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D&D, Conan, and He-Man: Toys That Never Were

With She-Ra and He-Man returning to Netflix as series that invoke the nostalgia of the 80s with a modern sensibility, several retrospectives have explored the origins of the toy line that that became a multi-million dollar franchise. For eagle-eyed viewers of the Netflix documentary, The Power of Grayskull, there's a surprising influence: Dungeons & Dragons.

HeManDnD.jpg

He-Man vs. the Lawyers

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was launched in response to Mattel's toy company rival, Kenner, winning a major coup with Star Wars. Arguing that it was impossible to launch the toy line in time for the movie's debut, Mattel passed. Kenner instead launched a cardboard box promising the figures later in the year; the Star Wars toy line, now with Hasbro, still makes the company massive amounts of money. Stung by the loss, Mattel was determined to create a rival toy line that was different from Star Wars. Inspired by legendary artist Frank Frazetta's Conan, the 1982 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Marvel comic based on the titular barbarian, Mattel pivoted to a musclebound, larger-scale toy line. There was just one problem: the movie was rated R and not suitable for kids.

Mattel shifted gears. The toy company knew it was on to something, but needed a setting independent of a movie franchise so that the toys could flourish without the inevitable build-up and steep drop-off in sales after the movie stopped playing in theaters. And yet they didn't want to give up on the barbarian theme (a theme that was similar enough to Conan that Marvel sued for its own toy rights ... and won). One of those settings was D&D.

The D&D Connection

Although it's not mentioned, D&D makes a quick on-screen appearance as one of the storyline development possibilities for He-Man (see the screenshot above). A quick perusal of the Masters of the Universe story bible makes it clear that, back in 1982, He-Man was strongly influenced more by D&D than Conan. Like other media inspired by D&D, the key isn't that typical D&D elements alone are included, but rather in how they're presented. For example, while dwarves and trolls can certainly be found together in generic fantasy, dwarves, trolls, and gnolls seems uniquely D&D:

"The ICE MOUNTAINS tower over the northern part of the western continent. Immense and foreboding peaks shrouded throughout most of the year by snow-laden clouds glower over the landscape. Within their fastness dwell DWARVES, TROLLS, and GNOLLS. The dwarves, a sturdy and industrious race, live far longer than ordinary humans. Generally friendly and outgoing, they enjoy carousing and decorate their clothes with bright pieces of cloth and metal. On the other hand, carnivorous trolls attack anything in their path with clawed hands and feet, but fear the dwarves weapons and magic. The intelligent but evil gnolls live in the old, used up dwarf mines. Thy bear wolf-like features and sport armor and weapons although they tend to be lazy and try to avoid a fight whenever possible."

Similarly, orcs, basilisks, and giant centipedes are common D&D foes:

"Within these rocky, encrusted and stalagtited caves walk races of monsters sealed beneath the earth thousands of years before by great volcanic eruptions. ORCS, BASILISKS, and GIANT CENTIPEDES travel the rocky bastion beneath the plain. Sorcery abounds here only awaiting the knowing hands of a conjurer to cast a spell, placing the innocent wayfarer into a state of hibernation or suspended animation among the grasses and low bushes."

And then there's the ogres, wraiths, and manticores:

"The MYSTIC MOUNTAINS make up the southern edge of the eastern continent. Wreathed in mystery, OGRES, WRAITHS, and MANTICORES find haven beneath the granite peaks. The valleys of the Mystic Mountains with their deep, slippery sides hold great reptiles and dragons prisoner, and it’s fortunate for they’d rampage the planet if not held within that stone fortress."

But the most compelling proof of D&D's influence on He-Man is from the author of the story bible himself.

A D&D Background

Michael Halperin, who wrote the He-Man story bible, explained in an interview:

Mattel asked me to come in and create the back story (bible) for "Masters" that could act as a device for merchandising the figures as well as the premise for the TV series (Filmation had begun the process of designing the cartoon characters -- but they had no stories). I was Creative Consultant to the series during its first year (65 episodes) with the job of approving all story lines. I'm proud to say that I brought Larry DiTillio into the series. His Dungeons and Dragons gaming background proved invaluable as a writer. He was what I looked for in story creation.

