The reliable magic in Pixar's storytelling means Onward, the latest movie from the fabled animation studio, isn't hard to grasp despite its many references to fantasy role-playing games. You can enjoy its imaginative story, its colorful characters, and clever humor just fine even if you've never once rolled a twenty-sided die.
Still, there's so much love for things like Dungeons & Dragons embedded in Onward that watching the movie can only be enriched with familiarity for its many roleplaying game Easter eggs. For the Level 1 adventurers who want to further appreciate Onward's dorky deep cuts, here are three of the most essential Dungeons & Dragons references explained.
Minor spoilers for Disney and Pixar's Onward ahead.
In Onward from director Dan Scanlon, the fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and Gary Gygax get a makeover after magic is exchanged for modernity. Centuries after electricity replaced spell-casting, elf teenager Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) receives a birthday gift from his late father: A magic staff and a hand-written spell to bring dad back for 24 hours. When the spell goes wrong and their father is only restored halfway, Ian and his slacker brother Barley (Chris Pratt) embark on a quest to complete the spell before time runs out.
It's through the brutish Barley that most of Onward derives its love for fantasy role-playing games. In the world of Onward, the epic adventures of paladins, druids, and dragons have become ancient history, with Barley's collectible trading cards and tabletop board games (which aren't named "Dungeons & Dragons") memorializing a nearly forgotten cultural heritage. But Barley still believes there's magic in the world, and it's through his geekdom that Ian can survive the imminent challenges ahead.
In an email to Inverse, Wizards of the Coast confirmed it collaborated with Disney and Pixar over the use of D&D characters and story elements in Onward.
"The D&D team was super excited to meet with the writers and producers of Pixar's Onward," Wizards of the Coast told Inverse. "There was a lot of back-and-forth in the room discussing how best to portray D&D monsters like the beholder and the gelatinous cube. We love that Onward is bringing fantasy to a whole new audience, and it's a testament to how D&D storytelling is part of the mainstream culture now."
Without spoiling too much of Onward, here are the three biggest D&D concepts that play a key role in the movie.
3. The Manticore
In Onward, Octavia Spencer voices the Manticore, a ferocious warrior beast and keeper of a mythic tavern that safeguards an ancient map leading to the Phoenix Gem (a new creation not taken from D&D). The Manticore herself is a fearsome monster no one dares to cross; legend says she's slain dragons with her mythic broadsword.
At least that's who the Manticore used to be. Centuries after magic faded, so too did the edge of the Manticore dull. When Ian and Barley arrive at her underworld watering hole, the legendary Manticore is now "Corey," the stressed-out owner of a family restaurant packed with busy waiters, kitschy decor, a broken karaoke machine, and crying children.
Onward lifts the Manticore straight from Dungeons & Dragons. Present since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1977, manticores exist as an evil race of lion-like creatures who seek to eat the flesh of men. They are lethal predators, as detailed in the short story "The Ecology of the Manticore" written by Spike & Jones and published in the 153rd issue of the official Dungeons & Dragons magazine, Dragon.
The whole thing about the Manticore owning a tavern, wielding a sword, and commanding a curse are inventions for the movie. But Onward did get manticore visuals pretty much spot-on. Originating in Persian mythology — the name "manticore" derives from Middle Persian for "man-eater" (mardya and khrowr) — manticores have humanoid heads, lion bodies, scorpion tales, and dragon wings. In other words, they're not cuddly.
The official description for manticores in page 213 of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual illustrates just what sort of hideous creature Dungeon Masters can throw at players:
A monster in every sense of the word, a manticore has a vaguely humanoid head, the body of a lion, and the wings of a dragon. A bristling mane stretches down the creature's back, and its long tail ends in a cluster of deadly spikes that can impale prey at impressive range.
A manticore isn't particularly bright, but it possesses a malevolent nature and the ability to converse. In the course of attacking it denigrates its foes and offers to kill them swiftly if they beg for their lives. If a manticore sees an advantage to be gained by sparing a creatures life, it does so, asking for a tribute or sacrifice equal to its loss of food.
The manticores' greatest territorial rivals include chimeras, griffons, perytons, and wyverns. Manticores hunting as a pack often have the advantage of greater numbers. In addition to these creatures, manticores fear dragons and avoid them.
In the current fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, manticores have an armor class of 14 and hit points of 68, meaning players need to roll a 14 or higher to attack and dish out 68 points of damage to kill them. Their actions include biting, clawing, and spiking with sharp tails that can regenerate after a long rest. They do not serve double bacon barbecue burgers, nor do they know how to fix the karaoke machine.
2. “You all meet in a tavern”
Speaking of the Manticore, how Onward begins its journey at the Manticore's tavern-turned-Applebee's is a comedic riff on the vast majority of Dungeons & Dragons games.
While individual experiences differ, one of the most frequent starting settings in D&D games are taverns, where villagers drink, gossip, and get involved with the other side of the tracks. It's an ideal starting point for all adventures, even if it is a cliché. The blog Danger Mouse by David Morgan-Mar provides a long list of ways Dungeon Masters can avoid starting their adventures at a tavern.
Notably, the trope far predates D&D. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer and his epic The Canterbury Tales is often credited for originating the concept of colorful characters meeting in the same place. Today, the concept is the inspiration for a podcast as well as the first episode to the parody web series 1 For All.
1. The Gelatinous Cube
One of the most iconic monsters in Dungeons & Dragons isn't an orc, a ghostly wraith, or a hovering know-it-all eyeball. It's a giant cube of Jell-O.
Imagined by creator Gary Gygax himself in the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, the gelatinous cube is a staple foe that players encounter early on in their adventuring. (It has an entry-level challenge rating of "2" in the current version of D&D. That's low.) The cube moves slowly but can be very dangerous once it gets close, as it absorbs victims and slowly digests them while they float helplessly inside.
The cube appears in Onward, first foreshadowed by Barley at the beginning of the movie and paid off when both Ian and Barley have to outrun the cube in a thrilling chase scene towards the end of the film.
The gelatinous cube is a memorable monster from D&D for several reasons. First, it's a big, stupid cube. Second, it's often one of the first "memorable" encounters players experience when they begin playing the game because it's a low-level foe that stands out from the usual crop of goblins and giant rats.
Dungeons & Dragons is more than just slaying monsters. It's about finding inventive ways to solve puzzles and overcome challenges. So, what's different from your usual run-of-the-mill monster swinging an axe? How about a cube of gelatin? While most D&D monsters riff on fearsome creatures from an existing culture's mythology, the gelatinous cube is both unique to D&D and silly enough to be memorable.
As the RPG blog Bell of Lost Souls wrote in a 2019 tribute to the gelatinous cube:
The Gelatinous Cube is a sort of rite of passage – it’s an encounter that’s inhabited low-level dungeons that signifies you’re ready for the trickier side of the game. They’re one of the first encounters where the mechanics can, if you’re not prepared give one character a bad time – if not wipe the party. I mean they’re hard to see, they’re large enough to engulf someone, they can stun people, and deal decent damage with their pseudopods ... But odds are good that you’ll emerge victorious over the cube, and having confronted the deadliness of it, taken your first steps into a larger world.
In the current version of D&D, the gelatinous cube has an armor class of six and hit points of 84. It can take quite a beating, but it isn't very hard to defeat. It is, after all, just a cube of gelatin.
Onward opens in theaters March 6.