Player Agency in the Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon

Dungeons and Dragons OpeningI have a pretty odd hobby for a person my age. During the summer months, I spend every weekend in my car, driving through residential neighborhoods, looking for garage sale signs. I’ve always found Garage Sales to be somewhat romantic. There’s not much technique to searching for them, you just wander about, taking turns at random, following your gut and the signs which may or may not lead you to something you’re looking for. You catch a glimpse of sheet-garbed card tables down the road, and you pull in to take a look. You scan the tables, mentally screening out all of the junk to look for a treasure. You don’t really know what form the treasure will take. Maybe it’s an old book, or an NES cartridge, or a piece of kitchenware you’ve been lacking, or a pile of empty binders in good condition. Then there’s the barter. We have so few opportunities to barter in American culture. It’s something of a lost skill among our people.

This past summer I found a number of remarkable things. Useful things, like a bed frame, and a bike; items which could have easily cost me ten times more had I bought them new. Other finds weren’t so much useful as they were amusing. This latter type is how I classify the 4-disc DVD set of the 1983 Dungeons and Dragons cartoon ostensibly co-produced by Gary Gygax himself. At the time I was only really familiar with the show from screen captures posted on /tg/. Friends who grew up in the early 80s had told me they remembered it fondly, but everyone seemed to agree that the show was pretty bad. $2 to satisfy my curiosity seemed like a good deal.

Dungeons and Dragons Characters Looking HorrifiedI wasn’t exactly eager to dive into this show, particularly not after watching the first few episodes. But after 7 months, I’ve finally seen each of the show’s 27 episodes. And let me just say this: nothing gives me more hope that I can succeed as a writer than knowing someone actually got paid for writing this drek. Where can I even begin in picking it apart? The dialog is so stilted and canned that innocuous conversations sent me into laughing fits. Sometimes it seemed as though characters are simply reciting cliches to one another, since the lines they were reading didn’t form any substantive back-and-forth. And while a lack of proper continuity might be expected from a children’s show in the 80s, it was none the less painful to experience.When there’s an entire episode about the characters unleashing a cataclysmic force of evil, I expect more follow-through than “it got bored and left.”

Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon Diana is a Racist CharicatureAnd that doesn’t even take into account how legitimately offensive the show is. There’s only one non-white character, a black girl named Diana. When the Dungeon Master assigns all of the kids their classes in the show’s opening, he makes her the acrobat, and as we learn later in the show, she’s a world-class athlete. But that’s not even what really bothers me. Making the black character an athlete is a little stereotyped perhaps, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s overtly racist–even if Acrobat seems to have been specifically created as a class just for her character. What is overtly racist is what she’s wearing. Lets get this straight. All the characters show up in this world wearing adventuring gear. The ranger gets a green jerkin, the cavalier gets armor, the wizard gets a robe, the thief gets an admittedly sexualized skirt-and-leggings getup…and the black chick gets a fur bikini? Am I the only one seeing this? I get that this was the 80s, but I have a hard time believing nobody was upset about this. I suppose we can at least be thankful that she’s not a sexist caricature of a teenaged girl like Sheila, the only other female character in the show.

Honestly, the show is so bad that I’ve thought about doing a series of episode-by-episode mockery posts in the style of my Traipsing Through the Timmverse blog. But this isn’t a television review site, it’s a tabletop RPG site. So lets talk about this show from the perspective of a tabletop gamer. If possible, looking at the show through that lens only makes it worse.

I now find it ironic that when I first wrote about player agency, I used a picture of the Dungeon Master character from this cartoon. I cannot now think of any worse example of a GM who promotes player agency. Nor even a worse example of a GM who is vaguely competent. Even if we are not meant to take the kids as the “players,” or Dungeon Master as the literal DM, he simply does a shit job of facilitating the kid’s adventures. He is overtly controlling, and steps in to give the kids directions any time they don’t have a clear goal to pursue. And half the time he doesn’t even let them accomplish the goal, but rather lets them get within sight of the goal, so he can step in and impress them with his ability to solve their problems.

