Wednesday, July 2, 2008

v.2.5 PHB

In 1995, just two years before it would be acquired by Wizards of the Coast, TSR released revised editions of the 2nd Edition rulebooks, in addition to a series of "Option" books (three for players and one for the DM). In recent years, it's been fashionable to refer to these as v.2.5, mimicking the computerese v.3.5 revision title used in 2003. These revised rulebooks featured a new logo, graphic design, and artwork. I never owned the revisions in any form, so their actual content remains a gaping hole in my D&D knowledge. My understanding is that the text was minimally altered from the original 2e release in 1989, with the bulk of the changes coming in the Option books, some of which presaged the direction D&D would take in Third Edition five years later.

As I said, my knowledge of the 2e revisions is non-existent. I knew of their existence, as I was still gaming in 1995, but I'd pretty much dropped out of D&D entirely. I'd grown disgusted with the rules bloat, the proliferation of settings, and the general lack of focus the game line had at that point. I was a huge fan of Planescape, but, even at the time, I didn't think it worked well within the context of Dungeons & Dragons and the setting's development was too metaplot driven for my tastes. So I can't really comment on the whys and wherefores of v.2.5, though I'd assume it was a last ditch effort to remake D&D into something "modern," which is to say, able to compete with the latest fads in RPG design. Even before the revisions, 2e was clearly struggling to remake itself into a game that bore no resemblance, thematically and stylistically, if not mechanically, from the little game Gygax and Arneson birthed in 1974.

If that was the intention, the cover of the 2e revision didn't really do a good job of selling it either as something new and "relevant" or something connected to the history of the hobby.

I don't know if the image I've included with this entry really does justice to how awful this piece is, even on a technical level. Jeff Easley is once again the cover artist of the Players Handbook, providing us with what is very likely the worst of all PHB cover illustrations. About the only positive thing I can say about it is is that the barbarian's companions -- one with a bow drawn and one in a hooded cloak -- certainly don't look like members of Larry Elmore's Central Casting; they look scruffy and even sinister. The focal barbarian himself barely looks human, with his left arms twisted in a way that I'm not sure is even possible.

We do at least get a dungeon, so perhaps that's another positive thing I can say about the illustration. The barbarian obviously did really well on his Open Doors roll. The piece has a very "cinematic" air to it, "cinematic" being the latest jargon term for "horribly unrealistic." The planks of the door are all falling over in a nice fan around the barbarian, with just enough splinters flying about to show how strong he must have been to have broken down a metal-reinforced door. We see this door-breaking mid-action, as the pieces haven't yet hit the floor. There's also a strange implication of "light" emanating either from the barbarian's powerful blow comic book-style or perhaps from the corridor outside the chamber into which the barbarian is breaking. The problem with the latter interpretation is that the illumination of the corridor doesn't make this likely. Indeed, light in general is rather strangely used; I can't quite figure out where the light sources are in the picture, as there seem to be several conflicting ones, whose interplay should have produced a very different effect than the one we see. But it's my experience that "cinematic" artwork is all about looking good and not being plausible, so why worry about frivolous details like light sources?

The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons logo (as well as the TSR corporate one) is given a revamp, this time being about as bland as possible. Interestingly, the logo is placed beneath the title of the book rather than above it. That strikes me as peculiar, but then I know little of "branding" and other corproate marketing practices. The cover art is bounded by a frame, which is set on a solid black background. All the revised 2e books, as well as the Option books, were solid black in color. Placed side by side, there was a uniformity of appearance that I absolutely hated, but then 2e itself followed a similar practice for its hardcover volumes. One of the things that I still to this day love about the original AD&D books is how they look when sitting on my shelf. Each one is different and has its own unique look. Mind you, I'm of the opinion that art direction is a dirty word, at least in the way it's developed over the last few years. Modern RPGs are too slick and too uniform, with an emphasis on the look of "the line" that I abhor. The commoditization of esthetics in the name of marketing has no place in the hobby.

