Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Shocking

I'm the midst of trying to figure out how best to review the Grindhouse Edition of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing and it's proving a little harder than I thought, mostly because my overall feelings about the game haven't changed much since my original five-part review of the Deluxe Edition from last year. However, there are some subtle differences in my reaction to the Grindhouse Edition that I think are worth exploring and a large component of that reaction centers on the game's new artwork.

I had expected, given the build-up, to be quite taken aback by some of the new illustrations, perhaps even repulsed, but the truth is I wasn't. Yes, there were a couple of "Ewww"-inducing pieces, as well as a couple that made me palpably feel my 41 years, as I looked with disinterest at puerile attempts to be shocking. But I was never offended or revolted or felt as if I were viewing something forbidden. Indeed, I often found myself surprised at how much worse I had imagined the Grindhouse art would be than it actually is.

Now, maybe that speaks volumes at how jaded and depraved I am, no doubt a testament to how much damage 30+ years of association with this hobby has done to my psyche. Or maybe it speaks to the fact that Jim Raggi's imagination isn't as depraved as my own. More likely, though, I think it says more about how difficult it actually is to scandalize 21st century Westerners, even when you're trying to do so. I mean, I'm a self-described stick-in-the-mud, nigh-Puritanical when it comes to certain topics, and I found it hard to muster any kind of strong reaction to most of the supposedly shocking pieces in the Grindhouse Edition, let alone outrage. Am I really that difficult to shock?

In thinking about this, I found myself recalling discussions over the last few years about how supposedly "shocking" D&D was in the early days of the hobby and how this played a contributing role in the game's runaway popularity. According to this narrative, it was precisely because D&D made use of images and ideas that, in the late 1970s, were "dangerous" that the game attracted so much attention. What's funny is that I don't remember it that way at all. If D&D had a "gimmick," it was that it allowed suburban kids like me to enter into those fantasy worlds that were becoming so prevalent in the popular imagination at the time. And if there was anything "forbidden" about D&D, it was that it was seen as a "grown-up" pastime, or at least not a childish one. That had a far bigger impact on me in my wanting to be part of this weird hobby of ours than pictures of succubi or Satanic efreeti.

History is a funny thing. You don't realize that it's happening at the time and, in retrospect, it's easy to overemphasize certain aspects of it to fit into a convenient "story" that culminates in an "ending" that, conveniently, proves your point. And so it is with those who attribute to the early hobby a concerted effort to be shocking or to push the boundaries of good taste, whether for sales or something more philosophical. Of course, I'm probably overlooking lots of things, too, in my own account of what was going in during my formative years in the hobby and what I have to say should be viewed just as skeptically.

But, to me, it seems quite apparent that what was going on is that those early gaming artists were drawing inspiration from their predecessors in the pulps, whose artwork was genuinely shocking back in the 1920s and 30s but was positively tame by the 1970s. At the time, though, the covers of magazines like Weird Tales were often so shocking that laws were eventually enacted in many jurisdictions that forced a change in what they put on their covers by the 1940s. Nothing like that ever happened with D&D that I can remember, even at the height of the so-called "Satanic Panic" in the 1980s. If being "transgressive" played a big role in feeding the popularity of roleplaying. I must have missed out on it.

As with so many things, it might just be that my experiences weren't the norm. Throughout the entirety of my elementary and high school years while roleplaying (1979-1987), I only ever once encountered someone who genuinely considered D&D "dangerous" and she was widely regarded as a crank by most other adults I knew. When I was in college, I did finally meet people who'd had gotten into trouble with parents, teachers, and other adults because of their involvement in the hobby, so I recognize that there were folks who took seriously the notion that D&D had an adverse affect on young minds. The question is how many of them thought that because they saw and were shocked by the covers of the Dungeon Masters Guide or Eldritch Wizardry? Likewise, I'm sure there were some people who were drawn to the hobby because they considered its artwork shocking and, therefore, rebellious, but I never knew any who did and I'd be amazed if such individuals were ever more than a minority of a minority.

