A Very Good Question

“Who are you?”

That… is a very good question indeed.

Other good ones: Why are you here? And what in the hell is going on?

The scene is Dungeon and Dorks, a fantasy webcomic parody of a certain famous roleplaying game. For a long while, I considered DnDorks to be among the top such comics, to have nailed its rendition of gamer humor as well as the best of them.

Then it lost me. Not in the sense that I no longer enjoyed the strip – no, it lost me in that all understanding of plot went right out the window.

The figures to our left are Venger, an apparently recurring villain, and Mac’thulu, who is as he says he is.

I’m not entirely sure where either of them came from. I’m not sure why the story is focusing on them, nor what has happened to the main characters, or the side characters, or the NPCs, or any of it. I suspect a full read through the archives would clear some things up, if not all… but this is also a comic I started reading within the last two years. The archives aren’t really all that far from memory.

Let’s begin with a basic description of the strip. DnDorks is about a bunch of gamers, and at the same time, it is about the characters in the game they play. These stories are told essentially hand in hand, often to good effect. Over the first four or five years of the strip, it combined clever jokes about these few iconic gamers, while also developing them as interesting individuals with lives of their own.

A little over a year ago is when the confusion started to arise. The main cast of gamers was set aside for DnDorks – the Next Generation! This featured younger siblings of the main crew trying their own hand at DnD for the very first time – which, on its own, is a perfectly cool idea. A chance for adding some new blood to the strip, walking down some similar paths and some new ones, and setting things up for an all around good story arc.

It was a little confusing for me, mainly due to the transition – the new characters basically showed up, with little explanation of who they were. I gather, looking at the cast page, they may have shown up previously as filler – but for me, they were all new and out of the blue.

But hey – that alone wasn’t too big a deal. The new cast was well-rounded and enjoyable to see in action. Once the initial shock of the shift was over, it made for a good read.

Then they decided to start remaking the earliest strips in the archives, updating them with art consistent with the new format. Not a problem in and of itself – in fact, a damn good idea. Except… they posted the new old strips like regular updates. If you knew what was going on, it was possible to keep the stories separate – but it also meant you had to actively be paying attention to do so. Each update, you had to mentally file the page in a different place.

It wasn’t much – but it muddied the waters enough that when the real confusion hit, it made things oh so much worse.

The latest storyarc has involved, as far as I can tell, a blurring of the lines between the gamers themselves and the characters they play. Through strange machinations, the “next generation” has been brought into their game world by this villain, Venger – and in order to stop whatever evil scheme this is a part of, the original cast was brought into the game world by this other fellow, Mac’thulu.

So – hey, I can describe the general story that is going on, so that means the comic hasn’t descended into complete gibberish. The problem is that the general understanding is as far as it goes – I haven’t been able to follow any given strip, or precisely how all this has come to pass, or the motivations behind anyone or anything.

The core of the problem is that we have a crossover between both the new generation of gamers and the old generation of gamers and the characters both teams play – while in the background, classic strips from the archives are running in-between. With new and important villains coming out of left field. With dramatic reveals at every turn. With an art style that is very nice to look at, but also includes a layout that tends to jump past important bits of the action – usually relying upon narrative to fill us in on the blanks, which works a whole lot better when the reader remembers where the characters are and what they are doing.

Therein lies the problem – any single one of those elements wouldn’t be enough to leave the reader bewildered. But all of them together…

And it’s a shame, because I like all these characters. I like the idea of having characters sucked into their game world, I like seeing the new dynamic of the younger crew matched against the familiar stasis of the old, I like the fact we have a miniature Old One named Mac’thulu. It’s all clever and fun, but I realized the other day that I had spent the last year reading the strip without being able to even name most of the characters anymore.

That’s not good, people. The more confused I got, the more frustrating the story was, because I didn’t have the time each week to go digging through the archives to try and set each new thread straight – especially with the classic strips still popping up out of order, even in the archives. I wasn’t losing the strip because of the characters or the story or the jokes, but because of simple poor organization.

It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading the comic, unless it continues to pile layers of convolution on at every turn. Right now, it looks like the current story is getting close to the big ending – which I am desperate for. Because until then, every update just means I glance at the page, shake my head, and wait for things to make sense again.

And if that is the response that a storyline that could be wildly entertaining is having on your readers, it’s time to ask yourself why it is happening – and what you can do to fix it.

3 responses

  1. I’ve had the same problem lately- it’s confusing as all get out. I pride myself on an ability to keep track of convoluted stories and scores of characters. (Having trained on X-men cartoons and comics before middle school.) But, yeah, I’m lost. What does the kobold have to do with anything? How were they able to make all memories of the DM’s sister dissappear? Where the heck did Venger get a DM? What on earth does this have to do with Ethan’s past?

    Any of these alone are acceptable as mysteries that the author wants to keep from the audience. But all of them together just makes the whole matter too confusing. There are too many variable and not enough constants to even speculate at a range of solutions. All in all, I’m really hoping for a villain monologue soon.

  2. Oh, and as long as we’re discussing DnDorks. I’m a christian dnd player who was intially leery about playing, and I’m not really pleased that a character like Mac is supposed to represnet me. The unfortunate implications of Mac being sacrificed and then possessed by an ancient evil are even more irratating.

  3. You know, until you mentioned that, I had even forgotten that Mac was the host for the tentacled fellow.

    I can hear what you are saying about Mac, certainly. Almost all the gamers in DnDorks started out as pretty strict stereotypes – and while some of them were then developed into more realistic characters, others seem to have become even more exaggerated at every turn.

    (Usually the ones being painted as antagonists, such as Mac and Ethan.)

    Which, sure, gives us some external conflicts for the gamers themselves – but also leaves us with some entirely one-dimensional (and frustrating) characterization.

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