The Cartoon That Helped Create Three Classes

In the late days of TSR's fall from greatness, Gary Gygax was working in California to expand a multimedia franchise based on the game he co-created, Dungeons & Dragons. While a movie never came to fruition under his watch a well-loved cartoon did, and it revealed a sneak peak at what was to come for the tabletop game.

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West Coast Ambitions

Jon Peterson explains the concept of a "visitation theme" in Playing at the World, where people in "real life" visit a fantasy realm:

While the visitation theme is not universal in fantasy genre fiction, it is sufficiently prevalent, especially in the works cited by Gygax as core influences, that its connection with the structure of Dungeons & Dragons cannot trivially be dismissed as coincidence. Beginning with Arneson’s Blackmoor, in which the participants played themselves installed in a fantasy world, Dungeons & Dragons pioneered an entirely new way of episodically interacting with the fantasy genre, one which extended the visitation theme of fantasy fiction beyond the scope of the written word.

This is likely the reason that the Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon positions the Dungeons & Dragons as not a game at all but a theme park. As I wrote previously, theme parks and D&D have a lot in common in how they integrate "real world" visitors into their fantasy worlds, a trend that began with co-creator of D&D Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. Joseph P. Laycock notices the parallel to Arneson's visitation theme as well in Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds:

...Gygax’s next project was to create an “entertainment” division for TSR. The CBS network created a Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show that aired on Saturday mornings from 1983 to 1986. The premise of the cartoon was the same as Arneson’s original Blackmoor campaign. It featured a group of teenagers who board a “Dungeons & Dragons ride” at a carnival and are magically transported to a world of magic and monsters. Each episode portrayed the teens’ continued efforts to return home. Gygax went to Los Angeles to work on the show and had plans for other projects, including a Dungeons & Dragons movie.

Shannon Appelcline explains how the D&D cartoon came about in Designers & Dragons - the 70s:

Though Gygax’s move to the West Coast might have been seen as an exile, he actually ended up doing a lot of good while there. He’d long hoped for a D&D movie, but plans for that fell through. However, he did come to an agreement with the Marvel Comics film division to create a Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. It premiered on September 17, 1983, and ran three seasons through December 1985. The cartoon was the first RPG television show, and a true sign of how much the industry had pushed into the mass market.

The game featured kids in a D&D-themed theme park, a visitation theme the general public was likely familiar with. They get sucked into the land of Dungeons & Dragons, where Dungeon Master is a person (not an all-powerful force), Tiamat is more a destructive force of nature, and every character has a class with a magical item to go with it. These classes were presented as naturally part of the D&D universe in 1983 -- long before they appeared in the actual rules.

Class Controversy

The D&D Cartoon featured the traditional adventuring party, but there was nothing traditional about its composition, as per Appelcline:

Marvel Comics’ Dungeons & Dragons cartoon (1983–1985) featured six kids taken from the real world and transformed into heroes in the Dungeons & Dragons world. One of the more interesting aspects of the cartoon is what character classes they were given. As the prologue to every cartoon told you, the Dungeon Master turned them into: a ranger, a barbarian, a magician, a thief, a cavalier, and an acrobat.

The party was surprisingly diverse, with one curious exception:

The magician and the thief were of course two of AD&D’s big four classes, while the ranger was an understandable replacement for the very generic-sounding fighter. However, it seems weird that the cleric was left out. Paired with the absence of a paladin, it seems likely that the cartoon was purposefully avoiding any controversy that might come from using D&D’s “religious” characters. The inclusion of the acrobat, the barbarian, and the cavalier is odd too, because they were all brand-new classes, written up by Gary Gygax for Dragon in 1982 and early 1983.

Bobby, an eight-year-old boy, is gifted with a club that he can use to hit everything but a monster. The class, inspired by Conan the Barbarian, was introduced by Gygax in Dragon Magazine #63 in July 1982 as a subclass of fighter. It was later incorporated into the official rules in Unearthed Arcana. In retrospect, the Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon would basically be a who's-who of Unearthed Arcana classes.

Diana is an acrobat and notably an African-American female in an otherwise white cast. She has an extendable staff that she can use in a wide variety of situations. In D&D, the acrobat was titled the thief-acrobat (presumably, Gygax felt "acrobat" alone was too frivolous). It was a subclass of thief introduced by Gygax in January 1983, Dragon Magazine #69. The thief-acrobat was officially incorporated into the core rules in Unearthed Arcana in 1985. Of the three classes introduced in the D&D cartoon, the acrobat is the most true-to-form. Diana does several feats of acrobatics -- probably because the other characters' abilities (the barbarian and cavalier) would be far too violent for a children's cartoon.

Eric, the most annoying and whiny character who is a bit reminiscent of Ross from the TV show Friends, was distinguished by his magical shield. He was voiced by Don Most, who played Ralph Malph on Happy Days. His conversations hinted at his privileged upbringing and his selfish attitude made the cavalier out to be something of a spoiled brat. The cavalier class first debuted in April 1983 in Dragon Magazine #72. It too was incorporated into Unearthed Arcana.

Presto the wizard couldn't get magic right most of the time, begging his magic hat to produce something useful. Instead, the effects were random and often comical -- and occasionally powerful too, depending on the needs of the plot. The concept of wild magic was likely inspired by characters like Presto and Schmendrick the Magician from The Last Unicorn, was introduced to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in Tome of Magic in 1991. It seems unlikely Gygax had this archetype in mind -- it didn't debut in Unearthed Arcana when he was leading TSR -- but the template certainly has much in common with the type of magic that came later.

What Hath the Cartoon Wrought?

It's clear Gygax was thinking ahead when he worked on the cartoon. Unearthed Arcana was a bid to get some much needed cash flowing into TSR's coffers as reported by Appelcline:

It makes one wonder if Gygax wrote up the classes because Marvel wanted some more variety or if he pushed his newest creations on them. Whichever the case, it probably helped the sales of Unearthed Arcana (1985), when the three new classes were presented to a wider audience for the first time.

It's worth noting that of the three classes, the barbarian is the only one that has withstood the test of time. The thief-acrobat's abilities have largely been subsumed into skills like acrobatics and athletics, and the cavalier abilities are all part of the paladin.

And what was this fantasy land that our heroes always tried to leave but never did? The unfinished finale defined it as its pocket dimension, but according to The Grand Tour comic, they ended up in the Forgotten Realms.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
Michael Tresca


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