I find it very hard to say much more about this cover, because it's just awful. That it was released during a time when D&D, my first RPG, lost its appeal for me only makes it worse. The mid to late 90s was clearly a dark time for the game and the company that produced it. The game lacked direction and had no sense of its own history and origins. Had things turned out differently, there was a very good chance that Dungeons & Dragons would have died as an RPG entirely. As it turns out, that wasn't far from the truth but I'm getting ahead of myself.

28 comments:

  1. I owned that book, and its DMG equivalent, as well as the first 1989 set. There is basically no difference in context, but the books actually contain some beautiful illustrations on the inside. (Though they are hit-and-miss.) I agree that this cover ain't much to write home about, though.

    I was (and still am) a huge Planescape fan too, and agree that the meta-plot thing was a huge mistake. I never accepted it and completely ignored it in the games I ran, but still, why spoil one of the best ever role playing campaign settings like that?

    ReplyDelete
  2. *I don't know why I wrote "no different in context". I meant, of course, no difference in content.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That was a horrid cover, only matched by the interior art. This was the time when TSR couldn't pay for expensive Elmore/Caldwell kitsch any more, so instead they brought in some on the cheap, including a few really uninspired 1e art knock-offs.

    Coincidentally, "2.5"'s art direction is pretty close to 4e's - less action-heavy and over the top, but it has the same sort of blanditude and lack of inspiration.

    Melan

    ReplyDelete
  4. These reviews are an insightful look into both your taste in art and your views in what a good RPG should be, James. While I may not agree with you on most points (excepting the opinion that the 2.5e PHB cover was absolutely horrible, which I agree with), it's very interesting to hear your thoughts.

    I personally enjoy the artwork of 4th edition (more so than any previous edition) and consider the books themselves to be works of art. I delight in the art direction that you so despise. An interesting difference of opinion, I'd say. I look forward to your review of the 4E PHB.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Ben,

    That's really the point of these posts. I stated at the beginning that my tastes are, well, my tastes, nothing more. I have a hard time articulating in few words just what I like and don't like art-wise, so I figured the best approach was to do a retrospective on the changing face of D&D and use it as the means to explain my point of view on the subject.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I had an equally bad reaction to the revised cover art. It always seemed to me to be a very poor imitation of Frank Frazetta's style.

    That said, I was quite happy with the 'black' uniformity of the books.

    On the subject of interior art, I noticed that one of my favourite pieces in the 1989 2e PHB has been 'redone' in the new 4e DMG (pp. 16-17), a sort of homage I suppose. That reminds me of how many of the internal 1995 2e pieces were reworkings of those found in the 1e core books.

    ReplyDelete
  7. On the subject of interior art, I noticed that one of my favourite pieces in the 1989 2e PHB has been 'redone' in the new 4e DMG (pp. 16-17), a sort of homage I suppose.

    Interesting that you should mention this, because the piece you mention (showing a woman sleeping on a bier with a sword atop her) was in fact a bit if reused art from the 1e Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth module. The 4e piece is likewise a piece of re-used art, this time from a "sequel" to Tsojcanth published in the electronic version of Dragon.

    I am actually quite astounded at how often 4e recycled art from before its release.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The 4e piece is likewise a piece of re-used art, this time from a "sequel" to Tsojcanth published in the electronic version of Dragon.

    Now that is interesting. I knew the 2e PHB image had been taken from the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, but not that the 4e DMG image had paralleled that reuse. That surely must have been intentional.

    ReplyDelete
  9. That surely must have been intentional.

    Hard to say, although if the art director of 4e thought re-using art from a v.3.5 sequel to a 1e module whose art had already been re-used in the 2e rulebook counts as an "homage," that's several layers of self-reference too much for my tastes. Me, I just think they were lazy and cheap: "We already have this piece of art almost no one has seen, why not re-use it in the DMG?"

    ReplyDelete
  10. Could be.

    It strikes me as being something of an "Easter Egg", which I think is something that people have a taste for (partially because it is a kind of puzzle and solving it makes you feel at once both clever and part of something).

    It reminds me of the references in the Baldur's Gate series to other AD&D CRPGs and the D&D cartoon.

    ReplyDelete
  11. It strikes me as being something of an "Easter Egg"

    I'm certainly very cynical, so this explanation may in fact be the most likely. The thing about Easter Eggs, though, is that you expect people to get them. I'd be amazed if the vast majority of the people who bought the 4e books had been playing D&D long enough to have owned the original 2e books, let alone to remember Tsojcanth.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Not having played AD&D since 1e, my biggest question about this cover is did armour go out of fashion? I was always struck by the contradiction between fantasy art (post-Conan) and the fighting style of D&D: in 1e a fighter absolutely depended on his plate mail: the first 400 gp (or whatever it was) he collected made more difference to his life expectancy than the first 3 level increases. This kind of thong-wearing barbarian, then, always seemed to me a basically non-D&D archetype, and therefore never a representation of an actual PC. I believe that was still true in 2e (though the wildly unbalanced, and unpopular, Barbarian character class was introduced in Unearthed Arcana).

    Did 3e do away with armour in favour of Frazettism?

    ReplyDelete
  13. ...on reflection, perhaps Vallejism is a better term.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The thing about Easter Eggs, though, is that you expect people to get them. I'd be amazed if the vast majority of the people who bought the 4e books had been playing D&D long enough to have owned the original 2e books, let alone to remember Tsojcanth.

    I cannot say I know definitively what the 4e demographic will look like, but that various polls that appear from time to time suggest to me that a reasonable chunk of 4e gamers will have been familiar with 2e, if not 1e. Hard to guess at actual numbers, but maybe this is aimed at 'returning' or 'lapsed' players rather than transitional players?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hard to guess at actual numbers, but maybe this is aimed at 'returning' or 'lapsed' players rather than transitional players?

    Certainly possible. Seems an odd choice, though, given that Drelzna, daughter of Iggwilv, is hardly a well-known or "iconic" D&D character. Seems to me WotC would have been wiser keeping, say, the look of trolls or elementals more consistent with earlier editions if their goal was to welcome back returning players of previous editions.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Seems to me WotC would have been wiser keeping, say, the look of trolls or elementals more consistent with earlier editions if their goal was to welcome back returning players of previous editions.

    I don't know, "easter eggs" are supposed to be somewhat cryptic. Still, I think there are probably conflicting design mandates at work; reinventing the intellectual property whilst simultaneously trying to attract lapsed players back into the fold are aims that are largely opposed to one another, but that won't stop them trying.

    Certainly, the d20 rendition of Drelzna takes many references from the AD&D rendition, and the only reason to do that (to my mind) is to directly reference the original piece. It may be a happy accident that it then appears in the 4e DMG, paralleling the reuse of the original piece in the 2e PHB, but it is also the kind of thing I can imagine myself suggesting or doing in their position.

    I wonder how much of the current WotC D&D crew were introduced to D&D via 2e?

    ReplyDelete
  17. I wonder how much of the current WotC D&D crew were introduced to D&D via 2e?

    Rob Heinsoo, I know, has made much hay about OD&D being his first edition, not that he seems to have learned much from it. On the other hand, I think all the other 4e designers are younger than I am and I am just barely old enough to have started with Holmes rather than Moldvay. I suspect they probably began with post-Dragonlance 1e myself, but I have no evidence one way or the other beyond gut feeling.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This book is perhaps the second RPG product I ever bought.

    "...but I have no evidence one way or the other beyond gut feeling."
    If anyone's really curious, it's not like these people are inaccessible...

    ReplyDelete
  19. If anyone's really curious, it's not like these people are inaccessible...

    True enough, but it hardly seemed worth the effort to hunt down Steve Winter or Jon Pickens for a short entry like this. That said, I have some little projects relating to the history of the game I intend to get going at some point, so if anyone has any idea how to contact guys like that, I'm all ears.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I'd start by calling up Exile Games if I were looking for Winter. I have no idea where Pickens is...

    ReplyDelete
  21. Did anyone like the 2.5 PHB cover? I certainly didn't. I'm lukewarm on Easley's 80s work (one of my favorite Dragon Magazine covers is his), but somewhere in the early 90s his work just took on this patina of eye-scorching suckiness from which there is no return.

    As for unarmored fighters being depicted in D&D art, I absolutely second that observation. And yes, it was still pretty darn difficult to do an effective "Conan-esque" fighter in 2e. But then, I think D&D has long been guilty of depicting things through its art or NPCs that aren't possible to duplicate with the rules as written.

    ReplyDelete
  22. In recent years, it's been fashionable to refer to these as v.2.5, mimicking the computerese v.3.5 revision title used in 2003.

    I don't know about that, but I know we were calling it 2.5 back before we ever heard of 3.0. And we switched over to 3.0 as soon as it was released.

    2nd edition wasn't a whole lot different from 1st, but 2.5 was. So we had a different name for it.

    (I never owned these books either, but my DM did; caused me no end of grief.)

    ReplyDelete
  23. I've been really enjoying this exploration of the art of D&D in general - it's brought home to me how much of the game was always in its visuals, rather than its text. This business of the barbarian, though, has set me thinking: how much effort has been put into trying to get this particular archetype into D&D, over the years,* and are there other, more purely visual motifs that have demanded a place at the table?

    What is the source of the Soulknife character class in 4e, which seems (from the very brief page on dandwiki.com) to be based entirely around a kind of special effect?

    *It strikes me that Bracers of Defense were probably written originally for the purpose of allowing an effective, unarmoured warrior to function.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I don't know about that, but I know we were calling it 2.5 back before we ever heard of 3.0

    Fair enough. I'd never heard the term until recently, but, as I said, I wasn't really plugged into D&D during the 2.5e era.

    ReplyDelete
  25. What is the source of the Soulknife character class in 4e, which seems (from the very brief page on dandwiki.com) to be based entirely around a kind of special effect?

    So far as I know, there's not yet a 4e soulknife. The soulknife is a 3.5 psionic character class, sort of a psionic rogue/assassin.

    *It strikes me that Bracers of Defense were probably written originally for the purpose of allowing an effective, unarmoured warrior to function.

    That's possible, but I think it probably had more to do with the perceived need for MUs to have higher ACs. They were very limited in their options, since there was little or no magic cloth armor.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Me and my group still play 2e exclusively. Many of my players have this one, as the original 2e handbooks were out of print and harder to find when they decided to break down and purchase their own handbooks.

    Content-wise, the equipment is listed a bit better, however they moved everything around. They said that it was to make it more intuitive, but if you consider the original to be intuitive then you get lost easily. This also makes game play a bit more difficult because a DM couldn't just say, "turn to page 86."

    I have also ran into problems where a player lies and says that that isn't the way that a rule is described in my handbook. Well, maybe lies is too strong of a word, how about the dude's just wrong.

    All of the mechanics are exactly the same, just the font and art has changed, and the chapters have been reorganized. That's it! I also feel that the art is horrible and ugly as sin, but that is just me.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hi, James

    This time I totally agree. I remember when 2,5e came out and it was another step back in awful, artifical covers and using more and more ridiculous fonts inside. Logo was incredible souless and meaningless - like 3e, not in convention of any-kind-fantasy at all.

    PHB illustration is worth of laugh and DMG... Geez, it's grotesque. Look at freaky bodies proportions. In theory: dynamic, but in practice: very static. Nothing to ignite fires of imaginations.

    In main-stream avantgarde paintings it could be ok, but not in mimetic pictures of pop-art! J. Easley is/was master of the dragons - he should avoid rest of stuff.

    ReplyDelete
  28. “2.5” isn’t computerese. It’s silly-marketing-executive-ese. (^_^) If it was computerese it would’ve been “2.0.1”. (With the POs and other supplements, being “2.1.0”.)

    I still blame whoever at Apple insisted on “System 7.5” for promoting this kind of silliness. (Though there were certainly other examples before that.)

    Anyway...

    Yeah, this cover is just awful. I tend to avoid criticizing art directly, but even with the best art possible, the logos and layout have already done too much damage.

    ReplyDelete

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