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.