Attempts at adapting the patently interactive Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game into a purely visual medium have generally resulted in pretty mediocre affairs. The film trilogy that began with 2000’s Dungeons & Dragons, for example, failed to win the hearts of both critics and the viewing public due to some wooden performances and less-than-cutting-edge visual effects. Still, this was neither the first nor the last movie/television misfire for the franchise.
The 2008 animated fantasy film Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight was grim and tedious, while the 1980s Saturday morning cartoon so beloved by my generation missed the mark on the other end. Despite a few familiar names and faces, there was very little proper D&D DNA spread across the series’ three bubbly seasons.
With all this in mind, I can hardly be blamed for my initially tepid response to the announcement of a project that would eventually become Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Seemingly trapped in development limbo since 2013, it wasn’t even until 2021 that filming began in earnest.
Suffice it to say this did nothing to assuage my fears that the new D&D would be any more successful (or enjoyable) than the previous attempts. But then I watched the teaser trailer.
I liked those actors. I recognized those monsters. I love that song!
And just like that, I was back for round… whatever it is, now cautiously optimistic about the slowly coalescing shape of this upcoming Dungeons & Dragons adventure.
When Penguin Random House reached out about reviewing a pair of tie-in novels, prequels that help establish the characters and the tone of Honor Among Thieves, I agreed to check them out, tempering that cautious optimism with a dash of curiosity. Beginning last holiday season I made my way through these books, slowly at first, but then, gradually faster and with more gusto.
The authors, E.K. Johnston (known for her YA Star Wars novels) and Jaleigh Johnson (who’s previously explored the Marvel and Assassin’s Creed universes), both seem to have a really good grasp of the Forgotten Realms and a genuine affinity for the characters. Moreover, they managed to deftly walk the delicate tightrope that’s foiled so many other would-be D&D writers in recent memory.
There is danger, sure, and derring-do, but there is also humor and heart in equal measure—in a way that’s sure to remind any old hand of their own most cherished moments at the gaming table.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves: The Druid’s Call
Johnston’s contribution focuses on Doric, an abandoned tiefling living among the elves of the Neverwinter Wood. Portrayed by Sophia Lillis in the upcoming film—young Beverly Marsh in 2017’s It—Doric is perpetually the odd woman out.
Rejected by her human parents for her infernal appearance and sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb among her elvish kin, she’s convinced herself that the way to fit in, the only true way to head off any additional rejection, is to make herself useful to the tribe.
Unfortunately, her skills as a ranger are lacking—especially when compared to those of her childhood friend Deverel. However, a fateful hunting encounter between Doric, her elven bestie Torrieth, and a displaced bear opens up new avenues when Doric demonstrates an innate knack for druidic magic.
Encouraged by Torrieth and Liavaris, her adopted mother, Doric eventually makes the long journey to Ardeep Forest, home of the Emerald Enclave. With its sole mission to train up the young defenders of the natural world, the Enclave hosts would-be rangers, barbarians, and druids alike, which widens the novel’s scope beyond the reach of Neverwinter and into the greater Sword Coast.
This also gives the book a chance to flex its inclusivity muscles. While D&D‘s history with racial and cultural representation has long been problematic, recent changes to the property have sought to address this issue head-on. As such, Doric finds herself among beings of all shapes, sizes, and hues in the Emerald Enclave.
These include everything from genasi and the giant-kin firbolg (in the form of Doric’s new roomie, Jowenys) to half-orcs, humans, and even another tiefling, each of which is defined by their own intentions rather than any innate “evil” inherent in their race.
Palanus, Doric’s half-orc instructor, uses they/them pronouns, which is woven into the tale in such as way that makes it a total non-issue. This is who Palanus is, and their charges respect it.
E.K. Johnston does an admirable job of weaving game concepts into Doric’s story. Easy spells like Shape Water are outright referred to as cantrips, while more complicated spellwork is described as drawing on a limited well of power from the caster—an easy enough intro to D&D‘s magic system.
Particular attention is paid to the druid class feature Wild Shape (the ability to shift into an animal form) and the fearsome monster known as the owlbear. While owlbears are not typically included in Wild Shape animal options, keen viewers surely noticed Doric’s transformation in the film’s latest trailer, so this was a nice way to get the otherwise uninitiated up to speed concerning an important aspect of one of the movie’s principle characters.
Aside from Doric herself and a few cameos from Simon the sorcerer (played by Justice Smith in the film), The Druid’s Call doesn’t exactly flaunt its connection to the Honor Among Thieves. It’s much more of a self-contained piece that instead focuses on a single young member before fate ties her together with the larger adventuring party.
