On May 7th of this year, Warner Bros. announced that they had acquired the rights to make a new Dungeons & Dragons film. Initially, there were minor cheers throughout D&D fandom. Warner’s claim hinted that they were going to make a feature film, and this was a significant step up from the past two made-for-TV films that had been broadcast on SyFy. It wasn’t until people read deeper into the Deadline.com article that the collective groan of D&D fans could be heard across the multiverse.
The article was filled with conceptual landmines that set off the “it’s going to suck” sensors of RPGers everywhere. Phrases like “the film will be produced by… producer Roy Lee and Courtney Solomon…[who]directed a 2000 Dungeons & Dragons feature,” and “The studio…will use a script by Wrath Of The Titans and Red Riding Hood scribe…David Leslie Johnson. That script, Chainmail, was acquired last year as a free-standing project, based on an obscure game that was also hatched by D&D designer Gary Gygax before he and Dave Arneson launched D&D” were of particular concern. In the minds of many fans, any connection with Courtney Solomon automatically induces one to write the project off as a potential nightmare. Add to that the fact that the PR staff at Warner didn’t know enough about the property to know that Chainmail is more than “an obscure game also hatched by” Gygax, it was the original combat system for D&D. The current combat system was referred to as the “optional system” in the original white box set.
Given that Chainmail also happens to be the name of a trademarked miniature skirmish game published by Wizards of the Coast (read: HASBRO) that had rules designed by Chris Pramas which had been released in the early 2000s, and that the past two D&D films were direct-to-TV affairs, it is not surprising that Hasbro almost immediately filed a legal complaint asking for an injunction preventing any development of a D&D film by Warner Brothers or by Sweet Pea Entertainment (Courtney Solomon’s company).
Hasbro claims that Solomon’s license with Hasbro for the D&D film and TV rights expired when Sweet Pea Entertainment paid Hasbro $20,000 in fees for the broadcast of Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness. It is quite certain that Solomon will file a counterclaim asserting his rights, and a mass melee will ensue in which all parties will attempt to use Vorpal Blades or maybe even Blackrazor to settle the issue. You can read the initial lawsuit at The Hollywood Reporter.
It should be noted that whatever opinions around fandom are about Solomon, he has been involved in the promotion and development of game-related products for some time. According to Shannon Appelcline’s upcoming Designers & Dragons series of books, Sweet Pea were part owner of Imperium Games which published material for Traveller (the first Science Fiction RPG) and did so because Solomon wanted to make films and TV shows based on that property. One must also give Solomon credit for actually getting a D&D film launched; the brand had been in development hell for two decades before the 2000 film hit theaters.
Solomon may have been able to get the film produced – and with a $35 million budget, no less – but as a director he failed to provide a quality product, and the two subsequent films haven’t been much to brag about either. In my opinion, the second D&D film is the best one, but it’s only entertaining in a Hawk the Slayer kind of way.
Not only did Solomon secure the D&D film and TV rights: according to Appelcline he was in negotiations to buy TSR in 1996 or 1997 before Wizards of the Coast swooped in and purchased the company. One can only imagine what a Sweet Pea owned TSR would have looked like, and if the films that have been made under Solomon’s watch are any indication it might not have been pretty.
Two things are certain. First, the legal issues surrounding the D&D film will be worked out in the coming months, and will likely end with a huge settlement for someone. Second, regardless of who ends up with the rights to make the next D&D movie, they have a lot of work to do in order to transform the brand from a third tier joke of a film franchise into a potential tent-pole. Given that D&D has influenced screenwriters and directors from Dan Harmon (Community) and Steven Spielberg to John Rogers (Leverage) and a host of others, it shouldn’t be as hard as it has been so far.
You know what? It ought to be easy to make Dungeons and Dragons, which is the iconic fantasy role playing game, into a tent pole! There is no excuse for a film based on the brand to suck as miserably as the 2000 film, or the 2012 made-for-TV train wreck. Any gamer worth rolling a 3d6 in order thinks they have the magic pieces of advice for experienced Hollywood executives, and that includes me.
