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Thoughts on Erfworld

May 4th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 3 Comments · Media

Anybody who knows webcomics knows about Rich Burlew’s always excellent Order of the Stick. Set in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, Burlew keeps the art simple (they are all stick figures) but manages great characterization, good plot pacing and true story-telling all the while poking fun at and having fun with all the conventions of pen and paper role playing, adventure movies and fantasy lit.

For the last few months, Burlew’s site has been the home of another webcomic, Rob Balder’s Erfworld, set in a fantasy strategy game. A real world game master, mistaken for a renowned general, gets transported to an alternate world that plays by the rules of a turn-based strategy game with role playing elements. Bit by bit we learn about the rules of the world/game.

The art in Erfworld is more obviously “artistic” than the stick figures in Order of the Stick, but, so far, it largely fails as a riff on both role playing and strategy gaming. First, it takes too long to set up the plot. Second, the leader who looks like President Bush and female characters who look like underdressed pre-teens distract from the sense of an alternate world. But the primary problem is what it does with the rules.

Order of the Stick takes its rules literally. But Dungeons and Dragons is a very literal rule set. They have rules for everything. A strength score isn’t an abstraction; it’s a real number with real consequences. Resurrect spells resurrect. Gods are distant but present. DnD is a world. When rules have silly consequences, Burlew doesn’t hesitate to point that out.

Strategy game rulesets are not. They are representations of real world mechanics. Units don’t “pop” into place from the ether, they just seem to. There is an implicit understanding that the units are being recruited from a village or a military academy or a unicorn farm. There just isn’t any need to show that there are villages, academies or unicorns grazing. Likewise, turns are a way of handling player to player sequences. A world in which you can have real time conversations would have no requirement for war to move in turns. (DnD’s “round system” is, technically, turn-based, but can be sped up to approximate real time interaction, as the Bioware/Black Isle games demonstrated.)

The larger issue is that Balder has to make up his game as he writes the strip. And he has decided to make it Lands of Legend cute. So we have “Croakamancy” for “necromancy”. We have childlike leaders giving orders. And for the first 25 strips, the reader has no idea what the hell anyone is talking about. Why are there turns? What is Thinkamancy? Why can’t they do X? What’s with all the baby-talk? Is there a new Candyland nation in Dominions?

OOTS works for people who don’t know the details of DnD because it is, fundamentally, an adventure story. It both mirrors tropes (self-righteous paladin, sneaky rogue, arrogant elf, useless bard) and subverts them (homicidally insane halfing, brilliant fighter, crafty henchman) in a way to keep the plot interesting. And, just as RPGs are about character, OOTS is about the characters.

There are some “I’ve been there” moments in Erfworld. We’ve all thought we’ve stumbled on a killer strategy only to find out that the moves are illegal. But the more time that Balder spends explaining the rules, the less we care about what is going on with the characters. If he wants to describe a new game, he should find a better, quicker way to do it. Sadly, we have to learn right along with the hero since he is only allowed to do things prescribed by the manual.

Pen and paper RPG games are so much easier to write fan fiction about.


3 Comments so far ↓

  • Alan

    I can appreciate what Balder is trying to do, which is essentially write TRON for the turn-based strategy crowd. The biggest problem I have with the whole thing is that it can’t possibly end well. Essentially, Balder has written himself into a corner from the get-go. Not only that, he has to explain everything de novo. I guess it sort of dovetails with the idea that the protagonist is initially clueless, but really it ends up feeling like Balder is just making it up as he goes, at which point there’s no promise of a payoff, and so the reader (me!) stops caring.

  • Bruce

    “First, it takes too long to set up the plot. Second, the leader who looks like President Bush and female characters who look like underdressed pre-teens distract from the sense of an alternate world. But the primary problem is what it does with the rules.”

    No, the second point is definitely the biggest problem.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Eh, I don’t know. Regarding the artistic choices that’s always ultimately up to the reader. He could have went all real and dark, a mixture, or abstract…he chose to make it light-hearted. I assume the language choices are meant to reflect the visuals, and can’t say I really saw Bush.

    Likewise, I think how long he sets up the story depends on what the reader is expecting. If the comic lasts 1000 pages is a 50 page set up that bad? Some people want everything spelled out right away, others want it parceled out. If this was a paper comic everything so far probably would have fit in the origin issue. But because it’s a webcomic, spread out over time, it looks like it’s taking more time than it should.

    Now I do agree that strategy games are a lot harder to make a comic about, although I disagree that D&D has a literal rule set. Any RPG will tell you right off that the rules are meant as a guideline. OOTS does take everything literal though, which may be one reason it’s easier to digest. If you’re familiar with D&D, or role-playing in general, you’re already halfway there with OOTS. Without a game to base Erfworld on, there’s a learning curve.