Monday, June 30, 2008

PHB Take Two

The 10th printing of the AD&D Players Handbook featured a new cover, replacing Dave Trampier's illustration with a new one by Jeff Easley.


This cover was introduced as part of a revamp of the graphical look of the entire AD&D line in 1983. All of the books (with the exception of the Fiend Folio, which Gary Gygax, among others, considered to be an inferior book, possibly explaining the lack of an update) were given new covers, an orange spine, and updated logos. In addition, Deities & Demigods was renamed Legends & Lore. The interiors of all the books were identical to the older printings, right down to listing the wrong cover artists, an error corrected in subsequent printings. The Monster Manual II was the only book in the revamped line whose interior was actually different in style from that of earlier printings, since it was the first new AD&D from the pen of Gary Gygax since 1979's Dungeon Masters Guide. The MMII is noteworthy as well, because it's almost entirely illustrated by "second generation" artists, like Jim Holloway and Larry Elmore. Dave Sutherland has a few illustrations in the book, most notably the polyhedral modrons, creatures that are in my opinion a lightning rod for the generation wars in D&D fandom.

Easley's PHB cover is a fine example of the "technically well done but soulless" style of art that has come to be the mainstay of gaming art since the early to mid-80s. The revised cover is certainly more "dynamic" than Trampier's original. The profusely bearded wizard is engaged in magical pyrotechnics against imps or gargoyles or some other type of winged monster, but this battle takes place nowhere. There's no real context to it or suggestion of an outside world. There are some billowing clouds or smoke that obscure everything except the wizard and his opponents. I suppose one could argue that it's a different instance of the "points of color sparkling in the shadows" I see in the Trampier cover, but that seems like a bit of a stretch here. To me, the Easley cover is simply uninterested in anything beyond the immediate action it illustrates.

In this respect, the cover is strongly character focused. What is important is the character of the wizard and what he specifically is doing. In part, that's of necessity, as there is nothing else on which to focus. The cover is not a wrap-around one. The book cover is just promotional text, like all the revised covers. The wizard himself is still an old school one. He's an old white male, with a ridiculously long beard. He's not wearing a pointy hat or a robe decorated with stars and moons, but he is dressed in flowing robes, complete with a stiff backed collar right out of the Dr. Strange school of magic. But he's not in an old school illustration at all. He's not quite in the full "strike a pose" mode of Larry Elmore or later artists, but his appearance is definitely an atavism, a throwback to an older style of illustration that was passing from the covers of game books.

One of the other really fascinating things about this cover is its logo. The original AD&D books didn't really have logos. The words "Advanced D&D" were included only as small yellow banner in the upper left hand corner, using the same "olde time" font as the OD&D books. This suggests to me that TSR assumed that the vast majority of potential buyers of the AD&D books would be familiar with OD&D or at least didn't need to be sold of the game, because they already knew about it. The revised cover, on the other hand, has a full fledged logo, complete with a fire-breathing dragon doing double duty as an ampersand. There's also the word "official" in front of the words "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," another telling change about the corporate culture of TSR and how far the industry had move from its hobbyist roots.

All in all, the revised cover of the Players Handbook is not a terrible piece of art, but neither is it very good. It's certainly several steps removed from the traditions of the old school, with just a small iconographic toehold in the past. As a representation of what D&D is supposed to be, it's frankly terrible. It's much too focused on a single individual and his kewl powerz, a trend that has been continued and extended in years since. Combined with the new graphic design and logo, though, you can see the transformation of D&D from a hobby activity to a brand, another trend that, while inevitable, was unfortunate.

15 comments:

  1. "It's much too focused on a single individual and his kewl powerz"

    Very true. Except for rare solo character campaigns, D&D is a co-operative endeavor through and through, and depictions of D&D characters should generally represent this.

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  2. Also I have no idea what the creatures he is facing would be in D&D. They certainly aren't iconic monsters like the lizardmen on the original PHB. This also seems to be a problem with the later artists - they seem to just draw fantasy pictures without tying them into the game.

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  3. I agree that the change in covers for the PHB weren't an improvement in most respects, but as a kid the revamped cover of the DMG really worked for me. The unlocked door and key motif really spoke to me.

