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

beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
Gamma World crossover, 1st edition AD&D DMG.

And of course, groups returning from a expedition to the Barrier Peaks are also going to want to flog the excess lasers they looted. And the shopkeeper is sure to sell them on.

What page(s) within the 1st edition DMG? Was it a suggestion/optional or part of the official base setting?

Barrier Peaks was a one-off module. It wasn't part of the base setting.
 
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beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
So in other words D&D isn't a genre mashup except for those things that you missed or the things you didn't miss but excuse through special pleading...

You know what, never mind. You specifically said "To me" in your initial post, so you are right -- that's what D&D is to you. Good for you.

Right, "to me". I never said others couldn't play they wanted.

Special pleading? How are one-offs like Barrier Peaks part of the official BASE setting?

Again, I acknowledged in my OP that PC's can encounter anachronisms within the world on their adventures, but the BASE setting is medieval to renaissance.

If your 1st level characters walk into a merchant's shop to purchase their starting equipment, will they see a laser gun for sale next to the swords, long bows and armor?

Yes or No.
 
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talien

Community Supporter
Those where a bit before my time (so want to do Temple of the Frog now though!) but my first exposure to D&D was a smorgasbord of genre mashups.
Temple of the Frog in the original booklet is ... not quite up to traditional adventure standards. It expects you to field an army against over 100 froggies (using Chainmail, natch). Basic D&D reissued it later with much more detail and also pushed the tech even more: DA2 The Temple of the Frog (Basic) - Wizards of the Coast | D&D Basic | Adventure Modules | D&D Basic | DriveThruRPG.com
 

talien

Community Supporter
Right, "to me". I never said others couldn't play they wanted.

Special pleading? How are one-offs like Barrier Peaks part of the official BASE setting?

Again, I acknowledged in my OP that PC's can encounter anachronisms within the world on their adventures, but the BASE setting is medieval to renaissance.

If your 1st level characters walk into a merchant's shop to purchase their starting equipment, will they see a laser gun for sale next to the swords, long bows and armor?

Yes or No.
Blackmoor was one of the original campaign settings for OD&D and as mentioned above, had lots of technology in it. It was later incorporated into Basic D&D's Mystary setting: Blackmoor (campaign setting) - Wikipedia
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
While everyone's rushing to dog pile beancounter for daring to say that D&D isn't about the genre crossover, I feel it's pertinent to point out that in the 1e DMG, the Boot Hill and Gamma World conversions are described as relief or sidelights. In other words, they're exceptions to the general expectation of the campaign.
So, yeah, there are these examples, but they don't exactly disprove beancounter's comment about D&D in the main. You generally don't find laser guns for sale along with swords in D&D (Traveller may be another matter, but... different game). Various settings do have the weirdo dungeon that have got genre crossing-tech, but most dungeons don't.
 

beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
Blackmoor was one of the original campaign settings for OD&D and as mentioned above, had lots of technology in it. It was later incorporated into Basic D&D's Mystary setting: Blackmoor (campaign setting) - Wikipedia

I honestly feel like I'm going around in circles here.

As I mentioned above, I acknowledged that PC's may very well encounter anachronisms in their adventures, but the BASE game starts solidly in medieval or renaissance times. By Base, I mean the world the PCs live in before they set foot in their first dungeon/adventure.

Blackmore was a location within Greyhawk that was a dead civilization. In the 1st Blackmore module, characters are transported back 3,000 years - so it doesn't even occur within the same time period as GreyHawk. It like any other module is an adventure PCs go on, but not the base setting.
 

beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
While everyone's rushing to dog pile beancounter for daring to say that D&D isn't about the genre crossover, I feel it's pertinent to point out that in the 1e DMG, the Boot Hill and Gamma World conversions are described as relief or sidelights. In other words, they're exceptions to the general expectation of the campaign.
So, yeah, there are these examples, but they don't exactly disprove beancounter's comment about D&D in the main. You generally don't find laser guns for sale along with swords in D&D (Traveller may be another matter, but... different game). Various settings do have the weirdo dungeon that have got genre crossing-tech, but most dungeons don't.

Thank you!
 

G

Guest 7034872

Guest
The game I started playing in 1979 was medieval fantasy. What happened prior to that I have no idea. With the exception of the Barrier Peaks module, I don't recall any other sci fi settings. Remember, I'm talking about official materials, not homebrew worlds.

I also remember an "Alice in Wonderland" style module, but that was timeless.
I loved that module: we had so much teen-aged fun with it.

I also do have to agree that D&D was (and still is) at its heart a piece of magic-saturated medieval (really, I'd say "pre-medieval") fantasy. No, of course it isn't rigidly restricted to that, but its heart is unmistakably medieval. I don't see how anyone familiar with the game could deny that much.
 
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beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
No, of course it isn't rigidly restricted to that, but its heart is unmistakably medieval. I don't see how anyone familiar with the game could deny that much.
I was afraid that I wasn't explaining myself clearly, but it's appears that they were being intentionally obtuse as a passive-aggressive way to frustrate me and silence my opinion.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
D&D was a Science Fantasy game born in a time before Sci-Fi and Fantasy were split apart by angry nerds that has NEVER had a singular identity but whose fans are absolutely convinced that their singular experiences with the game is the clear, obvious and historical identity of the ball of chaos and duct tape that the game actually is and work tirelessly of throwing everyone else out of the playpen.
 

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