(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized lingering resentment.)
I’m here to talk about a serious malady sweeping the nation. It’s called OOTS Gamer Theory Syndrome, or OGTS.
The malady is restricted to readers and fans of the popular webcomic Order of the Stick, and is caused by falling under the perception that the strip is actually a chronicle of a D&D campaign, rather than merely being set in a universe that runs on D&D rules. Symptoms are generally only manifest on the OOTS forums, and include referring to “_____’s player” and “the DM” (which may or may not actually be a representation of Rich Burlew), and interpreting characters’ actions through the lens of the “player” supposedly carrying those actions out.
It’s reasonable to fall under this perception anytime (I myself once proposed that the strip would end with just such a revelation), as the distinction can be hard to grasp for new readers (especially those already immersed in D&D), and to some extent Rich has played with the notion of a GM being present from time to time, but for whatever reason it has become particularly common recently, with virtually every strip’s thread (and a few others as well) eventually including some post that looks at what’s happening from a “game” point of view, despite Rich being on record in stating that there are no “players” at all, and despite evidence ranging from NPCs as fleshed out as any PCs (especially the main villains) to the very existence of the prequel books. Rich even made reference to the phenomenon in a recent strip.
One result has been a mere shift in terminology: “_____’s hypothetical player, if there was a player…”
It’s hard to figure out what’s causing this sudden move to proclaim it merely a game. Perhaps it’s a result of a few people happening upon and reading too much Darths and Droids for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s a result of impatience with the seeming abandonment of the megaplot.
Or perhaps it has something to do with the specific content. At least one forum member recently complained that the strip had traded in being “consistently funny” for “player motivated drama”. More than a few people, including one thread I linked to above, have compared the current state of the OOTS to a gaming party in disarray, with everyone upset at the DM and the DM himself slowly losing control of everything. (Oddly, although the interpretation of OOTS-as-campaign has become popular, the exact nature varies: some see the split as partly player-driven – possibly as a means of filibustering a main plot they didn’t sign up for – some see it as the DM railroading the players and wasting everyone’s time, and some even see it as being the victim of circumstances.)
That may at first be just a variant of the megaplot being abandoned, but consider:
- Celia has effectively slid into Roy’s role in the Order, if only in filling out the Order’s nominal six members.
- Within the current book, we have seen what has been happening with Team Evil for exactly one stint. We haven’t seen the Linear Guild at all. Not since the first book has any book been so Order-centric.
- Similarly, Vaarsuvius appears to be the only member of the Order that cares that much about the gates anymore. (Well, and Roy.) Durkon and Elan don’t even seem concerned about reuniting the Order, and Haley, Celia, and Belkar (and for that matter, V) are powerless to do anything about it, and are a bit distracted at the moment.
- The whole sequence with Roy’s pseudo-ghost seems more pointless than the sidequest itself. Roy can’t affect the material plane, the use of his looking down on the mortal world as a framing device has mostly been abandoned, etc. This strip may be the most pivotal strip of his time as a ghost.
- Vaarsuvius’ behavior has been seen as out-of-character by many fans. Either V’s player is sending a not-so-subtle message to the DM to get the plot moving, or he’s been taken over by someone else. (This is undermined both by V’s decision to splinter the group further, and by considerable evidence in earlier strips that, if not un-Good, V’s certainly not Lawful.)
- Previously, there was a fairly straight line, with only a slight diversion for the climactic confrontation with the Linear Guild, from the revelation of the nature of the gates to the Battle of Azure City. (As I may have mentioned in the past, the end of the Azure City arc could well, had it ended slightly differently, been a potential stopping point for the whole strip.) The tone of the strip now is actually quite similar to what it was prior to that revelation, and could be seen as a reaction to the considerable darkening of the strip/campaign that didn’t come that long before.
- The OOTS has been split for nearly a quarter of the strip’s entire existence, and Roy has been dead for more than a quarter. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Rich has never been shy about shaking up the status quo, but this shake-up is literally blocking the plot from moving. If you don’t have faith in the relevancy of all this to the main plot – and that faith has been waning with every strip, especially those focusing on the Therkla and Thieves’ Guild subplots – you might think Rich had written himself into a corner, intending a fairly brief diversion to cool down from the ramped-into-gear main plot and going out of control. Forget a breather episode, this is an entire breather book and most of the forum-bound fandom thinks it’s overstayed its welcome.
Last time I wrote about OOTS, I said that “this section of the OOTS’ story is going to have far-ranging consequences that could prevent some of those goals from ever being completely fulfilled.” I was referring to V’s decision to leave the Durkon/Elan branch of the OOTS in #599, which I suspected could result in the de facto permanent removal of Durkon and Elan from the OOTS. That’s one far-ranging consequence that may be being set up, but what about everything else? What was the point of introducing Kubota and fleshing him out just to abruptly kill him? What was the point of the whole Therkla thing? What’s the point of what’s happening now with the Thieves’ Guild? What’s the point of stretching out the split itself this long?
Not only is the fandom starting to get restless about their ability to believe that this will all matter in the end, it’s starting to take several leaps of faith to link this to the main plot. Kubota was just a feint to introduce Qarr; Elan and Haley’s relationship is going to be strained; the Thieves’ Guild is going to become a recurring villain group; by the time the OOTS get back together Team Evil is already at Girard’s Gate. The mere fact I’m making these leaps of faith rather than treating it as a diversion is a sign of how it’s gone longer than most people would probably have expected or liked.
The OOTS has drifted off the beaten path before, of course. Their lengthy encounter with the bandits has had zero impact on anything that’s happened since then, but it came before the Order met Miko, let alone learned about the Snarl, and can be excused by the strip still being at least partially a gag strip then. All their encounters with the Linear Guild have of course had next to nothing to do with the gates (so far, but that will almost certainly end the next time they show up, given evidence here and here), but the encounter in War and XPs, besides tying up a loose end from the pre-Snarl era, leads to Haley getting her voice back and keeps the OOTS distracted enough not to run off to the wrong gate – which in fact, given some of what we know about Girard’s Gate and the potential of the Oracle’s prophecy to be twisted, could well be what’s happening here. (More on how the Linear Guild’s encounters with the OOTS has really affected them in a later post.) So far, it’s far from clear even if this will have any long-term impact.
It’s possible that Rich had over-emphasized the plot from about #275 (or even #200) onward, and that the plot has only ever been incidential to the humor. In this theory, people who are complaining about the pace at which the plot is moving are misinterpreting the nature of the entire strip. But if so, it’s a widespread enough misconception that at least some of the blame has to be heaped at the feet of Rich Burlew, because he created the circumstances that are now ruining people’s enjoyment of what might be, beyond the surface, actually a fairly entertaining part of the strip’s history. And if it’s not a misconception, and Rich really is taking a long time on what might be a comparatively small plot point, it may well be the most major blemish on the Giant’s record. (The first snag in a new fabric of reality, perhaps?)
None of the people complaining, to my knowledge, have ditched the strip. And I’m not among those who isn’t appreciating the strip for what it is at the moment. I’m not one of the players complaining to the GM. But it’s clear that the player mutiny is growing to disturbing levels, and it’s something the GM may have to address with more than a wink and a nod soon. Ultimately, the spread of OGTS may be most directly attributable to Rich Burlew himself.