Adapting the D&D Cartoon to Playable Adventure, Part 2 – Nuts & Bolts

Part One is here

Note this article was written in 2005 and thus 3.5 edition D&D was used.

I knew that adapting the cartoon to the actual rules and “reality” if you will of the D&D roleplaying game wouldn’t be easy. In the cartoon all the characters are controlled by one person – the writer of the episode in question. Their powers change at any given time to handle the situation. When everyone needs to make their Reflex save to survive, everyone makes their Reflex save. No actual dice are rolled. That’s probably the trickiest bit.

Enter: Action Points. Action points (Drama Dice, etc) are actually quite popular in d20 variants and other RPGs right now, so it’s not too far of a stretch for most roleplayers to get. In Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed, “Hero Points” basically add 20 to a die roll. In my campaign, there are no real rules for Action Dice. If you fail at a task and you want to cash in (“burn”) an Action Point, I can make the player reroll, or I can just say for the sake of the story that the task succeeded. I’ve been doing this for a while with Zero Dice in Spaceship Zero so I’ve gotten the hang of where the ends of the spectrum are for in-game cheats like this. If the characters are to survive the sometimes awesome perils set upon them in the stories adapted from the cartoon, they will definitely need some rerolls or out-and-out fudging. Action Points are given to a player who does something heroic or solves one of DM riddles or basically does whatever is needed to advance the story (in a dramatic way).


You, the actual DM, will have to decide how long the campaign is going to be. Will you try to adapt the entire series of 27 episodes? Or will you just try a few for novelty’s sake? Also, how will you distribute experience points? What CR is Venger and Tiamat, and at what level do you pit the kids against a beholder? My solution was to pick less than ten episodes. I give them exactly enough XP to advance to the next level once an episode is complete. So I can expect the PCs to reach between 6th and 10th level before I call the campaign quits.

If you use alignment in the campaign (which I can’t say I recommend) you will want your player characters to be “pure of heart” for the purpose of a couple episodes. How “pure of heart” is defined is up to you, but I would assume it means chaotic good, neutral good or lawful good. If you’ve got players who are not accustomed to roleplaying outside the confines of the alignment system and are likely to kill for the sake of killing, then by all means enforce a good alignment on your players.

Killing monsters and taking their stuff is a staple of D&D, but in the cartoon, chests full of gold and magic items rarely came up. The kids rarely had any need for money, and they never picked up any new weapons or armor or other magic items (even when they went to the Dragon’s Graveyard, the source of their weapons, where they found a number of new powerful items). Don’t expect real PCs to do likewise, so if you’re going to hand out treasure, put some thought into it. Giving a character a +3 greatsword when his Weapon of Power is only a +2 longsword could cause some problems. Potions and protective items (rings of protection, cloaks of resistance, bracers of armor) and even masterwork armor and the like shouldn’t present any problems, but one must consider whether a high school teen is proficient with shields and heavy armor.

One difference between the characters in a regular D&D campaign and this cartoon adaptation is that the characters are modern day human children – no gnomes or halfelves allowed. They were raised on pizza pops, TV and computers, and unless they were boy scouts they probably don’t know how to survive in the wild. They certainly don’t have any ranks in the Spellcraft skill and nobody can speak Draconic. Certain feats would be prohibited.

Each class in D&D provides it’s own number of skill points that the character can put into a certain range of ‘class skills’ and ‘cross-class skills.’ The whole idea of skills is based on one’s background and education. In D&D, for example, a Sorcerer gets an average of 12 skill points while a rogue gets 36. It doesn’t really make sense for six high school kids to have such a variance in skill points except by age difference*, so as the DM you’ve got to decide how integral the skills are to a class and make your adjustments.

(* if you wanted to implement the rule that the sorcerer, wizard, cleric, barbarian and paladin must be the youngest and the rogue must be the oldest of the kids, that might work, except that many class skills, especially the barbarian, are physical rather than intellectual in nature.)

What you might want to do is have your players make their basic, normal human characters using a point buy system like that found in Mutants & Masterminds. At the very least you could do this with skill points and feats, if you still wanted the players to roll up their basic abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma) randomly, to provide a little fickle-as-fate verisimilitude. After all, what are “class skills” to someone in grade 10?

I allowed each player to choose the kind of magic item that “Dungeon Master” would give to him. It had to be something that could be grabbed away when necessary, yet also something that the character traditionally hangs on to. Magic armor or a magic dart, for example, would be problematic choices. One of my players wanted magic bolas, but I foresaw problems in that whenever he threw the bolas at an enemy, one throw and he’d be out a magic weapon until the fight was over.

