Webcomics You Should Be Reading: Order of the Stick
Roleplaying games are a rich forum for comic material, whether you’re riffing on the setting or the game system itself. Typically, this involves have “players” and the characters they play, and either cutting between them or having the players semi-narrate the action.
Rich Burlew presents the Order of the Stick, a group of PCs whose players remain unseen, but retain full knowledge of the game system that defines their world.
The aforementioned Order is an archetypal adventuring party, including Roy, the noble (and put-upon) leader; Durkon, the Scottish-accent sporting dwarven cleric; Haley, the leather-wearing kleptomaniac thief; Vaarsuvius, the haughty and verbose elven wizard; Belkar, the bloodthirsty halfling ranger/barbarian; and Elan, the clueless, excitable bard. Their overarching quest pits them against the lich-sorcerer Xykon, but along the way they fight dragons, giants, goblin ninjas, their evil opposites (the Linear Guild) and the legal system of Azure City.
Currently, there are three books collecting the online material, two with entirely-original flashback stories (the origins of the heroes and the villains, respectively), and a board game available at the Giant in the Playground Shop. (Plus t-shirts, buttons and the like, of course.) The Giant in the Playground forums also deserve a special mention as the most impressive collection of D&D geeks outside of the Wizards of the Coast forums—there is no D&D question they can’t answer and then debate for 30 pages.
The relative intelligence of the party members.
The introduction of the Linear Guild
Who remembers the old Hostess Twinkie ads in comics?
The Order’s first battle with Xykon begins!
Dramatic confrontation with the shadowy pursuer!
The harsh light of dawn.
The prophecies that will drive the next 200+ strips.
Drama: Moderate. While there’s definitely some angst and some agonizing moments, Burlew also likes to skewer various tropes of adventure games and action movies. A pair of red-shirt characters manage to survive mortal wounds by revealing that they have names and possibly backstories.
Humor: A solid half of the jokes rely on basic knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, particularly 3.5 and 4th Edition. There are also plenty of random pop culture references and obvious anachronisms in the fantasy world (like in any good rpg campaign), but this comic probably isn’t for you if you don’t recognize the phrase “Attack of Opportunity”.
Continuity: High. Start from the beginning. The first dozen strips are loosely-connected D&D gags, but the plot picks up early on and gets into full-on continuity lockout by the later strips.
Art: Burlew draws the strip using vector-based illustration software, in an enhanced stick-figure style. The art has improved over the years, and though the changes are nice, they’re nowhere near the radical changes many hand-drawn comics see. Flashback comics are done in a crayon-like scribble style.
Archive: Five years of page-sized strips (including some double-pagers and infinite-canvas strips), about 600 strips.
Updates: Erratically. It averages three strips a week, but they might be spread out M-W-F, or you might get two on Sunday and one on Monday.
Risk/Reward: There’s a full-blown epic story and Burlew has noted that he knows how it ends; hopefully he won’t disappoint the fans by not getting there. The storyline has yet to hit a comfortable “stopping point” of any kind, which means getting into this strip may get you hooked for several years.
Not only is it a great online comic, but also worth buying the prequel books for, if not also the books of the actual webcomic with the added content. Should you and a few of your friends get hooked on the comic, the OOTS Adventure Game is also a great buy. Just those playing have to be fans of the comic to fully get the references and jokes in the game. Just find myself wondering if there will be an expansion to the game now that the comic has progressed further.