So, You All Walk into a Tavern, and...
Hey Dim. This week's review as usual. I think I've managed to fix the usual problem with ampersands. No need to thank me.
'Oh no! Is that still going?' cried the woman of a certain age in the next seat, dismayed. This was back in January and we had gone to see A Man Called Otto at the local independent cinema, which was preceded by the trailer for Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley's Dungeons squiggle Dragons: Honour Amongst Thieves. It was this which so exercised our neighbour. I felt obliged to gently let her know that not only was it still going, but also that Dungeons squiggle Dragons was (and still is) enjoying the biggest boom in its nearly half-century history (hence the release of a new movie).
Admittedly, at the time the game was looking at a potentially disastrous schism between its players and its primary publishers, threatening even a boycott of this movie, but even this was mainly because the popularity of DsquiggleD wasn't necessarily reflected in its profits (which the corporation involved was trying rather clumsily to rectify). This has since all been resolved, in a notable climbdown by the owners, but it still strikes me as rather significant in terms of what it tells us about why DsquiggleD is so special.
I should probably make it clear that I have played DsquiggleD, on and off, for something in the region of thirty-seven years. It, and the wider hobby of table-top role-playing games, is something I have always come back to; it has helped me find friends, given me a creative and social outlet matched by nothing else, allowed me to develop the skills I use every day in my job, and quite probably helped keep me sane. Despite all that, I wouldn't really call myself a DsquiggleD fan per se - it's a solid enough set of game rules, but there are better ones available, and I rarely play it these days. The current boom in DsquiggleD is down to many things: name recognition, changes in technology (most of my games are played online nowadays), the lockdown, the Stranger Things factor. But I don't think it's because it's the best game of its kind and my indifference may well be colouring my views on the movie (just so you know).
DsquiggleD is an odd thing to adapt into another medium - it's not like there's a particular story or set of characters involved. The whole point of DsquiggleD is that you get to make up your own stories and characters; indeed, this is the unique charm of this kind of game. So what is it, exactly, that the new film is adapting? (The esteemed games designer Steve Kenson has suggested that the best way of capturing the authentic DsquiggleD experience at the cinema would be to stop the film about two-thirds through, at which point everyone present would have to compare diaries and find a date they could all get together to finish it off.) Well, they go for a very generic approach when it comes to the plot and characters, and use one of the major settings (one called the Forgotten Realms, but who exactly has done the forgetting is a bit unclear).
This is basically a cod fantasy setting, which is a bit like late-medieval Europe except that there are monsters and magic and some people have heads like cats or lizards; there is no sense of this place having a history or any principle explaining quite why things are organised as they are - except that it's presumably cool and operates as a sort of wish-fulfilment exercise for the target audience. There's something to be said for wish-fulfilment as comfort food for the brain, but I always remember the words of a genre writer I interviewed many years ago, who suggested that novels of complete fantasy were essentially cheating at cards for Monopoly money.
Anyway, it opens with lovable scallywags Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) busting out of the prison they were sent to when their last job went wrong. As a result, Edgin's daughter is being looked after by their old acquaintance Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) - nearly everyone has names like this - as his wife died several years before the start of the film (a nice easy chunk of back-story). However, it turns out that Forge has betrayed them all, in association with evil - what's the right word for a female wizard? The thing is that in DsquiggleD words like 'wizard', 'sorcerer', and so on, all have very distinct and specific meanings - Sofina (Daisy Head), risen to a position of local prominence, and is engaged on a lucrative evil scheme.
So they decide to stop him, rescue Pine's daughter, and resurrect Pine's dead wife (you can do this in DsquiggleD). This involves re-recruiting a semi-competent sorcerer (Justice Smith) and recruiting a competent shape-changing druid (Sophia Lillis) - she happens to have horns coming out of her head, but this is just here as an odd form of fan-service. Rege-Jean Page also pops up as a famous but very literal-minded warrior named Xenk. And there is indeed a dungeon, and more than one dragon, and they press down very firmly on the pedal labelled 'Romp'...
Close attention has clearly been paid to successful recent comedy-adventure romps, particularly the Guardians of the Galaxy series, as this is tonally quite similar. And some parts of it are certainly successful - there's some good fight choreography for Rodriguez, Grant does his reliably entertaining tongue-in-cheek villain performance, and there's an improbably funny sequence about using necromancy to interrogate corpses for information - this even dares to hang a lantern on the strangely specific and arbitrary rules of magic in this world. The rest of it is... well, it moves briskly along, it looks nice, none of it seems likely to outrage or offend the typical sane viewer. But it's still a map-touring-and-plot-coupon-collecting fantasy adventure in the classic style of the genre. I'm starting to think the success (or otherwise) of this kind of film is really down to the quality of the world - does it feel like a credible, thought-through place that you find yourself caring about?
I'm not all that familiar with the Forgotten Realms' tabletop incarnation, but the version in the movie just has that arbitrary, slapped-together quality I mentioned earlier, with various factions and whimsical monsters (owl-bears, gelatinous cubes. six-legged tentacled panthers that aren't where they appear to be). I expect for a lot of people it's a great place to set a game, but for a more conventional kind of story it doesn't really feel like anything ultimately matters.
I suspect if it had been a bit less Guardians of the Galaxy and a bit more Monty Python and the Holy Grail - there are certainly twitches in this direction - I would have found it a bit more engaging. But there's a limit to how much quirkiness you can realistically expect from a big studio movie which is attempting to relaunch a multi-media franchise and also hopefully attract more people to the game itself. Dungeons squiggle Dragons: Honour Amongst Thieves plays things safe and relatively straight, which may be enough to ensure it finds an audience. But I'm not sure it's that great an advertisement for the DsquiggleD experience; it's certainly a lot less fun than a good game session.