Rich Burlew’s 2007 Start of Darkness is a book prequel to his long-running Dungeons-and-Dragons-inspired fantasy web-comic, The Order of the Stick.
How did an easily distracted sorcerer become one of his world’s Big Bads? Why did the goblin cleric Redcloak ally with someone who squanders goblin lives on a whim? The answer for that begins with a punitive raid on a small goblin village thirty-four years before Order of the Stick begins.
Goblins! Pesky! Accordingly, the lawful good paladins of Azure City slaughter them out of hand. When no goblins present themselves for murder, the paladins come to the goblins. Full-service genocide!
Redcloak became chief cleric of his people the same day he became an acolyte of the Dark One. The sole cleric to survive Azure City’s unprovoked attack on his village, he donned the ceremonial Crimson Mantle that had been handed down from Revered Master to Revered Master and was instantly imbued with the knowledge needed to be the next Revered Master. What he learned was unpleasant.
Goblins exist to be killed. More specifically, the short-lived miserable beings were created by the gods to give clerics something easy to kill so the clerics could ascend from level to level. The other races have their gods and their assigned territories. The goblins hide out in the wastelands, hoping that they can avoid adventurers aiming to level up. The closest they have to a god is the Dark One, a goblin hero who ascended to divinity thanks to goblin reverence.
The Dark One has a grand plan to elevate the goblins to equal status. No longer sword fodder! Redcloak is now a key part of the plan. Unfortunately for a very large number of people, Redcloak’s brother Right-Eye convinces Redcloak that a human could be a useful ally. Specifically, the powerful necromantic sorcerer Xykon.
Xykon is enthusiastically malevolent, the sort of keen villain who slaughters his own family to make a point before resurrecting them as zombie slaves. Xykon’s temperament is the main reason he hasn’t attained Big Bad status. He’s unable to maintain focus long enough to establish himself as the grand villain he could be.
Redcloak will change that. Many people will suffer.
Included: an introduction written by Miko Miyazaki, a human paladin of Azure City whose dedication to lawful good is firm, narrow, and keen on killing everyone who doesn’t measure up. Which is everyone except Miko.
For people new to Order of the Stick, know that Burlew draws stick figures, which you might think would be awfully limiting when it comes to individualizing characters. Not so! They’re evocative stick figures.
Burlew draws his inspiration from Dungeons and Dragons, in which race isn’t a social construct but a physical reality that greatly constrains what choices are open to a person. Pick the wrong parents and you’re born incapable of being good. Not your fault. Though that won’t stop an adventurer from taking your head off like a dandelion so they can advance from first to second level.
Perhaps to compensate, being evil doesn’t mean you can’t have a loving family life. Being good in D&D doesn’t mean you won’t run off to exterminate random villages of goblins for the XP.
“There are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.”
I blame the gods and the man whose work inspired them, Gary Gygax.
Whereas poor Redcloak could plead that he is the chosen instrument of his god and that his long-term goal is laudable, his ally Xykon is just mean, unburdened by any positive qualities. There’s not even a miserable childhood to serve as an excuse. He’s bad because it’s easy and amusing. He doesn’t need learning, because sorcerers know magic instinctively. He doesn’t see the point of strategy and planning. Enough force overcomes all and thus far, he’s always had enough force.
Start of Darkness is skillfully done, but a real downer. The goblins are doomed to slaughter. It’s not fair but it is what it is1. Both of the main villains have invulnerable plot armour, because this book is a prequel to the series in which they figure prominently. So the bad guys will win, or at least survive. And the main cost to them (well, Redcloak, because Xykon only cares about immediate gratification) is knowing what choices they made to survive
Start of Darkness is available here.
1: Dwarves get their own unfair arrangement, courtesy of a Loki-orchestrated bet between Hel and Thor. The gods may need mortals but they are not on the mortals’ side, except in the sense a farmer is on the side of his chickens.