Larry DiTillio, who passed away last year, is perhaps best known in RPG circles for his work on Chaosium's iconic Call of Cthulhu campaign adventure, Masks of Nyarlathotep, but Larry worked on plenty of other ancillary D&D-related RPG content for Flying Buffalo. That work included several Dragon Magazine articles. Larry explains how he launched his animation career in an interview with Allen Varney:

It was game work that started my animation career, via Michael Halperin, who did the show bible for the original He-Man and The Masters of the Universe. Michael was a friend of mine at the Writer's Guild, and his sons played D&D. One day he was browsing their Dragon magazine and saw my name on a scenario." ["CHAGMAT," Dragon #63, July 1982.] He called me up and said 'Larry, I didn't know you wrote sword-and-sorcery.' He said to call Arthur Nadel at Filmation and pitch him some stories. That led to a staff job and an entirely new career in writing. No Dragon magazine, no job at Filmation. And a good lesson - you want to be a writer, get published anywhere you can!

Ironically, Larry would end up writing for the Conan the Adventurer cartoon in 1992. He-Man went on to gross over $2 billion (including a film flop) with its own unique blend of sci-fi and sorcery (more like Gamma World than D&D) before falling into relative obscurity; D&D eventually got its own toy line. But it's fun to imagine how a game that was so influenced by dime store toys nearly returned the favor.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

M.L. Martin

Adventurer
An unproduced mini-comic, "The Ring of Dreams," was set to include a glabrezu, which I believe is a creature unique to D&D.

Also, several of DiTillio's RPG campaigns and writings influenced his MotU work--the villain Lord Masque from "House of Shokoti, Part I" came from one of his campaigns, and I'm told that his most enduring character for the series, Granamyr the dragon, showed up first in his Tunnels & Trolls adventure The Isle of Darksmoke.
 

talien

Community Supporter
An unproduced mini-comic, "The Ring of Dreams," was set to include a glabrezu, which I believe is a creature unique to D&D.

Also, several of DiTillio's RPG campaigns and writings influenced his MotU work--the villain Lord Masque from "House of Shokoti, Part I" came from one of his campaigns, and I'm told that his most enduring character for the series, Granamyr the dragon, showed up first in his Tunnels & Trolls adventure The Isle of Darksmoke.
This is great info! Do you have any sources? Would love to update the article with this info.

Thank you for sharing!
 

mrm1138

Explorer
In retrospect, it surprises me that Masters of the Universe became as popular as it did because of how friggin' weird it is. It's a very unique blend of fantasy and science-fiction that doesn't feel very mainstream at all.

I also feel like none of the fiction based on the property has lived up to the promise of MotU's original concept art. I'm guessing that's because the cartoons and comics had to be suitable for children. That's why we get this awesome-looking bad guy who has a skull for a face but is a complete buffoon so as not to be too scary.
 

If anything, it feels very much in line with some of D&D inspirations, from when the lines between sci-fi and fantasy weren't so sharply drawn. In particular, I'm reminded of Lin Carter's Thongor and Gondwane series.

In retrospect, it surprises me that Masters of the Universe became as popular as it did because of how friggin' weird it is. It's a very unique blend of fantasy and science-fiction that doesn't feel very mainstream at all.

In drawing an influence back from He-Man into D&D, one thing I like to think of when I'm prepping for gaming, is how toyetic the adventure is. Not that I think about making action figures, but it's the idea that an adventure should have lots of things for the PCs to interact with.
 


Sunsword

Adventurer
In retrospect, it surprises me that Masters of the Universe became as popular as it did because of how friggin' weird it is. It's a very unique blend of fantasy and science-fiction that doesn't feel very mainstream at all.


I think the fact that it was so weird is what me and my friends love it. So many people that make things for kids assume they are dumb. Look at how many kids were playing D&D even though its writing wasn't always very accessible.
 

Anytime have you wonder how would be those franchises if Mattle had bought by Hasbro some years ago.

He-Man is a mixture of superheroes and sword & planet, and the spin-off She-ra more "maho shojo". Today Masterl will enjoy a new remake, or maybe sequel.

About a RPG, sorry, but He-Man is totally power broken and he steals all the scenes. And d20 isn't enough ready for setting where to mix sci-fi and mystic powers.
 

M.L. Martin

Adventurer
This is great info! Do you have any sources? Would love to update the article with this info.

Thank you for sharing!

