Sunday, July 6, 2008

What's His Story?

Believe it or not, this picture used to really bug me as a younger man and I spent way too many hours thinking about it or arguing about it with my friends. It's a piece of Dave Trampier art that appears on page 93 of the AD&D Players Handbook. Simply as a piece of history, I think it's quite significant. First, it's a reminder that, way back when, giant frogs were in fact considered a real threat to adventurers. I recall the giant frogs outside the moathouse of the Temple of Elemental Evil wreaking terrible havoc on more than one party. The ability to swallow a target whole is a mighty one and giant frogs in my experience often made good use of it.

Second, look at the elf. Yes, that's an elf. See, a lot of people would have you believe that Gary was lying through his teeth when he said that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings had little influence on D&D. They'll point to all sorts of evidence to prove their point, but they rarely look at how elves were depicted in the original three AD&D books. To my mind, they have more to do with fairy tale elves than with the Nordic-inspired demigods-among-men of Middle Earth. I mean, just look at that guy facing off against the giant frog. Aside from the really big nose and ears, he's even got the Hat and the Shoes. That's no Legalas or Elrond there, my friends. Heck, even the Keebler Elves are so non-traditional that they don't wear the Shoes anymore.

But neither of these points is why I was obsessed with this illustration as a youth. Immediately beneath this piece of artwork are the descriptions of two 9th-level magic-user spells, temporal stasis and time stop. Now, if you look at the picture, you'll see that the elf is making the universal "Stop!" motion with his hand. And if you look at the giant frog, you'll see that he does appear to be caught in mid-jump. To me, it was clear that the elf had just cast one of those two spells on the frog. The problem -- aside from the fact that time stop has no somatic component, thus making the hand gesture needless -- was that no elf could possibly cast a 9th-level magic-user spell. So how was he freezing the frog in place like that? Some of my friends argued that he was doing no such thing, but I always made the case that the placement of the illustration suggested otherwise. Throughout the PHB, the illustrations generally related to the text, so why not here? Was he some sort of uber-elf who could cast such high-level spells? Had Tramp not read the AD&D rules or, worse yet, did Gary not care about the lack of "realism" in the book's illustrations?

I still have no definitive answer after all these years, but I still think about that picture.

40 comments:

  1. Hmmm.

    I always saw this pic as a low-level gnome about be some lucky frog's dinner.

    While I agree the LotR did not have a big influence on D&D, it's always been my interpretation that gnome were Gary's idea of little fairy/brownie/lawn gnome type PCs.

    And I think his hand gesture is just the universal defensive "I'm about to die" stance.

    My $0.02.

    --Tim

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  2. I, too, assumed that this was a gnome. Couldn't giant frogs only swallow small creatures like gnomes, dwarves and halflings? It seems like an elf would be taller in relation to a frog that size.

    Also, I always assumed it was unrelated to the nearby text. Just a filler illustration of a gnome having a bad day.

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  3. I have not picked up a copy of AD&D 1 ed. in many years. I recall that elves had a level cap ("...and were a class!"), but was there any min/max/munchkin way of getting an elf, or elf class, to 9th level. Maybe A ring or a scroll?

    But I like your initial theory... the picture is directly tied to the copy/text on the page. Whether Trampier, or some anonymous editor, considered the rules or not, I too think it was intentional, in first or "afterthought."

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  4. I always saw this pic as a low-level gnome about be some lucky frog's dinner.

    He looks nothing like a gnome -- no beard! He does, however, bear some resemblance to the brownie from the Monster Manual. Of course, brownies can't cast time stop either.

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  5. Couldn't giant frogs only swallow small creatures like gnomes, dwarves and halflings?

    Giant frogs could indeed swallow only small humanoids, but the text specifically includes elves among them. Remember that AD&D elves (with the exception of gray elves) are only about 5' tall.

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  6. I have not picked up a copy of AD&D 1 ed. in many years. I recall that elves had a level cap ("...and were a class!"), but was there any min/max/munchkin way of getting an elf, or elf class, to 9th level. Maybe A ring or a scroll?

    In AD&D, elves were limited to 11th level as MUs. They were not a class; that was true only in Moldvay, Mentzer, and the Rules Cyclopedia version of the game (and arguably the three little brown books, but it's a tendentious argument IMO). It's possible he's used a scroll to cast the spell, but there's no evidence of it in the picture and the risk of failure would be high.

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  7. Interesting...

    I had no idea AD&D 1st Ed elves where that different from the Tolkien-clones they have become.

    Basic D&D "elf as race + magic" take does make a lot more sense this way.

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  8. I had no idea AD&D 1st Ed elves where that different from the Tolkien-clones they have become.

    To be fair, the Tolkien connection came early. By all accounts, Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign was heavily influenced by Tolkien's conceptions. Likewise, by the time you the early 80s rolled around, most elf illustrations are more Tolkienesque in inspiration, even if the descriptive text lists them as 5 feet tall or shorter. Even 3e uses this same description, so it's deep in the D&D DNA.

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  9. I have recently seen some professional 3rd/4th Ed art for elves at the artist's website (I can't recall his name). I was amazed to notice both the male and female elves on a racial "police line-up" where considerably taller and more buffed than their human counterparts, so much so they looked like professional Nordic bodybuilders. The half-elves where *only* slightly taller than humans if memory serves me right.

    If elves are listed as averaging 5ft in the latest editions then this is most comic.

    Some D&D art as been accused of misrepresenting the way the game works and what is possible to do under the rules (like the goofy barbarian on the cover of revised AD&D 2nd Ed mentioned in one of your recent posts), so I guess this trend is only aggravating as time passes.

    From what I have seen, older D&D art does in fact do a much better job of representing "the game". This is a fact, regardless of one's personal aesthetic preferences.

    It is a curious mental exercise to wonder just how many 3rd/4th Ed battles look anything like the popular “wall of action” panels we see these days. I’m guessing the total number should be something approximate of zero.

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  10. "He looks nothing like a gnome -- no beard! He does, however, bear some resemblance to the brownie from the Monster Manual."

    He also bears no resemblence to the elves in the MM and elsewhere in the PHB and DMG. :)

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  11. Oddly enough, the jpg file is labeled "brownie"...

    I always presumed the picture depicted an elf, gnome, or halfling fighting a giant frog.

    Do non-giant frogs have fangs? If so, then perhaps he's a brownie...

    And I never really thought the picture actually depicted one of the spells on the page. There are many pictures in those books that didn't quite fit the page they were placed on.

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  12. I greatly prefer weird, Chaotic, fairy-tale Elves. In my OD&D campaigns, that's the explanation for the weird multi-classing -- between adventures, they trot off to hollow hills or rings of toadstools, and sometimes they come back with wildly different personalities. That's why they're not to be trusted.

    The pic is easy. The giant frog is a Shape Changed evil Arch-Mage about to eat a poor innocent Elf. :)

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  13. Oops...forgot to add this:

    Check out the cover of "D 1-2: Descent into the Depths of the Earth" for an idea of how elves were sometimes thought to dress.

    http://www.acaeum.com/ddindexes/modpages/modscans/d1-2.html

    The elf in the central background has the big buckle, pointy hood and everything!

    Awesome cover...

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  14. I always assumed it was an illustration for the Shape Change spell.

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  15. I agree, I always figured that the illo applied to shape change, and the someone was about to gobble up some fey creature.

    Allan.

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  16. The elf in the central background has the big buckle, pointy hood and everything!

    What makes you think that's an elf? Does he have pointed ears? (I cannot tell from the online picture, and don't have a copy of the combined D1-2 module handy).

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  17. I have recently seen some professional 3rd/4th Ed art for elves at the artist's website (I can't recall his name). I was amazed to notice both the male and female elves on a racial "police line-up" where considerably taller and more buffed than their human counterparts, so much so they looked like professional Nordic bodybuilders. The half-elves where *only* slightly taller than humans if memory serves me right.

    Is it possible you saw the racial line-up on paizo.com for the Pathfinder product? It's on p. 11 of the Pathfinder RPG Alpha document (free download with registration).

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  18. My impression is that the elf isn't casting a spell, but rather saying "Gah!", holding his hand up and stumbling backwards in a vain attempt to avert his impending death.

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  19. Perhaps the elf has used one or more wishes to exceed the level cap. (That’s not explicitly verboten, is it?)

    Not having a somatic component does not prevent gesturing.

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  20. Immediately beneath this piece of artwork are the descriptions of two 9th-level magic-user spells, temporal stasis and time stop.

    Let's go through the whole spell section and look at the location of the illustrations:

    p.47: Below locate object, above prayer, depicts locate object.

    p.50: In the middle of insect plague, depicts insect plague.

    p.56: In the middle of fire trap, depicts fire trap.

    p.57: Below warp wood, depicts warp wood.

    p.65: At the bottom of the page below dancing lights and erase, depicts dancing lights.

    p.68: Below read magic and above shield, depicts shield.

    p.69: Below write, relates to write.

    p.71: Below mirror image, depicts mirror image.

    p.81: Below Leomund's secret chest, above magic jar, depicts Leomund's secret chest. (He's holding a little replica chest, as per Leomund's secret chest, not a large gem or crystal.)

    p.83: In the middle of enchant and item, related to enchant and item

    p.90: Below Otto's irresistible dance, depicts Otto's irresistible dance.

    p.92: Below gate and above imprisonment, related to gate.

    p.93: The picture in question, below shape change, above temporal stasis.

    p.97: Below massmorph, depicts massmorph.

    p.98: Below demi-shadow monsters, above major creation, depicts demi-shadow monsters.

    So, in thirteen of the fifteen cases, the art certainly has as its subject spell which has text immediately above the illustration. In the fourteenth, the art's subject is the spell immediately below the illustration. Accordingly, it is basically certain that the illustration in question is either of shape change or temporal stasis; it is not a depiction of time stop. Further, the overwhelming rule strongly suggests that it depicts the spell immediately above it, shape change, not the spell below it.

    That much exegesis we can reach based on the position of the illustration. With that, we then note that if the illustration depicts a magic-user who has cast shape change to take the form of the frog in order to attack the elf, the illustration conforms to the rules of the AD&D game. To reach the conclusion that the illustration is of the elf casting temporal stasis, however, we add to the exception to the usual positioning rule the necessary belief that the illustration be erroneous, depicting something (nearly) impossible in the game.

    (There is the qualification of "nearly" above because one exception does exist. In principle, a human magic-user of sufficient level to cast temporal stasis could use magic to alter his form to appear to be an elf, with either polymorph self or shape change. This seems unlikely because no other illustration in the spells section seems to show the effects of two spells, and it would be unwise for the caster to retain elf form when threatened by a giant frog.)

    So, the most likely conclusion seems to be that we have an illustration here of shape change. Any other conclusion requires this illustration to be unusual in several ways at once, which is unlikely.

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  21. Hm. Steven's hypothesis seems logical. It'd be easier for me to follow if I had the book in question. (unlikely to ever happen, I entered the hobby late, I doubt I could find these books anywhere, and honestly, I'm fairly happy with third edition, though I do find this blog fascinating and illuminating in many ways, even if I disagree with a few of James' opinions.)

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  22. I doubt I could find these books anywhere

    Actually, the books are not hard to find at all. Around here, you can find a copy in just about every second-hand book-store.

    Failing that, there's
    Amazon, Abe Books, A Libris, and eBay. Not to mention places like Noble Knight and the Hit Pointe.

    Or you can buy a PDF copy from Paizo.

    It's actually a great time to be a fan of old RPGs.

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  23. It's actually a great time to be a fan of old RPGs.

    I'll second that! :D

    Allan.

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  24. The solution is elementary. Recall that Lawful Good magic-users can have Brownie familiars. The picture is of a Brownie familiar narrowly saved by its off-screen master by way of a Temporal Stasis spell. The humor is that the Brownie held up his hand in a desperation gesture and the frog magically froze at the same time. But actually it was the archmage behind him with the 9th level spell the whole time.

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  25. He also bears no resemblence to the elves in the MM and elsewhere in the PHB and DMG. :)

    That's not entirely true. The wood elves in the Monster Manual bear a strong resemblance to him, as they have very large and exaggerated ears and rather "pointed" features. You're right that it's not identical, but there is a "family resemblance."

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  26. Oddly enough, the jpg file is labeled "brownie"...

    That was my doing. I make so many scans that I need an easy way to remember them by name alone and if I'd called it "elf," I'd never remember what it was :)

    He does look like a brownie, but it's very unclear from context what he is.

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  27. (That’s not explicitly verboten, is it?)

    Explicitly, no, but my gut tells me that Gygax wouldn't approve of such a use. Remember that to raise an ability score above 16 requires 10 wishes, with each individual wish raising it by only 1/10 needed for the next score.

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  28. So, the most likely conclusion seems to be that we have an illustration here of shape change. Any other conclusion requires this illustration to be unusual in several ways at once, which is unlikely.

    I like the cut of your jib, sir. I bow before your superior exegetical skills.

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  29. Remember that to raise an ability score above 16 requires 10 wishes, with each individual wish raising it by only 1/10 needed for the next score.

    Yeah, but Gary was always extremely stingy about ability score increases. I always read that as him saying that this was a specific area where he felt wishes could be abused rather than a guideline that should be generalized to wishes applied to other areas.

    Level caps he kept increasing. (oD&D → AD&D; PHB → UA.) Plus, he allowed for individuals to exceed the level caps based on ability scores.

    Plus, ability scores and levels are very different scales. Going from an 18 to a 20 in an ability score is moving from mortal-range to godlike. Levelling from 18 to 20 is well within mortal capabilities. And allowing a wish to raise an individual’s level cap by one level still requires that individual to earn the new level itself.

    But, of course, Steven’s analysis perhaps makes the whole discussion moot.

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  30. Yeah, but Gary was always extremely stingy about ability score increases. I always read that as him saying that this was a specific area where he felt wishes could be abused rather than a guideline that should be generalized to wishes applied to other areas.

    Venturing a bit off topic here, but it's fun since James hasn't provided us with new fodder for discussion (hint, hint :D ):

    While Gary outlines 10 wishes to raise ability scores from 16 and on-higher in the DMG, there were plenty of other ways to raise them in the Lake Geneva campaigns, including magic pools, forbidden fruit, moving levers, and other various random-ish effects of the dungeon environs, divine intervention, DM whimsy, etc. So, I think that the DMG text was written to discourage people from "wasting" wishing on simple ability score additions vs. on much more important things like escaping encounters, raising PCs, etc., etc. Wishes were also much more common in OD&D than in AD&D, so acquiring 10 wishes is by no means impossible. Perhaps Trent Foster will chime in here, since he's written some good stuff about wishes several times :D

    Allan.

    Allan.

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  31. As always, you make very good points, Allan.

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  32. The shapechange possibility seems to have been covered pretty exhaustively. But for what it's worth, I always assumed that this was an illustration of that spell in action. In my interpretation, the little guy is a brownie, and he has picked up the material component the archmage used to cast the spell (which the rules state is dropped when the spell is cast, IIRC). The foolish brownie has threatened to break it (thus ending the spell), and the frog/archmage is gently reminding him that he can beat the snot out of a brownie even in human form. It also seemed to me that the frog was grasping for something and speaking (entirely possible), and has just lost patience. "Now!"

    Sorry for the ramble :).

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  33. Can anyone enlighten me about the rationale behind level caps?

    I don't think it can be anything to do with game balance, since the concept of the level seems itself to be a balancing device - it's a property you can apply to an adventure, which sets an appropriate threat for a particular party, and a metric (or even an exchange rate) you can apply to PCs to make sure everyone in the party is of roughly equivalent power.

    So what's the idea? Did EGG just think it was silly to have certain races involved in certain kinds of adventures? Is this a kind of continuum between the statuses of PC (capable of progress - historical, if you like) and monster (unchanging, consistent - in Said's terms, Oriental)?

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  34. As I understand Gary’s explanation... Gary conceived of the game world as being human dominated. Logically, with their long lives and other advantages over humans, demihumans should be dominant. By putting level caps on demihumans, human can then logically dominate the game world.

    But I’m not sure I ever really understood his explanation. Go hit his Q&A threads at ENWorld or DF to read it from the horse’s mouth.

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  35. Robert - thanks for the response, I will. In the meantime, OT, I thought James might be interested in (maybe annoyed by) this:
    http://www.websnark.com/archives/2008/06/i_roll_to_disbe.html

    He makes the point that 4e is the tabletop adaptation of WoW, and he explains exactly how (that seems completely misguided as a marketing strategy to my addled old brain, but what do I know?). Here's where I get off the train:
    This is a game of combat -- as much as the original D&D was, if not more so. This is not a game of out-of-combat nuanced roleplay and complicated social mores. This is a game where your character is an optimized killing machine. Yeah, you can take intimidate or bluff if you really want to, but honestly, you have a charisma score, do you really need more than that? Especially when most of the time, your intimidate skill will take a back seat to your Riposte Strike at-will power or a well timed Shadow Wasp Strike. Your characters will feel most at home in a darkened corridor, decimating all around them... Thieves are now rogues and are way better at killing than thieving (there's nothing that even says you need to take thief skills)... it makes sense, now, that the gnomes are absent from the game right now. In the older game, their best trick was being illusionists... and there is no illusionist, and unless 'shadow' will be an illusionist power source, there's not going to be. Illusions don't really fit the structure of the new game -- they're not used much as it is, and they don't fall into the same role structure as the others.

    So it sounds like the plan is to reduce the world to the kinds of interactions you can get from a computer, making most of the scenery non-interactive, reducing the player options to combat and leveling up. Only without the graphics. I don't think I get it.

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  36. What makes you think that's an elf? Does he have pointed ears? (I cannot tell from the online picture, and don't have a copy of the combined D1-2 module handy).

    1- Well, even from the viewer's distance, the figure looks smallish compared to a human.

    2- He's also casting an attack spell and holding a wand; I'd wager he's a magic-user.

    3- And that looks like chainmail hanging down over his jumblies from under that tunic of the stereotypically woodsy colors of brown and green.

    Small + magical spells + chainmail + woodsy = Elf [or half-elf].

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  37. The viewer - an 18th level Magic-User PC - has just cast Time Stop in order to prevent his Pixie familiar being eaten by the giant frog.

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  38. I agree that it is actually a Gnome in the picture.


    Wierd though.. I also stared at that picture a lot and wondered what was going on.

    It has been a long time but wasn't there a shapeshift spell on the same page? I imagined the frog was a magic user that shapeshifted.

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  39. I've always thought of this as a play on the old "shapechanged into a frog" trope - instead of being unwillingly turned into a frog, the spellcaster has turned into a GIANT frog on purpose.

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  40. That's no elf and that's not time stop. A magic user has shaped changed into a giant frog and is now turning the tables on a hostile brownie or gnome.

    I believe this is a play on how magic users were not formidable in melee and even a tiny fey could take one out. Well, here is a surprise for that cocky little guy.

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