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Dungeons & Dragons
by yo go re

Despite the ultra-cool and popular image I project now, I was not into Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. Didn't watch the cartoon, didn't play the tabletop game, didn't listen to the many, many (so many) live-play podcasts there were back then, and until Rustin told me, I didn't even know there had been a D&D toyline in the '80s! So when NECA announced this guy, I had no clue it was supposed to be an update of an old design.

Warduke fights as a remorseless cold-hearted mercenary who works for coin. The evil swordsman serves Kelek as a cohort and adventuring companion from time to time. He wields a flame-tongue longsword and wears a dread helm. He never removes his helmet to reveal his face to others, but the visage beneath is that of a grim, hideously scarred gladiator.

Although they were named, the figures in the LJN toyline were more supposed to be character classes than actual characters - the back lower front corner of Warduke's card talked about what it's like to be a Fighter rather than who Warduke was. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons toys were released in 1983, and that same year TSR published The Shady Dragon Inn, a module that was basically just a set of pre-generated characters suitable for players or NPCs; as a last minute addition, the toyline characters were included in the back of the book, previewing/teasing Quest for the Heartstone, a tie-in promo adventure that would see release in 1984. Thus, Warduke began life as an 8th Level chaotic evil Fighter, who was formerly friends with the heroic Strongheart. That was it.

But as kids who had the toys grew up and got involved in the production of the actual product, Warduke's legend began to grow. 2003's Dungeon Magazine #105 put Warduke right on the cover, opened with a letter from the editor about the toys, and then provided a big, two-page spread fleshing out the character for the (then-)modern day. In the intervening decades, he'd gained 10 levels, and now all his gear had special abilities, rather than just the helmet; the toy's design was possibly inspired by one on the cover of 1978's Dragon Magazine #17, with its demonic ear-wings and hidden face; Heartstone had revealed that it gave the wearer infravision and caused their eyes to glow red; the 2003 article revealed it gives -2 levels to any non-evil creature that wears it, and if someone who's Lawful Good tries, the faceplace seals shut and the whole thing starts growing metal spikes in toward their head. Geeze!

The thing that made Warduke so iconic and memorable was his armor. Rather than wearing a full plate, or even anything that makes sense, Big Dukey is mostly as bare as Conan the Barbarian, but then has blue scale mail covering his left arm and leg. Just his left arm and leg. It's not on his torso anywhere, not on his waist... just arm, just leg. It honestly looks better here, because the '83 figures only moved at the Big Five, so the design changing at the shoulder or hip just made it look like it had been assembled wrong. Thomas Gwyn has updated all the features on the old design and made them look more dangerous. And feel more dangerous: I'll tell ya, these spikes may be molded from PVC, but they're still sharp to the touch, especially the ones on his shoulder armor!

Every feature from the old toy's design has been carried forward and updated. A big scary demon face on on his belt? Yes. Furry brown loincloth? Yes. Red cloth wrapped around his waist as a pad for the belt? Yes. Round, raised bumps on the folded-over portion of his boots? Repositioned and painted red now, but yes. Spiky armor on the left shin? Held closed by straps instead of being solid, but yes. Segmented left glove with squared-off knuckles? Yes. Big red gem on a golden necklace? Yes. Red pouch on the back of the belt? yes. If it was on the LJN release, it's given some kind of reference here, and always in a more complex form.

But NECA was not content with just doing "the same thing, but bigger." LJN Warduke had a dagger sculpted on his left leg, which this one does not: this time, it's a fully separate sheath hanging loosely from a real metal chain, and the long knife inside is removable. On the right hip we have a second scabbard permanently attached, with a curved knife that goes inside - there was no similar item on the vintage Warduke, so this is fully made up. Similarly, while the character has always had a big sword, he's never been able to carry it on his back before. Little changes that make things better.

In his one cartoon appearance, Warduke used his sword to encase Dungeon Master in ice. Or crystal. But every other incarnation, from Shady Dragon Inn on up, has said it had the ability to create flames. Sometimes it's a +1 broadsword named "Nightwind," sometimes it's a +3 human-bane anarchic flaming burst bastard sword, sometimes it's a flame tongue longsword, but it's always flame. How did that knowledge propegate? The old toy didn't have any fire sculpted on the blade or anything, it was just a normal sword. NECA's chosen to give us a separate translucent flame piece to slide on the blade; it's yellow in the center and orange near the tips, and looks very nice when it's in place.

He also comes with a modern interpretation of his demon-skull shield. Like Rustin pointed out, he can only wear it on his right arm - that's fine, though, because every piece of art (other than the 2003 magazine entry) show him using it that way. And obviously the left side of his body doesn't need any more protection, because that's where the armor is. Like a gladiator! The same magazine does explain that fashion choice, though, dubbing it a ceremonial spiked half-plate, and pointing out that such things are often worn to intimidate or impress, more than for their protective qualities. In other words, he's showing off how badass he is by not needing more. The figure also includes a few alternate hands, so the armored side can be gripping either tightly or loosely, and the bare side can be holding this or pointing.

Warduke moves like a normal NECA toy: he has swivel/hinge ankles, swivels at the top of the boots, swivel/hinged knees, swivel thighs, balljointed hips, balljointed waist and chest, swivel/hinge wrists, swivel/hinge elbows, swivel biceps, swivel/hinge shoulders, and a balljointed head. The fur of his skirt blocks the legs a little, and you can only do so much with the chest thanks to the leather straps holding his armor on, but everything was buttery smooth right out of the tray - nothing stuck or stiff at all. Getting the sword and the curved blade into their scabbards was more of a challenge than any of the joints (though the hanging knife wants to slide out of its home as soon as it's turned upside down).

Warduke demonstrates the importance of action figures as a medium in the 1980s: Drizzt Do'Urden became a popular, well-known character because he had complex motivations and appeared in tons of novels and published adventures; Warduke had none of that, was just a guy who liked being strong and liked hitting things with his sword, but the fans still remember and care about him 40 years later. Whether he's commanding his own army of Bullywugs and Orcs, serving the Unnameable Hierarch as part of The Horned Society, or bodyguarding his old compatriot Kelek as part of the League of Malevolence, NECA's figure does a great job of honoring and updating the old classic.

-- 06/21/23

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