It was sometime in 1979, I believe, when a good friend of mine came bounding up the stairs of my parents' house to the living room one evening, where I was hanging out, watching TV. He was excitedly brandishing a couple of books and some dice, even as he was trying to catch his breath from running all the way over to my place.
He wanted me to try this game he had just played, involving elves and orcs, and swords and magic and all the stuff we normally got really excited about. With his help, I created a basic character, just as a proof of concept, and he gave me a simple set up. My thief woke up in a dark room somewhere deep underground, in a room empty except for a piece of rope, a bag of mysterious powder, and a walking stick. What, he asked me, did I want to do?
At first, I couldn't really wrap my head around what he was asking me. Free will? I had never played a game before where the outcome wasn't pre-ordained. In "Clue," you roamed around a giant mansion and interrogated people in order to determine the murderer. In "Monopoly" (which I always hated), you bought properties on an expensive boardwalk, trying to bankrupt the other players -- capitalism in its most vile and naked form.
Here, though, it was open-ended. There wasn't a single right answer, and whatever you came up with changed the dynamics of everything else. Despite the fantasy elements, it was an emulation of life that seemed to me limitless, at least as compared to the paltry results of other board games. It was a mind-blowing revelation.
From that point, my friends and I played religiously for a few years, every Friday after school, until we grew old enough that parties and girls became more of a consideration in our lives. A few years ago, however, a good friend invited me to play with a crew of his friends. It had been almost four decades -- and the game, now playing on its fifth edition of the rules -- was vastly more complex and far reaching than the primitive version we used as kids, but the principles remained the same: you got to use your creativity to inhabit another world.
It's the kind of experience that tends to go pretty deep with dedicated gamers, such that, like any other rabid fan base, they do not suffer a dumbed-down or inaccurate representation of their much beloved game gladly. See the previous films that tried to tie in to the D&D experience, the much reviled "Dungeons and Dragons" from 2000, and the only slightly less hated series of TV movies from the aughts.
Which brings us, finally, to the new D&D movie, "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves." Written by a trio of geeky game boys themselves, Jonathan Goldstein, Michael Gilio and John Francis Daley (a former actor, whose character actually once played D&D on seminal nerd TV show "Freaks & Geeks"). Would they adhere to the many, many rules and edicts of the game?
To determine the new film's fidelity to the source material, I brought with me to the press screening a pair of ringers, a D&D power-couple, if you will: Courtney Houtsma and her partner, Ian Paul DeOrio, both 31, dedicated gamers who met back in 2012 at a house party, where they instantly bonded over their shared interest in anime, and the video game "Kingdom Hearts."
The film concerns a crew led by Edgin (Chris Pine), a bard with a smooth tongue, a way with a lute, and a broken heart, first from the tragic loss of his beloved wife, secondly, the hijacking of his daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), by the charismatic-but-morally-bereft rogue, Forge (Hugh Grant). It's the rogue, naturally, who -- after betraying Edgin, along with fellow crew members Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), a fighting-mad barbarian, and Simon (Justice Smith), a highly insecure wizard -- absconds with Kira, and goes on to become the mayor of a large city with the help of a powerful mage named Sofina (Daisy Head), who may or may not be taking her orders from a legendary demonic red wizard.
A SPRIGHTLY DRUID
Enjoined eventually by a sprightly druid named Doric (Sophia Lillis), also committed to taking down Forge and his ill-gotten gains, the crew eventually return to the city in order to free Kira, convinced by Forge that her father has abandoned her, and save the city from the red wizard's evil rule.
Coming in to the screening, Courtney, at least, was expecting something at "the midway point on the spectrum between lame and fun." But was pleasantly surprised by the outcome ("This is a movie I would watch again if I was flipping through channels and saw it on."). Ian was perhaps a bit more hesitant, seeing the trailers as something of a "greatest hits" collection -- citing the obvious (to D&D types) owlbear, displacer beast, and gelatinous cube call-outs, but, after seeing it, also found it, surprisingly, "pretty good."
One way to turn off a fan base quickly is to treat the source material as a (airquote) starting off point (end airquote), and winging it from there, playing fast and loose with the canon in order to expedite a Hollywood-standard genre flick (numerous examples, but think of the ire turned against much reviled "The Last Airbender," or "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," to name but two).
MOST CRUCIAL TEST
Happily, Goldstein, Gilio and Daley seemed to have passed this most crucial test, at least according to my experts. "The general lore and spells seemed to be straight from the source material," Courtney maintained. Ian found "a lot of traditional D&D campaign storytelling," and went on to further explain how the characters started off humbly, from different places, but eventually learned to come together, and work through their individual motivations toward a mutual goal, in the end becoming "more of a found family." All of which is an experience pretty typical for a D&D-playing crew.
But what of the aggregate rabid fan base, the ones who will be combing through each frame searching for mistakes no matter how minuscule? Traditionally, this is the group that is always hardest to impress, and most vocal about their outrage when the film fails to meet their extremely specific expectations (think of the manic faction of the Star Wars fan base that decreed "The Last Jedi" as a travesty, for example).
Again, according to my panel, even these denizens should be relatively mollified ("Super-fans will see many small references and lore details that are fun Easter eggs to find throughout the movie," says Ian), save for perhaps one nagging detail: the tiefling.
A CLASSIC PIXIE-TYPE
OK, some context: Very briefly, tieflings are the product of a cross between human and infernal bloodlines, leaving them looking more or less demon-like, with horns, fangs, solid-color eyes, and large tails. In the film, Doric is evidently tiefling, only looks sweetly elfin, a classic pixie-type. Here, according to Courtney, the film may have a bit of a problem. "Super-fans are rarely happy," she says, "and I can see them pointing out that inconsistency."
Ian was similarly unimpressed with that particular design decision, even if he understands it.
"I was disappointed in the design portrayal, but I can understand not wanting to have an actress in full body makeup/paint for most of the movie," he says. Still, neither of them found it a make-or-break point, given that even in the game there are, as Ian puts it, a "variety of tiefling aesthetics." (A tiefling is a fictional humanoid race in the game.)
For the most part, then, it would seem as if the film does indeed do justice to the game. Not that there aren't any other inconsistencies, as Ian painstakingly begins to catalog: "Actually an owlbear is a monstrosity type," he says, "and the druid would not be able to wildshape into it. And, wow, that Red Wizard was able to cast two ninth level spells in the same combat encounter when she should have only one ninth level spell slot. And sending stones don't actually work as walkie talkies ... "
Still, he notes, many of these offenses, were they pointed out at an actual gaming table, would likely get the complaining party derisively labeled a "rules lawyer," something you most definitely wouldn't want to be. In other words, some liberties are taken with the rules, but not enough that it should get in the way of your enjoyment of the flick. As Courtney pointed out, there's even a clever scene near the end where Edgin and his crew have to contend with a maze -- the standard D&D gaming trope -- as a group of rich oligarchs sit high above them, influencing the action by various manipulations. A tad meta, you might say, but also a friendly wink to all the dedicated players who helped make D&D the cottage industry it has become in its nearly 50 years of existence.
If the movie hits as the producers hope, placating existing fans, and drawing in nonplayers in droves, we can certainly expect sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. The world of D&D is vast and largely unexplored, offering audiences untold numbers of further adventures. If so, Courtney and Ian seem ready for it. "The best thing about using D&D and 'The Forgotten Realms' for movies is that there are so many different kinds of stories that can be told," Ian says. "What we got here is a small section of the world in Neverwinter, but there are also so many other story settings in the D&D multiverse."
Gaming fans can only hope, but even if the films don't take off the way some predict, the wildly popular game itself -- with a hotly rumored sixth edition coming out sometime in 2024 -- has been firmly established. What my friends and I gleaned all those years before has very much come to pass: a gaming revolution, with a Sword of Sharpness, and a good set of Mithral armor.
'Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves'
88 Cast: Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Hugh Grant, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Chloe Coleman, Daisy Head, Jason Wong
Directors: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes