40 years later, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon is still having an impact

40 years later, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon is still having an impact

I always wondered why Dungeons & Dragons, the Saturday morning cartoon inspired by the role-playing game of the same name that ran for three seasons from 1983 to 1985, was the way it was.

Namely, why isn't it more similar to the game?

"I had absolutely no time [and] I had never seen Dungeons & Dragons before in my life," says Mark Evanier, who wrote the initial premise and pilot for the animated series. He did so after being given just four days to save the show's chance at getting made.

Yet in a packed ballroom at the 2023 International Comic-Con in San Diego, hundreds of fans applauded when panelists talked about how the cartoon introduced them to the world of D&D.

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Frank Todaro, an avid D&D player and voice actor who voices Mugman in Netflix's The Cuphead Show!, says thanks to the cartoon he found people who could teach him more about the actual game — which eventually led him to play in a campaign, one he's been playing in since 1991 with the same character.

Todaro also credits D&D with helping him to learn improvisation and how to perform different types of voices — essential skills for his career as a voice actor.

"The gateway was this cartoon," he says.

There's common agreement among the powerhouse table of experts around the strength of the basic plot of the show — which for the uninitiated follows a group of six kids who get on a Dungeons & Dragons ride at an amusement park and end up in the world of D&D.

Along the way, someone called the Dungeon Master grants them powers and items that fit their unique personalities and strengths. The one person standing in their way of getting home is the evil Venger.

There's broad agreement that the emotional tug of kids simply wanting to get back home — and a lack of promo for toylines, unusual for a cartoon of its time — is what so strongly bonded so many kids to this cartoon, and ultimately, the game.

David Booher, who now writes for IDW's comic book adaptation of the cartoon (further proof of the show's lasting impact), says the seed of the show's success lies in its "emotional premise."

Moderator TJ Shevlin (Marvel Publishing Product Development Coordinator at Upper Deck and 2023 Eisner Award Judge) calls Dungeons & Dragons the "most emotionally deep and emotionally mature cartoon of the '80s."

The kids are simply trying to get back home — something most young viewers can empathize with. And that feeling has clearly kept a lot of kids from the '80s, and now a new generation, hooked.

Luke Gygax — whose dad, Gary, co-created the game (making Luke the first kid to grow up playing it) — remembers when the cartoon was just an idea being tossed around between his dad and brother in the living room.  An idea that grew into something still being honored 40 years later.

When asked about possible reboots, video games, and more, the panel (which also includes the voice of Sheila, Katie Leigh) falls back into a familiar refrain: "Anything is possible in the world of Dungeons & Dragons."

40 years on, there's clearly still a strong fanbase out there, and one that might be ready to grow into another 40 years of fandom. The fact a brief live-action version of the kids from the cartoon made it into Honor Among Thieves may only be the tip of the dagger.

Yet I sort of hope the cartoon is never rebooted. Part of what makes it so beloved is that it stopped before its time was fully up, leaving a mix of hope and possibility swirling around in one big pool of nostalgia.

Then again, who knows what today's kids might derive from an animated show that makes the game more accessible to more people. Learning more about a world where you can become whoever you want to be, and make new friends along the way, hardly seems like a bad thing.

Dungeons & Dragons doesn't currently have a streaming home, but most episodes of the animated series can be found on YouTube.