In the beginning was Tolkien…and wargaming and historical reenactment and other ingredients in the gallimaufry that made Dungeons & Dragons. D&D inspired other TTRPGs (tabletop role-playing games), which in turn inspired yet more novels, movies, comics, and other media. (Of course, others have written at length about D&D’s cultural influence—you may want to take a look here and here for further reading).
Herewith, some works with RPG DNA: works that you may not know and may like, featuring the now familiar teams of skilled adventurers—don’t call them murder hobos—using their diverse skill set to solve problems. Usually by stabbing them.
J. Zachary Pike’s darkly comic Dark Profit Saga (2014’s Orconomics: A Satire, and 2018’s Son of a Liche) leans hard into its RPG roots. As far as the Lightkin of the Freedlands are concerned, Shadowkin are Forces of Evil (FOE) by default, with only a chosen few permitted conditional Noncombatant Paper Carrier status. FOEs can be killed on sight, their possessions distributed to better the general economy. This straightforward system has been so fantastically successful that 40% of the Freedlands’ economy comes from looting. The only possible thing that could go wrong would be if it turned out that the wealth of the Shadowkin races was finite and nearing its limits. That would cause an economic catastrophe, as highly leveraged assets became worthless.
An act of charity—saving a goblin from off-handed murder—earns disgraced adventurer Gorm Ingerson a chance at redemption, one he cannot turn down. All he needs to do is lead a ragtag group of adventures as they escort yet another would-be Chosen One on a hero’s quest, in order to establish if the fellow really is divinely favoured, or, like his predecessors, sadly deluded. The quest seems routine…but there’s a hidden goal of which Gorm and his companions have no inkling.
Of course, the standard by which RPG-themed satire is judged is Rich Burlew’s long-running Order of the Stick (2003 to present). What began as a gag-a-strip stick-figure webcomic mocking the quirks of 3rd and 3.5th edition D&D quickly grew into something more. Sane Man fighter Roy Greenhilt has assembled a ragtag gang of eccentric colleagues and set out to defeat the evil lich Xykon. Seventeen years later, the lich is still… uh, “alive” may be the wrong word…active.
What began as a simple plan to find and kill an undead being of unparalleled power and evil has spiralled into an epic tale featuring grand sieges, true love, tragic death, character growth, and increasingly alarming revelations about the likely fate of this world. It’s an impressive work. There are reports that a conclusion looms, so this would be a good time to catch up on the archive. Note that print collections are available.
Meg Syverud & Jessica “Yoko” Weaver’s on-going webcomic Daughter of the Lilies focuses on Thistle, a masked mage who would greatly prefer to focus on healing people. Licensed adventurer Orrig wants to recruit her, not so much for her healing abilities, but for her offensive potential. She would join half-orc Brent, Elf Lyra, and orc Orrig himself, and engage in lucrative derring-do. For reasons only gradually revealed in the comic (reasons which I will not spoil here), Thistle wants acceptance by friends and colleagues, but fears she will never find it. Previous relationships have foundered when new friends learn too much about her.
Adventuring is by no means her first choice of livelihood, but if that’s what it takes to have a place in society, Thistle will sign up. And then…
In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s 2016 novel Spiderlight, Dark Lord Darvezian’s legions of darkness appear well on their way to inevitable victory. Darvezian is just the latest of a long sequence of would-be world conquerors, failures all. Guided by prophecies of unclear origin, adventurers have always managed to save the world from the Big Bads. The latest prophecy leads Penthos the wizard, Dion the cleric, Lief the logistical enhancement expert, Cyrene the archer, and Harathes the holy warrior to the lair of a great spider matriarch in quest of two items the group believes will be needed if they are to prevail over Darvezian: one of the spider’s fangs, and the services of one of her brood. Brood members never leave their community. Nevertheless, the matriarch acquiesces. Fang in hand, the group continues on its way, accompanied by Nth, a very unhappy spider-turned-human who doubts he will ever see his people again.
In Flo Kahn and T Campbell’s long-running Guilded Age webcomic, adventurers Byron Hackenslasher, Syr’Nj, Frigg Akerfeldt, Gravedust Deserthammer, Payet Best, and Bandit Keynes are hired to assist the rapidly expanding nation of Gastonia in its continued expansion. The adventurers are keenly aware that their bosses are not nice people; nevertheless, each has reasons for signing up.
Readers then learn that the team are just characters in an online RGP, Kingdoms of Arkerra, helmed by game designer H. R. Dedalus. The designer believes that Byron and company are merely characters in his game and that their actions are constrained by his software. How is it then that the characters, and the game, display emergent behavior that Dedalus did not expect at all? Is he in control…or not? Has the designer fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his creation?
No doubt you have your own favourites and have been growing increasingly concerned as I fail to mention them. Feel free to list them in comments below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is currently a finalist for the 2020 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.