Wednesday, April 5, 2023

'Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves' is just as cheerfully chaotic as your most memorable game sessions

This movie is what you get when your only writing guideline is Rule of Cool

Your average gamer isn't necessarily a professional writer, so an RPG campaign full of clichés is an expected part of the deal. How many times have you created a character whose backstory can be summarized as "marauders burned my village and I had to learn to survive alone"? In keeping with that not so venerable tradition, the D&D movie adaptation Honor Among Thieves draws from la crème de la crème of tired story beats: it starts with a threat of prison rape and soon after reveals that the entire plot rests on a fridged woman (complete with the most generic domestic look and bland under-the-blankets flashback). Not very promising for a fantasy movie produced in this century, but as an adaptation of the game, it's depressingly accurate. Backward storytelling choices aside, Honor Among Thieves is undeniably fun. The action is riveting, the humor is sincere, and the attention to detail is commendable. It will certainly recoup some of the goodwill Hasbro clumsily squandered earlier this year when it tried to squeeze more money out of players and independent game designers.

If each viewer brings their own interpretation to a movie, this death-of-the-author approach applies even moreso to the freeform experience of RPGs. There's a unique appeal to this curious form of interactive improvisational theater with occasional murder and pillaging. Now, the curious thing about adapting D&D to the screen in the era of 5e rules is that the game designers have grown averse to settling on any specific lore. The (very ill-advised) goal of D&D 5e is to be as nondescript as possible, to lend itself to any kind of story, to be all things to all people. In a truly generic system, that design choice can work wonders. In D&D, it detracts from the flavor of the story and punishes the players. Rules alone won't sustain a game that declines to adopt a distinctive identity because, to be brutally honest, 5e is not a terribly well designed system. To be successful, Honor Among Thieves couldn't just be a generic fantasy movie, and definitely couldn't rely too much on game stats.

This need to balance the faithful with the interesting adds difficulties to the adaptation process. As happens with videogame movies, the rules of the fictional world are constrained by very specific expectations that players bring to the viewing experience. The casual viewer of action cinema may not care for the Dificulty Class of item attunement or what it means to give birth to a tiefling, but those are the small details that D&D enthusiasts will be looking for. Can we nitpick this movie with the rules of D&D? Sure we can: the sorcerer's personality has too little Charisma for him to cast any spells; the druid isn't supposed to put on metallic armor; the paladin's ability to detect evil shouldn't be constantly active; the evil wizard casts too many spells per turn of combat; a fiery explosion can't harm a red dragon... but does any of that really matter for your enjoyment of the movie? Absolutely not. (Maybe D&D designers will watch this and finally learn that infinite spell slots don't break the game.) While Honor Among Thieves draws heavily from the geography and fauna of the official Faerûn setting, it isn't written to follow Monster Manual stats. It's written by Rule of Cool. That's what makes it excel above previous, and best forgotten, D&D movies.

One more factor in its favor is the media landscape it's made in. Although the superhero story structure has become exhaustingly ubiquitous these days, it still sells tickets. What this means for a D&D production is that it arrives into a moment in which once obscure geeky obsessions are finally perceived as cool, in which a basic, lazy, predictable Hero's Journey can still sustain an enjoyable blockbuster. Furthermore, where the movie fails to follow the narrative conventions of adventure cinema, RPG fans will know to read those deviations as normal. Plans and backup plans that fail one after another, endless interruptions for backstory infodumps, minor side quests, an ensemble of heroes who just so happen to share compatible motivations, a totally improvised winning strategy... that's just how the game goes. In any other fantasy adventure, those quirks would be marked down as amateur screenwriting mistakes. But they're precisely the quirks that give an RPG campaign that special flavor of constant uncertainty. Where a traditional narrative relies on causal logic and character consistency, RPGs are at the mercy of the dice. Just like when your Dungeon Master allows an action not specified in the manual because your idea is too awesome to care for game balance, Honor Among Thieves gives itself permission to ignore good screenwriting advice and go for what feels cool to do.

The unfortunate result is that you need previous immersion in the specific RPG flavor of collaborative storytelling to fully enjoy the experience. Many viewers will get a sense that the pieces don't quite fit, some cuts are too abrupt, some sequences go by too fast, characterization is implausibly flat, backstory is excessive, choices are too convenient. The thing is, that's exactly how a gaming session is structured: bite-sized chunks of unrelated plot stitched together by authorial fiat. If you're in the niche audience that has been waiting for a decent D&D adaptation for decades, this is finally the movie you were asking for.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.