Monday, August 4, 2008

Not Bad

I make no bones about the fact that I rather strongly disliked the cover of the Fourth Edition Players Handbook, both stylistically and in terms of content. I feel it sends a very strong signal, almost certainly by design, that D&D is no longer a unique Gestalt of pulp fantasy, fairy tales, Hammer horror, and the random detritus of pop culture but instead a copy of copy of those very things. This was inevitable, I suppose, given the way that D&D's remarkable goulash has forever changed the way we view fantasy. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, with very few exceptions, every fantasy created since the late 1970s at least has been either an embrace (and extension) of the Gygaxo-Arneson synthesis or a rejection of it. In a certain sense, we are all Gygaxians now, even if some of us hew closer to orthodoxy than others.

It's no surprise then that Wizards of the Coast, now a subsidiary of Hasbro, would need to do something in order to distinguish D&D from its bastard offspring. If every fantasy out there is D&D or a mutant variety thereof, what then is D&D? As a commercial property, D&D is almost certainly underperforming compared to its erstwhile descendants. When World of Warcraft, which employs a fundamentally Gygaxian fantasy set-up, can pull in over $100 million a month from online subscriptions , why can't D&D do the same? I'm not seriously arguing that D&D can be -- or should be -- pulling down those kinds of numbers, but I'm pretty sure someone at Hasbro asked such questions of WotC. When you consider that the brand name "Dungeons & Dragons" has remarkable recognition in the US, the "re-imagining" of D&D we got in 4e begins to make more sense. (Unfortunately, I think it's simultaneously too much of a change to be a good RPG and too little of a change to be a huge mass market success, but that's a topic for another time)

With that as prologue, let me say that I think the cover of the 4e DMG is not a bad one.

I don't love it. I don't think it's incredibly inspired or anywhere near as good as the revised 1e cover, but it's a solid effort and one that I think hits many of the right notes. For one, it's got a dragon on the cover and said dragon is in a cavern. It's not quite a dungeon as such, but it's close enough and I give it points for that. Second, the dragon looks sinister; he's not a nicey-nicey, please-ride-on-my-back-and-fight-evil dragon. He's a dragon. Now, I don't actually care much for the overall appearance of the dragon myself -- he's too dinosaur-like and spiky, when I would have preferred a more serpentine vibe -- but he's at least something I can recognize. He's broadly archetypal and that's good to see.

The dragon is peering into a crystal ball or scrying device, in which he sees the posers on the cover of the 4e PHB. I think this is just keen, as it ties in nicely with the notion of the Dungeon Master as the overseer of his campaign. I also like it because I think dragons, as immensely long-lived beings, ought to be natural schemers and planners and this illustration implies something of the sort. Some will no doubt see in the cover echoes of the cover to the Cook/Marsh Expert Rules, which employed a similar motif. I'm not sure what to think about that assertion. On the one hand, 4e is first "ahistorical" edition of D&D since OD&D itself, so I'm not sure making an artistic allusion to a rulebook published before most of the new game's target audience was born is all that plausible. On the other hand, I've seen repeated (if implausible) claims that 4e is the result of deep research into the history of the game. If true, someone at WotC might have felt this was an "Easter egg" for long-time fans. I remain unmoved myself, but then I take the heretical view that Moldvay/Cook was in fact another step on the road to perdition, so what do I know?

In the end, I'm left with the feeling that this is a decent cover, probably the best we could hope for with the new game. Looking at it, I feel far more interested in playing the game than I do looking at the PHB cover. I also find it more evocative than than the 3e or v.3.5 covers. I realize this might seem like I am damning it with faint praise and perhaps I am, but I don't dislike this cover. It's far and away the best of the three 4e core book covers and it's more appropriate to the DMG than even the 1e DMG's illustration is. That said, I can think of many other illustrations that'd work better for the DMG than this one and many styles I'd find more suited as well. I'd grade it an A in the C+ world of 4e art, but a B- compared to the revised 1e cover or other illustrations I see in my mind's eye.

12 comments:

  1. I concur, 4e isn't a game that grabs me, but this cover isn't bad.

    I'd be interested in hearing more of your views on the non-advanced D&D books (Moldvay Basic, Cook Expert, Holmes Basic, and the whole BECMI lineup) both in terms of artistry (cover or otherwise) and game content.

    ReplyDelete
  2. ...need to do something in order to distinguish D&D from its bastard offspring... As a commercial property, D&D is almost certainly underperforming compared to its erstwhile descendants...

