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Romancing the d20

Romancing the D20
(a historical look at the art of Dungeons and Dragons)

  5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons has been announced. Debate on what it will be, what it could be and what it should be will froth and bubble. In order of what the art of 5th edition could be, I think we need to look back. The artwork of D&D has stamped and influenced every edition, every book, every module. Art’s use as evocation, as marketing, and as information shouldn’t be questioned, but often is. I’ve heard many times; “I don’t need artwork in my role playing books, I’m just there for the setting and/or rules”.

  Just one example, I heard quite a bit of grumbling about 4th edition’s full color interiors. Many felt that it drove up the cost of each book. [edit: I’ve since learned that color costs for the print runs WotC was doing, were not significantly higher than B&W]. Here is what a lot of folks do not get about role playing books. They are textbooks. Yup! Textbooks. They teach you how to play a pretty complicated hobby. Games of make believe with boundaries, guidelines, rules and setting is no easy thing to impart.

  Here is the thing about textbooks. All that information is more easily retained and digested when accompanied by visuals. Color helps the recall process that much more. This has been known in advertising theory for more than a century. I’m not blowing smoke.

  So at the very least, breaking up the text is a very, very good thing. Even better, having that illustration of a dwarf encumbered by pots, pans, massive armor, 5 weapons and sacks of gold, will help the reader remember where and what the Encumbrance section is about. When an illustration serves those demands and on top evokes a whole new wild world... then we are cooking with gas. Like a reader flips open the book and sees a picture that sparks ideas and they say; “I want to play that person!” or “I want to adventure there!” or “THAT gives me an idea!”.... well, that is the very best of role playing game art.

  But talking about text books is not very romantic, Storn. Your title is Romancing the D20! I wanted to make the case that art is very, very important to the D&D brand. That there is no denying its importance. So, having established that, where should the direction of 5th Edition art go?

  One of the goals of 5th edition is to embrace the past, to bring all the former editions under one umbrella. So, as cliched as it sounds, we need to look back in order to move forward.

  I feel that one of the things that happened with D&D art starting with 3rd Edition is a drift towards testosterone, video game influenced art. Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I liked the practicality that I saw in 3rd edition art; belts, backpacks, buckles and pouches. The characters depicted are adventurers, on the move, in life and death situations. I had the notion that 3rd edition denizens had a place to store those iron rations and those spikes for keeping doors shut or open.

  4th edition art really seemed to be action oriented. Which makes perfect sense, given 4th edition’s emphasis on combat and dungeoneering. I love action, I became an artist thinking I was going to go into comics. So action in art is like mana from heaven to me.

But I feel we lost some of the romance and grandeur that is such a strong element of fantasy worlds.

  The very first D&D product I held with my own, two, grubby little hands was Greyhawk. The original Greyhawk, the tan pamphlet. Kurt, my best friend, and I ordered D&D (the white box set of 3 tan pamphlets) and Greyhawk from Squadron Catalogue, because we were intrigued by the ads in various wargame magazines, notably The General.

  In those days, stuff ordered the mail could take 6 weeks. Greyhawk arrived first, in fact, several weeks before the white box. Which led Kurt and I into some very bizarre gaming without the main rules, but that is an aside for another day. On that cover of Greyhawk is a warrior facing a beholder. A very, Frazetta-esque sword and sorcery, black line art, warrior.


  Most of the art in those early books were influenced by Frank Frazetta. Remember, this is 1976. Frazetta certainly put Conan on the map with his covers in the 60s. Conan the Barbarian comic was at its hey-day in the mid 70s. Michael Whelan just finished his Elric covers and he admits he wanted to be Frazetta. There just wasn’t much else in fantasy art to look at! In hindsight, I think the fantasy art of that time can be summed up pretty much with 4 names, Frazetta, Whelan, and Barry Windsor Smith and John Buscema...both artists on Conan the Barbarian, who couldn’t help be influenced by Frazetta. Sure, there were other important artists around, I could name several, but I think these 4 impact on D&D art was staggering.

  These guys had a sense of ROMANCE in their work. While definitely aimed at a male audience and the adolescent power fantasies that adolescents have, there is grandeur and the love of epic in their work. This is what was in the pot when D&D was bubbling up.

  Then we move to D&D hard covers. And we get art that I call a “sense of place”. The iconic cover of the Player’s Handbook, with the thief chipping the jewel out of the statue’s eye. That is some great storytelling. Yup. Those folks are in a dungeon or Temple! It is exotic. That art has been spoofed and recycled several times precisely because of “sense of place”.

  I love the long landscaped mini-comic running at the bottom of several pages of the Game Master’s Guide. It depicts a team of “typical” adventurers delving further and further into a dangerous dungeon.

  But the illustration that really knocked my socks off was Emikrol the Chaotic. Again, we have a sense of place. A city street, with interesting, almost western, architecture. The Green Griffon tavern, the city is on a hill, its not flat like a map on graph paper. Hints of a story abound. The woman with a child hints at what life is normally. Why is Emikrol fleeing? Did he burn the guy in the forefront for simply being in the way? What spell is he using? Could that possibly be magic missile? Are those guardsmen trying to stop him... or just thugs?


  Then we come to the art of next generation coalescing with 2nd edition. Spearheaded by artists like Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson, Elmore’s redbox, the Forgotten Realms box set... now... we are talking about what I think is the ROMANTIC period of D&D art. Elmore and Parkinson didn’t look like Frazetta, because they went back to Frazetta’s influences. Wyeth, Pyle, Cornwall, Parrish, Rockwell and the other greats from the golden ages of American Illustration.

