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.

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

South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
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.
In response to his harshest critics for his "pluralism about possible worlds" metaphysic, the great Princeton philosopher David Lewis once noted that his detractors, upon realizing what he really held, would fix him with an incredulous stare. He then quipped, "I do not know how to refute an incredulous stare," by which he meant such facial expressions hold no intellectual weight: they do not function as actual rebuttals of anything. And I think he was right.

If we are to say this about incredulous stares, though, then what should we say about snark? What?? That somehow carries all sorts of intellectual weight now??? No, it doesn't.
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.
I mean, if you say so, okay. Chain Mail always seemed pretty medieval and not very sci fi to me back in the 70s and 80s, but I also have no idea which literary genres were and were not recognized back then. I'll still say beancounter is right, though: the (pre-)medieval elements always predominated in my experience of the game, whereas the sci fi elements were there, but more secondarily so.

Guhh! Edited for a typo.
 
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HaroldTheHobbit

Adventurer
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.
Sir, do you really want to claim that D&D was born before a sci-fi/fantasy split? In a forum filled with extreme geeks and nerds that are eternally ready to get into billion word-count debates over things such as goblin ears degree of pointyness? I hope not!

By the way, you are wrong. ;-)
 

jgsugden

Legend
To me, the elements of a D&D show are really only three things - but they have never been met in my mind:

A Fantasy Setting - There is a lot of room for interpretation here, but swords and sorcery, without a focus on technology, need to be at the heart of it.

Storylines and resolutions that would fit a D&D game - The storytelling has to feel like it could come from a D&D game. That means it can't have that feeling of a single hand crafting the tale, but it has to have the feel that each main character is contributing to the creativity, and that the whims of the dice guide the story as well. There are a lot of things that take place in traditional novels, movies, tv shows, etc... that only work because the writer controls all the puzzle pieces. Those contrivances and controlled circumstances can't be the norm for a D&D show because in D&D, the DM doesn't control everything. Players and the luck of the dice have a large say. While there are going to be storylines, they have to feel like they're resolved organically and that the storyline itself is sometimes scrambling to keep up with the 'luck of the dice' ortheunexpected actions of a PC.

This would preclude a lot of cliche storylines that are often relied upon. Or, to be more accurate, it would preclude them resolving in line with the traditional cliche resolutions.

The old D&D cartoon lacked this element. Most things like GoT, LotR, WoT, Witcher, etc... also fail this element. They use traditional storytelling techniques to tell traditional well scripted stories. A good D&D or RPG show could not, in my eyes, rely upon these elements and still be an RPG/D&D show.

Legand of Vox Machina fails in this regard to a bit, despite being based upon actual RPG sessions, because they translated the game to work better as a TV show. They, in essence, reduced the 'RPG-ness' of the stories they had created to make them 'work better'on TV. I understand why they did it. I do not think it was a bad choice. However, it reduced the RPG-ness of the tale and made it more traditional storytelling.

OBVIOUSLY - this is highly problematic for good storytelling. However, there are a lot of examples of great TV where there wasn't great storytelling. Seinfeld, for example, is about as thin at storytelling as you can get. Despite the lack of story, the strength of the presentation still made for a great show.

IP - It needs to have access to D&D IP to really be a D&D, as opposed to just an RPG, show. Legends of Vox Machina fails this element. They do not have access to the copyrighted God names, we have not seen creatures like Illithid and Beholders that are not open, and we see them avoiding the use of some of the controlled IP names in ppells, etc... (Bigby's Hand, for example). While this element is necessary for me to truly consider it a D&D show, it is absolutely not necessary to make a great fantasy RPG show (like LoVM is).

To me, the only realish D&D shows, to date, have been the actual RPG sessions on shows like Critical Role, where they were allowed to use the IP and actually played the games. However, I do not think that is what we mean by a D&D show in this thread.

