Kate Welch makes it clear right away: she knows Rick Sanchez is an asshole. He was written that way on Rick and Morty, and she sure as hell was going to write him that way as a dungeon master.
Welch is a game designer for Wizards of the Coast and wrote the Dungeons and Dragons campaign set in the Rick and Morty universe. She’s also a huge fan of the show, which is why she knew the place to start with a campaign “created” by Rick Sanchez was to make him as insufferable as possible.
“In the rule book Rick is a total asshole. He’s that super annoying, old school rules lawyer which most people don’t want at their table anymore. And we did that because Rick is supposed to be an asshole,” Welch said. “He’s an asshole on the show, and so we wanted to really drive that home. This guy is giving you crude advice. You shouldn’t follow it. It’s mostly bad.”
Licensed properties always make for uncertain gaming collaborations — think of how many versions of sports team Monopoly or awful movie tie-in video games forgettably exist — but Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons and Dragons has worked from the start. The set is based on the successful Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons and Dragons comic series and comes with a full dungeon and pre-rolled characters based on Summer, Jerry, Morty and Beth from the show. Dungeons and Dragons, by its nature, has always been what you and your players make of it. And a Rick and Morty-inspired dungeon crawl can go in some interesting directions in the right hands.
For Welch, the goal was to take some fun things from the show and the attitude Rick provides to color the experience, but not ruin it. She called her work a “dumpster fire” of an adventure if you follow what Sanchez says in the rules. Reading between the lines of the “crass” and “nihilistic” Rick’s insistence that charisma is a “dump stat” and spells are only as good as the damage they do is all part of the experience, as long as you can go along with it.
“I got to write this adventure that’s in Rick’s voice and it’s probably the only Dungeons and Dragons adventure where you’ll find text like ‘How many goblins are in there? I don’t know. You figure it out. You’re the dungeon master. I don’t give a sh*t,’” Welch said, laughing. “There’s no other adventure where we could get away with something like that. There’s something cathartic about writing that.”
The abridged player’s guide and DM guide all have moments like that, but they are entirely playable and provide the essentials for getting the campaign off and running. And though there’s some extremely unhelpful advice, the kit and the dungeon players explore make for a work that deeply understands Rick and Morty in a way many of its most outspoken fans seem to totally misunderstand. Rick is not the person to trust in general, and definitely not when trying to tell a good story. Reading between the lines is essential in using the guidelines to make a campaign that’s actually fun.
“Rick believes himself to be the hero, at least that’s the front that he puts on,” Welch said. “But the psychology of that is that someone like that will always pretend to be better than everybody else. They will always pretend to be the hero. And that’s what we tried to capture in the rule book and this adventure.”
For experienced dungeon masters, the juxtaposition of Rick’s sarcastic comments and clear instructions to torture players for annoying you are funny but likely not to be followed. It’s also wholly unsurprising given that we know how Rick would run a dungeon crawl thanks to Season 3’s episode, “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender.” The entire episode is a parody of superhero movies, and Rick is predictably both bored and intent on exposing the hypocrisy and absurdity of superhero battles between good and evil.
“Rick says good and bad are artificial constructs,” Morty says to Vance Maximus, Renegade Starsoldier, the figurehead of the Vindicators doing his best Captain America impression.
“Yeah, well I get the feeling he kinda needs that to be the case,” Maximus says.
In the episode, Rick gets blackout drunk and sets up what’s essentially a dungeon crawl where he exposes the heroes as frauds and just generally ruins everything. It’s the typical combination of illuminating and maybe a bit depressing, but it’s the model for his adventure as well as a statement about running a campaign in the first place. DMs are all-powerful, sure, but they’re more the arbiter of the rules and in charge of making sure everyone is actually enjoying themselves.
“So much of Rick and Morty is a meta commentary about film tropes. That’s not a rocket science explanation of the show, you can see it in the episode titles that they’re parodying film,” Welch said. “So what I wanted to do was the same kind of thing but parodying D&D tropes. And see if we can analyze what makes D&D, D&D in its most essential form. And how can we make fun of that?”
For Welch and others who worked on the campaign, the goal wasn’t to emulate the show as much as take the tropes and jokes that already resonated with fans and reimagine them in a setting they’re experts in: stone-hewn dungeons filled with goblins, orcs and other show-adapted surprises. And yes, players making decisions based on their self-created alignment of good, evil and neutral.
The result is a dungeon crawl that has references to the show but also some classic tropes from generations of D&D campaigns. There are pickle-inspired traps that are equally annoying as people who still might scream “PICKLE RICK” without irony. High tech solutions to puzzles and the typical smug intellectualism Rick brings to his adventures show up alongside the usual goblins and orcs you might find in a typical Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
At the same time, the bluntness of the instructions and the absurdity of the rooms to explore is a whole mess of fun. D&D can be extremely self-serious, even if the goal is to create an entire fantasy to play out with your friends. The rigidity of the RPG’s rules and regulations — and someone strictly enforcing those rules — can often make for a less than enjoyable experience. It’s a delicate balance, something that often plays out in episodes of Rick and Morty. Welch said she rewatched the entire series to study the “secret sauce” that makes the show click with viewers, but came away with something else instead.
“Turns out there really is no secret sauce,” she said. “The secret sauce is Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s insane brains.”
Welch instead noted the show’s surprise strength comes between gross nihilism and edgy humor: the “oddly heartwarming” moments and emotional touches that take away focus from Rick’s self-destructive egomania.
“There’s something very touching about most episodes of Rick and Morty. There’s an oddly heartwarming moment, which Dan Harmon is really great at doing,” Welch said. “So I wanted to make sure that all of those elements got captured in this.”
Those oddly heartwarming moments play out to varying effects based on those playing, but in my experience the success ratio is high with Rick and Morty D&D. In DMing my way through the dungeon it occured to me that the interpretive side of D&D works perfectly with the universe Rick and Morty has created. For those unable to see that Rick is not the hero of the story, well, the dungeon will play out much differently. But some people don’t always see everything you want them to. It’s one of the lessons Welch said she’s learned in her years writing dungeons and creating journeys: players may not always travel in the ways they’re intended. They may skip entire rooms, break puzzles and almost certainly try to trip you up with something unexpected. And it makes for a “really interesting challenge” for someone trying to create something in an already-existing universe.
“You have to write an adventure that whatever is happening is happening regardless of whether the players ever encounter it. So you have to write every room like something is happening and it would if you don’t go into that room,” Welch explained. “So to write a dungeon and have all of these neutral states where something is happening it doesn’t matter if you’re there but also if you are there it’s interesting to you… it’s a really interesting challenge.”
Players and viewers may never see all the other stuff, in other words, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there if they go looking for it.