Saturday, November 14, 2020

Comics Commentary: Dungeons & Dragons tie-in comics

We'll see what we think of this little experiment! Little video comics reviews, unscripted, unedited.

Transcript below...

Today's episode is two comics. We've got Dungeons & Dragons: At the Spine of the World #1, which just came out from IDW downstate a little bit. We’ve also got another licensed or media tie-in comic, Stranger Things and Dungeons & Dragons #1. This is a joint publication from Dark Horse and IDW; IDW must have the D&D license, and Dark Horse must have the Stranger Things license.

I enjoy—and have enjoyed over the years—Dungeons & Dragons-related comic books. They haven't historically been very good and, and they're not consistently excellent. But for someone who enjoys playing the game and likes roleplaying games in general, they are a fun way to have a hand in the game, in the world, and in the character sets even if you're not able to play. So, during the pandemic, I have continued to enjoy Dungeons & Dragons-related comic books as a way to keep a hand in playing the game when I'm no longer able to share time and table with other people who do so here in the LA area.

This new series, Dungeons & Dragons: At the Spine of the World just started coming out in October. It's written by Aimee Garcia and A. J. Mendes, with art by Martin Coccolo. It's basically a relatively brisk and somewhat dense (in terms of page design) introduction to the adventuring party that the storyline will take us with, and it also sets up the gambit in terms of what the point of the adventure or mystery is, as well as who the big baddie might be. 

We have someone who seems to be a sizable, stalwart warrior or barbarian sort. We have a warlock who loses the findings of a mining operation to this beautifully rendered remorhaz. That's a neat thing about these comics, and they've done it differently over the years. Sometimes they're a little too on the nose in terms of referring to game play or game language while in the comic and. This one does not do that. It does not mention abilities like you would use to roll ability scores; it does not mention spells as such. But it is fun to encounter creatures or monsters that you might not encounter in an actual encounter in the comic book and then be able to go back into the Monster Manual or something else to learn more about them, as well.

There's also a dragonborn character. They end up going back to a village meeting a tiefling who seems to be the muscle hired to protect a halfling who has magical abilities, and then the two parties and storylines converge. We have this party already in the village wanting to protect the village. There seems to be something acting against the interests of the citizens there. We've got this warlock who was beleaguered by his miners fighting and killing each other. And the two come together because it seems to be that there is some kind of substance, gemstone, or item that plays on humanoid greed, violence, and other behavior to bring out the worst in everybody. It's called chardalyn, a substance that is a kind of purplish black glowing stone.

At the end of the story after the party's introduced, there is perhaps at least just the voice of who might be the person who is the cause of this influx of chardalyn to this part of the Realms. The comic book sets up an interesting enough party. It sets up an interesting enough mystery or story.

There's not a lot of place there, though. It is in the Icewind Dale, but I'm not sure where in the Realms otherwise if this is a Forgotten Realms comic. But the thing that strikes me the most is that there's not game content in the comic. That's something that I have also enjoyed over the years. IDW comics in the past have had character sheets in the back, have had maybe a monster profile. This one has no actual playable game content. Interestingly enough, Pathfinder comics in the past have actually had maps as inserts that you can take out and actually play in gameplay. But what it does have is one of the alternative covers, Cover B, seems to be a character sheet for the large stalwart warrior or barbarian character. It's got art by Max Davenport. So if you're looking for a version of this comic that actually aids game play, go for Cover B, and as the series continues, we'll see if that's consistently the case. You can always have your local comic shop pull Cover B consistently if you're into that. Dungeons & Dragons: At the Spine of the World is interesting enough that I would recommend and will check out the second issue myself.

Stranger Things and Dungeons & Dragons #1 is just like the other Dungeons & Dragons series—those tend to be relatively limited series or miniseries, four to six issues. This one is explicitly going to be four issues and comes to us from IDW and Dark Horse, written by Jody Houser and Jim Zub. Jim Zub has done other D&D comics or Stranger Things comics. I know his name from the Rick and Morty D&D comics, I believe.  So it was written by those two, with line art by Diego Galindo.

This comic is really interesting because even though it is set in the world of Stranger Things and even though it is populated by the characters of Stranger Things, it does not really tell a Stranger Things story. It tells kind of a behind-the-scenes or back story—not even a back story, kind of just an interstitial story. And it doesn't tell a Dungeons & Dragons story. But what this comic book is, is that it is about the group of friends’ introduction to or discovery of Dungeons & Dragons as a game in this kind of musty book shop staffed by someone who's actually into miniature wargaming, which is kind of cool to see in a comic book. “It's from a new fantasy game we're trying out,” he says. “It's called Dungeons & Dragons.” 

The comic actually situates the game at the beginning of D&D, and true to history, D&D did initially find pickup among miniature wargamers. So there's a picture of the first edition of the box set that they would have gotten access to. (That's after the white box; it's not the very, very first edition.) And then later on in the comic, they actually also represent the Expert Set. So it's a comic book about their introduction to the game and how it helps them escape from their mundane day to day, bullying, and other experiences as younger school students—and actually represents them playing the game together.

So if you have played D&D, and if you have played D&D over the decades like I have—I've played since at least 1983—it might make you cry, like it did me. I actually cried reading this comic book because it is a comic book about friendship, what brings friends together, and what friends do when they're together—and that brought back a lot to me.

The arc of the comic is their introduction to the game, their playing of the game, a series of adventures that they went on, and then they finished the campaign. “Cinderstone's body explodes into a huge ball of flame that shoots up into the sky.” “Wow, we did it!” “So, what's next?” one of the characters says. “Well, you guys finished level three, so that's it. The rules end there.”

That took me back to when I first got into D&D. It was the Mentzer and the BECMI sets, and the idea was that you could play the Basic Set until it ran out of rules. You got the Expert Set, and you could play that until it ran out of rules. Get the Companion Set, and play that until it runs out of rules. It actually ends with them graduating to the Expert Set, kind of a milestone for them as youth, as well as characters.

We'll see where it goes from here, because this was basically just setting it up and kind of a love story to roleplaying gaming and friends. It will be interesting to see what happens as the series continues because there are three more issues, and I don't know that it can do this for three more issues. There has to be some kind of plot.

This and the other comic make me want to play D&D. That's certainly a function that media tie-in comics can play. They make you want to watch the show that you like watching or go back to the movie that you like watching—continue the story of a storyline you like. But this makes me want to play D&D.

Just like the other book, the Cover B alternative cover—the variant cover, as they say—had some gameplay content, this one does, too. This has a Fifth Edition character sheet with Stranger Things-related artwork that you can use. It's unpopulated, so it's just a blank. You can photocopy it and use it for your 5E games. There's also the character Will the Wise, a character created by Will Byers in the show. It is specific to the original basic D&D or original D&D—actually not OD&D, but Basic D&D—so if you play that version of the game, you can certainly play his third level conjurer. That’s kind of fun, and that's something that they've done with the Stranger Things Starter Set that Wizards put out.

These two D&D comics are both recommended. One will certainly have legs and a life after this first issue. The other one? I’m a little more skeptical that they can keep doing a comic about kids playing D&D for three more issues. But then Knights of the Dinner Table’s been going for however many issues now, and that's a comic about people playing D&D. Amazingly fun.

I really, really dig the actual gameplay content, so something I would say to Dark Horse and IDW—and anyone doing roleplaying game tie-in comics: Do make sure that there's some gameplay content so people can use it. I think that you'll find that that kind of dovetails and spins back with what you're actually doing with the comic itself.

No comments: