Willie Aames – Hank the Ranger
Donny Most – Eric the Cavalier
Tonia Gayle Smith – Diana the Acrobat
Adam Rich – Presto the Magician
Katie Leigh – Sheila the Thief
Teddy Field III – Bobby the Barbarian
Frank Welker – Uni the Unicorn, Tiamat
Sidney Miller – Dungeon Master
Peter Cullen – Venger, Force of Evil
Bob Holt – Shadow Demon
When Lowry failed to see the potential of D&D, Gygax struck out in 1973 to found Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR) with Don Kaye, and brought on Brian Blume as an equal partner for financial backing. After releasing Cavaliers and Roundheads to generate some income for TSR, they produced 1,000 copies of D&D and sold out of it within 10 months; with a second run only taking 5-6 months. The basis of the game sees each of the players create a character to play as determining their background, race (species), class (such as thief or cavalier), personality alignment (moral and ethical outlook), skills, powers, and statistics. Together, the players form a team known as a “party” that play through an adventure, which is usually a single story or quest, or a series of adventures which comprises a campaign. A Dungeon Master serves as referee and storyteller, as well as filling the roles of the inhabitants the party encounters along the way. They can use either one of the premade adventures, known as “modules”, which include established goals players needed to achieve, maps, background story and illustrations, or the Dungeon Master could cobble together a completely original one. Together, the party must solve problems, fight through foes, gather treasure and acquire knowledge by rolling polyhedral dice after stating their character’s desired reaction to a scenario. As they progress, each character earns experience points that allow them to become more powerful. The Dungeon Master decides the results of the party’s choices according to their interpretation of the game’s rules. As with its predecessors, D&D would receive a number of revisions and updates over the years that expanded and tightened the rules and lore, removed some copyright-infringing material from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft, offered new campaigns, and addressed public concerns over their content.
Along with its popularity came a number of criticisms. D&D was swept up in the growing “Satanic Panic” and “moral panic” of the 1980s with accusations that the game promoted Satanism, witchcraft, sorcery, suicide, pornography and murder (other RPGs received the same concerns, but many critics tended to group them all together under the D&D name; kind of like all cartoons being unilaterally described as “Saturday morning cartoons”). While this did lead to a boost in sales—jumping from $2.3 million in 1979 to $8.7 million in 1980—TSR ultimately removed references to various supernatural creatures in favor of more generic classifications as well as altered some artwork to remove minor instances of nudity. Hand-in-hand with all that were of course objections from religious leaders and devout believers. Another criticism was the lack of diversity in the game’s characters; with the original selection of adventurers being depicted as or inferred to being White. When supplements were added that introduced characters from other cultures, they were found to contain problematic stereotypes of various ethnic groups, as well as racially-charged language when it came to describing some of the fictional creatures. Wizards of the Coast, the current manufacturer of D&D and successor to TSR, have taken steps to address those concerns in recent years (how effectively, however, is up for debate). Additionally, early in the game’s lifespan, players were often ostracized socially and looked at upon as nerds or geeks; losers playing pretend in their parents’ basements. That perception has lessened as more and more people have discovered and gotten into the game around the world.
A power struggled within TSR management resulted in the company being restructured into four divisions, with Gygax heading up TSR Entertainment, later Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Corp., in order to develop media projects related to the game to capitalize its growing popularity in the 80s. Marvel Productions acquired the rights from TSR to produce a cartoon based on the game with CBS interested in airing it, but some things needed to be hammered out first. Namely: how does one take a game centered around players essentially weaving their own adventure story together (mostly verbally) and turn it into an interesting action show? Initially, the concept was to have the characters playing the game—with their adventure being show on screen as an elaborate fantasy sequence—and then breaking off at the end of each episode to return to their respective homes. CBS executives Ted Field II and Judy Price realized that the audience wouldn’t care about any of that because they knew the characters weren’t in any real jeopardy.
After several failed attempts by other writers to conceptualize the show, Dennis Marks, who created the series alongside Kevin Paul Coates, reached out to Mark Evanier to write the pilot episode and series bible to help Marvel sell the series to CBS. Evanier, who was busy on other projects at the time, initially refused. With additional prodding from Marvel co-founder Lee Gunther and Price, Evanier relented and hammered both out in a couple of days. What Evanier did was simplify everything the other writers had contributed, reduce the number of characters to a manageable amount, and focus on their traits and relationships to each other.
Dungeons & Dragons centered on a group of kids who ended up transported to the world of D&D when they went for a ride on a roller coaster. There they encountered Dungeon Master (Sidney Miller), who served as their mentor and provided important advice and help in a cryptic manner that often wouldn’t make sense until the appropriate time. He helped guide them towards possible paths back home, which often led them to face countless perils and coming to the aid of others in need along the way. He also supplied the party of kids with magical weapons that fit the various roles they had assumed upon entering the world.
Leading the party was 15-year-old Hank (Willie Aames), a Ranger with a bow that fired arrows of energy that could do a variety of functions (such as ensnare enemies in an energy cage). He was brave and noble, and kept his head during dangerous situations. 15-year-old Eric (Don Most) was a Cavalier with a shield that projected a force field. He was a rich spoiled brat and a big-mouthed coward that often masked his heroic side buried deep inside. 14-year-old Diana (Tonia Gayle Smith) was an Acrobat with a javelin quarterstaff that can change to any height she needs and be easily repaired if broken. She was the support center of the party, often providing inspiration or guidance to the others in stressful times. 14-year-old Presto (Adam Rich) was a Wizard whose hat provided his magical powers. Though always well-meaning, his spells tended to frequently fail or create undesired effects. 13-year-old Sheila (Katie Leigh) was a Thief whose cloak could make her invisible when she donned its hood. Her greatest fear was being left alone in the realm, but never hesitated to put herself into peril for the benefit of the party. 8-year-old Bobby (Teddy Field III) was Sheila’s younger brother and a Barbarian equipped with an earthquake-causing cudgel. Though brave and selfless, his impulsiveness often put the party in danger. They were joined by Uni (Frank Welker), a baby unicorn Bobby adopted who was highly intelligent and could teleport once a day.
Along with an assortment of monsters, wizards, dragons, and other fantastical beings inspired directly from the game’s source books, the primary foe the party had to content with was Venger (Peter Cullen). The Dungeon Master’s corrupted son, he was an evil wizard who sought to claim the party’s magical weapons to bolster his own power and conquer the realm. He was aided by Shadow Demon (Bob Holt), who served as Venger’s personal spy and informed him about the quests the party embarked on and Night-Mare, his trusty black steed. Tiamat (Welker) was a five-headed dragon with different kinds of breath: her white head breathed ice; her green head breathed toxic gas; her red head breathed fire; her blue head breathed lightning; and her black head breathed acid. She was the sole creature Venger feared in the realm, and was taken directly from a D&D supplement in 1975. Venger also had an equally-corrupt sister, Kareena (Diane Pershing), who had battled him for power and ended up imprisoned by him.
Dungeons & Dragons debuted on CBS on September 17, 1983, running for 3 seasons. While Evanier wasn’t able to stay on past another episode due to his commitments, the groundwork he established was built upon by story editor and voice director Hank Saroyan, Kimmer Ringwald, Paul Dini, producer Karl Geurs, Jeffrey Scott, Steve Gerber, Buzz Dixon, Michael Reaves, Kathy Selbert, Mark Shiney, Michael L. DePatie and Michael Cassutt. The characters were primarily designed by Takashi Masunaga (credited as just Takashi) and George Goode with Bob Kline, who also worked on storyboards and backgrounds. Venger’s singular horn was an innovation of Takashi’s as he felt that two horns were a tired cliché. The music was composed by Johnny Douglas and Robert J. Walsh.
When it came to casting, Saroyan immediately thought of some lesser-known-yet-recognizable actors in Aames, a friend of his, and Most, who to him seemed to be the only one that grasped acting for animation during his time on The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang. When Aames was cast in the soap opera The Edge of Night that filmed across the country, Saroyan was determined to keep him by any means and recorded all of his dialogue over the phone. Aames also recommended Rich, leading to his being cast. Wanting to create a sense of reality surrounding the characters, it was determined an actual kid should play young Bobby, rather than the typical practice of an adult woman doing so. Field III was the son of executive Field II and answered a general casting call with other kids. Field II recused himself from the casting session once he learned his son was auditioning, and Field III ended up being selected from anonymous audition tapes. His father did have to intervene, however, when the younger Field wouldn’t take his early recording sessions seriously sine he was, by all accounts, a kid. Miller just embodied the role of Dungeon Master when he came in to read for him, and helped the production turn the character into a more benign Yoda-like one than he may have otherwise been. Cullen, another friend of Saroyan, was recorded separately from the other cast to minimize the need for retakes in case someone else screwed up as the voice was very taxing on his throat. Smith was nominated for Outstanding Young Actress in an Animation Voice-over at the 7th annual Youth in Film Awards (now the Young Artist Awards).
