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.
Adaptations of games are an iffy prospect. There have been major failures along the way, from Super Mario Bros through Dungeons & Dragons to Battleship. Yet, studios keep trying, because the recognition factor of the names involved should pull in an audience, as seen with the announcement of the Tetris movie. With D&D, Battleship, and Tetris, there isn’t a proper setting as would be used in fiction. Maybe movies aren’t the best vehicle for game adaptations. World building takes effort, and movies don’t provide enough time to get the details down. Also a good idea is to pick a game that has a setting. D&D has several, but using them would mean making the movie using the setting’s name*, not the game’s. Yet, the animated D&D series was able to create a setting and a conflict that came from the game’s mechanics. An animated series also has the advantage of needing to be short and to the point without having to worry about the effects budget. Time to look at a game that has a developed setting and see how it was adapted. For this, let’s look at BattleTech, a game of mecha combat in the far future.
BattleTech started as BattleDroids, produced by FASA in 1984. The change in the name came after some legal pressure from Lucasfilm over the term, “droid”. Becoming BattleTech didn’t change the core idea of the wargame – two sides fielding walking mecha called BattleMechs to claim dominence of the battlefield. FASA licensed mecha designs from several anime, including Macross**, giving them their own attributes for the game. As the game grew, different factions were developed, and a history came about explaining why these interstellar empires were at war. The five nations of the Inner Sphere*** eventually received a supplement each, detailing their culture, economy, and interstellar relations – the Lyran Commonwealth headed by House Steiner, with German influences; the Draconis Combine headed by House Kurira, with Japanese influences; the Federated Suns headed by House Davion, with French and English influences; the Capellan Confederation headed by House Liao, with Chinese influences; and the Free Worlds League headed by House Marik, with Greek and Balkan influence.
As the setting expanded, the years progressed from 3025, detailing the Succession Wars to see who would form the new Star League. The Houses could barely keep their technology base, with many technicians performing rituals that were learned by rote instead of proper study. In 3049, a new threat appeared from beyond known space. The Clans, the return of the descendants of Star League forces that fled the Inner Sphere after the the revolt from one of the Periphery states resulted in the death of the First Lord of the Star League in 2766. The goal of the invaders was to restore the Star League and retake Earth. The Clan invasion forced the major Houses to research technology and upgrade to survive. Ultimately, the Clan invasion was stopped in 3052 after a coalition of forces fought a proxy battle for control of Earth. The major Houses then formed a new Star League in 3060 to pre-empt a second Clan invasion, but internal fighting inside the Federated Commonwealth, made of Houses Davion and Steiner, erupted as a civil war. In the aftermath, Houses Steiner, Davion, and Liao pulled out of the Star League, ending it. BattleTech grew from the basic box set to encompass published missions, a related role-playing game (MechWarrior), tie-in novels, video games, and even an animated adaptation.
BattleTech: The Animated Series aired in 1994. Produced by Saban, the fourteen episode series melded traditional animation with CGI and detailed the exploits of the 1st Somerset Strikers, an ad hoc team created by Major Adam Steiner, and instructor at the famed Nagelring Military Academy of the Federated Commonwealth Armed Forces (FCAF). Adam’s goal was to find out who attacked his homeworld of Somerset; at first, he believed the Draconis Combine was involved, but learns that a new invader was responsible. With the tacet permission of Archon Melissa Steiner-Davion, he commandeers a Draconis JumpShip to take investigate further. With him are Lieutenant Rachel Specter, Adam’s best friend and tactical officer; Lieutenant Ciro Ramierez, Adam’s assistant instructor at the Nagelring; Cadet Katiara Kylie, aerospace pilot and fellow Somerset native; Captain “Hawk” Hawkins of the FCAF; “Captain” Valten Ryder, mercenary picked up on Dustball; Franklin Sakamoto, Draconis smuggler and illegitimate son of the Combine’s ruler; Doctor Deirdre Nakamura, shipmate of Franklin’s; and “Patch” McGuire, mechanic.
