Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about the Order of the Stick webcomic and the lessons you can take from it into your roleplaying games.
This is one of those articles I really debated about doing. Not because there’s any lack of content here, quite the opposite. I figure that chances are, if you’re reading Guidance you’ve probably heard of the Order of the Stick. I’m really only doing this article for the newer players who might have missed out on this absolutely spectacular webcomic.
Okay, here it goes.
The Order of the Stick is a webcomic that launched back in September of 2003. After four years of success, the Order of the Stick also featured in the last 22 issues of Dragon Magazine, which was run by none other than Paizo Publishing at the time. If you’ve ever been on Paizo and wondered why they have a small number of stick figure-like options for their avatars, this is why. The art style for the Order of the Stick is also noteworthy as, true to its name, the entire style is stick-figure based, though the art has been updated several times throughout its run with some minor details.
The Order of the Stick is noteworthy because, for the most part, it is a parody comic of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition, though as time rolled onward it became more of a parody of RPG games in general, from video games to Pathfinder to just about anything fantasy-based. Another noteworthy aspect of the series is that all characters, including NPCs are aware of their world’s “game mechanics,” which can make for some funny scenes. The real draw to the Order of the Stick, however, is Rich Burlew’s masterful storytelling abilities. Amidst the great jokes and topical humor, Rich Burlew has weaved an epic story spanning over 800 stripes for his readers to enjoy. The Order of the Stick has won tons of awards, has run one of the most successful Kickstarters ever, and is widely considered a must-read for fantasy roleplayers.
The Order of the Stick’s real charm, however, comes from its quirky, memorable characters. While you’ll get more out of the strip if you’re into RPGs (especially 3.5 / Pathfinder), the real humor of the comic comes from its amazing roster of characters, which includes its main six characters (Roy Greenhilt, Elan, Haley Starshine, Vaarsuvius, Durkon Thundershield, and Belkar Bitterleaf) who are practically an iconic Adventuring Party. Likewise, the Order of the Stick has memorable villains, such as Xykon the lich, Redcloak, General Tarquin, the Three Fiends, and the Linear Guild (who I’ve referenced before in my Math Behind CR article). Even the side characters such as the Oracle, Miko, Hinjo, Ochuul, and the Monster in the Darkness are both hilariously fun to watch but fantastically epic in how they contribute to the strip’s overall story. The end result is that the Order of the Stick feels like a masterfully run RPG campaign, which makes it all the more nostalgic for fantasy RPG players.
I am choosing not to talk much about the Order of the Stick’s story, save that it is both hilarious and epic. I highly recommend this comic to anyone looking for a good story, and I would compare the plot to any of Paizo’s best Adventure Paths, personally. The Campaign boils down to an around-the-world-to-save-the-MacGuffins romp and it is an enjoyably fun one at that. The story is fast when it needs to be, takes its time when its acceptable to, and generally knows the perfect amount of detail to place into any scenario in order to make the scene feel fun and memorable.
Lessons to Learn from the Order of the Stick
Literally, the entire webcomic is a giant list of “Things to Do While GMing” and “Things to Avoid Doing as a PC,” but I’ll give you some of my favorites here.
- Prophecy: Remember how I wrote that article about how using prophecies is difficult? Yeah, Rich Burlew is a CHAMPION soothsayer. His prophecies are AWESOME and they always come back in unexpected ways.
- Breaking PC Norms: Rich’s characters often go out of their way to break stereotypes for their race and class. For example, Belkar Bitterleaf, the halfling, is a homicidal maniac during a time when most halflings (except Kendar) were generally considered to be jovial and kind. Likewise, Roy Greenhilt is a fighter with a rather impressive Intelligence score. Vaarsuvius, a wizard, barred conjuration as one of his/her forbidden schools during a time in Dungeons and Dragons when conjuration was largely considered THE most powerful school of magic. And so on.
- Psionics: In more current stripes, the Order of the Stick has begun to feature more and more psionic characters. Often the difference between psionics and magic is noted, but the Order of the Stick is an excellent example of how psionics can be “The same” as magic, but different. This is illustrated when Vaarsuvius duels a psion rather effectively.
- Mass Combat: Pathfinder’s Mass Combat system doesn’t support the type of mass combat that we see in the Order of the Stick, but a particular chapter in War and XPs illustrates why the backdrop of mass combat can be so particularly effective in a roleplaying game. The action and suspense of the battle really adds to the direness of the situation.
- PC Loss: In the Order of the Stick, the PCs lose. A LOT. This is rather opposed to the traditional idea of, “the PCs either win or die.” The Order of the Stick is often captured, incarcerated, or sometimes left perfectly capable in the wake of defeat, but the Order of the Stick is a shining example of why the PCs shouldn’t be allowed to win every engagement that they tangle into. Giving the PCs loss every now and then adds to the drama and tension of the story, after all.
- The Comic Uses Real PC Tactics: Remember when I did my Scry and Fry article? One of the PCs actually tries to use this tactic in the Order of the Stick and for several reasons, it backfires horribly. As noted, the PCs lose a lot in the Order of the Stick, so when tactics like the Scry and Fry are tried and ultimately fail in the comic, Rich Burlew ultimately provides a number of great tips and tricks to GMs to try against those tactics.
- Side Quests: The Order of the Stick is big on side quests, but interestingly enough those side quests ALWAYS come back to impact the main quest in some manner. Many GMs associate side quests with one-shot, never-mentioned-again storytelling so having some examples that show otherwise (or that at least come back as brick jokes) helps keep both readers and the PCs aware that every scene in your story happens for a reason.
- Diverse Cultures: The Order of the Stick is pretty good at using different races and ethnicities in its stories. The party leader is black and by the current strip most of the Order of the Stick’s allies are Asian. Before Paizo Publishing, this level of diversity in our hobby was very uncommon, so its worth giving Rich a shout-out for his use of diversity in his storytelling.
- Foreshadowing: Rich is AWESOME at this. Simply awesome. This goes back to his use of prophecy, as he typically uses prophecy as a foreshadowing device rather than a MacGuffin.
- Motivations: Rich’s cast of characters is extremely relatable because as the story moves onward, he offers his readers an increasingly broad look at the motivations, hopes, and dreams of each of his characters. Even when a character is absolutely vile and despicable, knowing why the character acts the way he (or she) acts allows readers to relate to those characters on a deeper level and helps them to make better predictions about your story, which puts them on a deeper level of investment to the characters and plot. You WANT your readers and PCs guessing what you are going to do next because if they’re predicting, they’re invested enough to think about you when you or your work is not directly in front of their noses.
Well, I feel like I’ve covered the Order of the Stick as best I can without offering major spoilers. Order of the Stick is readable online for free, so you should mosey on over the Giantitpg.com and read it. READ IT, I SAY! And then when you finish, come back here on Friday for a new Iconic Design, featuring the Order of the Stick! As always, leave any comments or questions you have below, and I look forwarding to showing you my latest build come Friday.
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune fighter, and his favorite Order of the Stick member is Elan.