A couple weeks back I did a list of my favorite Spider-man and his Amazing Friends episodes, and it was a huge hit with everyone on the interwebs.
In the vein of striking while the iron is hot, it’s once again time for another recap of a classic Saturday morning cartoon and some of my favorite episodes from it.
For today’s entry I focus on another Marvel Entertainment produced cartoon from that same time as Amazing Friends, the animated retelling of the classic granddaddy of all RPG games, Dungeons & Dragons.
For those of you that might not know about this series, be sure to check out my other article on the D&D Cartoon, in which I go over the basics. However, for those of you that were good Ghosts and already read it, let’s dive right in, shall we?
5. Hall of Bones
During a harrowing chase from the clutches of some flying ape beasts, our heroes realize that their weapons are beginning to lose their power. Dungeon Master has a solution though and quests them to travel to the far off ancient castle known as “The Hall of Bones”, a cemetery of sorts for many of the noble heroes that had traveled these lands and fought against evil in earlier times.
However, Venger has not given up in his quest to steal the heroes’ weapons from them and does so briefly thanks to an assist by Lolth, Queen of the Spiders, who ambushes them in a nearby town while they are searching for a guide. Realizing too though that the weapons are worthless to him without being recharged, Venger assumes the form of a halfling traveler and takes the heroes to the Hall of Bones himself.
After the weapons are recharged, Venger reveals his true form and attacks the heroes. But the ghosts of the Hall have been watching, and come to the heroes aid, using their righteous magical energies to combat Venger long enough for the heroes to escape.
Why it’s so good:
It’s no surprise that this is such a good episode of the series, given it was written by co creator of Batman: The Animated Series in Paul Dini. It’s one of the few stories that does not revolve solely around the kids trying to return home and yet failing to do so at the last moment, which is a refreshing change of pace. Plus, given the entire episode is about the weapons not working, as a result, they don’t really factor into the plot, which frees up our heroes to solve many of their problems with their wits rather than their powers.
As a result, this is a great episode that really captures the essence of what it’s like to play Dungeons & Dragons: The RPG. Whether it’s using your persuasion skills to try to scare up some coin in a local village in order to hire a guide, bluffing some monsters who want to steal said coin once you have it, or escaping from the gigantic spider web at the last moment by cutting one of the strings, these are all things that players of D&D could see themselves having to do, especially in those early parts of the campaign when your weapons aren’t very good and it’s more about coming up with clever ways to cheat the odds.
I know often times these 80s cartoons are just half hour commercials for the toys or whatever they tie in with, but this is definitely a both entertaining and effective half hour commercial for why you should play D&D.
Plus I always get a kick out of the fact that the Hall of Bones looks almost exactly like Castle Grayskull from Masters of the Universe. I mean it contains the essences of the greatest heroes in the realm, just like Grayskull on Eternia. I don’t think it’s any coincidence either given Paul Dini was also story editor for the He-man cartoon series during its first season around this same time.
As mentioned above, this episode features an appearance by a pretty famous D&D uber villain in Lolth, the aforementioned “Queen of Spiders”. In D&D lore, Lolth is actually Demon Queen of Spiders and is the chief goddess of the evil Drow Elves. Created by D&D Godfather himself, Gary Gygax, in 1980 as part of the Queen of the Demonweb Pits finale of a mega campaign that starts in the “Against the Giants” series (G1-G3) and continues in the “Drow” series (D1-D3).
Later these three famous campaign series would be reprinted in one grouping known simply as the “Queen of Spiders” super module, just like she’s called on the show.
This particular series of campaign modules that concludes with the battle against Lolth and her forces of unspeakable terror was voted as the “Greatest Adventure of All Time” by Dungeon magazine in 2004 during their then 30th anniversary of the Dungeons & Dragons game.
Watch the full episode here!
4. Quest of the Skeleton Warrior
The Skeleton Warrior, Dekkion, used to be a Celestial Knight and defender of the realm until one day long ago when he betrayed the order to Venger in return for promises of power. After that point, he was cast out and cursed by Venger to not only be his servant but also to have the horrible boney facade.
Since that day he has searched for the Circle of Power for Venger with the promise that if he found it, he would be returned to his human form. Well, this story begins with Dekkion finally locating the Circle of Power, however the problem is that it’s located with the Celestial Knights homebase called the Celestial Tower which he is cursed never to be able to enter since his betrayal.
Dekkion then hatches a scheme to convince our young heroes into retrieving the Circle of Power for him by telling them a modified version of the story you have read above (of course leaving out the important bits where he was a bad guy). The heroes take pity on Dekkion and decide to search for the Circle on his behalf (it also doesn’t hurt that Dungeon Master says the Circle could have the power to take them home).
