I’ve written my fair share of posts about the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Way back when, D&D inspired many peripheral products. From board games to books to electronic games, people had some options if they didn’t want to get out the graph paper, dice, and colored pencils. One successful breakout hit was an animated TV show inspired by the game. And astonishingly, that show has suddenly reappeared in pop culture again. Today, let me show you what it is, and why it’s a great development. Then, let me show you why this resurgence in popularity represents such a challenge to Christian culture warriors.
The One Cartoon That Could Get Me Moving on Saturday Mornings.
Dungeons & Dragons somehow, against all odds, became an animated TV show in 1983. My sister and I were instantly hooked on it. Mom knew that no matter how tired we were, she could get us up and out of bed by murmuring “Dungeons & Dragons is on in a few minutes.” She could have said it in any language in the world besides English, possibly while standing a county over from our house, and we’d still have understood and bolted out of our beds to get to the living room in time.
Back then, kids’ Saturday morning television was utterly scrubbed-clean and “message” driven. Check out this link to the lineup in Fall 1983, the show’s first season. You’ll see what I mean.
See anything in that lineup that makes Dungeons & Dragons seem like maybe it doesn’t quite belong?
And Now For Something Completely Different.
Unsurprisingly, most kids’ shows were as interesting to me as a church sermon. Characters never acted realistically. Plots made no sense. Anything good the cartoons contained, censors destroyed.
And then along came Dungeons & Dragons.
All that AND a baby unicorn. I don’t know how anybody thought this wouldn’t strike gold.
The only other thing on that I cared about was Bugs Bunny. But even that superlative show ran a far-distant second to my main interest.
The show’s basic story involved a bunch of kids of varying ages ranging from 8 to near-adult. They go on a D&D-themed carnival ride that somehow turns real OMG and transports them to the real D&D world. Somehow, they immediately annoy Venger and the dragon Tiamat, the series’ Big Bads (TVTropes Walkabout Warning!). A weird little gnome-like wizard, Dungeon Master, helps them out of this initial scrape by conjuring them magical gear. Then, he tells them he’ll help them get home–eventually.
The rest of the series involved them questing for a way to return home. In the process, they tangled with most of the Monster Manual. Some of them even fell in love. Their overriding goal remained the show’s focus.
How’d This Even Get Made?
In a lot of ways, Dungeons & Dragons was about navigating the fears involved in growing up. However, that navigation happened in a way that was markedly different from anything else happening on Saturday mornings.
- The D&D world was not child-friendly. Stuff there could straight up kill the heroes. Most of the episodes involved copious amounts of violence. The monsters usually weren’t secretly misunderstood or lonely. And a lot of the villains wore very friendly faces.
- Though the series obscured this point considerably, the weapons the heroes had could easily be lethal. It took no imagination at all to see how.
- Eric, the “cavalier” character, was unlike anything I’d ever seen before on Saturday morning heroes: snarky, brusque, independent. He disliked playing reindeer games. Most of all, he often challenged the group’s de facto leader, Hank. And, y’all, Eric usually made good points. I never understood why the group rarely listened to him. Right or wrong, his reasoning tended to be spot-on. (But please see this endnote.)
- The idea of a lost child being unable to return home was challenging in the extreme back then. These kids were on their own. Moreover, the series made clear that this separation wasn’t fun for them.
Of course, the censors defanged what they could of what was really a surprisingly-dark, complex series. They made each episode a mini-sermon, usually at Eric’s expense. The heroes rarely flat-out killed anyone. In fact, Eric possessed a magic shield but no sword! (Not that he needed a sword, though. Generally, the heroes only disarmed and disabled their enemies.) Even so, sometimes things got super-dark.
Every kid who mattered to me was transfixed by this series.
The series ended in 1985–without resolving its central plot of separation from home. The channel apparently commissioned and acquired the last episode’s script, but never animated it.
Around 2006, I got my hands on a collected set of the series–and treasure it! Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me that anybody cared about the show anymore. I had no idea that apparently it became a well-loved series in Brazil, of all places. There, I’ve heard it has achieved “cult status.” This fact will become relevant in a few moments.
A week or so ago, Renault Brasil dropped this amazing live-action commercial featuring the heroes of the cartoon. The sheer love of the ad’s creators for the series shines in every single frame.
They got a perfect cast for this. Please please please please, someone, make this a movie.
In addition, a Brazilian toy company, Iron Studios, is coming out soon with a line of pricey and great-looking Dungeons & Dragons statuettes. Sites all over the internet are talking about the show again.
One wonders what other delights are coming our way.
Why This Nostalgia Matters.
Generally speaking, nostalgia sells big in American culture. In a way, though, maybe the 1980s weren’t out of popularity all that long.
The Wedding Singer (1998) started that nostalgia kick kinda early.
It’s not just the 1980s, of course. The 90s, the 00s, they all feel as close to us as our social-media feed. Songs, fashions, movies, TV shows, and events from those years regularly show up in memes and references, and most folks seem to get them pretty easily even if they weren’t even born when that media first became popular.
