Over the past half decade we’ll say, Dungeons & Dragons has been a mass resurgence in the public zeitgeist. Part of this can clearly be attributed to the success of Netflix’s Stranger Things re-familiarizing the masses with the game and having the main monster christened the Demogorgon. But we can also look to the success of Critical Role with its absolutely star studded cast, Wizards of the Coast’s own efforts to revitalize game culminating in retools of D&D 5e and the Dungeons & Dragons movie, the global pandemic having many groups looking for some sort of digital interaction that could be easily conducted over video calls, and even to the super recent Baldur’s Gate III.
And I’m not here to talk about any of these in the slightest. I’m here to bring attention to my personal favorite D&D inspired piece of media. With all of this talk about fantasy tropes and role-playing conventions, it’s due time that I discuss one of the longest running 3.5e campaign I’ve had the pleasure of following for many, many years: The Order of the Stick.
With the first pages posted way back in September 2003, Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick is one of the longest running webcomics. It was released the same year alongside Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics and Jeph Jacques’s Questionable Content. It has received various accolades over the years in webcomics spaces during its first years of online publication and also was featured in NYC’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art demonstrating unique uses of the infinite canvas (a concept I remain obsessed with). At one point in 2012, it even held the distinction of raising over 1.2 million dollars on Kickstarter for the reprinting of one of its volumes, the highest funding of any creative project at that time. The fanbase is clearly dedicated, but as with any long running piece of media, getting newer additions is a task as the comic has over 1200 strips and the narrative structure means that to fully appreciate the grand scope of the world Burlew has created, you kind of have to start from the very beginning.
However, if you do undertake the endeavor, you are rewarded with one of the most compelling fantasy epics of the ages. The Order of the Stick revolves around the many adventures of the titular group of characters banded together in the vague common goal of defeating the evil Lich Xkyon. You have your stalwart Fighter frontman, Dwarven cleric second in command, know-it-all wizard, lovable rogue, comic-relief bard, and token not-exactly evil but not exactly good ranger. And right off the bat, the first strip has the characters break (or maybe gently bend) the fourth wall as their stick figure adornments get cosmetic adjustments as their gear gets updated to meet 3.5e standards. And perhaps, a nontrivial part of my love for this comic does stem from the fact that 3.5 was the first D&D system I personally ever played, and I have never really converted to thinking in a 5e mindset even after a decade of it.
Order of the Sticks or “OotS” has not been updated on any sort of regular schedule. There have been many hiatuses in the past, and new strips are posted with no regular frequencies even as we enter the final saga. That being said, I view this more of an advantage to newer readers to get onboarding without fear of not being caught up before the story reaches its denouement. The comic features various in-jokes about various tabletop role-playing game mechanics, constantly making references to spell slots, bonus attacks, and the ilk, but never feels so impenetrable to get to the true heart of the story with the characters and narrative. At the risk of providing some spoilers, what starts out as a stock ‘stop the bad guy’ story quickly evolves into a far spanning narrative that sees the group go off to a wide range of beautiful set pieces, all being rendered in a stick figure format. You can’t really argue with how Burlew is able to craft works of art with this unique style.
Roy Greenhilt, one of the central protagonists of the story, bucks the tradition of dumb fighter by having a respectable Intelligence and Wisdom score, and proves to be the only one effective at corralling the lovable bunch of misfits. Elan, the bard, makes great use of the contemporary meta-aware of bard, whose use of storytelling trope and multiclassing make some of the best bits of the comic. Vaarsuvius, the wizard, has one of the most compelling ‘deals with the devil’ arcs I’ve read and is also a proto-example of good non-binary representation. Belkar, the ranger, is a fantastic deconstruction of the murder, and Durkon Thundershield has one of the best dramatic speeches in all of webcomics and also did the Picard Season 3 finale better than Picard Season 3.
All of this comes from a deep-seated love of tabletop games. It comes from an intimate understanding of the joys and difficulties of game mechanics and a willingness to build a world that operates around these rules. It challenges the notions of the traditional alignment grid, debating the ideas of greater goods and lesser evils. It has fun showing a world where different pantheons coexist peacefully and not so-peacefully, and at the very core of the story is this deep examination of collaboration that is at the center of any good tabletop adventure.
I’ve followed this webcomic for about fifteen years of its twenty-year run (that’s a year for every side on your standard icosahedron, a fact I’m including here just so I can type out icosahedron). Through its infrequent updates, it remains one of my favorite stories, and I’ll advocate for its visibility in the modern era of D&D day after day. It’s a webcomic that embraces the format in novel ways and leverages art styles to tell a thrilling complex tale. It’s a story that has evolved from its roots of a D&D inspired world to become its own entity in its own right, uses a similar language to remark upon the very nature of games.
If you’re a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, you should be adding this to your reading list. If you’re a fan of fantasy stories, you should be adding this to your reading list. If you’re curious about the ways in which webcomics can tell a story that print can’t, I’ve already added several of the strips that do so here, but you’re surely be able to find more examples if you add it to your reading. The Order of the Stick is roughly two years out from completion by the author’s own estimations, so I really do implore you to join the fandom on this wild ride through the land of a continent divided: somewhat neatly into regions roughly corresponding to cardinal directions. Join the band of stick figure adventurers who got their name from a random stick on the ground as a bit they committed too hard to tries to stop the end of everything. You won’t regret it.