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D&D Cartoon Review: Remaking Childhood

Written by Nicholas - Published on April 2, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.


It’s never too late to experience
the D&D cartoon awesomeness.

There are many things I am content to not try. I  just assume they are terrible and get on with my life. For many years the Dungeons & Dragons movie and cartoon were both tossed into this bin. D&D is not a setting, it is a suite of tools that when all applied together make for an entirely generic fantasy world. The tools can be used to make a custom fantasy world but at that point it is a unique setting and not really D&D anymore. The only reason to apply the D&D brand to a show or movie is as a cheap marketing tool. That’s not something I need in my life and so I just tuned those products out. It was particularly easy in the case of the D&D cartoon because its initial run ended before I was born.

My policy sharply reversed after I had the opportunity to watch the first episode and thought to myself, “I’m sure there will be some absurd things in here that I can make fun of to my gaming group”. Well, the joke was on me. I sat enthralled. Shortly afterward I procured and devoured the entire three season run of the show. It was like time traveling. Although I had never watched this particular show,  it transported my back to the carefree days of my youth.

The Plot

For the uninitiated, the premise of the cartoon is very simple (and told at the beginning of every episode, so really just jump in anywhere). A group of children board a Dungeons & Dragons ride at a fair. the coaster car magically whisks them away to fantasy realm. As soon as they arrive a kindly Dungeon Master character arms them with magical equipment so they can battle the evil Venger and perhaps someday get home. Not the strongest premise but it gets the job done.

The plots of each individual episode a very sophisticated for a children’s show and get more so as the series goes on. In the first season the shows are very light and typical of the medium. Can a cowardly knight overcome his fear and save the children? The children must stop an evil wizard from kidnapping unicorns. All  fairly generic children’s show stories. The plots get more mature as the series progresses. By the third season, we see episodes where the heroes consider killing their enemy Venger to be permanantly rid of him. Even more shocking there is an episode where Venger summons a Nazi Germany fighter pilot from World War II and offers him a chance to make Germany win the war. Very serious stuff for a kid’s show! Unfortunately, the show is clearly straining against the bounds set by its censors. In that fighter pilot episode, there is no mention of Nazis or even the names of the countries fighting. The specific war itself is only mentioned once.

Characters

The main cast is filled with the generic characters you’ll find in any adventure kids show. The brave leader, the hot tempered youngster, the minority female character they forget to give a personality for an entire season and the cowardly rich guy. The opposition force is not really any more original. Venger is a competely typical kid’s show villain in most ways. There is very little to distinguish him from Mumm-ra or Skeletor.

Where the show shines on characters is Dungeon Master and the creatures. Dungeon Master is not what you would expect from the name. He seems to have powerful magic but he does not appear to be The Dungeon Master, he is not all powerful. He has limitations, can get tired from overuse of his powers and even seems to be afraid of some forces. What makes him an interesting character is the veiled motives and his mysterious way of operating that really needs to be seen.

The background creatures are an assortment of D&D monsters. From the heavy-hitters like beholders and Tiamet to the lowly orcs and the bullywugs. The cartoon is noteworthy in how it uses the D&D brand. It does not grab all the monsters it can carry. Nor does it go just for the most popular (and marketable) creatures. The cartoon carefully picks a few of the monsters to appear. They reoccur and eventually factions and fixtures in the world become obvious. The different races and monsters become a trait of the world instead of just a desperate attempt to prove brand cred.


Our heroes saved a unicorn! Unicorns are so cool.

The Bad

When I say things are a typical kid’s show I do not mean that as an insult. Kid’s shows are often quite good, I certainly enjoyed them as a child. However, there are problems with the genre as I watch them as an adult, sadly some of them are present in the D&D cartoon.

As I mentioned before, there are some problems with the censors. A group of children who have a magic bow and a magic club battling dragons or legions of orcs but no one even gets hurt. People get tied up, tossed aside or run away quite frequently and it feels somewhat forced. I’m not saying the show should be a blood bath but sometimes the fight scenes strain the suspension of disbelief. Additionally certain words are censored, even the evil characters can never talk about “killing” anyone.

