Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Dissenting View

My series on the various covers of the Players Handbook was well received. More than one reader suggested I extend the series to include the Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual as well and I've decided to take up that suggestion today, beginning with the 1e DMG.

The cover is illustrated by David C. Sutherland III and, like the cover of the 1e PHB, is an icon of the early days of the hobby. It's also a cover I don't particularly like. I realize that some would consider such a view heresy, but I'm prepared to stand by my opinion. Before we get to that, though, I'd first like to take some time to examine the cover image itself, if only to lay the groundwork for my critique later in the post.

According to the description on page 2, the cover depicts "an encounter between three adventurers and an efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire. The fabled City of Brass can be seen floating over a flame-swept sea of oil." As a kid, I actually found the portion of the wrap-around cover on the back, which depicted the City of Brass itself, much more evocative than the front cover. The gleaming City of Brass, with its spires and minarets, not to mention demon-faced gates, screamed "Adventure!" to me. Looking at that galley floating on a sea of burning oil, I couldn't help but feel the need to include it in my campaign. I wanted to send my friends' characters there and so I did. (As an aside, it's interesting to note that the designers of 4e have often complained that earlier conceptions of the Elemental Planes were inhospitable to adventuring, thus necessitating the changes made in the new edition. I can't help but wonder if they ever looked at the cover of the 1e DMG).

By contrast, the front cover is rather uninspiring to me. You have the figure of the efreet, who looks rather stiff and statue-like, almost robotic. I'll confess that his face unnerved me a bit as a younger person, but otherwise he does not appear very menacing, even to the poor harem girl -- I'm sorry: "adventurer" -- he has in his clutches. The efreet also looks much too substantial for my liking. I'll grant that this is a purely subjective thing, but I've always imagined the efreeti to be creatures of living fire, half-formed into humanoid shape. They crackle and spark and are "fuzzy" around the edges, billowing clouds of black smoke as they interact with their environment. The guy on the cover could just as easily be a demon or devil or some other extraplanar being. Even leaving that aside, there's no question that he doesn't look "alive" enough to be a convincing threat.

Confronting the efreet are three adventurers. I've already mentioned the harem girl and she bugs me. Leaving aside the goofiness of her pose, she just seems too ... ordinary to me. I can't quite explain it. I obviously have no problems with the use of archetypal characters and the Harem Girl is a powerful archetype. I'm also not one to dwell on the portrayal of women in traditional fantasy art, so that's not what's bugging me. I guess I simply expect her to be more interesting, which is to say, more than just a stock character, particularly since she's not doing anything significant in the illustration. I like her companions more, particularly the fighter. Mind you, I'm a sucker for plausible armor and weaponry. The same goes for the magic-user, who seems to have lost his pointy hat in the melee against the efreet. Those two are also stock characters and yet somehow they manage to be more than that. Perhaps it's the little touches, like the missing hat and the shield device, that make them so.

All in all, I just don't like the front cover. Compared to the back portion, it comes across as too static and, worse yet, pro forma. There's not much of a story there, at least for me. Compare it to Trampier's Players Handbook cover and there's a world of difference in my opinion. Even the way Sutherland frames the front, it looks far less inspired than Tramp's. Sutherland's painting puts the archway on the back portion of the wrap-around, which leaves the front in a dark, almost featureless setting, which only serves to make the back portion look even more evocative. My only beef with the back cover is that there's no entrée for your player characters. It's just a landscape -- a marvelous, fantastical one, to be sure -- but it doesn't include even a single person in it. Even the boat on the sea of oil is lacking in occupants.

All of my criticisms to the side, the bigger issue is that I'm not sure the cover suits the content of the Dungeon Masters Guide very well. The DMG was supposed to be the one volume that was the sole purview of the DM. Gary Gygax makes this clear several times throughout the book itself. Thus, the content of the book was supposed to be secret, in the broad sense of the term. A better cover would have reflected this element of its character, making the DMG the gaming equivalent of some forbidden tome of ancient lore. Instead, we get a rather static fight scene whose context is shunted to the back cover rather than at the forefront where it should have been.

