where they bashed a whole bunch of heads were fun, too. Some of the battles, like the big, climactic battle at the end, did use a lot of special effects, but they still managed to feel grounded to me. Perhaps the most fun, though, was watching Holga the barbarian go to town on a bunch of guards. And Michelle Rodriguez had put in the work to bulk up into a believable barbarian, so it felt completely natural that she could take out a guard detail. Watching Xenk the paladin fight was a different experience but also a lot of fun. I’ll just say that the combat didn’t disappoint, and it never felt so over-the-top or reliant on special effects that it lost touch with reality. Or, you know, the reality of a D&D game, at least.

Another thing that the film nails is the tonal balance. It manages to be funny when it needs to be funny and serious when it needs to be serious. Before seeing the film, I heard that it was very similar to Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy in that regard, which was encouraging because GotG is my favorite part of the MCU. If you liked Guardians, I’m pretty sure you will like Honor Among Thieves as well. If you didn’t like Guardians... well, the door is over there. Don’t let it hit you on the way out.

I’m kidding, of course. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if it’s wrong. But I do think that Guardians managed to do something that a lot of other Marvel films failed to do. One of the most egregious examples of this failure, for me, came at the very end of Thor: Ragnarok (spoilers ahead!). The remnants of Asgard’s population, including Thor and Loki, as well as a rock creature named Korg (voiced by director Taika Waititi), are gathered on a spaceship, looking back at Asgard as Surtur rages on the planet. Korg starts making a speech about how they will rebuild Asgard as long as the foundations are strong. The first hint that something is wrong here is the fact that Korg, who has absolutely no ties to Asgard, is making this speech. Why not Thor? Or even Loki? Well, we find out a moment later, when Korg’s speech is interrupted by Asgard being completely destroyed. And instead of letting that sink in—Thor, Loki, and all the other surviving Asgardians have just watched their planet crumble into fire and ruin—Korg babbles on: “Nope, those foundations are gone. Sorry.” Reader, I confess that in that moment I nearly leaped out of my seat and threw something at the screen in my rage. It was so infuriating, and so telling that the filmmakers did not trust that serious moment to land. How am I supposed to take anything in your film seriously if you don’t?

This is the sort of nonsense that Honor Among Thieves does not do. Like I said, when it’s funny, it’s funny. But there are some heartfelt moments as well, and the film is not afraid to let them linger (and the writers and cast are talented enough to make them work). And let me clarify that when I say the film is funny, I don’t mean it is funny in the nod-nod-wink-wink, “Don’t worry, we’re not taking this seriously” post-modern sort of way. The film takes itself and its world seriously, and it does not need to wink at the audience to convince them to just go along with things for the sake of the story. Even when the humor comes from a quirk of the D&D rules (such as in the scene with the raising of the dead), it always feels like the filmmakers are lovingly poking fun at the game, not mocking it.

That being said, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. After all, the story begins with two of the protagonists in front of a parole board in a maximum security prison. As one curmudgeonly reviewer I saw put it, they didn’t have parole boards in the medieval era, and it is unlikely that the nation portrayed in the film would have had the tax base to support a maximum security prison like that. The problem, of course, is that the reviewer (a DM himself, and very knowledgeable about the game) was being serious, which left me a little gobsmacked. That’s like seeing the computer screens in The Matrix and complaining about the code being just a bunch of cascading green symbols and not “real code.” D&D doesn’t take place in our medieval era—it takes place in a fantasy world that is loosely based on our medieval era but also includes magic, monsters, undead, and more dungeons filled with treasure than you can shake a studded club at. If you’re focusing on the viability of the economy of your made-up fantasy world, I think you might be missing the point. The film, however, does not miss the point; this balance of humor and seriousness is one of the key ways in which the film recreates the feel of a game of D&D.

So that’s my review. Honor Among Thieves is not going to make anyone’s “Hundred Best Films of All Time” list, but it is a lovingly crafted and excellently written film with great performances, special effects, and set pieces. It’s a lot of fun, and both HJ and I had a blast watching it. You don’t have to have ever played D&D to appreciate it—like I said above, HJ seemed to enjoy the film just as much as I did, and she’s not only never played D&D before, she’s never had even the slightest interest in it. She is not a big gamer, full stop, so I have to admit it was really nice to be able to talk about roleplaying games with her afterward and not have her eyes glaze over.

I’ve played D&D (or other roleplaying games) on and off since I was young. My first exposure to the game was in grade school, when I got together with a group of friends to embark on an ill-fated campaign. We all met our untimely ends when we entered an underground chamber and the roof collapsed on us, resulting in a TPK (total party kill). I believe we all rolled up new characters on the spot (the verb “roll” here refers to the rolling of dice to determine character attributes like strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc.), but I don’t remember the campaign really going anywhere. That might seem innocent enough, but this game was no mere pastime—because this was in the middle of the Satanic Panic in the US. The reach of this panic was broad, and D&D was soon caught in its net as various forms of media jumped on the bandwagon. In 1981, a novel titled Mazes and Monsters riffed on urban legends of kids going into steam tunnels in order to act out roleplaying fantasies (and then maybe dying), and a film version starring Tom Hanks was released the following year. In 1984, Jack Chick, a publisher of Christian tracts, released a tract called “Dark Dungeons,” which painted D&D as a gateway to the occult. If you’ve never seen this before, I would encourage you to follow that link and read the tract for yourself. It will give you a good idea of some of the panic surrounding the game in Christian circles at the time.