Something else to consider is how much of the character’s class “powers” comes from his magic item and how much is his natural ability? If his magic weapon is taken away, is he pretty much still the same threat to an enemy? Monks in particular could go this way.

Lastly, assume the Weapons of Power are indestructible. If the PC is silly enough to lose his weapon, DM can always appear having retrieved it.

In the D&D cartoon series, Presto can reach into his hat and pull out a “spell” an unlimited number of times per day. Granted, the spells often fail, but he’s never once said “I can’t cast a spell because I’m out of magic” (except for that one time when all of the kids weapons failed). Likewise, Venger keeps hurling those magic bolts indefinitely. How I reconcile this within gameplay is this: all spellcasters “know” all of the spells appropriate for their level and can cast an unlimited number of spells. (This effectively makes the sorcerer and wizard class the same.) Since nobody is memorizing or praying for spells at a certain time of day, and nobody has spent their lifetime studying spells and writing them into their spellbook, it only makes sense. The downside is that any time a spellcaster casts a spell, he has to make a concentration check. For the number of spells that is normal to their class allotment (like three 0-level and one 1st level spell for a druid), the Concentration DC is 2 (1 is always a failure). Once they start casting spells over their normal allotment, however, the Concentration DC raises by about 5 points per spell cast. The first spell has a Concentration DC of 5, the second 10, the third 15 etc. Whenever a Concentration check is failed, the spell backfires or otherwise doesn’t manifest as intended, at the discretion of the DM.

In addition, the kids probably shouldn’t have any evil spells within their purview, or else Dungeon Master will get his knickers in a knot.

In the D&D cartoon, classes were pretty much meaningless – it was the Weapons of Power that gave the kids their powers. There are two exceptions, however: Diana was obviously a real gymnast back in the real world; and one can assume that Hank had some training in archery in order to hit the marks he consistently was called upon to hit. There will have to be some rationalization between the numbers on the character sheet and the reality of living as a modern teenager. For example, my player Norm wanted to be a young barbarian similar to Bobby in the cartoon. He rolled a 17 for Strength, but I decided that was too much for an 11-year old, and we made the rule that only when he wielded his magic greatsword did his Strength get boosted to 17, otherwise it would be 10.

The Barbarian’s Strength and Constitution is of utmost importance to the class, so one way or another you will want to allow the player to be able to exploit these. CLASS FEATURES: Does your barbarian’s “fast movement” come from the kids natural ability, or from his Weapon of Power? Likewise with the “rage,” “uncanny dodge,” and “trap sense” abilities.
Unlike a regular barbarian, your kid hopefully won’t be illiterate.
I think the natural magical item for a barbarian would be a greatsword, greatclub, or greataxe. Maces and flails are good too.

Your Bard character will want a high Charisma, which can be found in the occasional teenager. The arcane spells the bard casts as well as his “bardic music” abilities must come from his Weapon of Power, whether that be an actual weapon of some kind or a musical instrument or some other article. The problem with the bard is that a modern teenager would have no Bardic Knowledge but you could easily compensate for this with more skill points or an extra feat.

Here’s a dilly of a pickle. Why would a kid be made a cleric? Is he religious? Are there gods in your campaign world that provide him with divine spells and what is his holy symbol? The whole Weapons of Power thing contradicts this. Couple these problems with the fact that clerics are usually the ‘last choice’ of the typical D&D player, this one is a bit of a dog. Now it’s not impossible to say that the cleric casts his spells the same way he would if he were the sorcerer – from his magic weapon, but if you’re using the spellcasting rules I laid out above, then the perk of being a cleric, i.e. being able to spontaneously cast healing spells, is lost, since all spellcasters can “spontaneously” cast any of their class spells at any time. The ‘domain spells’ issue is also a problem. Really, there’s nothing the cleric has that the druid doesn’t have, but if a player really wants to play a cleric, it can be done.

Druids benefit from a high Wisdom. If one of your players is a druid, you will want to decide if his animal companion is something that comes with him on the ride (a pet ferret for example, or the family dog that jumps on at the last minute) or something more exotic that bonds with the player after they arrive in The Realm, like an annoying baby Unicorn. Many of the druid’s special abilities (nature sense, wild empathy) could be found in regular everyday people, but others (wild shape, venom immunity) would be something granted by their magic item. It’s probably best to ignore the ‘carry a metal item, lose your powers for 24 hours’ rule.
The druid’s magic item might be a magical staff, club or spear, or a cloak or shield.

The fighter is pretty straightforward. All he really gets is good attack bonuses and bonus feats. This begs the question “what difference does it make what weapon he uses?” If you like, you can state that some or all of his feats are tied into his specific Weapon of Power, or give his magic weapon a little extra oomph: a bonus to Strength when he wields it, or some kind of extra damage or power. Check your Dungeon Master Guide for ideas. Additionally, if your fighter wants a magic helmet or shield instead of a magic weapon, a little brainstorming could come up with some interesting ideas.