It's a pity really, because I like Sutherland's art most of the time and I want to like this piece more than I do. Granted, compared to Trampier's PHB cover, almost anything would look uninspired, but the DMG cover doesn't suffer just by comparison. To my mind, it's a flawed piece and certainly one that doesn't serve its purpose very well. The best I can say of it is that I don't hate it; I even have a certain fondness for it, although it's born mostly of nostalgia. I have nothing against nostalgia, of course. I simply think it's an insufficient basis for judging a piece of art "good," which is why the cover of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide earns a B- at best (more likely a C+).

14 comments:

  1. I liked how the shield from the DMG cover shows up again on the cover of the Guide to the World of Greyhawk, one of the two books from the original WoG boxed set. It's on the pennant of the knight.

    It appears to be a variant on the heraldry of the town of Fax on the Wild Coast. Perhaps a cadet branch of the ruling house or something. I always liked little pieces of consistent trivia like that.

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  2. It's just kind of weak compositionally, which is especially apparent in the reduced version of it we see here in thumbnail form. The two un-grabbed adventurers kind of disappear into the efreet's shins. How hard would it have been to move them into some of that pointlessly empty black space on the sides so we could see them clearly?

    Oh well. DCS blows hot and cold. He did some great, great stuff and some weak stuff, and this is one of his weaker pieces. Unlike Tramp, who apparently was incapable of drawing or painting anything that was not PURE AWESOME.

    Not everybody can be Tramp. :)

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  3. Tramp really never hit a sour note, did he? It's a pity he never received his due and even more of a pity that he's left the hobby entirely.

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  4. I also found this a rather unattractive cover, and it got a general thumbs down from me until I realised that the cover actually was a "wrap around" scene. The left side of the composition is certainly more evocative than the right, but as a complete composition the very static and simple right side of the image contrasts interestingly with the busier left side side.

    I can't say I particularly like it as a DMG cover, but as a complete composition I find it quite interesting.

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  5. can you post an image of the back? I haven't looked a 1st ed DMG in awhile and am having a hard time picturing the back cover. The front never did anything for me either.

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  6. You can also view the full image of the painting, sans logos/etc. at http://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/museum/dmg.html and at http://hometown.aol.com/sellbakken/ for even better pics ...Allan.

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  7. Compared to the 1983 cover (I'm afraid the artist escapes me), the 1979 DCS cover is pretty weak sauce.

    Static efreet against a black background vs. a green robed magus with a key around his neck holding open the vault doors to mystery. I know which cover picture says 'distilled essence of being the DM' to me.

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  8. Being generous and considering the full painting from grodog's link, I think the 1E DMG does have something to say about DMing.

    The front cover starts with an encounter. Perhaps a combat is just about to start after a failed parley. Here, the monster is the focus, not the players, and it would seem to be an intelligent and nasty monster -- one that would require more DM participation. And it's not just some typical DM-as-wizard or DM-as-dragon treatment. The DM is not the sage watching the action, he's a vile power here to eat the party's lunch, and maybe the party too.

    Even with the front cover seen as just a monster in a room, when you travel to the back cover of the book (through the book itself, once you're done reading it?) you find that the fight was just the prelude to a an exotic world to discover and explore. And turning the PHB's hack/slash/loot into a world of adventure is very much the essence of DMing.

    Yeah, it takes a generous interpretation, that's the best I can do. Still, I'll take it over the dude with the doors any day. Who is the dude, where are the doors, really? I don't care. I want the art to show me something real from the game world -- I don't want something that merely riffs off the role the book fulfills as a metagame object.

    If nothing else we get a nice picture of the elemental plane of fire, somewhere in game that the characters can actually visit, not a generic exhibition of an artistic style.

    And curiously, there is no dungeon or dragon in sight. Take that, brand enforcement.

