Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Art of D&D

Lots of people have their own understanding of how D&D has changed over the years and their own opinions of just whether these various changes have been good or bad and whether any have been extensive enough to make this or that edition "not D&D."

Naturally, I have my own opinions on these matters and I'll probably get around to discussing them at greater length in due course. For now, though, I will point out one way that earlier editions of D&D were different: the art. I'm not even specifically talking about the content of the art so much as the fact that early D&D benefits, I think, from a lack of coherent art direction. Indeed, I doubt TSR even had a formal art director until many years into its existence. Certainly no such person is credited in 1983's Monster Manual II, one of the last books of the Gygax era of AD&D.

Nowadays, though, D&D is all about its art direction. Defining "the look" of D&D seems to have been a significant part of both the 3e and 4e design process. I haven't seen a lot of 4e's art, but 3e's shows a high degree of consistency over the course of the edition's run. Though there were many artists who graced 3e's pages, they all adopted similar styles in my opinion, which makes it very possible to talk about a "3e esthetic" in a specific way that you can't about 1e books, for example.

Obviously, the 3e books look very nice. They're extremely high quality books, masterfully designed and much of the art is gorgeous. Unlike a lot of self-professed grognards, as I've said, I actually like a lot of modern D&D art and find much of early D&D's illustrations amateurish at best. That said, the one area where I think early D&D wins hands-down, though, is in terms of the variety of its art. Perhaps by design and perhaps by simple necessity, there really isn't a lot of consistency in early D&D art. If you compare Dave Trampier's 1e Players Handbook cover with David Sutherlands's 1e Dungeon Masters Guide cover, for example, you see two similar but not identical styles, with Trampier's being a gritty, "low fantasy" approach to its subject matter, while Sutherland's City of Brass encounter suggests quite the opposite. The 1e Monster Manual, whose interiors were done by Trampier and Sutherland, varies even within a given artist's contributions, particularly Trampier's pieces, which range from the starkly realistic to the cartoonish.

I don't think early D&D art is better, either technically or esthetically, than more modern treatments of the same subject matter (though I am very fond of certain older pieces). In almost every way, I think modern gaming art is superior to its predecessors. The sole exception is in its implication. This is a subtle and subjective thing but, for me, early gaming art, in its diversity, with its rough around the edges rawness, is far more evocative of what I want roleplaying to be -- an amateur activity -- and better highlights that it is an intensely personal thing that varies greatly from gamer to gamer. Frankly, I don't want slick; I don't want polished. Roleplaying games grew out of the confluence of multiple kit-bashes to wargaming in the late 60s and early 70s and it's that gung-ho do-it-yourself enthusiasm that I see in early D&D art.

It's that same enthusiasm I just don't see in many modern gaming products, particularly D&D.


  1. Another element of those early artworks was a kind of "I can do that!" appeal. I remember spending time sketching and drawing my own stuff in the corners of PC sheets, maps and foolscap pages. None of it reached the level of a Jeff Dee or a Trampier, say, but some of it was as good as anything appearing in the D&D books.

    The D&D stuff today intimidates me... heck, even the cartography of a modern D&D adventure intimidates the hell out of me.

  2. It's interesting how some of my perceptions have inverted over the years. Me and my crew used to mock Erol Otus, but he's now my favorite of early D&D artists.

    I miss the black and white illustrations too. Of course, all my 1e monster books got colored in...

  3. Re: "I can do that!"

    Not being an artist, almost any art beyond stick figures intimidates me, but your point is right on nonetheless. The entire vibe of early gaming materials is in fact "You can do this." Indeed, you have to do this or there's no game to be had. I miss that feeling.

  4. Re: Erol Otus

    Yeah, I was never a huge Otus fan as a younger person, mostly because I found his art uncomfortably creepy. There are a number of pieces he did in various places that used to give me the willies back in the day. Now, though, I really recognize and appreciate the qualities he brought to early D&D. In fact, I suspect rather strongly that his ability to make me feel uncomfortable was one of several reasons why I actually found D&D so compelling a pastime.

