[4] Here be dragons...

Dungeons & Dragons. This post is not about the game. Though, it will inevitably touch upon the game that went through many ups and downs in its 50 years of existence. The journey went from a small basement in Lake Geneva, Winsconsin to every billboard in big and small cities in the world. It went from being something only the nerds play, to being something only the nerds play, only in very large numbers.

Now, I didn’t really plan on writing anything about a movie called “Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves”. I have watched it with my family the day after the world permiere and all three of us agreed that it is a “marvelized” popcorn movie that you watch once and mostly forget about by the time you are out of the cinema. “Marvelized” is not a good adjective for anything in our family’s dictionary.

A few months ago I introduced some colleagues of mine to D&D, the game, and they all got very excited about it. I had also suggested back then that we should all go and watch the movie once it comes out. Well, the movie came out, and we went to see it just a few days after I’ve seen it with my family. The film was not any better on the second watching. On the contrary. However, I’ve decided to go to the cinema for the second time and write something about it on my blog. I’ve been writing about tech stuff since the rebirth of this blog anyway, so it was due time for some roleplaying material. Of course, I could have started with something more fun, but Gods of Chaos messed things up.

So, is “Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among the Thieves” a good movie? Well, no, not really. It is not a terrible movie either. It is “marvelized”, but it is also far from stuff Marvel has puked out in the last 5 years. It is watchable, but it won’t end up being a Christmas classic, I can tell you that.

A little school of D&D

Now, before I continue about the movie, it is in order to address the Beholder in the room and drop down some jargon so that my non-D&D readers can follow what I’m talking about. This is a super simplified explanation for people who have no idea what the game is about.

Dungeons & Dragons is a roleplaying game. What does that mean? It means that before you can play the game you need to create a fictional (or real world) character that will be representing you in the game. The character can be as thorough or as shallow as you want it to be. You setup your character by filling in a piece of paper (old school, right?) called Character Sheet. If you follow that link, you will be wandering what the hell is that and why would anyone do that to themselves? It just looks complicated, it is not. Apart from the numbers that are generated by dice, your character may come with as complex background story as you have the time to create. Really. There are people who skip the background story completely and that is fine, a bit bland and boring, but fine. Then there are people who read every single novel about a certain race and class there is and they come up with intricate background stories that tie into the lore. I don’t want to judge anyone, but that version of a character is way more fun.

Dungeons & Dragons uses dice. What does that mean? It means that for most things we will be using dice to let the fates decide what has happened. There are various dice in this game, but the main one is a 20 sided die. If you take a look at that character sheet from before, you will see a bunch of fields that you can fill in with numbers. Those number are decided by rolling some dice. However, for these numbers we use D6 - six sided dice that you are most probably familiar with. You see, already 2 types of dice. There are more, way more.

Dungeons & Dragons uses a DM. The first person you meet in any D&D game is the DM, or Dungeon Master. He or she is a storyteller, creator of worlds, creator and player of all the “other” characters you meet in the story, the one who decides on the rules and how they get implemented… the magician creating the world you play in and the events that happen. Being a DM is very challenging, but at the same time extremely rewarding thing to do. If you happen to know one, be nice to him/her, because apparently they are a rare, almost dying, breed.

Dungeons & Dragons is a theatre of the mind. Yes, you have read that correctly. While you can use sceneries, miniatures, music, special effects, those are just there to emphasise the amazing story your DM is telling. The better the story teller DM is, the more immersive the experience. The game is played in the following simple steps:

  • DM tells a story
  • You and your friends react to that story
  • DM reacts for the characters in the story
  • repeat

It is that simple. The game can be as closed or as open as you and your DM decide to make it. You can stick to the story line and not deviate from it, or you can go wild and improvise on the go. I prefer playing a full blown open world as I enjoy the unknown and having to improvise on the spot for my players is the most fun ever.

Dungeons & Dragons has rules. Yes, there are rules. They are codified in 20+ books that Hasbro [Wizards of the Coast] wants you to buy. You don’t need them all, trust me. If you just want to be a player all you need is Player’s Handbook. DM will need other books too, or at least the Dungeon Master’s Handbook. [I am intentionally not linking to the Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast books]

Dungeons & Dragons has campaigns and sessions. D&D is played through campaigns which are long stories that consist of shorter sessions that you play each time you meet with your friends. You can have a one time shot session that lasts for a few hours and then it’s over, or you can play a multi-session campaign that can last for months or even years.

That was super simplified explanation of D&D. There is obviously much, much more, but for that I would need a lot more space than a few pages on this blog. My suggestion is, if you find this interesting go look for a group, or a DM and start a group, and give the game a go. You will crack the details along the way.

So, with the Beholder out of the Underdark, let’s go back to the movie.

You find yourself in a tavern…

[…is how traditionally D&D adventures begin.] While thinking about the good and the bad of the movie I’ve realized that my “bad” list is a lot longer and I honestly don’t feel like writing all of it. So instead I will list some good and some bad things that are at the top of my mind. And I will mix them a bit, just for fun.

Good/Bad - the characters are not as bland and one dimensional as I had feared they would be. That is one thing that I fear when I see a “marvelized” movie. Further more, a few days before the movie came out the creators/writers thought that it would be a great idea to post something like this online. This is not how you attract a predominantly male audience to your movie. Further more, this is not how you empower women and show to all the girls out there that D&D is welcoming to everyone. No, this is how you piss people off.