Dungeon Master: It's Magic, I ain't gotta explain shit.It was actually my ladyfriend Morrie who noticed this phenomena first. As we watched the show together, it became a running joke to point out instances of terrible game mastering. Such as the time the characters come up with an elaborate plan to defeat a horrible monster called Demodragon. Their plan ends up being completely ineffectual, but it doesn’t matter, because earlier in the episode Dungeon Master had put a wreath of “Dragonsbane” around one of the character’s necks whilst in disguise. The dracocidal herb takes care of the monster, nullifying any value the kids’ actions may have had. Then there’s the episode where Dungeon Master is captured by the villain, which causes the players to go looking for him. When they find him, Dungeon Master frees himself, and defeats the villains handily, because the whole thing was just a ridiculous test. There is episode after episode after episode of this shit.

And then there’s the riddles, or whatever they are. As if Dungeon Master descending from on high to deliver every quest wasn’t bad enough, he always leaves the kids with some ridiculous nonsense phrase. The “riddles,” (if you can call them that) are supposed to help the kids figure out what to do when they inevitably end up in a tough situation. Because telling them what to do, and often doing it for them, just isn’t good enough for Dungeon Master. He needs to be able to take credit even for the problems the players overcome on their own. Half the time they don’t figure the riddle out until pure happenstance has already caused the riddle to resolve itself anyway, which isn’t surprising. The riddles are so abstract and convoluted that the only way the characters could possibly figure them out is by being characters who are written by the same writers who wrote the riddles in the first place. If I’m ever so unclear in my communication with my players, I hope they have the decency to punch me in the face.

Dungeon Master Pesters the PartyThe essential problem is that things happen *TO* the players, rather than *BECAUSE* of the players. This is the cardinal sin of neglecting player agency. Let there be no ambiguity on this point: Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and most tabletop RPGs are games, not mediums for storytelling. The game is what puts the ‘G’ in RPG–literally. The stories which are created can be amazing, yes, but they do not flow in a single direction from behind the GM screen. The game’s story is an incidental element, created by a group of people who have real control over their actions and their destinies. And it is because of that control which the players have that the stories created when we play tabletop RPGs are so compelling. They are not carefully constructed narratives. Unnecessary scenes or characters aren’t edited out because they fail to support a predetermined climax. And those things which might be considered useless in a constructed narrative often build to a compelling climax all their own.

There is one episode, titled “The Dragon’s Graveyard,” where we get to see a small glimpse of Player Agency. As the episode opens, the players are just about to go through a portal which will take them home, only to have the portal blocked for some reason by the villain, Venger. This is a pretty common scene, but normally it’s at the end of the episode. As the players are sulking about how they’ll never get home, they start to get riled up. They’re tired of constantly having the path home snatched out from under them. On cue, Dungeon Master shows up, offers them some half-assed sympathy, the immediately starts outlining what their next quest will be. Something about the Duke of Dread. Hank, the ranger and party leader, cuts him off. He tells Dungeon Master that they are tired of his bullshit, and they’re done letting him treat them like toy soldiers. They’re going to find the monster which can kill Venger, and they’re going to convince that monster to kill Venger, and then they’re going to go home, end of story. And how does Dungeon Master respond to his players finally taking control of their characters’ destinies? He starts acting like a little passive-aggressive asshole. An act he keeps up until the end of the episode when the players decide not to hurt Venger, and to leave the magical weapons they’ve found behind.

D&D Cartoon Characters Standing AroundI honestly weep for the players of any game master who got involved in the hobby because of this show. Most eleven year old GMs are bad enough without having been inspired by the single worst example of a game master in the history of gaming. I have a hard time believing that Gary Gygax was actually involved in this project. More likely, he simply received a co-producer vanity credit because his name was so heavily associated with the Dungeons and Dragons brand at the time. I cannot imagine him actually endorsing the Player/Dungeon Master relationship shown in this cartoon. Even if you consider that the kids and Dungeon Master were not intended as literal representations of players and DMs, it’s simply a poor representation of the product.

When will we learn that Dungeons & Dragons will never translate favorably into a linear narrative? How many terrible shows and movies must fans suffer through before the madness ends!?