  This generation of art continued with the sense of place. The below pic, well, her eyes are a bit vacant and her armor a bit cheesecake, but there is an undeniable sense of place. The stream, the mountains, the trees etc. It’s epic, it’s romantic, but it is lacking a bit in terms of storytelling. She is kinda posed there. Compared with Emikrol the Chaotic above, we are not give much in the way of clues. Why is she dismounted? The mini-dragon is cute, but she is barely interacting with it?


  Now, don’t take my story telling critique as a negative. Not every picture has to have a narrative. Parkinson’s piece was a Dragon cover and it does it’s job. It is arresting and interesting and would make me pick the magazine and leaf through it.

  But I think 3rd and 4th edition art lost a “sense of place”. In 4th edition, I think this was partly due to that “the setting” of 4th edition was briefly sketched out. If there are narratives in the majority of the pictures, it is about combat and dungeon exploring. I didn’t see the juicy, evocative story driven illustrations with that sense of world building. The one major exception is Ralph Horsely’s 4th Edition FallCrest illustration.


  Now this pic has a serious sense of place. It definitely has a narrative as the townsfolk crowd the newly arrived adventures to make gold piece or two. But I don’t think it has a sense of the romantic for two reasons. One, the scene is claustrophobic (and awesomely so, this is not a crit). Two, almost everyone is reacting to the adventurers. Not much sense of what usually goes on during a “normal” day when a group of tired, grubby, but potential rich, freebooters aren’t traipsing through town. I don’t see the blacksmith chatting up the waitress or some interaction that isn’t about the adventurers.

Which brings me to my conclusion, why do I think Romanticism is important to 5th Edition D&D art?

-  Once we satisfy the textbook requirements of gaming art, if we can evoke a grander, alien world in an illustration, so much the better. Being able to present context for drama to happen, it does so much. It counterbalances and contrasts the illustrations of fight, fight, action, action.

-  Table top role playing is NOT video games. While I love Guild Wars and World of Warcraft, they are their own thing. While I love video game concept art, it serves its masters. 4th Edition crept towards World of Warcraft in terms of aesthetic, in my opinion. By distancing the art a bit, we reinforce the tactile and face to face nature of role playing. One of role playing’s biggest challenges is that it takes time and commitment, can’t just save game whenever and walk away. You’ve got other peoples’ schedule and logistics to consider. But it is also one of table top’s greatest strengths. We are all around a table together telling incredible stories with each other. That socialization? I think that needs to be emphasised.

-  Testosterone laced imagery reaches ½ of the population. While D&D has always been very much about male power fantasy, by moving the even more towards the Romantic, we have the chance of attracting female players. Paranormal Romance is the fastest growing genre for years in the bookstores. Its got magic, folks with strange abilities, exotic settings, how is that so different?... and it is driven by a female readership. So bring on the beefcake, unicorns, vampires and women in long flowy dresses... it doesn’t have to be every illustration... but there should be some.

-  We reach back a bit to previous versions of D&D, one of the tent poles of the 5th edition big top proclamations. Doing this visually will help meet that goal.

  Now, I’m not saying we should return to the days of Elmore and Parkinson. I’m saying we can use the past art as a springboard to create the art of 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 17th, 2012 12:58 pm (UTC)
A very interesting assessment all round. Mind if I send readers of my gaming blog this way?
Jan. 17th, 2012 01:25 pm (UTC)
Jan. 17th, 2012 01:41 pm (UTC)
Done! Cheers.
Jan. 17th, 2012 02:27 pm (UTC)
I would suggest one thing then...
why not bringing more women artist into the fray and ask them what they'd like to see and how they envisage the worlds of D&D and the game itself.

As much as I applaud the principles you're talking about, I think they would also fall short if you guys fail to involve the very people you're looking to attract.

Talk about all this without having women around would be like us men talking make up...
Jan. 17th, 2012 02:44 pm (UTC)
Re: I would suggest one thing then...
Ya know, I meant to bring that up in the article and I just plain, dumb forgot. I think Jennifer Meyer is an awesome artist.. that many don't know about. But Rebecca Guay is a name, and for sure, yeah, absolutely... Lindsey Archer, and Anna Mohrbacher, can't forget her...she is such a hard worker and talent... she might already be working for them.

Jan. 17th, 2012 04:14 pm (UTC)
Great post!
I think we need less "spot" illustrations (the ones with white backgrounds) and more illustrations with backgrounds. We need more skies, more difficult terrain, more ambients for our heroes to be interacting with and grounded by. That'd be awesome.

- Claudio Pozas
Jan. 17th, 2012 04:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post!
I totally agree Claudio!

Except for something like the Monster Manual, where the real need for the monster character to come through in generally a pretty small space... well, that is the one place I don't mind seeing vignettes (white background).

Alex Karaczun
Feb. 29th, 2012 01:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post!
Claudio, while I agree with your comment about backgrounds for story-telling illustrations, I think there needs to be more "spot" illustrations for things like NPCs in adventures, and items magical and mundane. Paizo products are fantastic at this, and although I do not play Pathfinder, I still buy their PDFs for the "spot" illustrations of NPCs and items. Their NPC busts are absolutely fantastic!

I create Quest, Monster, Item, and Reward cards for my players that are detailed and specific as only player created content can be, and without these easy to get at "spot" illustrations these "aids" would be much harder to produce and my game would suffer for it.
Reid San Filippo
Jan. 17th, 2012 07:47 pm (UTC)
I could not agree more.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )