Save The World Climax: The first arc of the story concerns the Order carrying out a standard dungeon crawl in order to defeat a lich. Then the next arc reveals that within the dungeon was a gate to a prison dimension where a world-destroying Eldritch Abomination is kept, and the lich was planning to use the gate for nefarious ends. The rest of the story concerns the Order's efforts to keep the other gates from being used for evil, so that the abomination isn't set free to destroy the world.
Much later, Tarquin assumes Elan will do it for him. Elan tells him all about what happened with Nale, and why he's not going to fall for the same thing again... and leaves Tarquin to fall (knowing it won't be fatal anyway).
Schizo Tech: Although the general technological level of the world is supposed to fit with the average D&D medieval campaign (with sometimes a bit of Steam Punk, like with the airships), you see plenty of anachronistic modern appliances, usually for a one-panel joke. Some examples:
Conspicuously averted when they're navigating the sandworm — Roy has a quadrant, but Durkon has to magically conjure an image of a pocketwatch. Suggests, as do many of the other examples, that magic is allowed to do anachronistic things but mundane technology isn't (unless it's funny).
Female Thief: Screw this! I've only got 14 hit points!
The Piscodaemon summoned by Zzd'tri to fight the Order of the Stick calls it a day when hit by the drow's corpse. Along with a comment using the "Miskatonic" font.
Piscodaemon:If the boss is dead, I'm punching out early.
Miron Shewdanker has a perpetual Screw This, I'm Outta Here! contingency spell cast on himself; any time his health is depleted below a certain level, he's automatically teleported away whether he wants to or not.
His colleague Laurin follows his lead after Vaarsuvius calmly points out just how much more magic he has at his disposal than she does.
Nale and Elan, of course. This causes problems whenever Elan tries to avoid getting blamed for Nale's actions; people don't tend to buy the argument, "My evil twin with a name that resembles mine did it."
Start of Darkness has two prefaces. One by the author who laments that the story ends with the bad guys winning (it's a prequel, foregone conclusion) and the other by Miko, who says, despite never having read the story, that because Evil creatures are presented as being more than just their alignment and don't get punished in the end, the author must be a depraved monster himself.
The preface for On the Origin of PCs has Redcloak calling the punny title "dreadful".
The one given to Belkar. To wit: he wanted to know if he would end up causing the death of any of the following: Roy, Miko, Miko's horse, Vaarsuvius or the Oracle himself. The answer is "Yes", because, as we see later, the Oracle pulls a questionable Exact Words interpretation on him so Belkar kills the Oracle out of pure annoyance.
Durkon is unknowingly the target of a SFP. It was prophesied that his return to his homeland would be its destruction. So the high priest of his religion sent him on a quest that he was never supposed to return from. Unfortunately, the high priest never let on to anyone else that he was never supposed to come back, and eventually his replacement was happy to comply with Durkon's request to return home. Toward the end of book 5, he has been turned into a vampire, and it remains to be seen how this will affect things.
Vaarsuvius: Bah!! You are clearly only hiring me because I intimidated you intellectually, to the point where your masculine pride requires you to establish your dominance over my superior mind. Roy: Maybe. Or maybe I'm hiring you because I require the creation of a managed spherical energy release with a thermal signature no less than 1850° Kelvin, which can be manifested at specific X, Y, and Z coordinates from verbal cues. I require this specific temperature because it is the minimum level at which necrotized epidermis has been proven to combust and I have reason to believe that my mission will require the incapacitation of multiple post-organic hostiles. Vaarsuvius: So... you need Fireball spells to toast the undead you expect to fight? Roy: Did I stutter? Vaarsuvius: A pleasure to serve under you, sir. Roy: Welcome aboard. Now get me a new table.
Shut Up And Save Me: Early on, when Roy is assaulted by a mind flayer, the other party members just stand there dumbfounded while Vaarsuvius rants furiously that (s)he should be the one attacked, having the highest intelligence score.
During Xykon and Redcloak's invasion of the Azure City, Belkar cuts a side bet with one of the archers that Roy will be stupid enough to jump off the castle parapet to get to Xykon and his zombie dragon mount. Belkar being Belkar, he then proceeds to rig the outcome by loaning Roy his Ring of Jumping +20.
Haley and Roy have a lot of 10 gp bets over the course of the adventure. This may apply to the Order as a whole, as Haley at one point tries to make a bet with Durkon.
Sinister Shiv: Geoff is holding one to Elan's throat when they first meet.
Small Reference Pools: Averted. Among other things, the prequel book titles Start of Darkness and On the Origin of PCs are plays on the classic book titles Heart of Darkness and On the Origin of Species. Never let it be said that Rich Burlew isn't well-read.
Speech Bubbles: Numerous variations in their shape or color for specific characters.
Undead have black speech bubbles with white text. When Xykon becomes a lich in Start of Darkness and his speech bubbles change to the undead format, he comments on his dramatic, echoey voice.
Diverse colored speech bubbles for outsiders such as gods, celestials, infernals, and ghosts. Infernals usually have black speech bubbles with colored text inside (lampshaded with Qarr the imp, who is recognized by his red-on-black speech bubbles). Celestials have brightly colored bubbles with black text. Elemental spirits like Celia have a color related to their plane of origin.
Dragons and half-dragons also have colored speech bubbles linked to their species.
The shape is sometimes significant too, like with modrons having rectangular bubbles.invoked
The connectors pointing to which character is speaking also give indications. They are straight when the speaker is healthy, but become irregular for a sick, stunned, drunk, confused, wounded or dying character, to represent shaky speech. Malack's are always this way, hinting of a raspy or hissy voice.
More classically, bubbles with dotted borders and grey text indicate whispering. Zz'dtri's bubbles always have grey text, since he's The Quiet One and hardly ever raises his voice.
Early in the comic, mumbling to oneself or aside comments by the characters were texts without bubbles and just a connector. But this became rarer and rarer and was phased out by book 3 — except for the Demon-Roaches, who only ever talk this way.
Spiritual Successor: In many ways, to 8-Bit Theater. Both webcomics feature the simplistically-rendered adventures of a group of somewhat morally ambiguous heroes while they subvert and parody different genres of Roleplaying Games — Tabletops and Console Games, respectively. Though 8-Bit Theater was often darker and more blackly humorous while The Order of the Stick is often lighter and less cruel to its characters, they both rely heavily on pop-culture references, spanning arc-driven plots, one-off gags, and parodying, subverting, deconstructing, reconstructing, and then playing straight every possible Fantasy and RPG tropes. Rich Burlew even did a Guest Strip for the former, using his signature style.
The three empires on the Western continent are never mentioned together in the same sentence. They're the Empires of Blood, Sweat, and Tears.
The title of strip #914, "Last in the Coffin". This strip is the one confirming that Nale is not coming back from the dead. The title is from the expression "putting the last nail in the coffin".
Stick Figure Comic: But don't let that fool you into thinking it's not a well-drawn comic. Despite the style, characters are complex enough to be easily recognized and backgrounds are lush and detailed.
Sticks to the Back: Roy's greatsword; Haley's longbow; Thog's greataxe. Mostly the result of the simplified art style. (Other weapons tends to simply disappear when not in use.) After the Art Evolution, Roy has straps on the back of his armor to hold the sword, although they work better than they should. Hayley's bow still sticks, though.
Stock Yuck: Babies for the Monster in the Darkness; squids (and babies) for O-Chul.
Strange Minds Think Alike: In strip #917, Tarquin points out that Elan would easily find replacement adventurers for his party, offering the name "Rob Redblade" as an alternative to Roy Greenhilt. Way back in strip #112, one of the silly names Xykon used for Roy was "Mr. Redblade".
Celia will not stand murder or theft regardless of the circumstances. It doesn't matter that they're a guild of thieves; you have to pay them back.
Notably averted by Elan, who is both stupid and good but not Stupid Good. He absolutely refuses to kill a helpless opponent however, be it his treacherous, backstabbing (literally) brother or the smug, evil aristocrat who surrenders to Elan and tells him to his face that he's doing it so he can manipulate the courts into acquitting him and embarrassing his rival.
Ian Starshine cannot let the opportunity to insult a tyrant pass him by, even though said tyrant is offering him the rare chance of an official pardon thanks to Roy's actions. Insulting him doesn't even offer Ian any beneficial results other than catharsis, which would probably prove less useful in the long run than no prison sentence. Although Ian noted shortly after that he didn't believe the tyrant would ever actually honour the pardon. Comes back to bite him when Tarquin frames Ian for murdering an ambassador, because Tarquin didn't like the way Ian spoke to him.