All of this is my typically long-winded way of saying something quite simple: this hobby was never dangerous, exposés by Ed Bradley notwithstanding and I think it's a mistake to look for new ways to make the hobby seem dangerous in the hopes of restoring its once-in-a-lifetime faddishness of yore. Indeed, I think there's something faintly, well, pathetic about such efforts, like a geriatric actor still trying to take on the same roles he did when he was in his 20s. Vowing to restore the nipple to its pride of place in gaming art or adding more graphic disembowelings isn't going to make one whit of difference in terms of the hobby's mainstream popularity, for good or for ill, which I think says a lot about how much such efforts fail to grasp the current state of things.

I'm certain I'll have more to say on this topic, both in my upcoming review and in other posts. It's something I've been thinking about for a while now and I hope others find it a worthy topic for continued discussion.

46 comments:

  1. I don't remember disembowelings ever being a major part of D&D art back in the day. Nipples, yes. Guts, no. (Blood and bones, sure! Guts and maiming, not so much.)

    That's why Hackmaster art, with its obligatory, routine ultra-violence, seems so silly to me (and its silliness is intentional -- it's pandering to the worst possible tastes of its audience way more than actual RPGs ever did.)

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  2. "Or maybe it speaks to the fact that Jim Raggi's imagination isn't as depraved as my own."

    You know what? I think I'm going to just enjoy this statement for a while before I come back and finish the review. :D

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  3. "Back in the day"... it was the religion vs magic element that seemed to get most people bent out of shape. Jack Chick and all of that.

    I remember seeing a pamphlet back in the 80s about "why D&D is bad" that someone had gotten a hold of from their church or something. They'd talk about D&D, magic, the devil and then allude to all these other games that were even worse. I'm not sure what those games were, or if they even existed, but I distinctly remember one was supposed to have been artwork of a guy with some other dude's junk torn off and hanging from the end of his spear.

    Did someone *actually* produce a game with that kind of art in it? Even with the internet I've yet to see any reference to it at all.

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  4. If I was truly trying to scandalize, I would have made a few different decisions in the artwork (I pulled back in several places to keep the art on point with the overall concept rather than see how far I could go) and I would not have hyped it and just let people stumble into it without warning.

    The "hype" about it was to play up the horror movie associates, as a lot of the imagery was inspired by 60s - early 80s horror movies. This isn't Human Centipede or A Serbian Film level of 21st century squick, this is more Wizard of Gore/Witchfinder General style depravity... things that could have been seen in the old grindhouse theaters, spiced up with some stuff more inspired by early 90s death metal (even to the point of using artists who work in that scene).

    The thing is still a game that's intended to be enjoyed and played as a group - with strangers even - so even if it's not something you bring out with kids or polite company it can't be something you're embarrassed to show at all. This isn't FATAL!

    The other reason to play up the "it's baaaaaaaaaaaad" is to have the "I warned you, you putz" card in my back pocket in case of Carcosa-like hysterics.

    Although, if I am to be honest, I do hope someone somewhere has that reaction.

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  5. I don't remember disembowelings ever being a major part of D&D art back in the day.

    Oh, neither do I, which is part of why I think calling for the "return" of graphic violence in gaming art is non-starter. There's not really any precedent for it nor do I think there's anything to be gained from including it.

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  6. Did someone *actually* produce a game with that kind of art in it? Even with the internet I've yet to see any reference to it at all.

    If they did, it was a pretty obscure game, since, like you, I've never seen anything like that from the old days. I'd be hard pressed to think of any RPG art prior the 90s that might have been in that ballpark and, again, that was outlier stuff. Even White Wolf's art was pretty sedate in 95% of their releases.

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  7. I find it impossible to be morally offended by anything in art (whether literature, painting, sculpture, music, etc.). Art is simply...art. It can't hurt anybody.

    Man's inhumanity to man is where I get morally outraged.

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  8. Sorry, distracted by the graphics. Those are great covers!

    Uhhh... you had words in this post? ;)

    In all honesty, I think the sense/temptation/possibility of the salacious makes D&D interesting. It's a shame the later TSR books lost that knack for subtleties in their art.

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  9. In all honesty, I think the sense/temptation/possibility of the salacious makes D&D interesting.