Also, as one expect with a children’s show there are some weaknesses in writing. No major issues, just a bunch of little things that counter logic. For instance, the children discover and lose far too many opportunities to go home to be believable. The fantasy realm is apparently completely full of portals to one particular fair ground, but none of them can ever work out. I also yell at the screen every time the thief girl pointlessly puts on her invisibility cloak to walk 5 feet. On the opposite end, she’ll sneak into an evil fortress and then takes off her invisibility cloak while wandering the halls.

That girl has no idea how to use her cloak.

The Verdict

Despite some kid’s show flaws, the D&D cartoon balances some of the old kid’s show magic with some surprisingly mature writing. The end result is a show that entices the adult viewer long enough to make him or her a kid again.

Do you remember the cartoon on the first run? Are you a recent convert?

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

 

 Comments

18 Responses to “D&D Cartoon Review: Remaking Childhood”
  1. Brennon says:

    I remember watching it as a kid and then getting the awesome ”turn to page 4…you are dead” book that came with the series. Got stickers and everything with it.

    I think its been just one of the reasons why I got into RPing in the first place lol. Its much better, in ‘cheese’ value anyway than the D&D movie. (which for all intents and purposes should belong in the concrete boots I sunk it in)

    Gotta go back to your childhood anyway for some of the best cartoons to inspire. Anyone remember Conan: The Adventurer? Got to be the single most awesome cartoon of the 80’s/90’s.

    Certainly made me want to drop ”I’ll get you Rathamon!” into a RP lol

  2. Tony says:

    Remember Thundar the Barbarian. Now that will take you back.

  3. newbiedm says:

    Here is a website from one of the writer of the series, where he presents the script to the episode he wrote as the last of the series, which went unproduced:

    http://www.michaelreaves.com/requiem_preface.htm

    I remember running to the tv to watch this show in the 80’s. Good times.

  4. Saragon says:

    It’s an amusing show, certainly — most notable to our gaming group because Tiamat appears to be hiding behind every single door in the cartoon. If you pick up the boxed set of DVDs, though, there’s a writeup of the characters and their unique magical items using 3.5 rules — kinda fun.

  5. Ameron says:

    One tid-bit you didn’t mention that I know really appealed to me was the presentation of the boxed DVDs. The package was deliberately designed to imitate the traditional D&D “red box” for the original D&D game. The DVD slip case looks like books from D&D 2e and 3.5e. I was very happy to see that full character sheets of the PCs in the cartoon were also provided (in 3.5e format). Someone put a lot of time and effort into the presentation and it didn’t go unnoticed.

  6. Jeremy says:

    Watched it, loved it as a kid. Thundarr the Barbarian was great too — and had that Gamma World side to it, too, for those of us who played that, too. Blackstar was in the same vein. If you’re interested in those, some URLs are below (and both are widely available on YouTube).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BlackStar
    http://www.thundarr.com

    Now I look at the DnD cartoon and wonder…what were DM and Venger really up to? Were they really like the two old men from Trading Places — playing around with the lives of those kids? I can see DM and the MonoHornedOne sitting around the gentlemen’s club, sipping cognac together in high-backed leather chairs, chuckling at what awful moral decisions they were going to slam the kids with next.

    Maybe that’d make for a good background story to a full 30-level 4e game. Heroic: the PCs are clearly part of some destiny play, saving this and that, being challenged by all manner of evils. Paragon: the PCs grasp the direction of their shared destiny, and start to identify the main forces behind the scenes…or so they think. Epic: the PCs realize that, for years, they’ve just been toyed with by some wretched immortals with nothing else better to do, and work to reach level 30 so they can kill them as payback….and maybe take their places? Go for it.

  7. OrionPax says:

    I remember this show from when I was kid, before I ever played D&D or knew it was a game I was watching this cartoon. I picked up the DVDs when they came out a while back and watch the whole show over again. It gave me some good ideas for a 3.5 game I was running at the time.

  8. Steve V says:

    I liked this show during its first run on TV, even though I had been playing for a few years before then. I bought the boxed DVD set a few years ago for really cheap off e-bay and haven’t regretted it. Most of the shows are kinda cheesy, but there are enough hidden gems to definitely make it worth while. Watching it again definitely brings back the old school memories.