However, I didn’t see much of what they wrote in there in the movie itself. I think that the characters are not the most complex in the world, but each one of them comes with strengths and weaknesses. They learn to work together, they help each other out. No one is better than the others, no one is a super hero. Some characters have more depth than the other. Edgin (Chris Paine) comes with the most detailed background story. In some ways it is his background story that drives the events in the movie we’re watching. Of course, with him being more detailed, and with just ~2 hours for the movie to happen, there wasn’t a lot of room for everyone else. Each character got a quick background story, just enough for us to know who he/she is so that the rest of the story can happen. Is that good? No, but it could have been worse. The characters are not completely one dimensional. It fell onto the actors to do what they could to help us understand who they were.

My favourite character is Xenk, the paladin. I think that Regé-Jean Page who portrayed him did a marvelous job giving us an actually complext character without telling us very much about himself (in words). It was all in what he did and how he did it that told us all we needed to know about Xenk.

On the other hand, there are some Red Wizards of Thay, and they are evil. Why? Because they want to do evil stuff. But why? Because. Then there is our main antagonist, Sofina (Daisy Head). Why is she doing what she is doing? I know that we used a lot of movie time to establish Edgin, and the others, but I would say that the main antagonist needs to be more detailed. Especially because this is not a Marvel like saga so that we have 50 movies to establish who Thanos is and what his motivations are. I understand that Hasbro will probably make 10 more movies, but still, bad guys need love too.

Bad - who is this movie for? Hasbro/Wizards of the Cost own all the IP related to Dungeons & Dragons. The world in which the movie is happening, the Forgotten Realms, is a gigantic world with hundreds of books and short stories written in and around it. There are also many established characters, both heroes and foes, that every D&D fan will recognize: Drizzt Do’Urden, Elminster Aumar, Khelben Blackstaff Arunsun, just to mention a few that would attract a lot of fans. And these are only the Forgotten Realms characters. D&D has a lot more worlds used as settings for adventures.

One could say that this action packed, CGI rollercoaster ride is made for everyone. Maybe, but then all the D&D references should have been toned down because non-D&D viewers didn’t get them at all. My second watching was with D&D newcomers and they didn’t pick up most of the D&D-only references. On the other hand, hard core D&D fans found a ton of holes in the world building. I assume that the creators wanted to hit the middle ground and satisfy as many viewers as possible. Well, they didn’t do a great job.

Bad - There is no feeling of space and time. And I will not even go into pedantry of the distances between the city of Neverwinter and other places that the movie is apparently taking place in, nor the time needed for humanoid creatures to walk those distances (or ride a horse). The story could have happened in 2 days or 2 years.

Good/Bad - CGI is both good and bad part of this movie. It is at moments amazing, yet we could see that the studio was cutting corners here and there. I have seen D&D fans and experts complaining that the film is just a bunch of CGI on a green screen, and I agree, it is. However, I think that the father of D&D, Gary Gygax would have loved it for this alone. We should not forget that the man ruined TSR trying to sell D&D to Hollywood. Yet, I can’t escape the fact that there were some really ugly CGI moments in the movie. My cringiest one has to be the size of halflings. I will not spoil anything from the story, but just pay attention to the scenes with Holga’s ex-husband and, at the end, with a medal handing halfling and how they randomly scale in size.

Good - I really enjoyed the music, in general. Especially the combat situations. I use a lot of music when I DM games and having the right tune in the right moment is something I really enjoy putting together. The quality of the music is not evenly distributed, so don’t expect the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, but all in all it has some really nice pieces.

I think I will stop here. I can go on and on, but I have better things to do.

I have tried to stir away from all the drama and controversies (yes, the magical world of roleplaying is full of those) that surrounded Hasbro and the Wizards of the Coast before and during the release of the movie. Things that pushed a big portion of the community away from D&D and to other gaming systems. You can read all about that hereand here and even here.

Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast have moved back since, but the community doesn’t trust them any more. And the thing is, this was not the first time the owners of D&D have pulled something like that. The previous, and the original, owner of the system, TSR did equally dumb things.

The history of D&D is a glorius mess. It was created by a bunch of nerds with good ideas but no real knack for the business, that wanted to take over the world, but were in the end pushed out by corporate money making managers that wanted to take over the world, that were then forced to sell the property to a nerdy company that had a knack for the business of magical cards, but in the end ended up being bought by a corporation interested in milking the cow to its bone marrow and the business being run by people who don’t even play the game. That was a long sentence. If you are interested in the details of D&D’s history I can warmly recommend two books Game Wizards by Jon Peterson and Slaying the Dragon by Ben Riggs. These two are probably the most detailed and the best histories on the subject of how Dungeons & Dragons came to be [I am planning on writing reviews of both of these at some point]. Even though they don’t explore the history of the lore, you will get to read about the creative process of some of the main characters, which in turn will help you understand a lot about why some things in D&D are the way they are, and why are we where we are today with D&D slowly becoming a Disney version of itself.

What the future holds for D&D? Well, a lot more movies, TV shows and what not. It is celebrating 50 years and that cow should be milked to the last drop. Virtual Table Top too. It seems that Hasbro [Wizards of the Coast] plans to freeze the version number where it currently is and then work with that in the future. That too is a bit of a drama of its own.

If you don’t care about any of these things then just go and watch the movie. It is not the worst way to spend 2 hours of your life. And if it inspires you to try role playing games, be that Dungeons & Dragons, [ or something even better] then that is great. Get yourself some nerdy friends, some dice [you will end up with hundreds but I won’t spoil it for you] and go on an adventure. Oh, and one more thing, the game is not like the movie. Keep that in mind. [how many spells can those magicians throw around?!]

I guess this post was about Dungeons & Dragons, the game, after all. Ha!