Survivor Guilt: It seems Belkar may have a touch of this after Durkon gets vampirised while saving him from the same fate.
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Discussed when Tarquin claims that after he kills Roy Greenhilt and Durkon Thundershield, Elan will have a Terrible Interviewees Montage and end up hiring "Rob Redblade" and "Murkon Lightninghammer". This references the tendency in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns where a lost party member will be quickly replaced by another character with the same class and level (to maintain party balance), and because they're played by the same person, often the same personality too.
When Elan joins up with Roy in On the Origin of PCs, he pulls one of these, which makes Roy question his decision to let Elan in. He probably regrets this a lot later.
When the Order first run into Miko:
Roy: What "crimes against existence"? We're not guilty of any crimes! Haley: Right. Completely innocent. Belkar: Never done anything wrong. Vaarsuvius: Yes. None of us have ever tampered with the fundamental natural order when bored. That would be wrong.
The songs Elan uses to try to lead people out of the hotel to safety are full of this.
While Belkar is supposed to be locked in a cell in Azure City, Roy apparently took an appointment with Lord Shojo under "Order of the Stick and mysterious cloaked stranger who is totally NOT a halfling on stilts".
Elan saves Nale this way shortly after he first reveals his true motives.
Elan: OK, I'll help you up, if you promise to surrender. Nale: Fine! Whatever! Just be careful, my hands are still slippery with your blood. Elan: You're not making me feel better about this decision.
Tarquin tries to get Elan to do this when he's dangling from the Mechane. Elan has learned his lessons about both this trope and Tarquin, though, and lets him slip and fall (at least in part because he realizes it will not kill him).
Lampshaded, and mentionedonce by name. Arguably justified, in that, by the rules of the world, talking is a free action.note Although the rule is explicitely that you can say a few words or shout a warning during a combat, not having a long-winded speech. Of course, that's one of the most-abused rule of the game, something the comic often takes a dig at.
Haley: Relax, speaking is a free action.
Averted in #186 where V's excessive talking uses up one of the two rounds before the dragon attacks.
Similarly averted in On the Origin of PCs, when V's filibustering to the presenter in the middle of a wizards' Cooking Duel uses up most of his 60 minutes' time limit.
Taken to ridiculous lengths yet again in "A Touch of Death". Nale, Sabine and Elan exchange several dozen words during the first few milliseconds of Malack's arm swing.
Enor's response to Elan's attempt at pun-fighting? "Puns are for girls." (Plus a morning star to the head.)
Tastes Like Chicken: After Dark Vaarsuvius polymorphs into a dragon and tears apart the Black Dragon Mother from the inside out, one of the souls bound to him/her makes this remark.
The Team: The series centers around a group of six adventurers and eventually two Team Pets. Some of the roles are distributed among several characters, notably by having two or three major damage-dealers and two people capable of outsmarting the leader.
Teeth Flying: In strip #907, when Vampire Durkon hits Zzd'tri in the face with Malack's staff, a couple of teeth are flying.
The Cloister spell, invented by Dorukan and used by Xykon on Azure City. It doesn't prevent teleportation from spots within its limit, but block those coming from outside (with a specific loophole for Summoning magic). Vaarsuvius breaks through with an Epic Teleport spell granted by the Soul Splice.
Redcloak has his private study completely protected from teleportation, in or out, as Tsukiko untimely discovers.
Teleport Spam: How Tarquin catches up to the fleeing Order of the Stick, thanks to Laurin Shattersmith.
Tempting Fate: Regularly. Too many examples to count. Often lampshaded as well.
Old Prisoner: HA! I knew I made the right call staying in prison. That Tsukiko chick is getting her ass kicked by an elemental! It's so much safer up here! Tsukiko: SHOUT! (cell crumbles; a slab of stone falls and crushes the old man to death) Nale: Well, now, really, what did you expect after a line like that?
That Man Is Dead: Malack's reaction when given the offer to escape undeath by being destroyed and resurrected is that he's lived in his current form for centuries, far longer than he was truly alive, and that over that time he's developed into an entirely different person who barely even remembers his past life. That Man is quite literally dead.
Durkon and his opposite numbers share a "NameElementItem" naming pattern (Hilgya Firehelm, Leeky Windstaff), until Malack comes along that is. Although his real name hasn't been revealed yet, and could easily fit the theme too.
