Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Extraordinary Ordinary

No matter how old I get, I think this illustration by Dave Sutherland will always be the closest anyone has ever come to encapsulating Dungeons & Dragons in a single image. That's in large part because it adorns the inside cover of the rules edited by J. Eric Holmes, which was the first D&D product I ever owned. So, it's invested with a hefty dose of nostalgia. Of course, I also happen to like the image: two fighting men with historical armor and weapons holding back a veritable horde of pig-faced orcs, also with historical armor and weapons, while the magic-user -- complete with a bestarred conical cap -- stands behind them casting a spell.

That's pretty much my mind's eye view of the game, then and now. It's a particular conception of the game, I'll grant. Even in 1977, when this image first appeared, it wasn't the only approach to it, but it was certainly the one I had the most contact with. Looking back on it, what I found appealing was its "groundedness." The armor and weapons in the picture are all based on real armor and weapons from the Middle Ages. Though a mishmash of periods and styles, they're not at all fantastical in origin, which nicely contrasts with the orcs. The magic-user is an interesting case, because, while not "real" in any sense, he's so archetypal that I somehow don't put him in the same category of unreality as the orcs.

One of the interesting things about this illustration is that you can see in it the seeds that would blossom into the fantastic realism of the Silver Age. In a certain sense, guys like Larry Elmore and Keith Parkinson are very much in the same tradition as this early work. In another sense, though, there's a clear difference. Sutherland's men aren't buffed action heroes and his women -- what few of them there are -- don't look like supermodels. This helps reinforce the notion that D&D adventurers are ordinary people, albeit extraordinarily courageous (or foolhardy) ones.

I think it's an important difference and it almost certainly explains both my mild distaste for the Silver Age generally and the continued appeal of the Holmes rulebook. The book includes several other examples of very ordinary looking fighters engage in battle against monstrous opponents. None of these fighters look like Schwarzenegger and that's important to me. The issues I have with post-Golden Age D&D art are not technical in nature but conceptual: the abandonment first of anatomical verisimilitude, reflecting the growing focus on the character as the "star" of his own story, and then of physical verisimilitude, reflecting the shift away from groundedness more generally -- oversized weapons, impractical armor, gravity-defying poses, etc.

All these things seem a break with the past and that saddens me. D&D needs more extraordinary ordinariness in my opinion. Not only would it be a return to the game's esthetic roots but it'd also help distinguish the game better from its bastard descendants, most of which abandoned verisimilitude long before D&D art directors decided aping them was the way to go. Instead of dancing to someone else's tune, wouldn't it be nice to see D&D calling its own once again?

32 comments:

  1. (wipes tear away) That was beatiful, man ...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ironically, it was 2e that got me into the idea of "exploring the ordinary." The off-hand suggestion therein that it might be interesting to use 3d6 for ability scores, without re-arranging, really spoke to me. (Probably had something to do with being the right, post-adolescent age.)

    But can you honestly celebrate the conical hats and long robes? I'm inclined to put them in the same category as the chainmail bikini. It looks great for lounging around the tower and it might even be an archtype of fantasy(sp?) but how practical is it for the dungeon? (Mr. M-U, is your beard attached to an elastic chinstrap?)

    ReplyDelete
  3. That first picture is also "the" archetypal D&D image for me.

    The other thing I notice from older D&D art (like the harpies picture) the adventurers both appear normal AND they have a look of outright horror most of the time! That's definitely antithetical to the you-are-the-hero mode of potraiture, and it's why I can never shake the feeling that classic D&D is most closely related to a medieval Lovecraft epic, most of the time.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The issues I have with post-Golden Age D&D art are not technical in nature but conceptual: the abandonment first of anatomical verisimilitude, reflecting the growing focus on the character as the "star" of his own story, and then of physical verisimilitude, reflecting the shift away from groundedness more generally -- oversized weapons, impractical armor, gravity-defying poses, etc.

    I have an almost visceral disgust of fanciful weapons and armor. It's so bad, that to be honest, I won't even bother spending time on any game decorated with it. -If the creators were willing to go there, that's all I need to know. I'm not saying it's rational, but it's how I feel.

    All these things seem a break with the past and that saddens me. D&D needs more extraordinary ordinariness in my opinion.

    Extraordinary ordinariness: Today's example of: "Why I read Grognardia". That term is a gem.

    Buff, attractive, fantastical characters with fanciful equipment unleashing their extraordinary powers on wicked monsters. -Bleh. Give me a scrappy dungeoneer trying his best to stay alive despite limited skills and resources. -Now there is a hero.

    ReplyDelete
  5. That first picture is what I use on the cover of my OD&D rules-hack document...

    ReplyDelete
  6. We are all products of our upbringing, which is why even though I have a great appreciation for these earlier D&D pieces, and the wonderful distinctiveness of the artists, like Dee, Otus and Sutherland, I am still a Silver Age art kinda guy.

    Guys like Elmore and Parkinson really put me there and I think it's little coincidence that was the time when I used D&D the most.

    Sure my tastes have matured and I've found illos from the past to today that I think are great, but a special corner of my heart is saved for fantastic realism.

    ReplyDelete
  7. D&D needs more extraordinary ordinariness in my opinion... wouldn't it be nice to see D&D calling its own once again?

    I couldn't agree more, but I think you had to "be there" at the time to appreciate it. When publishers today use artwork like this, they get slammed for it.

    Look at the ridiculous kerfluffle and over-the-top criticism aimed at Mongoose regarding the artwork in their first edition of Traveller. I never understood what was supposed to be so bad about it. Now everyone is happy because, in its 4the printing, the art has been replaced with something more "anime".

    I look at the artwork in 4E D&D, and I can't even connect to whatever world that is. The power of illustrations to influence one's perception of a game is amazing. I look at illustrations like Sutherland's, and it reminds me of my vision of fantasy at the time, heavily influenced by Howard Pyle's King Arthur and His Knights. And I remember how different Steve Jackson's The Fantasy Trip games felt, in large part due to Metagaming's different, almost Excalibur-like approach to the art.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Funny thing, I was just doing a drawing yesterday that was a re-imagining of this piece. I wanted to do a whole series of drawings as an homage to the art in the Holmes edition (it's still my favorite). So far, i've come up with two sketches but I'm still not satisfied.

    I'm not trying to improve the drawing itself, I just want to try to capture some of the imagination that Dave Sutherland had when he drew it. I love the old school art!

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is the second time today that I've wondered about how the shift in the whimsy and now reflecting on the shift in 'extraordinary ordinariness' is a sign of our culture and loss of 'innocence'. If something evokes a simple happiness or singular pleasure, rather than the drama-laden heaviness of today's fiction and entertainment, it's mocked. It's a shame. I may enjoy the new BSG for it's grittiness, but I enjoy the original for the morality and layers of messages that were accessible in its simplicity. Same with Star Treks of new for their advanced technology vs. Star Treks of old with their stories and action.

    I can't say the same for the new D&D vs. old D&D. I enjoy a simpler theme, a more 'human' aspect rather than superheroes with swords.

    I wonder if our children are missing out on something with how heavy today's media is? I'm thinking of today's anime/complex cartoons in comparison to 70s/80s cartoons. With the rush to superheros with swords in online and tabletop games, I think a great deal is lost in the translation.

    ReplyDelete
  10. >reinforce the notion that D&D adventurers are ordinary people, albeit extraordinarily courageous (or foolhardy) ones<

    Of course, in OD&D rules you had a lot of characters running around with at least one or two sub-par stats due to the 3 dice for them, and 17's and 18's were very rare. And of course, your hit point rolls had a hand in making you "ordinary" as well.

    Nobody captured all that as well as Sutherland. So often, the depicted characters look like they are farm hands or shopkeepers who threw on some armor or apprenticed with a wizard one summer, then hit the dungeon and were quickly overwhelmed.

    And the poor young wizard. The fighters looked good in any armor they got their hands on for the first time, but the new m.u. has to go out on his firt adventure in those stupid stars & moons robes and cone hats. The mentor wizard can't wait to go see his friends at the tavern "...and you wouldn't believe the shit I told him he had to wear in the dungeon..."

    Or maybe the robes and hats are part of the wizard school fraternity initiation? Those A-holes will do anything to make a dude look like a fool.

    I my earliest gaming days, I think the look of our characters were generally based on the figures we got our hands on. As the 80's wore on and great, epic looking figures became more available, our characters started looking more like super-stars.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I my earliest gaming days, I think the look of our characters were generally based on the figures we got our hands on. As the 80's wore on and great, epic looking figures became more available, our characters started looking more like super-stars.

    What do you think of that? How much do minis effect your perception of the game?

    I'm asking because I think the big reason why the art in the game is meaningful to me because I have never used a mini. The art in the book is my primary reference point in what the game feels like. I guess it shouldn't surprise that this is so, but it does. Whenever I run or play Exalted, I always picture things in an anime style, because the art in the book reinforces that. D&D is in silver age fantasy realism with the occasional old school touch, again because that's how I was introduced to it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. "No matter how old I get, I think this illustration by Dave Sutherland will always be the closest anyone has ever come to encapsulating Dungeons & Dragons in a single image."

    Funny, when I think of encapsulating D&D in a single image, I think of something more along the lines of This.

    I keed, I keed...

