There’s a concept often invoked in tabletop RPGs: the “Rule of Cool”. It means, it’s alright to bend the rules of the game you’re playing, as long as it’s in the name of making something exciting and fun happen. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves practically makes it its mission statement.
When this big budget film adaptation of the iconic tabletop game was first revealed, some pedantic hay was made of the fact that the druid character uses her Wild Shape ability in the trailer to turn into an owlbear—something technically impossible under the rules of the game. People likely to level that sort of criticism will probably have a brain aneurysm when they witness her transform into a dozen different animals over the course of a wonderful one-shot escape sequence.
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But you can’t bend the rules if you don’t acknowledge them in the first place—and despite any liberties it takes in the name of cinematic action, Honor Among Thieves feels remarkably faithful to the tabletop game. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also just a really fun fantasy movie.
My misgivings about D&D’s place in the modern RPG industry are well-recorded, and there’s certainly a touch of the corporate around Honor Among Thieves. Undeniably, it’s a play for broader mainstream success for the brand, and you can practically hear writers tapping out sequels and spin-offs as you watch. But I’m also someone who’s had a lot of fun with D&D over many years, and the part of my heart that still holds a lot of affection for its world of mimics, fireballs and rust monsters couldn’t help but be warmed by a film clearly made with buckets of genuine love and understanding of the game.
Once its core party of adventurers has come together—including a cocky bard (Chris Pine), a brutal barbarian (Michelle Rodriguez), a sorcerer with self-esteem issues (Justice Smith) and an eco-warrior druid (Sophia Lillis)—the film quickly takes on the pace and style of a great tabletop campaign. Any regular DM or player will find themselves recognising moments and tropes from their own experiences—like the party figuring out a bizarre, unintended use for their new magical item, or an overpowered NPC stepping in to guide them to a vital macguffin. One sequence sees the characters use a magic item that lets them revive a corpse for exactly five questions before it dies once again, and the resulting bumbling investigation across an entire graveyard felt straight from my own table.
There’s a real investment, too, in the Forgotten Realms setting—the longstanding D&D universe that’s home to the likes of Baldur’s Gate and the Sword Coast. Much of the plot takes place in the city of Neverwinter, and includes factions like the Harpers and the Red Wizards of Thay in a way that feels natural for the story, but also surprisingly respectful of the game’s lore. Along the way, classic D&D monsters and spells make their appearances, from intellect devourers to prestidigitation. But, vitally, the film never gets bogged down in exposition—it largely trusts the audience enough to just establish the rules visually or through the action, ensuring it should play as well to audiences unfamiliar with the Monster Manual as hardcore fans.
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It’s far from a sophisticated film—it’s light and poppy, with much more spectacle than depth. You’ll see its major twists coming a mile away, and it struggles to give its characters enough weight for its emotional beats to land effectively. But the Rule of Cool applies throughout, with a creative eye for action that ensures that the spectacle is frequently riveting. Some well-used practical effects and sharp fight choreography elevate even its simplest scenes—there are two sequences that are basically just “Here, watch the barbarian get angry and hit a load of people for a bit” and honestly I’d have been happy watching 10.
And as might be expected coming from the directors of overlooked comedy gem Game Night, it’s really funny too. Though there are plenty of Marvel-esque sarcastic one-liners, what works is that each character has their own comedic voice—they don’t just stand around quipping Whedon-isms at each other as in so many blockbusters these days. Even if none of the characters are hugely memorable, they are at least all distinct and likeable—and that’s plenty enough to get a film this light and agile over the finish line with a cheeky grin on its face.
Consider the stain of the 2000 film wiped clean—Honor Among Thieves is great fun and about as faithful an adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons as any fan could hope to see on screen. It’s easy to believe this could really be the launchpad into mainstream entertainment that WOTC clearly hopes it will be. At the very least, there’ll be a lot of people leaving the theatre eager to start their next—or first—campaign.