    I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I don't approve of things like the infamous TSR Code of Ethics, which robbed the game of elements that added to its depth and richness. At the same time, I'm unconvinced by the notion that D&D became popular because it had lots of nudity and violence in its art and that upping the presence of both would improve its popularity nowadays.

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  10. I'm unconvinced by the notion that D&D became popular because it had lots of nudity and violence in its art and that upping the presence of both would improve its popularity nowadays.

    No arguments there. I think the modern version does reflect modern popular culture to attract the widest audience, which is a lot more violent/sexual in nature. That doesn't mean subtlety doesn't have an audience, but not nearly as broad an audience as the low-hanging fruit of comic book characters and half naked sorceresses (1). TSR/WotC shoots for the widest audience.

    (1) Which I'm not complaining against... definitely an equal opportunity kinda guy there. ;>

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  11. It's hard to be shocked, especially in D&D context.

    Here's two pictures from official D&D products I found quite brutal and maybe somewhat un-D&D in style:
    Rapture of Rupture from 3.5
    Torog, god of the Underdark from 4E

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  12. I agree that RPGs were never 'transgressive'...
    The group I played D&D/Gamma World with in High School were also all members of our Baptist youth group. We never caught any guff from our elders... except for one kid whose parents thought we were a 'bad influence'... but that wasn't because of D&D.

    I'm not clear what Mr. Raggi's motives are for the LotFP art... but I like most of it too much to care.
    I don't want nipples and gore out of nostalgia for what never was... I want them because I like them and see them as signature element of good swords & sorcery. Half-naked barbarians cutting each others' limbs off on their way to fighting some sanity-reducing alien god-spawn.
    Nothing to do with being making RPGs 'dangerous' or 'transgressive'.
    The art from the old Arduin Grimoire was some of my favorite from back in the day... it was brutal and wild and showed nudity... just like the issues of Heavy Metal I was reading at the time. I wasn't so much seeking those things out as escaping the environments where they were absent... to my mind they represented adventure, a road sign to somewhere-else.

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  13. James, do you really think that the Grindhouse art is (to paraphrase your penultimate paragraph) a pathetic attempt to restore faddishness to D&D?

    Or do you just think it's not shocking enough to have any impact?

    We know, for instance, that quote-unquote shocking content and the furor it produces CAN affect sales. Geoffrey's Carcosa being a case-in-point.

    If that had been what Raggi was going for, don't you think he'd have been more deliberate in his attempt?

    Regardless, I think perhaps you've over-analyzed the Grindhouse art in one respect, i.e., insofar as it simply reflects Raggi's personal sensibility and not (only or merely) a posture adopted to sell more books, and thus doesn't need a rational explanation.

    But at the same time, I think you've under-analyzed (or even misunderstood) it in another respect, namely insofar as the art is meant to evoke a certain kind of 1970s-era sensationalism and a horror aesthetic (prominent in "grindhouse" films and fumetti, *and* in their marketing) that was very much current at the time of D&D's faddishness but that does not appear to have greatly affected Gygax's game [I say G's not to exclude Arneson's influence, but because we know more about G's sensibilities, sources, and impact].

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  14. Indeed, I think the any people initially attracted to D&D in the hope of nude drawings and violent imagery were probably disappointed.

    Actually, I could have imagined the game being harmed if it had included a high-level of sexual and violent images in the books. Would have given its opponents much more to work with and made it harder for young people to defend.

    I'm not sure what, exactly, a modern game would hope to accomplish attempting to be "shocking". With movies like the "Saw" and "Hostel", or even "Human Centipede" out there, how shocking can a single drawing be anymore? How does it set a game apart from the rest of the dreck out there?

    And really, after reading a copy of the F.A.T.A.L. RPG, is there anything "shocking" someone thinks they left out of the RPG world? If so, I don't really want to meet that person...

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  15. James, I'm kinda guessing you're also alluding to Ron Edward's essay on the matter? Or not?

    I am completely in agreement with you that the hobby has never been dangerous, not really (well duh). But at the same time I do think that a) the moral panic of the 80s, combined with b) a certain mainstream self-censorship provoked by the influx of younger gamers definitely pushed the hobby in a spot where it was (largely) afraid to deal with more mature or adult themes and materials and has been trying to recover since (I believe this is part of the success of Vampire, it basically provoked a "omg RPGs can be adult again" response, even if it didn't really deliver on that front). Even when the companies tried to explore that area we usually got stupid stuff like that D&D sex book or whatever.

