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Friday, December 12, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons The Animated Series - Part One

As time goes on, I realize how lucky I was to be a kid in the 80's.  A lot of great stuff that is still relevant to this day came out then. Shows and movies such as Transformers, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and my favorite as a kid: G.I. Joe. One cartoon that is relevant to this blog and a favorite of my youth was the Dungeons & Dragons animated series.

This show was right up there with a bunch of movies that fueled my imagination and ended up leaking out into my D&D games:

The Dark Crystal - For me, this is the ultimate 80's D&D movie.
Labyrinth - I assume everyone who watched this ended up with a crush on either Jennifer Connelly or David Bowie.
The Last Unicorn - Which was too scary and freaky for me. The drunk skeleton made me turn off the movie every time.
The Secret of NIMH - Nicodemus is one of my favorite NPCs ever.

The Olden Days Before the Internet
For those of you who are younger than I am, you may have a hard time wrapping your head around this: If you missed an episode of your favorite TV show, you might never see it again. Some people had VCRs, but your parents only have so many blank tapes and often someone would tape over a show you recorded, anyway. Plus, those old VCRs had a penchant for "eating" tapes.

And even worse, sometimes kids at school would lie and tell you about episodes that didn't even exist! There was no internet, so there was no way to verify anything. Bunch of liars, they were.

There was an episode of G.I. Joe that I saw once - just the second half of it. I thought it was so awesome that I spent years waiting to see it again, but I never did. Flash forward 20 years. I saw it. It sucked.

The Point of This

I'm going to watch and talk about each episode of this series. Being that this is a blog about being a dungeon master in real life, I will extract the cool concepts from each episode for you to steal for your D&D game. This show had a lot of cool ideas in it and you can either re-purpose it or just drop it into your campaign if none of your players have seen the show. There is a great fansite that provides details on all of these shows. It is called and was of great help.

The Creative People Involved
The creative team on this show included some awesome people:

Paul Dini: He would go on to create "Batman the Animated Series" with Bruce Timm.
Mark Evanier: A comic book veteran best known for his work on Groo with Sergio Aragones.
Steve Gerber: Creator of the "Howard the Duck" comic by Marvel, which in its' original inception was considered a really good book.
Gary Gygax: The founder of D&D who worked in some of his "Unearthed Arcana" classes and concepts into the show - Cavalier, Acrobat, etc. He'd come back to TSR to find it bleeding money. He published Unearthed Arcana along with some other books to bring some money in and to save the whole enterprise. Soon after he was ousted from his own company by the heiress to the "Buck Rogers" fortune.
Peter Cullen: He did the voice of Optimus Prime on Transformers, and does a fantastic job as Venger.

The show lasted for three seasons. For the first two, the show did extremely well. At the start of the third season, a violence warning appeared at the start of each episode due in part to the anti-D&D sentiment prevalent at the time. It was cancelled at the end of Season 3.

The Concept

A bunch of kids from the 80's take a roller coaster that somehow sucks them into "The Realm", which is this vague, nebulous D&D setting. Their origin is only told in the intro to the show. There is no episode that details how they met Dungeon Master, how they got their magic items, or how they met Uni. That always bothered me.

The show is mostly comprised of self-contained episodes, which I always hated. The idea was that a child could sit down and watch any episode and understand what was going on. The downside to this is that by not allowing the shows to link from one episode to the next, there's no momentum and almost every episode feels like filler.

At the time, this show was considered to be the most violent cartoon on TV. The show had a lot of restrictions as to what it could depict. So basically this means that the combats involve the PCs running away, getting shot at but never hit, and a lot of restraining.

The Plot
As far as I can tell, the over-arching story goes like this. People from many different worlds were sucked into The Realm. Venger, the bad guy, wants to rule The Realm. But Tiamat, a rampaging dragon god, is in the way. So he needs the magic items to defeat Tiamat. These items were apparently stolen from Tiamat's home - The Dragon's Graveyard.

Venger is Dungeon Master's son, who was corrupted by The Nameless One 1,000 years ago. Dungeon Master makes the PCs jump through a lot of hoops before finally leading them to the Edge of the Realm, where they can redeem Venger's spirit. Dungeon Master is a real creepy weirdo on this show. He could send the kids home at any time, but instead he throws them into deadly situations week after week. What's awful is that it appears that he can easily solve all of those situations on his own.

The Heroes

Hank: The leader, a ranger with a magic bow that can do just about anything.
Eric: The whiny jerk that the group laughs at, has a magic shield.
Bobby: A kid with a magic club that can make earthquakes. Likes his pet unicorn a little too much.
Presto: A geeky kid with a magic hat that he can't control very well.
Shiela: Bobby's older sister, has an invisibility cloak. You can find plenty of questionable fan art of Sheila out there.
Diana: She has the lamest magic item - a pole that extends. Yup.
Uni: A baby unicorn that follows Bobby around.