Psst…Courtney, or whoever ends up with the rights after the mayhem that is about to occur, if you’ll just listen to me I’ll give you 10 quick tips on how to make the next D&D film not suck. So here goes…
10) Stay Character Focused
I know, I know. Everyone who has read at least one book on screenwriting is going to say that a movie needs to be character focused. One might even argue that the second D&D movie Wrath of the Dragon God was character focused, and it certainly was the most such film in the series. There is a reason I consider it to be the best in the series. But Wrath of the Dragon God was still at its heart a quest film, and we need to get away from fantasy films as quest films. We need stories about what the lives of people are like within the fantasy world of “Dungeons & Dragons.” If the next D&D film is like the Game of Thrones books and TV series, or like Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, then we are potentially in for quite a treat. Let me remind you that The Name of the Wind is essentially a tale where a bartender tells the reader about how when he was homeless, he struggled to get into college and accrued significant student loan debt.
And it’s riveting. It’s riveting to read pages of that same bartender bake pies as he conveys the tale. Why? Because it’s character driven. Heck, character driven doesn’t even need to cost $35 million to look halfway decent. Fantasy Flight Games made a spec pilot for a fantasy series based on their Midnight Chronicles game world – a game world designed for the d20 system (read…D&D) – and it was pretty damned good. Have a look at the trailer.
It’s not the best fantasy filmmaking I’ve ever seen, but it’s pretty compelling and what it lacks in budget it more than makes up for in story. And what’s the story behind Midnight Chronicles? Oh…just that a priest of the Dark Lord has come to a small town to finish building the cathedral to said Dark Lord. The priest, or Legate as they call him, has to deal with corrupt local politicians and pain in the neck Robin Hood-like rebels. Oh, and there might be some spirit of nature on the site who isn’t happy to have a cathedral to the Dark Lord being built on the premises. There is no grand quest. There is no follow the twelve year-old as he becomes the invincible hero of the age story. And there are no “because…HBO” nudity moments. It works, and I wish they had a budget because it is clear they have a story to tell.
9) Downplay the Brand
Take a quick look at this promotional poster for the second Star Wars movie. What do you notice?
The first thing that jumps out at me is that the major emphasis of the advertisement is on the name of the new film, The Empire Strikes Back . There is some reference to the Star Wars brand, but it is muted in comparison to what else is going on in the advertisement. The same can be said for the film itself. While it can be agreed that Empire is about both stars and wars, it is more specifically about the relationships of the characters in the story and in this case about the Empire…well…striking back against the rebel alliance. A decent amount of the action of Empire takes place on planets – snow covered, swamp covered, and cloud covered – and not in outer space.
The same can not be said of the Dungeon & Dragons movies. The three movies in the D&D franchise have all featured dungeons and dragons, and not in a tangential way. If I were to do a plot breakdown of the three films, which I am not about to, it would quickly become clear that these are films about dungeons and dragons. In fact, Courtney Solomon was quoted in an interview with IGN that he was writing the movie to reflect the rules, “I wanted to reflect the rules and character classes of the basic, basic, basic game circa 1991 which saw the release of the second edition rules set. That is when the script was written. Third edition came out in like 1993 and the latest edition of the rules will have to wait for the sequel.”
The movie was written to reflect the rules set? Really? Who does that? That is focusing way to much on the brand and not enough on the story.
Stop that! Not only do some of the best adventures written for the D&D game have exactly zero dragons or zero dungeons, but the brand is not a story. It is merely a brand. Stay focused on story. Have the title of your next film be something like Vecna Lives!, Assault on the Aerie of the Slavelords, Shadows of the Last War, Time of the Twins, or The Crystal Shard. Use the D&D brand in the ads in the same way that Star Wars was used in the Empire posters.
8) Minimize the Special Effects
Good storytelling doesn’t always require massive climactic expensive effects shots. One can tell a great fantasy story by focusing on using bucolic filming locations like Ireland, Eastern Europe, and New Zealand. Yes, the D&D movies have largely been filmed in Eastern Europe, but they have downplayed the scenery and focused on using visual effects for “flash and action” instead of for aiding in the mythopoeic construction of a plausible world.
The focus on flash over substance can be best described by the following examples: the opening sequence and the final battle. In the opening sequence of the first film, the audience is treated to an entirely CGI sweeping helicopteresque view of a fantasy city. The audience keeps flying in closer, eventually flying in through the sewers and thus entering a dungeon wherein a dragon is being kept for experimentation by the evil wizard Profion. That’s right…a dragon in a dungeon. In the final battle the audience is treated to one of the most unjustifiable CGI sequences of all time in which… let’s have Courtney Solomon describe it, “The end sequence is an eleven-minute battle over a mage-built city built in 3-D CGI. Certain shots will show over 150 dragons battling at the same time.”
