Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: Table Titans S.2, Great Comic, Not so Great Game

Warning, this post contains a minor spoiler for anyone who hasn't read ANY of the Table Titans comics, but who intends to start with season two... for some inexplicable reason.

16 pages in, a player character appears.

I started reading Scott Kurtz's D&D comic Table Titans when it was a little ways into its first season, so I was understandably excited when he began season two, "Winter of the Iron Dwarf" late last year. If you're not familiar, Table Titans follows the in- and out-of-game adventures of a runner-up group of D&D players who frequently haunt an actual Seattle gaming parlor in an effort to build their nerd cred and win the coveted "Winotaur". The comics are beautifully drawn by Kurtz, the characters have depth, and the portrayal of gamers feels real... as it should, since Scott himself is an avid player.

As Season Two began, however, something didn't feel right. "Winter of The Iron Dwarf" starts with an expository focus on a caravan of dwarves traveling from a besieged fortress in search of reinforcements. I thought... interesting, I bet the PCs are going to be escorts! Nope. These NPC dwarves were on their own... then they get to their destination just fine and ask the king about soliciting the aid of a great warrior (also not a PC). Through all of this exposition, the comic treats us to an uneventful journey, some decent travel talk, lush visuals and a rich feeling world. Only in the 10th page of in-game time in the comic... 16th page overall are we set up for a reveal that the warrior the NPC dwarves get is not the one they seek, but his daughter... one of the PCs.

Don't get me wrong, the art is still gorgeous. The story is definitely intriguing from a comic standpoint... But as it drew on without the input of the story's heroes, I grew antsy. See, while this technique of establishing the story's focus through supporting characters is great for comics. It's horrible for RPGs. Kurtz's DM character spends way too much time in exposition that is entirely devoid of input from his players.

Because this is a comic about a fantasy game, not just a fantasy world, the player in me began to get anxious until my inner voice was screaming, "WHY HASN'T ONE OF THE PLAYERS TOLD THIS JACKASS DM TO GET TO THE GOOD PART!?"

I was honestly torn, because as a story alone, it's really cool. I think, however, that it serves as an excellent example of the potential pitfalls of media crossovers and a DM who is too deep into his world. Expository introductions that focus on minor or supporting characters are common and work great in film, literature and even comics. The opening focus on C3P0 and R2 in Star Wars is a great example of this, as is the beginning of the LOTR films with Elrond and Isildur battling Sauron, or most of R.A. Salvatore's books, it seems. It works great in those media, because they are unidirectional. There is a storyteller, and a reader/watcher/listener who is taking it in. The exposition establishes the mood and draws the player in.

This can certainly also work in a game, but it's limited by the players' attention and desire to get in on the action. It's a perilous trap for DM's who have spent so much time lovingly crafting a world. They want to roll around in it, to share it with others... "see! look at this gorgeous thing I made!" But players, unlike readers aren't as interested in what YOU made. They want to get in on the creation process to add to or tear down your beautifully crafted world and make it their own.

Perhaps things would have been better of beginning with a focus on the dwarven messengers arriving to summon the wrong Bronzebottom. Is her dad unavailable? missing? Is the messenger just incompetent and doesn't realize he's called on the wrong person, or is the younger Bronzebottom so eager to prove herself that she dissembles or doesn't mention she's not the one they seek. Perhaps with such an adjustment to the opening, "Winter of the Iron Dwarf" would feel like both a great comic and an interesting game.

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