A Beginner’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons
The filmmakers behind “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” help explain the characters, monsters and spells that make up their new film.
By Calum Marsh
March 31, 2023
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” a comedy-fantasy movie from the directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, is a loose adaptation of the tabletop role-playing game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, more commonly known among fans as D&D. A social game of chance, strategy and a kind of improvisational storytelling, D&D is hugely complex and deeply immersive, demanding of its players an almost scholarly commitment to learning its history, its rules and its mythology — all of it chronicled in a series of exhaustive, encyclopedic official rule books that are the foundation of the game.
With so much advanced knowledge and folklore out there, it might seem daunting to approach this “Dungeons & Dragons” film (now in theaters) as a newcomer to D&D. But the movie has in fact been made with novices in mind.
“The intention was for nothing in the film to have to be explained prior to seeing it,” said Daley, who co-wrote the screenplay with Goldstein and Michael Gilio, in a recent video interview. “We knew that was of the utmost importance, so that we’re not alienating an audience that doesn’t know D&D.” Although the film contains more than enough Easter eggs and references to satisfy die-hard fans, “none of that is a requirement,” said Goldstein. “You don’t have to know how to fly an F-18 to enjoy ‘Top Gun.’”
To help answer any lingering D&D questions you might still have going into “Honor Among Thieves,” Daley and Goldstein explained some of the movie’s more arcane nods and allusions.
Who are the good guys and the bad guys?
Broadly speaking, the film features two competing factions: the Harpers and the Red Wizards of Thay. (For much of the running time, our heroes are caught in the battle between them.) The Harpers are “a benevolent faction of essentially spies, who work in conjunction with good-aligned characters and places to help root out evil entities,” Daley said. One of their primary adversaries is Szass Tam, the leader of the Red Wizards, who rules as a dictator of the nation of Thay.
What’s a class, and what classes are our heroes?
One of the first steps in a game of “Dungeons & Dragons” is the choosing of a character class: It defines your identity based upon set skills and abilities, and limits what you can and can’t do in the game. Standard classes include monks, fighters, wizards and warlocks.
The characters in the film were written with these classes in mind. Edgin (Chris Pine) is a bard. Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) is a barbarian. We also see sorcerers (Justice Smith’s Simon), paladins (Regé-Jean Page’s Xenk) and a rare tiefling druid (Sophia Lillis’s Doric). Goldstein said that they wanted there to be “a clear distinction between each of the classes that was immediately recognizable to people who were aware of the game,” but they didn’t want the characters actually describing their types out loud. “Nobody ever says, ‘I’m a barbarian, what do you want from me?’ or anything like that.”
Who’s aligned with what?
One of D&D’s most enduring contributions is the idea of alignment — a moral category determined along the axes of good versus evil and law versus chaos. (If you have ever heard of someone being described as lawful good or chaotic evil, that’s where it comes from.)
It’s easy enough to determine the alignment of each of the characters in “Honor Among Thieves,” as D&D fans will no doubt be glad to do. But Daley said that the alignments were less expressly conceived for the film than “coincidentally obvious” based on the way all fictional characters tend to be written.
What are all these monsters?
“Honor Among Thieves” is rife with curious creatures — all of them taken from the original game. Some are considered beasts, which are animals that could exist in the real world, and others are monstrosities, which Goldstein described as more “fantastical.”
There are Mimic Chests (huge carnivorous mouths disguised as treasure chests) and the fan-favorite Gelatinous Cubes (more or less what it sounds like: huge cubes of goo that trap people inside).
“There are also deeper cuts, like the Intellect Devourer, a brain-shaped creature with legs that takes control of your mind and kills you,” Goldstein said.
And that … owl … bear … thing?
… is an Owlbear, actually. It’s a big owl-bear hybrid that the druid, Doric, transforms into a couple of times in the film. Large and powerful, it’s one of the film’s more striking creatures.
“The traditional Owlbear design often is more of a grizzly bear, but we thought it would look more beautiful if it looked like a snowy owl,” Goldstein said.
Where does the movie take place?
“Honor Among Thieves” isn’t set in a generic fantasy land. In fact, its globe-trotting adventures are situated in clearly delineated spaces based on pre-existing “Dungeons” maps and settings. “While writing the movie, we consulted the map,” Goldstein said. “We treated it like it was a movie about a real place with a real history.”
The film largely takes place within an area called the Sword Coast, of the Forgotten Realms, along the western side of the continent of Faerun. We see such cities as Neverwinter and Baldur’s Gate, glimpse the Arctic tundra of the northern Icewind Dale, and much more. The filmmakers took pains to make the geography game-accurate, being mindful of relative positions, travel times and how different areas relate. “If they go from Triboar to the Evermoors by horseback, we know that it’s a certain distance and that it would be possible,” Goldstein said.
So all of these places were already in the game?
Not exactly. As the film opens, Edgin and Holga are serving a life sentence in the remote ice prison of Revel’s End, having been busted during a botched heist. Daley and Goldstein always knew they wanted to begin the movie this way — but when they reached out to the game’s manufacturer, Wizards of the Coast (now a subsidiary of Hasbro), to ask if such a prison existed in the wintry region of Icewind Dale, they were informed that none did.
Fortunately, Wizards worked their magic: A new “Dungeons” book released in the fall of 2020, “Rime of the Frostmaiden,” added Revel’s End and its parole board, the Absolution Council, to the official D&D canon. “That was one of the most gratifying parts of this whole process: seeing our names in a D&D book,” Daley said. “More so even than seeing our names on the poster for the movie.”
What’s all that weird writing?
As in “Star Wars,” “Honor Among Thieves” contains no written English. Instead, any of the script you see throughout the film is written in Thorass, a well-known in-game “Dungeons” language with its own established alphabet. Much as Trekkies can speak Klingon, many D&D obsessives will know the text by sight — and will no doubt be taking notes on what it means. “It was all very deliberate,” Goldstein said. “Anything you see in the film has meaning and can be translated.”