There are few shows that I can site that really help to capture that element of adventure, sword, and sorcery, AND that hold true to the idea of a classic dungeon crawl through the progression of a big story, with big consequences, that nonetheless focuses on the party dynamic. So, you know, like Dungeons and Dragons, in its purest form.
The Right Time To Come Out
The 90s was a good time for anime's introduction to western audiences. Sure, the weird stuff poked through, but this is where we got Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, Yu Yu Hakusho, nautical tons of Gundam, and the surge of Toonami. Late 90s gave us such gems as Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop...and the plethora of "pocket monster" smoothies amidst the king of Pokemon.
Nestled at the turn, releasing as a 13-episode OVA in 1990 was Record of Lodoss War, and I fell in love with it immediately. Episode 1 opted to drop us right in the middle of the action with a standard 1st edition adventuring party (Wizard, Cleric, Fighter, Elf, Dwarf, Rogue) and a good ole' fashioned dungeon crawl complete with traps, gargoyles, and a fire-breathing dragon fight. It. Was. Awesome.
And it captured the spirit of such a visceral and intense set of encounters, as well as the lore and world-building present in all the best game sessions. I felt an immense pull into this world, and felt the danger with the characters. Watching it again now...it still holds up, and is devoid of so many cash-grab, fanservice-y tropes that so many series in the same vein today would throw in. Emphasis remains on character development, exploration, combat, and social interaction. It's impressive.
A Deep World, and A Better Focus
Perhaps the reason this speaks so well to me and why my mind wanders to it today is because of Lodoss's world and its deep development. It is clear from the beginning of this 13-episode epic, intended to take place over two years, that this is a well-established, thought out, and lore-driven setting with rich history and a potent pantheon of gods, demons, and dragons. Magic exists, but few know it and few know how to use it properly. Worlds like this are forged with legends, beasts, and great stories.
Created in 1986 as Dungeons and Dragons "replay" setting by Group SNE, the Record of Lodoss War was already steeped in deep D&D roots. Replays are not novels, so to speak, but still act as transcriptions of rpg gaming sessions, and are intended to both "replay" the events and hold interest. There are three recorded Replays of Lodoss War, adapted then into seven sets of novels and manga published from 1989-1993, with two supplemental tales to fill in gaps. Record of Lodoss War is essentially the first volume of the main story, following the main character, Parn, and his party. Halfway through we get a time skip, a nice respite, and Parn's party shifts around, gaining new allies and bidding others farewell.
Without going too deep, the story's progression is keen to show the grand scale as it tips during the war, but the main focus is always on the adventuring party and their dynamics. Their needs, their quests, their troubles, and how they handle them together...or alone. And everything oozes with that classic D&D magic.
It is what I believe to a great example of a full campaign. True, the ending comes down to Parn himself, and is less a party victory (though they play an important role), that's more the culmination of the hero's journey (and it does feature a trope I'm not happy with front and center, unfortunately)...BUT, it's still a good time. And the majority of the series holds true to that story development. You get the sense that these guys have traveled together; learning and growing and changing into the epic heroes we see at the end.
And maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to achieve something close at our own tables.
Enjoy your anime.
I'll see you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.