Thursday, May 8, 2014

Well, Now I Miss Playing Dungeons and Dragons (Rat Queens)

I got into Rat Queens the way that I figure most people get into stuff like this. I saw someone mention it online and I didn't like not knowing what it was, so I bought it. That's right people, ninety percent of my pop culture knowledge stems from a fear that eventually people will realize that I don't know what I'm talking about. It's cool and cyclical that way.

Upon reading the first trade paperback, however, (and then the newest floppy that came out yesterday), I have discovered something meaningful and important: Rat Queens is very good and I like it a lot. It is not, however, even remotely suitable for persons under the age of like 21, so all my younger readers can just skedaddle for the rest of this review, okay?

Are they gone?

Rat Queens, an Image title by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch, is a sort of swords and sorcery title, very loosely based in what we all imagine to be "classic" high fantasy. One of the characters is an elf, there's a dwarf, another character is a "smidgeon" which is like a gnome-hobbit hybrid. You know the drill. What makes this comic work, though, isn't that it's a bunch of screwy outlaws going on quests and reluctantly saving the day, however, it's that the entire sensibility of the comic is so thoroughly not fantasy-based. I mean that you've got necromancy powered cell phones, parents who nag and hover over their children via arcane dark magic, bars, chambers of commerce, and more.

I don't think I'm explaining this well. But in my defense, this is one of those things it's just plain hard to explain well.

Let's try again. Rat Queens is a comic about an adventuring team, the Rat Queens, which is made up of four members. First there's Hannah, the leader, a sort of rockabilly elf who wields and epic spell and is constantly dodging calls from her necromancer parents. Oh, and she's got an on-again-mostly-off-again relationship with the city police guy, Sawyer. Next we have Violet, a hipster dwarf who shaved her beard before it was cool and who hates ale. She only drinks wine. She's also their heavy fighter, and a darn good one. 

Betty, the Smidgeon, is a tiny little rogue character, capable of burgling just about anything, and possessed of one of those, "I'm so sweet that no one will really mind that I'm actually the most amoral character here!" Betty manufactures illegal drugs in the basement, subsists mostly on shrooms and candy, and is pretty foul-mouthed. Nice, though. 

And then there's Dee, the only human, and the team's atheist divine caster. When asked how on earth that works, Dee has been known to just kind of shrug and say something about believing in the divine within, but it's still funny. Dee, which is short for Delilah, is a bit shy, a little awkward, and very happy to finally be away from her parents, who raised her in the cult of N'rygoth, an evil tentacle monster god thing. She hates tentacles. Very good at healing spells.

The women are really close friends, all adventuring together and living in a house in Palisade, a lovely city by the sea. That hates them. Because they're constantly getting in bar fights and causing property damage.

The Rat Queens, much as they are kind of heroic, are also kind of terrible people a lot of the time, and this means that the chamber of commerce in Palisade really wants them gone. Enough to hand them a fake quest that turns into an assassination attempt. And that's when the ball of this plotline really gets rolling.

So while each issue stands alone pretty well just on the basis of how funny it is, together they do tell a clear and coherent story. Angry that the Rat Queens and the other adventuring parties of Palisade are always causing so much trouble, a rogue faction of the chamber of commerce hires some assassins to take them all out. Unfortunately, the Rat Queens are hard to kill, and they eventually uncover the plot. This leads to another plot, however, as well as an epic battle to save Palisade from a crusading troll army, and the affirmation of the Rat Queens as reluctant heroes.

And that's just in the first six issues.

The plot's good, and I do like it a lot (especially now that we're delving more into Dee's background), but the real appeal here is the characters. More specifically, how reading a comic about these screwed up weirdos makes me super nostalgic for college and our long sessions of Dungeons and Dragons.

Confused? Let me explain. The basic setup of the comic is pretty much identical to the setup of your average Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Each player creates a character and they choose a class. The basic classes are as follows: arcane spellcaster, fighter, divine caster, rogue. Notice anything familiar?

Once the players have all made their characters (there are other options, but most good parties are some mix of those four basic types, because that will cover just about any situation you find yourself in), the Dungeon Master (person running the game) plunks them all down in a city and they have to meet up and form an adventuring party. If you play with the same people for a while, you'll pretty much just have your party together already. Then, when you're all set, the DM will give you a quest.

