Friday, July 4, 2008

Not Your Father's PHB

And so we reach the end of my retrospective about the covers of the D&D Players Handbook with this entry. Before diving in to talk specifically about the cover of the 4e version, a prediction: this entry will receive even more comments than my entry on the 2e PHB. Why do I say that? Well, I've looked at the stats for this blog and it's pretty widely read, with traffic coming a bunch of other gaming forums and blogs. When I restrict myself to musing about old school stuff exclusively, the comments are (generally) sober and considered and written by fellow grognards and those who understand the old school way. When I veer off into newer games, especially when I speak critically of them and their approach, I get even more visitors and even more comments, many of them not so sober or considered and often not written by grognards or those who understand our perspective. This happened once before rather spectacularly and I had to restrict comments only to registered users. That hasn't stopped trolling from time to time, but it certainly has slowed the deluge.

Now I'm tackling the brand spanking new 4e PHB and I don't think I'm ruining anyone's anticipation by saying upfront that I dislike its art and graphic design a great deal, not to mention the game itself. Passions regarding 4e are running very high at the moment and, as others have noted, you can scarcely voice a negative opinion about the game without its fans descending upon you to teach you the error of your ways. I would frankly be amazed if I don't get several such fans posting here, but perhaps I flatter myself in thinking anyone cares about my opinion. To such people, let me say now: I don't hate 4e -- and I certainly don't hate 4e fans. I'm actually almost at the point where I don't care much about 4e at all, except insofar as it pertains to my continuing researches into the history and traditions of roleplaying games. Almost.

What I do hate, though, and what I do not wish to see in my comments is the suggestion that, because I don't want to play 4e and think it has little to nothing to do with the game Gygax and Arneson created almost 35 years ago, I'm some kind of mental defective or an old fogey living out my midlife crisis by returning to OD&D. Play those cards and your comments will be deleted and I'll do my level best to ensure you never post here again on any topic. I don't go around to the forums and blogs of 4e fans and make a spectacle of myself, because I believe in common courtesy and respect. I expect the same behavior here. Disagree with me if you wish, but stay on topic and don't resort to insults, invective, or dime store psychologizing when doing so. Capisce?

And now the cover to the 4e Player's Handbook


I don't loathe it the same way I loathe the 2.5e PHB, but that's small praise. Illustrated by Wayne Reynolds, the piece is a good approximation of everything I hate about modern fantasy. First, there are the focus characters themselves. The one on the left is a dragonborn, presumably a fighter, wearing ludicrous (though not spiky -- a blessing) armor and wielding an equally ludicrous sword right out of Final Fantasy or perhaps Exalted. I don't actually have a huge problem with the dragonborn in theory; a draconic PC race seems a natural evolution of D&D tropes. However, I do object to their being on the cover of the PHB, as it suggests to me that WotC wishes to make the race a highlight of 4e rather than one option among many. It's another nail in the coffin of pulp fantasy. The figure on the right is your typical "powerful" female figure, which is geekspeak for "attractive and possibly bisexual woman who for some reason is inexplicably attracted to dorks like me." While her eye liner recalls the female magic-user on the cover of the Moldvay Basic set (and even now I know at least one 4e fan out there is claiming that it's a loving homage to that 1981 cover), her pose reminds me of the barbarian on the 2.5e PHB, which is to say, really absurd.

I give big props to Reynolds for the fact that the scene takes place in an underground location of some sort, complete with stalactites. This is essential in my opinion, so bonus points here. I also like the fact that, besides the two central figures, we also see that they have companions. In the background, shrouded somewhat in mist, you can see their buddies, a dwarf and an elf (or is it an eladrin). D&D is not a game about lone heroes, but adventuring parties. So, again, props to Reynolds for showing this. Of course, if you look at the dwarf and the elfladrin, you notice something. Judging by his gear, the dwarf looks like he's probably a fighter, just like the dragonborn. And the pointy-eared guy? Staff in hand and dressed in a robe -- he must be a wizard, just like Eye Liner Chick. Call me paranoid -- no, don't -- but it looks to me as if the piece is almost saying, "See those lamers back in the shadows? Sure, you can play those guys if you want, but wouldn't you rather be one of the cool and/or sexy kids?"

Dungeons & Dragons again gets a new logo, once more with a dragon as the ampersand, but I don't mind this one. I certainly like it much better than the 3e logo, which succeeded at the difficult task of simultaneously looking too professional and too amateurish at the same time. The new logo has no such ambiguity; it's a slick, professional brand-identifying logo. I feel dirty for liking it, but I do. Whoever designed that logo did a fine job in my opinion. I'm far less happy about the subtitle to the book "Arcane, Divine, and Martial Heroes." Leaving aside my issue with the inappropriateness of the word "heroes," the very fact that the PHB is admitting to its limited scope rubs me the wrong way. The 4e PHB is clearly intended to have supplements. Sure, most RPGs over the years have had supplements, but, until the late 80s anyway, they at least made some show of being complete from the get-go. We already know the 4e business plan involves new PHBs, DMGs, and Monster Manuals every year, on the model of card game expansions. Call me old fashioned -- wait, don't -- but I don't like to be reminded right upfront that your company plans to milk me with a stream of supplements until you hit the reset button and start it all over again.

The 4e Player's Handbook also has an illustration on the back cover by Rob Alexander. It depicts a floating castle but isn't connected in any way to the front cover illustration. I don't really have much to say about it, except that it's a bit too high fantasy for my tastes, recalling the Dragonlance modules of old. Perhaps that's intentional, given the continued popularity of that setting. In any case, I will say that I do appreciate that there is back cover art at all rather than just promotional text.

Despite all of the foregoing, I'd like to say that I think the 4e cover actually succeeds in doing what it sets out to do: sell the new D&D. My reading of 4e -- yes, I have read it; no, I won't be reviewing it formally -- is that it's an entirely new game, one that's about as strongly connected to OD&D as just about any random fantasy game produced in the last decade is or, in other words, not very much at all. 4e, of course, has the D&D brand name and access to a few bits and bobs of exclusive IP (like beholders and mind flayers and -- paging the estate of A.E. Van Vogt -- displacer beasts), but it simply doesn't feel any more like Gary's game than does Exalted or Final Fantasy or, yes, World of Warcraft. I don't mean that as a criticism exactly. I have come to see that, for the vast majority of fantasy fans nowadays, the traditions of pulp fantasy mean nothing. If they know Conan at all, it's through the execrable Schwarzenegger movies rather than through the works of Howard and Fafhrd is just an unpronounceable name rather than an icon of the genre.

Given that, it makes a certain amount of sense to reinvent the franchise -- D&D Extreme! -- rather than to stay true to hoary old tropes and archetypes. But no reinvention, however good, will ever be D&D to me. It may be good in its own right and indeed may even be better in some sense than its theoretical inspiration; I'm simply in no position to judge one way or the other. I can only say that, for me, D&D has never been just a rules set. To me, D&D is a love letter to pulp fantasy and to the spirit of reckless creativity seen in the wargames hobby of the late 60s and early 70s. It's of a certain time and place, even if that time and place can still be enjoyed today. I'm not of the opinion that all ideas are infinitely malleable and can be "updated" or made more "relevant" without destroying their essences.

D&D
is such an idea. For a book dedicated to the memory of the Dungeon Master, I doubt a single polysyllable of High Gygaxian verbiage remains between the covers of the 4e PHB, let alone the spirit that animated them. This is D&D only in the most equivocal, corporate sense. I haven't yet played the game, though I hope to, but I think it unlikely my opinion on this particular point will change. I have no problem with the existence of new fantasy RPGs. Heck, I wrote a couple of supplements for Exalted and I appreciate its take on the genre. But Exalted doesn't claim to be D&D or an inheritor of the Gygaxian mantle. It's a different game and knows it. 4e doesn't seem to realize it's a different game entirely. Reading the PHB, I kept wanting to shake someone and say, "Get your own damned game."

4e's only been out a month. With time, I'm sure it'll become just another fantasy RPG in my mind, but then that's what it is.

