Friday, August 15, 2008

Big Damn Heroes

I intensely disliked the 4e Players Handbook cover, but I actually liked the cover of the 4e Dungeon Masters Guide. The cover of the 4e Monster Manual is more bad than good in my opinion, both esthetically and "philosophically."

Who the heck is that guy on the cover? Why, Orcus, Demon Prince of the Undead, of course. "But he doesn't look a thing like Orcus!" This is absolutely true, but then Orcus hasn't really looked like himself in a long time. For those with short memories, here's how ol' Goat Boy looked in the 1e Monster Manual (which is itself an almost perfect copy of his previous appearance in Eldritch Wizardry):

Now, I understand and accept that the illustration of even iconic characters will change over time, as each artist interprets the character differently. But, as the 4e MM cover interprets him, I only see the faintest resemblance to the original conception of Orcus. There are some ram's horns, wings, and a skull-tipped wand. Oh yes, and hooves. Kinda. Other than that, though, it looks rather like a different creature to me -- a buffer, more bad ass one. And that's almost certainly the point. The original Orcus illustration has scrawny, satyr-like legs, almost vestigial wings, and a pot belly. What self-respecting adventurer would be afraid of him, right?

But the new re-imagined Orcus is Schwarzenegger with a goat's(?) head. You can tell he's a force to be reckoned with just by looking at him. He's even adopted a body builder pose just to show of us demonic musculature. And he's wearing his WWE championship belt to boot. Oh, and his tail now has spikes all over it now, for some reason or other. Clearly, this is a guy worthy of being the opponent of your player characters, not like that wimp Dave Sutherland drew back in the 70s.

There are a lot of issues here, so I'll start with the differing esthetics. The original Orcus, though a wholly imaginary creation of Gygax (or was it Brian Blume?) looks like a medieval demon. He's a strange concatenation of human and animal parts, some of which look atrophied or distended. He's clearly not natural. In some sense, he might even be called metaphorical, for many of the features of medieval monsters were highly suggestive to the medieval mind of certain qualities that, culturally, they associated with certain referents in the real world. That Orcus' wings are too small to carry his bulk is irrelevant; all that is necessary is that he have wings, for wings equate with flight. The physical plausibility of their operation is utterly beside the point.

Now, I'm not trying to suggest in the slightest that the Sutherland Orcus is a careful product of someone with a deep understanding of the medieval mind, because that'd be laughable. However, the Sutherland drawing, like most of the drawings in the original Monster Manual, is broadly consonant with medieval esthetics. Or perhaps I should say that it calls them to mind. There's something weirdly primal about that goofy Orcus DCS drew. I've always found medieval demonic images to be far creepier than modern ones, precisely because they have some atavistic connection to aspects of my cultural memory. Modern demons are just imaginary creatures; they're not monsters, if you catch my meaning. Wayne Reynolds' Orcus isn't a demon. Look at how muscular and physically powerful he is. That's a creature that inspires fear for my life, whereas Sutherland's Orcus is one that inspires fear for my soul.

I'm just going to ignore the fact that this piece is another strike-a-pose piece from the latter day Elmore school, even if it is far more dynamic than most Elmore pieces. Of course, "dynamic" is a relative term, since it's not clear from context that Orcus is actually doing anything other than flexing his muscles for the judges. Take a good look at his wand, though, and compare it to the one in the Sutherland illo. The Reynolds version looks as if it's an actual skull (plus some vertebrae) mounted onto a black metallic handle. The DCS version is just a skull, possibly even just a carved one, atop a black wand. What are the odds that 4e has introduced a backstory to Orcus' wand? I'll bet you the the identity of the skull's original "owner" is made clear (or will be before long). A god whom Orcus slew perhaps? Or some powerful being Orcus defeated in his ancient climb to demonic princedom? Maybe I'm being unfair, but the new version of his wand just begs for explanation and brandification. It's not merely a symbolic representation of Orcus' affinity with the power of death; it's instead a trademarkable image that helps build IP.

There's also the potentially bigger issue that says a great deal about the design philosophy of 4e. By picking a single (yes, he has a couple of henchmen with him, I know), powerful opponent for the cover of the Monster Manual rather than illustrating several, I can't help but think that this is what's deemed the ideal 4e encounter -- the set piece against a "boss" monster (known as "solo" monsters in 4e). I know it's unfashionable to make comparisons between 4e and video games, but so be it. The reality is that there's clearly been a shift toward a "cinematic" model for combat in 4e, treating them as big special effects extravaganzas, where the player characters get to show off how cool and powerful they are. The placing of Orcus on the cover of the MM is WotC's way of saying, "Isn't this the kind of bad guy whose ass you want to kick?" There's nothing wrong with that, if that's what the average D&D player actually wants out of the game, but I hope I can be forgiven in saying that that's a huge shift away from the philosophy and esthetics of OD&D, never mind the pulp fantasy literature that inspired it.

The cover of the Monster Manual pretty well cemented my dislike for 4e. I disliked the contents already for various reasons, but the cover was the icing on the cake. The fetishization of the D&D's most powerful entities has always sat poorly with me, but 4e's cover takes it to new heights. It's a reductionist mentality that treats even the Demon Prince of the Undead as another notch on your character's belt as he claws his way toward immortality. Indeed, it's a wholesale rejection of the Gygaxian "naturalist" approach to fantasy roleplaying. I hesitate to call this the worst MM cover ever, given how poor its competitors are, but I will say that this is the first cover whose philosophical underpinnings are so reprehensible to me that it actually makes the cover of the 1e version look inspired by comparison. That takes a singular kind of badness. Bravo.

34 comments:

  1. Excellent analysis. I had no idea it was supposed to be Orcus until I read it somewhere in the book I assumed it was an efreet or a pit fiend. Also for a little Elmore defense I just got a copy of the Expert rules and the Elmore illustrations within are really good at illustrating the events of a D&D adventure - inluding recognizable depictions of spells (I especially like the speak with dead illustration). They are not from the pose in front of a dragon school of art

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  2. A small cavil with one point James: I believe that Orcus (at least as a name) was not an original creation of Gygax, it's actually the name for a Roman god of the Underworld which may have come via the Etruscans. Gygax's interpretation of this entity may have been original though.

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  3. I agree that when compared to the millieu set up by OD&D this cover would be next to nonsense.

    Otherwise I actually think this is a really nice cover, espcially in light of the new millieu that 4th Edition has established. It's a dynamic, cinematically-stylish depiction of a monster "you don't want to tangle with, or maybe you do".

    As far as MM covers go, I think it's my favorite.

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  4. It's not a Balrog? (runs for cover)

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  5. They are not from the pose in front of a dragon school of art

    This is true. Elmore circa 1982-83 is generally quite good and I retain a fondness for several of his works from that period. Unfortunately, his later illustrations are what made him so well known and popular and I find it hard to forgive him for them.

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  6. Terry,

    When I said "the original Orcus," I meant the original D&D treatment of him rather than the first in historical precedence. Like most creatures in D&D, Orcus has antecedents in real mythology and legend, even if the Gygaxian treatment of him bares only the most passing resemblance.

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  7. Otherwise I actually think this is a really nice cover, espcially in light of the new millieu that 4th Edition has established.

    I don't disagree with this at all, but of course my critiques are all entirely from the perspective of old school D&D. As I've said elsewhere, I have no doubt at all that 4e is probably a very fun and well designed game that does exactly what it sets out to do. The problem is that what it sets out to do is at serious odds with the origins of the game and it's frankly a joke that it bears the same name as the original.

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  8. Well, one of the biggest flaws for me is that it's internal art, and that just seems a bit, well, cheap.

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  9. Well, one of the biggest flaws for me is that it's internal art, and that just seems a bit, well, cheap.

    You know, I hadn't even thought to mention that, but it's a very good point. But then the 4e MM reproduces a lot of art from the 3e era, which I admit I find odd. WotC surely had the budget to get new art for everything, especially on a big project like this. Why didn't they?

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  10. "The problem is that what it sets out to do is at serious odds with the origins of the game and it's frankly a joke that it bears the same name as the original."

    And I completely understand your persective. I just wanted to present my broader feelings on the matter.

