There’s something joyously pervasive about Dungeons & Dragons. Even when you’re not playing the game, it lingers in your mind, it makes you crave more engagement with even the most tangential of stories. With scores and scores of novels, five separate editions worth of sourcebooks, and just so many opportunities to watch other people play the game for your entertainment, it seems like the opportunities are already endless.
That comic books and D&D have not had the most successful relationship is flabbergasting. The crossover potential is so ingrained between the two that the same stores you buy one in are often sell the other. Still, none of the comics that have been produced have exactly set the world on fire.
A reading of 2010’s Dungeons & Dragons: Fell’s Five might shed some light on the problem, in that it is a solid attempt to cram some cozy roleplaying tropes into comics, efficient and light in its execution; it is also a fairly unexciting set of stories featuring unexplored characters, seat-of-its-pants attempts at world-building, and the sort of tone that implies that it doesn’t care to take itself seriously. If this book is representative of the sorts of D&D comics coming out eleven years ago, one can understand why they weren’t exactly making their mark as must-read comics.
Fell’s Five is a fun, light, and breezy time, a sort of anathema to the five-pound, 900-page self-serious novel trilogies concerning Mary Sue characters often anticlimactically overcoming cosmic odds. The comic more closely resembles the sorts of weekly adventure hijinks you and your friends might get up to in the early game, complete with hit-and-miss gags and small stakes mini-encounters; it’s a comic that attempts to accurately illustrate how the real-world fun might translate to the in-game world.
It also seems to be a flimsy attempt at an introductory recruitment device. Our characters are as ready-made as the character sheets included in starter kits and old modules. We’ve got a Tiefling Warlock, an Elf Ranger, a Halfling Rogue, a Human Fighter, and a Dwarven Paladin — essentially the recommended race/class pairings found in the Player’s Handbook. There are light attempts to define these characters with unique traits, particularly as the comic evolves in its later issues, but these feel fairly minor, the sorts of lip-service backstory any player character might start off with and then completely forget about.
The story, likewise, hits the required mile markers of early-game adventures, right down to the encounter-story-encounter rhythm, starting with Kobolds in issue #1 and working its way up to a beholder in the final issues, almost as if our characters are gaining experience points and levels. It’s a clever setup, and further commitment to making the book feel like introductory Dungeons & Dragons, but it never quite frees itself of that recruitment-tool gimmickry so that the story might elevate itself. It isn’t exactly great, revolutionary comics, that is to say.
It is, on the other hand, a solid recruitment tool: the final thirty or forty pages of the trade is comprised of actual game modules based off the preceding issues and — you know it — those ready-made character sheets. It’s something a lot of D&D comics provide, little related game content, and it’s a pleasant treat.
What limits Fell’s Five is what limits a lot of Dungeons & Dragons media, which so often feels the need to explain itself, to dumb itself down for non-players rather than embracing an audience who is already fully engaged. The book has no interest in being good comics, it’s interested in market synergy; the real shame is that it doesn’t feel it can be both. The audience is already there for deeper narratives, elevated experiments with the medium, and an acceptance of the downright weird aspects of the game.
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