Anyone holding an ounce of interest in oddball fantasy has surely come across Adventure Time: Cartoon Network’s animated series about Finn the human and Jake the dog. Created by Pendleton Ward, fans can follow him on Twitter @buenothebear, where Pendleton posts all kinds of fun things, like bar napkin drawings! In today’s spotlight interview, we asked Pendleton about his inspirations for the show, stories from the Land of Ooo, and more about Finn’s magical hat.
Wizards of the Coast: For fans of Dungeons & Dragons, can you give us a quick introduction to Adventure Time?
Pendleton Ward: Adventure Time is about two buds, a young paladin in training named Finn and his shapeshifting dog Jake. They live in "Ooo" which is post-apocalyptic Earth, after the bombs have dropped and magic's come back into the world. There are plenty of evil monsters in the show—that's mainly what Finn and Jake want to do, slay monsters, explore dungeons, find loot. I guess Jake's more into the loot and Finn's more into the slaying of evil.
Wizards of the Coast: For fans of Adventure Time, can you tell us how D&D might have helped inspire the show? You’ve mentioned in a past interview that the logic of the show’s world and characters is based on D&D—in what ways?
PW: When I'm writing an episode it feels like I'm playing D&D with the characters. The last episode I wrote was called Rainy Day Daydream. I was drawing Finn crawling into this room where he kept a load of magical items, armor and weapons from past adventures—and because I was just winging it at that point in the story, it had the same feeling as playing D&D and stumbling upon a treasure room full of the craziest loot. I was in control of which weapons Finn could pick up, it was fun. I started by drawing Finn picking up a missile, and then I drew Finn and Jake bickering about which magic gauntlet they should choose, until they were attacked by an invisible troll and the troll's invisible wife.
Wizards of the Coast: As far as D&D, how did you first happen to pick up a twenty-sided die?
PW: I played 2nd Edition in junior high with my buds and recently started up again playing 4th Edition in a game run by a most excellent dungeon master named Riley Swift. You might know his internet show where he plays D&D with four ladies; it's called Dungeon Majesty—also check out his other series The Multinauts on that site, also super rad.
Wizards of the Coast: Adventure Time’s main characters, Finn and Jake, seem to be adventurers just for the sake of adventuring. They also wish to stay worthy and enthused to be doing so (despite challenges, such as in the Witch’s Garden)—all of which has a very D&D feel to it.
PW: Well, Finn tries to stay noble in his pursuits. For example, in the episode "Enchiridion," Finn faces a series of trials that test his heroic attributes. Finn is commanded to destroy an ant, but asks if the ant is evil and the Trial-Master (played by Mark Hamill) says "no… it's unaligned." So Finn screams "NEVVEERRRRRRRRR!!!!!" then runs and kicks the evil Trial-Master in the groin.
There are a lot of references to character alignment in the show.
Wizards of the Coast: What adventures do you try to plan for Finn and Jake (considering they’ve explored some truly, comically bizarre locations in the Land of Ooo)—what makes for a good quest or villain?
PW: Well, our stories primarily come from either a funny story someone tells in the writers room—or from Pat McHale (writer and former director of creativity) and me wanting to play Dungeons & Dragons, but we can't because we're at work so we end up writing a story that feels like we're playing D&D.
There is an intense villain coming up in the show, the Lich King. The Lich King villain was created to contrast the Ice King's bumbliness. The Lich King is pure evil and does not tell jokes, he only wants to destroy all life, including himself.
Wizards of the Coast: You’ve also mentioned that the moral of stories needn’t be so serious (in fact, a commitment to not being serious seems part of the heroes’ creed). The show relishes in its silliness—from the horse that only stares at them, to a city where literally everyone is a thief, the list goes on—is this a reaction to fantasy that takes itself too seriously, or just your preferred take on the genre?
PW: I just cringe when there's a serious moral to be learned at the end of a story. I'll always turn the moral on its head if the episode needs something like that at the end of it. In the episode "My Two Favorite People," Jake was acting pretty selfish and stupid throughout the episode. In the end Jake says something like "Let's never be stupid again," and Finn says "No man, let's always be stupid… forever!"
Wizards of the Coast: Going back to gaming for a moment, do you likewise prefer your sessions to be serious business, or likewise injected with a strong dose of humor? Are there locations or situations from the Land of Ooo that have ever appeared in your games (or that you’d recommend DMs try and implement in theirs)?
PW: I haven't put Adventure Time into my D&D games but I've gotten emails from fans who've created Adventure Timeinspired role-playing games which is awesome. It's mostly the other way around for me, stories that I create for playing D&D usually enter their way into the show. One episode where Jake gets a magical woman's breastplate is based on a game of D&D we played where Pat McHale scored some Valkyrie armor that granted him flight ability, heh.
I once went into a bar in my neighborhood and I saw a bunch of dudes with scruffy faces wearing all black, and I asked them "Y'all play D&D?" and they said "Yeah we do!" haha... true story!
Wizards of the Coast: The show also features Princesses Bubblegum and Lady Rainicorn; are princesses and unicorns for you an integral or an unavoidable part of fantasy? Or just fairy tale elements that helped create the show’s Land of Ooo? What other influences did you look to incorporate into their world?
PW: Yeah, I guess princesses and unicorns are unavoidable for me... haha! I've wanted to do more Lovecraft inspired stories. Maybe next season we'll get into that. Of course, it's just hard to pull off the suspense of a Lovecraft story with characters that like to charge into scary situations. We pull inspiration from David Lynch and Hayao Miyazaki and we try to take our time with the stories even though they're 11 minutes each. I try to pace them out, so the characters can have moments to breath and appreciate the world that they're in. Hopefully that comes through in the show.
Wizards of the Coast: What else are you watching these days, cartoon-wise?
PW: Bob's Burgers on Fox! I love Bob's Burgers, man, I can't get enough Bob's Burgers.
Wizards of the Coast: And finally, any ideas what the game stats would be for Finn’s awesome hat?
PW: +3 constitution—also bag of holding ability, Finn has butt-loads of hair.
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll) and at bartjcarroll.com.