Saturday, June 10, 2023

Not D&D

So I've now managed to watch the new D&D film twice; it's available for free on one of the many streaming services my cable company gives me.

[oh horrors! People cry...JB you have so little time for ANYthing, why would you waste it watching the same movie TWICE, let alone THAT one? Well, folks, the fact is my family watches too much television as it is...usually starting around "dinner time" and then only ending at "bedtime;" because of our daily schedule of activities it amounts to about 2+ hours every week night. So for me to throw on the film in the background while cooking is no big deal (TV's going to be on anyway) so long as no one complains about what I'm watching (and they didn' this case)]

I am going to pen my thoughts on the thing. There will (probably) be SPOILERS.

You may think, from the title of my post, that I didn't like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. That would be incorrect. It isn't stellar, mind-blowing cinema, but it's likable enough: breezy, lightly entertaining fantasy fare. A good, on-the-couch-with-popcorn movie (which is how I viewed it the first evening). My family, including my wife, enjoyed it quite a bit.

Despite liking it, however, I'm rather astounded at the reviews the thing has received. 93% popcorn rating? 90% Rotten Tomatoes?! Wha-wha-what? Really? I mean, it's about on par with one of those Ant-Man films and none of those have cracked the high 80s. Heck, it wasn't much of a cut above the latest Shazam! film, and that thing was under 50%.

Thing is, despite better (and more likable) actors, tighter directing, updated special effects, and delightful music score, I found a lot of the film quite similar to the original (rightly panned) D&D movie. A lot of parallels. That's not an attempted 'put down;' I just find it...interesting.

Okay, let me list a few of the things I quite liked about the film:
  • The actors, their approach to the film, and the chemistry was all quite good.
  • Some fun little "D&Disms" were nice to see: all the traditional PC races (minus...elves?) make an appearance. Seeing black dragons, intellect devourers, and owlbears in a live-action  film is fun. Some iconic spell use (Bigby's hand spells, Evard's black tentacles, timestop, etc.) is neat and showcases some of the unique aspects of D&D versus the usual fantasy drama.
  • Immensely enjoyed some of the traditional class portrayals. The paladin was great (love the idea that he "smells" evil). The half-elf sorcerer was quite a good example of a low-level magic-user. Dug the bard flashbacks when he was wearing some sort of plate armor (perhaps in his days as a fighter?). And the fighter lady (Holga? I really can't remember any of their names) was highly reminiscent of my friend's long-running character, except she used a talking sword and preferred her potatoes mashed. Oh, and she didn't have a thing for halflings.
  • I quite liked the tiefling character! At least, I didn't hate it. But I'm sure many 5E aficionados will say "that's not a tiefling!" and perhaps that's why it appealed to me. The small horns, prehensile tail, and shapeshifting druid thing all gave the character a very fairy tale fey vibe that I quite liked (as opposed to the edgy half-demon warlock with fire abilities and sexy high charisma). No, she was cute and bumpkin-y ("guileless") and a good stand-in for the 'Tolkien elf' which I'm, frankly, quite sick of.
  • Even though I'm not a fan of the Forgotten Realms, I quite liked that the film was set in an actual D&D campaign setting with recognizable names, places, and lore. It may be a stupid setting (sorry to the folks who love FR), but at least it's a nod to the extensive IP of the game.
Aaaand,,,that's about it. But I assure you that's a LOT of what made the thing enjoyable (or interesting) for me to watch. Oh and, sure, it also had some funny bits.

Here's what I disliked:

Despite the use of D&D tropes and recognizable game elements, the movie was very much NOT D&D. So much not D&D. It actually fought against itself in this regard (are these treasure seeking rogues or altruistic heroes?) which, for me, made the whole thing a bit of a muddle writing/story-wise. 

But the world doesn't even FUNCTION like a D&D world:
  • Where the hell are the clerics? They are mentioned once in the beginning (wrt their inability to heal the bard's dead wife) and then never make an appearance. There's no healing magic at all (not that it's needed; see below), but boy you'd think some undead turning ability would be pretty handy fighting all the undead foes. No clerical ANYthing, even from the "divine" character types that DO appear (druid, paladin).
  • This is not how magic works. Or maybe it does in 5E. No spell books? No memorization? No interruption of spell-casting? Because that battle with the red wizard at the end should have been pretty one-sided with all the shucking and jiving she was required to do. And the bard magic? Even in 5E, that's not a thing.
  • This is not what combat looks like in D&D. Now, I LIKED that the fighter girl could smack five or six dudes for every one attack of the bard (which is clearly something different than the 1E version, despite what I wrote above). But the way the group tended to stand back and let one character have their spotlight melee moment is NOT D&D (the paladin versus the assassin clan was probably the most egregious example). Points for avoiding and running away from some fights (like with the dragon), but generally there wasn't enough slaying and slaughter for a typical D&D game. Oh, except for castle soldiers: boy, for a group who prided themselves on not harming (killing) anyone in their heists, they sure beat the living shit out of a bunch of Neverwinter guardsmen who were just kind of doing their job. Oh, and the slingshot? I hate the slingshot.
  • What's with the inter-species romance? I guess that's just played for laughs, but there's a lot of iffy-ness in the human-halfling thing. Like, I can buy that Holga and her ex- fell in love and that it was a unique situation...but now he's with another human? And in a later scene Holga is eyeing up another halfling? While I understand that people have their kinks, that's an awkward fetish thang to throw into the film. The tiefling/half-elf is far more believable (especially with the tiefling standing in for a wood elf), considering that there's at least a nod to the different cultural backgrounds (urban versus fey). Ah, well. 
  • I hate 5E. There's a lot of 5Eisms..."attuning" magic items, for example...that just sets my teeth on edge. And is that how druid shapeshifting works in 5E? Just change at will, as often as you like, into any creature including fantastical ones (like owlbears)? Why not shift into a dragon and burn the place down? Sorcerers and "wild magic?" Oh sweet Baby Jesus. Do bards not carry weapons? Do "Harpers" not learn how to play a harp. *sigh*
All right, enough with the negativity. I said (a long time ago, maybe on someone else's blog) that the way to make a "successful D&D film" would be to create a GOOD FILM that had aspects relatable to D&D in it. I also opined that it would be pretty damn impossible to make a film that truly replicates gameplay because what makes the game great is NOT (generally speaking) anything that translates to a cinematic, story-telling art form. Judging by its success (there is talk of a spin-off series), this may be the best movie makers can do with such a tricky subject. I confess that I'm honestly surprised at how favorable and effective the formula worked...but I suppose it's the same formula that worked for Marvel.

Finally: it was a lot of fun to see the OG D&D gang (from the cartoon) make an appearance in the otherwise stupid labyrinth much so that I found myself wishing the movie was about them, rather than the story at hand. And as the rest of the film unwound its reel, this was a persistent thought that wouldn't quite dislodge itself from my brain: what a missed opportunity! What a fantastic idea!

Because if you do just want to make a light-weight fantasy movie, with magic and wonder and the tropes of D&D, you could do a lot worse than drawing inspiration from that cartoon. Heck, what's a D&D movie without a Dungeon Master? What could more firmly stamp a film with a D&D moniker than to have the appearance of a DM? Besides which Venger is a deeper, more interesting and nuanced antagonist than ANY of the "bad guys" in the existing D&D films. Yes, that includes Hugh Grant's character...fight me on that if you will. Plus, you still get hand-wringing sentimentality, self-doubt, impassioned speeches, humorous pratfalls...basically all the same stuff that (I guess) makes Honor Among Thieves a hit movie.

And it would be far more similar to D&D.


  1. Chris Pine's character isn't a Bard; he's a Thief who just happens to play the lute. It's right there in the movie subtitle: Honor Among Thieves. The movie is about the rivalry between two Thieves (Chris Pine and Hugh Grant). There were certainly ways they played with the source material/rules, but Chris Pine's lack of magic wasn't one of em.

    1. In 1st edition, it’s possible for a prospective bard to never reach bard status. I had one myself…he went through fighter status and switched to thief, but never made “bard” before the campaign was retired.

