About midway through Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Michelle Rodriguez’s character, Holga the barbarian, visits her ex’s house to get some closure on their relationship. The scene is played pretty straight, with Holga and Marlamin (played by Bradley Cooper) having a heart-to-heart about where their marriage went wrong. But it’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, since the two actors are having this deep, emotional conversation while one of them is a tiny, fancy man in a regular-sized chair, and the other is a gruff, ax-wielding, fur-clad barbarian who just beat up a whole team of guards.
This sequence particularly tickled me because in my opinion, having an ex floating around is such a fun mechanic to integrate into a role-playing game. It’s a reminder that even in this fantastical world of dungeons and dragons, the characters still mean something to each other. That goes beyond past romantic dalliances and backstory — I just love having personal, one-on-one interactions within game settings, because it makes the characters feel real, like they exist in this world beyond their quests and adventures. They have an impact on other people, beyond slaying monsters and seizing loot.
There can be mechanical benefits as well as personal ones. One of my current D&D characters has a long list of exes that I’ve woven into his backstory. Only one of them has made an appearance in our game so far (with more amiable interactions than Holga and Marlamin), but my character constantly references his long string of exes. It’s a telling detail about his history, but I’ve also used it to argue for knowledge of certain languages and historical details, because of all the things he’s picked up from his wide variety of past relationships.
I’ve already written about my love of downtime filler episodes many, many, many times here at Polygon, so it’s probably not a huge surprise that I love video games where one of the core mechanics is just hanging out with other characters. Fire Emblem: Three Houses and its tea-party system owns my entire heart, but I also adore Marvel’s Midnight Suns, which not only builds in player-initiated hangouts, but adds extracurricular activities, even though it isn’t even a school setting. The best Mass Effect DLC is the one where you go on a light-hearted, banter-filled mission, then throw a party and hang out with your friends. That scene in Dragon Age: Inquisition where rogue storyteller Varric ropes everyone into a game of cards? Amazing. (And yes, I’ve been told I should play the Persona games; they are on my ever-growing backlog).
I’m the type of person who likes to stop and talk to every NPC, so when a game acknowledges that and integrates that into the gameplay, I get really excited. I like that my player character has an effect on the world around them! I like that people have opinions about them, and want to hang out!
It makes sense that as I started to explore tabletop gaming, I would still adore downtime and role-play, the chance to interact not just with puzzles or battles, but with other people. Initially, not having preset dialogue options was a bit daunting, but now I realize that tabletop RPGs have everything I loved about video games, but with more freedom. I’ve been lucky to have DMs who indulge this preference, from specifically engineering a watch schedule for character interaction to setting up a whole gathering where player characters and NPCs alike brought dishes for a potluck luncheon.
Don’t get me wrong — I still enjoy some good combat in my games. But there’s something particularly satisfying about a memorable role-play interaction that always gives me a burst of creative energy. It’s part socializing with friends in a fun way, and partly the joy of creating something together, even if the audience is just us.
And that’s something the Dungeons & Dragons movie captures surprisingly well. Between the action sequences and heists, the main adventuring party has fun together. Since this is a movie and not a long-form television show, there aren’t designated filler episodes where they all go to the beach or play a drunken game of cards. But within the framework of the movie, the filmmakers managed to integrate enough social scenes and personal interactions to really emphasize that these characters get along and interact outside of what we see on screen, something all too rare in big genre action flicks these days.
The characters might bicker. They might struggle to attune to magical items, and get crap for their insecurities. They might have uncomfortable conversations with their exes. But afterward, when Holga sadly mounts her horse and starts to ride away, her good buddy Edgin the bard (Chris Pine) sings a song to cheer her up. It’s not long before a smile flutters to her face and they’re both singing along together. That’s the type of shit I’m here for!
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is in theaters now.