Tabletop gaming is experiencing a revival. Podcasts like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone are as popular as any mainstream show. Every single day fans set off on their own adventures through fantastic lands, spurred on by their favorite content creators. It’s easy to see where the interest comes from. Tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons are famous for inspiring creativity. That being said, it’s no wonder so many tabletop gamers are also some kind of Creative. For example, the Critical Role cast first became famous as voice actors for anime and cartoons. And from this creative circle-jerk rise a new brand of art: Dungeons and Dragons comics.
I’m not talking about official comics published through Wizards of the Coast here, I’m talking about comics made by D&D fans with no ties to the brand. Online Dungeons and Dragons comics have become so commonplace and so similar that they’ve essentially become the Two Dudes Gaming On A Couch comics of our generation. While Wizards of the Coast does put out official comics through IDW, you’d be hard pressed to find a passionate reader.
Dungeons & Derivatives
When did derivative Dungeons and Dragons comics surpass the licensed ones? It’s hard to say with a franchise like D&D. The official comics have been around since the ’80s, and it would be impossible to tell which comics drew direct inspiration from the game.
So let’s jump forward to a much more modern period and examine the best derivative D&D comic: Rat Queens. Original writer Kurtis Wiebe has made no secret of his influence, labeling the comic a “love letter to (his) years of D&D.” Opening up an issue with Rat Queens is like sitting down at a table and having a fun, dumb campaign with your best friends. It’s crass, it’s sexy, and it’s hyper-aware of its own insanity.
Rat Queens was able to transcend its source material and gain a following outside of tabletop cult fanatics, a feat that even a lot of modern D&D media can’t quite reach. Rat Queens‘ link to the game is purely set dressing – background knowledge on the settings, races, and classes. You don’t need to be an avid adventurer to enjoy the exploits of Betty, Dee, Hannah, and Violet.
Modern Dungeons And Dragons Comics
The comic that most fans will think of when discussing D&D is likely The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins, based on a podcast by the McElroy brothers (and father) with art by Carey Pietsch. The Adventure Zone breaks down the pretext of being “inspired by” Dungeons & Dragons. It presents the story the same way it was originally told: as a D&D session between three brothers and their dad. Part of the appeal for a lot of readers is the acknowledgment of the edifice.
Much like a YouTuber joking around with her editor, the Adventure Zone boys are constantly joking back and forth with their Dungeon Master. The relationship between all the players and the DM is so ingrained in the heart of the narrative that when translating it into comic form, it is impossible to leave Griffin out as a character. He appears as a narrator, a fourth-wall-breaking funny-man, and an all-around Forbes 30 under 30 media luminary littlest brother.
Leave The Dungeon Master Out Of This
As a result of the success of the McElroys and similar tabletop podcasts, comic creators have been making a point to subvert the format of a traditional D&D campaign. Everyone puts their DM in the upper left corner, making a snide comment about the dumb decision the characters just made. That’s what I mean when I say Dungeons & Dragons comics have become the Two Dudes Gaming On A Couch comics of our generation. The same jokes are getting repeated over and over, like a comic con branded echo chamber.
Yes, you and your friends are funny in context. But it’s not the same to read an exact account of your 8-hour session as it is to be there. The best D&D comics aren’t the word-for-word accounts of sessions, but those that use the setting as a jumping-off point. Take, for example, Noctifer, an ongoing webcomic by Emily Cheeseman. Cheeseman uses the settings and NPCs of Curse of Strahd to imagine her own version of the campaign. She doesn’t go into it with a wink and a nudge, like some others.
Noctifer does not feel the need to justify existing in a Dungeons & Dragons setting. At the other end of the spectrum is Die, the newest comic from Wicdiv penner Kieron Gillen. Die revels in the dark side of D&D and the brutality of war games. Again, the setting of the campaign is a jumping off point. The characters of Die are scarred by their time trapped in a fantasy RPG, a setting that leans more Game of Thrones than Jumanji. And that scarring, that emotional trauma, is the driving force of the story.
More Official Dungeons and Dragons Comics Please
As much as I love certain derivatives of D&D stories, I think the best thing to do would be for Wizards of the Coast to smarten up and crack down on marketing their own comics. The last trade paperback of the Dungeons and Dragons comic came out in 2017. While fans of the game like seeing familiar NPCs and deities in comic form, the general public doesn’t respond the same way they might to Critical Role.
The issue is hard to place. Maybe D&D is too niche for mass appeal. There’s an easy solution to that: Forget about Dungeons and Dragons entirely. If IDW and Wizards of the Coast really wanted to hook up new readers, they’d divorce themselves from D&D canon and make a whole new adventure.
A Modest Proposal
The campaigns people are having right now aren’t the strict, rule-abiding basement meetups of years past. Modern tabletop lovers are much faster and loose with their gameplay. So why shouldn’t the comics reflect that? When I say to ditch D&D canon, I don’t mean to toss you fifty dollar book out the window. I just mean that sticking to the book isn’t the fun stuff. A good Dungeons & Dragons comic should keep things like settings and a couple of NPCs and try not to sweat the small stuff. The gatekeeper-y nature of fandom is at its strongest among old school tabletop players. So don’t give new fans any more hoops to jump through.
All you need is a relatable character in an unfamiliar setting. That’s it. From there you can spoon-feed information to both the character and the audience, introducing them to aspects of the game they can explore more if they, oh I don’t know, start their own campaign.
Dungeons & Dragons Comics, The Ultimate Advertisement
Not to sound cynical, but there’s an obvious reason for tabletop developers to put out comics. It’s the best advertisement for their product. If you can get somebody involved with the lore of your game before they even play it, that’s more effective than any banner ad you can run. And they would have paid for it.
But as it stands, the D&D comics being offered aren’t very attractive ads. If the reader can’t imagine themselves in the story, then why would they bother with an immersive RPG? As a devoted D&D player, I want to see the franchise succeed. And for that to happen, we need proper advertising. And proper comics.