Will This One Be Good?
We don’t know much about the upcoming D&D movie, except what we’ve learned from the Comic Con panel and the trailers posted on YouTube. However, those tidbits provide a first glimpse that looks promising.
This will be D&D’s fourth foray into movie territory, but the first three movies were mostly not a hit with the fans. While each film had some redeeming qualities, they all failed to meet expectations.
Given that track record, it’s only normal for fans to feel apprehension as the release date of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves draws close. While we wait for the movie to come out, we can review what went wrong with the first three movies and predict if this latest entry will be an improvement over its predecessors.
With positive reviews beginning to roll in from critics, we have reason for cautious optimism! Frankly, we’re excited to see this one, and step directly into the beloved world of the Forgotten Realms.
Finally, A Familiar World Setting
D&D would not have a home if it weren’t for the many worlds where the game takes place. In D&D, the setting is key, and the game can take place in several worlds. For example, the Forgotten Realms—the world setting created by Ed Greenwood in the ’60s—is still in use today. It has seen many iterations since the launch of the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Boxed Set in 1987. Most D&D 5th Edition adventures published today by the current owner—Wizards of the Coast (WoTC)—still take place in the Forgotten Realms.
Despite the popularity of the Forgotten Realms, the first D&D movies did not use that world as their setting. The first two movies were set in Izmir, a realm D&D players knew nothing about.
Luckily, the writers of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves elected to base their story in the Forgotten Realms. This will most likely appeal to D&D players who have adventured in the beloved setting over the years.
Ed Greenwood’s Neverwinter
The city of Neverwinter seems to be a central location in the new film. Neverwinter happens to be one of the key cities of the Sword Coast, the Western region of the Forgotten Realms where most 5e D&D adventures take place. The Sword Coast is well documented in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide that was released for 5e D&D.
While the writers could have set their story in any of the many great cities dotting the Sword Coast, the choice of Neverwinter is a good one. It is one of the most well-known cities to D&D players. The city is prominently featured in some of R. A. Salvatore’s popular Drizzt Do’Urden novels. It is also at the center of Bioware’s 1992 computer RPG Neverwinter Nights. Gamers still play it today, and Beamdog released an enhanced version of the game in 2018. The city is also the setting of the Neverwinter MMORPG that will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year.
Dungeons & Dragons’ Rich Lore
Closely tied to the setting, lore is a key component of a D&D game. The richer the lore, the more immersive the role-playing experience—and the Forgotten Realms (and D&D in general) are a treasure trove of lore. The longer gamers spend playing D&D, the more lore they’ll accumulate, making their tabletop gaming that much richer.
Lore casts a wide net. It can refer to monsters, notable historical events, noteworthy locations, and legendary NPCs (Non-Player Characters, in D&D vernacular). Moviegoing D&D fans will therefore be in familiar—even revered—territory when they watch Honor Among Thieves.
The filmmakers were keen on featuring known landmarks of the Realms. In an interview featured on D&D’s Facebook channel, WoTC Game Design Architect Chris Perkins revealed that the directors asked WoTC if there was a prison in the Forgotten Realms that they could use in the movie. There was no such prison, but WoTC created one—Revel’s End prison—for the movie, and it is now featured in two D&D adventures: Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden and the recently released Keys from the Golden Vault. Now fans can look forward to seeing how the filmmakers brought that new lore to life!
Looking Forward to Our Favorite Monsters
Remember the scene in episode 16 of season 12 of The Big Bang Theory: The D&D Vortex—where William Shatner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Joe Manganiello are arguing whether their party is fighting an otyugh or a neo-otyugh? These things matter to D&D players—which explains the controversy kicked up by the druid in Honor Among Thieves being able to morph into an owlbear, which is not possible according to D&D rules. That level of detail is important to D&D players, and you can bet they will look forward to seeing how their favorite monsters are portrayed onscreen.
While the first few movies casted some favorite monsters—dragons and orcs, etc—the execution left much to be desired. The second D&D movie, Wrath of the Dragon God, featured a lich (a D&D staple), but the viewers had to be told it was a lich mostly due to a budget-strapped makeup job. The same can be said about what I can only assume were orcs in the tavern scene in the first Dungeons & Dragons movie.
In Wrath of the Dragon God, there is a cave scene in which the party is beset by darkmantles; and while this monster is not as well known as other more popular D&D monsters, every player who’s ever adventured underground has had to deal with darkmantles during their adventures. So, there is respect for the lore in the previous movies and a genuine interest in featuring staples of the game, but either because of limited budget or poor execution, they did not have the expected impact on the fans.
Honor Among Thieves Delivering the Classics
In contrast, the short clips from Honor Among Thieves are chuck full of staple D&D monsters. The scene where Michelle Rodriguez’s Holga confronts a mimic is almost iconic. I still remember the first time I fought a mimic in a D&D adventure, and every D&D fan will relate. In another scene, we see the main characters ducking out of the way of a displacer beast by jumping into a gelatinous cube, a truly awe-inspiring moment. The scene works because it is reminiscent of thousands of crazy schemes D&D players have cooked up over the years to get out of a bind at the gaming table.