I remember reading a physical copy of this tract back in the 80s. I suppose it was designed to scare me away from D&D, but all it really did was confuse me. The game portrayed in the tract bore no resemblance to the game I had played. It looked like how D&D might be described by someone who has never played the game and only heard about it from some guy in Central Park who otherwise spends his time ranting about how tacos are actually a Mexican plot to enslave the population of New York. Believe me, as a Christian growing up during the Satanic Panic, I heard a lot about how D&D was a ticket straight to hell. But I never could figure out how the doomsayers got from “playing a game” to “being in a Satanic cult that casts real spells and summons actual demons.” The tract depicts D&D as being a training ground for prospective recruits; the DMs (Satanic priests and priestesses in disguise) carefully watch their players to see who has the most potential and then induct them into their covens. OK, say I buy that—that still doesn’t explain what playing a roleplaying game has to do with being an actual witch.

There was another article I remember reading, though, that makes the connection much more explicit (again, I would encourage you to read this, lest you think I am exaggerating). In it, a man claiming to have been a “witch high priest” and into “hardcore Satanism” says that two game writers from TSR (the original publishers of D&D) interviewed him and his wife to “make certain the rituals were authentic.” He then goes on to say that a TSR employee quit the company because “he saw that the rituals were too authentic and could be dangerous.” His argument is basically that even if you perform a Satanic ritual in complete innocence as part of a game, it may still be effective at summoning demons into your life. Or, as he puts it: “If you play at shooting your friend in the head with what you think is an unloaded pistol and don't know a shell is in the chamber, is your friend any less dead because you were playing?”

The problem is that there aren’t now and never have been any actual “rituals” in D&D—unless you count the social rituals involved in playing the game itself. “Casting a spell” simply means stating your intention and then rolling dice to determine the outcome. At no point do players do anything that could be remotely considered an occult ritual; D&D has no more connection to the occult than the Game of Life has to real life. This makes the pistol analogy rather flawed. A more appropriate analogy would be pointing your finger at your friend’s head and saying, “Bang!” Now, if your friend dies from that, you’ve got bigger problems on your hands than what game you are playing. At the time, I remember thinking that the author must have been confused; now I realize he was most likely just lying and playing off of the panic.

It should be obvious by now that the occult claims against D&D are ridiculous. But this is only part of the criticism I remember hearing; much more mainstream was the idea that kids were getting so deep into the game that they could no longer distinguish fantasy from reality, and that they were killing each other or committing suicide as a result. This is the fear that Mazes and Monsters plays on, and it’s the horror that finally makes the protagonist of “Dark Dungeons” realize the error of her ways (and it is also touched on in the article above). Now, I will admit that D&D players identify more closely with the characters they play than, say, an arcade gamer identifies with a yellow disc that goes “waka waka waka” as it eats energy pellets. But is this identification so strong that it could leave severe emotional scars should a character die?

Let me tell you the story of the death of a beloved character of mine. He was a half-elven (like Simon from the D&D movie) ranger with a vendetta. One of the big baddies in our campaign had killed his family, and the ranger was out for revenge. Our party quested for months, and at long last we tracked the bad guy to a lonely tower. As soon as my character saw him, he was filled with a vengeful rage and chased the villain up a set of spiral stairs. This was the moment the villain had been waiting for; he used his magical defenses to prevent the rest of the party from coming to my character’s aid. Of course, our party had spellcasters as well, but it would take time to bring down the defenses, so until then it was just the ranger versus the villain.

Because the other characters weren’t present for the encounter, the DM and I went into a separate room to play out the battle. My character was fairly powerful by that point, so I should have been able to beat the villain, but my dice rolls were absolutely horrible—I think at one point I rolled two critical fumbles (a 1 on a 20-sided die) in a row. The ranger was ultimately defeated, and the villain inhabited his form in order to infiltrate and destroy the rest of the party. Of course, since the ranger was essentially now the villain, it was up to me to play him. We went back into the room with the rest of our friends and I proclaimed my victory. I did my best to act the part, but I could see the suspicion in my friends’ eyes, so I waited until I thought I had the best chance to catch them off guard and attacked. Even with the added powers of the villain, though, I was no match for a wary party, and the tide of battle quickly turned against me. I told the DM that I wanted to run across the hall, leap through a window, and flee. “Are you sure?” the DM asked. “If you succeed, your character will be gone forever.” I think his idea was that the party would overcome the villain and revive my character. But I was playing the villain now, and the villain would most certainly have fled when outmatched. I made the necessary rolls (oh, so now I can roll properly), leaped through the window, and that was it. My character wasn’t technically dead, but he was gone forever.

