Friday, March 7, 2014

Blaming Cerebus - a look at The Order of the Stick

A bit of a departure this week as I sidestep towards an example of serial online storytelling from the world of role-playing game culture. I'll specifically be looking at Rich Burlew's online comic Order of the Stick, now in its tenth year and having just completed the antepenultimate book in its ongoing storyline. The Order of the Stick takes its title from its stick-figure artwork, artwork the characters therein sometimes seem aware in occasional cracks in the fourth wall. So yes, this post is about a stick-figure comic strip about gamers. It's also about more - OoTS has been successful for a long time, and gained a very devoted following (Burlew raised money via Kickstarter to reprint his back-catalog to reach new readers. Out of a goal of just under $60,000 he raised well over a million in what was, at the time, a Kickstarter record).

OOTS began  way back in 2003 as a somewhat one-note satire of role playing games in general and Dungeons and Dragons in particular. This came at a time when I still counted myself among role playing gamers, and the humor somewhat worked for me. Sadly (or not so sadly - I've found much else to enrich my life), I've not thrown dice with a g
Order of the Stick style fan-art
MyNameMattersNot (DeviantArt).
This is that the comic looks like
aming group in years now - likely almost as long as OoTS has been running. Why do I keep coming back for all these years, following the story of an adventure-gaming group which - at least sometimes - seems to know that they're in an adventure game? How has Burlew been so successful for so long with stick-figure artwork? Two factors: first is evolution, and the second is a successful twist of expectations.

Satire can be fun, but very quickly outstays its welcome. OoTS isn't alone in using broad satire to hook an audience into something which eventually grows more serious. Terry Pratchett's early Discworld books, to take another example, were as broad a satire on fantasy literature tropes as OoTS is about role-playing games. Comic book artist David Sims started his series Cerebus as a not too smart or clever satire of various works of fantasy literature, before moving to a not too smart but increasingly serious (and increasingly problematic) philosophical tale. I see it as the opposite of George RR Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice, which started over a decade ago as a grim and gritty take on secondary world epic fantasy and today continues as -- a grim and gritty take on secondary world epic fantasy. Keeping a consistent tone in works such as this runs the risk of creating a thing preserved in amber, unchanging as the world moves on around it. Burlew has successfully avoided that fate.

The very opening of the comic over a decade ago began in media res with a situation very familiar to gamers - a typical "dungeon crawl" in which a group of heroes were exploring an underground maze of rooms and tunnels, fighting various monsters lurking there for no apparent reason. We got jokes about the rules, about how the world subtly changed when the people playing the game switched to an updated version of the rulebook (RPG rules change from time to time; Dungeons and Dragons has gone through various incarnations, now up to the "fourth edition". The four doesn't count various in-between changes [the upgrade on OoTS was from 3rd edition to 3.5 {oh no! Nested brackets! I hope they all close correctly}] , and many groups have their own unique "house rules". Many gamers have very strong opinions on which edition is "best" [with the split usually between traditionalists who want to go one edition backward and futurists who see the latest as shiny and fun]). It's the kind of story that's fun if you're in the middle of that world, but likely wouldn't appeal much to those outside of it. It's also the kind of story which is fun for a fairly short time.

As time went on, a larger story took shape around the initial "joke" strips. There's still a great deal of humor, but the humor has become more of a vehicle for a genuine character-driven stick-figure novel. A recent story arc, for example, dealt with the party's elvish wizard Varsuvius. Ze (I'll use a non-gendered pronoun for zim; we don't know if Varsuvius is male or female) started off as a stereotype: the "blaster" wizard obsessed with gaining more and more power to smite enemies using magic energies. Somewhat early on in the story, Ze killed a young dragon in a scene which appeared inconsequential at the time. Later, we meet the dragon's parent and, to avoid having zir family slain in revenge, Varsuvius is tempted to sell zis soul to devils for more power. The resulting storyline (which I'll not further spoil) calls into question the core assumptions gaming makes about the nature of evil and the role of violence and develops V's character while remaining true to the core personality left over from the "joke a day" times. It was a surprisingly effective bit of storytelling, and a reminder that in today's increasingly accessible media environment one can find notable or interesting works in surprising places.

The moral of the story? Given passion and dedication, something which at first seems silly can become something something special and interesting as it grows with you and the audience. Do you have a wild idea? If so, stick with it, and look me up again in a decade. We'll see where we're at.

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