This is the Way

The long-gestating Dungeons & Dragons film continues to creep along, but another series has demonstrated that the game may not need a big budget movie at all: The Mandalorian.

The long-gestating Dungeons & Dragons film continues to creep along, but another series has demonstrated that the game may not need a big budget movie at all: The Mandalorian.


The Manda-who?​

For the uninitiated, The Mandalorian follows a Mandalorian bounty hunter and his ward, a Yoda-like Force-using creature named Grogu in the Star Wars universe. The Mandalorian draws on rich lore from existing Star Wars canon and elements of the Expanded Universe (now known as Legends) that was created in books, comics, and video games.

What makes The Mandalorian so groundbreaking isn't just that it's a streaming show on Disney+ launching after a massive nine-part movie series, but that it has managed to seamlessly fit into the films' story lines while maintaining movie-level special effects. Jon Favreau, who worked on Marvel's Iron Man and Disney's live action Lion King, took what he learned from those experiences to make a streamlined series that feels like a movie.

And that's a good thing, because the massive diversity of alien fauna and sentient beings in Star Wars has a lot of parallels in the monster-rich world of Dungeons & Dragons. Previous D&D movies have all struggled with portraying monsters true to their D&D roots, both from a script and a special effects perspective (most notably a beholder distracted by a rock).

Favreau's Innovations​

Favreau set out to create a television show with movie-level special effects on a limited budget (for Disney, $15 million per episode). To keep the series within budget and on time, he leveraged two technologies and integrated them into the planning and shooting process.

The first is The Volume, a massive 360 degree projection sound stage where the actors are filmed in real time. Green screen isn't necessary as there's less work done in post-production; the actors in costume stand in front of real-time rendered virtual sets, which means the light glinting off twin suns in the background is automatically reflected in the Mandalorian's shiny beskar armor. Or to put it another way, the special effects are integrated into the background as the actors are filmed.

The second innovation is game-rendering technology. Epic Games, maker of the Unreal Engine, and other partners created StageCraft, a virtually reality platform that enables directors to render the action before a single scene is filmed. The game engine does all the work, allowing directors to determine where cameras and actors should be placed before filming begins.

Taken together, these two technologies are revolutionizing film making for series that require fantastic locations and creatures. Which makes it perfect for D&D.

The D&D Series that Never Was​

Ironically, the Dungeons & Dragons media franchise was always a supposed to be television series. This all came to light in lawsuits over the movie rights, which pivoted on the TV rights. The rights were originally owned by Sweetpea Entertainment and continuation of those rights were contingent upon creating further movies; Sweetpea made two movies that were released on the Syfy channel, "Wrath of the Dragon God" and "The Book of Vile Darkness." According to the suit, their status as TV movies did not qualify as a "theatrical motion picture" and therefore did not "reset the Sequel Rights' five-year revision clock." As evidence that Sweetpea Entertainment knew it was creating a television show and not an actual sequel to the movie:
Sweetpea paid, and Hasbro accepted, a payment of $20,000--the amount contractually tied only to the exploitation of Television Rights, and consistent with the parties' mutual understanding that the Second TV Movie was a made-for-television production for release on the Syfy Channel. Were the Second TV Movie planned or released as a theatrical or non-theatrical sequel, prequel or remake based on the Picture, Sweetpea would have paid the greater amount under the License for exercising the Sequel Rights.
Using the payment as evidence, the lawsuit alleged that the movie rights actually reverted to Hasbro five years after the movie's debut on December 8, 2005. Sweetpea's counter lawsuit claimed the company had invested over 60,000 hours and $2 million in a television series.

Thanks to the pandemic and Favreau's innovative new filming techniques, the line between a movie and a television series have blurred. All this legal wrangling seems moot now, but it illustrates how with the right budget and the right technology, a "good" D&D series today is more possible than ever. Maybe we don't need a D&D movie after all.

Your Turn: What multimedia will work best to bring Dungeons & Dragons to a wider audience?

