If Dungeons & Dragons fans have suffered from bad dice rolls with past movies based on the venerable role-playing game, the new one, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, is more like a critical hit.
It’s fun, it’s funny, and most of all, to this regular player, it feels like D&D. Although the movie is packed with fan-service references and Easter eggs, you don’t have to know anything about the game before you take your seat. And that seems to have worked for a lot of people, judging by the movie’s top box office spot on its opening weekend.
Directed and co-written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Game Night, Vacation) — longtime D&D players themselves — Honor Among Thieves is conscious of the pitfalls of its source material and, largely, avoids them. Complex gameplay concepts like spellcasting and character classes are smoothed over; they’re just portrayed in use without being too explicit about the details, making them fit for a mass audience. (The directors told Polygon that while this was intentional, they still stuck as closely to the rules that govern the game as they could on screen.) All the attention paid to creating that balance between honoring the game and making a good movie results in a film where the creators’ love for D&D really shines through, welcoming existing fans as warmly as it invites new ones in.
What the film captures is the chaos and ridiculousness you’d find in an actual D&D game. This means lots of moments that feel like someone got either a bad roll of the dice — resulting in unexpected misfortunes or failures — or a good one, where some highly unlikely scenario works out in the characters’ favor. Without the context of the system of chance that undergirds the game, it might seem like bad writing when the characters jump into a deadly gelatinous cube yet emerge unscathed — but sometimes all the constitution save rolls succeed! Goldstein and Daley deftly evoke the seat-of-your-pants storytelling traditional to D&D without actually letting the movie suffer from it.
How D&D: Honor Among Thieves captures the heart of the game
Almost unanimously, the D&D players I talked to about the movie brought up one scene as a moment they really recognized from the game table: The adventuring party is being lectured at length by the paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page) on a set of strict rules for how to cross a trap-filled bridge … and then the guy standing closest to the bridge just puts a foot on it casually, making the whole thing collapse into a fiery pit below.
“Often these games go completely off the rails, and just incredibly ridiculous stuff happens, and there’s this feeling of, like, world-spanning troublemaking,” game designer and writer Chance Feldstein told me. As a fellow D&D player, they said what they most wanted the movie to deliver was that sense of unpredictability. “There has to be the epic fantasy element, but there also has to be that, ‘Oh, my God, how did that happen?’ part of it.”
That’s not to say every proverbial roll worked well on screen — the pacing was very fast and sometimes whiplash-inducingly uneven, with odd tangents and some moments where even a die-hard D&D fan might wonder about the plot choices. Weird digressions, cookie-cutter-evil villains, and context left unexplained can work out fine in a D&D game but don’t play so well on the big screen. And the sheer amount of story packed in was almost too much.
“There was so much plot in this movie, it felt like it should have been a season of a TV show,” Feldstein says. (Good news for fans: Paramount+ is working on that.)
Any movie based on Dungeons & Dragons necessarily has to contend with the game’s oft-cited, problematic history. While Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro-owned publisher of D&D, has been tackling some of the worst old stuff, there’s more work to do. Honor Among Thieves reflects that effort — one that’s often pushed forward or inspired by players themselves.
Kat Jones, game designer and game design professor at the University of Cincinnati, points out that many players today are fully aware of the game’s history and work to reimagine it more equitably, using tools like “homebrew” or player-created content. “You’ve got dungeon masters who do their own thing, player groups that take it in their own direction,” they say. “There is that agency to do things and tell stories that maybe weren’t originally intended.”
For me, though, the part that was most like a real D&D game was how much each character changes and grows. This choice in the movie — to give each of the titular band of thieves their own character arc — is a bit of an outlier for the usual Hollywood ensemble piece, which more often focuses on one or two main characters. There’s a complexity in these relationships and motivations that the average moviegoer might not be expecting in a big action-fantasy film. That feels like it comes more from a really good RPG. Jones says she thinks that’s what the movie succeeds on: “Each of them had their own thing that they needed to overcome in order to be their best self. When it’s done right, role-playing games can really home in on that.”
In an interview at SXSW, Daley said that was purposeful: “It was something we spent a lot of time on, making sure that each of the characters had something to say, that they were unique in their own right, and they also had an arc.”
The movie honors D&D’s more transformative properties
One of the most magical things that can happen in Dungeons & Dragons, the game, is that a group of players often starts with one set of objectives and then, as they learn more about their team and themselves, find they really want to achieve something different and better. The film has that, too.