The script for "The Ring of Dreams" (by Michael Halperin) can be found in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The Complete Minicomics Collection. Lord Masque's origin is mentioned in the Trivia section of He-Man.org, while Granamyr's background is confirmed in He-Man and She-Ra: A Complete Guide to Their Animated Adventures.
 

Tonguez

Legend
This is great info! Do you have any sources? Would love to update the article with this info.

Thank you for sharing!

This interview at He-Man.Org

it also mentions that Skytree is a name from an unpublished DnD adventure

interview said:
Where did Skytree come from? Did you just want something older than Granamyr that wasn't in any physical form?

Uh, trees are physical forms, yes? But to answer the question, I wanted something older than Granamyr and instead of opting for a monster I went for a tree. To me this was more magical and helped keep the tension going. If it had been an evil dragon or something of that nature, it is doubtful He-Man would have hesitated as he did with the tree. As for the name, you caught me stealing from myself again. It comes from an unpublished Dungeons & Dragons scenario I wrote called "Skytree and Stone Glade."
"
interview said:
"Where did the idea come from to have Granamyr constantly belittling He-Man? Was this already developed in "The Isle of Darksmoke" game?
interview said:
Granamyr had a very low opinion of the human race so it was very much in his nature to belittle He-Man. In "The Isle of Darksmoke," he was much the same and was placed there so my players would come across something They absolutely had no chance of beating and thus were forced to negotiate. BTW - For those of you who are totally lost at this moment, "The Isle of Darksmoke" was a Tunnels & Trolls role play scenario I wrote for Flying Buffalo Inc. It was printed with a beautiful cover by Michael Whelan and I was very proud of it. I wrote it before I went to work on He-Man and when I decided to do a story about a dragon I simply borrowed the name from myself.
 

Shroompunk Warlord

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
In retrospect, it surprises me that Masters of the Universe became as popular as it did because of how friggin' weird it is. It's a very unique blend of fantasy and science-fiction that doesn't feel very mainstream at all.

That is not dissimilar to how I feel about a lot of early D&D, when it comes down to it-- before what sometimes feels like a deliberate, ongoing campaign to strip all of that unique, defining weirdness out of Dungeons & Dragons in favor of a softer, blander pastiche of Tolkien and Howard... that somehow misses that neither Tolkien's work nor Howard's were soft or bland in the first place.

I also feel like none of the fiction based on the property has lived up to the promise of MotU's original concept art. I'm guessing that's because the cartoons and comics had to be suitable for children. That's why we get this awesome-looking bad guy who has a skull for a face but is a complete buffoon so as not to be too scary.

DC's most recent run of He-Man comics has been phenomenal.

In drawing an influence back from He-Man into D&D, one thing I like to think of when I'm prepping for gaming, is how toyetic the adventure is. Not that I think about making action figures, but it's the idea that an adventure should have lots of things for the PCs to interact with.

This. If my primary influence has always been Super Mario Bros, the entire Masters of the Universe franchise has always been following right behind it.
 
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Tonguez

Legend
In retrospect, it surprises me that Masters of the Universe became as popular as it did because of how friggin' weird it is. It's a very unique blend of fantasy and science-fiction that doesn't feel very mainstream at all.

I also feel like none of the fiction based on the property has lived up to the promise of MotU's original concept art. I'm guessing that's because the cartoons and comics had to be suitable for children. That's why we get this awesome-looking bad guy who has a skull for a face but is a complete buffoon so as not to be too scary.

I'm not suprised it did well, sci-fi/fantasy wasnt so differentiated and 80s kids were already watching shows like Mightor, Thundarr the Barbarian and Flash Gordon,and both Star Wars and Conan where major movies influences of the era that everyone was emulating. Thus MoTU's combination of Royal Courts and Barbarians, Sorcery and Lasers, Fantasy races, Hi-Tech Vehicles and Super Heroes could (and obviously did) appeal to everyone and allow various styles of play.
Plus the MoTU were sexy and the stories able to appeal to both the kids and the adult viewers who were also watching Heavy Metal, Fire and Ice, and Krull
 
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He-Man and Superfriends were going on at the same time (at least in some regions). Both had a life lesson at the end of each show.

The life lesson of Superfriends was invariably some iteration of "obey the rules". Morality.

But the life lesson of He-Man tended to offer good advice about how to navigate a difficult situation. Ethics. He-Man was operating at a higher stage of personal moral development.

There was a palpable difference between Lawful (Superfriends) versus Good (He-Man).
 




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