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What D&D Can Learn From D&D: Honor Among Thieves

What can we, as players and DMs, learn from this gang?

I saw Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves the other day with an old friend of mine with whom I’ve been gaming since about 1991. I found the movie delightful – not taking itself seriously, but also not allowing itself to devolve into camp. Not groundbreaking, but very solid fun and, moreover, a really good example of what is going on inside the mind of every dedicated D&D player in a really good, long-running campaign. In fact, I would argue that what was happening on screen in that film was sort of an idealized sort of D&D campaign – the thing that, at base, almost all players want to experience.

Now, of course, movies and RPGs are different. Movies are condensed for time, can play looser with POV, and remain pretty linear most of the time. RPG campaigns are often expansive, go on for months if not years, are very detailed, and are locked inside the players POV most of the time. This means making one of these things exactly like the other is impossible in many ways and perhaps not even desired,  but I do think the movie does offer a lot of advice to people who are playing or running a game for ways to make your game more fun or, at least, provide new ways explain and explore what is happening at the table.

Fluid Combat is More Interesting

Let players have cool ideas! Let your DM heighten the stakes!

One of the primary problems with D&D as a game system is the rigid nature of its combat system. It is overladen with “optimal builds,” limited actions, narrow advancement paths, and battles that very frequently boil down to you rolling a d20 once ever fifteen minutes and, you know, missing.

The fights we see in the film –  which are cinematic and interesting – are hard, if not impossible to replicate in D&D, just because we tend to treat it like a weird little game of chess in the midst of our theater-of-the-mind adventure world. The phrase “I’m sorry, you are 40′ away, so you can’t attack this round” comes up a lot and, well, it’s a drag.

To mimic exciting and cinematic combat requires players and DMs to be more flexible and even break the standing rules of the game in some way to allow for this flexibility. Everybody in that last fight scene in the movie had a role to play, all of their actions were consequential, and even the times the PCs missed seemed important. How many times did Holga not have her axe? How many times did Simon flub a spell? And yet, rather than each of these events leading to just dreary failure, they allowed the fight scene to flourish and expand in new and unusual ways. This is fun! Way more fun than just sitting there and rolling to attack with your axe every once in a while and rolling damage.

I have lots of ways you can potentially house rule this stuff (and I’ll remind you all that other game systems often just do this kind of thing better), but the main thing to remember is that the players and the DM are not adversaries in this kind of thing – they should work together to make things more fun. If you miss with your bow and the GM wants to say that you accidentally hit the evil artifact which is now skittering across the floor, spitting fire, that is cool. If your barbarian wants to do a flying tackle at the death cultist but is technically too far away to make the distance, just give it to them. The more you allow players to break out of the I-go-U-go formalism of D&D combat, the more fun you will have.

Let Cool, Risky Ideas Work

When Simon initially finds the Portal Gun the scepter that makes the portal, he states the range is something like 500 yards. Then, at the end of the movie, he uses it (to great effect) at a range of what seems like way more than that.

When Doric is fleeing from Castle Neverwinter and using Beast Shape to do it, she beast shapes a LOT more often than a druid of her (apparent) level should be able to.

When Edgrin suggests using a cantrip to create an explosion in a confined, flooding space so they can all survive, it works and everybody is okay (even the paladin who has to swim in armor).

When Doric (again) changes into an owlbear, that isn’t technically an animal, so…

There are so, so many ways a rigid adherence to the rulebook can ruin cool ideas and crush creativity at the tabletop. If players are constantly worried about failing, they will never come up with or try the coolest stuff they can, and everybody will suffer for it. Even if their hare-brained plan goes badly, that is still awesome if it leads to even crazier plans, which is something this movie did very well.

Let players make crazy plans! As a player, suggest crazy plans! NEVER tell yourself “nah, that could never work,” because this is all a game and we are literally just making it up, so just go for it!

Everybody Gets to Shine

Yay, bards!

There is nothing worse than when a party (or, worse, a DM) shits on another player’s character for not being…whatever (useful, optimized, sensible, etc.). This is especially true of certain classes (BARDS!) that get the brunt of everybody’s derision (BARDS!). This is bad. You should fight this.

I really liked how Edgrin was portrayed in this film. I just loved that when he started singing, Holga smiled from ear to ear and loved the song. That’s big, man. As somebody who has a soft spot for bards and is sorta low-key irritated that they are mostly used as support-wizards these days, that was awesome. You don’t make a bard for the spells. You make a bard to be charismatic and clever and fun. You make a bard to sing and write poetry and have people be actually moved. Edgrin got to do that!

Honestly, if I ever run D&D again (not for a while, though this movie tempts me to run another campaign), I’m going to do bardic inspiration as flashback and not mid-battle serenading. I loved how Edgrin believed in everyone, encouraged them, and supported them when they were low. From now on, when a bard uses Bardic Inspiration, I’m going to ask the target player “what did [the bard] say to you back at camp this morning that drives you forward now?” Because that is some good character work stuff, and the bard can provide it in bushels.

DM Stand-in Characters Are Irritating

Try not to have NPCs fight other NPCs while the players watch. It’s fun for the DM, but not usually for them.

This is a bit of an in-joke in the movie, but the antagonism between Edgrin and Xenk reminded me of how DMs often slide in these hyper-competent, super-powerful characters to be their mouthpieces and basically show off with them and the whole time the table is often rolling their eyes and cracking jokes at their expense. Now, I’m not saying you can never do this as a DM, but I am saying that you should take pains to give your players as much agency as possible in solving their problems. The more you, the DM, step in and guide them by the hand, the more annoyed everyone will be (even if they can’t put their finger on it).

Let your players solve their own problems – that’s what they’re playing the game for!

Anyway, I could go on, but that’s enough for now. The main things here are be flexible and work together for fun. Don’t let a little thing like the rules interfere with your ability to come up with awesome stuff you’ll be talking about for years.

Happy gaming!