The 1st Somerset Strikers soon learn that the new foe they face is Clan Jade Falcon, one of the invading Clans returning to take back Earth. The Jade Falcons forces in the area of operations are led by Star Colonel Nicholai Malthus and Star Colonel Kristen Redmond. Both have a technology introduced for the cartoon, an Enhanced Imaging implant that allows them to get a broader picture of the battlefield through virtual reality. At first, the ragtag Strikers spend almost as much time infighting as they do battling Malthus’s forces, but as Adam gains intelligence, the Jade Falcon commanders become rivals as Nicholai tries to defeat Steiner. It’s not easy for the Strikers; they lose Ciro to the Jade Falcons, where he is turned into a bondsman and becomes a ‘Mech pilot with an EI implant. In the final episode, the Strikers battle Nicholai and his forces over the fate of Somerset.
The EI implant allowed the studio to switch to CGI, showing ‘Mech battles via virtual reality. The characters are given ties to the setting, through relations, like Adam and Franklin, and through position, like Nicholai and Kristen. Ciro first appeared in Michael A. Stackpole’s BattleTech novel, Lethal Heritage. Franklin’s storyline began in Robert Charette’s novel, Heir to the Dragon. Distinctive BattleMechs were used, from Adam’s Axeman and Kristen’s Vulture to Valten’s Bushwacker, making its first appearance in the setting. Jordan K. Weisman, one of the series’ creators, also was a developer on the game. The production team took pains to bring in as many elements of the setting that they could fit, from having characters of both the Federated Commonwealth and the Draconis Combine working together to the choice of the Jade Falcons as the antagonists. Keeping the focus on the 1st Somerset Strikers helped the writers create their own stories while still using the decade of work already produced for the game as background.
There were some issues. As a cartoon, the animated series was aimed at the lower age of BattleTech players. The series couldn’t get into a lot of detail; a 22 minute episode doesn’t provide enough time to get into the depth of the setting while still providing an ongoing story arc and ‘Mech versus ‘Mech action. To get some of the ‘Mechs, the Technical Readouts were ignored. Hawk’s Mauler was originally a Draconis Combine-only design, yet the Fed-Com pilot has one. For the casual viewer, one interested in the series with little or no knowledge of the existing canon, this isn’t a problem.
Unlike the D&D movie, the problem with adapting BattleTech is the sheer amount of world building that has been done since 1984. Even in 1994, just ten years after the game’s first release, the Inner Sphere saw two Successor Wars, one that resulted in two of the nations becoming one through marriage and conquest, and the return of the descendants of the Star League. The political maneuverings between the wars were hinted at in the animated series, but could use more time to expand. A Game of Thrones does show it is possible, but a 22 minute episode requires a focus on the core characters without getting into too much detail of events beyond..
FASA did release a sourcebook based on the series, 1st Somerset Strikers, which served three purposes. The first was to act as an intro for new players brought in through the cartoon, explaining the different factions shown in the series. The second was to let existing players replay events in the series to see if things could go differently. The third was to bring the characters into the BattleTech canon. Star Commander Pytor, one of Malthus’ ‘Mech pilots, appeared in the Robert Thurston novel, I Am Jade Falcon while Adam became the Archon of the post-civil war Lyran Alliance, to name but two characters. However, the animated series is now considered an in-universe series detailing a fictionalized account of events that happened.
BattleTech: The Animated Series was an ambitious undertaking by FASA. The designer notes in 1st Somerset Strikers shows the efforts being taken to ensure that new viewers wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the setting while still getting key elements in, a challenging task, especially when different products and novels could show any given House as both savior and destroyer of mankind. The chosen format required liberties taken through necessity. Overall, the series makes an effort to adapt the game, even if it’s not perfect.
* For example, Dragonlance, though that adaptation had issues related to time needed.
** These ‘Mechs would later become “the Unseen” after a legal proceedings by Harmony Gold led FASA to remove their images. The conflict came about because of how each company had licensed the images; Harmony Gold had the Macross license, leading to Robotech, while FASA had approached the design studio instead of the animation studio.
*** There are minor nations outside the Inner Sphere, collectively known as the Periphery. They, too, have BattleMechs, but their capacity for warfare is limited compared to the major Houses. Some of the Periphery states still do have a role to play in interstellar politics.