Lessons From the Dinner Table Conclusion: The DIY Mentality

So for a while now I’ve been doing this series of articles where I try to derive some real-life gaming tips from the pages of Knights of the Dinner Table, largely as a method of amusing myself as I gradually reread my collection. Fun as it was at first, I’ve now realised I’ve hit a point where I’m probably not going to get so much meaningful out of the articles in the former format, having reached the point in the comic where longer-form stories (both in the characters’ games and in their out-of-game interactions) are more the norm and where stretching for real-world applicability risks either being repetitive or getting super tenuous.

I do have some last things to say about the series in general, though. The interesting thing about Knights of the Dinner Table is that it’s kind of ended up being the last man standing in the field of RPG magazines – sure, it’s a comic rather than a more traditional RPG magazine, but the individual issues have various gaming articles filling out their pages.

Let’s look at the competition. Dragon, which the strip used to appear in, has become an online-only advertising showcase rather than a proper magazine, and had long since ceased to cover non-TSR/Wizards of the Coast products. White Dwarf, likewise, is a magazine-length advert for Games Workshop products. Tabletop Gaming Monthly does exist, but it’s not an RPG-focused periodical; Alarums & Excursions rattles on as it presumably will at least until Lee Gold is physically unable to keep compiling it (and maybe longer if she decides to pass the torch), but it’s an APA, which is a rather different beast from a typical magazine, in particular in terms of its distribution.

No, when it comes to English-language magazines which:

  • can be purchased in actual shops, which have obtained it through regular distribution channels rather than special orders;
  • focus on RPGs as their primary subject matter;
  • are not house magazines focusing exclusively on the publisher’s own products; and
  • are not fanzines focusing on specific games (or sets of closely related games, like OSR fanzines);

well… to my knowledge Knights of the Dinner Table is it.

Now, obviously Kenzer & Company have managed this by piggybacking the RPG articles onto the back of a comic book about RPGs, but it’s still a notable achievement that such a comic book became a hit at all, especially with its rudimentary art style and layout, and an even bigger achievement that the comic became such an institution back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Actual Play podcasts and Critical Role-style streaming didn’t exist and, outside of “replays” (magazine-style transcripts of RPG sessions) in Japan, the idea that other people could find entertainment from watching others roleplaying simply wasn’t current.

I actually enjoy Knights of the Dinner Table far more than I do any RPG actual play podcasts or streams, and I think this is because it is unabashedly fictional; it doesn’t pretend to be presenting you with a real, authentic game played by real people.

Actual play shows and podcasts, in my experience, fall into two categories: there’s the ones which honestly present an authentic play session with no scripted aspects, no massaging of the game with an eye to making a better viewing experience for an uninvolved audience, and no cast of talented actors who are extensively trained in improv, which by and large are as poor to listen to as an uninvolved observer as, well, any of my own sessions would be. Then there’s the kayfabed ones, the ones who do have that level professional casting, pre-planning of incidents, and other aspects of a production approach which is happy to undermine authenticity in favour of a better viewing experience. Those feel fakey enough to me to be really annoying – they may well be entertaining viewing for some, but for my part I find that my experience of actual play means that the kayfabed parts really stand out.

Conversely, Knights of the Dinner Table might be one of the least pretentious variants on the format out there, in that it absolutely is not pretending to be anything other than it is – a fictionalised RPG session played by a bunch of amusing characters.

Though it’s ahead of its time in that respect, I also think Knights is the sort of thing which could only have arisen in the timeframe it did, at least in the form it did. The format, with its layout and art which clearly fall far short of the standards of the professional comics industry (or even those of talented amateur artists and letterers), puts me in mind not so much of mainstream comics, or even the “funnies page”-type comics (despite the comic’s origins as just that sort of feature in Shadis and Dragon), but of webcomics, and particularly the webcomics that were especially common in the early days of the medium where it was clear that the creator wasn’t a brilliant artist, but were willing to work through that in order to tell whatever outsider art story they had brewing inside their imagination. Indeed, Order of the Stick fits right into the category of “D&D-inspired comic with very rudimentary art, and has done quite well for itself.

Still, it’s nice to have as an institution, because it’s both a small press comics success story and a reminder that in the world of RPGs there’s still room for products which have more rudimentary production values, so long as there is a compelling niche for them and the price is right. There’s DIY principles to table RPGs which are hardwired into their makeup to an extent that makes full big-corporation capture of the market impossible; sure, Hasbro is the big beast, and D&D takes up a lot of the oxygen in the room, but as long as it’s possible to get attention with a cheap and cheerful DIY product there’ll always be an escape hatch.

Kickstarter, of course, means that DIY and small press producers can have their cake and eat it, producing their passion projects on their own terms without skimping on production values – if, that is, they have budgeted correctly, and if they actually raise sufficient money through their Kickstarter campaign in the first place. That said, you generally don’t get to run a highly successful Kickstarter campaign without buzz, and you don’t get buzz from nowhere; either you worked on a high-profile game line which had a big built-in audience and a chunk of them decided they liked your work enough to look into it when you went solo, or you started grassroots and built an audience from the ground up.

The latter route is viable only so long as customers are willing to take a look at products which have a scrappier, less polished look, and the fact that Knights of the Dinner Table is able to keep going in its steady state suggests that this is very much the case, so long as the content’s right – and Kenzer & Company have spent several decades building up that loyalty. Kickstarter’s regular ZineQuest promotion, which finds RPGs well-represented, likewise suggests this. This is heartening, not least because with print prices, paper shortages, and international shipping in the state they are in, it’s becoming much less viable to churn out a high-polish hardcover thingamuffin with an offset print run and ship it worldwide. Simpler printing solutions (and more lo-fi approaches where the limitations of local POD printing are less evident) may be necessary going forwards, especially in an industry with margins as tight as RPG.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.