Friday, July 3, 2015

D&D - The Cartoon (Part 2: Setting Considerations)

As was commented in my prior post, folks who treated themselves to the DVD box set of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon received an adventure for use with the D20 edition of D&D (I couldn't find a copyright date so I'm not sure if it's for 3rd or 3.5) that includes statted up pregens of the show's main protagonists plus Venger. Curious folks can download a copy of this here (link available through the Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon Encyclopedia).

All of these character write-ups are terrible. They are simply 7th level characters, equipped and outfitted as such, and bear almost zero resemblance to the characters portrayed in the show. For example, Sheila the Thief (rogue in DND3 terms) wears a +2 mithril shirt and dual-wields two masterwork rapiers thanks to her two-weapon fighting feat. Presto the Magician has an Intelligence of 20(!) and carries a whopping 15 spells, most of which are of the damage causing/combat variety (ice storm, wall of fire, fireball, haste, lightning bolt, glitter dust, mage armor, scorching ray, burning hands, ray of enfeeblement, and shield (x2) make up the non-utility spells he carries in his memory). Diana the Acrobat doesn't have the acrobatics feat (hmmm...) but does have all the special abilities of a 7th level monk (her class in the write-up) like immunity to disease and resistance to enchantments (still mind). Funny, the write-up only gives her a Charisma of 11...less than Sheila (15) and Presto (13!) and barely more than Eric and Bobby (9 and 10 respectively). This despite being the natural leader of the group whenever Hank is absent and generally the most charismatic/confident one of the bunch.
"Yeah, Charisma is my 'dump-stat,' too..."
Ridiculous or not, the handbook is simply a product of the time it was produced, and probably designed to tempt most fans of the cartoon (who, like me, grew up watching it in the 80s) to check out the newest edition of D&D (since you'd still need the core rules to run the adventure/use the quick-start rules here!). As a teaser to a product, it's certainly an enticement.

However, consider the actual game at the time the show was written/aired. In 1983 your choices of D&D were pre-Unearthed Arcana AD&D (1st edition), the B/X version of D&D, or Mentzer's Basic (in the main, a repackaging of B/X retaining nearly the entirety of the Moldvay/Cook rules). Mentzer's Companion (which started to deviate substantially from previous "basic" sets) wouldn't be out till 1984 and the Unearthed Arcana (which took 1E into the "1.5" range) wouldn't be out till 1985.  Both Holmes's version of Basic and the original ("0E") edition had been discontinued by 1983. Other than the reissue of "basic/expert" in its Elmore illustrated glory, the most recent rule books to be published for the D&D line would have been the Fiend Folio (1981) and the Monster Manual II (sometime in 1983).

In light of the status of the show's namesake/inspiration, we can analyze the cartoon through one of two lenses: AD&D (pre-UA, 1st edition), or B/X D&D (or BE pre-CMI, pre-RC).

[note: I'm not saying one SHOULD do this, only that we CAN. The show exhibits a number of unique concepts not present in any edition of D&D, including and especially objectives unrelated to the acquisition of treasure/loot and the idea of reluctant adventurers of a non-heroic stripe ("reluctant" and "non-heroic" not generally being found in combination)]

Regardless of the rule system used as one's "lens" there are several interesting setting choices to note:
  1. The show eschews the typical "Tolkien high fantasy" tropes in its presentation. There are no elves. All the protagonists (and the adventurers that they meet) are human. Orcs are clearly of the "pig-faced" variety not the twisted elves, green-skinned berserkers, or burly adventurers found in other fantasy adventure games. Dwarves are encountered as a species of sentient (like lizard men or orcs) that act as a goal/objective (slaves that need to be freed) not fellow adventurers. The single instance of a "halfling" in the series is nothing but an antagonist in disguise, and a creature that displays none of the halfling traits found in most editions of D&D. This is a human-centric universe.
  2. Mythology is, for the most part, absent. Other than the titular dragons, unicorns, and the aforementioned slave-miner dwarves there are no creatures from classic mythology found in the pegasi, elves, manticores, chimera, etc. Even the "classic" monsters that appear are different from their actual mythology. Dragons have multiple heads, are part demon, or breath lightning. Unicorns have the ability to teleport. Hydras breath fire rather than being slain by it. Goblins shoot lasers. Movie monsters are likewise removed for the most part: no vampires, werewolves, or mummies, for example (though there is an encounter with something resembling a zombie or ghoul). On the whole, this is a world of alien creatures, not the kitchen sink of folklore Gygax created.
  3. On the other hand, creatures now identified as intellectual property and brand identity (mind flayers, displacer beasts, carrion crawlers, etc.) do NOT appear. Lolth even appears as a human, not a Drow (there are no dark elves, nor elves of any type in the D&D cartoon).
  4. Magical items, while present, are not nearly as ubiquitous as they are in normal D&D campaigns. All magical items exhibit specific, strange powers. Most contain some backstory or interesting history, even if it isn't fully revealed. The protagonists' possession of magical implements is quite unique, marking them as "heavy hitters" of the realm (alongside such notables as Warduke, Strongheart, and the being known as Dungeon Master). All are items that are coveted by those seeking power (generally, bad folk).
  5. Despite the titles provided to the protagonists, none of these characters exhibit any of the normal abilities associated with their class. To be clear, in 1983 there was no "cavalier," "barbarian," or "acrobat" class in the existing rule books, yet even taking into account the Unearthed Arcana (which presented classes first demonstrated in earlier Dragon magazines) we see none of the skills possessed by player characters of these classes.
The last point is worth elaborating a bit. Gygax first published the barbarian class in Dragon #63 (July '82), the first of a number of classes he was testing for a new as-yet-to-be-released publication (this was explained in issue #65 when he provided a list of possible classes and asked for feedback). The thief-acrobat was published in issue #69 (January '83) and the cavalier in issue #72 (April '83)...all essentially as they would later appear in 1985's Unearthed Arcana.

