It seems entirely sensible that Erfworld should be hosted on the same site that provides Order of the Stick, as they are both comics built on a blend of humor and plot set inside a world ruled by the mechanics of a game.
And yet… there are fundamental differences between the two. For all the humor in Order of the Stick, it took seriously the steps of laying the background for the plot and campaign. Laughs crop up even there, shortly, but it is trying to build a fundamentally sound world for the PCs to adventure in.
Erfworld, on the other hand, is a world populated by the absurd. It is populated by ridiculous little figures in a cartoon world, where the language is censored, the names are silly… and their lives are driven by constant and unending war.
The divide between the absurd and the dramatic is even wider than in many other similar comics. The silly cartoon people of Erfworld are indeed capable of complicated and emotional relationships… as well as feats of destruction on an enormous scale. Even as they are, at the same time, caricatures and parodies of pop culture, comic in appearance and built on a foundation of in jokes and obscure references. That juxtaposition is really the most impressive thing about Erfworld – than it can be filled with jokes like the Sofa King, presented as something as natural as breathing, even in the presence of mass warfare, struggle, and death.
That element has never been more present in the strip than now, as our protagonist, Parson Gotti, takes the game to a new level, finding a way to use the rules of magic to unleash a weapon entirely beyond the understanding of his opponents. It is a powerful moment and an incredible feat for him and his few remaining allies, to the no-doubt rousing cheers of the readers rooting for him.
Which is strange, in a way – Parson and those he works for are the bad guys, after all. At least, by the conventional standards – they use necromancy, have a host of standard creepy and evil monsters, and so forth. They are opposed by a coalition of standard good guys, aided by various elves and other more natural creatures, led by proper princely heroes.
And… all of that largely seems meaningless. We haven’t really seen any facet of lie on Erfworld outside of the actual warfare itself. It might be there – there are hints in the presence of the Magic Kingdom, in the fact that characters even can have relationship despite no real need for it (since people pop into existence, fully grown…) But everything we’ve seen is driven by the battle, and both sides will do what is needed to win it. Thus, does it matter what they are fighting for?
Sure, Stanley is a colossal tool. But so is Ansem, hero of the alliance. We’ve seen very few truly sympathetic characters… and we’ve tended to see them in equal prominence on each side.
So we root for Parson, because he’s the key figure, the protagonist. Because he’s the underdog, certainly, someone thrown into a hopeless situation and expected to win it. Because that’s how the classic tale goes – a hero from another realm is summoned to battle to save the day. Parson is the hero, and is given a magic sword, armor, and various other gifts, and is clearly going to be the deciding factor in the battle, the war.
And yet… there’s a twist. All those gifts are handy, but not the real weapon – that is his mind. Tactics, skills, and more – understanding his foes, and how to play them. Not just mastering the system, but thinking beyond it. Doing the impossible, rather than simply winning because he is chosen to win. Sure, in the end it comes out as the same thing – the author is the one deciding how the system works, and how effective any of Parson’s tricks actually are. But it makes for a more exciting story, and makes Parson seem more engaging that a standard hero.
Even if we don’t really get to know him.
We see the motivations of pretty much every character in the setting, from the petty to the proud. From those that are simply commanded to serve to those that are glad to do so – on both sides. And in many ways, Parson is just like the rest of them – he has to fulfill his orders, so he fights for his side to the best of his ability. It is his only hope of survival, not to mention any possible chance to get out of here – he has to win. And, honestly, he wants to win, since games – and figuring them out – is his life.
And that is essentially all we’ve seen of him. Is that enough? To simply have him be devoted to strategy and tactics? In many ways, we’ve seen more development and background from the characters around him, from his opponents, his allies, his henchman…
We have seen that he has grown close to the people on his side. Made friends, as much as the game really allows. He is fighting, by the end, for the chance for them to get out alive – even as he has to make decisions that will cost some of them their lives… or worse. Is this all we need to know of him? Is his life prior to this completely irrelevant, save for how bland it was? And, with the Battle for Gobwin Knob itself actually over, what will his path be to come?
That, really, is what is really pulling me into Erfworld right now. Sure, it is fantastic that it takes a funny world made by Elvis-based titans and populated by absurd little figures, and can make the reader care about it. But right now, the glorious thing… is that I don’t know where it will go from here. The Battle for Gobwin Knob is over. Our main foe, Ansom, is croaked. His coalition bested and in disarray. Parson’s master, Stanley, might still be out there – but he might no longer be Parson’s master, with Gobwin Knob gone. Parson might be free to do his own thing, and enjoy some time in the Magic Kingdom learning more about the system or trying to find a way home.
Or not. Easy ways out aren’t so guaranteed. He now has the emnity of every nation in the world. He has perhaps killed more than any warlord before him, caused personal trauma for many, and dealt losses even Charlie can’t ignore. And all he has is a handful of allies, who may not even have all that much reason to stay faithful to him. His one truly loyal friend was sacrificed in the final gambit. The Magic Kingdom itself doesn’t necessarily know what to do with him.
No, I don’t think there are any easy paths standing before him. But it seems like there is still a great deal more to come, and a great many interesting places for the story to go.