What do people get out of playing role-playing games around a table with other people? That’s kind of a rhetorical question, as I’ve been quietly revering the friendship and improvised plotting of Dungeons & Dragons on and off since high school. The creativity of creating your own character and fitting their life story into a fictional world, the figurative bonding between player avatars as they face battle and argue over loot, and the actual bonding as you sit across from other people for hours at a time, fueled by caffeine and likely the feeling that you couldn’t replicate this exact group makeup anyplace else. Video games might randomize elements or offer branching choices, but tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs) are dependent on each individual’s state in that moment, a recipe that can be approximated but never recreated.
I bring this up because anyone who wants to base a story in the realm of a role-playing game has an interesting decision to make. Do they only tell the fictional story that takes place, or do they add a layer of narrative representing the players making those choices? I enjoy when players are incorporated into the story. A fantasy that takes place in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign as a straightforward adventure can be nice, but I also like witnessing the playing of the game itself in terms of social interactions and what players get out of playing.
Every campaign is different and will necessarily reflect its players differently. Multiply this by the many creative and social outlets TTRPGs provide, and a storytelling setup emerges that never gets old for me. With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the combinations that pop up in different D&D centric comics.
(Clint McElroy, Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Carey Pietsch)
This is one of the most straightforward, as well as charming, campaigns of the set. The McElroy family plays D&D together and records it as an actual play podcast, adapted here to comics. Every so often, the DM will weigh in from a bubble panel, or a piece of dialog will brush against the fourth wall and acknowledge the adventure is created by a person. There’s a particularly dramatic moment where a character appeals to the DM in order to save someone’s life, and it totally works. There’s an improvisational tone to a lot of the proceedings, and you can feel the DM giving a nod to trying an unconventional solution here or conversation branch there.
Rick & Morty vs Dungeons & Dragons
(Jim Zub, Patrick Rothfuss, Troy Little, Leonardo Ito, Crank!)
The first time I came across this comic on the stands, I flipped it open to a page of Rick shouting “Roll initiative, bitches!” and promptly closed it. Get that performative bullcrap outta here. Then I read enough D&D-based comics and watched enough of the Rick & Morty cartoon that I wanted to return and see what actually happens in this crossover.
A whole lot, actually!
Morty wants to learn the game to impress a hip gamer girl at the local hobby shop; Summer has rogue assassin fantasy tropes she likes to indulge; Beverly likes to drink and unwind; Jerry’s proficiency at the game is his escape from his real-world mediocrity; Rick… well, any fan would have guessed that Rick has a beloved yet intense view of the game that takes a while to unpack. Rick’s relationship to D&D is practically a manual as well as a warning to budding players. It is the game he enjoyed with friends as a young man. It is where he explored his love of generating new worlds, chasing novel ideas, and exploiting systems of rules. It is also where he left a lot of substandard ideas to rot and be forgotten, hidden by the glow of his accomplishments.
There is an encounter with an all-powerful DM character that reminded me of the therapist the family sees in later seasons of the cartoon, in the sense that the family’s dysfunctions are challenged enough that they see opportunities to choose new routes for themselves. In the case of Rick, he is given a character class that he despises, which leads him to act sulkier and grumpier than usual, an attitude many real-life players have likely enacted or witnessed when something didn’t go their way. This series prods the appeal of D&D from a few angles, always finding new takes on how people qualify their preferred way to play. Playing to win battles, build the most effective character, or complete a dramatic story arc are all valid routes.
Critical Role: Vox Machina Origins
(Matthew Colville, Matthew Mercer, Jody Houser, MSASSYK, Olivia Samson, Chris Northrop, Ariana Maher)
This one’s a bit of an outlier, because it is enhanced by knowledge and experience from the live-action show, to a degree. As someone who has only watched a few bits and pieces of the YouTube series, here’s what I mean. If you look up advice for playing or running D&D online at all, you will run into commentary about “the Matthew Mercer effect,” referring to the person who generally leads Critical Role’s campaigns. Because he and many of the personalities on the show are trained performers and voice actors, in addition to close friends, they are able to achieve a great atmosphere and chain together highly entertaining setups with jokes, callbacks, and performances that elevate the show’s appeal far above simply watching people roll dice and dispute technical rules.