Lord Shojo, his nephew Hinjo, and Shojo's late father Lord Ronjo (name given in War and XPs).
The Empire of Blood is very big on hemo-themed names. For that matter, the three competing Empires of Blood, Sweat and Tears.
And they know the world works that way. Especially Elan.
Tarquin takes it Up to Eleven and in the most horrifying way possible, being perfectly willing to die at his son's hands as long as it will cement his place in history. Even worse, he comes to the conclusion that If he kills Roy and Durkon, than Elan will have to become the "true" hero of the story.
There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Vaarsuvius disintegrated a black dragon in "Return of the Elf". Much later, the dragon's mother wants to avenge its death... but not by killing Vaarsuvius. And not just by eating V's family alive, either, but by then using a necromancy spell to bind their dead souls to itself. How does Vaarsuvius react? After agreeing to a "soul splice", Vaarsuvius not only defeats the dragon in combat, but re-animates the dragon's head just so it can watch V cast an epic necromancy spell that kills off each and every last one of the dragon's relatives — an estimated one-quarter of the world's entire black dragon population, before disintegrating the dragon's head off to finish it off for good.
"They Still Belong to Us" Lecture: Nale almost succeeds in convincing Elan that Haley has been evil all along, but then she overcomes her mental block against speaking and tells him the truth.
Elan has a huge blind spot for this trope, determined that his brother and father are redeemable when all the evidence is to the contrary. Nale clearly has no such qualms, and is determined to destroy his brother.
Nale apparently expects his father to be as forgiving as Elan, but is proved wrong. Tarquin jumped through hoops to shield his Evil son from his own mistakes, but when Nale furiously demands that he wants no special treatment, Tarquin kills him.
Third-Person Person: thog talk like this. In fact, most orcs do; it's a function of a low Int score — and most orcs being barbarian types, it tends to be a dump stat. This is eventually lampshaded when one orc abandons a chase to attend grammar class, hoping to learn personal pronouns.
Threshold Guardians: The Tests of the Body, Mind and Heart on the way to the Oracle in the Sunken Valley. The Order outsmarts the Test of the Body, solves the Test of the Mind with violence, and the Test of the Heart is literally testing your pulse and blood pressure to see if you'll have a heart attack after hearing the Oracle's prophecy or not.
Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Combined with Shoot the Rope. Zig-zagged actually, because Roy chucks his broken sword at the nooses of his allies, severing V's, Elan's, and Haley's ropes but missing Belkar's... however, the sword instead kills the executioner, and he falls over dead, activating Belkar's gallows... but again, Belkar is too light for the gallows to work. Though if Roy hadn't shown up at that point, the rogues could have easily pincushioned him when they realized the noose wasn't made for halflings.
Thunderbolt Iron: Roy's reforged sword. But it's alloyed with it rather than made of the stuff.
Time Skip: When Roy is in heaven, he loses track of time, and as a result the narrative sticks with him for three months before we find out what the scattered party members have been doing in the meantime.
A panicked Haley is told to pull it together by Durkon after Roy is put out of action during the battle of Azure City, Durkon reminding her that she's Roy's second-in-command.
She later delivers one herself to Thanh when she leaves the Azure City resistance.
To Be Lawful or Good: Both Roy and Miko run into this one. Roy manages to navigate his way around it with some clever talking and genuinely Lawful Good intentions. Miko, on the other hand...
Token Minority: Borderline, in that half the party isn't even human, but Roy's still the only black guy. In the party at least — there's still a fairly liberal spread of skin pigmentation in the rest of the world, Azure City notwithstanding.
Too Dumb to Fool: Happens to Elan and Thog once in a while. Averted just as often, though.
Too Dumb to Live: Nale seems genuinely surprised when Tarquin kills him, but he had provoked his father quite sorely up to that point with absolutely nothing to back it up; after disappointing Tarquin yet again and irritating him by confusing Tarquin's attempts to play a long game with weakness, Nale spitefully brags about how he killed Malack, Tarquin's best friend, and furiously rebuffs all of Tarquin's attempts to smooth things out. When Nale exclaims he wants nothing from his father, Tarquin sighs, says he understands... and stabs Nale in the chest, killing him almost instantly.
