I 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.
I 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.”
And 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.
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.
The 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.
I 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!?