Forget D&D: Honor Among Thieves, Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is the best tabletop RPG movie you’ll see this year
It’s not Rocket science.
I’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 twice in the last week. Though this is mostly due to circumstance, I can’t deny that I’m somewhat obsessed with this film. Having recently fallen off the Marvel train thanks to the mostly mediocre-to-bad offerings put out by the studio in the last couple of years, Guardians 3 was immensely refreshing. Not only does it wrap up the trilogy with a confidence that’s fully earned, it’s also an exceptional film in its own right.
There are many reasons to love Guardians 3 – the hilarious, yet moving script, the weird locales and, of course, an amazing soundtrack – but some of its strongest elements also happen to echo that of a brilliant tabletop roleplaying game campaign. Though Guardians 3 was not intended to be viewed through the lens of a TRPG fan - another film released this year, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, was supposed to fill that particular gap - it nevertheless ticks all of the right boxes.
Spoilers ahead for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3
Guardians 3 begins with Rocket being mortally wounded and the rest of the Guardians – Peter Quill, Nebula, Mantis, Groot and Drax - immediately setting out to find the information they need to override a kill-switch imbedded in his heart and save his life.
Rather than a vague, impersonal threat that the heroes must overcome to save the day, such as the D&D movie’s Red Wizard Sofina, Guardians 3’s story is about a found family doing everything they can to save each other. While many tabletop roleplaying campaigns revolve around epic, world-ending plots, easily the best ones I’ve ever played have been driven by their personal connections. The stakes are naturally much higher when someone you care about – such as a fellow party member – is in active peril. Seeing Rocket in pain, and his fellow Guardians suffering because of that pain, makes the desperation behind their actions and the overall tension of the story of Guardians 3 that much more intense.
Another aspect of Guardians 3 that would fit right into a great RPG campaign is the fact that much of the plot happens in response to Rocket’s backstory. Though Honor Among Thieves does feature a side-plot centred on another member of its ensemble cast, it feels very inconsequential: nothing more than an opportunity for the heroes to get some payback after a moment of betrayal.
Despite the Guardians still having moments of conflict between one another, they’re driven by character flaws that can only be found after delving much deeper.
Whereas Guardians 3’s entire plot happens because of the actions of a shadowy figure from Rocket’s past. The inciting incident of the film is committed by a mercenary from a civilisation created by the High Evolutionary, an egotistical scientist who wants to extract Rocket’s brain for his future genetic ‘projects’. Via a series of heart-wrenching flashbacks, it is revealed that the High Evolutionary transformed Rocket from an ordinary raccoon into a spaceship flying, gun-toting badass through a number of horrific, unethical experiments.
Using a villain from one of the Guardians’ pasts not only adds to the personal element of the plot but is also a classic TRPG campaign move. Though player characters in a party might know very little about each other's pasts when they first meet, having them share more about themselves as the campaign progresses serves to deepen their bonds with one another. Introductory adventures in an RPG campaign often revolve around some threat that forces the group to work together for the sake of a shared goal, much like that of Guardian of the Galaxy Vol.1’s Ronan the Accuser or Honor Among Thieves’ Sofina. However, as the party grows to care about each other as friends – and possibly more – a campaign’s threat can be derived from something or someone from their past, prompting the group to rally round to support their loved ones.
Though the audience don’t see much of their past together, the main characters in the D&D movie are supposed to be familiar with one another - with Edgin, Holgar and Simon having worked together previously, as well as Simon and Doric having supposedly dated. However, their group dynamic still feels like it’s in its early stages; their interactions appear surface level, even between the apparently long-time friends Edgin and Holgar. It certainly doesn’t help that the film’s pacing doesn’t allow for much in the way of character interaction, besides the odd quip, but the characters of Honor Among Thieves don’t feel like they’ve bonded all that much.
The last half-hour of Guardians 3 is such a joy to watch because it feels like you’re witnessing a party of RPG characters pull off a desperate rescue mission.
Despite the Guardians still having moments of conflict between one another in Vol.3, they’re driven by character flaws that can only be found after delving much deeper. The flaws of the Guardians are confronted through frank conversations between one another, the sort of conversations that only people who have grown close would be able to have. Like an adventuring party who have been exploring, fighting and growing with each other during a long RPG campaign, the Guardians feel like they know each other well enough that their initial flaws aren’t enough to create conflict between them anymore. As with a tabletop RPG campaign, this leaves room for more nuanced and satisfying interactions among characters that feel earned.
All of these aspects lead up to an exceptional climax that takes up a large chunk of Guardians 3’s run-time, making for a strangely unbalanced pacing that somehow manages to work. The characters are able to defeat the High Evolutionary and save his many victims thanks to the bonds they’ve formed, enabling them to unquestionably support one another even when their actions might appear strange. The last half-hour of Guardians 3 is such a joy to watch because it feels like you’re witnessing a party of RPG characters pull off a desperate rescue mission, thanks to their unique individual playstyles and their love for each other. While the finale of the D&D film does have some great action sequences – particularly its spells and use of Doric’s Wild Shape – it didn’t emotionally resonate nearly as much as Guardians 3’s ending.
Even taking into account the fact that the Guardians franchise is three films in – six, if you count the characters’ inclusion in Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame and Thor: Love and Thunder – I was never that bothered about their characters before Vol.3. However, thanks to the film’s writing and acting, I cared enough to find myself sobbing throughout most of its runtime.
My feelings watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 were akin to the kind of emotional investment you only otherwise get from spending hours playing through a tabletop RPG campaign. Which is damn impressive.