A Comic Ad Is Worth 1,000 Words (or Thereabouts) - Part 1

When I put up yesterday's post featuring a pair of TSR's Dungeons & Dragons comic ads from the early 1980's it was merely as a means to share a little nostalgia from a personal perspective.

However, when I was writing the post, I started to notice details in the ads that made me think about how the ads exemplified certain aspects of the game. After reading some of the comments the post generated, I got to thinking that it might be amusing to dissect the ads frame by frame from a D&D player's point of view.

Up first, "Ad 1," circa August, 1981.

Ad 1, Frame 1
This ad is presumably the first of the series - I certainly have not found any that appear to belong to an earlier point in the story arc they represent. Working from this assumption, here we see a classic D&D conceit: the adventure beginning with the player characters standing at the entrance to the dungeon. Of course, one could make a valid argument that we're simply entering the story in media res - fair enough, and possibly supported by evidence we'll examine while discussing the next ad.

In this case, the dungeon is to be found behind "a secret door in the ruins of Zenopus Castle." This frame also introduces us to a core conceit of the game: the adventuring party. This one consists of three player characters: a fighter, an elf, and a magic-user. (Note that Indel is just an "elf" - albeit a particularly short one. Obviously, this isn't a game of Advanced D&D.) The party even appears to have a defined marching order, with the fighter dutifully fulfilling his role as a meat-shield.

Ad 1, Frame 2
Not much to see here, but we are introduced to the concept of infravision. I like the use of subtle visual and textual cues to imply that torches don't shed a heck of a lot of light, as well as the dungeon appearing damp. (Anybody who's looked at a few of my scanned maps will likely have noticed that water features prominently in most of them. Of course, a few puddles are far from "prominent," but hey - any dungeon that has water in it is okay in my book.)

Ad 1, Frame 3
Indel may have a knack for getting into tight spots (as we'll see later), but he's apparently not lacking in chutzpah - he actually volunteers to take point. He must be truly brave and confident in his perceptive abilities. Or maybe he's just a greedy little bugger who wants first dibs on whatever valuable treasure lies ahead. (Given the apparent lack of said perceptive abilities we'll see later, I'd probably guess it's the latter.)

Ad 1, Frame 4
The party switchs up the marching order. In my experience, this would usually happen so that the party can better take advantage of the elf's infravision. Unfortunately, the ad's creators blow any chance of this ad being used to teach new players how to properly explore a dungeon by having Indel bear the torch. So much for the party relying on the elf's infravision to preserve the element of surprise...

Ad 1, Frames 5 & 6
The party obviously only sees the approaching monster as a threatening shadow (and sound) despite the torch being held by the foremost party member. My guess would be that we're witnessing an encounter with a wandering monster, and the DM has rolled that the encounter distance is beyond the torch's 30-foot range. And since Indel can't use his infravision, Grimslade's query is moot. And I don't quite know what Valerius hopes to achieve with a (another?) torch. Then again, he's a fighter, and that often means low INT and WIS...

Finally, the approaching monster is revealed - as a shambling mound. Um... are those even to be found in B/X D&D? I don't think so. Obviously, the DM's doing something many of us regularly did back in the day: combining elements from AD&D into his B/X game. (After all, as far as we were concerned, these were not different games.)

Ad 1, Frame 7
As the shadow of the shambling mound falls over the party, we see that Valerius is a bit of a weeny, as fighters go. Heck, he practically begs Grimslade to cast a "charm" to "save" the party (even resorting to raising his voice). We also see that Indel isn't as brave as he earlier led us to believe, as he cowers behind Grimslade's robes. (I'm leaning more and more toward him being a greedy little you-know-what. I bet his player wanted to play a thief, but didn't get good enough ability score rolls.) Of course, in Valerius' and Indel's defense, that is a very threatening shadow.

I find it interesting that the term Valerius uses here is "charm" instead of "spell." I'd have to give kudos to Valerius' player for not defaulting to player knowledge of the game term in this situation.

Ad 2, Frame 8
Oooohhooohh - our first spell! This frame really caught my attention when I put up yesterday's post.

First, the words Grimslade cites are clearly not something we can understand. Furthermore, they're in a hex-shaped balloon. Is the artist conveying to us visually that D&D's "Vancian" magic is something we cannot comprehend - and somehow mathematical in nature? Hmmmm....

Second, when the spell fires off, not only does it possess an audible element ("Zap!") but it also gives off light. (We know that the light is not merely there to serve as an artistic emphasis because it's this light that reveals the green slime on the walls.) I had never considered that hold monster might appear this way when cast. It really reinforces something I've come to understand: that the spell effects found in the book are not the spell appearances. I know for certain that I, personally, have been allowing spell casting to be handled in far too mundane a manner in my games. I plan to use spell appearances to enhance the sense of wonder in future games, and this frame will serve as a good reminder to that end.

Ad 2, Frame 9
At last, we're introduced to one of my all-time favorite D&D monsters: green slime! Oh, how I love inflicting this stuff on my players. (Ask my fiancee if she remembers her elf trying to crawl under the portcullis trap - only to find out about the patch of green slime lurking in the shadows over the doorway. Muhahahahahaha) I'm pretty sure my love for the stuff was inspired by the next ad - and probably subconsciously fueled by my love for 50's sci-fi movies and my enduring affection for another childhood toy and 70's icon.

In terms of the story, there's not much to see here, as this is the ad's cliffhanger moment.

Next time we'll tackle the second ad - and the appearance of a fourth party member. Stay tuned!
. . . . .


  1. Looking forward to this series. These ads really do seem to get at what's different about this new game...

    And yes to the "de-mundanizing" magic. I'll be running D&D for the first time in forever this weekend, and all the house rules I've been finding (here and on related blogs) to make spellcasting a more monumental, quixotic, and generally fraught affair are much-appreciated!

    Also, I approve of the belt pouches in the ad. :-D

  2. I agree with the previous poster that it's fun to try and figure ways to add mystique back to the game. I played Labyrinth Lord a few months back and I really enjoyed describing kobolds instead of just naming them. That small detail really added to the experience.


  3. ^^^ Ah, that reminds me of an experimental campaign our group's main GM ran--we knew our character's persona, backstory, occupation, etc. But we didn't know their stats. And we didn't do any rolling our GM took care of it all.

    The setting was a rather low-key, accurate medieval world, but our reactions to events wasn't--we were attacked by a few goblins (although, like the above poster did, the GM only described them) and the encounter freaked us out; knowing nothing specific numbers-wise really made it come alive.

  4. I have just a couple comments:

    a) The shambling mound is one of my favorite monsters of all time...I had both B/X and these comics BEFORE I got my first Monster Manual and when I saw the shambling mound in it I was SO ecstatic. I had been WAITING for the appearance of this sludgy creature for a couple years....

    b) For most of my young life, when trying to draw fighters, I nearly ALWAYS attempted to emulate Velerius' helm. Indeed, I STILL doodle it even today.

  5. This first ad was done by an ad agency. After it came out, Jeff Dee, Bill Willingham, and I convinced the ad department at TSR to let us do it, freelance, but "in house" in a sense. I wrote, and Jeff Drew the next one, with Bill Inking, and Bill picked up all the art chores after that. The series ended abruptly, as they just stopped the ad campaign one day -- much to our surprise.


Post a Comment