Episode 1 - The Night of No Tomorrow

We just jump right into it. The heroes have their magic items and they've met Dungeon Master before. He tells them about Venger. The heroes just so happen to end up in front of a cave with Tiamat in it and barely survive. Dungeon Master sends the party to meet Merlin in a floating castle. Really. Merlin! Presto decides to stay with Merlin and be his apprentice. This is played up for big drama, despite the fact this is the very first episode and the viewer has no connection to anybody.

Basically, Venger pretends to be Merlin and tricks Presto into unleashing a bunch of dragons on the town of Helix. Presto banishes the dragons

The Town of Helix: Full of gnomes? They're short, that's for sure. Merlin cast a spell that banished dragons from Helix.

Episode 2 - The Eye of the Beholder

This episode features an annoying cowardly knight named Sir John and a beholder guarding a portal to earth. Venger makes Sir John lead the party to the beholder and ditch them.

Yeah, they really had a beholder on this show! Pretty cool. It just shoots lasers and not the many different spell effects in the actual D&D game. It also can create webby tendrils to ensnare people, which is odd. And it can shoot this massive pulse beam from its' central eye.

The beholder is defeated by a flower shoved in its' face. The beauty of this flower is so INTENSE that the beholder literally melts into liquid. This episode is skippable. It is fun to see a beholder on TV, though.

The Valley of the Beholder: A once beautiful valley turned gray and barren due to a beholder who destroys all things of beauty. As soon as the beholder is defeated, the valley returns to its' former state, lush and green and full of purple flowers.

The Village of Pendrake: This village is located near a forest of giant mushrooms. The town pays one knight to protect them. It seems to be inhabited by humans, halflings and dwarves.

Episode 3 - The Hall of Bones

The story here is that the power of the magic items are fading and need to be recharged. Yes, they are fading on episode three.

The heroes need a guide, so they go to some city and end up getting chased by monsters who want their money. The heroes come to a dead-end alley. A woman opens a side-door for them. She is LOLTH.

Lolth, demon queen of spiders! Seriously! She leads the adventurers into a trap. The PCs fall onto a web suspended over a bottomless pit. Venger is buddies with Lolth (maybe they go on dates or something) and grabs the magic items. Then Lolth comes down to eat them, but Uni ends up hurtling her into the bottomless pit. Lolth, one of the most powerful villains in the game ad the star of the entire Gygax Drow/Giants series was defeated, and maybe killed, by... Uni.

A battle on a web over a bottomless pit. That is an awesome encounter.

Then the heroes stumble on an epic battle between Venger and Tiamat. Venger tries to use the magic items on Tiamat, but their power has faded so they're "useless". He chucks them and runs away.

The heroes recover the items and meet a crap-tastic NPC named "Hector the halfling". He is Venger in disguise. He leads the PCs to the Hall of Bones so the can recharge their items.

So... Venger could just take their items right now. I mean, they're just a bunch of kids with magic items that have no power. He could kill them with his magic and fly on his nightmare to the hall to charge the items himself. But instead he allows them to go there, charge the items, and then he tries to take the items from them. Venger is foiled by the spirits of the Hall of Bones and the whole place explodes.

The Dragon's Tooth: A bar in some city. The city seems full of monstrous humanoid races. In the bar are drunk trolls, bugbears, lizardfolk and orcs (classic pig-nosed orcs).

The Hall of Bones: A gigantic tomb filled with the bones of The Realm's greatest warriors. In it is the Skull of Power, a huge floating skull bathed in green energy which can recharge magic items when items are placed in its' mouth. The skull is powered by the spirit of the heroes buried there.

Episode 4 - Valley of the Unicorns

This is a fantastic episode to turn into an adventure. This crazy evil wizard Kelek is kidnapping unicorns and stealing their horns which will give him the power to kill and replace Venger. The episode starts off with Kelek and his wolves going after a black unicorn named Silvermane. It is revealed that unicorns have the power to teleport once per day. But conveniently, Uni is too young to have mastered the ability.

Kelek snatches Uni when the black unicorn gets away. He brings her to his incredibly awesome lair.  Our heroes sneak in and rescue the hornless unicorns and Uni, who are all gray and depressed. The unicorns lead the party back to the secret valley of the unicorns. Kelek follows them and snatches the last 3 unicorns.
The heroes get a very D&D idea. They decide to summon Venger to take out Kelek!

