Legend tells of a dinner between the staff at IDW and Oni Press. During a chat about which comics the two companies would mash up if they could, the one that made everyone laugh the most was IDW’s Dungeons & Dragons and Oni Press’ Rick and Morty. It was such a good idea none of them could shake it….
“That’s a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in comic form,” says artist Troy Little, describing a link-up that has already resulted in two comic crossover stories and will shortly see the release of a themed Dungeons & Dragons box set. “Comics seems like the place to be able to do kooky crossovers, where you can unhinge normality and mix things up in new and unexpected ways. And I’m glad we got the chance to do that. But when you get this kind of opportunity you think, ‘Oh man, this is either going to be amazing or terrible. We need to do this right, otherwise it’s going to haunt us!’” adds Jim Zub, writer of the official Dungeons & Dragons comic, who was tasked with adding mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his grandson/sidekick Mortimer Smith into that world.
“What was so amazing was that we were all coming at this material with such a desire to make something special. Our whole crew—Pat Rothfuss, Troy, Leonardo Ito on colors—was so focused on defying expectations and making this as heartfelt and funny as we hoped it could be.”
“I know a lot of people say that first comic is one of the greatest un-produced episodes of Rick and Morty that they’ve ever read,” Little says proudly, before Zub adds: “So to be audacious enough to think that we could do it again….”
CHAPTER II: PAINSCAPE
“When we started talking about the possibility of doing a second comic, I had some kooky ideas about how to tip things in the opposite direction. We took the Smith family to the world of Dungeons & Dragons in the first story. Could we have Dungeons & Dragons invade Earth in a similarly entertaining fashion? That led to a lot of questions,” Zub remembers.
“The nugget that got the whole thing rolling was this idea that when you first start playing a game, you make a character very innocently. You might create something you think looks cool or choose something that sounds good because you don’t know how the rules work. I thought it was a good metaphor for the way a lot of people approach their life. They don’t want to admit that they did stupid things when they were a kid or that they were awkward and embarrassing. When you grow up, you try and hide those things about yourself,” Zub explains.
“As you learn how D&D functions as a game, you also learn how to take advantage of that. And that’s Rick’s thing, controlling and taking advantage of everything. But like the rest of us, innocent Rick made characters that are malformed or ones he rolled poorly on. Yet he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s been anything less than perfect in every way.
“These characters are living proof that he’s not infallible and because there are an infinite number of dimensions, they really exist out there somewhere. They hate him so much and they’re coming to get their revenge.”
Creating a collection of less-than-optimal D&D characters was the pair’s first job—and the list was long. Weakened core stats, terrible combinations of race and class, and other flaws that would raise the eyebrows of min-max experts were all explored.
“Brainstorming the forgotten freaks from the Folio of Flawed Failures was an absolute joy. Each of them had something stupid that was really amusing to play off. They were entertainingly impure in the way early D&D characters tend to be when you’re enjoying the discovery,” says Zub.
“Designing all these characters was a riot,” Little agrees. “Each one would make a great side story or one-shot, but we only have so much space to work with. Personally, I’d love to know what happened to these Ricks.”
Zub says they had a lot of fun digging through first edition books and reminding themselves of the unusual limitations and combinations from that era. Does that explain Rick ragging on bards so much in the first comic outing?
“Oh, there’s a bard. And there’s a reason why Rick hates bards so much. Some people don’t know that the first edition bard is not a regular class you could take, it’s a bizarre, elite multi-class character,” Zub continues. “You had to go through all this intense multi-classing before you were allowed to join the bardic school. It was absolutely crazy. You will discover the full extent of Rick’s hatred of bards over the course of this story because it’s core to what we’re doing.”
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS VS. RICK AND MORTY
Special editions of the Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons comic included a playable adventure called Temple of Glorb. Yet the success of the fusion of these two worlds demanded something on the scale previously seen with the Stranger Things Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. Game designer Kate Welch took charge as Design Lead of a D&D product for the first time to create the Dungeons & Dragons vs. Rick and Morty Tabletop Roleplaying Game Adventure.
“The gig was to make a box set using the Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons comic-book as the base of the inspiration. How hard could it be?” she tells Dragon+. “Those are famous last words for a reason. It’s Dungeons & Dragons AND Rick and Morty, so now I have two sets of fans that I want to have fun with my project. But we knew that Jim Zub was going to be writing for us and Troy Little was going to provide art, so we were super excited because their comic book has been so well received and everyone is a big fan.”
The components within the Dungeons & Dragons vs. Rick and Morty Tabletop Roleplaying Game Adventure include a 44-page adventure and a 64-page rulebook. Much of the extra space in that larger rulebook is taken up with Rick’s discussion of the D&D rules.
“We’ve added double the amount of space in the rulebook so we could have Rick sassing all over our rules and giving his commentary on how he likes to play Dungeons & Dragons,” Welch confirms.
Even that element was typical Rick Sanchez. Zub was sent the usual rules that must be observed when writing for the D&D team, including standard documentation on how encounters, stat blocks, room descriptions and other elements are written in fifth edition. His response was entirely in character for the arrogant scientist he was channeling.
“I glanced over all of it, and then I emailed Kate and said, ‘Rick don’t play that. I’m going to write this thing like a wild stream of consciousness and then you guys have to figure out how you’re going to incorporate it into the actual document.’ Her reply was, ‘Rick do what he do.’ So that’s the way I approached it,” Zub recalls.
