Bizarro Back Issues: The Quest For The Moonpenguin! (1989)
Despite its reputation as something that its players take very seriously and often get obsessed with --- occasionally to the point of falling in with actual demons and casting a mind-bondage spell on your father to get the latest manuals --- Dungeons & Dragons tends to flourish when it embraces its silliness. I mean, even at its most dire, even when the fate of the multiverse is in the balance, it's still the same game that brought you that most fearsome product of magic gone mad, the Owlbear.
Unfortunately, the fiction that goes along with it doesn't always have the same kind of jokes that you get when you're rolling dice around the table. That's why I appreciated "Catspaw," a four-part story from 1989's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons comic, in which the cast of hearty adventurers falls all over themselves and screws up constantly as they try to recover a mystical artifact known as... The Moonpenguin.
The story was originally published by DC, but if you're looking for it these days, you can find it pretty easy in the second volume of IDW's Dungeons & Dragons Classics. Either way, you might recall the AD&D comic from the last time we talked about it, when the series was introduced with the incredibly serious story of a fallen paladin who struggled to overcome the horrors of tiny hands --- but this story feels like that same adventuring party kicked out their uptight DungeonMaster and let his kid brother take over the game, and I mean that in the best way possible.
The "kid brother" in this case is the team of Jeff Grubb and Jan Duursema, and like the best DMs, they begin their adventure in a tavern. The difference between this and your standard adventure, however, is that they don't get their quest from a mysterious old man who wants them to deal with the local gerblin problem. They get their quest from the fact that Onyx the Invincible has racked up a 500 GP bar tab and has finally been cut off.
Enter Timoth Eyesbright, noble centaur, and it seems that Grubb and Duursema have made a very crucial character choice for him: He's an idiot.
In order to make some money --- and with dungeons full of slayable monsters and filthy lucre apparently running in short supply in the Forgotten Realms this week --- Timoth has decided to take a job as a courier, with the best reasoning ever.
In reality, Timoth is, shall we say, slightly less equipped for the job than his four legs would lead you to believe. He does not, for instance, know where things are in the city where he's meant to be a courier.
Not that it particularly matters. As you might've assumed from the few panels you've seen so far, the whole thing is a complicated setup that required Timoth to act as an equine patsy in order to tempt the city of Waterdeep's newest crime boss into an attempt to steal the statue of the Moonpenguin --- which, incidentally, is the actual McGuffin of the story. It's a magic statue of a penguin that, aside from the name, is otherwise unremarkable.
The characters in the story, however, don't seem to realize anything is weird until Tertius Wands, a distant relative of the statue's true owner and the only member of a family of wizards who doesn't have any magical ability himself, shows up to ask Onyx for help getting it back. Unfortunately, the "help" that Onyx provides comes in the form of a) arriving too late to save Timoth from being tossed into a magical hole, b) making so much noise in a street brawl that Tertius accidentally kicks a stack of crates onto the city watch, and c) pissing off a Mind Flayer criminal who shows up to kill them and get the Moonpenguin back for his master.
For that last one, at least, Onyx has a solution: Whacking him upside the head with a two-by-four.
Incidentally, that two-by-four will stick around and be used as a weapon through the end of the story, which is the most true-to-the-game element of the entire story. I'm surprised they don't name it Mahogany the Devil-Slayer and start insisting it's a +4 Evil Bane Greatclub.
As for Timoth, he winds up in a hole with a bunch of little mans that are trying to eat him.
It's pretty standard stuff, but for real: Is there anything more evocative of an era than that hot pink '80s DC Comics blood?
With the help of a surly information broker who is very clearly a mouthpiece for the DM to give some lost characters a much-needed piece of information, Onyx and Tertius track Timoth down to the sewer lair of the city's new Arch-Criminal: Koffing!
Wait, no, he's a Beholder. My mistake. But, y'know, with Jessie and James up there, you can probably see why I was so confused.
For those of you who don't play the game, Beholders are generally thought to be pretty terrifying monsters, flying Eye Tyrants with the power to shoot death rays or instantly turn an adventurer to stone. They're the kind of thing that demands that dramatic splash page reveal that we got. But when he's face-to-face with Timoth, we get a good look at the Adventurer's true worst enemy: Rolling a natural 1 on your saving throw against Charm Person.
Eventually, with the help of a djinn controlled by a magic ring that Onyx and Tertius find in the sewer --- because where else are you going to stumble on a magic ring that gives you control over a reality-altering extra-dimensional being? --- the heroes are able to take on a Mind-Flayer, a Beholder, and a bored-but-deadly drow, combining the mystical might of a monster hell-bent on destruction with tactics pretty much lifted straight from Home Alone.
And with that, the adventure is over, and our heroes have... well, it turns out that they haven't actually done much of anything. The whole thing was a con by the town's most powerful wizard trying to root out Xanthar's criminal operation --- which literally seems to be limited to hanging out in alleys waiting for dimwitted centaurs to come stomping by carrying artifacts --- and while that actually does happen, Our Alleged Heroes are pretty incidental to the plot.
But if nothing else, that section of the city sewer can rest easy knowing that evil has once again been defeated by the might of Mahogany the Devil-Slayer!