I used to be a serious comic book collector, and I could rattle off information about Uncanny X-Men and the New Mutants (vol. 1) or just about any other Marvel Comics’ character. I’m that annoying guy who can tell you the entire history of the most obscure character in the X-Men with barely a pause to catch my breath. I am THAT guy! However, I am also the guy who got fed up with the constant reboots and resurrections and foolishness that has become the hallmark of recent comics and quit collecting comics all together. Given that pedigree, I’d like to discuss one of the best gaming comics that I’ve ever read, Knights of the Dinner Table. Knights of the Dinner Table follows the often hilarious exploits of Brian, Sara, Dave, Bob, and their Game Master, B.A and their characters the Untouchable Trio Plus One. For most of you, no further introduction is needed, but for those of you who don’t know the greatness of the Knights, then I suggest you get over to Kenzer & Co.’s website or DriveThruRPG and get some issues. You can also read a quick synopsis of the series on Wikipedia or on TV Tropes.
Rather than just talk about the comic itself, I think there are a number of les sons that can be learned from reading through a satire of our hobby. While KODT pokes fun at gamers and gaming, and even takes a few cruel shots at LARPers and Vampire the Masquerade players, I noticed several lessons that any player or Storyteller could take away from the antics of B.A. and the other Knights along with the rest of gamers in Muncie, Indiana. I’m going to discuss five positive lessons and five negative lessons I’ve noticed coming up repeatedly in KODT.
|Cover to issue 150|
Five Positive Lessons I Learned From KODT
1. Say “Yes, and…”
Brian, Bob, and Dave are a Game Master’s worst nightmare. They wreck adventures before B.A. can even get to the hook. As soon as an NPC is introduced, Bob and Dave are planning his/her demise, even if that NPC is integral to the plot, but B.A. doesn’t panic or railroad his players. Instead, he rolls with it and reacts to what his players have done rather than trying to force them back on the path. The best example of this is when B.A. purchased The Orcs at the Gate Campaign Module where the PCs were supposed to be guests in the king’s court before they are asked to help settle a dispute with invading orcs. When Dave, Bob and Brian decided to turn the banquet into a blood bath, B.A. explains what the consequences will be and tries to dissuade the group. Nevertheless, Bob fires his crossbow at the King and Dave and Brian begin slaughtering the King’s Guard. Things don’t play out as the module required, but the players still had fun and played their sociopathic characters to the hilt.
Too often, gaming groups are insulated from each other; they exist in their own space and even other gamers have a hard time joining in. Often, you don’t even know that others are playing an RPG or what game they are playing, but in KODT’s fictional Muncie, Indiana, all the various groups know each other and share information about their campaigns. Whether they are meeting at Weird Pete’s Game Pit to buy books playing in tournaments against each other. The various Game Masters come together frequently to share stories and much to the chagrin of their players, share ideas on how to create better adventures and more difficult challenges. Players try new games together, such as Weird Pete’s Fairy Meat miniatures game or share time between groups such as when B.A. is out of town and other GMs, like Weird Pete or Nitro, step in and run an adventure for the Knights. The various female characters have a Ladies of Hack group that meets frequently to game without the boys. The Knights, the Black Hand and the other groups of Muncie don’t role play in a vacuum. They are part of a greater community of gamers.
3. Everyone Is Invited to Play
In the early issues of Knights of the Dinner Table, the reader is introduced to Crutch, a convicted felon trying to better his life, when the Black Hand Gaming Society, another group of gamers who play in the back room of Weird Pete’s shop, visit Hawg Wallers, the local dive bar, to play a game of CattlePunk. Crutch asks to join in and eventually gets invited to play HackMaster. However, he has trouble finding a group because of his background and his penchant for attacking and killing PCs for no reason (something he learned from watching The Black Hands play). B.A. promise to help find Crutch a group, and even though it’s difficult, B.A. persists until Crutch finds a table to call home with Patty’s Perps who take him under their wing and teach the “right” way to role play. Later, when Bob’s Dad, Mr. Herzog, loses a bet to Weird Pete, Weird Pete sets up a Cattlepunk game so that Mr. Herzog can see why his son likes role playing so much. Bob’s Dad has lamented the fact that his son wastes so much time on games. Although Mr. Herzog doesn’t play any after that one shot, he does enjoy himself. Later still, Bob introduces his niece and nephew to role playing by running them through B.A.’s game DAWG: The RPG. The Knights and the other groups never waste an opportunity to grow their community and bring new gamers into the fold.
