Saturday, February 4, 2017

On Goblins, Ages, Sticks and the Blowing of Wads

"Your feet are going to be on the ground
Your head is there to move you around"

R.E.M. - Stand

Like most things inter-netted, webcomics benefit from both greater accessibility and creative freedom than are found in older media. Under these conditions it should be no surprise that logic takes a back seat to fanciful meanderings and superhero or fantasy-themed comics abound. Subject matter aside, though, authors also get to set their own pace without The Editor breathing down their necks to hook more readers or string them along. That being said, hooking and stringing are still part of any such a bid for attention, and it can be interesting to see a work pace itself (or more often, not) according to the timescale on which the author's thinking. Do you hold plot twists and escalations in reserve to keep your story interesting long-term or risk blowing your wad with a big attention grabber?

For fantasy-themed comics in particular, there may be a certain expectation to conform not only to a standard "hero's journey" narrative but to a typical Dungeons and Dragons or other roleplaying campaign, which imposes a crescendo of party formation, leveling up, resolving some Miss Marple quality palace intrigue, defeating incrementally harder enemies and so forth. Diverging from this can prove interesting but then again might unsuccessfully overstep the de facto bounds of pre-established tropes and set pieces.

The comic Skin Horse isn't the sort of high-fantasy shpiel I'm primarily concerned about today, but it does feature a rather apt running gag. One of Skin Horse's characters is exasperated at her favorite series of bodicerippers (about hot-bodied goblins 'cause why not) going off the topic of goblins into were-goblin sex and vampiric goblin sex and such. Do vampire goblins sparkle? One can only guess.

So, about those Goblins. Originally subtitled Life through Their Eyes, the comic started with poignant in-jokes about the suspension of disbelief inherent in roleplaying and common RPG foibles, all seen from the "outsider" viewpoint of those measly level 1 goblins everyone hacks apart by the dozens immediately after creating their character. A band of goblins becomes adventurers. Interesting twist, ok. They kill some zombies, the other major convenient source of low-level fodder. Good, good, ok. They infiltrate a hostile human city, good conflict there.
Then... I can't even say it escalates. Instead of entering the middle range of adventuring difficulty, from zombies to ghouls and ghosts, from hobgoblins to trolls, from +1 weapons to +2 weapons, the comic suddenly acid trips into pan-dimensional eternally returning pocket universes, world-devouring demons, dungeons the size of mountain ranges, time-traveling duplicate clones and weapons made of unreality. The characters themselves become half-metalloid symbiotes or half-demonic or half stone elemental or... Jesus! No, really, if one of them became Goblin Jesus, it would actually make more sense at this point.

Needless to say, the plot also increasingly suffers from the time dilation seen in so many serialized works, with every dungeon taking from months to years to plod through for all the exposition it requires.

The truly sad thing is that these are good ideas. Rather, they would have been great ideas if spread out a bit or used for end-game scenarios, and are continually undercut by the realization that these are fourth-level characters talking about invading Hell. If the author had just paced himself for a couple more years of incremental weirdness instead of cramming every "wouldn't-it-be-cool-if" notion into page by page, then all these puzzles, enemies, weapons and dungeons would have made for highly creative and satisfying plot escalation. However, once you defeat your infinitely-powerful-reality-reshaping/annihilating-alternate-universe-psion-clone ... at level 3 ... where do you go from there? Sharks are not for jumping, people.

You can see a slightly less severe case of this in the webcomic Guilded Age. Though more concerned with gamer socialization meta-commentary than the fantasy world it presents, it makes a better effort to keep its heroes from wrestling with gods right out of the cradle. Laudably implicit, there is nonetheless a leveling scheme one can follow, with characters refining and expanding upon their ability sets as they go. Still, it makes rather too liberal use of cheesy gamer backstories like "last of his holy order" or "secret princess" or "tragic childhood" or "chosen champion of god # 437" and I can't help thinking the clashing armies and world-devouring abomination should've been prefaced with a handful of ogres and vampires or at least a dragon or two. It still sadly skips a lot of necessary small-time (or mid-time) theatrics.

Top prize for handling serialized RPG-inspired escalation however goes to The Order of the Stick with its keen awareness for overused pop-fiction tropes and RPG pitfalls. Though it started on uncertain footing, cramming masses of random monsters into one dungeon, over its fourteen years it's struck an excellent balance between breaking the fourth wall with metagaming jokes about D&D mechanics and keeping its characters proportionate to a semi-coherent fantasy setting. The same character who can Great Cleave hordes of zombies goes one-on-one with an ogre and can get defeated by umpteen D6 falling damage. The villains you kill at level 7 can come back at level 10 as nifty self-buffing flesh golems of themselves. By now it feels perfectly natural for a character to say "I love being high level" while killing frost giants and the rush toward the end-game face-off against the big bad trying to enslave the world has been quite appropriately built up. Where the author toys with giving characters power or adventures beyond their means, it comes with setting-appropriate limitations. The Order of the Stick maintains a consistent awareness of scale and proportions (despite occasionally and intentionally trampling same for dramatic effect.)

Now, of course there are other examples, many of which work well because they set finite, relatively short timescales for themselves, but they're topics for another time. For this post I was just thinking of open-ended or long-running stories set in the D&D -> WoW continuity of gamer culture, and I've yammered on long enough.

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