    Isn't this exactly the answer to your previous post about the commodification of every part of D&D's history and creeping canonization of Gygax's odds and ends? I suspect D&D is something of a commercial chimera: it looks promising, but most of its appealing flavor has been strip-mined by other products, and what's left is the quirky and indigestible (beholders, mind flayers and one-shot spell-casting). Trying to develop it as a Hasbro property has to be an unenviable task, frankly: you're supposed to get it to live up to its name, in a landscape that's basically different from the one in which it first flourished. I sympathize with your view that there's a great and glorious pulp fantasy game underneath the layers of accumulated stock-fantasy-building, but if I were working at Hasbro I don't think I'd be inclined to bet mass-market budgets on (and I say this with sad fellow-feeling) fringe audiences. I might be persuaded to (re)launch a Conan game, or something based on another recognisable property that didn't have to struggle with the weight of all those DragonThings and Ravenlofts and what have you, but I'd be looking for something conceptually lean and clearly communicable, with a core you can pick up and play right away and potential for really intriguing splatbooks. In the Hasbro exec's shoes, I'd be asking if we couldn't do something cross-market, that combined aspects of RPG and CCG play. It would take a lot of persuading for me to consider taking a punt on an eanestly-meant, slightly tongue-in-cheek, genre-bending (but not breaking) pasticchio of off-kilter elements.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Me too! I also rank this as the second-best DMG cover, after the 1e revised by Easley. And I wouldn't be surprised to learn the "easter egg" was something the artist did independently of the art direction, though I rather doubt it. As it stands, I don't feel the echo of the Cook Expert cover is anything more than a skin-deep genuflection to the past.

    As far as Moldvay/Cook being "another step on the road to perdition", I can certainly understand why you hold that view. Honestly, the more I study the art of D&D, the more the professional, polished look of those books seems to foreshadow the coming of the Elmore era of late '80s D&D. In fact, I'll one-up your heresy by suggesting that Otus is closer to Elmore than he is to what we find in the little brown books (though that's an idea I'm still teasing at the edges of.)

    - Brian

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'd be interested in hearing more of your views on the non-advanced D&D books (Moldvay Basic, Cook Expert, Holmes Basic, and the whole BECMI lineup) both in terms of artistry (cover or otherwise) and game content.

    I plan on doing a series on them after I finish with the Monster Manual covers.

    ReplyDelete
  5. In fact, I'll one-up your heresy by suggesting that Otus is closer to Elmore than he is to what we find in the little brown books (though that's an idea I'm still teasing at the edges of.)

    In the sense of being a professional artist rather than a talented (or not-so-talented) amateur, I'd agree with you. But, by that metric, Dave Trampier is also closer to Elmore than to Greg Bell or Keenan Powell, which makes it a heresy without much meaningful doctrine.

    (I think only Dave Sutherland manages to retain the "talented amateur" moniker without qualification)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Moldvay/Cook was in fact another step on the road to perdition

    I don't disagree, but man is it a helluva fun step!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I agree with you. This cover is one of the things I hate least about 4e. Though, I'll admit I always thought the 3e/3.5 core covers were interesting, and I'd have liked them in a prestige format (IE actual leather binding and such).

    ReplyDelete
  8. Road to Perdition Moldvay/Cook?

    Uhhh... its almost the best D&D there is! I would almost put Mentzer ahead of it, except its harder to find stuff and the planned 36 level dealie slowed down advancement a bit... (And it really should have added AD&D hit points, something my own house rules did. Of course I eventually decided on a AD&D1-2nd edition AD&D TSR era house rule set for maximum fun anyhow. Somewhere with AD&D and Basic and a taste of D20 lies the perfect D&D ideal. Castles and Crusades came VERY close to it.)

    I will be very interested in seeing why you have issues with it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I will be very interested in seeing why you have issues with it.

    Quite simply: Moldvay/Cook is a slick, clear set of rules geared for the mass market rather than the hobbyist. It's a big step toward the brandification of D&D that culminates in 4e.

    As Jeff notes in an earlier comment, it's a helluva fun step, but it's a step nonetheless. It represents a change in thinking at TSR both in terms of what the ideal of D&D is and what the hobby was all about. Don't get me wrong: I actually like Moldvay/Cook a great deal. However, it's a clear shift away from the old school (though not as much as Mentzer) and that saddens me.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Did you happen to see this S. John Ross bit on commercial game design? One bit of it is what I wanted to say, only said better and with less chance of being inflammatory.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hmmmm. Saying Moldvay/Cook is a clear step away from OD&D because the rules are slick and clear may or may not be correct. It depends. Do you think OD&D is unclear and unslick because:

    A) That's the way the authors intended it in order to promote a certain style of play.

    or

    B) It was simply their first attempt at putting a game together and the end result was a bit rough.

    If you go with option A, then yes Moldvay/Cook would be a change of philosophy. If you go with option B, it's simply a more organized ruleset from a company that has a bit more experience.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Andrew,

    You're correct in saying that much of the "roughness" of OD&D comes from its being the work of inexperienced authors and a new company. I'm not in fact someone who argues that, just because something is unclear in the three little brown books, Gygax and Arneson intended it to be unclear and thus open to interpretation by the individual referee.

    That said, OD&D includes no section that states that "Everything is Balanced" in the way Moldvay/Cook does. That is a shift away from the philosophy of OD&D and, while it's a small thing, it is a step on the road toward the standardization that I think is anathema to old school gaming.

    ReplyDelete

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