4. Explore New Genres and New Systems
In Knights of the Dinner Table most of the groups play Hackmaster, a satire of AD&D 2e, that emphasizes the use of tables and stacking modifiers. Most sessions revolve around dungeon delves or fighting through random encounters on the way to a dungeon. However, the Knights and other groups also play a variety of other games. SpaceHack is a scifi themed RPG based around a mix of shows and movies such as Star Wars and Star Trek along with games like Traveler. Cattlepunk is a Wild West themed game where the players typically find new and inventive ways to kill each other with nitroglycerin. Hacknoia is a modern day game based on TSR’s Top Secret which focuses on spying and espionage. The various groups of Muncie are always trying new genres and new games. Sometimes they even play board games like Risque (Risk) or Island of Kataan (Settlers of Catan). While Hackmaster may be the game of choice, the players try new things constantly. They realize how quickly a GM or player could burn out if only one game is played. The groups change genres and systems frequently so that burnout is avoided.
5. Improve Your Gaming Skills
Hand in hand with trying a new system is the desire to improve your skill as either a player or Game Master. The Knights are always trying to improve themselves. All of the players step behind the screen a few times and try their hand at running a game. Dave who is completely new makes a lot of rookie mistakes, but never stops trying. Brian who is an old hand as GM runs a few sessions to keep from getting rusty and maintain his Game Master certification. (Yes, that’s a thing.) Sara is always willing to try new games and wants to force the boys out of their usual roles even forcing them to play female characters once. (The story of Bobarello wasn’t pretty.) Bob runs a few games for his niece and nephew. B.A. is always trying to improve his Game Mastering skills by buying new books, going to seminars, and using his Mom’s credit card to buy the best modules. The entire group has been to various seminars that teach the minutiae of HackMaster such as speaking Orc or Elven or dungeon ecology and design. Every player and GM wants to improve and be the best thief, fighter, or GM around.
The Five Things I Learned Not to Do from KODT
1. Playing the Same Character Over and Over and Over and Over
In HackMaster, Player Characters can set up legacies and entire family lines of characters that receive XP and wealth from the primary character. Bob plays Knuckles, the King of the Wall Crawlers. Well actually he plays Knuckles the VIII or maybe the IX. It’s hard to remember at this point since every character he has played is a variation on the same Dwarf Thief that he’s been playing since the start of the comic. Brian is actually worse because pretty much every character that he plays is a member of the Dwarven Lotus family. From Black Lotus, his most infamous character, to Burgundy Lotus, one of the many, many, many Battle Mages that followed in his legacy, Brian has abused the Legacy System in HackMaster so that he never has to play a 1st level character again. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve played a plethora of Toreadors over the years, but despite my fondness for that clan, I try my best to expand beyond that one clan and try new and different things. Something that B.A. and Sara have been trying to get Brian, Dave, and Bob to do for years.
2. The Rules Are Not a Suicide Pact
Having a Rules Lawyer in your group can be both a benefit and bane for Game Masters and Storytellers. They point out the rules and save you time looking up the rules, but just as frequently, they have selective memories when the rules don’t benefit them. Brian, of course, is the king of the rules lawyers and will bend and twist every rule to the breaking point so long as it benefits him. Just as badly is that the Knights play rules as written, and only allow HackMaster approved errata for their games. So if a rule is poorly written or if there is a typo, then the players and GM are bound to follow those rules. The best example is the Doomsday Pack catastrophe when the players abused the rules for the availability of untrained pit bull in towns and bought hundreds of them and unleashed them upon their enemies. The blowback from this doomed the campaign world when the pit bulls went out of control and destroyed or devoured everything in their path. Most RPG rules have a section on “Rule Zero” which states that the rules aren’t set in stone and the GM or Storyteller should feel free to alter the rules where and when he/she sees fit so that everyone can have fun. It exists for this very reason; rules lawyers will abuse any rule they can find.
