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.

DnDmedia.jpg

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."

Humor

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
The D&D group is "cosmopolitan", with members of different lineages/origins, and different roles(classes), fighting, (offensive and healer) spellcasting, exploration+stealth+disarm traps and.

The party members' skills are diverse at least (the party often is as well). Goes back to the very beginning (Fighting Man, Cleric, Magic User). (Thieves were in a supplement!)
 

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beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
To me D&D is a medieval to Renaissance fantasy setting. Having different worlds within D&D is fine (Grey Hawk, Ebberon, the Forgotten Realms, etc). Heck, WoTC even made a spell to allow characters to travel between worlds.

What D&D is Not (IMO) is a Land of the Lost game where radically different settings co-exist (e.g. science fiction and magic).

Some people claim that it is a mix of those two, but if that were true, then PCs could go into a shop and see sword and laser guns side by side, or healing potions and hypo sprays, or horses and hover cars. Obviously, that's not the case.

Sure, somewhere along the line, the PCs may come across anachronisms, but it isn't the norm. The BASE setting (the world of shopkeepers, farmers and blacksmiths) should always start around the medieval or renaissance era.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
All I can say is I disagree with much of the OP on what makes something D&D, but then D&D to me is something that "modern" takes really don't represent. While such things might be D&D to you, they most certainly are not to me.
That's very at odds with your username!
 


Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
The party members' skills are diverse at least (the party often is as well). Goes back to the very beginning (Fighting Man, Cleric, Magic User). (Thieves were in a supplement!)
There also that famous mix of elf archer, dwarf fighter, human ranger, 3 halflings and a wizard - obviously influenced by DND
 

Mechanics matter. The writers don't have to be rules lawyers, but the in-universe details must at least attempt to match up to some basic D&D rules.

For example, wands are for casting a limited number of stored spells, not a somatic focus like in Harry Potter. The raging barbarian shouldn't wear full plate. The magic spells should at least resemble published spells (and wizards aren't healers). At least attempt to get the basics right.
 

Some people claim that it is a mix of those two, but if that were true, then PCs could go into a shop and see sword and laser guns side by side, or healing potions and hypo sprays, or horses and hover cars. Obviously, that's not the case.

In the superheroes comics the ordinary citizen can't go to a clinic to be healed with ultra-advanced medical technology by alien civilitations.
 

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