22 comments:

  1. Man, I was with you 100% up until you took a swipe at the Conan flicks! The first one has many virtues. Being true to Howard is not among them, I'll grant. But I still think it's one of the few fantasy films with actual gravitas.

    The second movie sucked, but it sucked in all the right ways.

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  2. But I still think it's one of the few fantasy films with actual gravitas.

    I actually agree with you about this. I think the first movie is pretty good if you don't think of it as a Conan movie but as a generic sword & sorcery film.

    Ironic.

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  3. "What I do hate, though, and what I do not wish to see in my comments is the suggestion that, because I don't want to play 4e and think it has little to nothing to do with the game Gygax and Arneson created almost 35 years ago, I'm some kind of mental defective or an old fogey living out my midlife crisis by returning to OD&D."

    At least I don't have to deal with that, being only 30.

    I wonder how many other people out there started playing as kids in the 90s and fell in love with older versions of D&D later? It definitely doesn't seem to be the rule...

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  4. Speaking of which, it's time to depart for my July 4th Labyrinth Lord session. :)

    Later.

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  5. At least I don't have to deal with that, being only 30.

    I turn 39 in October, so I don't think I truly qualify as an old fogey -- at least not more than I did when I was 20.

    I wonder how many other people out there started playing as kids in the 90s and fell in love with older versions of D&D later? It definitely doesn't seem to be the rule...

    I don't know. I've met quite a few of them myself, but then I hang out in places where you'd expect to meet such people. I'd say they're rare, but no rarer than guys who gamed in the 70s and upgrade to the newest edition every time one is released.

    Anyway, enjoy LL. It's a great game.

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  6. Conan the Barbarian is perhaps the only fantasy film I have ever rated as actually good, rather than just vaguely entertaining. Whilst it doesn't really have a whole lot to do with Robert E. Howard's Conan, it was definitely my gateway into Conan in general. Also, the soundtrack is awesome...

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  7. If I had to guess, given it's wearing plate, that the Dragonborn on the cover is a Paladin (Leader). The woman is likely the Wizard (Controller), the Dwarf a fighter (Defender) and the Eladrin possibly a Warlock (Striker) to round out the party balance.

    I like Wayne Reynolds stuff - his work on the Paizo iconics stands out for me as being both evocative and interesting. I've also seen a couple Osprey pieces he's done, and while they're not Angus McBride, they show he has an understanding of historical appearance and human anatomy.

    That said, I share some of your feelings. This cover owes more to the advances in video game guides than anything else (something reinforced by the layout inside). It says, to me, that this is a D&D game derived from other D&D games - not from primary sources.

    While I found the grimoire appearance of 3e to be kind of silly, at least it suggested some tie to the past.

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  8. I think the logo and layout of this cover are both very, very good.

    I think Wizards has other pieces that would have served better as the cover art for the PHB.

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  9. A couple of comments on a couple of points.

    First off, I'd say that my experience re: criticizing 4E is pretty much the opposite of yours, I've found that if you say anything remotely positive about it, you get jumped on by a pack of rabid 3.X fanboys who insist that 4E isn't a proper roleplaying game because it doesn't have rules for tying knots.

    Secondly, I actually rather like the Dragonborn on the cover, because it strikes me as drawing a line, not between 4E and its origins (which, as you observe yourself, it's always been a pretty damned long way away from anyway), but between 4E and the typical "Tolkeinesque" image of "D&D Fantasy".

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  10. It says, to me, that this is a D&D game derived from other D&D games - not from primary sources.

    I think that's exactly right. More than anything else, what irks me about 4e is that it's the first edition that doesn't look back to the fantasy literature that inspired OD&D but rather to other fantasy material inspired by OD&D and its descendants. 4e is Ouroboros edition of D&D and that sits poorly with me.

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  11. First off, I'd say that my experience re: criticizing 4E is pretty much the opposite of yours, I've found that if you say anything remotely positive about it, you get jumped on by a pack of rabid 3.X fanboys who insist that 4E isn't a proper roleplaying game because it doesn't have rules for tying knots.

