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How The D&D Cartoon Got Made – PRIME

5 Minute Read
May 28 2021
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With a Dungeons & Dragons movie and TV show on the way, let’s take a look back at the very first steps D&D ever took in the entertainment industry.

Dungeons & Dragons and the entertainment industry have always had a tenuous relationship. From the trilogy of meme-ably bad movies that starts with Jeremy Irons wanting to use every ounce of your rage to chew up every last bit of scenery…

…to a cleric that, in a move that’s astoundingly true to most player characters, tries to cut down a tree with a warhammer when they realize they need firewood and don’t have an axe. And all of this happens over the course of a series of movies that have as little as possible to do with Dungeons & Dragons while still technically being a movie about Dungeons & Dragons.

Arguably, the most success that, upcoming Movie and TV Series notwithstanding, D&D has ever had with the entertainment industry has been Stranger Things, which without a doubt led to the renaissance of D&D we’re currently in. But before that, there was the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, which told the tale of teens drawn into a world through a magical amusement park. The show resulted in a surprisingly cult hit that, like most things, had its detractors in the bitter, cynical 90s (you can find disparaging remarks about Uni in one of the most popular D&D video games of all time), but that remains popular to this day. How did it get made? It all starts when…

Gygax Goes to Hollywood

In the early 1980s, management at TSR was in conflict. Gary Gygax butted heads with the other co-owners of TSR, two brothers named Brian and Kevin Blume. And any organization with three presidents is bound to find itself in conflict at least a little, but the folks at TSR found more to feud over than to connect with. The imbalance of power meant that when disputes came up, as they frequently did, the Blumes would make decisions while Gygax was bitter about it.

On June 24 [1983], TSR released in excess of 40 Employees — including vice president Duke Seifried — and reorganized into four companies. Each company bears the same board of directors (E. Gary Gygax, Kevin Blume, and Brian Blume). TSR, Inc. will manufacture the role-playing game line and other products, and is further divdied into six departments: Games/Toy, Publishing/Crafts, Finance, Manufacturing, Marketing and Human Resources. TSR Entertainment Corporation (name not final) is the TSR liaison with motion pictures and television. TSR Ventures is a research and licensing company. TSR Worldwide Ltd. is the international-sales and development branch.

TSR has suffered some financial setbacks in the first half of 1983. Public relations director Dietur Sturm would not confirm a link between financial problems and the reorganization but said of the financial troubles, “More or less, what you’re looking at is money coming into the company from sales and not focused peoperly. Sales are there as far as the distributors and retailers and stores (are concerned), they have nothing to worry about.

But why Gygax? Up to this point, he’d been the one with the most Hollywood contact. The real first brush with the world of Hollywood came two years prior. In 1981, TSR entered lengthy negotiations with 20th Century Fox, one of a few different studios to show interest in a D&D feature film.

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But Gygax eventually broke off relations with Fox because he didn’t trust them, as he put it in a 1981 interview with Polyhedron magazine (emphasis ours):

We have been dealing for almost two years, off and on, with the entertainment media industry, regarding some sort of D&D production. Whether it would be a television movie or a feature film was first debated; whether an independent producer would do it or a major studio was then covered. We finally began serious negotiations something over a year ago with Twentieth Century Fox films, to do a major mostion picture based on the Dungeons & Dragons game. After considerable negotiations, TSR has broken off further discussion because we felt that we wouldn’t maintain sufficient control to assure a film which was true to the game.

And we didn’t want to end up with the rather disastrous type of movie that Tolkien’s ring trilogy ended up with – something that was totally unsatisfactory.

But Gygax never gave up on the idea of a movie. He spent an ungodly amount of money, reportedly tens of thousands of dollars on a script for a feature. The script for the original D&D movie has since surfaced and it’s famously bad–as Jon Peterson of Playing at the World reports. And thanks to Peterson’s expert digging, there’s still a record of what might have been the original D&D movie. It is exactly what you would expect:

The story begins with Tom Boyman, a 23-year-old Californian who has finally saved up enough money to begin his studies at Yale. On his way to catch the bus east, he meets Milton “Fearless” Gilroy, a car racer who convinces him to go to a county fair before leaving. At the fair, Tom chances upon Margot Champion, a senior at Wellesley who is summering in California at an archaeological dig. The three of them strike up a friendship and visit the dig site that night, where, among howling winds, a mysterious power brings them all to another world.

And if that premise sounds familiar that’s because it plays into what was one of D&D’s only hollywood successes.

TSR West and Gygax ended up securing a deal with Marvel Comics and  to create the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, which premiered in September of 1983 and ran for three seasons:

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In other TSR news, a Dungeons and Dragons Saturday Morning Show cartoon series, which has been arranged through the Marvel Comics film division will premier on CBS on September 17. TSR’s negotiations for a possible Marvel superhero role-playing game are not yet complete.

The show, produced by Marvel through Hanna Barbera began work in 1982, and was a beast to try and accomplish. The series was rushed through production to get the first episode out by 1983.

“In 1982 legendary animation studio HANNA-BARBERA PRODUCTIONS (the studio that produced famous hit series such as THE FLINTSTONES, THE JETSONS, SCOOBY-DOO, THE SMURFS, JOHNNY QUEST, YOGI BEAR, SPACE GHOST, and dozens of other shows that were the mainstay of Saturday Morning cartoons) acquired an option from TSR to develop an animated television series based on DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, the international role playing game sensation that was developed by GARY GYGAX and DAVE ARNESON.”

And so on a Saturday Morning 38 years ago, the first episode premiered and a group of kids went on the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon ride.

Happy Adventuring!

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