Turning “Dungeons & Dragons” into a film is a bit like adapting a choose-your-own-adventure book for the big screen. The definitive tabletop role-playing game gives fans a foundation for stories — a handful of settings, character sheets to build their heroes and villains, and some lore and creatures to fill in the details — but half of the fun of a typical campaign is taking the outline that the dungeon master sets up and going wild with it, making your own choices until the plot spins wildly out of control.
So for their “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein opted to treat the game like a lot of dungeon masters and players do: as a guidebook to weave their own original tale.
“I guess it could be thought of as a semi-adaptation,” Daley told IndieWire during a recent interview. “We are adapting the world and the components of the world like the spells, the creatures, the magic, but creating our own original story surrounding it.”
It’s not the first time the duo have taken their love of games to the big screen. Before boarding “Honor Among Thieves,” Daley and Goldstein directed 2018’s hilarious “Game Night,” one of the best studio comedies of the last decade. While that Jason Bateman- and Rachel McAdams-led romp isn’t literally based on a game in the way that “Dungeons & Dragons” is, much of its humor comes from how the characters initially treat the very real criminal plot they stumble into as a murder mystery puzzle. As a game.
Daley says part of his interest in directing “Game Night” came from the game nights he and his wife would participate in frequently. Filming for the comedy put the “kibosh” on that real-life ritual, but translating gameplay into filmmaking is something that both he and Goldstein find intriguing.
“Some of that can be attributed to the arrested development in us, but there’s a lot of art imitating life,” Daley said. “The sense of gameplay is so freeing and relatable, and you can find a lot of parallels in life to games.”
Joked Goldstein, “That’s why our next movie is ‘Scrabble.’ You heard it here first.”
Both Daley and Goldstein are longtime tabletop players: Daley’s introduction to the game was enshrined on television via 1999’s much-beloved “Freaks and Geeks” in which he played Linda Cardellini’s nerdy, “D&D”-playing brother. After the show was cancelled, he kept on playing, and was in the middle of a two-year long campaign before filming for “Honor Among Thieves” started.
Goldstein similarly started playing as a kid, and was hooked due to the freedom it gave him to create his own storylines. “The idea that you kind of make it up as you go was totally unique and exciting to me, because I love creativity,” Goldstein said. “Most games didn’t really allow for much of it.”
As the dungeon masters of their own “D&D” film, Daley and Goldstein built the story on a foundation that should be familiar to all but the most casual “D&D” players. The adventures of Edgin (Chris Pine), Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), and their crew take place against the backdrop of the “Forgotten Realms,” a classic “D&D” campaign setting created by writer Ed Greenwood and introduced to the official game in 1987.
More specifically, most of the action takes place in the northwestern Sword Coast region, one of the most popular areas for campaigns and the inspiration for popular video game series like “Baldur’s Gate” and “Neverwinter Nights.” Goldstein said the Sword Coast felt like the right choice for the film because it’s both iconic for fans of the game and a familiar and accessible fantasy world for newcomers.
“While we wanted to be able to take liberties and do a movie that was different from other fantasy movies, we wanted the background to be familiar,” Goldstein said. “So we didn’t want to start in some crazy foreign environment for people and that’s what this offered us.”
In terms of the adventuring party, all of the characters correspond to one of the classes from the original game: Edgin is a bard, Holga is a barbarian, nervous Simon (Justice Smith) is a sorcerer, and so on. Daley and Goldstein put serious thought into what classes fit the character’s personalities, and what would make a well-rounded, strong team for an actual “D&D” campaign.
“There’s definitely a parallel as you’re kind of creating a film and working out what characters would be right for the story to creating a good campaign when you’re playing ‘D&D,'” Daley said. “Also, I think just the fact that we had a bard as our ringleader, is different from what most people expect because he isn’t necessarily considered the most heroic type of the group.”
It (obviously) never comes up in the film, but Daley and Goldstein also kept levels and stats in mind for the party, who — with the exception of stoic paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page) — universally don’t rise beyond a middling level four. That gave them a challenge while writing to make sure that the characters had a wall with their strengths and what they could accomplish, though they cheated slightly by giving Simon the ability to use powerful wild magic he can’t necessarily control.
Like Daley and Goldstein, many of the cast members of the film had history with the tabletop game before signing up; Rodriguez was a longtime fan dating back to the very first edition, Sophia Lillis was in an active campaign when she was cast, and Page grew up playing similar RPGs.
As rehearsal for shooting, the main cast took part in a five-hour one-shot “D&D” campaign with the directors, in order to get a feel for their group dynamic. “I would recommend every movie have a campaign,” Daley said. “It’s more important than rehearsing because you’re not going to get a chemistry test like that in any other way.”
While it’s not interactive like a real “Dungeons & Dragons” session, “Honor Among Thieves” is structured in much the same way as a typical campaign would progress: the characters have a specific goal in mind or a problem they need to solve, but to fix it, they have to go on side missions and look for new solutions when new complications get thrown at them.
The characters are constantly bickering among themselves about plans and next steps, in the same way that players of the game can put a screeching halt to their progress when disagreements about what to do pop up. Daley said the approach was “risky” from a cinematic sense, as the film mostly forgoes a cinematic structure for a more shaggy and rambling storyline, but it also creates an unpredictability and uncertainty for the audience.
“It’s kind of part of the DNA of “D&D,” which is that it’s fun. You’re creating it as you go,” Goldstein said. “You’re facing things you didn’t see coming and having to pivot.”
“Dungeons & Dragons” was brought to the big screen once before, via a 2000 box office bomb directed by Courtney Solomon. Unlike that film, which played the fantasy adventure mostly straight, “Honor Among Thieves” is an outright comedy, mixing its action with a variety of sitcom-esque antics and physical slapstick.
Beyond the tabletop game that gives it its name, Goldstein said the movie pulled inspiration from fantasy and adventure films of the ’80s and ’90s, with its scrappy band of misfits and priority of fun over spectacle.
While the decision might seem odd for those without experience playing the tabletop game, it also captures one of the main appeals of a campaign, which is often as full of laughs as it is with epic fights. Giggling with your friends when a character dies or a player makes a boneheaded move that backfires spectacularly, are often the most memorable and satisfying parts of the game, even more so than beating the big bad at the end of a session.
For Goldstein, the film needed to be a comedy because, if it was dead serious, it wouldn’t capture the spirit of the game. “Or at least it wouldn’t be capturing the spirit of the games that we would want to play,” Daley said. “I’m sure there are campaigns that are utterly joyless. And I don’t want anything to do with those.”
Paramount Pictures releases “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” in theaters on Friday, March 31.