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.


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

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So you can't imagine any other expressions but swearing? Might as well use the same level of assumptions you imply.

Vox though doesn't swear in jusy those situations they will just swear amidst talking about a red cloak
Like... a lot of people dating back to the time we made the brilliant decision to wet our pants over people using certain emphatic language have?

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