In an ideal world, the games played/performed by these professionals would lead game makers and players to take notes about what worked, what they think would work for their own talents and group (an important distinction), and level up their own games. Instead, to hear some complaints on the internet, there appear to be jealous and entitled reactions. Players wish their own games were led by a charismatic performer, DMs wish their efforts resulted in fame and profits… egos can get bruised comparing your personal hobby to someone else absolutely rocking it on a global stage.
I am here to tell you, as an impartial observer, that Critical Role’s talents are entirely in the best interests of the game and those who wish to emulate it. In looking up DMing advice for my own games, I came across Matthew Colville’s breakdown of an emotional moment from Season One of Critical Role. It’s a big spoiler, but also, a compelling demonstration of how the game, its characters, and its players all intersect to create a beautiful moment that the players recognize and indulge. That was the moment that caused me to take Critical Role seriously and, as a side effect, check out the comics prequels to their first campaign story.
Where a comic based on a role-playing game might be based on canonical characters and scenarios, the Critical Role comic, much like Adventure Zone above, silently brings extra baggage in the form of its table etiquette. Even if someone has never watched the show, there’s an obvious energy throughout the comic that goes beyond fleshing out character archetypes. There are unique voices (acted on the page, as it were) and reactions that feel like they’re taking place in and out of game. The human players made such an impression on me in a few short clips that I was already recognizing their tics in illustrated form. Having read the first two trades of the Critical Role comics, I feel like they put some fantasy stories to shame by virtue of having a cast that’s tied to flesh and blood actors and therefore that much more of a unique fingerprint. For those who don’t like that the beautiful people, the celebrity people have intruded on their sacred gaming habit, maybe this version that sticks to the fantasy will be easier to absorb.
Stranger Things and Dungeons & Dragons
(Jody Houser, Jim Zub, Kyle Lambert, MSASSYK, Nate Piekos)
This is the shortest and perhaps most straightforward of the bunch: Stranger Things is still a cultural phenomenon, lots of people were turned on to Dungeons & Dragons thanks to it appearing in the show, so here’s a direct look at some extra scenes of how the game affected the show’s characters! As with the previous examples, you get entertainment and marketing in one fell swoop. It’s no wonder we live in an era of the Wendy’s RPG and (already sold out!) Arby’s dice.
The chapters of this part-recap, part-commercial are honey-glazed representations of how a group evolves around making time for game night. First, everyone has circumstances that lead to wanting to group up and roll dice in the first place, whether it’s as an excuse to draw fantastic creatures or just to find belonging in the wake of bullying. Then the group expands, taking on new players whose love and understanding of the game may not be as deep as the entrenched players’ yet. The old players find themselves in the position of being potential gatekeepers or showing enough flexibility to make their game accommodating for someone else. Finally, as time goes by, life events can either delay the next session or, more melodramatically, create a ticking clock wherein the players become hyper-aware that they are sitting in their last game together.
Even if you’ve never played D&D, everyone’s had something they grew out of, whether consciously or by circumstance. While this collection is fairly short and exists between seasons of the Netflix series, the creative team still found opportunities for authentic pathos expressed through dice-based power fantasies among friends.
(Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, Clayton Cowles)
Of all the titles that explore people’s relationships with their TTRPGs, I consider this one the big enchilada. A bunch of middle-aged adults revisit the fantasy realms of their youth, having left a player behind in the alternate dimension back in the day. The layers of inspiration subtext circle back around to overt text at times – look no further than a player’s in-game encounter with H.G. Wells, or Gillen’s construction of an actual RPG system for those looking to explore this playground for themselves. Unlike the previous examples, save for some of Rick & Morty, this is about a game that was played and must be faced again with the benefit of hindsight. How does the abandoned wish-fulfillment love interest character get by without their player-authored partner around? How do plainly ripped off (“inspired”) empires and societies function without players’ egos and narratives to act as guard rails? Leave it to the writer of The Wicked + The Divine to dive into another sublime cautionary tale about what we believe and give influence over ourselves.
Those are just a few of the TTRPG-inspired comics that speak to a larger phenomenon of bonds forged through play. The lessons I learned about D&D as a teenager have come in handy as an adult, whether I’m playing among peers or leading a teen group for the public library. I try to maintain a distance from influencing the players like a gardener might let a patch of earth get wild. Some of their motives and play styles feel like coming full circle from acting on them myself; other players find brand new directions and cues that continue to surprise the whole table (or Zoom group, as the case may be). Whatever we each get out of rolling the dice, we know there’s nothing else quite like it.