One of my favorite webcomics, which happens to also be my favorite D&D webcomic, is Order of the Stick. If you’ve been in the webcomics consumption business or D&D business for a while, you have likely heard of it. It has been going on since September of 2003 and, despite a few setbacks and being the poster child of how too much success can be a bad thing, it has passed 1100 pages. What started as a way to joke about the rules for the new D&D 3.5 release has developed into an epic tale that still manages to find the time to make jokes about the rules.
The first comics are fairly formulaic, by today’s standards. The party is introduced to the readers and jokes are made about obscure rules or the tendency for player characters to fail simple checks, like seeing the monsters immediately behind them. Then Evil Opposites are introduced, a Lich at the end of the Dungeon is encountered, and then the party is released into the wider world to wreak havoc and eventually get railroaded into some new plot or another. They go from light-storytelling at the start so jokes can remain the focus to telling an epic story of personal growth, the consequential struggles of mortals in the matters of gods, and need of individuals to act even when they feel out of their depth. There’s on particular moment, as the webcomic approached and passed its 1000th update that has stuck with me. The combination of the art change and the focus on the growth of one of the characters culminated in a single splash page that still gives me chills.
For a long time, my idea of playing or running Dungeons and Dragons was to create a place for players to sort of just stumble through the world. There was supposed to be a story, but it was secondary to making sure the players got to make their jokes and kill a bunch of stuff. Reading through Order of the Stick showed me there was a lot more that I could do within the world of D&D since the writer/artist, Rich Burlew, manages to tell the entire story without departing from the world. It taught me a lot of how to trim a story to fit within the confines of a D&D campaign, how to ensure my players had agency, and how to even do a bit of railroading without ruining the story. Beyond even that, it taught me so much about how to play within the rule set, how to creatively express myself in a variety of character types, and how to add nuance to the rather black and white D&D morality system without making everything entirely relative or perception-based.
While it managed all of that, the story created a wonderful mixture of sympathetic villains, unsympathetic villains, good guys who get screwed over, and bad guys who get better than they deserve. As soon as you venture outside of the online comics, to the book only publications or the PDFs that were created as a part of the “too much success” Kickstarter (what started out as a cheap drive to fund reprinting a popular book wound up raising millions of dollars and forcing Rich Burlew to take time off of the comics in order to work on meeting the commitments he made during the event, some of which is still ongoing). My favorite story, about my favorite character, is one of those PDFs. How the Paladin Got His Scar is a tale about personal strength, commitment to something larger than yourself, second chances, and choosing to live for something while still being willing to die if it means that everyone else will be safe. I read it at a time I really needed it and I still go back to read it again when I feel like I need to strengthen my commitment to something that feels impossible. Such as updating my blog every day for a year.
People talk about stories or books that made them who they are today and Order of the Stick is one of mine. I would not be as skilled a storyteller as I am without this comic. I would not be the same creative, twisty DM and player without it. I would not be me without it. If you’re looking for something to read and enjoy jokes about D&D and learning about what it means to be a leader or the price of power, check it out at Giantitp.com. Also, yes, the stick figure drawing does improve over time, but it remains stick figures until near the 900 mark, when it improves without losing its original charm.