Tarquin: Really, Nale, you would have been dead years ago if it weren't for my protection.
Elan, literally. Well, he took a level in Dashing Swordsman, which is Badass with puns and Flynning. If looked at from a mechanical perspective, it becomes even more badass as it makes him the most optimized character in the party (in contrast to a group that includes a fighter with high Intelligence, a wizard who bans the most useful schools of magic while focusing on the worst and a cleric who uses healing spells instead of shutting down encounters), allowing all his abilities to work off a single high attribute.
Mr. Scruffy went from the pampered pet of a noble ruler to a ranger's animal companion, i.e. a walking cat-shaped weapon. He still longs for the times he was pampered, but is nonetheless entirely loyal to Belkar.
Translation: Yes: The bonus art "Common Drow Hand Signs"◊ veers into this. A single gesture can mean "literally dripping in poison", and a female drow pointing at her chest is "If we lives in a matriarchy, why do we always dress like this?" On the other hand, "soup" require several full-body moves.
Miko: I am Miko Miyazaki, samurai of the Sapphire Guard, loyal vassal of Lord Shojo, daughter of Eyko, and paladin of the Twelve Gods of the South. Monster in the Darkness: Neat! It must be hard to fit that on your business cards, though.
Bozzok: I only have two words to say to you anyway — Sneak Att— Haley: (kills Bozzok's flanker) Oh my gods. I've done that "two words" gag like 9 times already! You're going to need to get some fresher material if you want to be a villain in this story. Bozzok: Damn it! Haley: Ooo, I take it back! Those are a different two words.
Belkar mentions an instance in which he randomly encountered Dire Camels in a Swamp of all places.
The picture on the main page also has a Shout-Out to this trope.
Unequal Rites: A minor but important part of the setting is that, much as many wizards look down on everyone else, they particularly look down on other arcane magic-using classes. Xykon mentions being regarded as a moron by other wizards for being a sorcerer, while in "This Never Happens to Jiminy Cricket", Vaarsuvius finally blows his stack for being referred to as a warlock. A post from the resultant forum query over why being called a warlock is an even worse insult to a wizard than being called a sorcerer is the page quote.
Unlikely Hero: In "Friend of a Friend", the Monster in the Darkness asks Xykon which one is the more worthy opponent: the never-broken paladin that survived his capital city's demise and is one of the last remaining defenders of Soon's Gate, or the random guy with a generic revenge backstory? When put like that, Roy Greenhilt doesn't look much like a protagonist.
Unreliable Narrator: The narrators that explain what the Order Of The Stick had been doing when they saw them to Miko Miyazaki always make them look villainous. One such narrator confuses them with their evil counterpart the Linear Guild.
Unreliable Voiceover: The story Hilgya tells of her "unhappy marriage" doesn't quite match the flashbacks that are shown simultaneously.
A mask behind a mask in "Under the Helmet". Once again Tarquin displays his genre savvyness.
There's one in the coloring book, of all things. Is Vaarsuvius a boy or a girl? Circle your answer. According to the answer in the back, That's very interesting, and probably says a lot about how you view gender roles.
Unsound Effect: Among others: "Sunder!", "sneak sneak", "Deflect!", "AOO!" (Attack of Opportunity), "swinganamiss!" and "Nuts!"
Tarquin naturally knows of this rule too, as demonstrated in "It's a Boy".
Malack explains to Durkon in detail his plan to inherit the three empires after Tarquin and the rest of his group have died of old age so he can sacrifice a thousand people a day to his god. A few dozen strips later, Malack is destroyed, so this will never happen.
Winged Girl Celia walking (and flying) around Azure City.
When Elan and Tarquin are discussing Tarquin's governing methods and eventually swordfighting when Elan disagrees with his father's political philosophy, the Empress of Blood is sitting nearby on her throne. There's no indication that she notices or cares about any of it.
Amun-Zora: I am already married!! Tarquin: Yes, you mentioned that. To a pikeman on the... south wall, was it? I assure you that your marital status is no longer an obstacle as of around midday today.
Utopia Justifies the Means: When Elan calls Tarquin out for deceiving the people of the Western Continent, Tarquin reasons that his plan might someday bring an end to the wars that kill tens of thousands of people every year. Of course, it is likely that he is lying. And even if not, it's at best a side benefit to Tarquin's overall goal, obtaining power for its own sake.