Digression Girl

Let's Talk Comic Books & Genre Media!

Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons have been around for many years, and quite a few were created to cover a genre or style of play that the edition of D&D out at the time did not cover, while others created a new system that better suited their view of something “better.” However, despite all of this, there arevery few franchises beyond D&D that have crossed over into multiple forms of media.

The number of novels set in a D&D setting like the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance is significant. But then again, the expansion of D&D into toys, comic books, cartoons, movies, computer and arcade games, and so on speaks significantly of the cultural impact this simple RPG has had on popular culture. While the influences on D&D have made significant splashes culturally as well, I would argue that D&D is a historical milestone that has impacted and shaped the modern world more than some may realize.

Some of the first massive multiplayer online role playing games were based on or inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. The Ultima series of computer games were the result of a young Richard Garriott’s initial attempt to create a D&D-like computer game, and then making a more commercially-minded effort. That game led to the eventual creation of MMORPGs so as to better replicate the tabletop gaming experience through a computer game. In a similar vein, the Wizardry franchise, along with the Ultima franchise, helped spawn the creation and popularity of RPG games in Japan.

Even works established well before D&D have benefitted from the game; would the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films have been made, much less popularized, without the influence of games and media influenced by D&D? Would Conan the Barbarian have potentially made it on the silver screen if the audience wasn’t tuned in to fantasy adventures through things such as D&D?

To be fair, I would argue everything collectively benefitted from the presence of the other: a rising tide lifts all boats, if you will. But since its debut, D&D has served as the common connective tissue amidst all of this. Consider the following points:

  • World of Warcraft has clear influence from D&D, as well as other works inspired by D&D. The original Warcraft game, it could be argued, had significant influence from miniatures games like Warhammer Fantasy. And, if you will, Warhammer Fantasy was sort of taking D&D back to its miniature wargaming roots, in a fashion.
  • Not including the actual licensed D&D computer RPGs, like the Gold Box games (Pool of Radiance, etc.), Baldur’s Gate series, and the like, several other games are clearly inspired by D&D directly or second-hand: the Bard’s Tale series, the Ultima series, the Wizardry series, the Might & Magic series, SSI games like Wizard’s Crown, as well as games like Dragon’s Quest, Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda.
  • DC Comics initially published the licensed comics for D&D, including titles Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Forgotten Realms, and the Dragonlance comics during the 1980’s.
  • While there is the famous D&D cartoon from the 1980’s, there was also the D&D toyline and ancillary products to the toyline, such as coloring books, beach towels, and the like. Furthermore, consider that these toys were targeted to the same general demographic as other fantastic lines like Masters of the Universe and Thundercats.
  • Beyond the D&D cartoon, an animated Wizardry film was released in the 1990’s, and the serialized “replay” of a D&D session published in the mid 1980’s was the basis for the novel, anime, and manga franchise known as Record of Lodoss War.  
  • Interest in role-playing games of multiple genres made fertile ground that allowed for things such as role-playing games based on licensed material. Though an RPG based on Dallas (!) is apparently the first of these such games, it was the licensing of Star Wars to West End Games that assisted in keeping fan interest and focus on the then-dormant franchise to thrive. The fact that WEG also released supplements for their game based on the Star Wars novels of the time, like the renowned Thrawn trilogy, just added to it even more. Elements from this RPG and the novels have surfaced in the newer films and animated shows in various ways, in turn becoming truly “canon.”

Even the negative associations with the game have made significant impacts. The Satanic Panic of the 1980’s that made some groups seek to ban the game helped drive interest in the game, but it also served as a hallmark of significant religious development in the United States. While some may not really consider the overreaction to entertainment such as role-playing games, certain music genres, “violent” video games, and other things as significant, it can be seen as an indicator of the influence that fundamentalist groups would have on the social and political landscape of the United States. Coupled with the union of political conservatives with what is known as the Moral Majority, hindsight permits us to see how the fractious political and social environment of today took root at this critical time.

The recognized debut of D&D is 1974, and it is a handful of years away from its 50th anniversary (which I know because that also signals my big 5-0 moment isn’t that far off afterward…). The rise of the game, which meshed in with the debut and rise of in-home technological innovations, as well as the premier of a world-changing media franchise like Star Wars in 1977 laid the groundwork for the world we are experiencing now. The present has always stood on the shoulders of the giants of the past, but I would argue that the beginning of a new Age was established in the mid-1970’s due to the premier of game-changers like D&D and Star Wars. It not only influenced those generations posed to act upon them, but shaped and formed my generation and subsequent generations significantly.

As industry veteran Tim Kask has said in multiple interviews, it was a matter of good timing that D&D took off like it did. Though, admittedly, it is not the sole magic ingredient that caused all of this to happen, but rather a core symbiotic piece among many that manifested around the same time.

Yet, as I said before, this feat does stand on the shoulders of giants. In all honesty, the great causal web of history has several points that lead to this particular nexus: the establishment of myths and legends, the development of literacy, the ever-continuing literary and artistic development over time, the printing press enabling widespread literacy, authors developing works inspired by their predecessors, the development of war games beyond military esoterica into entertainment for civilians as well, industrialization and new technologies that allowed for things such as pulp fiction and comic books to be published, and the culmination of it all: a group of miniature wargamers developing an idea of playing a single character rather than commanding armies or navies of miniatures, and encountering mythical elements such as magic and monsters, who also happened to be fans of history, myths, pulp fiction, and comics, all around during the sunrise and sunset of the Free Love era.

Since Hasbro is the current owner of D&D, it is very unlikely to go away anytime soon; in fact, a soft upgrade to the game is in progress, and there’s big plans for the game on its 50th anniversary. While the current resurgence of the game may seem like a fad, we should be mindful of the journey the game has made over the years, as well as what there is now. Relatively new platforms such as YouTube enable for user-created content that has a global reach, and part of that content includes RPG game sessions. Services like Twitch or Discord enable tabletop gaming to continue despite the physical divides necessary due to the pandemic. A new D&D movie is in the process of being made, and various other fantasy fiction properties are seeing their first or their latest adaptations to screens small or silver.

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