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22 thoughts on “Player Agency in the Dungeons and Dragons Cartoon”

  1. I hated this show as a kid. I especially hated the Dungeon Master character, because he had nothing to do with what an actual DM does. (And why does the cavalier not get a weapon?) This strikes me as what a non-playing writer thinks of RPGs after having them explained to him for twenty minutes. I agree the Gygax could not possibly have had much to do with the content of the show.

    Maybe I’m an outlier, I hated pretty much all cartoons of the time for aiming so low. I mean, even as a kid I thought they were stupid. What was the decision making process that resulted in only idiotic cartoons being produced?

    1. My generation lucked out: Gargoyles, Batman The Animated Series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–even shows like Duck Tales were pretty great.

      I do have a soft spot for cartoons from the 80s, though.

    2. I absolutely detested this show as a child also . It was just beyond terrible and just plain suck diddly ucked .

  2. Excellent writeup. I’ve got a soft spot in my head (and heart) for this show, simply because it was one of the few things I could watch that at least showed something in the fantasy genre. It’s an absolutely HORRIBLE example of proper RPG collaborative play, and firmly entrenched in the soft-isms which were the backdrop of the time…. but it was still, horrifyingly enough, BETTER than it’s competition. The rest of the 80’s cartoons were just excuses to push crap plastic toys.

    1. I don’t blame you. I’m sure that if I was born in 1977 rather than 1987, I’d have a lot of fond memories of this show as well–for the same reasons you gave. Even in the early 90s when I was learning to read and discovering what kind of media I really enjoyed, I was frustrated by the lack of fantasy. And there was more available to me than there was to you!

      I ought to try and watch more 80s cartoons. Thundercats seems pretty cool. >.>

  3. I only ever caught a handful of episodes from this show, back when I was too young to understand what racism and sexism were but thinking back on it now, makes me cringe.

    What an awful, awful show.

    1. The sexism in the show is pretty standard. Female characters are sexualized and fit into the small number of roles available to women in fantasy. It’s sad, but not surprising.

      But I would have thought that even in the 80s, people would be up in arms over the portrayal of a black woman as a ‘savage.’

  4. I love the ideas that a lot of 80s cartoons had only problem was they weren’t implemented well. Most ended up being 30-Minute commercials. This is seen in a lot of the shows funded by big toy companies than those affiliated with them.

    Though I still like watching Shadows of Fate even though only 5 out of 20 episodes are easily obtained. It actually shows a lot of Player Agency with its characters. You would probably love it.

  5. You *clearly* did not grow up in the 80’s. That’s how things worked then. Cheesy == Awesome.

    And “offensive?” Um, no sorry, turns out you’re just a sheltered hippy. FFS, I imagine you’d have a stroke if you watched a Loony Toons from the 50’s or 60’s!

    1. I seriously considered making this the first non-spam comment which I refused to approve. What you’ve written is mean spirited, and clearly intended to hurt me or make me angry.

      But the post above is mean spirited too. Furthermore, it’s presumptive, and lacks a clear point. (Not to mention some truly unforgivable errors in writing style and flow). So it would be a little hypocritical of me to delete this comment when you’re responding in my own style. I was being an asshole when I wrote this. I was being an asshole because I never thought anyone who worked on the show would read my shitty little blog, and I thought it would be entertaining for my readers if I took the piss out of something.

      But shitting on other people’s hard work isn’t how I want to be known. I’ve considered deleting this post (as well as a handful of others, written in a similarly mean-spirited manner), but I’ve left it here because I don’t believe in trying to hide my mistakes. This post was a mistake, and I acknowledge that.

      Now, don’t take that to mean I disagree with what I wrote above. The writing in the show is terrible, the characters never accomplish anything on their own merit, and it represents the D&D brand poorly. And yes, the depictions of race and gender are offensive. Clinging to childhood nostalgia and calling me names does not change that fact. I’m not telling you that you cannot enjoy it. I myself enjoy a lot of things which depict race and gender poorly. I can acknowledge the flaws of a thing without lessening my enjoyment of that thing.

      So, in conclusion, you’re an asshole. But I, also, am an asshole. I’m trying to improve myself, though. Are you?

      (I fully acknowledge that my parting shot there was an extremely asshole-ish thing to write. Nobody’s perfect).

  6. Amusing.
    I’m watching my collection of d&d dvd’s with my kids so I decided to get online and figure out why the last episode of d&d never aired.
    So I happened upon this page first and read through the comments on this cartoon and that’s what I find amusing. It seems if there’s a black character on a cartoon it’s ‘racist’ and if there are scantily clad girls then it’s automatically ‘sexist’. But I never thought that when I watched this cartoon as a kid or even now. I don’t think anyone set out to purposely offend viewers, that’s just how it was done. Let’s not forget He-man and She-ra and cartoons like that. The dialogue wasn’t much better and female characters were well built while the men were ripped! Talk about sexual. Some people think He-man even had homosexual overtones. But hey, everyone has there own opinions.
    My point, cartoons are for kids. Adults view them and get up in arms about everything and I say just relax peeps, let the kids enjoy their toons. There are bigger issues out there–
    One more thought, if you really want to see racism or sexism by today’s standards, then watch Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes from the 30’s and 40’s (my favorite’s growing up in the 80’s).
    There’s even a cartoon I found from the 20’s or 30’s with Donald Duck portraying a Nazi.
    Now isn’t that frightening—

    1. But I never thought that when I watched this cartoon as a kid or even now.

      The fact that an individual doesn’t perceive a thing in a certain way does not mean that way of perceiving the thing is invalid.

      I don’t think anyone set out to purposely offend viewers, that’s just how it was done.

      Of course not. I would never suggest that they did. If anything, they bent over backwards to be inoffensive. They were simply ignorant, and/or lazy in some regards, and produced something that fell back on damaging stereotypes.

      One more thought, if you really want to see racism or sexism by today’s standards, then watch Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes from the 30′s and 40′s

      Yes, as a culture we have gradually become less racist over time. In the 30s and 40s we had only just barely granted women the right to vote, and black people weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountains as white people. Things are better now; but “better” is not the same as “good.”

      There’s even a cartoon I found from the 20′s or 30′s with Donald Duck portraying a Nazi.

      I’ve seen this. It’s actually one of the few Loony Toons shorts which I really enjoy. I normally get very bored with the slapstick humor, but that short in particular was hilarious. Even if it was a bit on-the-nose with the American nationalism.

  7. As the other parent has said your perspective changes a bit when watching with kids. I was watching with a 7 and 9 year old and looking for information on the unfinished finale when I stumbled across this page. The girls favorite character? Diana the Acrobat, of course. And why not? She is capable, brave, sensitive to the needs of the group, etc. I don’t think she is a bad role model at all. I may be getting requests for a fur lined bikini as a Halloween costume…
    The show does have corny dialogue, etc, etc, but again lots of shows aimed at under 10 years of age do…

  8. In your post on the anti-D&D hysteria, you quoted Cicero: “Not to know what happened before we were born is to remain perpetually a child.”

    Yet that is precisely the mistake you make in your assessment of the Dungeons & Dragons animated series. You examine without any historical context at all.

    The cartoon came out in 1983, just one year after Patricia Pulling founded Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (1982) and tried to sue her son’s high school principle for allegedly placing a D&D curse on her son and causing his suicide. The cartoon came out just two years after Mona Jaffe’s anti-D&D hysterian fanning novel, *Mazes and Monsters* (1981).

    The animated series came out in the midst of the anti-D&D hysteria about which you had written (and about which you had confessed initial ignorance per se), and almost everything you complain about it involved compromises the cartoon had to make to be allowed on the air at all.

    Yet because it made those compromises, we fans were able to watch a television series that acknowledged and even enjoyed our favorite game with us instead of watching yet another TV broadcast that implied our favorite destroyed us mentally and spiritually and socially. We loved it for doing what it had to do in order for it to sneak our love onscreen during a time when moral panic was everywhere.

    For example, the networks were nervous about having a children’s cartoon hero referred to as a “thief” — hence, Shiela is one of the few characters whom Dungeon Master almost never refers to character class but only by her name or as “my child”, and she is depicted as evidence that a person can play a thief in a roleplaying game and still be nurturing and be what the Nielsen Ratings families of the time considered ‘ordinary’.