Folks whose only exposure to the WotC barbarian of D&D3+ might be surprised at how different the character class is...more an "outdoor skill monkey" with big hit points and an abhorrence to magic in any form. There is no "rage" ability or "uncanny dodge bonus" no trap sensing or (from 3.5) damage reduction. Just a more woodsy brute with an ability to hit creatures only damaged by enchanted items (necessary due to the class's refusal to use magic weapons!) and the ability to call up a barbarian horde at high levels.

[note that Bobby the Barbarian displays none of these traits]

Meanwhile, while Diana does possess some of the acrobatic abilities associated with the "thief-acrobat" class...a kind of 1E prestige class that gains pole vaulting and tumbling skills starting at sixth level...she displays zero of the thief abilities that are just as much a part of the class. There is no "1st level acrobat" in AD&D...the thief-acrobat is a high level thief that specializes in cat burglar type escapades a la Hanse Shadowspawn from the Thieves World series of books. The in-show explanation given for Diana's abilities is that she is an Olympic gymnast...otherwise, she'd (presumably) have no such abilities aside from those granted by her magic totem.

[hmmm...this is getting long again. More to follow...]


  1. Copyright date's 2007, so it'd be 3.5

    Those stats are freakin' ridiculous. Even without his club, Bobby'd have a strength of 15!

    Kinda funny how their thief-acrobat's a monk instead of a rogue. The latter would've given her enough skill points to cover the various synergistic skills like Tumble and Balance that were based on that split-class. Think of all the bonuses she could've had at just 2nd-level!

    I'm not really surprised they were so high-level; by 2007, I don't think anyone played below 5th anymore

    1. @ Prof:

      Really? Has Pathfinder taken that trend as well (of skipping lower levels)?

    2. Can't say for sure, as I never got into Pathfinder, but I'd imagine their community is much the same as the 3.5 one. Then again, I believe they gave everyone a power boost too, so maybe people consider lower levels in PF more acceptable

    3. What are you guys talking about? Levels one through seven existed in 3.0 and 3.5. All of the Pathfinder campaign arcs start at level one and ra ge all the way up to level 20. There is no eliminating lover levels.

    4. Never said they were eliminated. I'm talking about common gaming practices. Many people started characters at level 5 instead of level 1. Hell, even I considered doing that after a time (though those campaigns never got off the ground), mostly because we played one-on-one, but also due to our impression that lower-leveled characters were of the "just fallen off the turnip truck" variety or more the realm of NPCs (that is, like 1e's 0th-level characters). Then again, we were also fond of the apprentice level rules and talked about using them for single-classed characters, so we weren't terribly consistent on the matter

  2. Replies
    1. @ Will:

      No clerics, but there is plenty of healing and divine magic on display. It's not really what I'd call an "undead light" setting, though there are very few of the traditional "turnable" on display. To me it simply appears the cleric's usual responsibilities have been redistributed.

      There ARE godlike "forces of evil" (and presumably "of good") in the show. Many of DM's abilities mimic clerical magic.

    2. No clerics and no gods. Back in the '80's D&D took a lot of flack duri g the Satanic Panic, for promoting paganism and witchcraft. They probably eliminated Clerics and their gods to be safe.

  3. most ppl in the club scene of early 80s took those dragon articles as cannon and played thm - i loved dragon cavalier and hated the unearthed versio

  4. "The single instance of a 'halfling' in the series is nothing but an antagonist in disguise..."

    Dude! Spoiler alert!!!

  5. There is a beholder in one episode I've watched so far. And, I'd probably make Presto a second edition Wild Mage. :)