150 dragons battling at the same time? Yeah, that sounds like a wise use of money and it totally sounds like a narrative necessity for a D&D movie. How about a movie that is cheap enough to be featured on HBO that has three little dragons, some beautifully built practical sets, sweeping landscapes, a host of extras, is 10 hours long at a cost of $6 million an hour (behind paywall…sorry), and has a compelling storyline that requires some digital effects but never requires 150 freakin’ dragons?! Oh…wait…that’s being done and it’s called Game of Thrones.
7) Don’t make a Drizzt Movie
Okay…you can, but don’t use any of the books in The Dark Elf Trilogy.
Drizzt Do’Urden is by far the most popular character in the entire D&D brand, and with good reason. Ever since the first Drizzt book published – The Crystal Shard (1988) – R.A. Salvatore has managed to combine fantastic swashbuckling adventure with pure fan service fantasy fulfillment in a way that would make Lieutenant Mary Sue green with envy. Drizzt is a D&D fanboy favorite and a power gamer’s dream come true. Drizzt is a member of the most statistically broken race ever created, the Drow. This race of Dark Elves is irredeemably evil and unimaginably powerful.
From their initial introduction into the D&D game in the D series of modules, the Drow have been presented as one of the major threats to all that is just and good that overpowered player characters can face. The Drow fight with two weapons (even in 1st edition): they have magic resistance, innate magical abilities like levitation, and the best magical weapons on the planet – weapons that degrade and decay as they are removed from the radiation of the Drow homeland. In short, the Drow are true badasses that seek world domination and who players fight for the honor of killing kickass foes because the majority of treasure the players take home will evaporate in sunlight. Oh…and they are all Chaotic Evil and they are governed by a matriarchy made up of the Priestesses of Lolth the Spider Queen of the Demonweb Pits. Let me reiterate. All Drow are EVIL…except…Drizzt.
You see, Drizzt is an outcast from Drow society. He is the one good Drow. He gets to benefit from all of the awesomeness of being a member of the super-race, without any of the drawbacks – like being randomly sacrificed on an altar. The Drizzt books are entertaining and highly successful, but one must tread lightly if one wants to use this character as the basis for a movie franchise. Chief among the pitfalls that would present a challenge to the would be screenwriter are the Mary Sue nature of the character, the sheer goth/emo-ness of the character (rarely will you read a character so self pitying), and the fact that Drow culture could be used to write a series of sadomasochistic tales of erotica – especially if one focuses on The Dark Elf Trilogy. Let’s just say that Drizzt’s relationship with his mother and sister isn’t exactly SFW.
Another difficulty facing the would be screenwriter of a Drizzt film is that Drizzt’s own abilities change from series to series and book to book in order to reflect the game mechanics of the current edition (at the time of the novel’s publication) of the D&D game. In the first trilogy, Drizzt goes berserk at the sight of Giants because Rangers do extra damage against giant type humanoids. In the second trilogy (the first chronologically) Drizzt uses the “dual class” rules to change his profession from Fighter to Ranger. There are many more examples, but I wouldn’t want to bore you with the mechanics. Let’s just say that R.A. Salvatore has been quoted as saying “4th edition [D&D] …from a mechanical standpoint, it’s a fabulous game. From a roleplaying standpoint, by that I mean a writing standpoint, it’s much harder.”
From a writing standpoint?! Ugh. Don’t write to the rule,s man. The rules were inspired by some pretty incompatible fiction.
6) Don’t try to translate a module into a movie
Unless it is an entirely narratively driven module. Some of the best times I have ever had with any of my friends playing D&D have been spent playing the classic “old school” D&D modules. If you ask me about The Keep on the Borderlands, White Plume Mountain, The Tomb of Horrors, or The Isle of Dread, my eyes will glaze over with sheer nostalgic joy. Just thinking about the Keep brings back fond memories of sacking the Keep, looting it, and turning it into our own personal base of operations before we ventured into the Caves of Chaos. I know, I know, we were supposed to talk to the people of the Keep and gain aid from the residents as we ventured into the Caves. We were 10 and had no concept of what “role playing” actually was; we just wanted to raid and pillage like Vikings.