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  9. Now that I see the full illo from grodog's link, I have to say I like it even less. As a single artwork, the only sense I can make of it is that the efreet et al are a painting on the interior wall surface next to the window - as a graffito it makes sense that there's no context - not even a ground plane for the characters to stand on. The harem girl is swimming, mysteriously unburned, and, in the words of Kenny Everett, has suffered the strange danger response of having all her clothes fall off (I think that's what that blue squiggle is meant to represent). The fighter and MU seem to be doing disco moves more than dramatic fighting poses. I even dislike the pastiche Oriental city, which I never read as the City of Brass at all (one of my favourite settings, under other circumstances). Nice six pack, though, and great phallic sword.

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  10. FWIW, I read the caption and turned the book over when I first bought it in 1979, so I definitely made the connection between the CoB and the Efreet. I like the perspective of the balcony, too: to me the back cover in particular suggests that the combat tableau, and the reader/viewer, are both in another floating city, or perhaps on a volcanic island/mountain (attached to the obsidian spikey reef near the foundering ship), overlooking the fiery seas below.

    In terms of the flatness of the front cover image, sure, that's a bit problematic, but once you do add in the logos, the image fits cleanly and isn't much-over-written by the cover text (which happens moreso in both the PHB and MM covers, esp. once you add in the yellow banners). Then, the image's flatness (it does look like a bit like fresco, doesn't it?) doesn't stand out as much. Also, note the stairs the are moving downward, below the balcony rail with it's lizard: suggestive of a descent/dungeon to me.

    As for the blonde, she's clearly the thief who failed a backstab attempt, and is about to be squeezed in two, eh? :D I also like the funky smoke-face rising from the golden dome. I guess the image offers a lot of evocative detail to me, which makes me want to explore and define it further, which resonates with the role of the DM.

    @ Joe: good catch on the the shield heraldry!---I hadn't noticed that before, and I've studied the GH box set cover-image heraldry quite a bit over the years, trying to fit it into the schema of the

    Allan.

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  11. And curiously, there is no dungeon or dragon in sight. Take that, brand enforcement.

    Yes, it's interesting to remember that the name "Dungeons & Dragons" was almost accidental. I believe that Gary Gygax claimed that the name was selective out of many possible ones by his daughter, who simply liked the sound of it. But the game itself was intended to be much broader than what those two words evoked and I think the game was better for it.

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  12. I’ve always felt much the same about this cover. The back is fantastic. The front is...meh.

    You have the figure of the efreet, who looks rather stiff and statue-like, almost robotic.

    Ironically, this description actually improves the piece for me. ^_^ If the efreet comes across as a sort of giant automoton—a monstrous flesh golem, but with powers and intelligence beyond any golem—that works for me almost as well as the “fuzzy” efreet you describe.

    But on it’s own, it never really made me start looking for my dice bag. (Not until I’d thoroughly digested the contents of the book so that it worked merely by being a symbol of that content.)

    I don’t have a problem with the cover art not reflecting “DMG”. While that can be done to good effect, I think it is unnecessarily limiting. I’d just want the cover to reflect the game rather than the specific book.

    Could this cover reflect the game more? Yeah, but I think it does a decent enough job in that regard.

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  13. Hey James,

    I ran across your Blog last week and I've been going through your (quite expansive) archives of older post, loving every second of it. I may not be anything remotely close to a Grognard (I started playing in '97 with the revised second edition) but I really appreciate the insights into D&D that you provide.

    More to the point of this post, while looking for a higher-res picture of the 1st edition DMG, I came across the following image from Necromancer Game's City of Brass book http://www.rampantgames.com/blog/uploaded_images/cob_cover-728615.jpg

    I felt it was an interesting update to the original piece: much more dynamic and it places the City of Brass in a much more prominent position.

    Anyway, keep up with the good work. You certainly have me hooked.

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  14. I recommend the HackMasterized version of the cover for their "4th ed" GMG. It really has some new life!

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