Watching people play Dungeons & Dragons as entertainment seems like a reasonably new concept. Thankfully the good work of folks like Critical Role, HarmonQuest, and a handful of other outlets are really pushing the concept mainstream. But would you believe that the BBC aired what could be considered a pioneer of this concept as early as 1987?
Check out Knightmare the highly experimental, highly weird, D&D on TV (kinda) concept show that ended up being a big hit, playing for 8 seasons. In truth, it was more “text based adventure game” then D&D and it had some of the flavors of a LARP crossed with a game show, but it’s undeniably one of the earliest attempts to blend a fantasy world and real life people interacting with it, into something ready for television. It’s not easy to find a good clip of the old show that we can (legally) show you, but here’s a full episode created for a one-off YouTube revival for GeekWeek in 2013. Watch and enjoy!
If the green screen interactivity seems odd now, imagine back in 1987 when most UK news reports had yet to adopt the technology. I do like the clever write around that the questing kid has to wear a blinding helmet and thus needs his friends to guide him. On a giant green screen stage, he could have had nothing covering his eyes and still seen the same amount of information.
In the original series, the contestants were always kids, teams of 4 with one dungeoneer and 3 advisers. They were supported by Treguard, and older knight who helped them understand the puzzles they faced. In the first four episodes of the series, he was a much more enigmatic figure, possibly as much against the kids as on their side. In later episodes, he became a pure supportive figure and evil villains found in the dungeon became the full antagonists.
There was also a lifeforce tracker, which showed up when players spent too much time making choices or if the took damage from monsters or traps. As the dungeoneer lost health, the helmet would slowly dissolve, revealing a skull underneath. (Remember this was a kids show.) Eventually, the skull itself would crumble into dust which indicated the team of kids had failed and would be sent home “to their own time.” Players could gain new lifeforce by eating food, which was accomplished by finding food in the dungeon and putting it into their knapsack. Because, that’s how food works.
The advising kids had a lot of work to do. On top of directing the dungeoneer (the term for the kid in the helmet pacing about on a green screen), they also had to work together to solve puzzles before the lifeforce of the team ran out. Further, they could find and then cast spells, done by saying “spell casting” then spelling out the specific spell letter by letter. You can see one example of that in the YouTube GeekWeek clip. Apparently more than a few teams were undone by being unable to spell words under pressure.
It’s wasn’t all CG. There were some physical set pieces which the dungeoneer could see out of the corner of the helmet. A bunch of real world actors who portrayed everything from Merlin to Monks were also on stage. Some of the best challenges of the game forced the dungeoneer to roleplay with the various characters, charming them or lying to get information. In some episodes, the dungeoneer would ride dragons or sail on ships. Sometimes they would find “spyglasses” (magnifying glasses) which would play short videos showing what the bad guys were up too. Really, the depth of the show is pretty amazing when taken as a whole.
It was not exactly easy to win the show. Players had to make it down 3 levels and cross a number of challenges. All told, only a handful of teams ever made it and for their trouble they won some kind of trophy and maybe a certificate. I suppose with a game that hard, a trophy (which the team had to share) might actually have some weight. Still, call it the American in me but I would have hoped for a new bike at least. Or maybe the experience was the thing. Watching several episodes of this show in preparation for this article I couldn’t help but wonder if this might be a successful new model of escape room or corporate team building event.
I mean I want to play it. So bad. So let’s get on that.
Did you watch shows like Knightmare when you were a kid? What kids shows best prepared you for your love of table top gaming? Would you watch a show like this today? What about VR?
Image Credits: BBC