For a brief minute in my ADHD-rattled, socially-awkward childhood, things actually seemed to come together. Sixth grade for me was a last great height of childhood innocence and fun before the truly disapproving and unhappy adolescence (heralded by arriving at middle school) sucked the wind of out my sails, and one of the main components of all that fun was all the great role-playing materials I got to play with during that time.
The years of 1982-1983 were a time of tremendous growth for the tabletop RPG industry, and I was lucky enough to bathe in all of its nerdly glory. I had all the AD&D books, many of the adventures, and played regularly with a few of my friends (though most of my time was still relegated to sitting alone in my room, rolling up characters and creating dungeons). There was a peak moment where I had all the toys and wonders of childhood (which still included Legos and Star Wars figures), as well as stacks and stacks of AD&D books, dice and modules, all at my command. Reagan’s economy was in full swing and my upper middle class family had disposable income that gave me access to all the new RPGs starting to come out of TSR, games with crazy cool names like Top Secret, Gamma World, and Gangbusters.
Imagine my surprise, when, much to my delight, a D&D television show was announced in the summer of 1983, right as I was unknowingly transferring from child to adolescent. How cool is that? A TV show based on my favorite game! Things could not get any better.
In hindsight, maybe the baby unicorn should have been a tipoff
Of course, as we all know, the D&D TV show, which ran for three seasons and had 27 episodes, was pretty much crap. And I rediscovered how total crap the show was recently when I borrowed the entire TV series from the local library and sat down to watch it with my 10 year old daughter, hoping that a) the show was much better than I remember it, and b) her blossoming tastes in TV would be more open to liking this ancient relic than my cynical old man soul would (she does, after all, like The Phantom Menace — clearly I’ve failed somewhere). Neither, unfortunately, came to pass.
Because, quite frankly, the show doesn’t hold up to any discrete sense of viewership, especially now, in our golden age of TV. Even 30+ years ago, it was clear that the TV show was written around the structure necessary for a TV show: 22 minute format, standard characters with simple characteristics, and the need for neat and tidy resolution at the end of every show. And there was no dungeon delving, no tavern introductions, no inventory management, and every character had only one (just one!) magic item that allowed them to navigate whatever conundrum the Dungeon Master allowed the group to get into.
Oh yes, this is perhaps the strangest component of the show — the Dungeon Master is an actual character in the show! Just to quickly reprise the premise of the show (which is covered in the 30 second series introduction but otherwise never examined in detail): six kids go on the Dungeons & Dragons amusement park ride, which magically transports them into the realm of the Dungeon Master, where they are transmuted into different characters in an attempt to get back home. They each get one magic item and are put in various classes (Ranger, Barbarian…), and the DM shows up every episode as they fight Tiamat and Venger, the main villain, in whatever wackiness the DM throws at them.
Not someone I would allow my children to “play make believe” with
Back in the 1980s, we quickly realized that the D&D TV show was a scam. Sure, it was great that our favorite hobby was now a national TV show, but there was very little in common between the two. Sure, we watched it because that’s what we all did back then — watch as much TV as possible. But there was always a nagging sense of loss opportunity after every show when, after Uni the Unicorn gets lost, or Presto the Magician pulls something wacky from his hat, that kids who knew nothing about D&D would come away with the wrong understand of the show.
So now, after my daughter gave up on the show for more exciting territory (who knew there was a new Inspector Gadget TV show?), we returned the DVDs to the library and moved on down the path of memory lane. But something about the D&D TV show stuck in my head, and it wasn’t the world map that supposedly portrayed a world where these six adventurers are presumably still stuck.
I’m guessing the missing booklet is still in someone’s bathroom To-Read pile
Fact is, regardless of the quality of the show, the D&D TV show was totally necessary in the early 80s to exploit the growing interest in table-top RPGs, and while we don’t really know the impact it had (positive or not) on the hobby, certainly there must be some people who it helped bring to the table. Well, it does actually seem that a lot of people really, really liked the show, and there must be a thread between sitting a 10 year old down in front of the TV and his (or hers, but probably his) asking his parents to buy the Basic Ruleset. Remember that the 1980s weren’t a very friendly time for RPGs, and for D&D in particular. So having a TV show based on the game was a bit risky (and, strangely, risque too) and probably even fueled a bit of the backlash.
But here we are, so many decades later, with D&D still strong, and the not-aging gracefully show still available for a trip or two down memory lane. And yes, it’s bad. Not horrible, but not anywhere near the quality of TV that we’ve grown accustomed to. Yet with all the sophistication and violence in our TV shows today, it’s nice to know there’s still some easy way to introduce younger children to the hobby. Whether you pick it up at your library or cheap on Amazon, the Dungeons and Dragons show is a fascinating view into where we’ve come from.