For instance, Chris Pine’s character, the bard Edgin, started out with a plan to bring his wife back from the dead (tired fantasy trope alert), but his motives for doing so were selfish. By the end of the story, he has the ability to carry out his big plan, but he makes a totally different choice, to save his barbarian BFF and platonic co-parent Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) — and he’s driven by what’s good for his daughter instead.
That’s so D&D! When we play, that’s what role-playing aficionados are looking to do; explore our characters’ expectations and assumptions about what they want to do and who they want to be, and how those change over the course of the events that they influence and are influenced by — often through and with other characters and players, just as in the movie. What often results are intensely personal, deeply valuable experiences.
Like the young sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), who struggles with the burden of a legendary surname and a crisis of self-confidence but manages eventually to tap into his fledgling powers to save the day. Or the tiefling druid Doric (Sophia Lillis), who joins the party with a vocal animosity against humans — as in, the whole species — and comes to value her human comrades as people.
This kind of internal change is something that interests Sarah Lynne Bowman so much, she’s made a career out of studying how RPGs allow people to transform themselves, both in playing games and in their real lives. Bowman, a professor of game design at Uppsala University, now works on the Transformative Play Initiative, and says the psychological basis for why this kind of game has such an impact on players is both ancient and modern.
“It’s a combination of community and co-creative storytelling; that’s a really profoundly important thing that we’ve been doing since the dawn of time, probably since the beginning of culture,” Bowman says. She explains that RPGs specifically allow us to “embody different characters that we create.” So we get to try different personalities and traits on for size.
“It’s something that allows us to not only explore aspects of ourselves that we don’t normally get to express, but also to share those with other people, and to create different kinds of social formations that maybe weren’t available to us in our daily social lives,” she says.
That’s what makes RPGs so special: You can take these emotional journeys as a different person, navigating what your own priorities are and how you relate to the world. Ideally, you take a journey that pushes you into being better somehow; a better person, a better teammate, a better parent, a better friend.
“We have all these interesting studies that when people design their characters, sometimes they’re aspirational. … So it’s like, ‘I always wanted to be a performer. I’ll play a bard!’ Or, ‘I always felt like I could save people, I want to be a knight.’ That’s the navigation,” Kemper says. “We see people explore their identity, like, how do I feel about my sexuality? How do I feel about my gender identity? How do I relate to my culture? How do I relate to my parents? ... And these are the things that really transform people’s lives, regardless of the game you’re playing.”
In its cultural resurgence, D&D is also trying to evolve itself
It’s frankly kind of a miracle that Dungeons & Dragons has such radical transformative properties — it was built by people who were happy to uphold a certain kind of status quo.
These games “came out of the basement of conservative white men in the Midwest,” notes James Mendez Hodes, a writer, game designer, and cultural consultant who has worked on, among other things, the tabletop RPG Avatar Legends, an adaptation from the show Avatar: The Last Airbender. “[D&D co-creator] Gary Gygax’s own politics, and then the influences on them, of Tolkien’s politics … and, worst of all, Lovecraft’s politics: These all shine through in the games they influenced. So historically, these games have spoken to a pretty specific group of people who align with the quote-unquote ‘mythical norm.’”
This concept, from writer Audre Lorde, is the existence of a societal standard that privileges a certain kind of person (Kemper cites this same idea in her essay “Wyrding the Self”). As Lorde put it in 1980:
Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In America, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society.
For D&D, and many tabletop role-playing games that followed it, that norm has historically been the white, straight, cisgender man.
But that’s starting to change, as evidenced by the fact that the movie only has two straight white guys in lead roles, and one of them (Hugh Grant’s Forge Fitzwilliam) is basically a non-playable character, or NPC.
Some of it is thanks to broader representations in the wider pop culture of the people who play D&D. Even people who don’t know much about the game might have seen it on shows like Community or Stranger Things — and each of those depicted a diverse set of players.
“It’s a good time for people to get involved in Dungeons & Dragons; it’s a time when it’s booming,” says Bowman. “There’s millions of people playing it online, which we didn’t use to think was really possible. And there’s just tons of streaming shows with all different kinds of representation.”
There’s Dimension 20, and also Disco Does D&D, a livestreamed game played by some of the cast of Star Trek: Discovery, a show that reaches a wide audience and is very conscious about trying to be inclusive and representative.
