Thursday, July 3, 2008

A New Beginning

In 1996, TSR was unable to pay its printer, meaning that, if something were not done, Dungeons & Dragons would go out of print for the first time in 22 years. For nearly six months in late 1996 and early 1997, TSR released no new products in any of its many game lines. Even publication of Dragon and Dungeon magazines ceased for time. For all intents and purposes, it was a gamer Apocalypse.

On April 10, 1997, Wizards of the Coast of Renton, Washington acquired TSR and its properties, saving D&D from extinction. However, it was clear that the game had suffered both creatively and financially during the latter days of TSR. WotC decided that the best course of action was to release a new edition of the game -- a fresh start to herald a new beginning for the venerable fantasy RPG. That new beginning happened in August 2000, with the release of Third Edition. "Advanced" was dropped from the title, but it was clear that 3e was primarily a successor to Gygax's AD&D line begun in 1977 rather than the D&D line inaugurated by Tom Moldvay in 1981 (or earlier, depending on where you wish to draw your lines of creative demarcation).

A new beginning required a new look and 3e's graphic design was very different both from 1e and from 2e. The Player's Handbook, shown below, sports a faux "tome" cover, lacking a cover illustration at all. The clear intention here was to make the PHB (and all the other 3e books) look as if they were gilded, jewel-encrusted librams of great value.


In 2003, the infamous v.3.5 revision was released, with a slight variation on the original 3e cover. My friends called it the "super pimp" edition, because the faux gilding and jewel-work was even more prominent and elaborate.


I'm going to take liberties and treat the 3e and v.3.5 covers as a single cover for the purposes of the present discussion. The differences between them are more of degree than of kind. Both have the same basic appearance and attempt to evoke the same feel from viewers. More to the point, I'm not sure the few differences are enough to justify two separate entries, so I hope I can be forgiven this one indulgence.

I'm really of two minds about these covers. On the one hand, they're rather garish and more than a little silly. In general, I'm not at all fond of faux antique veneers. At their best, they make you wonder why you should choose a faux antique when you can just as easily get a real one. At their worst, they come off as kitschy and the 3e PHB covers certainly do veer toward kitsch. On the other hand, I can completely understand the thought processes that lead WotC to choose this as the cover design for the books. They wanted covers that made D&D "special" again and that conjured up images of spell books and grimoires.

This was, after all, the relaunch of the first RPG ever created and I have no doubt that WotC wanted to give the game not just some spit and polish, but also a look that expressed something of what D&D meant to them and to the hobby. WotC may have been richer than God thanks to the success of Magic: The Gathering, but their experience as a RPG publisher was limited and certainly not anywhere near as successful as even TSR had been in its dying days. Thus, the 3e covers, goofy as they definitely are, were likely born out of love and respect for the game they had inherited and no small amount of awe at what they were undertaking. The WotC of 1999 and 2000 was simply a different beast from the one that emerged in later years, or so it seems to me. They may have hit it big, but they were still gamers, through and through, and they were geeked to high heaven to be captaining the hobby's flagship.

So, for me, the 3e era covers are a wash. I don't hate them but neither do I love them. The faux tome concept was silly even when Ars Magica did it back in its own third edition. Nevertheless, there's a certain rough charm to it; these covers are the kinds of things a twelve year-old would, in his naive enthusiasm for the game, think were really cool. I have a hard time faulting WotC for giving in to such enthusiasm themselves, even if there should have been an adult somewhere telling their art department that this probably wasn't the best look for the game.

A few sour notes before closing. Both covers have the new Dungeons & Dragons logo and, not only is the logo rather uninspired, it also seems to me to yet more evidence of the treatment of the game as primarily a brand rather than an entertainment. This approach is not unique to WotC, so I don't mean to single them out. However, in light of their eventual acquisition by Hasbro, it is nevertheless ominous. Both covers also have the words "Core Rulebook I" and that too bothers me. As it turns out, I don't believe any 3e books other than the Big Three ever used the words "core rulebook" to describe themselves (though I could be wrong), but it set the stage for what would reach full flower with 4e: the serialization of the D&D rules and the elevation of supplementary material to necessary components for playing the game.

