No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

When I undertook the task of examining each frame of TSR's 1980's-era comic ads, I originally intended to only do so with the pair I posted this past Monday. As I published the second dissected-ad post, it occurred to me that I might need to consider performing the same post-mortem procedure on the remaining ads.

Well, judging from the interest those posts generated, it looks like my posting schedule for next week has been decided: I'll be taking a look at the remaining ads.

I stole a little time yesterday to flip through my collection of 80's comics looking for all of the ads, just to make sure I have a complete set. As a result, I came up with eight mini-adventure ads, running from August, 1981, through September, 1982. I'm fairly certain that's the extent of TSR's mini-adventure ad campaign, since the next D&D ad I found after that was a boring, product-based ad, and no other mini-adventure ads appeared in any of my comics past that date.

I've covered the first two of these ads already, so starting Monday I'll take my scalpel to the "Ad 3":

. . . . .


  1. Oh Indel, what hijinks will you get yourself into next?

  2. I like how the dragon is using "worm" as an insult.

    Or do dragons not like the term "wyrm"? Eh...

  3. Saren has that serious push-up bra action going on, doesn't she? Crazy.

    Thanks, Christopher.
    --Willingham rocks.

  4. Wow, images of my youth just came rushing back. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  5. Hello! I used to be an avid reader of comics and I really enjoyed the breakdown of these ads through the eyes of a DM. Although I no longer play D&D, I do write D&D stories and I'm wondering why you never finished the series. There's still the Dungeon of Roakire and Quest Through the Savage Country and perhaps you could provide a prediction of how it could've ended. I think I read somewhere that Khellek eventually betrays the party. Not surprising in the least in that he dresses like a Demonologist! I'm always looking for new ideas or a different perspective. Thanx!

    1. Thanks for commenting! Alas, diverging interests and real-world issues intruded, and I got sidetracked from the task at hand. Perhaps one day, when the nostalgia bug again bites me, I'll renew my "dissection" of these old ads...

      (And you write D&D stories? Color me intrigued!)

    2. All right, cool. I write under morpheus0000 Fear No Evil is my low level characters starting point and Planet Threadim is my superhero crossover adventure. Currently working on a classic dungeon crawl to connect those two tales. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, constructive criticism, opinions, etc. besides my biased brother's vitriol.

  6. You can check my comments on the other posts for more, but, I'm the writer of the entire newsstand series of D&D comics ads. Bill did most of the art, and wrote and drew the Epic ads on his own.

    Sharp-eyed readers may notice that as the series progressed, the "clip coupon" ad space got larger and larger. Meaning, as time went on, we had less and less panel space to work with. But because we were conscientious and loved the game, we tried to make sure that every episode had a little story/conflict of its own -- and that story had the flavor of D&D, even if it didn't adhere strictly to the rules of class, levels, etc. The ads were supposed to get people interested in the game, and clearly they did that.

    So, once we finished the 4-episode 1st "arc," we convinced the ad department to let us do a 6-epsisode 2nd arc, wilderness adventure. And we threw as much action into that as their "no fighting, no looting, and don't even call the cleric a cleric" (lest TSR be descended on by Angry Mommies from Heck) strictures would let us.

    And then, 2 episodes before the end of the 2nd arc, they pulled the plug on the whole ad series without any warning. (They did the same with Bill's Epic D&D ad series.) Oh, well! Maybe somewhere in my archives I have notes for what was supposed to happen next. But maybe not, it was so long ago.

    Memory tells me that our heroes were going to NOT fight their way through the castle to confront the final enemy, who they then would NOT fight but somehow achieve victory.

    And, of course, we'd try to get Indel killed a couple more times. 'Cause that's why everyone was reading, right? ;)

  7. It's too bad the series ended so abruptly. It must be strange working for a company that promotes a hack and slash action environ but then doesn't want to advertise it that way, but it does explain the characters odd use of spells. A few questions though. I don't understand why they were facing goblins at 15 XP each and then a Shambling Mound at 6,000 XP. And there's no explanation of how a werewolf turns into a raven (I'm thinking he was an evil Druid) or how they rescued Grimslade's mentor, Grindal. Or why Grimslade aged thirty years for no reason! There's also a theory that the party is stuck within a time loop. I like to think the Red Dragon toasted them and they had to begin at the inn every time. Any truth to these statements? I feel Indel was just comic relief for my kid brother to enjoy. Sorry, I sound critical and I know it's not an exact science but these little ads actually raise more questions than they answer. All in all, I do appreciate your contribution to the D&D dynasty.

  8. Well, you have to remember the times. Back then, we were actually working on Basic-Expert, and it was after AD&D, so there wasn't really a fixed set of rules we were creating under -- and why should we? We were the ones making up the rules, anyway. Also, most of us working on the Creative Division were of the "D&D is for adults" bent, while increasingly, parts of management moved toward a "mass market" view of the game -- a game that kids (of all ages) could play. Plus, the absurd Satanic Panic was also building at the time. And, there were struggles within TSR's management itself. So, this series of ads is caught right in the middle of all that.

    What Bill & I (& Jeff, briefly) were doing was trying to capture the spirit of the game in an exciting way -- not to particularly adhere to any set of rules. We wanted to give some sense of what it was like to PLAY and get swept up in the adventure of D&D. (Not get wrapped up in levels and XP and all the game details.) My favorite quote from Gary is: "Two rules: 1) Have fun, 2) Use dice." If you want these adventures to follow the rules... They just don't. (And remember, we inherited most of the cast from the 1st episode we didn't create.) But, I think we captured the feel of the game pretty well.