D&D’s Recognizable Villains
In a clip from Honor Among Thieves, we receive a quick view of Szass Tam (portrayed by Ian Hanmore), arguably the most (in)famous lich in the entire Forgotten Realms. Szass Tam is the ruler of Thay, a kingdom to the East of Neverwinter steeped in necromancy where the Red Wizards rule over the populace.
The Red Wizards are staple villains of the Forgotten Realms. They are featured in many adventures and are one of the favorite go-to villains of the D&D game. What little we see of Szass Tam appears to be dead-on. Szass Tam as the villain is a marked improvement over Jeremy Irons’s over-the-top portrayal of archmage Profion in the first movie, and Bruce Payne’s Damodar in the second movie. Both Irons and Payne are excellent actors, but the scripts didn’t give them much to work on. Daisy Head also looks the part as Red Wizard Sofina, down to the bald head as per the Mulani tradition in Thay (another nod to D&D lore).
Honor Among Thieves’ Cast… as a D&D Party
The success of any D&D adventure depends on the strength of the party. If your party doesn’t bring a diverse set of skills to the gaming table, the chance of a TPK (Total Party Kill) increases exponentially. A well-rounded party needs brain, brawn, magic, healing and stealth. The archetypical D&D party is basically composed of a fighter, a mage, a cleric, and a thief. Transposed to the movie screen, this means a very diverse ensemble cast. The first two D&D movies succeeded to some extent in bringing together a great party. In the first movie, Justin Whalin’s Ridley Freeborn was the archetypical thief; a real scoundrel, both bold and charismatic. Zoey McLellan’s mage Marina, Robert Miano’s dwarf Azmath and Krista Wilson’s Norda also looked the part to varying extent. Marlon Wayans’ Snails, unfortunately, turned out to be too obnoxious.
Wrath of the Dragon God presented us with a much more interesting party. The barbarian Lux played by Ellie Chidzey stole the show. Tim Stern also portrayed a very convincing, even endearing thief, Nim. Mark Dymond, the leading man, presented as the weak link in an otherwise solid cast. Overall, though, they made a very convincing D&D party.
How will the party in Honor Among Thieves compare? Michelle Rodriguez appears convincing as a barbarian, but I still prefer Ellie Chidzey’s Lux barbarian in Wrath of the Dragon God. Chris Pine looks the part of a bard. I just hope they don’t treat him with as much derision as some clips hint. Regé-Jean Page’s paladin and Justice Smith’s sorcerer join the bard and the barbarian.
Will they make a great D&D party? We’ll know in a few weeks, but their dynamics look good in the clips!
Injecting Humor into D&D
Anyone who has thrown a d20 will tell you that humor is a key D&D component both in-game and around the table. But humor is difficult to master when you’re trying to tell a serious story, as the first D&D movie will attest to.
In the first movie, we simply get too much of it. The dwarf character is caricatural, and then there is Marlon Wayans’ Snails. The character could have been endearing, but Wayans’ performance strays too far into Jar Jar Binks territory. I remember moviegoers clapping when Snails met his gruesome end in the movie’s second act. Humor can make a scene, but it can also make an entire performance fall into comic relief in a movie where it does not have a place.
Humor plays an important role in Honor Among Thieves, but will it venture too far like its predecessor? In one clip, Edgin (Pine) and Holga (Rodriguez) find themselves at risk of decapitation. Holga manages to free herself from her restraints while Edgin struggles to cut his ropes against the edge of a rock stair. “You know what? I’m thinking there are probably sharper stairs somewhere else,” Edgin says lightheartedly while Helga fights off the guards single-handedly. The scene works, but is Pine’s character edging too close to the same comic relief that proved to be Wayans’ downfall in the first movie? We’ll have to wait and see.
The graveyard scene is a good example of humor working in a D&D setting. Edgin interrogates a corpse reanimated by Simon’s magic. Edgin unknowingly wastes the five questions the spell allowed him to ask. It’s a hilarious scene not only in its own right, but also because D&D players will have faced similar situations at the gaming table. Wily dungeon masters enjoy throwing such gotcha situations at their players, and it makes the game that much more exciting, challenging and a true role-playing experience.
Hopes are High, but Expectations are Measured
There are many other elements that are key to a good D&D movie, the script being the foremost. Honor Among Thieves benefits from a good ensemble cast, experienced filmmakers, reverence for the source material, and great production value. We can only hope that it will rise above the previous iterations and be the first of many good D&D movies to follow.
Jules-Pierre Malartre lives in Quebec, which is as close to The Great White North that he will ever dare go. In 2005, he quit a promising aerospace engineering career to go into freelance copywriting. Since then, he has become considerably poorer, but has grown much happier. When he is not writing technical manuals, newspaper articles or online features, he is working on his first novel. His first short story, “The Rest Was Easy,” was published by the online literary magazine Amarillo Bay in 2013.
[ Read more from Jules-Pierre: Neverwinter D&D: Tabletop & Video Games ]
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