(From Darths and Droids. Click for full-sized pawns.)
I’ve talked before about Darths and Droids, and on both those occasions I mentioned that I found it a superior strip to the one that inspired it, DM of the Rings. But I don’t think I’ve done the distinction between the two justice.
You know how sometimes, a company will come along and become the pioneer in some new field, and possibly popularize it to the general public, but a second company will become more famous, expose the true potential of the field, and become virtually synonymous with that field? It’s similar to how I described Irregular Webcomic! as a pioneer but not the definitive multi-webcomic. Atari virtually invented the video game console as we know it today, but self-destructed along with the rest of the video game market in the 80s, allowing Nintendo to define video games for my generation. Netscape brought the Internet to the masses but everyone uses Internet Explorer now. Lycos and Yahoo made search engines popular with the general public but only Google managed to turn itself into a verb. Bob and George didn’t invent the sprite comic, but did inspire most of the others, including 8-Bit Theater, which truly transcended its origins to create a strong comic in its own right (it is no insult to call 8BT a poor man’s Order of the Stick). And so on.
Well, DM of the Rings is the Atari to Darths and Droids’ Nintendo, which is odd because it means Darths and Droids is in the opposite role as Irregular Webcomic! DM of the Rings asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Lord of the Rings were an RPG campaign?” That was really the extent of what it was trying to do. Not only is the DM a railroader, but as much as I hate to say this, the characters make Ctrl+Alt+Del‘s characterization seem deep. Through the first 70 strips I think we know the names of two of the players, and one of them, Dave, plays Frodo and leaves less than midway through the whole strip’s run. But even all of that pales in comparison to DMotR‘s real problem:
DM of the Rings was a comic about a role-playing game.
Darths and Droids is a comic about Star Wars.
The funny thing is, it’s also still about a role-playing game, which is the beauty of it. The conceit of DM of the Rings was that Lord of the Rings still existed in that universe, it’s just that, somehow, the DM was the only one in the group to have heard of it. Darths and Droids literally is Star Wars as played by a group of role-players. Whereas DMotR used the Lord of the Rings plot as a backdrop for wacky hijinks and commentary on Things You Experience When Playing Role-Playing Games, Darths and Droids appropriates the Star Wars plot as its own, while also containing its own metaplot involving the gamers playing the characters. Just look at how often the DM of the former is interrupted or talked over by the players, with the result that we don’t get to know Gandalf anywhere near enough to know why the players hate him so. If the LOTR trappings were removed from DM of the Rings, it wouldn’t be much different, which suggests the LOTR setting is little more than a gimmick. It’d be hard to imagine Darths and Droids without the Star Wars trappings.
As DM of the Rings became popular, and flaring up again closer to the end, people flooded Shamus Young’s inbox with calls for him to skewer other popular movie or book franchises. As it was winding down, Young wondered why, with how popular DMotR was, no one else had decided to marry movies and RPGs in a biting satire. One of his fans suggested that the reason why was that it was rare for the kind of person who wanted to spoof popular culture to coincide with the kind of person willing to put in massive amounts of effort into creating a webcomic.
That discussion prompted Morgan-Mar to create Darths and Droids, and now that we’ve seen it, I can’t help but wonder if the real reason was twofold. First, because DMotR was more about role-playing games than about Lord of the Rings per se, there wasn’t much left to skewer; DMotR had done it all. Second, DMotR made the concept look juvenile, and a potential sure sign of a sub-par webcomic. If the person willing to “spend time and effort making a high-quality webcomic” rarely coincided with the person wanting to spoof Star Wars, it was because a comic spoofing Star Wars not only looked like it was hardly going to be high quality, it exposed that person to potential legal threats. After all, webcomicdom is a haven of geekdom.
Darths and Droids starts out remarkably like DM of the Rings, with complaining players trying to figure out the GM’s dense plot. The major difference, as becomes apparent early on, is that the game world is largely made up by the players on the fly, with the GM constantly having to revise and make contingency plans to fit in everything the players try to do, rather than force them to do what he intended as the DMotR DM would. But a difference just as profound but not nearly as played up is that (unlike in DMotR) there is a difference between the players themselves. Jim is the wacky, aggressive, offensive one, while Ben is the smart, calm, collected straight man who has to deal with Jim’s wackiness, which often involves coming up with more sensible explanations for Jim’s actions. Still, the two of them together aren’t much different from the players in DM of the Rings, constantly nitpicking the science (Obi-Wan/Ben), going into foolhardy charges (Qui-Gon/Jim), and thinking up ways to outsmart the GM (both, but especially Obi-Wan).
Things change virtually the instant Sally is introduced and plugged into the role of Jar-Jar Binks. The Comic Irregulars have explained that one of their chief goals was to make Jar-Jar likable, and well, you’d certainly never tell a 9-year-old she needs to be blown out the airlock. More to the point, Sally brings a perspective not only on this game, but on all of roleplaying, that was sorely absent from DM of the Rings. Sally is being brought into the game solely to keep her amused while Ben is ostensibly babysitting her. In most of her early appearances, the GM and the players spend a good amount of their time easing her into the game. Eventually she gets into the hang of the game more, but never loses her childlike innocence.
But in a development of more importance to the strip itself, Sally has the imagination of a 9-year-old, and so allows the Comic Irregulars a place to attribute all the more outre and ridiculous – in short, Lucased up – elements of the Star Wars movies, with the additional justification that the players and GM don’t want to make her cry, so they run with her ridiculousness. Jar-Jar? Sally. An elected 14-year-old queen? Sally. An underwater path straight through the core of Naboo? Sally. I can’t help but wonder if Sally will stick around for the rest of the prequel trilogy, disappear for A New Hope and Empire, and somehow get shoehorned into Return of the Jedi to bring us the Ewoks.
I talked before about the introduction of Darths and Droids’ other non-traditional player, Annie, but I want to reiterate the broader importance of her playing Anakin. Darths and Droids has had, at least since Sally’s introduction, some form of master plot (the Comic Irregulars integrate the players’ quest for the “Lost Orb of Phantastacoria” so seamlessly with the movie’s plot you find it hard to believe they just made it up if you’re not familiar with the movie) and subplots (Jim is convinced that Sio Bibble is a traitor in the making, mostly because of his goatee, so naturally he probably finds Senator Palpatine completely trustworthy), not to mention relationships with and between the players, all of which is completely absent from DM of the Rings and the latter of which is impossible without Darths and Droids’ differentiated, rich characterization. But Anakin’s development not only looks to have a profound impact within the game world, it could have profound impact with the players as well, as the GM and the players try to figure out what to do with a player who’s hijacking the game for her own tragic story.
Darths and Droids has a bunch of elements that DM of the Rings does not. A tolerant GM (perhaps excessively so). A GM and NPCs that aren’t overshadowed by the players. Differences between the characters that go beyond “are you sure Legolas isn’t a hot chick?” A grand, overarching, real plot. Subplots upon subplots. Real integration within its milieu. Sally. Annie. In short, Darths and Droids has taken the interesting concept Shamus Young thought of, and ran with it as far as they could make it go, creating a pretty darn interesting webcomic in the process. No surprise, then, that it’s attracted a collection of devoted fans, no small portion of which is probably crossover audience from Irregular Webcomic!, with most of the rest coming over from DM of the Rings. But especially as it goes on, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a large contingent of fans with connections to neither strip, mostly from Star Wars fandom, who can’t help but wonder what Annie does to Anakin, how the players put up with that, what the players end up doing as they are forced to switch characters between movies, and so on and so forth.
And who knows? Maybe it’ll even spawn a horde of imitators.