    As an aside I think the cover is the best piece in the whole 4E MM. I found a great deal of the interior art far from evocative as adventure fuel or even nice as simply pictures. If you want interior monster art that really makes you want to beat them up and take their loot, you gotta go farther back to the older stuff.

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  11. In the interior they had a strange compulsion to illustrate females of every humanoid species leading to a large variety of what can only be called chainmail sportsbras.

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  12. I just assumed it was some kind of undead dire lich minotaur/ranger. I was inclined to give it a pass before, but now that I know it's supposed to be Orcus, I just want to laugh at it.

    It's so overdone that it's not scary, it's merely stylized. You said it, this guy makes me fear for my life, but I just imagine a big gun could kill him. The old Orcus might not by physically intimidating, but I get the feeling the gun wouldn't work, which is scarier.

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  13. I really like the analysis between the classical-styled Orcus and the beefy photoshoped Orcus.

    I really hate the new art. It looks to garish and over the top. The new Orcus is far removed from its roots, and makes it feel like a comicbook super-villain. The classic Orcus (and the other demons, and even Devils) had the right "feel"! Such art looked like they tried to go for the types of illustrations found in the Lesser Key of Solomon, or the beautiful woodcarvings of Gustave Doré, like the Davine Comedy and Paradise Lost (as seen in the old DMG). The old art of demons and devils really looks scary. As a kid, I was really creeped out by them. And you know that it really creeped out a lot Christians into condemning D&D as "The Devil's Game"! The new art can never inspire such fear!

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  14. I like the old MM Orcus. He kind of looks like Buford Pusser. You know, he's walking tall, got a bigass skull -rod stick, 'can't see m'balls' beer belly swinging free, some really porcine man-titties, and he's looking back as if to say,'Where's my Billy Beer, bitch?!'

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  15. In the interior they had a strange compulsion to illustrate females of every humanoid species leading to a large variety of what can only be called chainmail sportsbras.

    Well, they certainly couldn't have them bear-breasted now, could they?

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  16. The old Orcus might not by physically intimidating, but I get the feeling the gun wouldn't work, which is scarier.

    I agree. A lot of the older demon/devil illustrations have this strange way of reminding you that their physical body is just a shell, a container for their otherworldly power rather than a manifestation of it. You can't judge whether they'd be able to pulp you with their bare hands by the way they look, as their appearance might very well be deceiving.

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  17. Such art looked like they tried to go for the types of illustrations found in the Lesser Key of Solomon, or the beautiful woodcarvings of Gustave Doré, like the Davine Comedy and Paradise Lost (as seen in the old DMG). The old art of demons and devils really looks scary. As a kid, I was really creeped out by them.

    Yes, yes, absolutely. I wholeheartedly agree. There's something really disturbing about a lot of the older illustrations. They tap into something primal and they inspired genuine uneasiness in me as a younger person. The new demons are just monsters.

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  18. I can't help but think that this is what's deemed the ideal 4e encounter -- the set piece against a "boss" monster (known as "solo" monsters in 4e).

    The 4E DMG and MM emphasize the utility of combined arms--having several different kinds of monsters putting the hurt on the PCs in their own way -- and demonstrates how to make that work.

    4E Solo encounters usually aren't all that interesting (to me, anyway) because the element of maneuver is de-emphasized.

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  19. Well, they certainly couldn't have them bear-breasted now, could they?

    Such art is a thing of the past, my friend! It the 2nd edition all over again, but worst!

    Have you read the new GSL? They dont even allow third parties books to have anything racy! No gratuitous sex, nudity, or violence! No slave, serfs, or disabled folks! In other words, only kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon fiction may apply! Who the hell is calling the shots this time, Dr. Raymond Cocteau from Demolition Man? Dame it, Wizbros sucks!

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  20. Have you read the new GSL? They dont even allow third parties books to have anything racy! No gratuitous sex, nudity, or violence! No slave, serfs, or disabled folks! In other words, only kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon fiction may apply!

    To be fair, WotC had similar restrictions on 3e's OGL as well and they're just following a general American trend to look to "entertainment" as the cause of social ills rather than a symptom of them. I don't want to get into a debate about this, though. I'll only say that, while I agree that it stinks that D&D has become increasingly bowdlerized to appeal to the mass market, it's not as if WotC is doing this in a societal vacuum.

