We’ve spent the last few weeks getting to know a little more about the Dungeons and Dragons franchise. Its beginnings, the way its popularity and infamy grew in western culture, and the influence it had on a selection of creators in both the fiction-writing and webcomic worlds. For the finale of this series we’re bringing it back to webcomics in a big way, by pulling together a thematic overview of webcomics based on the property itself, and seeing where these influences are present in action.
Like we mentioned last week, there are waaay too many D&D comics on the internet (whether still updating or now defunct) to list here. However, it’s also true that most of these comics fit into one of three categories: Those that take place fully within an RPG world, where the characters live in the setting like it were the primary world; those that take place ‘at the table,’ where the comic makes a clear delineation between the antics of the game’s characters and the antics of its players, and; those comics that simply use the rules, game mechanics and tropes of the D&D universe as ‘one-shots,’ rather than basing their comic off the game itself.
Webcomics that take place fully within the RPG world, like Drowtales, The Order of the Stick and Looking For Group (if the latter does have some crossover with digital RPGs like WoW) make up a large portion of the offerings, and are probably what we think of when we hear “D&D webcomic.” These tales are told with a focus on the setting and, although they might occasionally poke fun at the mechanics/tropes that run their universe, they tend to treat it with the same seriousness of a secondary-world fantasy novel like The Lord of the Rings or the Discworld series. These fantasy worlds are as real to their characters as ours is to us: don’t expect the ranger’s twin brother (that they just never happened to talk about) to join the party at the next tavern after a dramatic death, for instance. Their stories are of drama, humour, world-changing importance and the drudgery of fetch-quests alike; what matters is the characters treat what they’re doing as real.
The relationship between these worlds and the game which spawned them is, of course, highly intertwined. In the past, the webcomic treatment of D&D as secondary world fantasy tended to base itself quite directly on it’s real-world inspiration, with creators taking specific modules or campaigns and illustrating those. Alternatively, creators were known to take inspiration from the campaigns they themselves ran or were part of, and illustrate those adventures for the web as if they were real. Over time, this approach has metamorphosed into something that more resembles the creator acting as a sort of Dungeon Master themselves, running their characters through their own ‘campaigns.’ Unlike the days of yore, it’s more likely these campaigns will be a homebrewed adventure, rather than a clone of a Dungeons and Dragons module (probably because of the glut of the latter, not at all due to copyright concerns nah not at all).
Although this immersive style of D&D comic might seem the most familiar, there is still a large portion where the delineation between the game and the players is markedly present. A (kind of) recent (and suitably famous) example is when Scott Kurtz’s Table Titans launched in 2013 (taking the Titans from a Type 3 example to a Type 2), but this approach is also taken by webcomics such as DNDUI, D20Monkey, and perhaps the most seminal examples: DM of the Rings and Darths and Droids.
This style of D&D webcomic is different from the first, in that it acknowledges the events of the comic are taking place within a game, not a fantasy world in its own right. Both characters and their players are actors on this stage, and the interplay between a character’s actions/motivations and the players is often used as a point of humour or drama. These webcomics can vary widely in style and format; some, like DM of the Rings and Darths and Droids never show us the players, but instead mark the delineation with text-box ‘voiceovers’ or characters giving ‘out of character’ dialogue. Others, like DNDUI will show the players away from the table as well the characters they play, whilst others still thread the path between, showing us both the characters and players but not usually leaving the confines of the gaming sessions themselves. As with the Type 1 examples, these tend to mix between parodies of established settings/adventures and completely original works, but from what I could find there tends to be a greater slant towards the parody angle – humerous Type 2 D&D comics seem to work best when the material is understood intimately by their audience.
The final style of D&D comic are those that reference the game, without the setting, characters or tropes of the game worlds being a backbone of the comic. This is, by far, the largest type of D&D comic, consisting mostly of ‘one-shot’ humour strips or short series of D&D gameplay nestled within larger webcomic runs. Examples of this type include the original Table Titans adventure as it appeared in PvP, and other notable webcomics such as Dork Tower, Penny Arcade, Hijinks Ensue, The Pigeon Gazette, Cyanide and Happiness and Scenes From A Multiverse have all taken inspiration from D&D for one-offs or recurring comic themes.
Although this might not seem like enough to warrant it’s own category on the surface, this style of comic has everything it needs to be it’s own genre. These references all share common themes or traits themselves: they appeal to a common knowledge of the game, they cater to specific demographics within the game as well as specific campaigns, settings or characters/archetypes. Most importantly, they build on the collective conscious that has risen around the game through it’s years of pop culture saturation, good and bad publicity, merchandise and development. And they keep Dungeons and Dragons a near permanent fixture of the webcomics landscape.
Did we miss any of the D&D comics you love in our assessment here? Can you think of any other ways that D&D is integrated into webcomics that don’t fit these three types? Don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments below or on Twitter and until next time, remember: don’t eat the clickbait!