Tuesday, March 20, 2012

DNDNext: The Kids Are Alright -- He-Man, Cartoons, and D&D

When I was around 11 or 12 years old, my best friend Sean McPhail and I used to play a fair amount of D&D.  Our first foray into the hobby wasn't the best experience, we had a killer DM who had "memorized" his own personal dungeon.  I have discussed that particular debacle in an earlier post.  I am glad that my initial terrible introduction to D&D didn't sour me on the hobby as a whole, or the game in particular.  I have a number of wonderful hobby related memories, and keep making new ones each week when I run games today.

Of those wonderful memories, there are a couple that stand out brilliantly in my mind.  There is the use of the D&D Basic set as a substitute for the combat system in Broadsides & Boarding Parties.  There is the 20 PC siege of The Keep on the Borderlands...  Hey...the book provided stats for the residents of the Keep, that meant we were supposed to attack it right?  Stats = dungeon right?  No?  Well, we thought so at the time and Darg and his crew had a good time sacking the Keep.  There was also a great run through Castle Ravenloft.  These were all experiences with Sean, and they were a great deal of fun.

But these weren't my most cherished D&D moment with Sean.  No indeed.  My most cherished D&D moment with him was when he ran his He-Man and the Masters of the Universe inspired dungeon.  It was a dungeon that he had drawn out himself.  The map was a complex maze of rooms that was a wonder to behold and a challenge to map out.  In one of the rooms of that dungeon was a deadly Death Knight with it's delay blast fireball gems.  In another room...and I'm getting overwhelmed with nostalgia just thinking about it was ... Beast Man.  Beast Man was the challenge of challenges, and Sean presented him with awe inspiring description.  He was the most intimidating foe my characters had faced to date.  I don't know what Sean's full write up for the character was, but I do know that the blue gem in Beast Man's chest had a "sleep" spell within it that overwhelmed one of my characters.  It was good stuff.

The toys, and cartoon, had inspired Sean and he in turn created an adventure that left me with one of my all time favorite D&D memories.  What I didn't know at the time was that the writers of He-Man, Larry DiTillio for one, were players of D&D and that He-Man was in some ways a D&D cartoon.  Fans of a certain age all know and love the old D&D cartoon with Hank the Ranger and Eric the Cavalier, but many of us also have a deep and abiding love for He-Man as well.  For those of you who wonder just how much D&D influenced the He-Man show, let me share with you the words of Larry DiTillio (who also wrote Tunnels and Trolls adventures)  who was a writer on the TV series. 

 In issue 34 of Different Worlds, Larry writes:

Incidentally, knowing Ye Ol' Sword is a game buff, it should come as no surprise that I often use game concepts in writing He-Man scripts. This includes spells, characters, traps, and plot twists.  In fact, I even inserted a much-beloved dragon from one of my game supplements into a show and much to my delight the character proved popular enough to warrant a sequel.  See how games and films fit together?  He-Man fans should also keep an ear open for famous names from gaming, an inside joke I sometimes like to throw in my animated stories.

D&D was not just a part of popular culture, it was a part of the popular culture of the youth of the age.  We grew up with the Moldvay/Cook Basic set with its Jeff Dee, Bill Willingham, and Erol Otus artwork.  Artwork that was cartoony and that translated fantasy perfectly for the minds of 9 to 13 year olds of the era.  It was the perfect "tween" introduction to the hobby.  The Mentzer basic set that followed continued the tradition and provided a perfect jumping on place for younger players.  Let the older players start with the AD&D books without the need of a basic set -- such as those in the Space Gamer crowd who asserted that the Basic set was a moot and unnecessary product.

It wasn't an unnecessary product, it was vital.  It was a product that brought an entire generation into the hobby.  Even with a horrible first experience with the game, Tom Moldvay's playful tone made sure that I retained my interest in the hobby.  The Basic Set was marketed at younger gamers, but it wasn't "dumbed down" for younger gamers.  It included all the rules of original D&D, but in a more coherent format.  It lacked some of the complexities of AD&D, but it perfectly prepared players for those complexities.

D&D Next needs to make sure that it has a product -- from day one -- that is aimed at younger gamers and the beginning gamer.  It needs a true basic set along the lines of those old ones.  The more recent "Red Box" edition that Wizards released to promote the Essentials line doesn't cut it.  I love that box and think that it was a good product, but the Essentials books themselves better fit the bill of what I am referring to.  If the Red Box included Heroes of the Fallen Lands, that would be what I am talking about.  Maybe with some artwork by the artists who are working diligently and with artistry on the current D&D comic books.  Andrea Di Vito has done some great work on that book.  My recommendation is that a new basic box have a cover that looks something like the following, and with rules aimed at the younger generation. 

We were all new gamers once.  Let's try and introduce new gamers with the same open arms and seriousness with which we were greeted.  Let's create a new line of toys, a new animated series, and more boardgames like the recent "D&D Adventure Series."

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