My friends shunned me after this incident. After all, I had betrayed their trust and tried to kill them. More importantly, though, my character was gone, which meant that I “didn’t exist anymore.” I was driven from the apartment where we had been playing out onto the cold streets of a late autumn’s eve. I wandered through the darkness, despondent, trying to come to terms with the fact that my ranger was gone forever. Could I somehow find it within myself to go on, or would I—oh, wait. Sorry, I was confusing real life with that Jack Chick tract. What actually happened was I immediately rolled up a new character who was then introduced to the party at a tavern (this is where all D&D characters meet), and we continued playing. Because it’s a game. The fact that you roleplay as someone who is not you doesn’t make it any less of a game than something like Monopoly or Life. It just makes it a heck of a lot more fun. Was I disappointed that my ranger was gone? Sure—I really liked that character. But that story is also my most vivid and cherished memory of that entire campaign.

D&D happened to have become a target of the Satanic Panic in the 80s, but adults manufacturing moral panics over the games their children play is nothing new. I think modern mass media is the Petri dish in which concerns are more readily incubated into actual moral panics, but an important underlying mechanism here is the fact that adults (for some reason) have long had a hard time believing that children are capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality. From an adult perspective, it may look like kids are really into their make-believe, perhaps to the point of getting lost in it, but that’s only because kids haven’t been around long enough for their imaginations to have been dampened by the drudgery and cynicism of life. Kids know that their make-believe isn’t real. But they also have an inherent understanding of the power of dreams and fantasies, something that we often lose as we get older. That’s all D&D is: It’s just a more structured way of playing make-believe. If that sounds a little too childish for you, think of it as I always have—as collective storytelling. You get a bunch of friends together who agree to inhabit the world created by the DM, and together you weave exciting narratives and build strong social bonds.

I’ve long since left behind the pretense of a film review here, but I do want to return to the film by way of wrapping this up, as I think what I’ve said here serves to explain something I mentioned above. I talked about how the film managed genuine humor without poking fun at itself or nodding and winking at the audience, and I said that this was one way it recreated the feel of a game of D&D. What I meant was this: When players come together to play a campaign, they agree to suspend their disbelief and buy into the world that the DM has created. This is a world that is vastly different from the lived experiences of the players. It is a world of magic, of monsters, of absurd amounts of treasure and mystical artifacts. It is a world where the players can engage in feats of heroism (or villainy) that they would never be able to approach in real life. We know it’s a fantasy, but that unspoken pact that lies at the foundation of every D&D campaign means that we take everything at face value and just run with it.

At the same time, though, we’re still just a bunch of friends sitting around a table (or perhaps online) and having fun. We joke with each other both in and out of character. Even as we take everything quite seriously, we also see the humor in the world and in our characters’ relationships. That is what the film felt like. I don’t know if I’ve done a good job explaining it here, but if you’re a D&D player hopefully you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The characters are invested in the story, and they’re going to try their best to defeat the villain and win the day—but they are also still just a bunch of friends playing a game.

I’ve watched a number of interviews with the cast of the film, through which I learned that the main cast (minus Hugh Grant, for obvious reasons) actually played a game of D&D as their characters before filming. That makes a lot of sense to me, and it shows that the filmmakers took their task seriously. In some of these interviews, Chris Pine talked about the experience of playing D&D, and he said it was “just like improv.” Of course, it’s not exactly like improv—D&D has a much more complex set of rules that govern the world, and the DM puts in a lot of time and effort to create that world before the characters populate it—but I get what he’s saying. The first rule of improv (which I’ve had some experience with) is that you always agree with your improv partners; this is often expressed as “Yes, and....” In other words, rather than trying to shape the world to your own specific tastes and desires, you take what your partners give you and run with it to build something together. It’s the same with D&D. If another player in your party decides that their character is just going to barge head-first into a room full of foes (something that I have also had experience with), all of those carefully crafted plans you had in mind are now pointless because you’re being swarmed by a horde of goblins. That is happening now, and you’ve got to deal with it.

There is a scene in the film where Xenk the paladin is laying out a very intricate plan for getting past an obstacle. The music is tense and the camera zooms in, and in your mind’s eye you’re already seeing the characters trying to put this plan into action. But then all hell breaks loose—it turns out that the sorcerer, while listening to this intricate plan being laid out, accidentally triggered a mechanism that rendered the obstacle seemingly impassible. This rang so true to me, because I’ve been in situations almost exactly like that. The characters in the film improvised, though, coming up with a solution to get them past the obstacle. So, yeah—both the game and the film really are just like improv in the end.

I think the highest praise that I could give this film is that it made me want to play a tabletop roleplaying game again. My schedule doesn’t really allow me to get involved in extended D&D campaigns anymore, but if I thought I could spare the time I would definitely seek out a gaming group and start playing. I don’t know when that will happen, so for now I will content myself with the film and eagerly await the next installment.

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