    Like others have said, it might symbolize D&D for you, but you were there "at the ground level" (well not really, you were what, 5 when D&D came out? But whatever). I've been gaming for 16 years and when I started in the 90's, that Dragonlance / Elmore artwork you hate so much is, to me, "D&D Art".

    On the other hand, I think Frank Frazetta kicks all of 'em in the nads and steals their milk money, so there you go.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I really love that first picture too - it was a heavy influence on the Otherworld Minis 'Pig-faced Orcs' range. Watch out for the Harpies from the second drawing in a couple of months!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Agree with Badelaire in regard to Frazetta. But I consider these more "illos" than art so that's really not a fair comparison. I'll tread lightly there as the last time I opened that can o' worms I rankled some feathers.

    I've never been a DCS fan, and much like James M., "I was there". Well, I was there in the late 70's, anyway. I can appreciate much of the subject matter and themes in Sutherland's stuff, it's often the execution that turns me off.

    Contrast DCS to Trampier, as most of us were wont to do when we leafed through the big three 1e books, and to me there's no comparison. I prefer Tramp. And back then, those were the two big TSR illustrators.

    Perhaps that is why I look down my nose at much of Sutherland's work, because I cannot stop comparing it to Trampier's. I just leafed through the Monster Manual and found quite a few DCS pieces that I've really do like.

    To me, though, his work lacks any particular panache or style. It's very solid at it's best, but rarely inspiring to me.

    ReplyDelete
  15. But can you honestly celebrate the conical hats and long robes?

    I can and I do. :)

    More seriously, I just like my magic-users to look the part. Nowadays, they're much too hale and hardy to be bookish guys and gals who've bargained away bits of their sanity to plumb the secrets of the cosmos.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Funny thing, I was just doing a drawing yesterday that was a re-imagining of this piece.

    I'd love to see it!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Watch out for the Harpies from the second drawing in a couple of months!

    If only I had infinite resources and the ability to actually paint your lovely miniatures ...

    Which reminds me: I need to do a "review" of the pig-faced orcs I bought some months ago.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Perhaps that is why I look down my nose at much of Sutherland's work, because I cannot stop comparing it to Trampier's. I just leafed through the Monster Manual and found quite a few DCS pieces that I've really do like.

    Make no mistake: Tramp is the Man. He is, bar none, the most talented and evocative artist to have ever put his pen in the service of illustration D&D. Much as I like Sutherland's work, he can't hold a candle to Trampier.

    ReplyDelete
  19. How much do minis effect your perception of the game?

    In my case, very little. I used minis a lot as a younger person, but they rarely matched up to what I imagined a character or monster looked like. Mostly, they were just "markers" so we could determine marching order and illustrate the placement of features in the dungeon.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I feel like I'm missing out on something because while the artwork was cool - at that age, I wasn't taken with it. It inspired me, but I guess I have a hard time remembering who did which picture and even the pictures themselves. It's not till I see them here that I remember them. My art appreciation must be of a very low level.

    What got to me was the words, the examples of play, the little tidbits of wisdom.

    ReplyDelete
  21. >How much do minis effect your perception of the game?<

    A bunch for me. Once I started helping/hanging out at a gameshop as a kid, I got a large collection pretty quick. Early on we learned how to paint and alter figures to suit a pretty close approximation of the main characters and NPC's. OK, so sometimes I had to use a D20 for a Beholder, or a fake novelty ice cube for a Gelatinous Cube, but it added a lot for me, and to this day I would not run a game without some for, as James M. sez, marching order and such. It never affects my imagination to the negative.

    Recently getting back into gaming, I noticed strong views on both sides of the miniatures front. I think I'll need to post my views on that one.

    > I always picture things in an anime style<

    That is so funny, because at some point for about a year or so in the 80's, I pictured everything in my game as being in the animation and art style of the video game "Dragons Lair." The princess was so damn hot. And speaking of that game's style, isn't it awesome that "Dirk the Daring" was depicted in a very "average joe adventurer" Sutherland style?

    ReplyDelete
  22. I totally agree with the whole "extraordinary ordinariness". I think fantasy is cooler when it's more grounded in reality. Suspension of disbelief is like a bank account, and if you're asking the viewer to believe in dragons, don't saddle them with the extra effort of believing someone's fighting the thing in shoulder plates as big as trashcans.

    For me the low point of D&D art began around 3rd. Edition when WotC seems to have been overrun with wannabe goths, and suddenly you started to see a lot more shaved heads, piercings, facial tattoos, and millions and millions of straps and buckles on dungeon delvers...

    ReplyDelete
  23. Holmes Basic, B1 and Supplement III: a whole lotta Sutherland! I almost think the essence of D&D could have been conveyed without text, just a collection of his and Trampier's illustrations. "What's the story behind this, then?"

    There's an interesting thread at Dragonsfoot concerning the illos in the UK edition of Basic.

