For people who don’t play Dungeons & Dragons, the new Dungeons & Dragons film, Honor Among Thieves, is a pretty solid time at the movies — a brisk fantasy-thriller full of chases and banter, with one smug villain and one creepy villain swapping places at center stage, and some recognizable movie stars doing their respective things. For longtime players, though, it’s a lot more: a nonstop collection of Easter eggs and visual references, a satisfying visual tour of a familiar setting, and a chance to see a lot of familiar elements of play on screen for the first time, from highly specific magic use (like item attunement and wild-magic surges) to the city of Neverwinter.
Sure, the movie seems designed to start arguments between the “That was fun” crowd and the “This movie breaks the following 18 rules!” types, in the same way any movie set and shot in a specific city reveals the clear divide between “Hey, I know that place, I’ve been there!” celebrants and “Ugh, those two roads they drove on don’t even connect in real life!” nitpickers. But for some players, debating how the movie and game fit together isn’t a criticism, it’s just an enjoyable thought experiment. With that in mind, here’s a thought worth delving into: Would Honor Among Thieves actually be a fun D&D module to play?
[Ed. note: Broad spoilers ahead for the overall plot of Honor Among Thieves.]
Let’s leave aside the question of the characters themselves and the specific ways they interact — presumably at your own D&D table, you aren’t going to be sitting down with Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez. (If you are, the viral marketing for this movie is a whole lot more granular than we realized.) You might or might not want to play an Honor Among Thieves game with the stats for the official movie characters, rather than your existing characters, and even if you did, you’d likely play those characters somewhat differently than the versions on screen.
Every play group’s version of the story will vary: Everyone will make their own choices in how they face Themberchaud the hefty red dragon or break the Arcane Seal of Mordenkainen. Dice luck alone will tend to change the story a lot. (The Honor Among Thieves scene where Simon the sorcerer accidentally destroys the puzzle-bridge in the Underdark plays out like a pretty classic “rolled a 1 on your Perception check, then failed your Dex save” event. But a luckier party might find a less elaborate solution to the puzzle, roll a couple of natural 20s and find a switch that disables the trap, or bring some Spider Climb or Fly spells to bear.)
So let’s stick to considering the structure of the hypothetical module: Two of the players have to escape a dungeon, travel to a city, and escape execution there. They recruit the other two players, quest for a magical item, meet a high-level NPC who takes them into the Underdark, get the item and attune to it, and carry off a heist. After that, they fight in a gladiatorial arena, escape, then choose whether to run off and be rich together or return and save the city from a scheme to turn the populace undead.
Structurally, the big problem here is that two of the players don’t get to do anything for about a third of this module — not a problem if you’re playing it out as a campaign and half the players can’t make the first couple of sessions, but not much fun for an actual four-person game. Yes, a creative GM will find workarounds to absolutely every issue we raise in this piece — starting with “OK, so the four of you are in this prison together…” in the opening sequence — but for sanity’s sake, we’re asking whether the movie as written would be a good experience at the TTRPG play table, not whether someone could take its broadest elements and massively rewrite it into a fun time. So let’s stay focused.
Apart from the caveat that only half the party gets to play for the opening session or two (depending on how fast your home play group churns through action, or how much they dig into social situations and settings), that opening third does have a lot of engaging possibilities. First, there’s the prison break itself, approachable in a wide variety of ways. (Including postponing the actual escape until you find out whether your Persuasion rolls work on the parole board.) Then there’s getting out of Icewind Dale, which the movie skips past, but which could involve a fair bit of challenge. (There are snow golems wandering around out there, after all!)
Once back in warmer southern climes, the social encounter with Forge Fitzwilliam more or less has to proceed on rails to enable the rest of the story. But given that Forge has all the power in that situation, and the PCs don’t have much to offer him in exchange for what they want, the rails shouldn’t be too obvious or feel too forced. And there are a lot of ways to approach the fight that follows — almost certainly with more PC interaction than it gets in the movie, where Edgin the bard tends to get out of the way and twiddle his thumbs whenever Holga the barbarian is in combat.