The problem with using adventures like The Keep on the Borderlands as the basis of a screenplay is essentially this. While we were wrong to lay waste to the Keep the way we did, murdering the peaceful residents of the stronghold mercilessly, players are kind of expected to make sack and pillage raids against the Caves of Chaos in that module. As an older player, when I go back and read the module I find it kind of disturbing. The number of Kobold and Orc children and infants is listed, which gives a kind of verisimilitude to the place but also adds a sinister “adventurers as genocidal maniacs” tone to the adventure. What exactly are the adventurers who enter the Caves seeking to do battle with the monsters raiding the Keep and its environs supposed to do with all those children? It boggles the mind.
These old dungeon crawls as written make for good game play, but they don’t always end up creating the best stories. If taken straight from the Keep module, a script might look something like the following:
Listen at door.
Wizard casts Sleep spell.
Party slits throats of all within.
Party collect treasure, goes back to Keep, rests, repeat.
Not very exciting from a story perspective. This isn’t to say that there couldn’t be a good Keep on the Borderlands movie, just that the screenwriter would have to change the narrative significantly to tell an actual story worth watching. Later modules for D&D, and descendant games like Pathfinder, are far more story driven and might make for good direct translation.
5) Don’t make the film for people who play D&D
We gamers are a strange bunch and we want a very particular kind of movie, and it is different for each and every one of us. Feel free to ask D&D players what to include or not include in a D&D movie; they’ll have some great ideas, but don’t make a movie exclusively for that audience. It’s already been done, and done about as well as it can be at present. Gamers already have the Dead Gentlemen Production The Gamers movie, The Dungeon Bastard, the Gold webseries, as well as the D&D episode of Community. We very much enjoy these films and webseries because they are made “by us and for us.” When “outsiders” like the crew at The Big Bang Theory try their hand at writing a D&D episode or two, the results are decidedly mixed. Some people love the episodes, and some hate them. I’m on the side defending the TBBT episodes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand how some believe these episodes are insulting to the gaming community at large.
And there you have the crux of the problem. If you break the fourth wall in the making of a D&D movie, you run two risks. You might alienate the non-core audience by making too many game specific references for your mainstream viewer. You also run the risk of poking fun at the game and genre to the point that you aggravate the group that could be your best source of free positive publicity, the gamers themselves. Let me put it this way. Ron Howard’s upcoming film Rush is a film about Formula 1 racing. It is about one of the most compelling seasons in the sport’s history. It contains some great references for the fan, but it focuses on telling the story and not including every statistical reference that an F1 fan would demand. If the reporters at this past week’s Monaco Grand Prix are to be believed, Ron Howard made a great film. The journalists who cover the sport are giving Howard praise and selling the movie. This is great, but if the film doesn’t connect with a broader audience it’s entirely pointless.
Make a good movie using the D&D brand and don’t worry about including obscure references that make the gamer happy. And let me say this again: “Don’t write using the rules as a template!”
4) Use the rich history of the brand, but avoid its “derivative” history –
Remember when I wrote earlier that you shouldn’t focus too much on the D&D brand when making a D&D movie, or how you shouldn’t necessarily make a Drizzt movie, or how I wrote that you shouldn’t use a module as the basis for a movie? Follow that advice still, but also make sure that you take a look at what the game’s settings have to offer for story fodder. Elizabeth Moon turned an event mentioned briefly in the World of Greyhawk Setting booklet (the Battle of Emridy Meadows), as well as the Village of Hommlet and Vault of the Drow modules, as inspiration for the fantastic Deed of Paksenarrion.
Over its near 40 year history, the D&D game has produced a vast array of materials that present a number of exciting mythologies and milieu for adventure. From the World of Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms to Dark Sun and Eberron – to name only a few – the D&D library has hundreds of background references that could be turned into movies. Robin Wayne Bailey used murders on the streets of Greyhawk to tell a compelling story in the novel Nightwatch. The struggles of Duke Stefan Karameikos as he tries to defend his fledgling frontier nation from marauding humanoids while dealing with the sinister political machinations of the Torenescu family might make another. One can easily imagine a film taking place in the City of Sharn as an Inquisitive investigates the murder of a prominent member of one of the “Houses.”
There is a lot to be mined from the D&D library, but try to stick to the material that is most unique to D&D, avoid translating Ravenloft into a D&D movie, and the same goes for the first Dragonlance trilogy. Ravenloft is quite simply Sword and Sorcery Dracula, and the first Dragonlance trilogy is derivative and dull. Later Dragonlance books build upon the original ideas in the first trilogy and create a rich world, but the first trilogy isn’t the strongest fiction. The recent animated movie ended up not being a very good film. This is true even though the film had a good cast of voice actors, decent animation, and a screenwriter who faithfully translated that first Dragonlance tale. The problem is that the first Dragonlance story is BORING.