    2. Still…no weapons? Not even a dagger? Come on…that’s not D&D!

    3. He definitely leaned hard into stealth and planning, and preferred to stay out of direct combat as much as possible. He did back-stab a dude with a lute (and take him right off the board) at the end of one of the early fights after the fighter had nearly finished mopping the floor with the rest of them, IIRC.

      On the subject of unambiguous changes made to the rules though, I actually thought making the Druid a more or less dedicated shapeshifter was one of the better changes - easier for the audience to read, and something I'd honestly consider doing in a campaign (leaving just divine magic and arcane magic for "proper" spellcasters).

  2. Also, the bit where the paladin fought the assassins while the rest of the party stood and watched actually seemed *quite* D&D to me! It was a case of a level 10-15 character (probably a GMPC, let's be honest) helping some lower level characters out in an area that would otherwise be way too dangerous for them, and the lower level characters having the good sense to stay out of the way. xD

    1. Um. That’s the session when all the players quit the table and find a new DM.
      ; )

    2. I didn't say it was an example of *good* D&D, just that I could see it happening at an RPG table (and perhaps more likely at a 5e table, which was the touchstone for this particular D&D Movie after all).

  3. Ive not seen it yet.

    Ive said elsewhere before - in my view the best D&D movie would be the grown-up versions of the kids from the cartoons having to go back into the world. It would link well to grognards and stick with the premise that it is a game that you can immerse yourself into.

    It worked well for the Jumanji reboot.

  4. I think that conan the barbarian is probably the best D&D movie we'll ever get

    1. Conan the Destroyer was probably a more “true-to-life” D&D film, but the original was definitely the best of the film series.

    2. When I read Jacks comment I thought exactly this :D

    3. I've always though Hawk the Slayer was a pretty decent D&D movie. Not a great movie by any standard but it felt like D&D from start to finish.

  5. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. But not enough people saw it so it lost money. Too bad I would have been fine with a sequel.

    I'd guess they avoided a cleric for the same reason the old cartoon did. Don't court controversy with bring religion into it.

    I dont need my D&D rules as written on screen just like I'm ok with Starwars having noise in space are cop movies where they ignore basic police practices.

    That said having Chris Pine not be armed at all was a little much. Even the wizard brings a staff.

  6. The director said they tried to minimize magic because it made problem solving too easy. That's why the bard casts no spells, and there's no clerics, and the only sorcerer is a wild magic one who has a hard time reliably casting spells.

    1. Huh. That makes a bit of sense.

      Although, if they’d just written the film using OLD D&D principles (limiting magic), this wouldn’t have been an issue. Anyone out there playing B/X or AD&D find that a low-level magic-user makes things “too easy” in a D&D adventure?

      Another missed opportunity, though (admittedly) one caused by the evolution/development of the game, rather than short-sightedness of the film makers.

    2. I mean, in 5e a lvl 1 wizard gets fewer spells per day than in your house rules for AD&D (2 vs 3). The game hasn't really moved away from limited magic in any fundamental way, just chipped away at it at the edges via things like once-daily replenishment of spell slots at a short rest (and the whole concept of "spell slots" instead of memorized specific spells as well, I suppose - all casters in 5e work similarly to how your clerics work, with "slots" that are spent on spells in the moment rather than choosing exact spells to memorize).

    3. @ Matt P:

      What are you talking about? A 5E wizard can cast two 1st level spells per day PLUS has three “cantrips” that can be cast at will without preparation. Cantrips include such spells as light, shocking grasp, and dancing lights…all 1st level spells in AD&D.

      At will. Unlimited magic.

      Don’t feed me a line about 5E not changing fundamentally. It is FUNDAMENTALLY, drastically different from the way the game was played for DECADES.

  7. There was a fight in John Wick 4 where the camera was above the rooms and you could see the top of the walls as the camera looked down on them fighting from room-to-room. Sort of a God's eye looking down on the action. I thought a D&D movie should have that sort of scene in a dungeon,

    1. Ha! Absolutely…though they did some “top down” shots in the labyrinth scene, probably for similar reasons.

  8. I confess that your knowledge of 5e makes your critique more focused than mine! (But I didn't subject myself to reading 5e, so there's that.)