After entering the Celestial Tower which is “Tardis” like given it’s bigger on the inside than the outside, the heroes are bombarded by a series of mental illusion traps which simulate their worse fears. Shelia is separated from the rest playing on her fear of being alone, Bobby is turned into a baby playing on his fear of being viewed as immature, Eric is turned into an ugly donkey faced creature, Diana is turned into a very old woman, and Hank is forced to view it all from a far playing on his fear of being a terrible leader and putting his team in danger.
However, Hank then remembers the advice Dungeon Master provided them and realizes these are all truly just illusions. He encourages the team to let go of their fears and face them instead, which breaks the spell.
With the Circle of Power in hand, the heroes met up with Dekkion again just as his master, Venger, comes calling for the promised artifact. After the heroes resist, Venger begins to turn Hank into a skeleton warrior himself, when Dekkion rebels and destroys the Circle, driving Venger away. That act of heroism frees Dekkion from his skeletal prison and he once again takes to the skies as a Celestial Knight of the realm.
Why it’s so good:
Unlike some episodes of this show, that spend more time on the supporting guest characters and their plights, I particularly like this one because we get some decent characterization of all of young heroes as they deal with their individual fears in sort of a Mysterio style fun house of illusionary horrors.
In particular, I still remember watching this episode when I was very young on Saturday morning when it first aired, and those scenes where Diana turns into an old lady and then is about to be attacked by zombies was incredibly terrifying. To this day, I still get some heebie jeebies of sorts when I watch that particular sequence.
And that’s not all. The Celestial Tower is filled with straight up nightmarish fuel for a young child, including Hank running up the stairs that keep disappearing, signifying that he’s always one step away from falling into oblivion, or ever young kids fear of the dreaded escalator and getting swallowed whole at the top. There’s also Shelia being stuck in a cold empty never-ending desert, and the flying Bashee style ghosts that attack Presto and Eric. All nasty stuff to deal when you are very little.
But true to form, part of overcoming your fears is to deal with them head on, so the fact that our heroes not only face their fears, but that Dekkion faces his in finally standing up to Venger makes for a quality tale and a strong teaching moment from this series.
This episode was written by Buzz Dixon, who should not be confused with comic book writer, Chuck Dixon. Buzz actually served as a story editor for the GI Joe cartoon series, and was subsequently a story consultant when it came to the somewhat controversial GI Joe cartoon movie.
Speaking of which, Buzz has gone on record at other websites saying that Duke was supposed to die in GI Joe: The Movie but was hastily rewritten at the last moment at Hasbro’s request after the huge public backlash over Optimus Prime‘s death a couple years earlier.
In addition to being a writer of cartoons, Buzz did work on various comic books over the years, including doing a 3 issue stretch on the infamous 90s Marvel comic series inspired by the NFL called “SuperPro“. Yeah, I couldn’t help but throw that in here!
Watch the Full Episode Here!
3. Day of the Dungeon Master
After surviving an attack by a swarm of giant wasps, Eric calls out the Dungeon Master on having so much great power, but never doing anything to help them. In fact, he claims that he could be just as good of Dungeon Master if he was given a chance, upon which Dungeon Master decides to take him up on his offer. Transferring his great power on to Eric, he quests the heroes to head to the castle at Darkhaven and find the Golden Grimnoir, which will contain the “answers they seek”.
Although Eric is pretty haphazard with the new DM powers, he does deduce correctly that a Grimnoir is a book of magic and mostly likely will contain a spell he can use to send them home. The heroes agree to begin the long trek to Darkhaven, and they are occasionally helped by Eric’s newly found magical abilities albeit he lacks the confidence and training to be make them really effective.
In the end, they do locate the Grimnoir and Eric does succeed in opening a portal. However, just as they are about to leave, Venger shows up to claim the book and attacks our heroes. Eric decides to sacrifice himself to battle Venger in hopes that the others will escape, but Hank and the rest decide not to leave their friend behind. Although the Grimnoir and Darkhaven are destroyed in the resulting fight, Eric has learned not only valuable wisdom about how hard is to use great power wisely, but also that in his willingness to lay down his life so openly for his friends, he is a true hero.
Why it’s so good:
By far the best character in all of the D&D cartoon is Eric, and this is episode is a fantastic reason why. Although on the surface, Eric just seems to be a cowardly loudmouthed braggart, it’s very clear that portion of his personality is just the outer most part of his onion skin, with complex and surprising deep layers lying just beneath.
In this episode alone you see a young man struggle with gaining great power for the first time, and yet he lacks the maturity that only comes through time and experience to use it effectively. As a result, he has to endure the jeers of his followers when he makes wrong decisions, he’s constantly racked with self doubt and loathing, and he becomes depressed and dispassionate at times.