If the rules text was stuffed full of Rick’s personality (rumor has it he gets drunker the further he gets into his rant), then the adventure in this box set also radiates the kind of comedy fans of the TV show expect. The premise centers on an adventure that Rick has written himself in his role as a Gygaxian-like figure of a parallel universe called C141. Rick went to C141 before Wizards of the Coast bought Dungeons & Dragons and became its legendary D&D designer (“In that universe it’s not Gygaxian, it’s Sanchezian,” Welch tells us, revealing that in C141 Rick has his own livestreaming show called Cynical Troll, which gets a billion views a day). And he’s brought one of his most popular adventures back from this parallel universe to our dimension so that we can enjoy it.
Collaborators Welch, Zub, Narrative Designers Ari Levitch and Adam Lee, and Penny Arcade VP (and Donaar Blit’zen on The “C” Team) Ryan Hartman were tasked with bringing this dungeon crawl to life.
“A bunch of us ended up writing a ton of rooms for this dungeon. It really ended up feeling like The Onion writers’ room. One of the joys about working on this product is that no-one can resist laughing when we’re talking about this stuff,” Welch says. “It was a love letter written by people who adore Rick and Morty and adore Dungeons & Dragons. It was a blast.”
Originally the idea was to have around forty rooms in the dungeon. If you’re remembering a standard Dungeons & Dragons adventure, which includes the occasional room with a busted-up bed and a blank piece of parchment on the floor, it’s wise not to expect to find such breaks in a Rick and Morty campaign.
“Classically dungeons are designed not to be a mile a minute to give your players pacing. This dungeon is not like that! There are no filler rooms, every single room is an encounter. I wanted every room to feel like a toy you play with,” Welch reveals. “In my games a single encounter can take anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour. A box set usually provides around six to eight hours of play, but on that basis this would provide almost forty hours of entertainment. Sure, you’re not going to hit every room as there are many, many routes through this dungeon. But it’s great for replayability.”
Playtests revealed that if parties adopted the classic dungeon navigation technique of hugging the left wall, they can get straight through and avoid most of the rooms. Welch’s design team went to work to stop something so obvious being a possibility in such a crazy campaign.
“We cut that left wall path—don’t even try it!” she says. “And I think there’s one secret door in the whole dungeon and I’m not going to tell you where it is.”
Looking for the ultimate seal of approval? ‘Dungeon Master to the Stars’ Chris Perkins was one of the last people to read the adventure before it went to the printer. Welch was on tenterhooks waiting to know what he thought.
“He’s the adventure writing master, so I ran over to him and wanted to know what feedback he had on my first insane adventure. Aside from a couple of technical issues he said creatively it was astonishing. I wanted to get a little quote on the box: Chris Perkins calls this ‘Astonishing’,” she says proudly.
“Chris is a 13-year-old boy at heart, so all the toilet humor is his jam. Even a non-Rick and Morty fan can enjoy the insanity of this and have a good time.”
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
“We’ve had so many conversations that go along the lines of, ‘Is dumbass one or two words?’ There is no guideline in the Chicago Manual of Style about how you treat potty language,” Welch says, describing the unusual position her team found itself in with such a sweary main character.
Welch also noted each episode title of the Rick and Morty TV show is a parody of a movie (‘Total Rickall’, ‘Look Who’s Purging Now’). Her idea was to name the dungeon crawl after a classic D&D adventure. While the pun-tastic title she wanted to use would reduce meetings to howls of laughter every time they heard it, eventually she settled on the more easily digestible The Lost Dungeon of Rickedness: Big Rick Energy.
Still, there’s one badge of honor Welch is able to cling proudly to: “On every other D&D box set it says 12+ in the upper corner. We needed to know if that was still appropriate for us. I’m proud to say that the Dungeons & Dragons vs. Rick and Morty Tabletop Roleplaying Game Adventure says 13+.”
PACKING A PUNCH
From crazy brainstorm to one of the most successful crossovers ever produced, the mashup of Rick and Morty and D&D has created a whole new way to enjoy Dungeons & Dragons. And players won’t need to have read the comic to get the best out of the box set. “Our box set is standalone,” Welch confirms. “We didn’t want to lean too hard on people knowing what was in the comic in order to enjoy the box set, and vice versa.”
In Zub and Little’s eyes, the success of this new pop-culture phenomenon is down to the same creativity that has made three seasons of the Rick and Morty animated show such as big hit.
“One of the amazing things about Rick and Morty is that there aren’t that many episodes. But every episode contains something memorable. That could be both really gut punch funny and gut punch emotional. It’s amazing how much they’ve been able to pack into it,” Zub enthuses before Little adds: “They don’t feel like they’re holding back and saving something. They’re just putting it all out there and then still coming up with new ideas.”
“Where we wanted to defy expectations was to surprise people in all the right ways,” adds Zub. “we’re going to amaze you with its deep cuts in terms of continuity, its emotional moments, and the fact it is genuinely entertaining on its own merits. It would have been the easiest thing for us to say, ‘Here’s Pickle Rick and we’ve put some armor on him’ but we didn’t want to do that.”
“The beautiful thing about doing a sequel is that we’ve created T2, not Critters 2,” says Little and Zub is genuinely pleased with that analogy, suggesting it’s the kind of compliment they should put on the back cover. “I’m the Morty to your Rick, Jim,” Little declares with a smile.
The Dungeons & Dragons vs. Rick and Morty Tabletop Roleplaying Game Adventure is available for pre-order with an MSRP of $29.99 and releases on November 19, 2019. The four-issue Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons Chapter II: Painscape comic-book releases monthly, with issue two in the shops now.