Can the D&D Movie Survive the Game’s Actual Play Popularity?

Michelle Rodriguez, Chris Pine, Justice Smith, and Sophia Lillis in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

Image: Paramount/eOne

Paramount’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves movie has been receiving a steady drip feed of information in recent years. This weekend’s San Diego Comic-Con gave us our first extensive look at the film, which stars Chris Pine as a bard leading an adventuring party who find themselves tasked with saving the world after accidentally stealing an artifact that plunged the world into danger in the first place.

Thieves’ trailer wastes no time attempting to sell viewers on how authentically D&D it is, with CG renditions of various creatures from the TTRPG littered throughout the trailer, Sophia Lillis as a druid who can shapeshift into an owlbear—even if certain D&D rule sticklers bristled at a druid wildshaping into a monster, rather than a beast, but who cares—and even Pine’s bard playing a little ditty on his lute. Any concerns about this being a self-serious story in the vein of The Witcher or Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series will evaporate almost right away; instead, the film looks like it’s playing in the same goofy, but adventurous space you can find just by watching Critical Role (in either version) or by playing D&D on your own.

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Image: Prime Video

Of the different adaptations of various IP due to come out in the next few years, Dungeons & Dragons is one of the more interesting because of its hybrid nature. D&D provides one of the perfect settings for fantasy fans, as it’s simultaneously inviting enough to avoid putting off newcomers, while also featuring enough guidance for storytellers to get their feet wet before branching off to other, more expansive systems. Wizards of the Coast has had no trouble expanding the game’s lore with the release of new sourcebooks, and that can be dense and extensive, even when adapted into either a novel (one of several) or video game.

But all that lore is often just flavor text as players collaborate and go on adventures of their own. Some Dungeon Masters incorporate the universe’s lore into their stories, others do away with it and start fresh, using only the gameplay systems. (Some TTRPGs just borrow D&D’s system to transpose it into the setting of a video game.) There isn’t a truly wrong way to play D&D, and in the moments where everything clicks, it’s an exciting way to spend time with friends. It’s just fun to unwind by seducing a guardsman or punching zombies in the face with one’s burning hands.

And we know that it can be exciting to watch, as Actual Play series such as Critical Role and The Adventure Zone have become extremely popular, and brands unto themselves. An entire YouTube channel is devoted to creating pop culture characters in D&D. Even when TV shows devote entire episodes to their characters playing an in-universe version of the game, there’s a mutual feeling of satisfaction as characters express skepticism at the game before being completely won over, assuming they weren’t into it already. As a social game, D&D is hitting it out of the park in the way it brings people together and makes fans excited to hear or watch the stories of other players.

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Image: Carey Pietsch/First Second

But is D&D exciting to watch as a $200M blockbuster with A and B-list stars? That’ll be the true hurdle in the way of Honor Among Thieves. On some level, there’s a degree of relatability in watching voice actors and comedians play the game in a studio in LA, or at least allows for flights of fancy as one watches these trained professionals do so for three-to-seven hours on a weeknight. The same can’t be said of a film, or at least not in the first trailer for Thieves; there’s no minis, no debate over whether or not someone can do a cool move that they’re really itching to try out, and so on.

It’s possible the film is hiding that twist to avoid concerns of coming across as meta or ironic about its source material. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s that shared busywork among players is that helps make D&D what it is. Little things in the grand scheme, sure, but they give the game its spark. Making the effort to do an action, and the unity that players feel if and when someone screws up, is paramount to the experience.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves brings the fight to theaters on March 3, 2023.

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