3) Avoid the “Transported from real world to D&D story”
J. Eric Holmes, the author of the first D&D Basic Set, wrote in his book Fantasy Role Playing Games that he believed that L. Sprague de Camp’s story Solomon’s Stone may have been an influence on the creation of D&D. As Holmes describes Solomon’s Stone, “The story was a fantasy in which the hero exchanges personalities with his alter-ego in the astral world. Here he discovers that the astral self of each living person on earth is the self he imagines or fantasies himself to be in his most private day dreams” Quite simply, this potential inspiration is the story of a man from our world being thrust into a fantasy world in which he becomes a fantastic version of himself. I don’t know how much influence this story actually had on Gary Gygax and David Arneson, but I will say that becoming an idealized version of one’s self in a fantasy world is slightly different than A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
The concept of people traveling from our world into the “world of Dungeons & Dragons” may be what people are doing when they play the game, and in that way it is still a very fresh concept, but in literary terms it has already become cliche. This narrative conceit is used in the first novel to feature the World of Greyhawk, Andre Norton’s Quag Keep. It is how the action in the Guardians of the Flame book series begins. It also happens to be the premise behind the Dungeons & Dragons animated series.
I love the Dungeons & Dragons animated series more than most. It was among the first cartoons I shared with my now 5 year-old twin daughters “History” and “Mystery.” I would love nothing more than to meet the screenwriters who worked on the show, especially Larry DiTillio, but this is not a trope I’d like to see in a modern D&D movie. Largely because it would require too great a suspension of disbelief for a live-action film. I just think that if you were to take 5 random people and drop them into the Temple of Elemental Evil, they’d very quickly find themselves food for Zuggtmoy.
2) Hire Talented Screenwriters and Directors
The right screenwriter and director combination could make a truly great Dungeons & Dragons movie, and the franchise has yet to be given this opportunity. Think about Batman Begins for a moment, or the Richard Donner Superman. These are very good movies, and they are good because they had the right creative team behind them. I’m not saying that the next D&D movie needs to have the modern equivalent of Mario Puzo writing the screenplay; in fact, I’d settle for John Rogers but I’d want a more “Leverage John Rogers” and less “Transformers John Rogers.” Heck, if John Rogers would take one of his unused ideas for Leverage and translate it into a D&D movie, I think it would be great. Rogers’ work on the Dungeons & Dragons comic book by IDW was along these lines, and I think he could do an interesting movie – just not if it is expected to be a special effects extravaganza. I’d also settle for any one of the writers on the Game of Thrones TV show, Jon Favreau, or someone hand picked by Steven Spielberg.
There are a number of directors who could be selected to work on a D&D film, but let me make a couple of recommendations of who to avoid. Don’t let Michael Bay make the film. He should stick to gun toting buddies and giant robots; we’ll see how he does with mutant turtles soon enough. Don’t let Joss Whedon make the film – I fear he’ll insert too many easter eggs and inside jokes for the mainstream. The geek in me wants Joss and that scares me. Don’t hire J.J. Abrams: D&D doesn’t need lens flares. And please…for the love of all humanity…don’t hire Uwe Boll.
1) Kill Courtney Solomon
Just kidding, but please make sure to pay him off. Even if it makes the film more expensive than it would otherwise be. Solomon hasn’t just damaged D&D as a film property through his production of one theatrical and two made-for-television movies; he has damaged the underlying brand. I cannot imagine that anyone who watched any one of the D&D movies that Solomon worked on would think for a minute that D&D represents serious and meaningful fantasy storytelling, and that’s a problem. Maybe it’s because Solomon is a big fan and as such is too close to the subject matter to be objective. Maybe the fanboy in his heart forces him to insert game mechanics into the screenplay.
Or maybe it’s because, as the LA Times reported in 2000, he acted against the brand when faced with losing the rights to the property when Wizards of the Coast took ownership of TSR. According to the Times, Solomon took the $3.5 million he had so far raised for production and “went overseas to shoot a spiteful direct-to-video film.” A spiteful direct-to-video film that would have secured his rights for another few years, even at the expense of the brand.
Is that really the mindset of a person who has the best interest of the D&D brand at heart?
Or…you could completely ignore everything I’ve written in this post, bring Marlon Wayans back to reprise his role as Snails, and call the film Not Another D&D Movie.