If you've experienced the psychotic rush of role playing games, you know the smiting doesn't stop when the game ends. That's the premise of new comic King of RPGs, about hardcore fandom, gamer smackdowns, and the comraderie of tabletop battle.
Written by io9 contributor Jason Thompson and illustrated by Victor Hao, King of RPGs (Del Rey) is a manga-style graphic novel that brings us deep into the monster-riddled lives of four college freshmen - gentle anime fan Mike, aspiring fantasy writer Jen, maniacal RPG game master Theo, and schizophrenic ex-videogame addict Shesh. They meet one evening when Theo is trying to attract people to his game, but they quickly discover that this nerdy little GM is on an incredible quest to find the greatest gamer in the world. That gamer turns out to be Shesh, whose schizophrenia allows him to get so far into role-playing that he can outsmart any gaming scenario - and smash the shit out of anybody who gets in his way.
Thompson, a raging RPG fan and manga afficionado, perfectly captures the imaginative, marauding spirit of gamer geeks in this book. At its best, it reminded me of Evan Dorkin's classic series from Dork, called "The Eltingville Comic Book, Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy and Role-Playing Club." In that series, and in King of RPGs, debates over obscure pop culture topics turn into goofily violent standoffs that get so over-the-top that the police are called in.
At the center of King of RPGs are two basic conflicts. One is between the forces of wild gamer abandon, and the legal/psychological culture that slaps the label "dangerous addict" on people who become passionately invested in fantasy worlds. Throughout the book, Shesh is being pursued by a cop who equates gaming with drugs and wants to stop Shesh before he goes on a bender. (We see in flashback that Shesh was arrested in high school for going on a weeklong "World of Warfare" frenzy where he trashed an internet gamer cafe and all the people in it.) So you have a classic Cheech and Chong scenario of dumb cops vs. wily subversives spreading their naughty pleasures everywhere.
By far the more interesting conflict in the story is between Theo and an evil gamer named Gavin who prefers card-based games like Magic: The Gathering. The evil gamer regards games as just a way to "sell product," and he has a brisk business selling rare cards online to hordes of junior high kids who are obsessed with expensive collectibles. Meanwhile Theo sees gaming as form of personal and emotional expression, which is why he loves Shesh so much. Shesh's insanity allows him to get inside any role playing scenario and make it real - which we see in Hao's illustrations, where monsters and other adversaries suddenly appear in the middle of their games. Though Hao's work is a bit uneven, there are several terrific panels where we see inside the heads of the gamers, who juggle swords, books and dice in their hands, pausing the action to ask gamer nerd questions about hit points and armor classes.
Eventually there's a violent, bizarre showdown between Theo, Shesh, and Gavin, with the cop trying to track them down before their game can finish. By that point, we know the game's outcome is about more than who is the better gamer: It's about the meaning of imagination games themselves, and whether that can ever go beyond addiction and crass commercialism.
Beneath the aggressively dorky antics in King of RPGs there's a core of what can only be called nerd sentimentalism. This book is a love letter to those rare people who know the power of fantasy and have the fortitude to act on that knowledge. And it's a satirical rejoinder to the unimaginative masses who can only view gaming as a kind of sickness.
King of RPGs does suffer from occasional unevenness, and not just in the illustrations. Thompson is juggling light slapstick comedy with some fairly weighty topics, and sometimes it feels like he's taken on too much. Characters we want to get to know better, like Mike the anime fan and Jen the fantasy writer, are cast aside as the action mounts. Especially when the book ends, readers may be fed up - there are too many twists to take. There's a cliffhanger ending where we realize that there's a truly dark and horrific force at work in the gaming world, and this revelation (though awesome) feels tacked-on.
Thompson has already completed a sequel for Del Rey, so hopefully he'll use the next book to flesh out the characters and take us into the eldrich horror that rears its head as the first installment ends. If you're a fan of games, or just prone to bouts of extreme nerd rage, then you'll definitely want to pick up a copy of this book. But as I said earlier, King of RPGs is about more than the subterranean world of tabletop gaming. It's about the role that fantasy plays in all our lives - liberating and destroying us at the same time.
Check out the website for the book, and buy it!