The face of tabletop gaming changed in 1974 when TSR, Inc. introduced Dungeons & Dragons to the scene. Created by avid gamers Gary Gygax and Dave Anderson, the game aimed to revolutionize the wargames genre with a new fantasy take. However, it took a while to create the right set of rules and formulas. Gygax’s first attempt, Chainmail, showed promise but never became a huge success. Luckily, Dave Anderson came around to introduce Gygax to a new world of fantasy developed by expanding on Chainmail. So, the two formed a partnership to gradually transform Anderson’s Blackmoor into Dungeons and Dragons.
Even though they believed in their new game, the pair could not find a publishing partner. Thus, they deiced to take the project into their own hands and self-publish under a new company, TSR. The game quickly sold out and even gained an underground bootleg following. By 1977, they refined the rules even further to introduce the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons edition of the game. However, its greatest moment for exposure came from the Satanic Panic that began to swirl around the 1980s.
Even though there were parent watch groups, like Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, condemning the game, TSR saw a chance to expand its reach. Gygax fully believed that the game could become a hit in Hollywood, so he created several new segments of TSR by 1983: TSR International, TSR Ventures, and TSR Entertainment, Inc. In the end, the game gained two new products to help introduce new people to the game: a toy line and an animated series.
When it came to the toys, TSR had two different companies vying for the opportunity to create the game’s first action figures in 1982. While the game was no stranger to physical figurines, having companies like Grenadier Miniatures create them from 1980 to 1983, they had never featured proper action figures and playsets. Both Mego and LJN vied for the license, and LJN eventually triumphed and became the official home for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons toy line.
As LJN developed the new toy line, they relied on the artistic skills of TSR’s Jeff Easley and Tim Truman. With their help, they created a fantastical set of player characters and monsters that brought the game to life. The first wave of toys began to pop up on toy shelves across the nation in 1983.
LJN’s first wave of action figures featured multiple scales. There were the 3 ¾” size action figures that featured the main cast of characters, who each referenced one of the main classes from the game. Then, there were the 5” Battle Masters like the Northlord and Young Male Titan. They even introduced three mounts, 2 for the heroic Strongheart, both Bronze Dragon and Destier, and one for the vile Warduke, Nightmare. There were even two monster figures: Dragonne and Hooked Horror. However, the greatest adventures were waiting in the Fortress of Fangs playset.
With stand-out features like real cloth capes and cloaks, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons easily earned a second wave of toys in 1984. While the second wave took away the cloth features, it added several new aspects to the toys. There were now three wind-up toys to collect: Cave Fisher, Pernicon, and Tarrasque creatures. There were also 6 different bendy figures including a hydra, a carrion crawler, and Neo-Oytguh. The line also expanded with 18 different sets of PVC paired sets featuring characters like the Umber Hulks and the Dwarves of the Mountain King.
Meanwhile, they added 6 new 3 ¾” player figures and 2 new 5” Battle Masters. There was even a gift set of 1” figurines that featured most of the main player characters: Elkhorn, Kelex, Ringlerun, Strongheart, Warduke, and Zarak. The most awe-astounding part of the second wave was the gigantic new beast, Tiamat the five-headed monster. Unfortunately, all these new additions did not propel the line into a third wave.
As LJN produced the toys in America, two toy lines made a notable appearance in Europe. Both Portugal and Spain contributed to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons toy line. Especially when M+B, Maia & Borges, introduced exclusive PVC characters that pulled directly from the cartoon series. These were the only figures from this era that resembled the show since LJN did not have the rights to the cartoon’s characters. While most of these figurines remained exclusive to Europe, 4 PVC figures made their way to the United States when TSR rereleased the Fantasy Forest A Child’s First Adventure Game. Thus, it is possible to find Hank, Pesto, Selia, and Uni from the united states.
As LJN created brand new action figures for TSR, the company sought out a way to endear children with a cartoon series. Marvel Productions became the home of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series, which eventually launched in September 1983. Kevin Paul Coats and Denis Marks reworked the general premise of the game to form the story of 6 children who found themselves in the D&D world after a magical carnival ride.
Each of these children gained abilities that harkened back to the main classes from the tabletop game. There was Hank the Ranger, Eric the Cavalier, Diana the Acrobat, Presto the Magician, Sheila the Theif, and Bobby the Barbarian. They also gained a magical unicorn companion, Uni. Over the course of 3 seasons with 27 total episodes, this group fought back against the evil of Venger. The cartoon series even featured cameos from many of the characters from LJN’s toy line.
While the cartoon would have ended on an episode named “Requiem”, written by one of the major writers for the show, Michael Reaves. The episode was never produced. Eventually, a radio play reading the script of the show was released in 2006 with a box set of the series.
At the height of the Dungeons & Dragons craze, there were many companies creating merchandise for the game. Before LJN’s toy line, Mattel created a Labyrinth Game, an electronic board game, in 1980. Mattel Electronics then produced an electronic Computer Fantasy Game in 1981. Meanwhile, Coleco stylized one of their popular Power Cycles after LJN’s toy line.
Not long after both the show and the toy line ended, the excitement around Dungeons & Dragons began to wane. Not only did the company have issues finding a studio to make a movie with, but it hit financial difficulties as well. Thus, Wizards of the Coast bought up TSR, Inc. in 1997. Then, the company found yet another new home when Hasbro bought Wizards of the Coast in 1999, one year before the first theatrical movie appeared. Unfortunately, this movie did not have an accompanying toy line. The movie’s two direct-to-video sequels also failed to generate new toys. So, the game remained the main source of merchandise during these years.
Collectors still had options during these years, for TSR continued to have companies create miniatures for the game. From 1984 to 1986, Citadel Miniatures took over the production. Companies like Ral Partha and TSR themselves also made miniatures. TSR also produced a promotional comic book series that featured grown-up characters from the cartoon in 1996.
In recent years, Dungeons & Dragons have had a brand new wave of exciting merchandise. Beginning in 2019, Iron Studios began to produce diorama statues of the characters from the 1980s cartoon. Then, the game gained a cross-over with Wizard of the Coast’s other famous game, Magic: The Gathering, with the Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures of the Forgotten Realm. These cards were released from 2021 to 2022. Soon after, Neca unveiled their series of action figures that recreated the glory of LJN’s toys in 2022. They also announced that they would be producing Ultimates versions of the beloved characters.
In 2023, Dungeons & Dragons are riding another high as a new theatrical movie, Honor Amongst Thieves, will be hitting theaters. Along with this new movie, Hasbro is producing transforming dice monsters called Dicelings. They also are releasing a Dungeons & Dragons Classic Collection that features characters from the cartoon: Bobby with Uni, Diana, and Hank. Funko is also adding even more Dungeons & Dragons toys to their line-up.
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