    I'm not discounting that at all, but then I don't have anything good to say about 4e :)

    More seriously, I do find the phenomenon of the 3e "grognard" befuddling. On the one hand, I sympathize with their plight. On the other hand, I find it more than a little strange to see anyone hold up 3e as the One True Edition of the game. I appreciate many things about 3e, it's true, but it's as far mechanically from OD&D as 4e is thematically.

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  12. "I wonder how many other people out there started playing as kids in the 90s and fell in love with older versions of D&D later? It definitely doesn't seem to be the rule..."

    I started with Moldvay Basic in 1981, moved shortly thereafter to AD&D 1e, updated with each edition up through 3.0, and have chronologically regressed since then, finally ending up with OD&D. At this point in my gaming life, I can't see running any edition of D&D other than the original or Moldvay/Cook B/X.

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  13. I think this is the best PHB cover since the original AD&D PHB - even with the dragonborn thing. Make the 2 front characters humans and it would be a very strong piece.

    - Patrick

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  14. this is a D&D game derived from other D&D games - not from primary sources.

    I have to think more before I can really put together a response to this, but it strikes me as a very complex idea, and one where the pros and cons aren't obvious. I like Leonardo's "study nature and be a son of nature - if you study art you'll be a grandson of nature" as much as the next man, but I don't quite know where the nature is, here, or what the valid list of sources is (even though James has had a fair go at laying out his answer to that question, I'm not sure he's laid it to rest).

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  15. More seriously, I do find the phenomenon of the 3e "grognard" befuddling. On the one hand, I sympathize with their plight. On the other hand, I find it more than a little strange to see anyone hold up 3e as the One True Edition of the game. I appreciate many things about 3e, it's true, but it's as far mechanically from OD&D as 4e is thematically.

    I think what it comes down to is that everybody has a different idea of what they think D&D is "about". D&D has obviously changed a lot since its inception back in The Day, and it's pretty easy to view the history of the game as a gradual "evolution" towards whichever version you happen to favour.

    Most 3.X "Grognards" view the game as having evolved naturally from the "limited" format of early editions (a small number of classes, rules primarily focused on combat and adventuring) to a more "versatile" format for later editons (starting with things like the Players' Option books in 2nd Ed and culminating in 3.X's plethora of build options). For such people it's perfectly natural to view 3.X as what the game "should have been all along". 3.X is almost certainly the game that some people always thought D&D should have been, so it's natural to view it as the "one true edition".

    Of course, the same is true of pretty much any RPG ever published. If I was feeling glib I'd suggest that the entire RPG insustry is basically a big set of D&D houserules.

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  16. enjoyed the PHB series of posts. So are the DMGs next?

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  17. FWIW I've given it a bit more thought, and run up against an impasse - that is, I don't think I've solved the problem of what D&D ought to be. My ramblings can be seen over here: http://richardthinks.livejournal.com/79585.html
    It's meant in a friendly way: I'm definitely not accusing anyone of being a fogey.

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  18. On the dragonborn guy on the cover, two words:

    Dungeon Furnace

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  19. I think this is the best PHB cover since the original AD&D PHB

    I am reluctantly inclined to agree. As a cover, it does what it needs to do very well, far better than any cover since 1e. Unfortunately, what it sets out to do is something I have utterly no interest in.

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  20. So are the DMGs next?

    I hadn't intended to do them, but perhaps I should, if only to shock people with my belief that the revised 1e DMG cover is better than the original one.

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  21. Dungeon Furnace

    Is this a reference to something I'm not getting?

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  22. "I wonder how many other people out there started playing as kids in the 90s and fell in love with older versions of D&D later? It definitely doesn't seem to be the rule..."

    Well, in high school (1995-1999) I went from running 2nd edition FR with Skills & Powers to a mix of 1st and 2nd edition in Greyhawk. And my gaming of late has been no less than 3 little book OD&D. Second edition just wasn't all that well liked, and most of the people I found interesting in online communities extolled the virtues of the 1st edition rulebooks. Later, getting into OD&D really let me discover what is great about the game -- which I didn't find in either 3rd edition or in Castles & Crusades -- the pure joy of the dungeon adventure.

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