In the tabletop role-playing game industry, Dungeons & Dragons is the 800 pound gorilla, the game that the general population knows by name. The game has had a cinematic adaptation that didn’t work as either a movie or an adaptation. However, the movie wasn’t the first adaptation of the game. In 1985, an animated series based on the game began airing on CBS. The series would last two seasons, with animation by Toei.
The 80s were an odd time for the game. Dungeons & Dragons had managed to break away from specialty game stores to appear in toy stores and book shops. At the same time, parent groups appeared to counter the game’s popularity, accusing the game and its publisher, TSR, of being satanic. One group, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons headed by Patricia Pulling, managed to make some headway with law enforcement despite dubious research and math and even appeared on 60 Minutes in 1985. The D&D cartoon thus had some extra restrictions on it beyond the usual Saturday morning ones.
The opening credits of the cartoon told how the characters got involved. A ride at an amusement park deposits a group of friends into a fantasy world, where they’re immediately set upon by two villains, Venger and Tiamat. However, with the intervention of Dungeon Master, the group gains magic items that helps them escape. Each of the main characters represented a different character class. Hank became a Ranger, receiving a magical bow. Sheila, with her cloak of invisibility, became a Thief. Presto received a magic hat to become a Magic-User, the term used for wizards in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons‘ first edition. With the Unearthed Arcana also being released in 1985, character classes from that supplement were also used. Sheila’s younger brother Bobby became a Barbarian with a magic club. Diana received a magical staff, letting her become a Thief-Acrobat. And, finally, Eric became a Cavalier upon receiving a magic shield. After arriving in the world, Bobby befriended a young unicorn colt, Uni. Making a noticeable absence is the Cleric, but given the Satanic Panic around the game, leaving the class out meant feidling fewer calls from angry special interest groups.
Over the course of the series, the group of young intrepid adventurers sought to find a way back to their home. Dungeon Master would appear to provide guidance in the form of riddles, leading the adventurers into situations where they would use their abilities to help others in need. Meanwhile, Venger would appear to try to get the group’s magic items or Tiamat, former Babylonian goddess turned five-headed ruler of the evil dragons, would appear to menace. Dungeon Master was well-meaning but capricious, dangling hope in front of the adventurers, much like some actual DMs. Each of the main characters showed elements of their representative classes, from Sheila’s sneaking to Presto’s magic, though not exactly to the rules. Eric, on the other hand, didn’t show the Cavalier’s valour, though that was a decision made thanks to executive meddling. The rule at the time was to have teamwork, and anyone who went against the group was thought to be in the wrong. Eric was designated the one to be in the wrong, even if his idea, typically running away, was a viable choice.
The mechanics of AD&D were hidden, meant to be more the physics of the fantasy world than anything else. Monsters that did appear did come from the game. No one rolled a die to determine hit or miss, but such a scene would break immersion. Instead, the setting came from the rules, though not specifically Greyhawk, Gary Gygax’s home campaign. The adventures were aimed at a younger audience, the extreme low end of the “For ages 12 and up” range. However, some of the episodes wouldn’t be odd to have as an evening’s play session, even with D&D‘s fifth edition. Having Dungeon Master be a character in the series was an odd choice, but the role worked and showed potential players how to be a DM and still allow the players to have fun while working through a challenge.
The D&D cartoon was an odd duck in a decade that was defined by odd ducks. Few popular media ever faced a strong challenge by special interest groups as /D&D/ did, and, yet, the game remained popular. The cartoon followed in the game’s footsteps, creating its own niche and presenting a setting usable with the game without getting too bogged down in details.