This is something I really like about this show. Sometimes, the bad guys fight each other. The entire premise of the show is weird - Venger's enemy is Tiamat, another villain. The party is trying to survive in this world where all these bad guys are at war with each other. It's pretty cool.

In the end, Venger traps Kelek in a force bubble and the whole citadel drops back into the earth. The heroes barely escape on the teleporting unicorns (Uni teleports too, with ease). The party wonders if Venger is dead, but then he appears in the clouds... awesome.

This has to be one of the best episodes of the entire series. Kelek is a great enemy. Whoever voiced him gave a fantastic performance. My friend used to say all the time: "The unicorn horns shall be mine!"

Kelek's Citadel: There's a vast field of thorns. Kelek can move the thorns aside as he wishes. When Kelek commands it, the thorns part and his massive citadel rises from the earth! The place is utterly gigantic. Inside is a demon statue with many arms. There's a slot in each hand for a unicorn horn to be placed.

The Lost Valley of the Unicorns: Accessed by passing though a rainbow waterfall. You pass through a cavern where liquid of different colors trickles down from the ceiling. The tunnel leads to a lush valley where the unicorns live, protected by the black unicorn, Silvermane.

Fun fact: Kelek has been used in two 3rd edition D&D adventures. He was in the Age of Worms path, and he was also in Expedition to Castle Greyhawk. I believe he also appeared in the basic D&D supplement "Shady Dragon Inn".

Episode 5 - In Search of the Dungeon Master

This one also has a great premise. A bounty hunter named Warduke and a bunch of bullywugs captures Dungeon Master. I wrote a giant article about Warduke here, compiling all of his appearances in D&D products.

The heroes go to rescue Dungeon Master, but are captured by orcs and put to work in the slave mines of deramorn. Eric had ditched the party and wanders in a swamp. He runs into a zombie and runs, screaming. This was really freaky to me as a kid. I didn't know what a zombie was and it scared the crap out of me.

Uni ends up in a cage. Presumably the orcs plan to eat her. Why she doesn't just teleport out to safety is beyond me. I assume that the teleportation was just a one-episode thing.
Sheila frees the party and gives them their weapons. Luckily, Dungeon Master is being held right on the other side of the very wall they were digging on. The party goes to free DM, but Venger and Warduke are there to stop them.

Up above, Erik is running from a giant turtle and falls into a giant crack... and lands on Warduke. Hank takes this opportunity to get a ridiculous critical hit which disarms Warduke and frees Dungeon Master, all in one shot.

Dungeon Master then utterly defeats Venger, discorporating him somehow.

Hank frees the dwarves in hilarious fashion. We already saw the mines - they are vast and there's clearly a lot of dwarves there. All Hank does is shout "come on", and all of the dwarves immediately walk out. The orcs and Warduke somehow missed this while they were whipping the dwarves. They give chase.

Dungeon Master waves his hand and destroys the entire slave mines, causing a wave of lava to chase off Warduke and his army of bullywugs and orcs.

At the end, Dungeon Master admits that he let the bad guys capture him. I guess this was to manipulate the heroes into freeing the dwarves and to see if Venger would turn good and free him? Venger actually tried to kill Dungeon Master while he was frozen, shooting a beam that drained Dungeon Master's "life force". His own son tried to kill him.

This was a good episode mostly because Warduke is so cool. It is a real bummer that Warduke is never seen again. What a waste!

The Slave Mines of Deramorn: A vast underground area run by orcs. The place is accessed by a magic key that shoots a beam that splits a stone wall and creates an entrance. The base of the complex is littered with mini-volcanoes full of lava. I can't tell what they are mining. All we see are carts full of rocks. If Warduke is already running what looks like a profitable slave mine, why does he need to sell Dungeon Master to Venger? Why is Warduke running a slaving operation, anyway?

The Know Tree: A tree that knows everything there is to know.

Episode 6 - Beauty and the Bogbeast

This is a "laugh at Eric" episode. A flower turns him into a frog-man, known as a "bogbeast". The party had split up looking for a river that is upside-down.

There's this evil ogre called Kawamung that dammed up the river of the cowardly bogbeasts. The bogbeasts look so weird, it completely goes against the art style of the show. It is very off-putting.

The poor dwarves of The Realm are constantly getting enslaved. In this episode, Kawamung has enslaved them and is forcing them to make weapons to use to attack the bogbeasts. He has this magic yin-yang amulet that can shoot beams and encase people in crystal (which is a pretty common effect in The Realm).