    Btw, there's a thread on RPGnet right now where a 17 year old kid complained that his mom took away 1000$ worth of D&D books because she said they were satanic, so there.

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  16. I ad mit that in the days of yore, a rapid, but completely thorough, search for female nudity was my first act upon acquiring any AD&D book. No matter how much there might be, there was never enough. I am certain I am not the only one. However, the nudity isn't what got me into the game or kept me there. Besides that I had access to Heavy Metal magazine. If you took all of D&D's out put for every iteration you would not find a fraction of the nudity contained in one full length Corben story.
    When I do the illustrations for my upcoming book there will be nipples, and perhaps even a buttuck or two! Not because I think they will increase sales, or create a controversy or whatever, but because, by God, they belong there!
    (The last paragraph of this comment is better if one hums "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" whilst reading it.)

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  17. Btw, there's a thread on RPGnet right now where a 17 year old kid complained that his mom took away 1000$ worth of D&D books because she said they were satanic, so there.
    I was reading that yesterday. It made me sad.

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  18. There's at least the possibility of the inverse argument, that US-led pop culture has actually gotten more conservative over the last several decades. e.g.: (a) The new Wonder Woman makeover pinged me recently (much more clothing). (b) My girlfriend goes on about how much more nudity used to be commonplace on French TV. (c) I must admit to being entertained by the early Conan stories inevitably having a naked woman on the run at some point -- almost comforting to have that kind of freedom in art be okay.

    Anecdotes aren't data, etc. etc., but I feel there's a bunch of stuff that went on in the 70's and was taken for granted when I was a kid that would be verboten today. In each of these pop art forms (movies, comics, gaming) there seems to be an early indie golden age, followed by a backlash "Code" era, etc.

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  19. I've can only scratch my head when I consider what American culture finds "offensive." On one hand we shriek and bellow in moralistic outrage if a pop star has a "wardrobe malfunction" on national television or if two members of the same sex are seen sharing a romantic kiss, but we cheer on the action hero as they snap the neck of a villain while emptying an assault weapon into the next.

    Of course, that is not to say that I think either should be censored. I just find our society's hypocrisy regarding sex and violence to be... annoying.

    Raggi's is going for a theme here; dark fantasy. It's not the bright and shiny, fairy tale, high fantasy of goody-two-shoes like Tolkien, Lewis and their numerous imitators that has been declared "safe" our culture (even many gamers). Dark fantasy deals with the evil (or even just moral ambivalence) that lies under the veneer of civilization. If you willfully tread into this territory, you lose the right to play the moral outrage card. If you can't hack it, go back and play with your corporate-approved, rated PG, adventures.

    The grown ups are playing here.

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  20. I don't see that restoring the hobby to its 1981-era prominence is a worthwhile goal to begin with. The beauty of 2011 is it's all about having it YOUR way, not TSR's or WoTC's or Blizzard Entertainment's way.

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  21. James, do you really think that the Grindhouse art is (to paraphrase your penultimate paragraph) a pathetic attempt to restore faddishness to D&D?

    Or do you just think it's not shocking enough to have any impact?


    Until Jim corrected my assumption, I did assume the primary reason for his inclusion of the more graphic pieces in Grindhouse was an attempt to generate controversy and thus sales. That said, I also think that the art in Grindhouse isn't particularly shocking.

    But at the same time, I think you've under-analyzed (or even misunderstood) it in another respect, namely insofar as the art is meant to evoke a certain kind of 1970s-era sensationalism and a horror aesthetic (prominent in "grindhouse" films and fumetti, *and* in their marketing)

    You're almost certainly correct. I can only plead ignorance of both grindhouse cinema and fumetti except in the most general of terms. If that's what Jim was intending to evoke, fair enough, but, given how often he's talked about how RPGs used to be shocking and dangerous, I think I can be forgiven for misunderstanding his motives.