    Having Diana the “Acrobat” an African-American action-girl instead of a damsel in distress was still a surprisngly progressive idea when the cartoon came out.

    You will find neither an action-girl nor an African-American main character in other cartoons of the time, such as Thundarr the Barbarian, Johnny Quest, Fantastic Max, Scooby Doo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The New Adventures of Flash Gordon, the earlier versions of The Super-friends, Richie Rich, The Flintstones, The Transformers, The Inhumanoids, Galaxy High, The Littles, or Rainbow Brite.

    You will find action-girls but no African-American action-girls in cartoons of the time, such as Spider-Man and his Amazing Spider-Friends, G. I. Joe, the Godzilla animated series, The New Archies, Silverhawks, ThunderCats, Battle Between the Planets, He-Man or She-Ra. There were no action-girls at all in Fat Albert.

    Having a female as a physical combatant, often the bravest of them all and one of the best educated as well, was a progressive take on the part of the creators of the series.

    On his blog, Mark Evanier — the talented writer who created much of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon — writes eloquently of all the political hurdles the network set in front of the creators and writers of the series. For example, at the time the networks required all their cartoon series follow the theme that “The Complainer is ALWAYS wrong!” Evanier disliked that for the way it mandated conformity and advocated never criticizing or whistle-blowing. So he found ways around this, and the Complainer character Eric also ended up with unique heroic moments, at one point gaining the power of Dungeon Master and willingly sacrificing himself (without success) to send the others home even though it locked him permanently in the Realm.

    Finally, the Dungeon Master was one more iteration of the Trickster Mentor archetype made popular at the time with Yoda in *The Empire Strikes Back*, a film that had come out just a few years earlier. We all loved Dungeon Master, but we also recognized that he was a clear imitation of Yoda, including the way Yoda and other Trickster Mentors would ask riddles as a way of mentoring their students.

    Cicero once said, “Not to know what happened before we were born is to remain perpetually a child” — and you quoted this saying. If you want to understand the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and its fond memories, you need also to know what happened in the past. Only within context can you understand why we loved it and remember it well even now — but first, you must bother to make the effort to understand history and context, and you have done neither in this blog article.

    1. u mad, bro?

      You’re right. This thing I wrote 4 years ago doesn’t represent my best work. I was trying to be entertaining, and it wasn’t until this post was shared with some of the show’s creators that I really appreciated how hurtful and unproductive this sort of writing is. That experience is why I try to avoid being “funny review guy” on the Internet these days. I’d rather make things than make fun of things. That said, this was written for a modern audience as a piece of entertainment rather than as an attempt to seriously discuss the show and its merits. This is a deeply flawed article in many ways, but I hardly think a lack of proper historical context is what brings it down.

      It’s also relevant to point out that all the production issues in the world don’t make the final product any better. It may justify the poor quality of the final product, but it doesn’t make me enjoy it more. The show still bores me, the dialogue still made no sense to me, and the fantasy is still bland. Meanwhile, shows like Thundarr the Barbarian and Ulysses 31 managed to produce amazing fantasy stories that I can still enjoy even today.

      If you’ve got a special place in your heart for the D&D cartoon, I don’t think any less of you. But I do think quoting Cicero at me (twice) over a licensed cartoon from the 1980s is a tad melodramatic.

  9. > That said, this was written for a modern audience as a piece of entertainment rather than as an attempt to seriously discuss the show and its merits. This is a deeply flawed article in many ways

    Ah. Then you should be aware that I found this article as a link from a site that was providing serious articles about the cartoon. A serious article is what I had been promised by that site.

    Unfortunately, it never occurred to me that I would need to remember where I found the link, or I would provide it for you. You have my apologies for that.

    However, for you to write “how legitimately offensive the show is” constitutes more than simple personal opinion, and it demonstrates an odious ignorance of the civil rights history of this country. If you don’t consider that a serious mistake on your part, then you really don’t understand anything about civil rights and have no business making comments about it, not even in jest.