Best of all, it does this without leaning too hard into the trappings of the traditional YA character introduction. This isn’t a color-by-numbers coming-of-age story. Demon baby parental abandonment trauma aside, it establishes Doric as a relatable character looking to make her way in the world, even as she understands herself to be a horn-headed, coal-eating deviation often ignored or ridiculed by the populace at large.
I also really appreciate how Johnston totally eschews the tiresome teenage romance subplot. (Aside from a brief courtship between Deverel and Torrieth, the book never dwells too heavily on matters of the heart.) Instead, The Druid’s Call focuses on themes of platonic love, found family, and self-awareness.
My only knock against the book is that the central conflict—that being the friction between Neverwinter’s elven population and a growing group of human clear-cutters damaging the delicate forest ecosystem—isn’t exactly wrapped up by the tale’s end. Given some of the shots in the movie trailer, though, I wholly anticipate this being part of the film’s overarching narrative.
Routinely flashing back from Doric’s real-time journey into the larger world of men to wisps of memory from her isolated childhood, The Druid’s Call reminds readers (regardless of age) that one’s past doesn’t necessarily determine one’s future and, more importantly, that it’s never a bad time to chart a new path not just for the good of yourself but for those you love and cherish as well.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves: The Road to Neverwinter
After wrapping up Doric’s introductory book, I was properly primed to dive into The Road to Neverwinter, the movie’s more direct prequel. This novel introduces the bulk of the rest of the cast including Edgin the bard (Chris Pine), Holga the barbarian (Michelle Rodriguez), and the roguish Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant), but at the heart of the tale—both emotionally and narratively, as she’s regularly asking her dad to recount the party’s grandest adventures—is Edgin’s daughter Kira.
On the one hand, I was regularly disappointed that Edgin seldom, y’know, barded throughout the novel, but on the other hand, he did routinely charm, connive, and break/enter—all aspects of the traditional bard character. (Plus, there are few ways more effective in getting me to truly pull for a protagonist than to introduce them as a struggling single parent!)
At Kira’s insistence, Edgin regales her—and us, the readers—with a series of stories starting back with the earliest days of their adventuring crew. This begins with the introduction of powerhouse Holga (at a tavern, naturally) before developing into a series of ever more ambitious capers around the Sword Coast.
Along the way—and against her father’s wishes—a young Kira joins in thanks to her invisibility pendant, a crooked card game between Edgin and Forge finds the gentleman thief signing on, and, trapped on a haunted island, Simon the sorcerer too is absorbed into the team. The action culminates with a daring heist at the estate of an eccentric dragonborn wizard that involves everything from costumes and forged invitations to potions and Slippers of Spider Climbing.
This book also introduces what I’ve come to think of as Chekhov’s Beholder, because if someone mentions a Beholder in act two, you’re damn sure going to have to deal with one before the act three resolution!
Like E.K. Johnston, Jaleigh Johnson does a great job of rooting the narrative’s action in real D&D concepts. When Holga mounts a slippery stone outcropping in a single bound, you just know she aced her Athletics check, and as locks resist simple picking, you can feel Forge and Edgin praying for a natural 20.
The book contains ample D&D beasties to delight in-the-know readers—gnolls, stirges, and even a hag for good measure—yet also gives each enough exposition to fill in those new to the Forgotten Realms. Best of all, there’s a mix of combat and conversation, of carefully laid plans and spontaneous tomfoolery, that mirrors all my best tabletop roleplaying experiences.
And at the center of it all are these archetypes—the grizzled adventurer and the precocious kid and the hapless magician and the stoic fighter—that aren’t afraid to play against type. All this combined makes The Road to Neverwinter a really satisfying read that has me counting the days until Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens at my local cinema.
That’s How It’s Done
Will Honor Among Thieves succeed where so many other Dungeons & Dragons adaptations have failed? Only time will tell, but both The Druid’s Call and The Road to Neverwinter have convinced me that at least the books’ respective authors understood the assignment.
D&D isn’t just swordplay and spell-slinging. It isn’t just morose backstories and overcoming personal baggage. It isn’t just men and it isn’t just monsters and it isn’t just min-maxing. Ideally, it’s a dash of all these things powered by a team of characters who fail as often as they succeed… but still find a way through.
In short, if Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves can channel even a modicum of the humor and heart and honesty in these prequels novels, we might finally have the D&D movie we’ve always longed for.
Review materials provided by Penguin Random House. This post contains affiliate links. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves: The Druid’s Call and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves: The Road to Neverwinter are both available on February 28, 2023. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens on March 31 at a theater near you.