    I'll also add that, while the Grindhouse Edition art was the springboard for my post, it wasn't the true subject of it. My larger point is that the hobby was never "dangerous" and, as such, nothing will ever give it that status nowadays. Indeed, given the changes in the wider culture, I'm not sure it's even possible to imagine such a thing.

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  22. James, I'm kinda guessing you're also alluding to Ron Edward's essay on the matter? Or not?

    Not specifically, though it was probably in the back of my brain. I was thinking more about some of the discussions that occurred both in its aftermath and during L'Affaire Carcosa.

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  23. "The art from the old Arduin Grimoire was some of my favorite from back in the day... it was brutal and wild and showed nudity... just like the issues of Heavy Metal I was reading at the time. I wasn't so much seeking those things out as escaping the environments where they were absent... to my mind they represented adventure, a road sign to somewhere-else."

    Knobgobbler, I couldn't have said it better myself - it's for this very same reason that I found the pages of White Dwarf more appealing than Dragon at the time.

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  24. I remember when I was a teenager not wanting my mom to see the nipples on the succubus in my D&D books, not because that would have caused her to forbid them, but because she was my mom and it would have been embarassing for me to have my mom know that I had books with lowbrow drawings of naked women in them.
    That said, 'nudes' themselves were not verboten in our house when I was growing up (my parents owned a lot of art books that included some material that some might consider racy). But part of what I did enjoy as a youngster was the sense that not all adults would have approved of some of the illustrations and content in D&D... and our teenage sessions did feature some pretty 'strong' content (including regular beheadings, disembowelings, skinned alive, etc.) which would have made some of my more puritanically minded teachers dissaprove --- but that was probably reflective of our teenage sensibilities at the time. SImultaneously, we were stealing "Heavy Metal" and "Playboy" magazines and stashing those away for our private inspection and going to see whatever scary movies we could. After we saw "Alien," monsters bursting out of the chests of unfortunate player characters were almost a common event in our games. But copies of "The Lives of the Saints" detailed (and even illustrated) saints getting shot with arrows, having their eyes gouged out, getting crucified upside down, etc., so, as a catholic boy the violent and bloody nature of history was known to us.
    Like Geoffrey, I don't mistake sexual or disturbing content in art or fiction as harmful since I believe that reasonable people can tell the difference and, if there are unreasonable people who become unhinged at the sight of some blood or a nipple then they are probably as likely to be inspired to go on a rampage by a rerun of "The Cosby Show" as by any 'strong' content in a picture.
    There is content in art books and museums that is at least or more shocking than anything in the AD&D books --- like Caravaggio's "Judith Beheading Holofernes." And, if you know the story behind the picture, it gets even better.

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  25. You know who always found old school D&D art and the kind of covers posted in this article replusive? Just about ever girl our group tried to introduce to RPGs or fantasy writing.

    Yeah turns out they don't appreciate the nips and blood stuff too much. I'd like to hear what some women think of the topic in general but they seem to be...hard to find in these circles. :)

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  26. FYI: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the artist who created the covers in this post was a woman, Margaret Brundidge.

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  27. Sorry for the double post.
    It seems to me that women are as likely to be all over the road about this stuff as men. I have male friends who complain about all the naked dick in Corben, whereas I don't mind it at all.

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  28. Aw, dammit, Aos beat me to it - I was going to point out the bonda- *ahem*, Brundidge going on in the illos. 90 years ago you could put stuff on the cover of a magazine that you could hardly get on a men's magazine cover now. Which is all the stranger considering the proliferation of boobies in old D&D stuff - and no, it wasn't faddish or trangressive, it was just *there*. Nobody fretted about the topless amazons in OD&D or Arduin, or the "Orgies, Inc." article back in Dragon (i think) #9, or the cover of Eldritch Wizardry (also done by a woman, whatever that may imply). Nobody thought Loviatar or Bast airing their balconies (as it were) was going to cause the downfall of civilization.
    Of course, in the particularly weird culture we have, you can still print the blood & gore but not the boobies. 'Cause violent death, that's one thing, but nippleage is just beyond the pale. No, I don't understand it, either.

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  29. Changed my mind about that link. :)

    I'd like to hear what some women think of the topic in general but they seem to be...hard to find in these circles.

