Moral Quandaries and Baby Unicorns: Revisiting the Dungeons & Dragons Animated Series

Fantasy used to be just for nerds and gamers. Dragons, sorcery, quests: all that belonged in dark, poorly lit basements, around a plastic table where you and your friends-by-proxy donned personas, rolled dice, and pretended. That’s hardly the case anymore. If you’re not up to date on the latest goings on of Westeros or Westworld, or familiar with the adventures that took place in Mordor and Hogwarts, then why even bother? And it (arguably) doesn’t matter that you didn’t read the source material.

Perhaps we have 80s cartoons to thank for this mainstreaming of fantasy, at least in part. Escapism came in many forms back then, from shape-shifting robots to holographic pop singers and a never-ending supply of anthropomorphic animals. For the nerds (myself included) who didn’t feel enough connection to the formulaic good guy/bad guy shoot-ups of G.I. Joe and company, they had their needs catered to in a variety of shows set around magic and fantasy lore.

It’s not hard too imagine that those same kids raised on a steady diet of magical weapons, heroes, and battles fought in Eternia and Thundera are now at the creative helm of many modern fantastical narratives we enjoy today. Of course, for every He-Man there were dozens of failed attempts to capture the same fantasy fan base (to say nothing of merchandise sales).

Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light, Defenders of the Earth, The New Adventures of Flash Gordon, and Captain N: The Game Master—to name just a few—may have niche fan bases but they were hardly beloved pop cultural phenomena on the scale of He-Man or ThunderCats. Based on the familiar trope of a band of do-gooders fighting evil through various mystical scenarios, many of these shows were unceremoniously cancelled early, with few home video releases available for future generations.

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One of these mostly-forgotten gems of Saturday mornings that I recall particularly fondly is Dungeons & Dragons.

Produced by Marvel Productions, the cartoon first premiered in 1983 and ran for 3 seasons, ending in 1985 with a total of 27 episodes. It follows six children who are magically transported through an amusement park roller coaster ride (why not?) into the world of, you guessed it, dungeons and dragons. This was all explained in the opening credits, a feature sorely missed these days. Come on people, a little plot expo wouldn’t kill you!

As with its source material, the hugely popular tabletop RPG invented by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (Gygax consulted on and co-produced the series), the children are each assigned a role to play, with a specific skill set and weapons that will help them in their quest to get home.

Hank, the eldest (with surfer Ken doll blond locks), is the ranger, armed with a powerful bow and arrows. Bobby, the youngest, is the barbarian, complete with Viking helmet and a Bamm-Bamm Rubbles-worthy club. Presto (real name Albert) is the magician and resident bespectacled, fumbling nerd. Sheila, Bobby’s older sister (despite differing hair colors) is the thief with a cloak of invisibility. Spoiled brat Eric is the cavalier with a resilient shield, but no sword for some reason. Finally, there is Diana, the token character of color, sporting a fur bikini and javelin/vaulting pole, which makes her the acrobat.

They are accompanied by the obligatory cute factor in the form of Uni the unicorn (yup), a Bambi-eyed My Little Pony knockoff who, despite coming from a world chock-full of talking animals, can only whinny, whimper, and occasionally bleat out a warning or incantation.

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The children are guided through their journey by the Dungeon Master, a figure so blatantly based on Yoda it’s a wonder George Lucas didn’t sue. While he doesn’t speak in the same screwy syntax, he does converse in riddles, appearing and disappearing as he sees fit. Dungeon Master often promises the reward of getting the party back home but ends up teaching them a PSA-style “valuable lesson” more often than not, with the possibility of escape from the Realm of Dungeons and Dragons put off until their next adventure. His powers seem limitless so it’s often a wonder the kids don’t just pin Dungeon Master down and demand he return them home. Have they never seen The Wizard of Oz?

While every episode has its fair share of villainous antagonists, none are greater than the main man himself: Venger. Resplendent in floor-length gown, bat wings, and singularly phallic horned head, he gives off a distinct drag queen-does-Voldermort cosplay vibe. Venger must capture the children and steal their weapons in order to grow his own power and take over the realm. Makes sense.

Episodes are fairly routine and formulaic, with occasional variances. The children are teased by Dungeon Master with a new path to their prize (going home), but first they must complete a task that involves traveling the Realm, battling various dangers, and making moral decisions. They repeatedly come so close to returning to their own world, it’s patently ridiculous—but in the end they always decide to stay behind at the last minute, either to help a friend they made along the way or defeat the monster du jour.

