D&D, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

Did Cartoon Tiamat’s Design Influence the Look of Modern Dragons?

If you are reading this blog, you are undoubtedly a fan of both dungeons and dragons. While dangerous trips to underground caverns and cellars filled with treasure and strange creatures are great, I have always found the dragon part of the game’s title the most interesting. I love all the different varieties of dragons, their breath weapons, personality quirks, just about everything about them.

Tiamat, as the biggest, baddest dragon of all, has always been a favorite of mine. I was spellbound by her representation in the D&D cartoon (which I gushed over once before here). When you are nine years old, a giant five headed dragon is about as cool as it gets. When I was older, I enjoyed Takhisis from the Dragonlance saga, as well. Elmore and Easley were my favorite artists back in the day, largely because they really knew how to paint my favorite reptilian villains.

When I got back into D&D last year, one of the first things that struck me was how different the five types of chromatic dragons were from one another. Other than size and color, there really weren’t many physical differences between the varieties in old school D&D. These days, each breed has traits that make them unique, like the skull-faced blacks and the horn-crested blue. I love this, as it makes the different types feel much different from one another.

As I perused the different miniatures, flipped through the Draconomicon, and looked at images online, I somehow found the modern look of dragons to be familiar. Recently, I watched an episode of the D&D cartoon again, and a light bulb went off in my mind. The “house style” for modern dragons looks to have been inspired by the iconic presentation of Tiamat in the cartoon. It’s not an exact match, but there are a few similarities that are so obvious, I can’t help but think they are intentional.

I was unable to find anything about the subject online, so I decided to use my elite MS Paint skills to compare the cartoon and modern versions more directly. Using graphics from the official Wizards site, as well as crops from the image of cartoon Tiamat above, I was able to place the old and new versions of each chromatic dragon side by side. You might be surprised by how similar the two are!

We’ll start with the smallest type of dragon, one that has been partnered with frost giants in adventures since D&D began: the white dragon. In this case, the similarities between the cartoon and the modern dragon are striking. The finned crest at the top of the head is almost exactly the same between the two. It’s very distinctive. In both versions, the white dragon is rather plain in appearance, without any horns or spikes to speak of, compared with the more colorful breeds.

Next we come to the black dragon, dweller of swamps and bogs. The modern black dragon has a unique skull-like face, far different from its modern companions. While the cartoon dragon’s face doesn’t share that same shape, it is similarly shortened, with a higher nose, like the modern. The flat shape of the head is unique to the black in both the cartoon and modern versions. Most especially, the signature downward curved horns are the same between the two. Overall, the black dragons are one of the closer matches.

A step up in size, we find the green dragon, well-known for being sneaky and cunning. Here, the similarities between the two are not quite as evident. The cartoon green has a series of spikes down the back of its neck, as does the modern version. But the webbing between the spikes is missing in the modern green. Conspicuously absent from the cartoon green are the prominent nose horn and cheek spikes of the modern. I suppose one could argue that both have a bumpy, elongated snout, but that’s really stretching it.

The mighty blue dragon, with its lightning breath weapon, is next on our list. Here, perhaps, are the most obvious shared characteristics. The cartoon blue is the only one with a nose horn, and this feature is mirrored in the modern blue’s large forehead horn, though the location is slightly different. A row of spikes down the back of the neck is another common feature. The large spiky flaps on the ear area of the modern blue are reminiscent of the cartoon’s webbed fins. The blue dragons probably have the strongest correlations between the cartoon and the modern version.

The largest, most powerful dragon breed, the magnificent red, is a fitting end to this little study. Unfortunately, the cartoon and modern red dragons have very little in common. I always thought the cartoon red had an almost Oriental-style look to it, more lion-like than reptilian, very much unlike Tiamat’s other heads. Thus, there only a few similarities between the two, and they are far less specific. The orange, hair-like spots on the neck and cheeks are vaguely similar to the fins and spikes on the modern dragon. The prominent eye ridges on the cartoon red are perhaps indicative of the regal horns of the modern counterpart. But overall, the modern red looks more like its newer brethren than it does the cartoon red. Disappointing, for the purposes of this post, but nonetheless true.

The final tally, then, looks something like this. The blue and black dragons are very unique in the cartoon, and their modern equivalents share many of the same attributes, like the black’s downward facing horns and the blue’s large horn crest. The white dragons are not as close a match, but still very much alike; the green is only vaguely similar. The red dragon in the cartoon is wildly different from the others, and shares only a passing resemblance to the modern equivalent. If this were school, I’d grade the similarities as two As, a B+, a C, and a D- (passing only because I don’t want a mad red dragon parent after me). That averages out to a B-, which I’d say is a fairly strong correlation.

Maybe I am just totally off here, but I think it is clear that the artists who designed the look of modern dragons were influenced by the design of Tiamat in the cartoon. Perhaps this was intentional, as a sort of nod to the past, or perhaps it was subconscious. It might even have been a bald-faced coincidence. Whatever the case, taking a look at this has been very interesting for me, and hopefully for you as well. What do you think?