For example, the above student project was made in 2014. The movie that inspired it, The Breakfast Club, came out in 1985. I don’t think a single one of these actors was even alive then. That fact makes me squee unironically.But this particular bit of nostalgia represents a serious challenge to Christian culture warriors. I don’t think they realize that–not quite yet.
The Holdover of the Satanic Panic.
See, Dungeons & Dragons, the roleplaying game, was the Big Bad of the Satanic Panic in a lot of ways. A whole lot of culture warriors poured money, time, and propaganda of all kinds into trying to stigmatize and outlaw D&D into oblivion. Evangelicals in particular considered the game as a sort of training ground for kids to learn to cast magic and negotiate with demons. These Christians even dreamt up an enemy behind the game’s sudden popularity: a sort of Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW).
And yet it moves, as the saying goes. Eppur si muove. No matter what culture warriors mistakenly believed D&D was, and no matter what imaginary dangers they attached to it, the facts remained clear to those who actually played it. Far from teaching demonology and magic, the game taught something that Christian culture warriors hate even more than those things: teamwork, independent thinking, creativity, and the value of recreation for its own sake.
Worse, though, the power of the culture warriors had already waned enough that the Panickers’ intended targets could fight back. Their pushback resulted in, among other efforts, the Pulling Report by Michael A. Stackpole. This extensively-researched report grandly debunked the Panickers’ lies and more importantly destroyed their credibility.
Even worse than that, though, the failed moral panic around D&D meant that the game became a giant raised middle finger to these right-wing Christians’ demands.
Anatomy of a Moral Panic.
Moral panics happen because the groups that engineer them feel like their authority and power is slipping. They’re designed to return both to the engineers’ group.
That’s why the only offered solution to a panic is to allow the engineers to dictate the response to the target they’ve chosen. It’s also why the targets the engineers choose tend to be vastly-underpowered compared to the strength of their own group. The engineers assume that they’ll be able to raise a strong- and negative-enough reaction from the general population that nobody will mind letting them take the lead in dealing with the (largely-imaginary) danger the target supposedly represents.
And generally speaking, historically at least, right-wing Christians chose their targets pretty well–up until the Satanic Panic. Their dominance of popular culture meant that they had an incredible amount of coercive and social power to begin with. Thus, they went through the Red Scare and a huge anti-gay push without too much argument.
Then came the Satanic Panic.
The Failure of the Culture War.
In some ways, the Satanic Panic succeeded in its culture warriors’ goals. People went to prison, lost their jobs and reputations, and even became estranged from their families over the false accusations Christians spewed. In pretend-fighting the CSWWSW, the culture warriors themselves became a shadowy cabal that infiltrated countless police departments, legislatures, educational groups, and even churches.
But in a couple of very key ways, the panic failed miserably. People continued to play the game, after all. Somehow, the cartoon series got made and became hugely popular for a while. In fact, D&D spawned countless respectful imitators and related works even to the present day. As for the Panickers themselves, they either pretend still that the CSWWSW is a danger, or they try their best to ignore or downplay their actions during the panic’s heyday.
New blood entered the culture war recently, as we’ve seen, and they’ll probably rile up a new generation of wingnut Christians. But I don’t think they’ll be able to wreak the same kind of damage–or that their targets are as underpowered or outnumbered as they were in the first iteration of this panic.
Maybe riling up their remaining flocks matters more to them than rebuilding their credibility as a group. However, that effort will also alienate more and more potential recruits from their banner–and increase churn as the few remaining sane and compassionate members of the group leave in reaction to this ever-spiraling cycle of wingnuttery.
What It All Means.
When you hear about anything D&D-related, remember that games and entertainment like it exist and enjoy whatever popularity they’ve achieved over the vociferous, express objections of Christian culture warriors. Remember, always, what a loss these games represent to that crowd. Every bunch of gamers at every gamebook-covered dining-room table or lunchroom corner or park bench or outrageously-decorated home library raises a new middle finger to these Christians.
If Christian culture warriors could, they’d control us all completely. They’d be positive they were doing it for our own good, and that we’d like it once we got used to it, but whether we liked it or lumped it, they would do it all the same. That’s why they’re culture warriors: they think they know how everybody should live, and they’ve made it their mission to ensure that they get to make those calls instead of us.
But the Satanic Panic was where they began to lose their grip. Sure, they’ve managed to win some impressive stuff in recent years. The writing, however, is on the wall. They can be resisted. They can be defeated.
And they will be.
I’m as sure of that as I am about eventually rolling a critical success on the dice.
NEXT UP: Questions about Heaven that somehow I never thought to ask. Then, we explore the Southern Baptist Convention’s latest terrible, WTF response to its ongoing sex-abuse scandal.
About Eric: A while ago, I ran across this post from one of the show’s creators. Mark Evanier tells us clearly that Eric’s character existed for an insidious reason. The censors intended for him to be the recalcitrant naysayer of the show. They forced kids’ shows to have at least one. At each episode’s end, the naysayer always had to fall into line with the group. They pushed this kind of messaging to teach kids to value teamwork, harmony, and unity over individuality. As you can see, however, I took some very different lessons from Eric. (Back to the post!)
A Parting Gift From the Get-A-Load-of-This-Thing-Cam.
Another very weird cartoon, this one from 1978.
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