Dungeons and Dragons is a great game and a terrific innovation on war games, but it has a dark side. First there was that Tom Hanks movie. Then the game spawned a whole category of fiction that is no less than a crime against humanity.
The problem with D&D-inspired fiction isn’t especially with the semi-medieval setting, the funny-ha-ha uncouth barbarians, or the haughty elves. The problem is that most of the stories in the "based on a D&D campaign!" genre can be summed up like this: "Some guys fought some guys, then they went for ale." A gripping game is not a gripping read.
So the first thing you may think when you hear that The Gods of Arr-Kelaan is based on a D&D game is that you’re in for a lot of pain. You’re not.
Some people (too many) transcribe their D&D games. But others start a D&D game, create a world of their own and then discover a story inside it. It’s the same process that Tolkien went through with the Coalbiters. He started with an appreciation of Anglo-Saxon sagas, created his own world from their raw material, then discovered an epic in his new world.
Chuck Rowles’ new world, which a friend of his created for D&D campaigns, is called "Arr-Kelaan," and if it isn’t as original or as vastly detailed as Tolkein’s, it’s still very loved and carefully tended. Gods of Arr-Kelaan is the story that Rowles found there, which he has apparently worked on for more than 15 years. After an interstellar spaceship crash lands on an unknown planet full of elves, giants, wizards and the other usual suspects, the human passengers discover that they have God-like powers and begin to act the part. The latest installment, volume 3, is on DrunkDuck under the subtitle "Going Home." Volume 1 is only available in print, and volume 2 is available on Rowles’ Web site.
The story centers on Ronson, an apathetic spaceship-passenger-cum-reluctant-god who shuns followers and grants miracles just to get people to stop bothering him. He’s not interested in the god business or much of anything other than drinking and looking for a way home. There’s a method behind his ennui, though: he’s mourning for his wife, who died shortly before he left Earth. He’s circling in the malaise of grief and pain that everyone has felt after losing a loved one.
Rowles takes it one step further by having Ronson’s wife appear to him on Arr-Kelaan. In some poignant pages, the most real moments of the comic, her ghost suddenly materializes in front of him and then is slowly pulled away while he struggles to hold on to her. It’s a nice play on the running theme of the series: the use – or abuse – of power. Ronson can do anything with his god-like abilities… except the one thing he wants to do most.
He faces his antagonist in Bikk, a machiavellian passenger/god who is determined to abuse his power however possible to gain dominion over Arr-Kelaan and, eventually, Earth. It’s a fitting opposition to Ronson’s apathy, and Ronson manages to oppose him by simply doing what he does: nothing. Bikk spends his energy trying to force Ronson into the god role, and Ronson confounds him by staying mostly unmoved.
Gods of Arr-Kelaan indulges in a lot of genre-bending. First, the spaceship crash on the roleplaying game planet merges Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Then Rowles pulls the story through a political satire and a superhero parody (it’s obvious that Rowles is a huge comics fan. There are subtle comic references throughout). All of these tropes – which should weaken a story – only serve to make GoA-K stronger and stronger.
The genre shifts fit the story because they reflect the personalities of the new gods. All of the gods – except Ronson – are choosing the worlds they want, and shaping Arr-Kelaan to suit their wants or needs. Some want to be heroes. Some want to be kings. Ronson isn’t interested in new worlds, and that’s why all his inaction runs counter to the other characters. He’s dwelling in the past.
The newest volume shows the most polish of the series in art and the most sophistication in storytelling. Rowles’ line work is pleasant, albeit a bit jagged and lumpy in places. He doesn’t vary line weight much, which can make the panels grey out, but he does have the benefit of plenty of practice and he knows how to design a page to suit the action of the story. Any clarity problems are also helped enormously by the contributions of his brother Steev Rowles, who does the electronic coloring, shading and effects. Compare the first updates, which had no coloring, to the colored pages that appeared shortly after.
Reading Gods of Arr-Kelaan reminds you that some story cliches (such as "lost in the woods") exist because they work so well. But, like an enchanted weapon, they only work if they’re handled by someone who knows how to use them well. Rowles has put in the time, the effort, and the love that’s required to become an accomplished storyteller and artist.
"Going Home" is an exceptional use of Sci-Fi/Fantasy to do what those genres do best: tell a human story. This story is about a guy who misses his wife. And every time it looks like the story might falter or get bogged down in a genre canard, it makes its saving throw against schlock.