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

D&Development: The Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon

When I’m not making battle maps, thinking of reasons why I shouldn’t purchase new minis, or otherwise thinking about D&D, I read comic books.  I still have a good sized collection from my childhood, and I’ve been rereading some of my older stuff from the early 1980s.  Perhaps more enjoyable than the comics themselves are the ads, which provide an amazing snapshot into popular culture from the time.  It was while reading a few old ads that I came across the inspiration for this installment of D&Development.

Finding ads for D&D in comic books was hardly uncommon.  After all, there was a good overlap between comic fans and D&D’s target audience.  Brief, one page comic-style ads for D&D made the game appear very interesting to me as a child, and I’m certain that my first actual exposure to the game came from such ads.  However, it was seeing another ad, this one for the animated series based on D&D, that reminded me how much that show influenced me as a D&D fan.

The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon began in the fall of 1983, which was a full year before I had my first “real” session of the game on the playground in 5th grade.  The setup was intriguing, with a group of children riding a (scary looking, to a 9 year old) roller coaster that transported them to a magical fantasy world.  There, they met the Dungeon Master, a quirky, powerful, yet odd little man who cast a spell enabling the kids to adapt to their strange new surroundings.  Seeing this played out on my TV screen on Saturday Morning with the Smurfs and He-Man just about blew my mind.

Looking back on it, the D&D cartoon was little more than a glorified, half hour long commerical.  The animation wasn’t very good at all, and the stories weren’t particularly memorable.  The characters themselves followed the common pattern of the time in that they played to stereotypes.  You had the perfect leader, the cowardly whiner, the young kid who the viewers could relate to, and even a cute little mascot.  But even with its many flaws, the show had an impact on me, one that would have a tremendous effect on my time as a player of D&D and more importantly as a DM.

Perhaps the most obvious thing that the cartoon taught me was about character classes.  One would think that the show would include the classic four from the dawn of D&D’s history: fighter, cleric, magic-user, and thief.  Instead, only the latter two made it into the show directly.  Instead of a straight fighter, we got three subclasses: ranger, barbarian, and cavalier.  Alongside the thief was another oddity, the acrobat.  When I began playing D&D myself, using the classic red box set, I was shocked that these four classes were not included.  Why would there be classes in the cartoon that were unavailable in the game itself?  The ranger, barbarian, and cavalier could be considered fighters, sure.  But the acrobat was totally unlike anything from basic D&D.  And where was the party’s cleric, anyway?

It was several years later, when I moved on to AD&D 2nd Edition, that I learned where these strange classes came from.  In a friend’s battered old copy of Unearthed Arcana, the cavalier, barbarian, and acrobat were presented as classes.  The ranger, of course, was from the AD&D Player’s Handbook.  Interestingly, I still to this day don’t think of cavaliers as riding horses, though that’s one of the defining features of the class.  I attribute this to the cartoon.  The image of mounted knight riding into battle just isn’t as ingrained into my brain as seeing Eric walking around with the rest of the party is!

Beyond the classes, the weapons used by the group shaped my understanding of what magic items were supposed to be.  It seemed like most of the items in the Basic red box and even the Expert sets were fairly mundane.  A +1 sword was great mechanically but very plain otherwise.  I tended to use magic items that were clearly magical, that looked cool (in my imagination, at least) in addition to being handy in battle.  Magical weapons in my D&D games had a tendency to be on fire, covered in lightning, or have the ability to talk.  Of course, every single bow I ever gave out supplied it’s own magical arrows, just like Hank’s iconic weapon.  I handed out bags of holding like candy, since they allowed me to pretty much ignore encumbrance and they also reminded me of Presto’s hat.  This inclination for even the simplest magic items to be epic in feel is something I see myself doing even in my 4E campaign today.

The villains in the D&D cartoon were formative for me as well.  Venger may have been somewhat stereotypical as far as his actions went, but his character design was amazing.  Fangs, batwings, pale white skin, and the asymmetrical one-horned hat, plus a sweet demonic horse to fly around on… he was far cooler than any of the good guys were (except Presto, MAYBE).  And that voice!  Peter Cullen is spectacular.  If the big bad evil guy in your campaign is even half as “good” as Venger, you should be glad.

The other main antagonist, Tiamat, was like something right out of my 9 year old mind.  If a dragon was the greatest foe you could fight, a dragon with five heads had to be the ultimate challenge.  My love for Tiamat on the show made me even more of a fan of Dragonlance than I might have been otherwise, since Takhisis was so similar.  I’ve always liked having dragons in my campaigns, and I must admit that especially in my first few campaigns, I overused them.  Balancing my desire to use dragons all the time along with making them still feel special and intimidating is tough for me.  My current 4E campaign involves a delve into a temple of Tiamat, and I’ve enjoyed designing and running these sessions immensely.

Though the D&D cartoon wasn’t the greatest animated effort, and the characters were a bit bland, and the stories were hokey, it had a huge influence on me.  It taught me about character classes and the importance of a party working together.  It showed me how exciting and creative that magical items and spells could be.  And it gave me two great templ;ates for villains that I would use in many campaigns throughout my DMing career.  The D&D show was the earliest and perhaps one of the biggest influences on my development as a player and DM.