When Paramount Pictures released a short clip from an action sequence late in the D&D movie Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a certain subsection of legacy RPG fans immediately jumped on one detail. As the film’s protagonists face a deadly gladiatorial arena built around a changing maze full of monsters, Edgin the Bard (Chris Pine) notices another group of adventurers being dumped into the arena as well: the party of displaced kids from the 1983-1985 Saturday-morning cartoon series Dungeons & Dragons.
It’s a little in-joke for some of the game’s older fans. The cartoon is hard to find legally these days — it isn’t streaming, and all previous DVD releases are out of print, though there are plenty of YouTube uploads out there. But a generation of fans remembers the show so fondly that multiple lines of toys are still being made to celebrate the cartoon’s characters. More recently, a virally popular Brazilian car commercial brought the characters to live action, and finally got them home again.
The ’80s characters’ appearance in Honor Among Thieves isn’t just a one-off sight gag, either — they recur throughout the scene, and they don’t do so well in the gladiatorial combat that follows. Polygon talked to Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein to find out what happens to those kids after their big-screen cameo.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for some action in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves follow.]
In the gladiatorial-arena sequence, Daley and Goldstein follow Edgin and his party as they dodge a displacer beast, a mimic, and various traps through an ever-changing maze full of traps and weapons. The ’80s characters — Hank the Ranger, Sheila the Thief, Diana the Acrobat, Eric the Cavalier, Presto the Wizard, and Bobby the Barbarian — also run through the maze, picking up weapons and dodging the hazards.
Daley and Goldstein say that getting the rights to the characters’ likenesses was easy enough, since TSR owned them, and they would have been part of the property purchased by Wizards of the Coast. “The rights are kind of baked into the movie, just because it’s D&D,” Daley tells Polygon.
The only actual difficulty with the sequence was figuring out how to make the cartoon characters fit into the aesthetic of Honor Among Thieves’ world, while still being recognizable.
“The biggest struggle was trying to find a way to depict them,” Daley says. “Something that didn’t look too absurdly cartoonish. Because they’re based on this brightly colored cartoon. We didn’t want them to stick out like a sore thumb. So it was a real process.”
“We also had to find an adult to play Bobby the Barbarian,” Goldstein says. “Because working with a kid limits your hours. So we found a very muscular, not very tall man to play that role.”
One element is missing from the party: Bobby’s pet unicorn, Uni. There are obvious budgetary reasons for not designing a unique CG creature for such a brief cameo appearance. But given how often the cartoon’s plots revolved around the party having to rescue him or backtrack for him, where’s Uni in Honor Among Thieves?
“They took Uni away,” Goldstein says.
“You know, it’s funny — I think the conscious decision was the idea that in these games, you’re not allowed to have an animal,” Daley says. “Uni unfortunately wasn’t able to participate.”
But what happens to the ’80s characters in Honor Among Thieves? Edgin’s party eventually find them locked in a huge brass cage, and moves to free them. (Or join them? It appears as though the kids are at least safe from maruading monsters inside that cage.) But the protagonists change their minds and run off, leaving the ’80s kids in the cage. Shortly after that, the villain Sofina (Daisy Head), one of the Red Wizards of Thay, drops a massive spell called Beckoning Death on the arena to turn everyone present into undead monsters. Edgin and his crew have escaped by then, and the arena has emptied, but — aren’t the ’80s kids still locked in that cage?
“We don’t kill them off,” Goldstein says. “The last we see in the movie, they’re safely in the Cage of Sanctuary, and they’ve escaped from the displacer beast. So let’s assume good things.”
Daley takes a harder-line tack: He thinks the Beckoning Dead spell may have gotten them after all. “We suggested that, but we would never overtly state it. Because I think we’re not allowed,” he says. “It’s like the spinning top at the end of Inception.”
Paramount, for its part, didn’t weigh in with an official answer to the question. But the studio did channel the ’80s characters in its own way, by releasing a short clip from the TV series with new audio, mocking the “rules lawyers” who griped about the movie’s breach of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. We don’t know whether these kids are still alive in the movie canon, or they’ve become undead monsters — but we do know that five out of six of them approve of druid characters turning into owlbears.