While rumors persisted that the show was cancelled due to the concerns over hidden messages and satanic imagery that the actual game was subjected to, or even the level of violence that prompted the National Coalition on Television Violence to demand a warning accompany each broadcast, it was cancelled simply because the ratings had been in a steady decline after holding its timeslot for two years. In a unique move, CBS had asked the production to produce a script that would serve as either a satisfying conclusion to the series, or allow it to journey into a new direction in case they ultimately decided to renew it for another season. As we all know by now, that renewal never came and the script, “Requiem” by Reaves, was never produced. Reaves would eventually publish the script for “Requiem” on his website, inspiring a lot of fan mail thanking him for bringing them long-awaited closure for the series. The script was later turned into an audio drama with only Leigh returning to reprise her role and assume that of Bobby (ironically negating the producers’ original intentions with his casting). Daniel Roebuck took over as Eric, Wally Wingert as Hank, Dungeon Master, Uni and a Hydra, Laura Leigh as Diana, Buster Roebuck as Presto, and Neil Kaplan as Venger, Bronze Dragon and the narrator.
LJN Toys acquired the rights to produce a toyline with the D&D branding, releasing them beginning in 1983. The initial wave of characters was unique to the toys, but later lines included some of the minor characters created for the show. The main characters, however, were only represented as PVC figurines in Spain and Portugal until Hasbro released them all in 2023 for the show’s 40th anniversary, and later starting in 2024 by Super 7 as part of their Ultimates! line of figures. Unfortunately, the Hasbro figures were often plagued by poor quality control resulting in them easily breaking or having incorrect parts that couldn’t be seen until after purchasing due to their windowless environmentally-friendly packaging. Diamond Select Toys would also release two sets of Minimates featuring the heroes and villains of the series. The year before, Hank, Eric, Diana and Presto were included as mini-figures in WizKids’ D&D Icons of the Realms: Dragons of Stromwreck Isle set and its 2-D counterpart. Beginning in 2019, Iron Studios released a series of statues of the party that could combine to form a single diorama piece. They would follow that up in 2021 with a 1/20-scale Tiamat statue battling miniature versions of the party. Meanwhile, PCS Collectibles and Sideshow Collectibles would produce two versions of a Venger statute. 2021 also saw the release of a Dungeon Master Christmas ornament by Kurt S. Adler.
The first comic adaptation of the series was a Spanish-language series published by Comics Forum between 1985-86, which covered all 27 episodes (although not in order). The first four issues of that series would later be translated into Dutch and published by JuniorPress in 1988. “Valley of the Unicorns” was also adapted into a French comic. Marvel UK would translate and reprint the 1st issue as Dungeons & Dragons Annual with supplemental material and games, as well as the 4th issue as Dungeons & Dragons Summer Special in 1987. In 1996, TSR published a limited edition comic called Forgotten Realms: The Grand Tour, which featured a cameo appearance by older versions of the cartoon’s party. The 2018 mini-series Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons, jointly published by IDW Publishing and Oni Press, contained a reference to the roller coaster from the show’s opening and a cameos by the party and the Dungeon Master. IDW followed that up in 2023 with a four-issue mini-series, Saturday Morning Adventures, written by David M. Booher and Sam Maggs, drawn by George Kambadais and lettered by Ed Dukeshire, as well as a one-shot as part of their IDW Endless Summer event. A sequel series without Maggs was slated to begin in 2024.
In 1984, TSR produced a board game inspired by the episode “In Search of the Dungeon Master” called Quest for the Dungeonmaster. Brazilian company Grow released a translated version of the game in 1993. TSR also published six choose-your-own-adventure-style books (or, in this case, Pick Your Path) called Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon Show Books written by Margaret Weis, Linda Jacobs, Linda Lowery and Jean Blashfield and illustrated by Sam Grainger, Ivor Janci, Gary Williams and Mitch O’Connell. The first episode was adapted into a Little Golden Book in 2023 by Dennis R. Shealy and Nate Lovett. In 2021, Hasbro’s Wizards of the Coast subsidiary decided to combine its two signature franchises by releasing special variant cards for its Magic: The Gathering card game featuring the characters in one of their Secret Lair Superdrops. Mead made a 16-month calendar for September 2021-December 2022 that featured artwork and information about the characters. Merchoid offered a limited edition 40th anniversary golden roller coaster ticket and a Tiamat pin badge.
The Dungeons & Dragons animated series continues to remain popular with its fans; especially in Brazil. At the height of 80s nostalgia, car manufacturer Renault released a live-action commercial in 2019 inspired by the show in Brazil for their Kwid Outsider. The characters appeared again in live-action cameos in the 2023 film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the 4th film based on the franchise.
“The Night of No Tomorrow” (9/17/83) – Presto becomes Merlin’s apprentice and attempts to use a spell to send the party home, but unleashes dragons on a village instead.
“The Girl Who Dreamed Tomorrow” (9/8/84) – The party meet Terri who has a necklace that can predict the future and leads them to a portal home at the end of a deadly maze.
“The Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn” (9/14/85) – Eric accidentally frees the Nameless One, and the party races to recharge the energy spring in the Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn.