Since both roleplaying games and webcomics are produced largely for the enjoyment of nerds, it’s no surprise that RPG games routinely turn up as plot points in comics. What is surprising is the variety of ways in which those games get used. Now, I’m not talking about riffing on roleplaying elements; there’s scarcely a comic out there that hasn’t referenced D&D somewhere in its run. And I’m not talking about D&D-style adventure comics, like the wondrously-meta Order of the Stick.
What I’m talking about are those times when the central, mundane characters of the strip sit down at a table and get biz-zay with their bad dice.
Some comics, like Full Frontal Nerdity, use roleplaying as a way to comment on nerd culture – they’re playing a game, but only as a way to comment upon the inherent silliness of the game itself. There is no continuity; if you can’t find a solid gag to mock D&D 3.5, move on.
Others, like Something Positive, use the RPG world as a kind of aperitif between courses, something to break the endless monotony of drawing real-world characters against real-world backdrops. No character development happens while the game is playing; it’s just a nice excuse for the artist to draw some cool gunslingers and menacing ents so that the writer can switch styles for awhile.
Then there’s the not-quite-a-webcomic-except-in-spirit Knights of the Dinner Table approach: the entire strip is about the characters’ devotion to gaming. In KotD, the camera never ever moves into game world; no matter what bold and brave things are happening in the RPG setting (and world-shattering events happen on a regular basis), the artist is always stuck drawing Bob and Dave and Sarah, sitting at the table. That’s no coincidence, because the whole point is how Bob and Dave are Sarah are reacting to whatever’s going on.
You wind up with this weird and beautiful hybrid wherein you wind up with two metaplots simultaneously unspooling: You want to know how the RPG characters are going to get away from the pack of starving hounds they’ve accidentally created by burning down the villages around them, but you also want to see how Sarah and Dave are evolving as players to beat this.
And finally, there’s the *cough* Home on the Strange approach, wherein the characters roleplay largely as a way of expressing who they are in real life. What happens in the game is mostly irrelevant, except as fallout that must be dealt with in real life: if Izzy castrates Prince Mannock, how will Seth the fussy GM relate to it?
But then we have the central strip that I’m reviewing today: The DM of the Rings.
It’s a cheap-looking strip, with a lot of jaggies from improperly-compressed JPEGs, but the point of DM of the Rings is not the beauty of the art. In fact, every bit of art is stolen from – you guessed it – Lord of the Rings screenshots from somewhere on the Intarweb.
The cheesiness actually works for it, because the idea behind DM of the Rings is that a GM is trying to create Lord of the Rings in an elaborate roleplaying campaign.
Note that that I said “create” – not “recreate.” In this alternate universe, this roleplaying game is the only media in which Lord of the Rings will ever exist. There are no books, no movies – only the DM’s laborious notes (which leads one to wonder whether the GM is actually J.R.R. Tolkien, but that is perhaps a little too meta). We know that the Nazgul are arriving and that Gandalf is fated to fall to the Balrog, but the players? They have no clue.
The fun is in watching the GM trying to herd cats. The players are traditional D&D acolytes – bored, hungry for combat, and easily distracted. They don’t want to hear the back story, they don’t want to bother waiting through the Shire, and they want to go where they want to go.
Roleplaying adventures are not books, as Shamus Young knows all too well; the friction between an RPG game and a classic narrative is where all the fun comes from.
True story: When I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, I watched the Fellowship decide to climb up the mountains to avoid the Mines of Moria. They struggled their way up the icy path just before the avalanche barred the way, forcing them to retreat, at which point I leaned over to whisper to my wife:
“If the DM has an adventure planned for the Mines of Moria, you’re going to fucking Moria.”
That’s pretty much DM of the Rings summed up in a nutshell.
We never see the characters, creating a weird schism; it’s all taking place in gameworld, but we hear the voices of the characters. Unlike KotD, where we get deeply attached to the players, in DotR we know precisely three guys: the DM, the loudmouthed guys, and the roleplayer. There is no character development – the only change is the ticking away of the pages as the Lord of the Rings moves along its creaky plot.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of good strips are nothing more than a series of gags. But like most gag strips, it does make DM of the Rings the kind of strip you can wander away from at any time, and pick it up whenever you feel like it.
But the gags are solid, at least if you play. This is a really funny strip, commenting heavily on how terrible roleplaying frequently is – which is old hat for most people, but the approach makes it feel fresh. Unlike other strips, where the GM’s plans are nebulous, we’ve already seen what this campaign should be. We can see all too clearly the gap between what the GM wants and what the players are actually doing, and that’s where The Funny lies. The GM isn’t an idiot; he’s just saddled with players who want to do, well, what players do, and this is the wrong medium.
As such, it’s recommended. It’s solid. It’ll fill your days with silly laughter if you’ve ever picked up a pair of dice, and what more can you ask for?