Being a non-gamer, the primary lesson I take away from reading King of RPGs is that everyone’s personal nerd culture is absolutely sacred to them.
King of RPGs was written by someone who knows every nook and cranny of nerd culture — Jason Thompson of Manga: The Complete Guide fame. From anime to gaming to trading cards there is no part of geek life that isn’t lovingly mined for its full potential in this densely packed volume. The book is an odyssey of a young nerd’s journey to his true calling as a table-top / RPG gamer upon entering college as a freshman (and I’m not a gamer so if I get some of the terminology wrong you’ll just have to forgive and / or correct me).
Shesh is the obsessive type – he’s already been banned from internet access thanks to an unfortunate incident with “World of Warfare” and almost dying on a seven day gaming binge. When his friend Mike drags him to a campus gaming night, his hidden “game” personality surfaces during play and suddenly you’ve got a great a great object lesson in how to not graduate from college. The book is comprised of three long chapters, each one featuring Shesh losing his shit as a gamer. The first game sets the stage and reveals his inability to distance himself from his role, the second chapter sets up two antagonists and reveals the hilarious real life consequences of Shesh’s gaming obsession, and the third finally offers a game with real-life stakes.
In the press the publisher sent with the volume, Thompson talks about his love of shonen manga and how it partly inspired this story. In particular he singles out Hikaru no Go, and asked himself, “Well, if someone can do an exciting manga about a board game with black and white stones, why not a manga about a tabletop role-playing game?” While the comic is often very funny with its sly allusions to real gaming and fandom practices, I didn’t necessarily find the games themselves “exciting.” The first and longest game was probably intended to set up a lot of characterization (i.e. gamers revealing themselves through their role-playing choices, establishing the basics of gaming culture) but often I just couldn’t follow the game itself.
By the end of the volume I had warmed to the premise, thanks to Shesh using his insane-alternative-gaming personality to put down a bad guy who abuses nerd culture for personal gain (the bastard!), but this was not a particularly smooth read for me as a whole. In spite of my appreciation for a comic about nerd cultures, too often I felt alienated from the incredibly detailed representation of actual game play. The humor is also incredibly referential – I got most of the anime and manga references and some of the other major references to gaming culture but there are certain inside jokes that were lost on me, I’m sure. This isn’t too much of an obstacle since there were a number of times when the references did elicit a chuckle out of me – but I doubt that everyone will get every joke (I might worry about someone who got every. single. joke). Finally, the art, while not the worst OEL manga art I’ve seen, overwhelmed the story. Panels were entirely too crowded with detail, which was problematic since this is a very text heavy comic (Thompson includes lots and lots of dialogue). By the end of the volume I was finding the games much more enjoyable which could mean I was being trained to understand gaming, but I tend to think that after the lengthy initial game the subsequent games were easier to follow and also tended to have greater plot development. Final verdict — gamers with a sense of humor would probably really love this detailed portrait of their culture but for those of us with feet more firmly planted in other nerd pastures may find the work a little more challenging.
Review copy provided by Del Rey.