Quite possibly the trickiest to adapt, since monks are adept at fighting without any weapons at all! Still, one could rationalize some kind of amulet or headband that proffers fast movement and ki strikes. Alternately a magic kama or nunchaku could do that when the kid is wielding it. Nevertheless, one would assume that a young person with the skills of a highly trained monk would actually have some training in the modern world, much like Diana the “Acrobat” was a medal-winning gymnast.

Paladin is not too far removed from fighter, and it’s easy to attribute all of the paladin’s special abilities to a Weapon of Power. A death-dealing sword that bestows ‘lay on hands’ abilities is always a sweet ironic twist. One hitch would be the paladin’s ‘special mount.’ It’s not likely a horse would go through the Dungeons and Dragons amusement park ride with a kid, but if you want DM to give the paladin some kind of mount (a pony? a unicorn? a big lizard? a giant squirrel?) the same way Uni suddenly “appeared” and became one of the group in the cartoon, then more power to them. If this is the case, is the paladin getting his special mount at 1st level instead of 5th? Maybe the beast is there but the empathic link et al just doesn’t manifest until 5th level. Or maybe you’ll need to switch some class features around to balance the deal. Make sure your player gives his character a high Charisma if he is to use the paladin’s healing powers.

The ranger and the rogue rely almost exclusively on skills to get by. They don’t have the spellcasting abilities or special “powers” of other classes, so what does a Weapon of Power give this class of character? You might want to give the ranger his animal companion at 1st level to compensate, and maybe the rogue’s Weapon of Power is indeed a cloak that gives a bonus to Hide checks, a la the cartoon. If you ignore the skill point rules from the PHB and assume that all your ‘students’ have the same education and skill points, then you’ll definitely have to compensate this class somehow. Maybe by giving their Weapons of Power a special little something that the others don’t have, of just some bonus feats appropriate to the class. A high Dexterity is beneficial for both classes, and a Wisdom of 12 or higher supplies the Ranger with important spells.
For animal companion ideas, see Druid and Paladin.

Of all the classes to adapt to the cartoon world of D&D, I think the spellcasting classes are the easiest. Assuming that the actual abilities and bodies of the kids haven’t changed at all from their trip on the Dungeons and Dragons ride, the Sorcerer class isn’t grounded on the preconception of physical abilities the way a Barbarian or Monk are. A Sorcerer or Druid can have any physical abilities and not have the class be hamstrung by them. That said – will you as the DM restrict their spellcasting by how high their Charisma, Wisdom or Intelligence scores are?
Basic ideas for the Sorcerer’s Weapon of Power is hat, amulet, crystal ball, wand, or staff.
For the question of familiars, see Druid and Paladin above.

In the cartoons, the kids don’t really advance in power, but they do seem to get a better grasp on the world around them, and become more confident and familiar with their abilities and those of their weapons. Unlike the cartoon, in which each episode stands alone independently, a real D&D campaign requires Experience Points for the characters to improve themselves within the context of the rules. In the cartoon, they could go from fighting a few bullywugs to a stone golem the size of a titan, so the DM will have to do some creative tinkering if he’s to award Experience Points “by the book.” It’s probably easier to award all XP ad hoc. As I suggested, moving the characters up one level per successful episode completed is, if nothing else, simple and easy. The question of power is a little more complicated, vis a vis, their weapons. You could start the campaign and say that all of the weapons have X abilities (+3, holy, merciful) that remain static throughout all of the episodes, but I find that doling out power gradually over the course of adventures keeps the players more interested. A very fascinating book that I stand by is “Artifacts of the Ages: Swords and Staffs” by the Game Mechanics/Green Ronin. The essence of the book is that the heroes in traditional fantasy stories (Lord of the Rings, for example) don’t pick up a sword (say, +1), keep it for a while, and then sell it when they find a better one (+2). Heroes are given legendary weapons that grow in power as the wielders advance in level. Many of the “battle scion” classes presented Artifacts of the Ages merge seamlessly with regular D&D classes, although they do require prerequisites that you’ll probably have to ignore if you want to incorporate these rules into the campaign.

A simple way to simulate this without the use of the books is as follows:
Level 1: weapon provides masterwork bonus (+1 to hit)
Level 2: weapon provides magic bonus (+1 to hit and damage)
Other levels (spaced out as you see fit given the number of episodes you intend on running): provides special ability, another cumulative +1 magic bonus, bonus feat or bonus to character ability, etc.