    The boxed set was awesome with all the added bonuses. Pretty much everyone I know who watched this had reservations about it at first until they actually watched an episode or two. It was nice that they recreated the unproduced final episode as a special feature. I also really like the live action short that was created a few years ago for the D&D movie contest. (It should have won, but didn’t due to autobot repeated voting at a cheesy website, but that’s another story.)

    On the other hand, the D&D movie was horrid. There are a few interesting things to watch it for, but overall is pretty bad which is unfortunate because if they had spent some extra time and money on it could have possibly been a nice feather in their cap instead of it being a jesters hat now. The second D&D movie, Wrath of the Dragon God is actually pretty good low a low budget SciFi channel movie. Of the two movies, Wrath of the Dragon God is at the very least watchable all the way through. (As a side note, I just picked up the double feature DVD of the D&D movie and Wrath of the Dragon God on Amazon for 6 bucks…)

  9. Jeremy says:

    Lest I forget: the DnD movie is the only movie I walked out of…got up at about the 30 minute mark and politely asked for my money back. My wife says I like crappy movies — Death Race 2000, Dolemite — but that one…plot, acting, effects, the whole show…took the cake. It was like the idea behind ‘The Producers’ — let’s make a REALLY crappy movie..a painfully crappy movie…then release it on unsuspecting fans.

    Wrath of the Dragon God, while ever so slightly better in the story department, isn’t a big jump up the food chain, me thinks. I thought its nod to really old timer grognards like me in the comment about “storming the ghost tower of Inverness” was nice, and the failed spell at the beginning was a nice touch, too, but otherwise it blew. Who knew that the lead singer from Judas Priest was actually an arch-villain? And how about that lich? DUDE. I’ve seen better masks on clearance at Spencer’s.

  10. LoneWolf says:

    I remember waking up Saturday morning and turning on the TV to watch He-Man, Transformers, Thundercats, Voltron, and, of course, D&D. I was about 10 and I didn’t know what D&D was but a few years later I was introduced to the game and those memories came to light and I finally understood. My kids, many years after the cartoon ended, saw some episodes on my computer and now they want to play because it looks fun. There is allot of inspiration to write in a campaign that can be taken from the cartoons.

  11. Brennon says:

    That is true. Countless times I’ve used adapted ideas from cartoons I watched years ago for campaigns and dungeon delves. Pity there isnt that type of cartoon around anymore…even the Dragon Lance cartoon/movie wasnt as good as I thought it would be

  12. Rosie says:

    All I can say is that show got my creative juices flowing at an early age and is one of the reasons I stared to play DND…however when I was first asked to DM all I could think of was “I’m not a short little magic dude!”

  13. Noumenon says:

    Post needs a link to a sample of a particularly good episode on YouTube. I tried one (Eye of the Beholder) and didn’t like it.

  14. Nicholas says:

    @Noumenon: I don’t think we can link to episodes on YouTube for copyright reasons (they shouldn’t actually be on YouTube). “The Prison Without Walls” and “The Box” are both good episodes from the first season and you don’t need to know anything about the characters to follow them.

  15. LoneWolf says:

    I found a site to download allot of old shows including the D&D cartoon. I’ve downloaded 47 episodes (which some may be duplicates). I am gong to put them on DVD for my kids to enjoy also. I don’t like to post links but here this one is. http://www.veoh.com/ . And just search for dungeons and dragons. I hope this helps people get caught up on this show.

  16. GeekBob says:

    I grew up watching this cartoon and it’s one of the things that got me into RPGs in the first place. I remember seeingthe episodes with 2 characters (A Paladin and an evil fighter [Names escape me at this point]). But then I remember seieng their stats in Basic D&D in the Red Dragon Inn suppliment. Oh the fanboy in me was giddy.

  17. Redhobbit says:

    I remember bits and pieces of the show from when they reran the show on what I think was a Fox Saturday morning block that aired Escaflowne around the same time. As an avid D&D player and kid it was fun to watch and the ‘never say die’ trope didn’t bother me at the time. The only thing I found really annoying was the barbarian boy and Uni.

  18. Joe says:

    I LOVED this on it’s original run, and watched it every Saturday. A few years ago, I bought the Red Box collection of it, with 3.5 rules, and adventure, and introduced my kids to it. I now have too buy another, as they wore out the DVDs.

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