This post is sponsored by First Second. All opinions expressed in this post are based on the writer’s personal views.
Even if you’ve never picked up a d20 or rolled for initiative, odds are that you’re familiar with the idea of Dungeons & Dragons. Originally released in 1974—a creation of wargamers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, who wanted a little more of the fantastic in their tactical games—the roleplaying classic has been through five core editions (and several variations). It has inspired so many other games—tabletop role playing, board, card, and video—that it’s impossible to dismiss its influence in the world of gaming.
But its influence doesn’t stop there. Recently, we’ve been digging The Adventure Zone graphic novel series. The graphic novel series from brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy and their dad, Clint McElroy, with art from Carey Pietsch is the latest in a tradition of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired storytelling helping to make mainstream culture just a little bit nerdier.
If you’re a player (and even if you’re not), here are seven milestone media where D&D takes a DM’s role in shaping the story…
The Adventure Zone (2019)
The Princess Bride meets Dungeons & Dragons in this series of graphic novels that follows hero-adjacents Taako the elf wizard, Merle the dwarf cleric, and Magnus the human warrior as they look for things like magical artifacts, Merle’s errant dwarf cousin, and a railroad murderer. #questing
Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy, of the podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me, recruited their father to play in a D&D campaign with them as a podcast, beginning in 2015. In 2019, their first two adventure arcs were released in graphic novel format, making them easily accessible to luddites like me who have yet to join the podcast movement.
In some ways, the story hearkens back to The Gamers(see below), where the player characters are fully aware of their DM. But, unlike The Gamers, there are no gamers present—the characters interact with the god-like DM all on their own, bending the rules for the fun of the story. Despite, or perhaps because of, the different voices of the creators influencing the narrative, the story works incredibly well on the printed page, in no small part due to Pietsch’s art.
The comic captures what it feels like to be sitting at a game table, but like the other comics mentioned in this article, it also comes into its own as a story, allowing the fondness of the characters for each other—and the bigger world they discover at the end of volume one—to take the narrative to the next level. Given that the original story of the podcast went for 69 episodes, only 16 of which have so far made it to comics, readers can hope that there will be plenty more of these adventures to come! You can find out more about The Adventure Zone graphic novels here.
The Gamers (2002)
Although Dungeons & Dragons hit the small screen in 1983 with a Saturday Morning Cartoon, and made its big screen appearance with an utterly abysmal feature film of the same name (sorry, Jeremy Irons), the real excitement and nostalgia of playing D&D was captured in the indie film The Gamers, produced by Dead Gentlemen. Where the 2000 official film tried to take itself seriously as a stand-alone fantasy, The Gamers takes place at an actual game table… for the most part.
Four college guys are trying to have a decent tabletop game, but one of the college girls down the hall is having none of their noise—she’s trying to study, after all. The gamers double as their heroic counterparts as viewers get to see the fantasy element of the game playing out, flashing back to that tabletop game (and the frustrated hall neighbor, who doubles as the princess).
A twist at the end of the film gives the game a violent turn into the ridiculous and hilarious. While there’s a distinct lack of female gamers (and only a single female cast member) in the film, it absolutely captures what it feels like to sit at a game table, and embraces the silliness of the fantasy genre without condescension. Dead Gentlemen have continued the series of films, most recently in what looks like a truly brilliant short-form follow up to the original, The Gamers: The Shadow Menace, which became available for streaming earlier this year (and which, now that I know about it, is what I’m streaming tonight…)
Order of the Stick (2003)
Self-described as a “self-aware stick figure fantasy parody,” Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick is an ongoing webcomic that has amassed five collected volumes of main storyline, prequels, bonus strips, and has a sixth volume heading to print in December.
The story follows the characters of Roy, Durkon, Elan, Belkar, Hailey, and Vaarsuvius as they level up from their initial, low-level dungeon crawl and realize that their quest to face the world’s ultimate villain has even greater world-shaping consequences than they realized.