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
D&D is always going to be challenging to try to encapsulate and faithfully represent in a filmed medium, because of course D&D is designed to let us make a game of a wide variety of fantasy fiction. Picking any given set of adventurers, plot and tone is always going to narrow the scope in a way that turns it into a story more akin to any given fantasy movie or TV show rather than to the game we all know and love.

That being said, I think you're right that a TV series is definitely a better medium than a movie to try to represent D&D. You can have standalone one-episode stories, you can have overarching multi-episode plot arcs, you can have variations in tone, you can have changes in the cast accounting for character turnover as you would in a D&D game.

And I agree with the central insight that The Mandalorian is probably the best (at least with live actors; not counting animated fare) example of how to do it and do it well. Both in terms of telling an entertaining episodic story, and in the technology which makes it possible to have such a variety of locales and creatures. This is probably the first time I've felt ANY optimism about the possibility of making a GOOD D&D-based show.


I believe as television evolves more and more, the need to use it for longer storytelling is necessary. I believe that having a series that deals with the daily life of characters is important, but one that explodes on to the big screen to tell a larger than life story is also important. Take the current stream of CW superhero shows as an example. Having a series focusing on The Flash, or Batwoman, or Supergirl is all good. But when we need them to be larger than life heroes, that's when those characters, and the actors who play them, should hit the big screen. In this same example, the crossover "Crisis on Infinite Earths" could have benefited from a larger budget, some actors coming in to play additional roles (Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.). Instead we got a mediocre crossover.
In regards to a Dungeon & Dragons series, and using Critical Role as an example, the show could focus on the group drama and adventure that the heroes face every week. This would build up characterizations in the same way that Critical Role does for many a Critter. Watching the growing romance between Vex and Percy, or the friendship of Grog and Scanlan, would make for great TV. But taking the really epic stories and spinning them into a high budget movie would make that all the better. Imagine going to see the Chroma Conclave's epic finale in the theatres. Then return to the series format with repercussions felt from the movie. I don't know about everyone else, but that's what I would rather watch.


Well, that was fun
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I think a TV show could show off a lot of aspects of D&D far better than a movie. Have a 5 year arc taking a group from fresh recruits to heroes of the realms. Movie franchises can show some growth over time such as the tech continuously improving for Iron Man, but he pretty much went from "some guy" to super hero overnight. After that the improvements were small and incremental.

Oh, and all that boring "character development, story and plot" stuff would actually work better on a small screen because there's no assumed baseline story for the characters. ;)


Thank you for sharing. I was unaware of the 360 degree production stage and the use of game rendering. Though I don't think $15m/episode is realistic for D&D series it does point to a path forward.


Your Turn: What multimedia will work best to bring Dungeons & Dragons to a wider audience?
Seems like the best multimedia work is already out there--the streaming play sessions. Criticial Role and its ilk.

A purely "in universe" fictional work that doesn't include the at-the-table aspect doesn't really capture D&D, in my very humble opinion.


I agree with this.

A TV series which has a single over arching plot line per season but with some monster/mystery of the week stuff a la Buffy, Stargate etc is a winning TV formula AND it combines two of the common ways D&D campaigns are played episodic adventures and overarching campaign plots. So will likely better convey the feel of D&D than a big movie (which is like a one shot - fine every now and then but not how the game was intended)

If it’s popular it might just get 6 seasons and a movie.

I can see it now. First, we get a series set on the Sword Coast. The first season is good and shows promise. Warerdeep is the high note of season 2. The show suffers in season 3 but saves itself in season 4 with a great dragon episode that has at least one instance of the dragon catching a ballista bolt and throwing it back at the ship that fired it.

Second, at the end of Sword Coast season 1 they'll announce a spin-off in Exandria that does Critical Role-y things (I don't know I've never seen it) and is probably smaller in scope.

Third, there will be an Eberron show that takes some massive gambles and has a quarter of the vfx budget of the other shows. It has a fan base but isn't as popular as the other two.

Finally, we'll get the Avenjammers, a massive crossover of all three that somehow manages to shoehorn in every major and minor character across three shows. It'll be kinda meh but everyone will watch it anyway for the spectacle of it all.

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