Thursday, April 6, 2017

[TV] [D&D] The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon

The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon (that aired Saturday mornings on CBS from 1983-86) has always drawn a lot of hate from fans of the D&D game. Part of that is understandable - it really wasn't very good, even by 80s Saturday morning cartoon standards - but as much or more of it I think comes from the notion that the show was so "kiddified" compared to the game - the main characters were all modern-day kids transported to "D&D Land," nobody ever died or even got hurt, there was the annoyingly cutesy baby unicorn, etc. - which adult fans (and, probably more pointedly, "adult" teenage fans) resented. I know that's how I felt about it at the ripe age of 10.

Looking back with a few decades of perspective, though, the intent of the show is clearer. The idea wasn't to depict the typical activity of the game - basically group of amoral mercenary adventurers killing things and taking their stuff - which would never have been considered acceptable in the context of a Saturday morning cartoon (and also wouldn't have been very interesting to watch) but rather to introduce kids who were still a bit too young for the actual game (even the kid-oriented "Basic Set" version) to the brand, and some of its key concepts and IP. And it actually does a pretty good job at that - a testament, presumably, to Gary Gygax's oversight as executive producer. The main characters are a group of six, each of whom plays the role of an AD&D character class (cavalier, ranger, barbarian, thief, acrobat, and magic-user), just like in the game. The monsters they encounter are almost all drawn from the AD&D rule books, and they look and behave pretty much just like they do in the books. Kids who watched the show and then picked up a copy of the game a year or two later would hit the ground running, with much more familiarity with the game's setting and genre than kids my age or older, who had to be taught it all from scratch, unless we happened to have seen Ralph Bakshi's 1979 Lord of the Rings movie.

Even the kids' widely-derided magic items were actually pretty close to items that could be found in the game, and presumably helped the kids in the audience understand that in D&D magic items are important and finding them is one of the most reliable keys to success in the game. Some of the items (the invisibility cloak and the shield) could come straight out of the game. Others are close enough to items in the books - Bobby's club is sort of a human-usable Mattock of the Titans and Presto's hat is pretty much a combined Bag of Tricks and Wand of Wonder in hat form). And even the last two items are easy enough to render in game-terms, and probably wouldn't raise any eyebrows if they showed up in a treasure hoard alongside such canonical AD&D items as the wand of force, rod of lordly might, staff-mace, Zagyg's Spear, etc. Provided, of course, that the players who found them weren't familiar with the show!

Energy Bow: This item appears as an unstrung composite short bow. It radiates strong evocation magic if detected. When gripped as if to fire, an arrow-shaped bolt of magical energy appears. This energy arrow can be commanded to perform any of the following functions, one at a time:
  • Light (as per spell): effect persists while energy arrow is held "nocked"; uses 1 charge per turn
  • Fireworks burst (as per first function of Pyrotechnics spell; range: 18"): energy arrow fired overhead; uses 1 charge per shot
  • Energy blast (3-18 electrical damage on successful hit; range: as per Composite Short Bow): energy arrow fired at target; uses 3 charges per shot
  • Beam of Entanglement (as per Rope of Entanglement upon successful hit; max. range 6"): beam persists while bow is held and user maintains concentration after shot fired; uses 2 charges per round
  • Beam of Climbing (as per Rope of Climbing; max. range 6"): beam persists for 2-8 rounds after shot fired; uses 1 charge per round
When found, the bow will contain 81-100 [100-(1d20-1)] charges. It may be recharged with lightning bolt spells, each of which restores one charge.

XP value: 4,500
GP value: 35,000

Javelin-staff: This item appears as a regular quarterstaff. It radiates moderate alteration magic if detected. Upon command, it can take any of the following three forms:
  • Javelin: 4' length, functions as an unlimited-use Javelin of Piercing; returns to its user when thrown
  • Staff: 6' length, functions as a +3 quarterstaff; allows extra 1/2 attack per round (i.e. 3/2 if the user normally receives 1/1; 2/1 for 3/2, etc.); can attempt to Trip (successful hit causes opponent to save vs. paralyzation or be knocked prone); can be spun in lieu of all attacks for round which grants the user +3 AC bonus vs melee attacks and +4 AC bonus to deflect missile attacks
  • Pole: 10-20' length; grants tightrope-walking and pole-vaulting abilities as an 8th level thief-acrobat (or +3 levels in those abilities if used by a thief-acrobat) as well as various other uses appropriate for a 10-20' long sturdy wooden pole
XP value: 3,000
GP value: 15,000


  1. I never realized until just now that half of the kids were classes introduced in the UA.

    1. Yep, which was weird because the show aired between when those classes appeared in Dragon magazine (July 82- April 83) and when UA was published (summer 85). I remember when I first saw UA thinking "oh, so THAT's what they were talking about on the show!" That may have been clever cross-promotional marketing, but more likely is just a sign of TSR's dysfunctional management - that "UA" (then called the "AD&D Expansion") was SUPPOSED to have been published in the fall of 83, but various crises of infighting and mismanagement caused it to be delayed for 2 more years

  2. I received a copy of the DVD set when it came out. My daughter was 4 years old and she loved it. I think you Really need to see the show through the eyes of a young child to "get" it.

    That said, many of the settings and a lot of the background art are very compelling. The one that stood out to me was a prison suspended by chains over an active volcano. Cool!

    My understanding is that the show was actually under development before it got connected to the D&D brand. Which is why the underlying concept and a few of the other aspects of the show don't mesh perfectly with the game.

    1. I agree, Chris---looting the D&D cartoon for settings is one of the best things about the show!

      IIRC the initial release of the show was missing half of the music. Does anyone know if they were able to fix that in the later printings??