Sixteen years into the story, the characters are chatting with gods about the fate of the universe—and how, ultimately, saving it will come down to their diplomatic abilities. Anyone who has been following the strip for that long is likely to have their doubts… but also to trust that these characters won’t let us down in the end. What started off as a parody with jokes that broke the fourth wall to poke fun at the familiar D&D rules has grown into a much deeper story along the way.
Low-level adventurers typically start their careers by fighting low-level monsters. Frequently, this means traveling to a cave or forest where kobolds, goblins, or other annoying—but not terribly dangerous—creatures are troubling other travelers or local villagers. For random non-player-characters, the goblins are a threat. For adventurers? They’re fleshy bits of xp just waiting to be killed. But what if the goblins were fully fleshed characters themselves?
Ellipsis Hana Stephens has been exploring that idea since a small group of goblins decided to take the rules into their own hands and become adventurers themselves. It’s against all their cultural norms, but it’s the only way to survive out there in a world that’s determined to bring them down. Stephens spends a lot of time exploring the nature of good and evil, particularly when it comes to whether the monsters of the world are the ones who look like monsters, or the ones who act like them.
While there’s plenty of humor in this ongoing webcomic, the themes are deep and sometimes heavy, and while particular types of violence (and the recovery process after those types of violence have been done) are triggering, Stephens always handles them with sensitivity and concern. Like Order of the Stick, Goblins outgrew its gimmicky beginnings, and while knocked out characters still appear with their negative hit point totals above their heads to indicate how close they are to death, the reminders that the story is happening inside a gaming world give another layer to the storytelling.
Knights of Badassdom (2013)
While it got mixed reviews, Knights of Badassdom melded the horror genre with live action roleplaying, inviting audiences to imagine what might transpire if a bunch of sword-swinging, costume-wearing game nerds had to fight down a real demon. Though it featured a cast full of alumni from major fantasy properties (Game of Thrones, Firefly, Community, and True Blood), the film was also wracked with controversy and studio interference with a final cut, leaving viewers wondering if the spirit of the film had bene left behind. Our Den of Geek reviewer felt like the film fell short of the mark, but for a critic at io9, the characters represented some real insight into gamer culture, and the female representation made a huge difference to her enjoyment of the movie. Although this won’t be a hit for everyone, the peek inside live action role playing in a horror-comedy setting is reason to pick it up.
Stranger Things (2016)
Since its release, Stranger Things has been known for its embrace of the nostalgia of all things in 1980s geek culture, and Dungeons & Dragons is no exception. The show opens with characters around a game table, and influence doesn’t get much more explicit than that.
Given the show’s supernatural angles, the influence of D&D may or may not be more explicit: various articles have argued that Eleven’s telepathic and telekinetic abilities make her either a psion or a wizard, and that the mind flayers are a reference to D&D’s illithids (even though the creature on the show doesn’t look much like the tentacle-faced menaces of the game). Even the green fireballs being colored by one of the main characters could be an allusion to a trope of Chris Perkins, current creative director of Wizards of the Coast (the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons).
Season 3 of Riverdale introduced an entire Dungeons & Dragons storyline—although the faux D&D game the characters play in the television series, Griffins & Gargoyles, has much more dangerous stakes than most people will ever encounter at a real game table. Rather than just hanging around having sodas (or more adult beverages, depending on the age of the gamers) with friends, Griffins & Gargoyles may require the players to drink poison, and could end up requiring the players to worship the Gargoyle King.
A lot of the themes played with in Riverdale echo that old satanic scare of the 1980s, when parents worried their children would be led astray by some weird-sided dice and figurines. Next thing you know they’d be sacrificing chickens in the basement, or, in the case of Riverdale, actually committing murders. Part of the fun in the show’s exploration was featuring the main teenage cast playing their parents as teenagers—because clearly, D&D has a multigenerational interest.
Have you checked out The Adventure Zone? How do you think it falls into the tradition of D&D-inspired storytelling that has come before? Tell us in the comments!
Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.