    Not that hard to find. If any of them want to chime in on the discussion I'm sure they will.

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  30. Reading Jim Raggi's blog, it seems that some of the 'extreme' artists are women.

    Hell, Aino, the artist for his original Creature Generator was also the cover model.

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  31. The art on heavy metal album covers is light-years more shocking than anything pubished under the banner of mainstream rpg companies. Of course, I remember more skulls and death in heavy metal than nakedness, but it wasn't my top musical genre, so my experience with heavy metal is pretty limited.

    I have to think that Raggi's music preferences heavily inform his art preferences.

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  32. You'd probably have more luck generating a moral panic by making people think it's promoting Islam.

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  33. I'm wistfully recalling Montreal by Night...

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  34. You said: "...there were folks who took seriously the notion that D&D had an adverse affect on young minds"
    I also heard that growing up in reference to comic books an television...

    DaveL

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  35. I don't recall consciously thinking that I was being subversive in playing D&D (not least b/c my dad thoroughly endorsed my interest in the hobby). I *do* recall getting an adolescent kick of of the bare-tittied succubus illustration in MM1 and the topless Egyptian goddesses in Deities and Demigods... I also remember gettingg a similar immature kick out of the gruesome critical hit tables in Rolemaster's Arms Law/Claw Law.

    @ Anarchist - excellent idea, I going to

    1) Publish an RPG with my name prominently displayed on the cover.
    2) Incite moral panic.
    3)????
    4) Profit!

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  36. Saladin Ahmed -- The name of your RPG should, of course, be...

    JIHAD!

    With the obvious tagline...

    Death to America!

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  37. I think the art in the new LotFP does a fine job of supporting the text in it's job of conveying what the game is about. Perhaps it was hyped a bit much, but either way, the art is good, at least in my opinion.

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  38. The naked ladies are back! Hurray! :)

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  39. Lame art for guys insecure about playing RPGs. He might as well add a banner on the cover, "Makes you younger and cooler - and your wife will hate it!"

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  40. ^^^ You mean like that embarrassing as hell ad campaign for the video game Dead Space 2?

    "YOUR MOM WILL HATE IT".

    I'll be honest. I find most of the pulp/comic/rpg T&A to be silly and ridiculous in most cases.

    Its rarely genuinely sexy, and normally just sad, embarrassing, and ruins the feel of whatever world is trying to be created.

    I'm doing a Lets Play series on a mostly forgotten D&D video game and one of my first comments was how it was nice the cover had a female character dressed sensibly.

    Same goes for blood and gore. Most of the time its crap like the Saw series or just ridiculous amounts of grue that don't terrify or horrify.

    When GWAR does it you kind of get the idea they know its childish and stupid, something an 11-17 year old boy would find awesome.

    When its in movies or hobby games or videogames all the blood n boobs usually just look sad, and fail to do anything at all.

    (To give an example of a good sexy. The manga series Black Lagoon which is about a group of amoral mercenaries/cargo haulers in Southeast Asia. Things blow up and people swear and its all great badass fun thats bad for you and not intelligent at all ala our favorite 80s action movies. But 2 of the leads are being escorted out of a situation in the back of a cop car. There is some tension between the two. They are sitting near each other and one lights a cigarette off of the other's while its still in her mouth. (Or vice versa.) Just their faces and a bit of the car. Hot as hell. No T&A whatsoever yet sexy as all get out.)

    For the Gore just look at the original Halloween. Not a lot of blood at all yet scary as sin. Michael Myers is terrifying to me in the way most of the 80s-now killers just aren't. The music, the mood, the way he moved and killed. No need for fountains of blood or flying body parts.

    The sexiest stuff and the scariest things are done by people who know mood and feel. And very rarely actually SHOW much at all.

    They are skilled enough so they don't have to.

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  41. I was expecting to see something as shocking as Bisley's illustrations for Milton's Paradise Lost.

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  42. I have to think that Raggi's music preferences heavily inform his art preferences.

    That makes a great deal of sense and undoubtedly explains the lack of resonance the artwork has for me.

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  43. I thought this was a game when I first saw the title, and thought of the previous discussion here... which I guess blogger has deleted.

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