3. It’s Just a Game
Everyone in the Knights has a temper, and when things go bad, the table gets flipped. Usually it’s Brian who reaches the breaking point and flips the table on top of B.A., Bob, Dave, and Sara. A lesser attack is when B.A. finally succeeds and defeats the Untouchable Trio Plus One and starts to gloat. His reward for gloating is to be hog-tied, blindfolded, and hung upside down until the ferocious housecat Colonel Prowler comes to torture him. I’ve actually seen a table flip in real life. It wasn’t because of something that happened in an RPG; it was a board game. Hang out at a game store long enough and some fool is going to start a fight over a board game or an RPG. It’s just a game, and in games it’s important to be a good winner and a good loser. Don’t taunt the other players and don’t flip the table!
4. Don’t Be an Antagonist
B.A., Nitro, and Weird Pete and all the other game masters in Muncie approach GMing as a war to be fought against the players. It’s not their fault; the HackMaster Game Master Guide tells them that. Even the Player’s Guide reinforces this idea: the GM is the enemy and he is out to get you! The GMs get together frequently and share stories of how they killed a PC or got the better of their players. The players are just as bad. They assume every NPC is looking to screw them over. They trust no one and kill everything that stands between them and their EP’s and GP’s. Both sides take this philosophy and their games suffer because of it. Sessions devolve into nonstop one-upmanship with Brian arguing over every rule and Bob and Dave slaughtering every NPC in their path. B.A. responds with grudge monsters because he gets upset that his adventure has gone down the drain. Worse yet, B.A. may respond by increasing the number of traps as in the “Night of a Thousand Pit Traps.” The GM as an antagonist is the old school way of running an RPG and a holdover from 1st Edition D&D. I hope that most GMs and Storytellers have moved beyond this philosophy, but I’ve heard some stories that some GMs still run like this.
5. Your Character Is More than His Ability Scores
In the olden days, when you were building a character, you rolled 3D6 down the line. No rerolls, no extra dice, nothing, but what you rolled. Classes had minimum requirements. Just to be a Fighter you had to have a 9 STR and may the gods help you if wanted to play a Paladin! B.A. usually let the players roll their new character at home because character creation would cut into game time. Bob, Brian, Dave and Sara all took advantage of that to roll endless series of stats for characters, discarding what they didn’t like and keeping what they wanted. Dave had an endless series of Fighters with 18/76 Strength. Bob rarely showed up to the table with a character with an ability score less than 16. (The dice were hot that night!) Any background or character history served only as an excuse to explain the various abilities players wanted for their PC. Brian is on record as saying that a background only serves to leverage arguments with the GM during the game. As a fan of Storyteller games, I try my best to discourage this behavior, but I still see it in Vampire the Masquerade and other games. I hope this mentality is on the way out.
Knights of the Dinner Table is a great comic because we can sympathize with the characters. I can see a lot of myself in B.A. and his desire to build better adventures for his players. I know rules lawyers like Brian. I’ve been Dave from time to time and hacked and slashed my way through a session. Going back and re-reading the back issues of KODT has been so much fun and was the inspiration for this article. More than just a comic, it’s a magazine full of advice and ideas for gamers. Also, for fans of the SpoonyExperiment, Noah Antwiler had a series of articles where we reviewed movies called A Gamer’s Rant on Movies starting in issue 97.
KODT exists as a history of all those old school gaming stereotypes that have fallen away as RPGs have advanced. The satire in KODT rings so true because we know people like Bob and Dave and Sara. We’ve met Weird Pete and Nitro down at the game store. We’ve hung out and listened to a stranger talk endlessly about his favorite character or that time he stole a gem from an unwitting dragon’s hoard. KODT still has lessons to teach us. And if you know a new gamer, point them toward KODT. It’s available for sale on the Kenzer &Co. website or DriveThruRPG.