    Anyway, to get adventure into each story, we had to use a lot of shortcuts -- especially since we couldn't have any fighting, or death, or taking of treasure, or even -- later on -- use the words "cleric" or "spell." (Saren barely snuck in before that "cleric" thing.) Those last 2 because of the Satanic Panic thing. Plus, the coupon in the ad kept getting bigger, and our art, therefore, smaller. My first ep had 9 panels, I think; the last, 4 panels.

    So, goblins and dragons couldn't be killed (nor treasure looted) because of "ad rules." Grimslade didn't age, he was younger in the flashback (see the panel borders?) -- though the way Bill drew him did change over time. Yeah, Oakthorn his a druid. His companion is a straight-up werewolf. I guess Bill and I didn't make that as clear as we could have. But remember, we didn't have a lot of space. They didn't get to rescue Grindal because the plug got pulled on the ad series, 2 episodes before the end. Those episodes were never done, though I may have notes on them somewhere.

    And I think I said in a reply somewhere here that we decided it would be fun to pick on Indel, maybe because he looked silly in the episode we didn't create. :D

    As to the idea that the "Dimension Door" spell at the end of the series loops them back to the start of the series, back in the dungeon again... Ha ha. I _love_ that theory! But no. The ad budget just ran out before we got to finish the story. (Sorry! Believe me, we were more disappointed at that than anyone!)

  9. To tell the truth I didn't really follow D&D back then. I played some in the 90's but never found a consistent group of players. It also didn't help that our DM would do a TPK just as we were about to level up! Now I get my fix by watching Critical Role.
    Luckily, I'm not tied down by company policy, but I also don't earn a weekly paycheck. I write my fantasy stories with a bit of realism thrown in. I leave the reader (My one reader!) stumped in unanswered questions and they don't always end with a happy conclusion.
    It's especially odd that the term Cleric denoted a negative connotation. The Satanic Panic conspiracy reminds of the Mazes and Monsters movie with Tom Hanks trying to act his way through it. The irony behind that silliness is that those conservative, religious parents have become what they feared-- a cult following a loser of an Ex-President!
    The flashback makes even less sense. Grimslade is younger and recalling their first adventure but in it they're battling the unnamed dragon who they just fought! So it's not their first adventure, it's their only adventure! More evidence that they're spinning in circles. Haha!
    There's another mystery as to who or what causes the avalanche and why Saren is so badly injured that she can't even heal herself.
    I understand you were limited by the company and what you could do in such a short span. I hope you find those old notes. Maybe you could finish it by writing a short story. Just a thought.

  10. The trouble with “cleric,” as I remember, was that they were afraid to offend actual clerics -- real clergy. And they didn’t want people suggesting that our clerics were worshiping other gods than the Judeo-Christian-Moslem God -- because to the crowd that was worried about such things, all other gods but God were Satan. And parts of TSR were very worried, because of the “Satanic Panic” about TSR (and it’s D&D game clerics) being in any way related to Satan.

    Absurd, of course, but there it was. “Healer” was probably out the same way, either because that was seen as some kind of pagan thing, or maybe even because healing was the sole province of Christ, and to suggest otherwise was blasphemy.

    A _lot_ of things were blasphemy to the “Angry Mommies from Heck,” as Jim Ward called them. And a chunk of TSR’s management wanted to keep those elements appeased. I’m not claiming it made sense, because clearly all of the stuff those people were afraid of was as much a fantasy as what we were actually doing in the games… and the ads.

    And I no longer remember if Mazes & Monsters was something that helped spur the Satanic Panic, or merely another cash-in on it. The panic was a huge cash grab for misguided and unscrupulous religious leaders and their ilk.

    About the flashback...

    You’re misreading it. In it, the heroes are fighting a _different_ dragon -- a Black Dragon, clearly from the coloring -- because they’re younger adventurers and are fighting a lower-level dragon than the Red Dragon they “fought” in the previous strip. (Perhaps Bill’s dragons all look alike to you? ;) )

    My memory on the avalanche is that it was part of the wilderness adventure thing that we were doing. I don’t recall if the snowstorm was something sent against them by their enemies, but probably it was just one of those outdoors pitfalls. There may have been others weather hazards planned for that episode, too, but here’s the real trick:

    The amount of space we had to tell our story kept shrinking, and the size of that “clip and mail in” form kept getting larger.

    In that last episode, I think the final panel count is 4 panels. (I don’t have it in front of me.) I’m sure that I wrote it for 6 or possibly 7 panels (you can see the earlier ads had more panels).

    But, between my plotting it and Bill drawing it, the space allotted for art in the ad changed. So, Bill condensed the story by cutting out the actual avalanche and possibly other things I don’t remember at the moment -- and of course that includes Saren getting caught and injured in the snow-slide.

    (Remember, our heroes couldn’t be shown battling anything, so “natural causes” or things like slime and traps were the only way to “hurt’ them, or bring much peril at all to the strip.)

    So, Bill would condense the thing, doing the best he could, and then I’d write/rewrite the captions/balloons, and since Bill was lettering, sometimes he’d tweak the words to fit around the drawings. (I grew much better at fitting word balloons to spaces in my comics career.) Then I might get another look and tweak a word or two, and he (probably) did the color guides, and off the art would go to get turned into the final ad.

    Finally, it would be fun digging out the notes for the original story and finish it, or re-create it from what’s there -- which I’m pretty sure I could do, despite the condensation etc. that happened during the production process.

    Sadly, the run of that ad campaign was cut short, and we probably lost 2 episodes for what the story was intended to be. And of course, this happened without warning. Thus were the winds of TSR internal politics!

    And Bill and I were out of a freelance job. (2 jobs for him!)

    But 40 years later.. People remember those ads with great fondness -- and more than a little speculation, it seems! :)


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