Adventure Time, D&D, and the Sliding Scale of Silliness vs Seriousness

This summer starts the official launch of Dungeons and Dragons Next, or 5th edition. I’m pretty excited for it, and I’ll admit that I’m pretty optimistic about it after hearing the reviews from some of the many play-testers (of which I was not one). I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I didn’t hold even a fraction of the vitriol a lot of players have had for 4th edition. This might be because Dungeons and Dragons was never my favorite tabletop RPG system to begin with. At least, from a mechanics standpoint. The various worlds and worldbuilding that Wizards of the Coast have put into D&D are wonderful and truly, D&D was the one that started it all for a lot of us. My brother introduced me to D&D when I was in high school and I’ve loved it ever since. Dungeon crawling is, for many of us, a secondary career and first passion.

Recently, I had my first experience with Gamma World, a D20 RPG created by the original publishers of D&D. It takes place in a future where nuclear apocalypse has occurred, the Earth is ruined, and primarily inhabited by mutants, sentient animals and plants, and robots. The tone is extremely silly and lighthearted, the game never forgets how inherently ridiculous and fun its premise is. When my friend was first telling me about it, he described it as “the best Adventure Time RPG we’re ever going to get.” And I was in.

I’ve enjoyed Adventure Time since it first aired in 2010, but when I went to college, I just fell out of the habit of watching regularly. I think I might initially have been embarrassed to be a college student who still watched cartoons, but it wasn’t long before I realized how ridiculous that is – I’m not sure I know any college students who don’t watch cartoons. But recently I decided to watch it all over again from the start, and it was great. I hadn’t heard about any of the events of seasons 4, 5, or 6. I will be talking about some of those, so you know, spoiler alert from here on out.

My brother, after he started watching the show, told me that he thought it was a great show in the style of D&D. I mean, the show is called Adventure Time. And what is a D&D campaign but the time for adventures? There’s a lot of episodes that even take place in dungeons, including of course, “Dungeon”, “Dad’s Dungeon”, “Mystery Dungeon”, and “Dungeon Train”. There’s even some sly cameos of classic D&D monsters; someone in charge of that show is clearly a fan and is familiar with their Monster Manual. One episode has a gelatinous cube and I’m fairly certain that another has a beholder.

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Remember this? Wasn’t this great? (Yes)

Lots of other episodes have plots that would make excellent D&D modules. “The Enchiridion” features a classic dungeon quest, complete with tests of strength, wisdom, valor, and heroism. Any of the episodes featuring the Lich are seriously reminiscent of boss battles, and Marceline’s dad and the Ice King are great recurring villains. The Lemongrab episodes I think would be great D&D adventures because of the choices the player characters have to make – how do you treat him? Do you sympathize? Do you just bash him with your sword? Do you try to help him? All these options and more are equally valid paths for the players to choose.

Of course, one of the most D&D referencing scenes happened during “The Enchiridion” was when the dark magician tries to force Finn to slay an “unaligned ant”. Finn insists that he only slays evil things, and frequently comments on his own goodness. Alignment is one of the most pervasive elements of D&D, one that has really taken hold in pop culture. Every single fandom has fan-made graphics showing various characters in the alignment chart. Of course since the characters vary so greatly based on the writer and the season, there’s a ton of different charts and no one can really agree on who goes where. I think that’s fitting because a lot of episodes deal with the conflicts of moral codes and when characters do things that are out-of-character for them and those are very real things that players deal with during gaming sessions. Sure, you as a player may want to kill all these NPCs, but would your lawful good paladin really do that? Probably not, and if you decide to go through with it anyway, your DM can inflict all sorts of in-narrative penalties.

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There’s… a few different interpretations. I don’t know what’s going on with that 5×5 one.

If you couldn’t tell, when it comes to tabletop RPGs, I’m a real roleplayer, and I’ve never cared much for min-maxing, hack-and-slash, or munchkining. I want to get inside a character’s head. And I’ve mentioned before that although I tend to prefer lighthearted things, there is plenty of room in my heart for darker or more serious stories. One of the best things about Dungeons and Dragons is that you can tell any kind of story you want. Do you want a wacky, zany dungeon crawl where you and your friends kill everything in your path? Go for it! Do you want a years-long intense campaign full of intrigue and drama? The more power to you, friend! And Adventure Time can be the same way. The first couple seasons of the show are almost entirely silly, funny small-time adventures. The characterization is not super deep, the world is fairly small, and the stakes are not especially high. Things are all apple pies and old VHS tapes and snails who are actually slugs. As time goes by, though, that changes a lot. We start to get serious in-depth looks at who the main characters really are, the worldbuilding becomes seriously extensive, and the stakes just keep getting higher and higher. Princess Bubblegum’s morality goes further and further off the rails, the Lich threatens the existence of the world, at the end of season five Finn gets his arm permanently amputated (as a side note, am I the only one who thinks it would have been way better if it had actually stayed that way for longer than 4 episodes, if it had really been permanent?).

Because of this, there’s a divide in the fandom between people who prefer the earlier seasons and those who prefer the later seasons. Of course there are still silly, fluffy episodes in seasons 5 and 6 and you can see some real powerful storytelling in seasons 1 and 2. It seems to me that a lot of this would correlate with gamer’s preferences for different types of campaigns. Unfortunately, a lot of gamers and fans like to shame other gamers and fans for their preference. All points on the Sliding Scale of Silliness versus Seriousness are valid, right? Just because you don’t enjoy something doesn’t make it worthless or bad. Fans hating on other fans for the way they enjoy something makes me so sad, when we could all unite under the banner of the things we love. Especially with smaller fandoms and communities. In my hometown growing up, I did not know anyone except my brother who played D&D and he spent most of the year at college. When I finally did find another group of players, we all had pretty different styles, but we were so few that it would’ve been a terrible idea to antagonize one another over our gaming preferences. Unfortunately, I now know quite a few gamers, including many who like to do just that. Friends, please, can we just agree to play our games and enjoy our stories without harassing each other over it? You know we still catch enough shit from outsiders who don’t get the hobby anyway.

Oh, and if you like Adventure Time, you should definitely give D&D a try, because if you enjoy watching those adventures, imagine how fun it is to play them out yourself.

3 comments for “Adventure Time, D&D, and the Sliding Scale of Silliness vs Seriousness

  1. July 25, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    I think every episode of Adventure Time has been better than the one that preceded it. It’s the best tv show I have seen.
    And of course really digging on the D&D stuff such as the battles over Flame Princess’ alignment. Adventure Time changed how we play D&D.

    • July 25, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      That’s so great! It definitely opened my eyes to a lot of different creative things you can do with the basic D&D mechanics that I never would have thought of before.

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