The Tale of Two Dungeons & Dragons

Growing up in rural Southern U.S., the entire Dungeons & Dragons brand was pretty controversial. D&D was ground zero for the Satanic panic, Christian boycotts, school watch lists, and general FUD (at some point I will need to write about how during the Satanic Panic I made it onto my high school’s “List of Students Most Likely to be Satan Worshippers”). I was a somewhat fan of D&D that tried to get some games together in a rural Texas town… with very little luck.

However, for three brief seasons between 1983 and 1985, I did have the Dungeons & Dragons Saturday morning cartoon to fill my fantasy gamer dreams. How on earth a kids cartoon show about D&D made it on network television in the 80s is a mystery to me. The idea of children running away from scary looking monsters surely inspired a massive number of Sunday School sermons on the evils of witchcraft, playing with magic, and fantasy in general. Wikipedia even notes: “In 1985, the National Coalition on Television Violence demanded that the FTC run a warning during each broadcast stating that Dungeons & Dragons had been linked to real-life violent deaths” (I believe those deadly D&D connections were debunked decades ago).

Somebody actually took the time to add a nice collection of all of the cartoon’s episodes on to YouTube, with the added bonus of a radio play that is designed to give closure to the series that was cancelled early. Sort of. Here is the playlist:

I recently finished watching all of these videos. I was surprised at how many I vaguely remembered from the first season, and how many I didn’t from the second and third seasons.

I might have blocked out the second and third seasons, because to be honest… it got really dark somewhere in the middle of season 2. It went from weekly fun tales of a bunch of kids and teens romping around a strange world getting out of troubled spots (usually through some bumbling mistake), to a dark exploration of the PTSD these kids faced being trapped away from home and having to fight monsters every week only to have a sliver of hope for return snatched away. Every time.

Seriously. The second half of season two started having main characters betraying the group, 8 year olds yelling and crying about wanting to go home, fights between the characters that you never saw on other cartoons, sad emotional looks from characters losing yet another hope of getting home, kids plotting to kill their enemy Venger, and so on. Wikipedia even notes that one episode almost got shelved as too dark and violent. Yikes! The last televised episode was a straight out horror themed episode that probably never should have played on Saturday mornings.

In some ways, I should have seen the change coming – because the first several episodes were the same basic plot over and over again: the episode opens with the kids wrapping up a former quest for Dungeon Master, who usually appears again and gives another easy to translate riddle, the kids don’t get the riddle, Dungeon Master disappears when they look away (stop. looking. away. already.), Eric complains about Dungeon Master, they head off in some random direction hoping to be able to follow DM’s riddle (seriously – couldn’t the guy just at least point in the right direction occasionally?), a few mistakes or mishaps happen, you see the answer to the riddle coming a mile away, the kids finally get the riddle at the last minute, they perform a few brave moves, they always have to choose to save people / sentient creatures in exchange for losing their chance to go home, DM appears and gives some obvious lesson, Eric complains, Eric does something goofy, they all laugh, end of episode.

The interesting thing about the cartoon was that the people drawing the backgrounds and creatures did an incredible job translating existing D&D monsters/backgrounds, as well as creating some creative ones of their own. As formulaic and simple as the plots and animation was, the design was very interesting and expansive.

The series also suffered from the 80s version of “diversity”: basically, almost all human characters were white except for Diana the Acrobat, a black female. But wow was she the badass of the group. She was braver than Bobby the Barbarian, but with better tactical skill than Hank the Ranger. The few times she got captured by an enemy just felt too forced.

Of course, a lot of things about the series didn’t make sense. One of the biggest ones for me was how Hank’s electric bow was an awesome weapon of power that could take out mountain sides with a single arrow, but also some how form bridges and nets that didn’t burn the feet or clothes of those touching them. Weird. To be honest, every episode should have ended early with Hank blowing up whatever bad creature got in their way. They showed it having that much power at times, but others… not so much.

Because the magic bow couldn’t be shown killing creatures on screen, it often suddenly became the electric version of Mr. Fantastic’s stretchy arm in the middle of a battle. Saturday morning cartoon morality story telling was a weird thing – very inconsistent and wrapped into everything.

But if you wonder why so many people today think diversity is a simple fix that already happened a long time ago, or that powerful weapons can be utilized safely just because the owner wielding it is a “good guy”… might want to ask them what cartoons they watched as a kid. Sometime later I will have to dive more into this aspect with cartoons like G.I. Joe.

Anyways, if this cartoon was a modern day Netflix show, you would have sworn they were setting it up for Bobby to kill Hank and Venger (the main big bad for the series) while assuming the mantle of Venger. That is how dark it was getting. Of course, it was an 80s cartoon, so all Bobby had to do was laugh about something and be okay. That also sounds strangely familiar to how some people deal with problems today.

The sad thing is, the series was cancelled before the third season was finished, so we never know if the children got home. Well, I should say we never knew if Dungeon Master quit using them to fix his problems long enough to let them go home. I had thought it would be cool if they found a way to open a permanent door home – maybe through Presto the Magician finally learning to use his hat right. Dungeon Master would call them when there was evil to fight, they would go fight it, and get home in time for dinner.

Several people did record a series finale in a radio-show format for the DVD release in 2006. I’m not sure why they didn’t just make a cartoon in the 80s style – it wouldn’t be that expensive in the 2000s. But, oh well. This radio show featured the children actually getting the chance to choose if they wanted to go home or stay…. but it ends before they choose. Argh!

Apparently this was on purpose as they were trying to set-up a new format for season four. So I will just pretend that they were going to go with with my version of the “permanent open door” concept.

So many things and problems with North American 80s culture have been touched on here, so much more to unpack with those issues, so many obvious influences on the problems in the world today. I am sure I will get to that. But I also still have fond memories of playing Dungeons & Dragons cartoon characters with family and friends when we would get together and play make believe. Thankfully we didn’t do the dark parts.

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