Nearly 30 years later, Record of Lodoss War remains the best tabletop session anime has to offer.
It’s a pretty amazing time to be into tabletop gaming, especially storied mainstay Dungeons & Dragons. Even if you don’t have a regular crew to play with, there are so many entertainment avenues you can creep down, sword at the ready. From the hilarious and heartwarming hijinks of McElroy Bros. podcast The Adventure Zone to shows like Critical Role and HarmonQuest, rolling dice and leveling your Cleric are more acceptable than ever, which makes this the perfect time to revisit Record of Lodoss War.
Lodoss isn’t just special because it’s an early example of classic swords ‘n sorcery action in anime, it also has its own unique roots in the world of tabletop role-playing. The story stems from an actual role-playing campaign that had its players using a mix of D&D-style settings. The transcripts were serialized from 1986 to 1988 in the pages of Comptiq magazine, and Ryo Mizuno eventually adapted them into a series of fantasy novels. If this were to happen today, we likely would have been treated to the raw dice-rolling action—perhaps streamed live on Niconico or YouTube—but thankfully we ended up with the source material for an anime adaptation that truly stands the test of time.
When people talk about Record of Lodoss War, chances are they’re referring to the 13-episode OVA that Madhouse produced and released on VHS from 1990 to 1991. This series was a staple of what today’s younger fans would no doubt deem “the days of olde,” but thankfully it’s back in the spotlight, and on Blu-ray to boot! The story takes place on the island of Lodoss, which all began with a titanic clash of the gods. At the end of this storied battle, only two remained: Marfa, Goddess of All Creation, and Kardis, Goddess of Destruction. Once their epic battle came to an end, the result was a new land split off from the main continent. Thousands of years later, this land came to be known as, you guessed it … LODOSS, THE ACCURSED ISLAND!
It’s here that we first meet our bold crew of adventurers, and you can practically smell the freshly printed pulp of their character sheets. All the bases are covered, including Etoh, the resident priest; Slayn, a powerful magician; Ghim, a rough ‘n tumble dwarf; Woodchuck, a slick-grinning thief; Deedlit, the requisite beautiful High Elf; and Parn, our heroic swordsman. Record of Lodoss War picks up in medias res, not only to give us a chance to meet the entire principal cast, but as a means of showing off what Chief Director Akinori Nagaoka (Anpanman, Dr. Slump, episodes of The Rose of Versailles) and his staff were cooking up at the time. After all, what better way to preview the saga to come than by throwing the audience right in the middle of a quest that culminates in a battle with a giant ruins-dwelling dragon?
After this action-packed opener, the story takes a few dozen steps back to show how it all began for our party. We see how each member of the group comes to know one another, from long-time friends Parn and Etoh to Ghim’s meeting with Slayn and the eventual addition of Deedlit and Woodchuck. It’s a motley crew, to be sure, but each adds their own distinct personality to a series full of memorable touches. Once the key villains are introduced, including Lord Ashram, Emperor Beld, Wagnard, and Karla the Grey Witch, it’s a pretty gripping ride through the remainder of the 13 episodes. As Parn and co. attempt to restore peace to a land that’s tumultuous at best, they end up in some seriously tense situations. Ancient dragons are the least of their worries when they have to deal with a body-swapping witch and a Black Knight who will stop at nothing to dominate the entirety of Lodoss.
To some, the proceedings of Record of Lodoss War’s campaign will be little more than boiler-plate fantasy. If you really break it down, it’s the type of story one might find in a well-worn, flimsy pulp fantasy novel, nestled deep within the nooks and crannies of some creaky uptown bookstore. It really doesn’t matter, though, because Lodoss is all about the sum of many unique and meticulously crafted parts. The story acts as the spine, sure, and the character motivations extend from this framework in predictable ways. But then you have the characters themselves, who each have their own distinct charm, as well as dynamite production values and unforgettable music and sound direction. It’s not like every single moment holds up to the scrutiny of today’s standards, but Record of Lodoss War still looks like a million bucks compared to most productions. There’s a beefy heart beating within it, too; something raw that exudes passion and a special kind of love and appreciation for the source material.
The only way to truly appreciate this union of artistry in 2017 is through the recently released Blu-ray collection. The quality of the transfer—taken from the Japanese Blu-ray box originally released in 2013—is pretty staggering. Seeing Record of Lodoss War in HD will reignite any fondness you may have held for the series in the past, and it’s sure to make many a new fan in the process.
Televised Dungeon Crawling
Beyond the OVA, Funimation’s set also includes the less favored TV anime, Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight. I recall being disappointed when this 1998 series first made its way to the English market, but it’s really not so bad in retrospect. The story takes place five years after the War of Heroes depicted in the OVA series, and it quickly finds a new reason to bring Parn, Deedlit, and the rest of the surviving group members together for another phantastic voyage.
Ashram is back as the villain, and that wily witch can also be found slinking through the shadows as soon as the festivities begin. More interesting, however, is how much time Chronicles of the Heroic Knight spends following the arc of the Berserker known as Orson. He, and to a lesser extent his companion and eternal crush Shiris, get a ton of screen time in the TV series, which isn’t a bad thing. Orson is one of the more conflicted characters, dealing with a past trauma that resulted in a dark “Hyuri” spirit overtaking him and controlling his emotions to a deadly degree.
If you can handle the severe dip in animation quality and a more meandering plot—not to mention the fact that all 27 episodes are on a fairly standard-looking DVD (I let out an audible “pah!” when I put it in)—Chronicles of the Heroic Knight is worth watching. I would never recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already watched the Record of Lodoss War OVA series, of course, but that’s going to leave you wanting more no matter what.
Record of Lodoss War and Chronicles of the Heroic Knight are both available from Funimation as part of a Blu-ray/DVD collection.