For a children’s show airing between commercials for cereal and Care Bears, Dungeons & Dragons dealt with some pretty frightening stuff. Many of the secondary villains, often lifted from the original game, were downright terrifying!

Bloodthirsty spider queens, multi-eyed monsters, slime creatures, and demons hiding in the shadows were all ferociously rendered—none more than Tiamat, the hydra-headed queen of dragons. This bundle of nightmares had multiple heads, each capable of breathing out a different element (fire, ice, gas, etc.) and served as not only a common enemy for the children and Venger, but also as a chance to unleash jump scares on the kids, both on screen and at home. Tiamat’s distorted, screeching voice may sound a little corny today, but at the time it put Skeletor’s nasal whining to shame—thank god I had my Teddy Ruxpin blanket to protect me.

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Death itself was not taboo. In a semi-infamous episode, “The Dragon’s Graveyard,” the children actually contemplate “destroying” Venger in order to finally get home. They stand up to Dungeon Master and demand that he explain how it can be done. By teaming up with Tiamat, they lure Venger to the titular desolate graveyard (shown initially with zero backing music, another rarity in this kinds of animation) for what is essentially a final showdown of good versus evil. Heavy stuff.

Let’s see them do that on G.I. Joe! (Yeah, yeah they “killed” Duke in the movie but that’s a different story—no one ever pulled a gun on Cobra Commander to essentially put an end to it all.) Apparently, CBS’s Standards and Practices had a field day with this plotline, nearly shelving the episode entirely. I can’t imagine a script like that would get a pass today.

Like many other cartoons of its era and genre, the series was cancelled without a definitive conclusion. Fortunately, the original screenwriter, Michael Reaves, published the final script, titled “Requiem,” on his website for all to see. It was even a bonus extra on the (now out of print) first edition DVD collection, performed as a radio play. Without spoiling anything, it offers answers to the lingering questions brought up in the series, reveals some surprising secrets, and presents the children with one last chance to go home…in exchange for completing just one more final quest.

Unlike other semi-fantastical shows like Transformers and Smurfs, Dungeons & Dragons seemed to lack the mass popularity I’ve always felt it deserved. There was barely any merchandise generated (who wouldn’t want a Uni plush toy?), no spinoffs, and you may be hard pressed to find anyone who remembers the show clearly enough to provide details beyond “those kids wandering around with a unicorn.” Online, its fandom is definitely present in the the ways you’d expect: there’s fan fiction, fan art, and the occasional cosplay costume on Instagram.

But when compared to its contemporaries, Dungeons & Dragons feels like the forgotten bastard child of 80s animation. It’s the Black Cauldron of its day (which is kind of fitting, since there’s even a moment in “The Dragon’s Graveyard” where Venger conjures up a skeletal army of the dead, bearing an eerie similarity to The Horned King.) So why doesn’t it have more of a following?

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Along with the nostalgic praise online, the show gets its fair share of scathing criticism, mainly from actual D&D players who dismiss it as a poor imitation or watered-down version of their beloved game. While I have no personal experience playing D&D, I wonder if these criticisms shed light on what hurt this show: it suffered from an identity crisis.

When it comes to adaptations, it helps to either stay true to the spirit of the source material or veer boldly off into a new own path—not try to have it both ways.

In a sense, this conundrum seems to reflect the choices faced by the protagonists each week. The children continually had to choose between the familiar and the unknown—to constantly decide whether or not to go home or stay and fight the battles in this new, fantastical world.

Today, with the mainstreaming of geek culture, the fantastic has become the familiar. Comic book adaptations mean box office gold, critics be damned. Nostalgia seems to fuel sub-par remakes and lazy re-imaginings of beloved characters. Every over-hyped new fantasy project is faced with a ready-made legion of expert naysayers, detractors, and minutiae-obsessed fact-checkers.

Adaptations can be great, but it’s easy to lose focus on the importance of facing new challenges and creating new narratives. Whether you loved Dungeons & Dragons, never watched it, or thought it was derivative nonsense, the key question at the heart of the show still stands: do you take the easy path or forge your own way? I’d like to think that there are six kids out there still searching.

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Reneysh Vittal is a writer, editor and cultural critic. His work has appeared on VICE, Narratively and The Rumpus. Read more work at his website and follow him on Twitter @ReneyshV

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