13 comments:

  1. Don't forget that the World of Greyhawk boxed set and the books inside had that same "faux tome" cover effect, complete with gems and embossed leather.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Don't forget that the World of Greyhawk boxed set and the books inside had that same "faux tome" cover effect, complete with gems and embossed leather.

    You're right! I'd totally forgotten about those, because I always preferred the earlier Folio version over the boxed set.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Personally, this is my least favorite cover scheme, because it's the least imagination-stimulating of all.

    At least with the 2.5 cover you could wonder what Gooftard the Barbarian was busting that door down to get it. That's not much, but it's something.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Will,

    That's a very good point and I can't really disagree with it. I think my own love/hate relationship with the 3e cover style has to do with my excitement at seeing D&D "saved" by WotC after it nearly died in the late 90s. That I eventually realized it might have been better off had it died makes my initial excitement all the more bitter.

    ReplyDelete
  5. So shouldn't scrapbooking be a required feat for Magic Users if all tomes look like that?

    I agree Will. The Player's Option PHB at least had something going on, and is better than the 3.0/3.5 books.

    ReplyDelete
  6. in fairness to the conceit of the design, there was a period when some high-status books actually were decorated somewhat like that - especially books related to law and power: deeds, domesday texts, high court charters, that sort of thing. Those original books, when you see them up close, look great. Better than these sloppily printed, perfect-bound softcovers, anyway.

    Given the gonzo economy assumed in D&D from the earliest days, those few examples of excitable bindery might well be common for higher-level D&D PCs, and if a magic user's status isn't bound up in his spell books, where is it?

    ReplyDelete
  7. It would be odd not to cover (pun intended) these two at the same time.

    I recognized enough of classic D&D whilst reading the 3e PHB to take the claim that they drew inspiration from both the advanced and classic lines. So, dropping the “A” made sense to me.

    Well, except for the fact that the game was—despite some simplification—overly complex. Plus they fact that they suffixed the name sans-“Advanced” with “third edition”.

    But as for the covers themselves, I have to disagree. These covers were a bad idea all around. If you see it as resurrecting the game, you should go all out. This was not going all out. This was not even going all out and falling short. It looks to me like, whoever was in charge of it, was so afraid of messing it up that they didn’t even try.

    ReplyDelete
  8. If you see it as resurrecting the game, you should go all out. This was not going all out. This was not even going all out and falling short. It looks to me like, whoever was in charge of it, was so afraid of messing it up that they didn’t even try.

    From what we now know, you're not too far off from the truth. I recall that Monte Cook and others have said that WotC initially wanted to be a lot bolder in 3e but pulled back out of concern that they'd alienate the game's core audience and that they'd kill the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg.

    Personally, I prefer that new editions be timid and their designers worry about changing too much. Otherwise, you wind up with 4e.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Well, game design and cover design are different things entirely.

    As for game mechanics, I think it’s wise to stick with the proven rather than believe that you can come up with a whole system full of good innovations that have lain undiscovered for decades. It was smart of the 3e designers to build off of what came before.

    But with cover design...wait. I take it back. They aren’t different. A smart art director would have learned from the lessons of cover designs for past RPG products. (And, like the 3e game designers, looked beyond just previous editions of D&D.) The 3e covers leveraged none of the lessons of the past.

    I forgot to mention one aspect of the 3e covers that I didn’t think was a terrible idea: Books intended for players tended to follow the brown look of the PHB whilst books intended for DMs followed the blue look of the DMG.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I can't belive you didn't mention that the gems on the 3e PHB have little reflections in them of the place where they were photographed (and maybe the person taking the picture, I forget)... stare hard into the gems!

    ReplyDelete
  11. The thing I hate about the 3E 'tomes' is the sloppy execution.

    They all look like something a 12 year old could do with a Michaels gift certificate.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I can't belive you didn't mention that the gems on the 3e PHB have little reflections in them of the place where they were photographed (and maybe the person taking the picture, I forget)... stare hard into the gems!

    You're right! I'd totally forgotten about that.

    ReplyDelete
  13. "...the person taking the picture, I forget..."

    Hah! I always thought that they were 3D renderings done by some intern...

    But to be fair, if I were a 12 year old I would TOTALLY dig those covers.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.