Before I continue my surge into other bits of media, I wanted to touch on 2 other direct-to-DVD items and one…I guess you’d call it a web-TV series that eluded my original article.
Scourge of Worlds was an interactive, computer-animated D&D movie. It was kind of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style piece, where you guided a group of iconic D&D characters – Regdar, Mialee, and Lidda – through an adventure. The animation was decent, but what really helped the piece was the strong sense of humor that snuck through. I could honestly believe that I was seeing the banter around a D&D table brought into a movie. If you can find a copy of it, it’s worth at least one viewing, and there are a number of possible outcomes, so it may even be worth more than one go through.
I will only briefly sully the name of the Dragonlance franchise, of which I will speak more later, to mention that there was a direct-to-DVD animated movie of “Dragons of Autumn Twilight.” Despite some half-decent voice-actors (including Michael Rosenbaum of Smallville fame as Tanis, Kiefer Sutherland as Raistlin, and Xena’s Lucy Lawless as Goldmoon), this offering is pretty god-awful. It skips and jumps around through the story rather haphazardly, barely giving important plot pieces a moment to breathe, and totally ignoring some vital elements (where the heck was Berem, anyway?). To make matter even more painfully worse, the draconians and dragons, rather than being traditionally animated as everything else is, are rendered in computer-animated 3-D graphics…really cheap and terrible looking computer-animated 3-D graphics. I’ve already spent more time on these than I should. If you’re a fan of the books, avoid it. Seriously.
Conversely, Gold is a fine piece of work. This independently produced web-TV series and its spin off series, Night of the Zombie King, are really fun glimpses into a world where RPGs are played as a competitive sport, for money, or else in dangerous, uncontrolled home games. It’s funny stuff and extremely well put together and acted.
The Written Word
Since D&D is a very literary game, inspired by everything from The Lord of the Rings to Conan to Pellucidar to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, it’s only appropriate that the first media tie-ins for the game were books and that so many novels have come from it. Andre Norton’s “Quag Keep” is the first book published set in a D&D setting. It draws on Greyhawk’s geography for its tale, and it uses some D&D monsters and classes. Personally, I’m not a fan of the book. I’ve never been a big Andre Norton fan, and her portrayal of the adventure that the characters go through strikes me as singularly bizarre. When a fight is in the offing, half the party flees, leaving the other half to face the battle alone. This is obviously not how a typical game goes, and it really struck me as odd.
After this, the first novels I’m aware of being based on D&D are Gary Gygax’s own Gord the Rogue stories. Again…not a fan. I found them very dry, which is odd, considering how much I enjoy reading Gygax’s curious phrasings and playful style in the actual game books.
For me, D&D novels came into their own with the Dragonlance series. These books began coming out when I was in Junior High, and I loved them. The first two trilogies were and remain very enjoyable books. When other authors took up the reins, I was less than thrilled with the result. But the successes of these books paved the way for more. Now there are Eberron novels, core world novels, Greyhawk novels, Forgotten Realms novels… and these, of course, brought arguably the most famous and popular D&D novel character, Drizzt Do’Urden. I find Salvatore’s writing style to be fun, but I must admit I find the enduring love for Drizzt a bit baffling. Maybe, as the ultimate misfit, he tells us D&D players something about ourselves.
Before I move off of novels, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Joel Robinson’s “Guardians of the Flame” series at least briefly. The premise is quite similar to “Quag Keep” in its own way – a group of RPG players find themselves in the world of their game. For me, however, “The Sleeping Dragon”, the first novel, is more satisfying, more interesting, and features better plot and characterization than “Quag Keep”.
There are also many books now that are coming out about having been a D&D player. I’ll mention 2, although there are plenty more, I’m sure.
Mark Barrowcliffe’s “The Elfish Gene” is a memoir of a boy growing up completely obsessed with D&D. It ranges back and forth from playful and funny to downright painful…if only for recognizing oneself in the geeky, awkward kid he was.
Ethan Gilsdorf’s “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks” caught my attention…primarily because I was one of the DMs at the game day at Pandemonium Books he mentions. (Since I know I wasn’t his DM, I call dibs on being the one whose table was laughing…that tends to be how I run public games. ) This book…I just don’t know about it. It’s fine…it’s well-written, certainly, and it was informative. But I was hoping for a bigger pay-off than “Hey, it’s okay to be into something geeky, even if you’re a normal adult!” I’ve known that it’s okay for many years, and most people I hang out with know that, too. So maybe that’s why I wasn’t as wowed as others have been.
Way back when, DC Comics did an “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” comic book series, as well as a “Dragonlance” comic series. This spun-off into a “Forgotten Realms” series and then a “Spelljammer” series. While none of these are must-read material, they’re definitely fun. There were also a series of Dragonlance graphic novels published directly by TSR, and they were quite good as well. More recently, DDP did a number of comics based on the R.A. Salvatore Drizzt novels. They were fine, and they actually extended into some of the books I hadn’t read yet, which let me catch up on part of the story I didn’t know.
If you’re looking for something new, fresh, and damned funny, however, you’d be well-served by finding IDW’s new “Dungeons and Dragons” series. The art is great…the writing is clever and extremely entertaining…and it’s funny. I don’t know about your games, but my players are playing because they want to have a good time. We laugh a lot at my games, often at in-character comments and rivalries that crop up in the party. Reading the new D&D series feels a lot like listening in on a really funny bunch of players being put through their paces by a very nasty Dungeon Master. That’s all I’ll say on the subject.
They’re also producing a “Dark Sun” series, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. And I understand that an original series of Drizzt comics (i.e. not based on the existing novels) written by or approved by Salvatore may be coming in the future.
Another comic worth mentioning, of course, is Knights of the Dinner Table. This comic strip began in the back of Shadis magazine and went on to become its own series of comics and graphic novels. Bizarrely enough, it also became its own RPG in a way, as the Hackmaster series of game materials came out, based on the game that the characters of the comic were playing.
This also brings us into the fertile realm of webcomics, and I know there’s absolutely no chance of me accurately listing every webcomic about RPGs, so I’m just going to mention a few favorites.
Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick is literally based on 3.5 Edition D&D. In fact, the first strip is about the characters being converted from 3rd edition to 3.5. It’s amazing to think that this series has been running pretty much steadily since 2003 and still feels so original and fresh.
Aaron Williams’ Nodwick is another fine example of a long-running comic that began as simple parody and has evolved into a complex storyline. Full Frontal Nerdity, also by Williams, is a fine example of a strip about people playing RPGs.
Other strips I’ve enjoyed that have significant stories taking place with people playing RPGs include PVP Online, Dork Tower, Penny Arcade (of course), and Something Positive. Randy Milholland, the author and artist of Something Positive, is actually an old gaming buddy of mine. In fact, you might recognize a heavyset character named Andy in the strip, most recently appearing here: http://www.somethingpositive.net/sp01112011.shtml According to Randy, I’m a random voice of reason. I do love to name-drop, and Randy’s a fave for me. He actually drew the very first strip sitting at one of our D&D games.
Throwing in the Towel
The frustrating thing about writing articles like these is that I know that, no matter how painstakingly I research…no matter how thorough my list is…I know there are favorite pieces out there that have eluded me. I can’t possibly mention every piece of media based on D&D, so I must turn to you, my dear readers, to set me straight…err…well…you know what I mean.
If I’ve committed the ultimate sin of omitting something that simply must be mentioned, please let us all know.