I won’t lie. I used to play Dungeons & Dragons.
In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that most of the Ghosts of the Stratosphere cast used to come over to my house once a week, armed with snacks and beers galore, and not podcast about comics, but play another chapter in our unfolding epic of the War in the Lendore Isles. It was a grand tale of intrigue and high adventure in which our heroes were painted as outlaws by a mysterious and cruel wizard named Grayle who sought to control the world using Lendore as a stepping stone. However, as romantic as that seems, most nights ended by our group burning something to the ground or running away in some last ditch effort to escape death once again. We were neither brave or smart most of the time, and it showed.
However, it was a lot of fun and I miss it very much sometimes. Luckily, Stew and Zach Josebeck still get to podcast with me so it’s not as if the death of our D&D group signaled the end of our friendships. I will say even now, the two of them joke with me about starting a second weekly podcast in which we “live play” our D&D campaigns, like some of our fellow podcasters that you might hear advertise during our commercial breaks do. Maybe someday when I get more help in keeping you, our merry marching mass of internet hobos, flush with comic and video game articles, I will truly consider it.
But the one thing I was always surprised about when playing D&D was that not a lot of my fellow players knew about this fantastic D&D related cartoon that was out on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. I mean it wasn’t really their fault. I was one of the old timers of the group and I was still only 4 years old when it first aired. Most of the rest of them weren’t born until like 10 years after it when off TV screens. Still though, I thought they would have at least heard of it, and I was shocked when they had not.
So, like with those young pups, I’m going to take it upon myself to educate you all about this terrific little cartoon from the early 80s sure to scratch that sword and sorcery itch you might not have thought you had.
The Dungeons and Dragons cartoon was actually a co-production of Marvel Productions (the media arm of this comic book titan in the early 80s) and TSR (who originally owned the gaming rights to D&D before it was sold to Wizards of the Coast). The show originally ran from 1983 through 1985 on CBS Saturday mornings during their cartoon block for a total of twenty-seven episodes. A final un-produced 28th episode would have served as a series conclusion as well as a reboot if the series had been picked up for a fourth season. However, the show was cancelled before the 28th episode was made.
The Japanese company Toei Animation did the animation for this series who had also been responsible for countless other cartoon programs we know from the early 80s such as Muppet Babies, GI Joe, Transformers, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, Inspector Gadget, Jem, The Real Ghostbusters, Snorks, My Little Pony just to name a few. It’s actually probably easier to name a show that wasn’t animated by Toei or had something to do with Toei than not.
The show is about group of six friends who are magically transported into the D&D realm through a roller coaster ride at a local amusement park. It’s there that they are assigned magical weapons and given roles to play (or classes for those of you gamers out there) by a kind yet mysterious Yoda type character named ‘Dungeon Master’ who acts as their mentor and guide along their adventures as they try to get back home (just like a real DM is supposed to do, when, y’know they aren’t pissed and just trying to kill you). By the way, most of those classes come directly from the D&D player guide, although you can tell the names of some of them were changed slightly to avoid ruffling any feathers with censors in the early 80s.
At this point, I thought I’d take some time to talk about the main characters as a part of this intro course to the cartoon. Sure, you can find all of this out by watching the opening credits as they rehash everything you need to know about the show within that first minute and a half or so, but you are reading a blog so it never hurts to give you something to…y’know…read.
First there’s Hank, the Ranger, with a magical bow that shoots energy arrows, which are used for a variety of different things as the series progresses not only to hurt enemies in a purely offensive way, but also bind them in energy ropes. These ropes are also used for climbing and sometimes just to illuminate dark areas. Hank is usually the team’s leader as he possesses that natural Captain America type bravery and nobility that make it easy for the gang to listen to even in the most deadly of circumstances.
Interesting fact that Hank is voiced by Willie Aames who a lot of children of the 80s, might know better as the actor who played Buddy on the Scott Baio sitcom, Charles in Charge. Just let that one sink in, folks.
Next there’s Eric, the Cavalier, who has been granted a magic shield that can project force fields. From a strict D&D perspective, his class on the surface seems a lot like Paladin based on the knight-like uniform and his more defensive/damage sponge role on the team. But, maybe the religious implications of the term Paladin scared people off, or more likely, due the term having such a righteous implication, it didn’t really fit the character it was assigned to. You see Eric is the spoiled rich kid on the show and often is painted as a loud mouth coward in battle, not really the type of behavior befitting a holy warrior like a Paladin.
However, despite his egotism and vanity, Eric does actually fulfill the role of a Paladin pretty well at times frequently saving his friends’ bacon with his shield, and overall displaying a propensity for self sacrifice. The issue is, as series developer Mark Evanier revealed in an interview, Eric’s anti social behavior was mandated by parental groups to push the then-dominant pro-social moral for cartoons of “The group is always right; the complainer is always wrong”, so Eric was never going to get a real chance to be heroic like he could be otherwise.
Interesting second fact, Eric is voiced on the show by Donny Most, who you might know as Ralph the Mouth from Happy Days. According to Family Guy, he prefers Don Most now.
Third, there’s Presto, the Magician. Of course, from a D&D perspective this guy is the straight up wizard of the group, but maybe the term wizard sounded too demonic from some church groups, so instead we get a kid that pulls rabbits out of his hat, literally. Presto is your typical book smart nerd type with his coke bottle glasses, bungling through adventures with a magical hat from which he is able to pull an endless succession of items from. Sort of like a magical bag of holding which is worth your weight in gold if you can ever find one in a real D&D campaign.
Although most of these items seem to be of little use at the moment, they end up being exactly what’s called on for the situation, underscoring the fact that Presto is actually the most powerful member of the group. He just lacks the self-confidence to really utilize his power to his full potential.
Keeping the interesting facts about voice actors going, Presto was voiced by Adam Rich who played most famously the little brother, Nicholas, on the sitcom Eight is Enough, which also co-starred Willie Aames.
Sheila, the Thief, is the fourth member of our party, and unfortunately one of the weaker characters in terms of both power and personality. A shy and nervous young lady with a magically cloak that turns her invisible, she reminds me a lot of Sue Storm in the early issues of the Fantastic Four, in which writers really didn’t know what to do with her or her power so most of the time she just hangs around her quasi boyfriend, Hank, and acts as the traditional voice of female compassion.
Sure, there are some episodes in which she really shines like “Citadel of Shadow” where she helps turn Karena, Dungeonmaster’s daughter, from her life of evil, but overall, she’s portrayed as somewhat of an overprotective worry wart which is a shame given her role as the thief was tailor made for somewhat with a dynamic adventuresome personality instead.
Keeping with the fun facts about the voice actors, Shelia is voiced by Katie Leigh, who has done a lot of cartoons over the years, but for me was best known for her work as Sunni Gummi in another famous Saturday morning cartoon from the 80s, Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears.
Diana, the Acrobat, is next up on our list of main characters, and she in some ways is the antithesis of Shelia in nearly every single way. She’s courageous, strong willed, uber confident, optimistic, and free spirited, truly a fantastic role model for both boys and girls alike. Plus, as a person of color, I feel she really provides representation to a group that often times didn’t get a fair shake in cartoon series of this decade. Honestly, I could gush about Diana and her importance to this show for the rest of this article if you let me. Honestly, I think the saddest things I’ve read about her in terms of criticism is the fact that she’s considered “tomboyish”, which for me just means they dared write her with qualities we often associate with traditional male heroes, like being self-assured and dominant. I honestly find that pretty insulting for one of the most dynamic members of the group.
But I guess that sums up her character, defying expectations. Even I was hard pressed to find a corresponding real class in D&D to match her up with other than a straight up fighter. She reminds me a lot of an Amazonian warrior what with the magic staff and her incredible acrobatic moves, so yeah, fighter does fit quite well.
As for the voice acting, there’s unfortunately no good story here. She was voiced by Tonia Gayle Smith, who really didn’t do much of anything else. Oh well, she got a really great part on this cartoon series if nothing else.
Finally, we have the youngest member of the group, Bobby, the Barbarian. Although he is the youngest character in terms of age at only 9 years old, he’s definitely the team’s heavy hitter, what with his magical club which is downright earth shattering in terms of raw power.
He is also Sheila’s younger brother; however in contrast to her, Bobby is often impulsive running headlong into battle, and in tandem with Hank’s long distance firepower, the two make a pretty unbeatable combination even against superior opponents. He is in someways a wish fulfillment type character for the target demographic of the cartoon show, a young boy who has the strength and power to move mountains.
However, despite that great strength, he’s still a youth at heart and often struggles with his life in the realm away from the familiar comforts of home. That’s why he has such a close relationship with Uni, his baby unicorn, because it gives him some semblance of home and the notion of caring for pet (yes, Bobby was TV’s first ever “bro”ny).
In terms of voice acting, unlike Diana, there’s not much to report about Ted Field the III who provided Bobby with voice. However, it is interesting to note, that legendary voice actor, Frank Welker, who has done so many classic characters from Fred on Scooby Doo to Ice Man to Ray Stantz to Baby Kermit, did the vocal effects for Uni, the Unicorn. Not only that but he also provided the voice for the evil 5 headed dragon on the show, Tiamat. No wonder the guy got a lifetime achievement Emmy award!
If you thought I was done though with my lesson on main characters by just naming the heroes, you really don’t know the way I operate. Mainly because I believe villains are just as important, and this cartoon has a corker in terms of it’s main baddie in Venger.
Venger aka the Force of Evil is an evil super wizard who seeks to use the children’s magical weapons to increase his power to the point where he can destroy the Dungeon Master and take over the realm completely. As his name suggests, he ends up being the force behind a lot of the evil schemes the group runs across, whether those be specifically targeted towards them, or independent of his quest to get their weapons.
The only force he seems to fear at first is the dragon Tiamat, however it’s later hinted that he is actually Dungeon Master’s son who fell under a corrupting influence and turned evil. Thus he fears Dungeon Master and his young warriors because they might have the power to turn him back to the side of good. This actually did happen in the unmade finale “Requiem”, when Venger is restored to his former self, but alas we never got to see it.
In terms of voice acting though I left the best for last as Venger is voiced by none other than Peter Cullen who is universally known for being the voice of Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots in both the cartoon and movie versions of the Transformers. ROLL OUT!
In concluding today’s little lesson, here’s three random bits of trivia for you about this cartoon series:
- Although they never appeared in any of the D&D game modules, in 1984 TSR did release the board game named Quest for the Dungeonmaster, inspired by one of the episodes called “In Search of the Dungeons Master”, where Dungeon Master is captured by Venger’s cronie, Warduke, and frozen in a magic crystal. The board game is basically a race to rescue him before Venger gets there first.
- An Dungeons & Dragons toy line was produced by LJN in 1983 however it didn’t contain any of the characters that appeared in the cartoon (which is a stupid, stupid, stupid idea in my opinion). However, it did contain some original characters such as Warduke, Strongheart the Paladin, and the evil Wizard Kelek which guest-starred in episodes of the series. Warduke in particular was one of my favorite action figures growing up and often played the part of my main bad guy when I’d have battles with my 3.75 sized figures.
- Finally, The Brazilian company, Iron Studios, will release in 2019 an entire set of polystone collectible statues of Dungeons & Dragons cartoon characters, using a 1/10 scale and together they form a full diorama. I gotta say from the pictures released at Comic Con last year, that’s gonna be one hell of a statue set!
And that’s it for Dungeons & Dragons: The Cartoon 101 here at Ghosts of the Stratosphere. I’ll be back with a future post in upcoming months where I list my top 5 favorite episodes of this series as a follow up.
In the meantime, enjoy a sample of what this great show has to offer with the episode: The Night of No Tomorrow!