However, when the chips are down and he has to rely solely on his basic instincts, you see that Eric is indeed more than capable of not only being heroic, but through his self sacrifice and bravery, he inspires those around him to take up the struggle and help him shoulder his heavy load. That’s what a real leader does, and by the end of the story, Eric is the real moral compass of the team, instead of the traditional Hank. What a fantastic character arc for what is just a simple kids show!
This episode is also great because it again hearkens back to a relatable theme from playing the real D&D game in that being DM of a RPG campaign is often a thankless job. Where other player characters can just come in and out, the DM has to shoulder the responsibility of keeping the world in balance and progressing the story forward.
That’s why although some PCs might bitch and complain about the job the DM is doing, those that have played on both sides have a unique appreciation for how hard the DM job actually is, and how some people just aren’t cut out for it, so they have no real reason to fuss so much.
Recently, car manufacturer Renault made this supremely bad ass commerical in Brazil for the KWID Outsider starring the D&D kids.
I don’t have anything else to add in this Fun Facts other than, ENJOY!!
Watch the Full Episode Here!
2. Dungeon at the Heart of Dawn
Despite Dungeon Master’s express orders not the open the recently retrieved Box of Balefire, Eric can’t resist the temptation to do it, and Hank does little to stop him, claiming he’s not the “boss” of group. Unfortunately, the Box of Balefire should have been called more aptly “Pandora’s Box” as once it is opened, it summons a force of pure evil and chaos on the realm, hellbent on destruction.
Both Dungeon Master and Venger are equally terrified of this force as although it has been called many things on the countless dimensions and worlds it has attempted to lay waste to, this Nameless One is the true embodiment of wickedness and has the power to destroy everything in its path. It first nearly kills Venger, who calls it “master”, over his failure in not previously eliminating the Dungeon Master which it views as one of the few threats to it’s continued existence. But afterwards, it decides to do the job itself and makes a bee line for our good ol’ DM and his merry band of kids.
Even with the additional magical strength of our heroes’ weapons, Dungeon Master is no match for direct confrontation with the Nameless One. Instead he uses his remaining power to teleport the children and he into the depths of the Underworld at the very last second, giving the false sense that the Nameless One had indeed killed them. There is also a secondary reason for selecting the location though as the Dungeon Master is dying after the onslaught by the Nameless One, and this section of the Underworld contains the Heart of Dawn, a magical pool, which can be used to rejuvenate both the Dungeon Master and in turn the heroes’ weapons, which are currently inoperative.
One by one, each of the kids tackles one of the Underworld’s threats without their weapons, and in doing so has to stay behind while the others race against time to get Dungeon Master to the pool. Additionally Venger also has followed the group in hopes Dungeon Master can restore his power as well.
In the end, Dungeon Master does manage to restore his powers and convinces both Venger and the children that they should all return to the surface to confront the Nameless One for the final time with their combined renewed strength.
However, once they surface they discover the Nameless One has once again left their realm for other worlds to ravage. Dungeon Master knows though this respite is only temporary and sooner or later, they will have to fight the Nameless One again.
Why it’s so good:
You gotta love any episode of an adventure cartoon series like D&D which has a reoccurring villain like Venger that seems to be defeated week in and week out, suddenly makes a left turn and throws out the “really big bad” on an unsuspecting audience. That harsh realization there was someone more evil and more powerful than the dude we thought was the biggest villain in the land, and unlike our more well known bad guy who seemingly can be overcome, this new guy is pretty much unstoppable.
That’s what we get with this episode, and I gotta say, although it was done with GI Joe and Serpentor vs. Cobra Commander or Transformers with Megatron vs. Unicron, D&D takes it to a whole other level.
The entire episode takes on a near apocalyptic tone, with the dark skies, the swirling winds, and the wasteland appearance of the countryside. It really sets the stage for something truly epic, and the dire climatic confrontation between the Nameless One and The Dungeon Master, is one of the most rewarding and emotional scenes of the entire series.
It’s just so epic that you could feel as if this could be the final episode. The fact that the children don’t get to just go home, but they die in hopeless last stand battle against a creature more fearsome than Tiamat and Venger combined.
Plus it’s really bad ass to see the Dungeon Master actually flex his magical muscles in a battle worthy of his attention. It’s like those scenes in “Revenge of the Sith” where you finally get to see Yoda take on the Emperor. Sure, the Dungeon Master is small, but he packs one hell of a punch!
The only reason this isn’t the best episode of the series is that after the confrontation and Dungeon Master cheats death for both him and his pupils, the rest of the episode seems to meander a bit. They race to get the Dungeon Master to this magic pool to save his life, and Venger wants to stop them, but it’s not really explained very well. Especially Venger’s motivation in stopping them. He mentions wanting to get to the pool first, but he’s not exactly injured so…eh…I don’t know.