You complete the quest, whether it's clearing a dungeon of ghouls or saving the dragon from angry villagers or finding the lost something of somewhere, and in return you get experience points, which mean your character can level up and get more cool new skills, and gold. Lots of gold.

Basically it's just silly fun telling a story as a group. But the thing is, it is exactly like this comic. And that's wonderful.

Rat Queens follows the same basic structure as a typical Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and that's rad. Why? Because, well, first off Dungeons and Dragons usually ends up making for some pretty awesome stories, and second, because of the character dynamic that arises.

So, most of what makes D&D popular is the part where you create a character and then play as them for campaign or so. You get to pick and choose traits and skills and intelligence level and how athletic they are - you get a choice in everything. Is your character an elf? A dwarf? A half elf-half dwarf? What's their specialty? Hair color? Toe size?

All up to you. And when you're done creating your precious character, you have to play as them. Make their decisions, fight their battles, even speak for them during the "roleplay" parts of the game. It's makebelieve and it is great.

But the thing is, when you have a bunch of adults from the 21st century creating characters that belong in a high fantasy setting, what usually happens is there's kind of a disconnect. I mean, you're playing a 5h level Elven Paladin, devoted to law and order and good, but you yourself are a random person from the modern day and age. A lot of who you are seeps into your character. And the results are usually pretty hilarious.

Like, I always used to play as a human cleric, Fiona. Not so weird to start off with (clerics are divine casters, and my specialty was always healing spells). The thing was, I played Fiona as a homeless person who wasn't so much good in a fight as virtually impossible to kill. She was mostly deaf, usually drunk, and had an endurance level such that at one point literally the entire rest of the party died and she just sat there drinking.

I did this not because I secretly want to be an unkillable drunk (would be interesting, but probably very depressing), but because I thought it was funny. I still think it's funny. Fi was the most useless character, but she was also usually the only one to come out of the campaign alive, and it was so much fun to play her.

Or there's my friend Kyla, who is for the record a very small person, who liked to play Kronk, the half-orc, half-human barbarian. Kronk barely spoke the Common language, had no particular skill with words or charisma to draw people, but because everyone else in the party was a black hole of terrible choices and worse smells, Kronk was the defacto ambassador. He was the charmer and lady's man of the group.

Again, it was fun.

That's what I see happening in Rat Queens, and that's why it's so much fun to read. Sure, the stories are good, but what's great here is seeing a fantasy world, with all of the usual fantasy laws and setups, only it's inhabited by people who feel like us. Real people. People who argue with their parents on the phone and make ill-advised romantic decisions and totally accidentally get drunk and forget to tell everyone that they solved the mystery.

I don't want to be a Rat Queen, but I sure as heck like reading about them.

In a way, this book is the anti-Game of Thrones. That is a story where the search for authenticity and realism in a fantasy title led the writers to constantly be putting in more sex and violence, to always search for the most scandalous thing, and to always moor it in this gritty, depressing, dank pallor.

Rat Queens, by contrast, makes no attempts at creating a world that feels real. It's a totally fantastical world, it's just inhabited by characters who feel like the people you met at a party last week. They were nice and all, but you're never inviting them over for breakfast. The characters feel real, and so it doesn't matter if the world does.

Plus, and I can't let the whole article go by without mentioning this, it is freaking wonderful to read a sword and sorcery title that's all female characters in the lead and also is not constantly about objectifying the women or getting them captured or threatening them with rape. The Rat Queens are dirty rascal characters, and sure, they've got the morals of a dead sewer crocodile, but no one can argue that they aren't imbued with their own sense of agency.

They're their own people. And they love each other. In a big way, that's what matters to me.

Now, in case any of you are thinking of reading this lovely comic, I fully support that plan, but do bear in mind that I'm really not kidding when I say that it's not for those under twenty-one, and it's definitely not for the faint of heart. The Rat Queens are terrible people. They're just, you know, slightly better terrible people than everyone else.

And reading about their terrible exploits makes me feel all warm and cozy inside, reminiscing about late nights and chalkboards, dungeons and dragons...


  1. It's always nice to discover that someone is/was a roleplayer.

    1. Yes! Do you play? I wish I got to play more, but sadly being an adult takes up a lot of time.

    2. I do, when I can.