A fabracited example of a good D&D show would be a group of Heroes come together in Waterdeep and are hired to escort a merchant along the Sword Coast, down to Calimsham, then across the land to Cormyr and then on to Thay. As they go, they uncover storyline elements, but they also go off and do side quests. There would be hints they overlook, bad decisions they make, and failures. They would not overcome obstacles because the story demands it - as the story would be more mecurial and random due to luck of the dice and the insanity of the 'players'. The show would have to rely upon great personality and acting to carry the show given the chaotic nature of the storytelling.
 

wellis

Explorer
IP - It needs to have access to D&D IP to really be a D&D, as opposed to just an RPG, show. Legends of Vox Machina fails this element. They do not have access to the copyrighted God names, we have not seen creatures like Illithid and Beholders that are not open, and we see them avoiding the use of some of the controlled IP names in ppells, etc... (Bigby's Hand, for example). While this element is necessary for me to truly consider it a D&D show, it is absolutely not necessary to make a great fantasy RPG show (like LoVM is).
This is an odd requirement I find. You're essentially deliberately excluding 3rd party D&D/Pathfinder settings with this requirement. How come?
 



wellis

Explorer
I've thought the big thing that seperates D&D from most fantasy shows currently is that it focuses generally around a small cast of main characters traveling together or basing together? Kind of like LoTR honestly
 

This would preclude a lot of cliche storylines that are often relied upon. Or, to be more accurate, it would preclude them resolving in line with the traditional cliche resolutions.

The old D&D cartoon lacked this element. Most things like GoT, LotR, WoT, Witcher, etc... also fail this element. They use traditional storytelling techniques to tell traditional well scripted stories. A good D&D or RPG show could not, in my eyes, rely upon these elements and still be an RPG/D&D show.

Legand of Vox Machina fails in this regard to a bit, despite being based upon actual RPG sessions, because they translated the game to work better as a TV show. They, in essence, reduced the 'RPG-ness' of the stories they had created to make them 'work better'on TV. I understand why they did it. I do not think it was a bad choice. However, it reduced the RPG-ness of the tale and made it more traditional storytelling.
Moving between media always requires changes. A novel is not a movie is not a TV show. And neither is an RPG.

And "sitcom" has a set of rules all of it's own.
 

I've thought the big thing that seperates D&D from most fantasy shows currently is that it focuses generally around a small cast of main characters traveling together or basing together? Kind of like LoTR honestly
That would include everything from Doctor Who to Serenity to the X-Files.
 

wellis

Explorer
That would include everything from Doctor Who to Serenity to the X-Files.
Honestly they probably could be D&D campaigns. It's just that the motivations are different from the general "There will be tons of treasure and we'll be rich and living off the high hog after this." motivation one sees in a lot of adventuring parties.
 

Honestly they probably could be D&D campaigns. It's just that the motivations are different from the general "There will be tons of treasure and we'll be rich and living off the high hog after this." motivation one sees in a lot of adventuring parties.
That applies to Firefly/Serenity and Guardians of the Galaxy to name a couple.
 



D&D. The difference between Pathfinder and D&D is mostly the IP. We're specific to D&D in this thread. A show about Pathfinder IP would be a Pathfinder show, not a D&D show.
The difference being, one has D&D in the title and the other has Pathfinder.

We going to split hairs over what constitutes a 5e show and what constitutes an AD&D show next?
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
The difference being, one has D&D in the title and the other has Pathfinder.

We going to split hairs over what constitutes a 5e show and what constitutes an AD&D show next?
If that's important to the show's identity - then that would kind of necessary. And that's part of the issue. If being an official D&D show is important to the show's identity and marketing, it should have some D&D exclusive content that nobody else could have - otherwise, what sets it apart as an official D&D show? If it's a fantasy role playing show that grew out of D&D, it doesn't need it quite so much (though letting people know it does step from a D&D campaign would still be in their interests).
 


Mournblade94

Adventurer
Once a show is relegated to a comedy I no longer am interested. Im not interested in my hobby being made fun of. The D&D Movie has always been a comedy and a drag. I don't mind some humor. I love Guardians of the Galazy humor, but I really really didn't like Thor Ragnarok (Again it felt like they were making fun of Thor, my favorite character). Ive seen GoG dozens of times, and still can't stomach Ragnarok for a second watch.

I liked Vox Machina, but I REALLY thought the modern quips and swearing brought me out of it. My wife liked it much more than I did, but i would have liked it more if it kept the player talk to what characters in a non modern setting would say.
 

i would have liked it more if it kept the player talk to what characters in a non modern setting would say.
How do you know what a character in a non-modern day setting would say? Historians would love to know how pre-recording English was spoken. One thing they do know though, is it involved a lot of swearing.
 

Mournblade94

Adventurer
How do you know what a character in a non-modern day setting would say? Historians would love to know how pre-recording English was spoken. One thing they do know though, is it involved a lot of swearing.
I Don't. But I know what sounds modern. This was far to close to a night out on town listening to modern people.

The show did animate rules situations well though so I was able to tolerate the modernisms. But it brought the show down for me. I especially dislike the Bard. Other than the Bard though the characters were good.
 

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