And then the real ending is a cop out in that the Nameless One just “left” and we don’t get a final confrontation after all that struggle. It’s like the episode ran out of time or something…it’s somewhat of waste.
One of the most interesting facts that was hinted upon in several of the episodes but never expressly said is the fact that Venger actually was supposed to be Dungeon Master’s son.
Furthermore, in an episode called “Treasure of Tardos” it was said that Venger was once pure of heart but fell under a corrupting influence. I believe that the Heart of Dawn episode fills in the rest of that story as it must have been the Nameless One which was that corrupting influence given Venger calls it master.
However this is all speculation. Although this series has only 27 episodes, there was a script written for a series ending 28th episode called “Requiem” which was never produced. In the episode, supposedly, Venger is finally redeemed and all of the backstory is revealed.
There was a recording of the script that was added a special feature for the BCI Eclipse DVD edition of the series, but I have never listened to it.
Watch the Full Episode Here!
1. The Dragon’s Graveyard
Our heroes have had enough. After Venger both destroys a portal that would have allowed them to return to Earth and severely wounds Uni during the subsequent battle, Hank makes the decision that Venger must be killed once and for all if they are to have any peace.
To this end, Hank hatches a plan to force Dungeon Master to reveal the location of Tiamat the Dragon, a natural enemy of Venger, who Hank belives will help them defeat Venger out of mutal hatred of the foe. Although most of the others are uncomfortable with Hank’s plan, Bobby seems overly enthusiastic about it, nearly bordering on bloodlust, after the way Venger nearly killed Uni.
Of course Dungeon Master is very distraught to hear his students are willing to take Venger’s life in cold blood, but aquistes that Tiamat can be found in the Dragon’s Graveyard, an ancient cemetary of past dragons which is also the original place the heroes magical weapons came from.
Upon reaching the Dragon’s Graveyard, Tiamat reveals that the heroes weapons are 100 times more powerful in this place, she will lure Venger to the Graveyard so they can kill her mortal enemy for her. Thus begins a showdown for the ages between Venger and the suped up power of our heroes.
However, just as Hank is about to deliver the killing blow, he shows mercy and releases Venger, worried about becoming just as terrible as Venger if he commits such an act. In this way, he proves that they are better than Venger and could defeat him at any time if they wish, somewhat of a humbling moment for the show’s chief villain.
Dungeon Master proud that his pupils showed a change of heart uses the magic of one of the items found in the Graveyard to heal Uni, and leaves Venger to contemplate their heroic actions.
Why it’s so good:
This is final of three episodes on this list written for the 3rd season of this show by Michael Reeves, who also wrote many solid episodes of other cartoons of this era including some of my favorites from Blackstar, He-man, and Transformers. In fact, Michael eventually won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program in his work on Batman: The Animated Series. In short, Mr. Reeves knows how to rachet up the drama and bring a real sense of gravtias to even a children’s Saturday morning cartoon by not shying away from of the most difficult adult themes.
Indeed, although Hank or Bobby ever specifically say they want to kill Venger, it’s plain to see that’s what they mean to do, and the notion of revenge to that level for a kids show is not only surprising but also welcome given the environment that these kids find themselves in.
This is one of the few episodes to really provide a sense of realism for the dangerous and deadly world Dungeons & Dragons is. It doesn’t sugar coat the fact that Venger has been attempting to kill these kids for a while now just to claim their weapons and it was just a matter of time before the more mature members of the team started questioning whether they should resort to deadly force in return.
An episode that dares to pose some serious moral and ethical questions to its audience, it’s also great that in the end, the voice of reason and moral judgement ends up being the sometimes unethical and unreasonable Eric who questions Hank’s actions all the way to the last moment when Hank finally makes the morally correct choice. It really drives home that even in this chaotic land of D&D, some have to make the difficult choice to stand by what they believe in and refuse to cross that line of no return.
This is the only episode in the series in which the fearsome boss dragon, Tiamat, actually talks. However, more importantly, the voice of the dragon was performed by world famous voice actor, Frank Welker.
You might know Frank from his other incredible work voicing everyone from Fred on Scooby Doo to Ice Man on Amazing Friends to Megatron on Transformers to Dr. Ray Stantz on the Real Ghostbusters to Baby Kermit on Muppet Babies and the list goes on and on and on.
Yep, Frank has had such an illustrious career that in 2016, he was honored with an Emmy Award for his lifetime achievement. Definitely well worth it in our opinion given how many fantastic and beloved cartoon characters from our youth were given both personality and depth thanks to Frank’s remarkable talents!
Watch the Full Episode Here!