“It’s become much less fringe,” says Keith Ammann, a longtime player and the author of several books on game tactics in D&D, comparing social attitudes today to those of even 15 years ago. “I think you’re already seeing a significant change, simply in the fact that upon hearing about Dungeons & Dragons, somebody would say, ‘That sounds cool, I’d like to try it sometime.’”
Honor Among Thieves’ band of adventurers, far from the same-same cast of, say, the Lord of the Rings movies, largely look like the actual people who might play D&D in the year 2023. It’s no longer a cishet-white-teenage-boys-in-the-basement thing — if it ever really was — but the perception, and how D&D players were portrayed in popular culture, often reflected the stereotype rather than the reality.
There’s no doubt D&D has its problems, certainly historically (Gygax, one of its creators, believed women didn’t play RPGs because their brains were too different from men’s), but even as recently as 2022, when publisher Wizards of the Coast had to pull an entire people from a new book because the depiction of them was so horribly racist.
Not long after that, Mendez, who also works as a cultural consultant with Wizards of the Coast on their other massive property, the card game Magic: The Gathering, was brought on to review other forthcoming D&D content, like the recent heist-themed Keys from the Golden Vault. In an interview with Vox, he says his work is aimed at rethinking game material that might reinforce racist, sexist, anti-gay, and other oppressive behaviors.
“If games present topics related to systemic oppression in nuanced, realistic and productive ways, then those same experiences, if we opt into them and have forewarning, can be cathartic and evocative,” says Mendez. That means paying attention to both the large game concepts, like how characters are created, and the small things like how a language handles naming.
“The best outcomes for me are when someone from a community which has historically not felt comfortable in a hobby space where there aren’t a lot of people who look like you or identify like you, [from] a community of people who have to sort of push down their own identity and code-switch and mask really hard in order to fit in with the mainstream ... can pick up a game and see that the game already thought of them,” he says.
To meet the future, D&D will need to welcome more people in
It’s clear from the combined marketing push around the movie that Hasbro is hoping to entice more people to play the game itself through the sheer fun and spectacle of Honor Among Thieves. But, great, because that’s also what we in the RPG community hope happens.
“I’m hopeful that it introduces the hobby to people who wouldn’t have considered it before,” says Mendez. “I’m also hopeful that it brings new directions to role-playing as a culture. I think that having that mainstream attention to a niche hobby creates an opportunity for new cultural perspectives.”
If you’re wondering how much the movie is like playing D&D, well, it is, but it’s an idealized version of a D&D campaign.
“Most of the creators I know in the scene just love the hell out of this movie because they finally see, okay, someone who really likes the material and isn’t just riffing on it for their own purposes but really doing something,” says Evan Torner, a professor of film studies at the University of Cincinnati and the director of the school’s Game Lab. “We understand that film has its own language, but this is a film that uses that language to remind us that we’re all kind of kids with stupid plans.”
Sure, at heart we might all be kids with stupid plans, but when you’re playing with your friends, it becomes something else, too. People who might have started out not knowing each other very well, or even disagreeing with each other, are transmuted through the alchemy of role-playing into something more like family. That found, or chosen, family theme resonates clearly in the movie, especially in Edgin and Holga’s relationship.
“They nailed the fact that there are a lot of players, particularly queer players, for whom D&D is really about found family on both an in-character and out-of-character level,” says Feldstein.
And when you have family on your side, and everyone works together, even the wildest plans can sometimes lead to victory.
There’s a scene near the end of Honor Among Thieves where the group finally gears up to face the biggest, baddest opponent, Sofina (Daisy Head), a scheming, ultra-powerful wizard who has nearly murdered them all before at some point or another and by all rights should succeed this time. Her eventual defeat — at the hands of Edgin’s young daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman), who, in an unlikely twist, uses an invisibility spell to sneakily slap a magic-suppressing bracelet on Sofina’s wrist — might have felt anticlimactic to some of the audience, as the main characters then take turns dispatching the incapacitated wizard in just a few rounds, and the fight’s over pretty quickly.
For a D&D player, though, this was absolutely chef’s-kiss perfect: There’s nothing quite like saving the world with some creative combination of a low-powered spell and a random trinket you forgot was in your character’s inventory until just now.
“It’s like looking down at your character sheet and being like, ‘What do I have to face this completely impossible situation?’ And you’ve got what you need,” Torner said.