The Magic and Melancholy of Dungeons & Dragons

“I saw someone on the beach, waving his arms, shouting in a familiar
voice, calling my name.” —Paul La Farge, “The Night
Ocean
.”

You know you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons—or watching a movie inspired by the legendary role-playing game—when the characters have names as awkward as Edgin Darvis or Holga Kilgore, names that sound like anagrams. Such deliberate, charming clumsiness matches the vibe of much of actual gameplay, with its stretches of low-stakes spitballing between bouts of hand-to-hand combat. The casual feel of the new movie “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is in contrast to the high seriousness of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones” I.P. juggernauts that have dominated swords and sorcery on the big and small screens for the past two decades.

D. & D. is, of course, a formidable I.P. generator itself. In the course of its forty-nine-year history, it has spawned iconically gnarly monsters (the Demogorgon, familiar to “Stranger Things” fans), terminology (alignments such as “chaotic good”), and countless product lines. The film unfolds within the boundaries of the game’s long-running Forgotten Realms setting rather than some funky homegrown (i.e., non-canon) campaign. But the plot of “Honor Among Thieves”—even the subtitle sounds like it took twelve seconds to dream up—stays true to the improv spirit of the game, despite the fact that it’s been in development since 2013. The heroes’ clearly defined central quest—the recapture of a powerful magic item called the Tablet of Reawakening—is peppered with setbacks and pleasantly long-winded tangents and side missions, giving the illusion of trial and error.

I’m a current non-player but a more than casual observer of the game. Back in the heyday of blogs, I found myself going down rabbit holes, chasing smartly written micro-essays (on sites including Grognardia) about all manner of role-playing ephemera and arcana. Sometimes the Web could feel like what gamers call a “dungeon crawl,” though, instead of moving a group of jewel-seeking adventurers from room to room, I was clicking links that acted as secret doors or teleportation booths, unsure of what treasure I sought. On Instagram these days, I’m mesmerized by accounts like Dungeons & Dragons Daily, which shows off the curator’s ever-expanding stash of game loot, including a bewildering array of international editions. Stu Horvath, who runs the account Vintage RPG, has a deep knowledge of old-school product lines and keeps tabs on current small-batch indie games, such as 2021’s the Seed, which bears the memorable subtitle “Psychic Doomsday Cultists Semi-Accidentally Summoned an Alien Machine That Is Eating the World and Shitting Out a New One!”

Like other old-school D. & D. adherents, I harbored doubts about “Honor Among Thieves.” An earlier D. & D. adaptation, from 2000, was a notorious flop; maybe the mediums just weren’t meant to cross over. I wondered if the filmmakers would pull back from the action from time to time to show the real-world gamers dicing for their characters’ fates (à la the frantic “Jumanji: The Next Level,” which I liked), or otherwise merge the fantastic and the mundane (à la the Upside Down, the shuddery nightmare realm in “Stranger Things”). What I couldn’t anticipate, as I took my seat last week at the Regal Union Square in Manhattan, was that the movie would make me cry.

“Honor Among Thieves” hits its stride early, when Edgin (Chris Pine), a fast-talking thief-bard, delivers his backstory to a parole board, explaining how, in his formerly honorable career, he spied on the sinister Red Wizards until they killed his wife, Zia, leaving their daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman), motherless. Edgin hurriedly recounts how he met his stridently non-romantic partner in crime, Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), a thief-barbarian who loves swordplay and (why not?) potatoes. While he’s jabbering, he’s plotting a preposterous prison break. His and Holga’s harebrained escape feels like something that players like the kids around that basement table at the start of “Stranger Things” would devise on the spot while the Dungeon Master (who acts as referee and adventure planner) is musing over the odds of success: which charts to consult, which dice to roll.

Pine and Rodriguez are practically comedians here, as if savoring this fresh start, free from the responsibilities of their I.P. behemoths (the “Star Trek,” DC, and “Fast & Furious” franchises). Edgin avoids the thick of combat, preferring to play insipid songs on his lute. Holga was booted from her ancient barbarian tribe for falling in love with an outsider—a halfling (D. & D.-speak for hobbit) who repaid Holga’s devotion by breaking up with her. Later in the film, she visits her diminutive ex, a poster boy for Short Guy Energy-meets-hygge: he’s working on a book, doing some gardening, playing house with another supersized—i.e., normal human—lady friend.