Kawamung looks like an oni or ogre mage. Man, this episode is terrible. The dam is broken with a frisbee (don't ask). They snatch the yin-yang and it turns out the ogre is just a bogbeast who was transformed by the amulet. The amulet can cure Eric, but the heroes want to get back home so they ride a log up the river. They actually get home, but Eric is a bogbeast. The amulet doesn't work on Earth. So they have to go back to cure Eric, and the portal closes. Terrible.

Eric is cured and the bogbeasts call him ugly. Everyone, of course, laughs at him. This episode is awful in every way.

I'll continue on in part two of this review. Here, for your consideration, are lists of things that amuse me on this show:

Stuff that Presto's Hat Does

1. Summons a cow. It licks Presto. Everyone laughs at him.
2. Successfully summons a giant purple carpet
3. Produces a birthday cake with candles when the party needs light
4. Puts a bucket on Presto's head when he wants to "banish these snail-things from my sight"
5. Presto needs a shield. It summons a garbage can lid.
6. Presto needs something to fight Venger with. It summons a bicycle horn.
7. The party needs money. Presto pulls out a chicken, then a dragon's head
8. Successfully gets some carrots for Uni
9. Summons a ham for attacking wolves
10. Tries to summon Venger, and instead sends Presto to Venger's castle.
11. Presto tries to summon horns on the unicorns' heads. Trumpets appear on their heads.
12. Presto successfully summons a unicorn horn onto Uni's head
13. Accidentally summons giant flies that feed attacking bullywugs
14. Needs something to stop a stone golem from attacking. Summons a stop sign.
15. Tries to help the party escape the slave mines. Summons.. a puff of smoke. What the hell?
16. Tries to remove Eric's frogman-curse. It instead puts Eric in a woman's dress with a long red wig.
17. He tries to cure Eric again. It changes Eric's head into that of a reptile donkey.
18. He tries a third time and scorches Eric, turning him back into bogbeast form.
19. Tries to summon something to defeat the ogre. Summons a frisbee.

Eric's Life is Horrible Because:

1. The heroes force him to ride a cow while they ride horses and laugh at him
2. The party laughs at him when he sits on a bike horn
3. Eric brags that the bad guys ran away because of his great strength. Diana says "It's because they took one look at your grody face." Everyone laughs.
4. He saves the party from falling rocks and is stuck under rubble, holding it up with his shield. Dungeon Master gives a speech about how bad people can do good things. Diana leans into the rubble and says, "You listening, Eric?".
5. Eric groans at some of Dungeon Master's BS riddle-talk. Uni bleats at him and he falls into a stream. Everybody enjoys his humiliation.
6. A bogbeast calls him ugly, and everyone laughs at him.

Hank's Bow Can:

1. Fire one arrow and produce many fireworks in the sky, lighting an area
2. Scare off bullywugs with fireworks
3. Create a tunnel through 15-30 feet of solid rock.
4. Disarm Warduke and send his sword hurtling right into a petrified Dungeon Master, making the sword shatter the crystal, thus freeing him.
4. Create an arrow that Bobby and Uni can ride through the air like a witches' broom, and somehow land safely.
5. Melt a metal giant's feet together in one round
6. Detect water in a desert.
7. Shoot a necklace, causing the arrow to pull it off an ogre's neck, and fly it back to Hank like the arrow was a boomerang. Hank catches it.

Click here to go to Part 2 of this review.


almostoldschool said...

I watched the entire series, one episode per week (to recreate that "Saturday Morning Cartoon" effect), about a year ago. The first season does have a sort of recurring theme of every episode, an actual or potential ally of Dungeon Master and the forces of good is helped. However, you are right that all this buildup of allies never seems to actually lead anyplace.

Sean said...

Almostoldschool: I really wish they would have used Kelek and Warduke on other episodes. From what I remember, some of the final episodes of the series were really terrible.

Bronk said...

I loved this show as a kid, but back then watching any show consistently was hit or miss, so I didn't realize all the shows were so standalone. I do wonder if there's a master list or preferred order of watching them though, to try to make sense of them!

I always felt for Eric though... he always got short shrift. The mention in Eric's list of humiliations of saving the group from falling rocks is something I remember though! The guy tried saving everyone even though he had no idea that his shield could make a force dome! It seemed like only Hank got a fun magic item that was both always useful, controllable and testable. If I'm remembering this right, Eric could't get his shield to do anything like that on command, or even do that one thing again! Him getting the shield didn't seem to have any rhyme or reason either... I think the girl who got the extending pole thing was a track star in high school at least...

It seems strange to me, but all the episodes I've ever seen, including the back story, seem like they would make for terrible actual DnD sessions. Basically they each get one loot each, that defines their character against their will, never grow or get anything new, and their overarching story goal - getting home - always fails. Very sad!