Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, a review

So, Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, which I have just watched. I have some thoughts. Spoilers from here on out!

Theatrical release poster for Honour Among Thieves which depicts a big D&D logo in flames (a dragon curled into the form of an ampersand and breathing fire)

Up front I shall say: that was OK. Not amazing, but not bad either. It could have been cringy, or worthy, and it was not. It struck a reasonable balance between being overly puffed up with a sense of epic self-importance (which it avoided) and being campy and ridiculous and mocking all of us who are invested in the game (which it also avoided). So, a tentative thumbs-up, I suppose. That’s the headline review.

But there is more to be considered in the movie. I do rather like that for those of us who play D&D, pretty much everything in the film was recognisable as an actual rules-compliant thing, without making a big deal about it. I’m sure there are rules lawyers quibbling about the detail (“blah blah wildshape into an owlbear”, “blah blah if she can cast time stop why does she need some crap adventurers to help”) but that’s all fine. It’s a film, not a rulebook.

I liked how Honour Among Thieves is recognisably using canon from an existing D&D land, Faerûn, but without making it important; someone who doesn’t know this stuff will happily pass over the names of Szass Tam or Neverwinter or Elminster or Mordenkainen as irrelevant world-building, but that’s in there for those of us who know those names. It’s the good sort of fanservice; the sort that doesn’t ruin things if you’re not a fan.

(Side notes: Simon is an Aumar? And more importantly, he’s Simon the Sorcerer? Is that a sly reference to the Simon the Sorcerer? Nice, if so. Also, I’m sure there are one billion little references that I didn’t catch but might on a second or third or tenth viewing, and also sure that there are one billion web pages categorising them all in exhaustive detail. I liked the different forms of Bigby’s Hand. But what happened to the random in the gelatinous cube?)

And Chris Pine is nowhere near as funny as he thinks he is. Admittedly, he’s playing a character, and obviously Edgin the character’s vibe is that Edgin is not as funny as he thinks he is, but even given that, it felt like half the jokes were delivered badly and flatly. Marvel films get the comedy right; this film seemed a bit mocking of the concept, and didn’t work for me at all.

I was a bit disappointed in the story in Honour Among Thieves, though. The characters are shallow, as is the tale; there’s barely any emotional investment in any of it. We’re supposed, presumably, to identify with Simon’s struggles to attune to the helmet and root for him, or with the unexpectedness of Holga’s death and Edgin and Kira’s emotions, but… I didn’t. None of it was developed enough; none of it made me feel for the characters and empathise with them. (OK, small tear at Holga’s death scene. But I’m easily emotionally manipulated by films. No problem with that.) Similarly, I was a bit annoyed at how flat and undeveloped the characters were at first; the paladin Xenk delivering the line about Edgin re-becoming a Harper with zero gravitas, and the return of the money to the people being nowhere near as epically presented as it could have been.

But then I started thinking, and I realised… this is a D&D campaign!

That’s not a complaint at all. The film is very much like an actual D&D game! When playing, we do all strive for epic moves and fail to deliver them with the gravitas that a film would, because we’re not pro actors. NPCs do give up the info you want after unrealistically brief persuasion, because we want to get through that quick and we rolled an 18. The plans are half-baked but with brilliant ideas (the portal painting was great). That’s D&D! For real!

You know how when someone else is describing a fun #dnd game and the story doesn’t resonate all that strongly with you? This is partially because the person telling you is generally not an expert storyteller, but mostly because you weren’t there. You didn’t experience it happening, so you missed the good bits. The jokes, the small epic moments, the drama, the bombast.

That’s what D&D: Honour Among Thieves is. It’s someone telling you about their D&D campaign.

It’s possible to rise above this, if you want to and you’re really good. Dragonlance is someone telling you about their D&D campaign, for example. Critical Role can pull off the epic and the tragic and the hilarious in ways that fall flat when others try (because they’re all very good actors with infinite charisma). But I think it’s OK to not necessarily try for that. Our games are fun, even when not as dramatic or funny as films. Honour Among Thieves is the same.

I don’t know if there’s a market for more. I don’t know how many people want to hear a secondhand story about someone else’s D&D campaign that cost $150m. This is why I only gave it a tentative thumbs-up. But… I believe that the film-makers’ attempt to make Honour Among Thieves be like actual D&D is deliberate, and I admire that.

This game of ours is epic and silly and amateurish and glorious all at once, and I’m happy with that. And with a film that reflects it.

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