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  5. The unlocked door and key motif really spoke to me.

    I actually agree. Much as I love the Sutherland Efreeti-and-the-Harem-Girl cover to the 1e DMG, it's not quite as evocative of the content of the book as the Easley revised cover is.

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  6. Truth be told, I always liked this cover, and that is due to it being the one on my first PHB. For me, it is this cover that I think of when I think old school. The nostalgia of it strikes me in the right place.

    Yes, nostalgia is a blanket that can suffocate you, but this is a blanket that comforts me. Hell, I still have the action figure of this guy.

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  7. Also, for me, I like this logo and that is due in very large part to the ampersand. The font is not a good choice, but the over all feel and tone of the logo is actually very good. I like it far better than the logos we have seen sense then.

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  8. Interesting comment about the Fiend Folio, but not surprising. TSR never seemed to like anything that came out of TSR-UK. I still like the Fiend Folio though and I am fond of the U and UK series of modules. The monsters of the Fiend Folio always seems more interesting and less plastic than those of other monster tomes...

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  9. My big plea for the Fiend Folio was the illustration for the Githyanki. I don't remember much of their description, but I seized that image and used it for monsters in my Elric, CoC and Flash Gordon campaigns, and got positive reactions in each case. think that's pretty much what a monster manual should be.

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  10. TSR never seemed to like anything that came out of TSR-UK.

    As I understand it, part of that had little to do with the products of TSR UK and much more to do with lots of internal British RPG scene politics and infighting. As I recall (and I might be wrong), TSR was at one point slated to buy Games Workshop and use it as a UK-based design studio/distributor, but the deal fell through for various reasons and the aftermath created some bad blood of long years.

    For myself, I find the Fiend Folio terribly uneven, with some excellent entries and some really wretched ones. The U-series of modules were quite superb, while the UK-series was a bit off-kilter overall, at least from the perspective of standard D&D sensibilities.

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  11. nteresting comment about the Fiend Folio, but not surprising. TSR never seemed to like anything that came out of TSR-UK. I still like the Fiend Folio though and I am fond of the U and UK series of modules. The monsters of the Fiend Folio always seems more interesting and less plastic than those of other monster tomes...

    For me it is the Fiend Folio that I often found the most inspiration in when I was a young DM. Hell, White Dwarf for me was the one gaming magazine to read, and I preferred it over Dragon. Anyway, yes there were some rough patches in the Folio but it always seemed that there was some attempt to create truly fantastic creatures.

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  12. FYI James, the earlier printings of the PHB had a large and prominent "logo" (or at least font ;) ) for AD&D (vs. the later yellow banners in the corners): see http://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/setpages/setscans/phb2nd.html as well as http://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/setpages/setscans/mm3rd.html for the MM (the DMG always had the banner).

    Allan.

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  13. Allan,

    Thanks for those links. I never owned the earliest printings of the 1e books and still don't, despite my best efforts to acquire them. I still find it fascinating that the AD&D logo looks identical to the OD&D one and that the logos were dropped from later printings. I'm honestly at a loss for why this would be the case. At the very least, I think it's fair to say that, when 1e was published, D&D was still not as self-consciously a brand in the way it clearly was in the 2e and later eras.

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  14. I understand your critique, but I just get goosebumps when I look at the revised 1e PHB cover. The logo, the oil (or guache) paint strokes, the logo, all that was AD&D to me as a kid. That said "fantasy" to me. When I look at that cover I remember that was a game older, smart kids played, and there was a whole mystique in my mind about what went on around the table during those games.

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  15. When I look at that cover I remember that was a game older, smart kids played, and there was a whole mystique in my mind about what went on around the table during those games.

    I certainly can't argue with this. The thing is that it's not an either/or situation. The revised PHB cover was a transitional one. TSR was trying to update D&D's image, but the "culture" of the game was still (largely) the same as it was during the time of the Trampier cover. Your experiences remind me of my own a few years prior, right down to the "mystique" associated with the smarter, older kids playing it. I'd argue that it wasn't until 2e that the older culture was being shut out and disenfranchised in a systematic way.

    As artwork, though, I still find the revised PHB cover inadequate (the MM too, but the DMG is another story).

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