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  21. 4E Solo encounters usually aren't all that interesting (to me, anyway) because the element of maneuver is de-emphasized.

    It's interesting then that solo monsters seem to my unlettered eyes to be the "cream of the crop" in 4e, the stuff of final climactic battles. I'm glad to hear that combined arms tactics get treated well in the game, although I do worry that it'll be done in a highly mechanistic fashion.

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  22. although I do worry that it'll be done in a highly mechanistic fashion.

    Yup. The effects of the various powers and abilities are very specifically laid out in terms of squares, hit points, healing surges, etc. It's not easy to pick and choose the rules you want to use in 4E. The rules density is high and the impact of messing with those rules is never clear-cut. It's not a toolkit full of importable or disposable ideas like other RPGs.

    That said, in my experience, the main bits of the system appear to be decently designed and run well as written, so I don't feel the need to tinker much with it. One of the joys of DMing 4E has been discovering synergies between the various abilities -- like how kobolds ought to maneuver, or how a stirge is lousy meat for an encounter but excellent spice. They're in there, but they're left for DMs and players to discover.

    (moving on to a more general discussion of the oldschoolishness of 4E, if that's okay...)

    Though there is a ton of mechanical specificity in 4E, when I'm DMing it, I don't feel like I'm just some WoW bot or something. In addition to all its kewl powerz, 4E also includes some pretty good advice on how to deal when players go off the reservation and want to try stuff that totally isn't defined in the rules.

    In any 4E game that's run according to the letter and spirit of the rules, players are free to try any crazy stuff that they like, in or out of combat. One of the other delights of DMing for me is when my players get creative in response to the hard stuff I throw at them. When they're being creative, it means they're engaged and having fun, it keeps me surprised and on my toes and in the moment, and it means I worry less about how they'll get through the adventure because they will find their own way.

    (Mind you, I have really good players. But maybe 4E can help people who aren't great players become great players.)

    When my guys do creative stuff, as DM, I have the usual absolute power to decide I'm going to wedge their actions into the system, or to disregard the system if I think the most interesting outcome is obvious and the dice won't add anything. 4E provides very good support to me if I do decide to engage the rules while judging something creative. I think this is a great feature, especially for novice DMs, who need to see that the rules aren't the entirety of the game, and that player and DM creativity is what distinguishes tabletop play from WoW-play.

    So yeah, while 4E is a big ol' skirmish wargame, it is also a nice do-what-thou-wilt framework that is provoking creative play from my players. While it's absolutely not old-school in one regard, I think it is pretty old-school in another.

    Is that a big deal to old-school RPGers? The ability for players to go anywhere and do anything, with the DM deciding how it comes out?

    btw, though I am not a grognard, I always enjoy reading this site. The table of wizardly disfigurement was particularly cool.

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  23. Boo-hoo. Everything old is good and everything new is bad. The only Monster Manual illustrations I like are the ones in cave paintings or scratches in the dirt.

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  24. Boo-hoo. Everything old is good and everything new is bad. The only Monster Manual illustrations I like are the ones in cave paintings or scratches in the dirt.

    You haven't really been paying attention to anything I've said, have you?

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  25. My beef with the beefy (not porky) Orcus is that he's obviously escaped from Doom/Quake - not that he looks "new," or even insufficiently medieval/Freudian, but that he looks like a video game monster. I believe this is the source of the feeling that you could now gun him down, BTW.

    4E is a big ol' skirmish wargame
    I still can't quite unwrap all the layers of irony around this statement and the way it makes me feel sad. I didn't start playing skirmish wargames, and I've never really liked them (so I'm obviously not a grognard). For me the interest in D&D, and RPGs generally, is that they promise so much more than that. I've a sneaking suspicion that in some ways 4e has come full circle from chainmail, closing me back out (although marriage and children did that years ago, to be honest).

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  26. Is that a big deal to old-school RPGers? The ability for players to go anywhere and do anything, with the DM deciding how it comes out?

    No, it's not; I'd argue that that's one of the foundational pillars of old school play. What I would question is whether or not 4e as written actually supports such a play style or whether that's just a function of how you, as DM, interpret its rules. That is, almost any game can be played in an old school fashion (though some make it harder than others), but very few games are actually written in a way to that supports it. You say that 4e "provides very good support" for adjudicating unusual circumstances the players may engineer. What do you mean by that? Does it provide "rules" for how to handle such things or is it just a compilation of anecdotes to serve as examples and inspirations?

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  27. James, I really have enjoyed your series on the D&D covers. I would be interested in seeing your commentary on the old FF & MM2. I realize that these are not the main stream books, but based on how poorly the MM covers are, I would be interested in seeing your commentary.

    Cheers!
    Bret "Mr Baron"

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  28. I actually plan to discuss the Fiend Folio sometime very soon.

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  29. You say that 4e "provides very good support" for adjudicating unusual circumstances the players may engineer. What do you mean by that? Does it provide "rules" for how to handle such things or is it just a compilation of anecdotes to serve as examples and inspirations?
    Next time you're at your FLGS, take a look at the DMG, page 42 (easy to remember if you're a Douglas Adams fan). The section is titled, "Actions the rules don't cover," and I found it quite pleasing when I first read it.

    Since 4e is constructed on an architecture of (supposedly) pretty rigorous math, the intent of this section is largely to guide the GM on ways to translate creative actions into mechanical effects that benefit the party. It's easy to assume that the suspense of new school play is simply whether a character's stats are high enough that statistically average dice rolls will allow him to overcome the difficulties presented - but this section is a reminder that it's still a game of imagination and innovation.

    For example, Matthew Finch's Quick Primer gives an example where a PC leaps off a ledge to attack a monster. The old-school DM is expected to decide whether this would make the attack easier or harder, and by how much. The 4e DM has to make similar decisions, but is guided by simple advice, e.g. that the basic bonus or penalty of +/- 2 should be sufficient for most cases - it will have a meaningful effect on how the encounter plays out, without making the character's existing statistics superfluous. These sorts of things are expected to apply to other areas where new school gaming relies on skill rules rather than arbitration, as well. When looking for a pit trap a player's decision to pour water on the floor in order to spot cracks more easily may give him a bonus to his Perception roll.

    There's a great example where a rogue wants to try the classic swashbuckling move of swinging on a chandelier and kicking an ogre in the chest, hoping to knock it into a brazier of burning coals. In this example, the DM's process of reasoning is shown: since this is an action the DM wants to encourage, he picks an easy difficulty for an Acrobatics check (so it's not a sure thing to pull the trick off, but it's likely enough to work that it should be a viable tactic whenever the opportunity appears). Another roll pits the PC's Strength against the Ogres (again, the tactic will work better against creatures who are not a great deal larger and stronger than the PC, which in 4e is indicated with various statistics). Finally, assuming the rolls work out, the DM is guided to determine an appropriate level of damage for an improvised source: is a brazier of burning coals likely to inflict low, medium, or high damage? Is this source of damage a one-time thing that will memorably impact the encounter, or is it just one of several attacks that the players will likely use every chance they get? These questions are used to determine the damage dealt, and like most other things in 4e, damage is scaled to level.

    Clearly, this game is still a far cry from anything resembling Old School, but I think this section illustrates that the game designers are at least bearing in mind a little of what makes old school gaming fun. It's certainly a good distance from the 3e method that seems to depend on an encyclopedic listing of every possible circumstance. Rather than "A Rule for Everything," or "A Few Good Rules and a Clever DM," the philosophy is "Robust Rules, Rigorous Math, and Ways To Make Them Sit Up And Beg." Which is pretty cool.

    Full disclosure, though: my 4e campaign never completely got off the ground. A few changes in player availability forced me to attempt revisions in my premier adventure, which brought me face to face with the fact that as much as I like 4e, as much as it has improved (in my opinion) on the design philosophy of 3e, it's still too fiddly to be easily adjusted. Since I like being able to adjust things on the fly, this was discouraging. So I switched back to Savage Worlds, which has always managed to be the perfect fit to my preferred gaming style.