From there, assuming the players don’t bypass the story’s fact-finding opportunities, we’re back into territory where only one of the players is getting any action. Honor Among Thieves was consciously modeled to feel like a real tabletop experience, and it often does — except when it splits the party and lets one of them handle all the action, whether it’s Holga soloing fights or Doric the druid wild-shaping her way out of a spy mission. In fact, Doric’s escape segment in particular would need heavy rewriting to be enjoyable at the play table. The other PCs would need ways to get involved, and her actual escape method wouldn’t work, since game druids can only change forms twice before resting.
The graveyard exploration scene, where the party tries to figure out who last had the McGuffin of the hour, the Helmet of Disjunction, is one of the better-designed parts of this scenario. It’s a supremely flexible setup that would let a GM fine-tune a game to meet their party’s preferred play style. The movie mostly prolongs it for comedy, which could work fine. But a different GM could just as well play the investigation straight and quick, or introduce unasked-for information from the corpses (including the seeds of future story arcs), or even turn the whole scene into a combat. (“Looks like the last party who came through here didn’t bother to ask anyone they raised five complete questions. There’s a small army of vengeful, resentful undead charging at you. Roll for initiative.”)
The entire Xenk arc is the biggest problem for the hypothetical Honor Among Thieves module, at least the way it plays out on screen. The players have to go to a powerful NPC, listen to his lectures and backstory, dutifully follow him on a journey where they have no expertise or input, get a giant info-dump about Szass Tam from him, then stand back and watch as he retrieves their quest item for them, then solos an undead fight? Boring. There are plenty of ways to get PCs more involved with all of that action than they are in the movie, but given how obedient the movie characters are to Xenk’s every command, it feels like this part of the module was written to see how far players can be pushed before they refuse to go along with a haughty NPC who thinks this is his story.
From there, we have the Themberchaud run-in, which could be a good opportunity for charismatic characters to pivot to a social encounter — that dragon’s gotta be at least a little curious about the outside world, given his history. Or it could work as an extended skills challenge. But some PC groups are going to try to stand and kill him, which feels like TPK territory. They’re going to need a clear way out if the GM doesn’t want the story to end there. Then there’s Simon’s attempt to attune to the helmet, which doesn’t work with the attunement rules as written, but could easily be scrapped for a character who doesn’t like one-on-one role-play scenes or deep character exploration.
The heist itself, aimed at relieving Forge of all his ill-gotten goods, could easily be the heart of this module. The movie characters find a couple of different ways to get into Forge’s big vault, and there are a lot more possibilities left on the table. Assuming a group who likes puzzle challenges, this entire challenging setup, with its rug-pull surprises and its chance for the entire party to shine in their areas of expertise, would make for a strong center of a module. Who doesn’t love a heist story?
And the gladiatorial ring that follows similarly has a ton of possibility, depending on how the party wants to play it. Like the graveyard challenge, this one could go in a wide variety of directions, and the open-ended options are a lot of fun. Does the party try to get the crowd on their side? Do they recruit those other parties running around the arena? An enterprising GM could even bring in some other players for a one-session special event to spice up the regular game. Do they play it all as a straight fight, or try to get control of the arena’s magic? Either way, if they manage to escape with the loot, like the movie’s characters, the arena could be the big, dramatic climax of the story — or just an appetizer before a group confrontation against the story’s Big Bad, Sofina the Red Wizard.
The biggest strength of Honor Among Thieves as a potential D&D play module is that it offers the characters so many meaningful choices. This story was designed as a movie, after all, so the characters have dynamic and action-oriented roles to play. But more importantly, they’re mostly facing scenarios where there isn’t just one correct way to approach the problem. And the ending in particular is a strong one, where they authentically can take a selfish road or a noble one, and either path will lead to further story options. If they bolt with the gold, they’re rich and free — and they’ve left an entire city of the ravening undead behind them, which is bound to come up again in future adventures. If they go back to defeat Sofina, they’ve definitely made enemies out of the Red Wizards, which could launch endless future stories.
Either way, Honor Among Thieves has its ups and downs both as a movie and as a possible play experience, but it seems like there’s plenty of potential there. A great GM and a great group of players will find the fun in any module, scenario, or scene, but it really helps to have the bones of a good story already laid out. The Dungeons & Dragons movie wasn’t expressly designed for a play experience, but it does have a solid skeleton underneath all the on-screen action. It’s just waiting for players to flesh it out and get it moving.