    Similarly, you write “I honestly weep for the players of any game master who got involved in the hobby because of this show” even after admitting you have no idea whatsoever of what you are talking about. So I will inform you so that you can have some idea: some of the most talented game masters I have met were drawn to D&D by that show back in the 1980s. Go to any conference with people who watched it when it first came out, and they will tell you inspiring it was (during that time when churches were forcing members to burn their D&D books and when African-American women were never allowed to be action girls in cartoons with the single exception of Josie and The Pussycats). Because they were able to view it when it came out and with an understanding of the context, they were able to take inspiration from it without any of the problems you speculate about.

    To be blunt, your follow-up comments cause your original argument to resemble the arguments of many students that Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon is terrible specifically and exclusively because “if it was any good then it would be in color, but it’s not in color so it must be garbage, and the fact they didn’t have color back then doesn’t make any difference to me because I still find it black-and-white when I watch it” or the many students who declare they hate Shakespeare expressly because “if his stuff was any good he’d use normal modern language not write funny, and I don’t care if they spoke differently then, I’m looking at him now, so since he doesn’t write like they do today, he must be garbage.” Or, as you would put it, “It’s also relevant to point out that all the production issues in the world don’t make the final product any better. . . . The show still bores me, the dialogue still made no sense to me, and the fantasy is still bland.”

    1. I cannot muster the energy to take this 4 year old discussion about a children’s cartoon from 30 years ago as seriously as you apparently are.

      I’m sorry I didn’t like your favorite cartoon show. You’re going to find a lot of people who don’t like what you like on the Internet. There’s no point fighting over it.

  10. > I’m sorry I didn’t like your favorite cartoon show.

    If you had written this poorly to condemn something I also condemn, I still would have been bothered by your poor writing — particularly since you write fairly well on other posts.

    You take a lot of effort to enforce your faulty assumption that I’m upset that you dislike something I might like. I’m not upset at all about it. I’m aware that you would need to get yourself into a 1980s mindset to enjoy it, so I’m not at all surprised you found it has aged poorly.

    I ask only that you write intelligently about it, with insight and a recognition of historical and cultural context and nuance.

  11. I’m sorry that so many people have given you shit over your opinion of a cartoon that, let’s be honest, doesn’t represent the game of Dungeons & Dragons very well at all. The fact that the people making the cartoon had obstacles which rendered them unable to make a good representation of the game, and that this poor representation is arguably not their fault, may be important to keep in mind, but such things ultimately do NOT make the representation any less poor in the finished product. For whatever reasons, reasonable or not, understandable or not, the D&D cartoon was not very faithful to its source material. I don’t see why it should be controversial or offensive to point that out.

    I’m sorry that people have so heavily discouraged you from making fun of things you don’t like in public. Sometimes, I think that actually can be a productive thing to do, it can certainly be an entertaining thing to do, and I honestly did enjoy this blog post.

    There are plenty of stories and pieces of media and works of art that I like that other people don’t. Sometimes people absolutely hate the things I like. Oh fucking well. Everyone is entitled to their opinions about such things and to disagree about such things. It’s even fine to get mad about it or complain about it. But it’s also okay for other people to call you an asshole if you argue against a reasonable opinion or argument in an uncharitable, intellectually dishonest, undeservedly mean-spirited way. Some people in your comments section here have been, in my opinion, assholes.

    Hell, I even disagree with you slightly (but not entirely) about your assertion that some of the main characters are presented in a racist and/or sexist way. I see no reason to throw a fit over our disagreement or think any less of you because of it. Doing so wouldn’t accomplish anything good. Quite the opposite.

    I love your blog. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, and your kind words. It’s nice to see a friendly comment on this post!

      I agree with you that it can be productive to make fun of things you don’t like in public. I certainly did not stop doing it because I didn’t think it was productive, or because I felt discouraged by the people I made angry. In point of fact, this post remains one of the most successful things I’ve ever posted precisely because it makes people angry. Their anger has helped me more than it has hurt me.

      I decided to stop writing things like this simply because it’s not the sort of writing I want to spend my time on. I’d like to make a name for myself as a guy who makes cool things, not as a guy who makes fun of dumb things.

      It’s also great to hear that you love my blog. I like knowing I’ve still got readers!

      1. Eh, that’s probably a wise choice. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working for me, at least, since I still read the blog. It’s better to write what you want.

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