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  30. Clearly, this game is still a far cry from anything resembling Old School, but I think this section illustrates that the game designers are at least bearing in mind a little of what makes old school gaming fun.

    They certainly can hum the tune, but they seem to have forgotten the words. Go back over the way you described the 4e DMG's advice for how to adjudicate the rogue swinging on the chandelier. Look at the adjectives and adverbs you chose: "appropriate level of damage," "memorably impact the encounter." I realize they're words you chose, not ones in the DMG (I went and looked at the section in question), but I think they capture the philosophy behind 4e, one that isn't old school at all, namely the notion that the world scales with the PCs, who are the axis around which everything turns. There's nothing wrong with this approach, if it's what you want out of roleplaying, but I much prefer a less literary/cinematic approach.

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  31. It's been almost a year since you posted this, but I'm reading your blog from the beginning to the end, so forgive me for adding a late voice to the conversation. :)

    I think you're right about how the Orcus re-design reflects the attitude of 4th Edition (and I loved the comment about the WWE Championship Belt!) To my mind, there's a definite resemblance between Original Orcus and New Orcus, and the stylistic changes are in keeping with the overall changes that D&D has gone through especially since 3rd Edition came around. And the Book of Vile Darkness Orcus fits perfectly into this "evolution of man" triptych.

    The original Orcus illustration doesn't do anything for me. And it's not just the art quality. The problem for me is that he looks no more dangerous than half a dozen "goat man" monsters I've seen in D&D and other roleplaying games. I just can't see myself fighting that guy. And this is the same problem I have with Demogorgon, who, unlike Orcus, I actually have a connection to (through the Baldur's Gate games.) He just doesn't look all that menacing to me, compared to other D&D monsters.

    So I prefer the new illustration. I don't love it, for a number of reasons. Orcus looks like a bloated dwarf. And he looks pretty dumb, too. There's no intelligence or menace in his expression. Just the threat of physical violence. Nothing really demonic about him. And what's with the context? He's in some generic "green glow" dungeonscape, rushing headlong towards you. Is this how you encounter Orcus, Demon Prince of the Undead? "You pick the lock and open the door. Through the portal you see a room about 100 feet deep and 50 feet wide. You see an Orcus standing in the middle, guarding a mound of glittering coins. It sees you and charges. Oh, and there are some liches and stuff also. Roll for initiative."I would've much preferred to see Orcus sitting on a twenty-foot-high throne of bone, steeped in shadows, at the back of a massive cathedral with dark red light streaming in through stained-glass windows and illuminating just enough of the aisle down the nave to show the shuffle of hordes of undead gathering before their demon god. Even better if the illustration showed a group of adventurers moving down that aisle, shrinking back from the shadows.

    Overall, the Book of Vile Darkness Orcus is my favorite. But that illustration lacks context too. And he doesn't look all that intelligent, either.

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  32. I too have been reading your blog from front to back and arrived here and find myself questioning what appears an almost fetish level reverence of what seems to me just poor artwork.

    Now lest I be condemned to new school sensibilities, I began play in '75 - '76 and still have Chainmail (with fantasy supplement), those LBBs in a white box and all the supplements. It just seems to me that Orcus was not one of Sutherland's best works. The original artwork does not appear creepy to me at all, just amusing, as it did in the late 70's.

    It is my belief that Gygax himself would have made some of his more dangerous monsters look more menacing if he had the artists at the time able to really pull that off, we know he certainly approved of some of those menacing dragon pictures like the cover of the basic rules. I guess we will never know.

    As you have often said we need old school sensibilities with high production values. Old Orcus is not it.

    BTW I own both official miniatures of Orcus; the old pot bellied pig looking one from the 80's and the massive new one that just came out.

    I would have preferred a new ferocious looking Orcus with his piggish features intact and even his potbelly, but then I liked pig faced Orcs with so many worshiping him as a cult master. In fact when I have used him there has always been Orcs involved.

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  33. now THIS is Orcus

    http://enrill.net/images/orcus-600.jpg

    via benoist.

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  34. I do not think Orcus on the 4e cover is flexing his muscles for the judges, he is running/charging at the reader.

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