The triumph of geek culture has had some big, obvious effects, with adaptations of fantasy novels, superhero comics, and video games dominating movies and TV. Less talked about, though very much part of the equation: the rise of geek creators. These days, just drawing on an intellectual property that has a dedicated fandom isn’t enough. If the people behind the scenes aren’t fans themselves, the core audience will notice, and likely rebel. Which is a big part of the reason the movie Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves needed to be made by people who’ve played D&D themselves, and who don’t just know what tabletop gaming feels like, but actually care about it.
John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein — directors of Game Night, and writing partners on projects from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 to Horrible Bosses to Spider-Man: Homecoming — are D&D fans, and it shows in Honor Among Thieves. The directors and co-writers (working with Michael Gilio, who also has a story credit) tell a pretty standard fantasy story, complete with an evil sorceress, a party of mismatched adventurers on a quest to get a magic item to stop her, and the requisite action sequences along the way. But Honor Among Thieves invests heavily in Wizards of the Coast’s lore and background for its setting, and in actual D&D rules for the parameters of its magic and its characters, right down to their stat blocks. Polygon sat down to talk with Daley and Goldstein about where they followed those rules, where they broke them, and why.
D&D players will certainly notice that Honor Among Thieves steps outside the game’s canon in small ways and significant ones — for instance, the party’s druid, Doric (Sophia Lillis), uses the standard Wild Shape power to take on animal forms, but activates it much more frequently than the standard twice a day that the rules allow. (And also uses it to become an owlbear, which actual players can’t do — but that’s a whole separate can of worms.) The writer-directors are proud that the party sorcerer, Simon (Justice Smith), has to take time to attune to a magic item before using it, but the complications he encounters in the process are way outside game boundaries.
“We had an adviser on set who knew all those rules inside and out, and she would lean in and tell us, ‘OK, for this spell, technically you’d have to do this and this,” Goldstein tells Polygon. “So we would try to honor those things in every opportunity we had. But ultimately, the movie had to come first, so if it felt like we were deciding between a rule or a plot point we needed to move the action forward, we would err on the side of plot.”
“The inherent challenge is, how do you depict this in a cinematic way that doesn’t completely alienate non-fans, or people that are not at all familiar with Dungeons & Dragons?” Daley says. “So it was a tightrope walk that we were doing at all times. That seems to be working out, at least for the people we’ve screened it for.”
“We did try very hard to be true to [the rules],” Goldstein says. “The only thing we really went away from was rest periods, because that’s really not fun on screen.”
“But our use of magic, I think, will delight hardcore players,” Daley says. “We really utilize the components, whether they be material or somatic or verbal, in each of our spells. All of the spells are technically accurate.”
Another thing those hardcore fans might question is why the party’s upbeat face character, Chris Pine as Edgin the Bard, doesn’t use magic himself. Bards in D&D aren’t just singers, they’re spellcasters with a wide range of abilities. But you wouldn’t know it from the film.
“It was our intention not to have everyone in the party be overpowered — that is to say, have all sorts of powers that could make the obstacles they face a lot easier,” Daley says. “We love the idea of [Justice Smith’s] Simon, as a sorcerer, being the primary source of the sort of conventional magic you generally see depicted on film. But I would say that the magic inherent in Chris Pine’s character is his ability to persuade and charm people. And he’s very much a storyteller, which is very much in keeping with the bard.”
That said, he thinks Edgin may still remind D&D players of their tabletop experiences: “Chris’ character is very much an archetype for the casual player who doesn’t necessarily do their homework when they come into a campaign,” he says. “So if hitting people over the head with your weaponized lute does the job, why would you deviate from that?”
Clerical magic is also minimized in the movie — there’s a quick mention of a “cleric’s token” with a spell attached to it, but standard healing and resurrection spells clearly aren’t part of this world. Again, that was a necessary story choice.
“It’s what’s different about a movie versus a game, I think,” Goldstein says. “When you’re in a movie, if you give too much magical ability to too many people, it makes it very hard to keep coming up with obstacles they can’t surmount. So the party we created, we wanted to have some brute-force characters, we wanted our swordplay paladin [Regé-Jean Page as Xenk] and our shapeshifting druid, but we just didn’t want spells being cast right and left.”
In the end, while some viewers are likely to quibble with the movie on gamer forums and Reddit, the writer-directors think they’ll be happy with the look and feel of the movie, which packs the screen with familiar elements from the Forgotten Realms continent of Faerûn, the city of Neverwinter, and the experience of questing through them.
“What we really tried to capture was the spirit of gameplay, where nothing goes the way you expect it to,” Daley says. “So we would set something up in our story that the DM would have very painstakingly created for the players, and with one wrong roll of the die, it all goes to crap, and they have to figure out a way out of it. It’s unconventional.”
Goldstein and Daley’s D&D cred has one particularly large (no pun intended) piece of evidence on its side: an action scene revolving around Themberchaud, a fat red dragon with a long history in D&D canon.
“We wanted to have a dragon who was of the lore, who would fit in the environment in the Underdark, a red dragon specifically,” Goldstein says. “And that led us to Themberchaud. Now, traditionally, he’s not portrayed the way we portray him.”
“But he is a glutton in the lore,” Daley says. “We just amplified that trait. But the mandate for us was to portray dragons in this film that you haven’t seen before. Whether they are the acid-spewing black dragon Rakor, who we created, or Themberchaud, who exists in the lore, we really leaned into the fact that he’s not like any other dragon you’ve seen before on film. And what was so cool is that it doesn’t feel like we’re betraying the source material by having a dragon so uniquely different, because D&D itself is so unique.”
D&D fans who are used to listening to actual-play podcasts or watching game streams on Twitch and YouTube may wonder if they’re seeing any of Daley and Goldstein’s personal D&D experiences play out in Honor Among Thieves, the way the Critical Role group has seen their D&D adventures unfold in the animated series The Legend of Vox Machina. For the most part, though, they aren’t — the directors say they wanted to steer clear of using other people’s past creativity to shape their work. But they did put a few favorite elements on the screen.
“My campaigns were a hundred years ago, so I don’t remember too many specifics about them,” Goldstein says. “Except that there were a lot of gelatinous cubes. And we did incorporate one of those in the movie.”
“There was a platform suspended by chains in one of my campaigns,” Daley says. “I thought that was an interesting visual, so we incorporated it on a much larger scale in the Underdark dungeon our characters traverse.”
That said, while they aren’t living out the fantasy of seeing their own past characters brought to life on screen, they’re experiencing a different fantasy — the chance to reshape the D&D canon, as elements they created for the film appear in WOTC source material. “WOTC was very collaborative, and put very few strictures on us,” Goldstein says. “In fact, early on, we were developing this prison — the movie starts in a prison in Icewind Dale, and there was no prison in Icewind Dale. But now there is: They put it in the modules.”
“It’s in the Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign book,” Daley says. “They’ve been great in terms of collaborating. I will say that the geek in me was probably more excited to see something we created appearing in a campaign book than even seeing our names on the poster for this film.”