The Tablet of Reawakening is in the possession of Edgin’s former ally, the backstabbing, newly powerful Forge (Hugh Grant), who now rules the city of Neverwinter with the aid of a weird sorceress (Daisy Head). Once he fetches the tablet, Edgin can reawaken his dead wife and give his daughter her mother back. He can rewind his life, as if his bad fortune never happened.

I was already enjoying the movie more than expected when, maybe fifteen minutes in, I heard Holga respond to her partner’s long-shot plan to attack the heavily fortified Neverwinter: “That’s crazy, Ed.” I stopped munching my popcorn. It took me a moment to realize she was addressing Edgin as “Ed.” Kafka has a line in his notebooks about those theatregoers who think that “the leading actress has not only a pretended smile for her lover, but also a special crafty smile for one particular spectator at the back of the gallery. This is going too far.”

I can’t help but go there, though.

The last time I played D. & D. was a couple years before the pandemic. My friend Mark wanted to put together a game for our kids. There were four boys in all, in addition to Mark as the Dungeon Master and me and another dad playing as minor characters. My character—an aquatic, half-fish biped known as a kuo-toa—died, but was revived with some special herbs. Or maybe it was my character who knew how to find said herbs, and retrieved them to revive someone else? Regardless, four or five sessions in, the enthusiasm of the younger players was waning, and the experiment came to a quiet end.

It had been worth a shot to see if they’d connect with a cherished hobby of my youth.

I was in fifth grade when I was first inducted into the cult of D. & D., circa fall, 1980. I was attending a new middle school, and two of my new friends were already in the know, having learned about it from their older brothers. The hardbound books that they brought in for my inspection fascinated me, with their lurid cover paintings and microscopic text: “Player’s Handbook,” “Monster Manual,” “Dungeon Master’s Guide.” Forty years later, when I was invited to contribute to an anthology in which authors praised specific books as beloved objects, I rhapsodized about my beaten-up copy of “Dungeon Master’s Guide,” its pages’ edges soft from constant study.

My friends and I would dwell on the descriptions of hideous creatures, including the otyugh (“These weird monsters are omnivorous scavengers, not at all hesitant about adding a bit of fresh meat to their diet of dung, offal, and carrion”) and enchanted bric-a-brac like the Broom of Animated Attack (“If a command word is spoken . . . the broom will do a loop the loop [sic] with its hopeful rider, dumping him or her off on his or her head from 6’ to 9’ off the ground”). It was, among other things, a feast of language, increasing my vocabulary with antique terms: “cutpurse” and “succubus,” “melee” and “myrmidon.”

An army of writers and illustrators—tucked away, I imagined, at T.S.R. Games’ headquarters in the magical-sounding Lake Geneva, Wisconsin—had produced hundreds of pages to simulate this world of adventure. The complexity was at once dazzling and intimidating to a middle-school kid. Actually playing D. & D., even with rules in hand, wasn’t easy. My two friends lived far apart from each other, and from me; another friend, who lived closer, invited me to join his older brother’s campaign. Besides the two of us, everyone seemed to be in high school, and I was so nervous that I barely spoke. I also recall the kid’s father walking through the kitchen where we were playing, shaking his head at the dice and rule books and other apparatuses, and asking, “What is this—gay?”

It occurs to me that this set of friends was white; I played more frequently and easily with my like-minded Korean friends, especially my cousin Andy, whose house was a quick bike ride away. None of us, I suspect, spent much time pondering the fact that all the fighters and clerics and magic-users depicted in the drawings appeared to be white; if you played, you didn’t have to say your character was anything but human, halfling, dwarf, or elf. Unconsciously, perhaps, this was an attraction: a world where your race didn’t matter. Mostly, I spent time reading the books, and trying to grasp how the various overlapping editions worked. By the time I stopped playing, around 1983, Andy and I had accumulated between us the Advanced D. & D. books (including the fabulous “Deities & Demigods,” featuring the cosmically gnarly drawings of Erol Otus, and the nauseating “Fiend Folio”), in addition to one of the supplements to the original 1974 set (but not the set itself, which was nowhere to be found), and two quite different versions of the “Basic” set—not to mention “Expert” D. & D. rules, which were not the same as Advanced D. & D. Writing this out, all these years later, I’m still pretty confused.

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