    ReplyDelete
  24. And the Monster Manual! Gods, talk about an "iconic" artist ...

    ReplyDelete
  25. Yeah, Tramp is nonpareil, from the incredible cartooning of "Wormy" to some of the best blending of the realistic and fantastic.

    The first mini I ever had was an ordinary infantryman (armed with a glaive kind of thing) from the Empire of the Petal Throne line, and the second was a Samurai. I swore by Ral Partha over the Official D&D lumps coming from Grenadier.

    Even EPT figures wielding chlen hide instead of steel didn't have such comical gear as seems par for the course today. How come Dwarfs are always lugging about hammers with the force spread over so much area they almost may as well be made of rubber? The better to "shift" foes in 4E, perhaps.

    The cone-and-robes struck me as formal wear evocative of the mighty Merlin -- a sort of "bling" for the bookish set, but very professional. The hipsters of course went in for the slouch hat and cape in imitation of Odin and Gandalf; fine if you're an actual Wizard, like dressing as Elvis or James Dean. Any way, it can be helpful if you don't actually have to [i]use[/i] that spell but can get by with the threat; trying to pass as a cattle rustling barbarian, a burglar or an s&m fetishist doesn't do the trick.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I swore by Ral Partha over the Official D&D lumps coming from Grenadier.

    Who didn't? Most of those Grenadier minis were terrible compared to the ones from Ral Partha.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I'll throw in a take on the wizard starred hat & robe -- consider that *maybe* they're actually functional. That's what I assumed as a kid, looking at these pictures. Maybe in order to generate certain magical energy you really do need a set of sorcerous symbols imprinted on a particular kind of material all around you.

    Sure, the D&D rules didn't explicitly have rules for that, but then OD&D doesn't have rules for what a helmet does for fighters, or why thieves only wear leather armor, either (obvious as those may seem). Sometimes I wonder what things would have been like if the robe requirement had been explained/enforced in the rules -- but then I'm really more happy with a less-is-more rules approach now anyway.

    "Wear the helmet, you dumb fighter! Wear the magic robe, you unwise wizard! Do I really have to tell you why?"

    ReplyDelete
  28. I agree with James. However, I do like a lot of the new art (e.g., the stuff in the 3e PH). There is no doubt, the art of a game affects its feel. The 3e PH obviously has that "dungeon punk" feel, but I do like how it brought the art back to the dungeon.

    It would be very interesting to see some of the new guard of artists attempt to follow in this "grounded fantasy." I'd particularly like to see more realistic looking armor and less buff heroes.

    ReplyDelete
  29. >I swore by Ral Partha over the<

    Aw yeah. Ral P. 4-life!

    I do remember, in my misty brain, that in the late 70's you could find quite a few miniatures of standard D&D adventurer types, posssibly inspired by guys like Sutherland. Hirelings with bags of gear (and I think one had a 10-foot pole), fighters in very tame, reasonable looking armor, conical wizard hatwear, etc. If one got made in the mid-80's or so, it was for novelty value I'm sure.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Do a Google search for "Brian Thomas" and "Three-headed Troll" to see his online art gallery. I really like his stuff and many images look like the one you have above. There are two other artists' galleries there as well, and they are in a similar style.

    Brian also posts his work on the Troll Lord forums.

    (sorry if this turns out to be a double post... I tried posting this before, but included URLs and that might have flagged it as spam).

    ReplyDelete
  31. Another post I cannot disagree with.

    Although I still contend that the biggest mistake for a D&D core book is putting any kind of effort towards unity on the artists. That’s great for—say—a setting book. For the core book, though, the artists should be encouraged to explore very different ideas.

    Because—whether intentional or not—the variety in the art in early editions said to me that this game is what I and my friends decide to make it. Not what the art director likes.

    Re: The pointed hat. For me, one of the key abilities of the magic-user is intimidation. Magic should be a mystery to the vast majority of monsters and NPCs encountered. When they see that pointed hat, the goblins ought to say, “Run!” rather than “Get ’im, ’e’s out of spells!”

    I wonder if our children are missing out on something with how heavy today's media is?

    Your thoughts echo my own.

    But you know what happened the other day? My kids (8yo boy and 6yo girl) asked to watch an episode from my Star Trek—the original series—DVDs. We ended up watching one and two of the animated episodes.

    Heck, when we got Boomerang, I don’t think we changed the channel for a week.

    I just got a Fractured Fairy Tales DVD. Can’t wait to see their reaction.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Actually, the pointy hat is functional. Historically, it was used like an ear-trumpet for amplifying the (apparently rather faint) communications of spirits. Also it makes the wearer appear taller and hence more imposing. (Plus the dunce cap didn't get invented until later, so that negative connotation wasn't present in medieval times.)

    ReplyDelete

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