Saturday, May 13, 2017

[Toys] [D&D] The Strange Case of Those AD&D Toys

Around the spring or summer of 1983 (so, a few months before the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon premiered) a line of "Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons"-branded toys appeared in stores, featuring such characters as Strongheart the good paladin, Warduke the evil warrior, Kelek the evil sorcerer, Elkhorn the good dwarf, Zarak the evil half-orc assassin, and a handful of others, plus a small and somewhat random selection monsters (hook horror, cave fisher, etc.). There were also a few other ancillary licensed products released (storybooks, beach towels, wood-burning kits, etc.) featuring these characters, and TSR's games division sort of half-heartedly got in on the action by featuring these characters in a couple of D&D game products - AC1: The Shady Dragon Inn (which gave character stats for the entire line) and XL1: Quest for the Heartstone (a module where the toy-characters were the pregenerated PCs).

The immediately odd thing about these toys is that they and the D&D cartoon came out very close to the same time as each other (within a few months in the same year), but featured completely different sets of characters. I vaguely recall that there was one episode of the D&D cartoon where Strongheart the paladin appeared as a sort of "guest star," but I'm pretty sure that's the only overlap - no toys were made of the characters from the show (either the heroes or the villains) and none of the other toy-characters appeared on the show. 

At the time, it actually didn't seem that strange to me - after all the show was branded Dungeons & Dragons and the toys were Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which the rule books (due, presumably, to various legal settlements with D&D co-creator Dave Arneson) were always careful to tell us were two entirely separate games (even though everyone I knew treated them interchangeably - with D&D as the "beginner's" game from which you quickly graduated up to the "real" game, AD&D). Even that distinction doesn't stand up, though, since the ostensibly-D&D cartoon featured a large number of character (ranger, acrobat, etc.) and monster types (shadow demons, bullywugs, beholders, etc.) that were only found in AD&D, and the two game products that tied-in to the AD&D toy line were both released for the D&D game (which created a bit of cognitive dissonance when, for instance, "Zarak: evil half-orc assassin" had to become "Zarak: chaotic thief" because half-orcs, assassins, and evil characters all didn't exist in the non-Advanced game at that time).

Yet another weird wrinkle to the story is that there was also a second, seemingly separate, line of AD&D-branded toys on the market at the same time - a pretty extensive line of "bendy" and PVC monsters that were at sort-of the same scale as the other toys but were much more cheaply made and had different trade dress on their packaging than the other toys. I wasn't sure at the time (and, honestly, am still not) whether these were considered to be part of the same line or not.

So what gives? Why did TSR bother creating two (three?) competing sets of licenseable IP within a few months of each other? One possible explanation is that the toys were intended for a slightly older audience than the show, but still not quite old enough for the actual game. That could be, but it seems like a weird and wasteful way to go about it (especially since TSR already had the "Endless Quest" series of choose-your-own-adventure books - featuring, of course, neither the characters from the TV show or those from the toy-line - filling that in-between niche).

What I suspect (though I've never had confirmed) is rather that this is just a tangible example of the chaos of bad management that was afflicting TSR at the time, and that almost drove them out of business in 1984 right as the game was near the height of its mainstream popularity. The D&D cartoon was produced by Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Corp., which was Gary Gygax, operating out of his home/office mansion in Beverly Hills. I suspect the licensing deal for the toys was probably handled by a different department at TSR, in-house at the Lake Geneva office, under the direction of Brian Blume (and that Blume maybe made two separate licensing deals, one for "character" action figures and a different one for PVC and bendy monsters?).

Gary mentioned in later interviews that when he arrived in California he found that TSR had a bad reputation so he had to, essentially, start everything from scratch (which is one of the reasons "TSR-West" was renamed to DDEC). It's possible that perhaps a show featuring the toy characters had been pitched, but that in order to restart negotiations and get something off the ground Gary thought it best (or the other parties involved insisted) to drop that approach and start again with something fresh - making it just an accident of fate that the separately-licensed toys had already hit the shelves before the cartoon replaced them. But even that might be giving the mess of 80s-era TSR too much credit - the real story may well be that by the time the toys and TV show were being developed, Gary and Brian were on such bad terms that they didn't even bother speaking to each other about it - that neither side knew, or cared, what the other was up to.

But, whatever the explanation, the result was undeniably weird, and seemingly a perfect lesson in how not to go about expanding your IP across different platforms and media.


  1. I had brought up the Melf action figure to Gary on the phone once and he said all the characters were named by a non-playing marketing guy from the toy company. He said his name and that he was a "good guy" but he didn't play the game. It was just a coincidence. The TSR line versus the LJN lines were made by TSR's staff. Notice the ogre being exactly the same as the TSR mini ogre. The TSR ogre was also designed by a comic book artist (Rick Veitch) that was assembled artist Timothy Truman to hammer out the designs for TSR and LJN assuming around 1982. So they're all tied together in a big chaotic ball. The merchandising was huge and the LJN images were on everything. The shit that was in the store in 1983 was like a D&D gold rush for other companies too. There were knock offs galore. I still have a few downstairs. I had all the big LJN monsters except the Tiamat. I wanted the second wave of LJN figures, that included the Tiamat, but they were obscure no matter where I looked and I was looking.

    1. Timothy Truman had a significant impact on the "look" of D&D via the designs for these toys, but I still feel like it's a shame he didn't stay at TSR longer. His style was a nice counterpoint to that of Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore, without being super cheesy like Clyde Caldwell.

  2. My understanding is that the cartoon was pretty far along in development by the time that it got attached to the D&D brand name, and would have required some major re-writing and artistic revision to tie into the LJN line. But Strongheart isn't the only one who made a cameo. Warduke did, too. And Tiamat was a recurring character.

    1. That makes sense. The cartoon show was already in development and had character designs and stories and maybe even some animation done, and DDEC swoops in late in the production process and is like "hey, let's tie this fantasy-themed show to the Dungeons & Dragons brand" and it's a win-win for everybody. Perhaps if the show had stayed on the air longer they might have added more direct tie-ins with the LJN toys