RPG Evolution: What Makes a Show "D&D"?

Dungeons & Dragons is everywhere these days, and now thanks to D&D-adjacent cartoons, comics, and podcasts, we've got a good idea of what elements constitute D&D-themed media.

Dungeons & Dragons is everywhere these days, and now thanks to D&D-adjacent cartoons, comics, and podcasts, we've got a good idea of what elements constitute D&D-themed media.


When looking at some of the media inspired by D&D, there's been plenty of speculation as to the connection, like The Witcher. But why speculate when we have clear evidence of media inspired by D&D, like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone? These blockbuster media franchises started as a streaming and podcast show respectively, but are branching out beyond their D&D roots (and in Critical Role's case, looping back around into official D&D). And now that they're out in the wild in other formats (the Legend of Vox Machina cartoon, the Adventure Zone comics), we can see what they have in common that makes them D&D-esque.

A Permeable Circle

We've discussed before how the magic circle defines role-playing engagement; real life factors influence the game anyway, from bathroom breaks to the physical location of the game, from phone distractions to never-ending tug-of-war of adult responsibilities. This makes for a game that inherently can't be too fantasy-themed even if the characters are true to their roots, because D&D is as much about playing in a shared fantasy universe as it is about playing a game.

As an example, The Adventure Zone actually inserts the Dungeon Master into the dialogue. The characters will often reference out-of-game pop culture and engage in back-and-forth with the DM. To a lesser degree, Vox Machina has its characters use modern turns of phrase when they speak. This has some significant implications on "baseline fantasy."


One of the defining traits of both Critical Role and The Adventure Zone is their humor. While the occasional character might take himself seriously, it's clear that most don't. It's left to the NPCs to react in a mixture of horror or confusion to the PC's antics.

As most DMs can attest, humor is part of the fun of D&D. Heroes in absurd, often violent situations, failing or reacting inappropriately to larger-than-life threats are part of the game. Part of this humor comes from the fish out of water approach, where "adventurers" are by their nature not usually regular people, but eccentrics from far-flung lands.

Genre Mashups

Basic D&D campaigns have increasingly become kitchen-sink settings in which different adventure backdrops and tones can accommodate a wide variety of play styles, from gothic horror to steampunk, from medieval warfare to Roman politics. While it's possible to create justifications for where these characters come form, the shorthand is that there's a place for each of them: we just don't necessarily see it in play.

This flexibility is part of the game's appeal. DMs can play the kind of games they want, while players can play characters inspired by other genres but still (loosely) fit into the game setting without too much trouble. This is particularly noticeable in Vox Machina, where characters seem to come from different realms with wildly different levels of technology (e.g., guns vs. axes) and levels of magical talent. How does it all work? We don't need to know, because D&D rules explain all that so that the campaign doesn't need to justify it.

To Movies and Beyond

With D&D-adjacent media ahead of D&D's curve, it will be interesting to see what happens when Wizard of the Coast's brand catches up. We have a D&D movie and streaming series on the horizon. They would do well to learn the lessons of what D&D-adjacent media has done so successfully.

Your Turn: What elements of media that makes it D&D-themed did I miss?

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Blue Orange

Gone to Texas
D&D is an intellectual property owned by Hasbro. You can have elements of it without the actual IP, but that are clearly meant to be a D&D game.

There are plenty of cases, particularly before RPGs became socially acceptable, where people were clearly playing D&D, but with the key bits parodied to avoid legal problems. In particular I remember an episode of Dexter's Laboratory where the kids play Monsters & Mazes, with Dexter playing Gygax the 27th-level Warrior Mage. The names of the books were obvious D&D parodies as well.

You also have outright parodies of the tropes like Steve Jackson Games' Munchkin.

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
I agree. There is an important distinction between the games that are being played and the game itself. D&D has always lacked a singular identity or theme, which is why you see so many opinions and takes on so many aspects. There is no one setting or world or even subgenre that accurately describes the game being played because D&D has always pushed to be all of them. That has been both its greatest strength and its greatest flaw.

So when you look towards an upcoming movie or show or script wanting to tote about the game itself, its only natura that some decisions must be made beforehand much like when starting a campaign. Where is it set? What is the theme? What does the audience (i.e. your players) expect?

Look at it another way. If the movie was about Forgotten Realms, or Dragonlance, or Dark Sun, then it would be about those places and those stories. But any show or movie specifically about D&D the game is rightfully appropriate to include the meta aspects of the game, the activity, and even the people behind the characters and the story on the table.

This is why I don't look at The Witcher, or any other movie or series as a D&D thing, even if I would consider bringing those stories, characters, and elements into my game. (And it wouldn't necessarily be D&D, either. So there's that.)


I'd say protagonists who are fallible in... adventuring-specific ways - not just in terms of having general character flaws. To use an example from Legend of Vox Machina, the bane of Vox Machina's existence is doors. To use another go-to for games which, while not D&D, have the resonance of a tabletop campaign - Guardians of the Galaxy - we get some of this with the big opening fight in the second film, where Drax has the Cunning Plan to try to attack the monster from the inside, and does so without consulting his fellow party members. It doesn't work, but also doesn't kill him (which is what a grittier work would do).


You bring up a great point here. I guess whenever I have seen anything released with a "D&D" branding, I am bracing myself for a high fantasy adventure story, because "D&D" does not mean much to me except that is used to make fantasy stories. I have read a lot of comments about how, to them, a "D&D" branding is meant to simulate a tabletop RPG experience on film. Two very divergent perspectives.

After seeing a lot of debate about it, it has made me realize that I probably should never get excited about anything with the D&D brand and focus more on the settings created with D&D. I'll admit that Vox Machina is an exception for me because it is a cartoon, but I generally don't want to watch comedies in fantasy settings. I think rather than caring about a piece of media branding itself with D&D, I care more about the creative ideas constructed by people like Matt Mercer or RA Salvatore. Heck, if they did something that was epic high fantasy with a little more of a serious tone, that had NOTHING to do with D&D, they could just take all my money.

You mentioned tone under genre mashups, and to my mind wild tone-swings are a big part of that D&D feel. In Legend of Vox Machina, you can go from stirring adventure and action to poop jokes to deep pathos, all in 20 minutes. In many D&D sessions, that's exactly what goes on. And that's one of the things that makes gaming so great - it can provide different experiences, all packaged together.


  1. Characters have defined "classes" that can be observed within the setting
  2. Characters display progression which can be seen as leveling up
  3. Characters "level up" by going out to enter the plotline directly and not by staying in their homes or hubs.

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