  5. I idolized early TSR art, particularly that of Jeff Dee and (to a lesser extent) Bill Willingham, and sought unsuccessfully to emulate their styles.

    One thing that strikes me about the Dee-Willingham-Otus-Roslof axis of early TSR art is how absolutely dynamic so much of it was. The illustrations seemed at times to burst with motion. So much of the later TSR art (I'm thinking of Elmore specifically here), while technically much more adept, seemed awfully static and posed by comparison.

  6. Re: Dynamic art

    Yes, I agree. The mid to late 80s was the "strike a pose" era of D&D art and it set a bad precedent that has continued to the present day. There are exceptions, even within, for example, Elmore's own artwork, but, by and large, later D&D artwork is far superior technically to its predecessors, while lacking something of their energy and verve. This is a generalization, though, and, like all generalizations, it skips over notable exceptions (of which there are certainly many).

  7. I may need to add a “strike a pose” section to my critique of Elmore’s art, since he seems to get hit with that frequently these days. He certainly did do a number like that, and those pieces figured prominently in his better known work, in spite of his covers for the D&D box sets. I’d contend he’s not nearly as “guilty” of “strike a pose” as Otus or Parkinson, though.

    I also see a stronger line between the early D&D art and the mid-‘80s stuff. The early days had a strong “Me and my gaming club did this in our basement!” feel that is wonderfully infectious. It’s also heavily influenced by the sensibilities of wargamers, with their strong focus on detail and realism. That’s why Sutherland’s “Paladin in Hell” is wearing fairly mundane 16th century armour, rather than something more fantastical. Even the artists with a more comic-book style “reigned it in” when it came to weapons and armour. Everything looked functional, which gave it a strong sense of verisimilitude that invited you to put yourself in the action. I always thought that Jeff Dee’s cover illustration for “White Plume Mountain” had a wonderful you-and-your-friends-are-IN-the-dungeon feel . You can see it here:

    Otus, on the other hand, had a very different look. His look said “we ain’t in Kansas anymore”. It was mystical, eldritch, and spooky. It was slightly “off”. His wizards looked like they’d paid for their powers with more than just a lifetime of study, while his monsters were truly disturbing and alien.

    Trampier, I think, pioneered the merging of these two looks. His people and equipment looked possible, but the world they existed in was mystical. You can easily see it in his classic “Emirikol the Chaotic” and it made him the perfect choice to do the example illustrations in “Tomb of Horrors”. Go here to see some more, including his “Magic Mouth” piece, which is a perfect example of the style:

    I think Trampier set the standard that mid-eighties artists were aiming for. They created worlds that you could live in, but were not mundane. Jeff Easley, when he was on his game, was great at this look, especially in his cover to “Unearthed Arcana”. The wizard doesn’t look like the product of a fever dream, like one of Otus’ might, but he’s clearly not studying magic in downtown Manhattan, either. The two moons in the window, the glow of the book, and the shadowy demon-thingy in the jar all add to that sense of the magical. I’d also point to his portrait of sleeping Drelnza from “The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth” as another excellent example.

    Then along came Brom with his Brandywine-inspired look to swerve things a bit more back towards Otus before the artists of the mid-nineties leached all the mystical out of the art, rendering pieces that looked more like Fred and Susie from accounting dressed up for RenFest.

    I think the real problem for the grognards is how strong the break is at 3rd edition. It’s easy to draw the line from Otus and Trampier and Dee and Willingham through Easley and Elmore and Parkinson, into diTerlizzi and Brom, and ending with the rather bland artists of the end of TSR’s life. 3rd edition brought us the dungeon-punk art direction, with its spiky armour, jagged shields, and impossible weapons. I’d contend that while the art looks more polished, it’s not more technically adept than even some of the worst offenders of 1st edition AD&D. I’d stack the Tom Wham’s beholder or Sutherland’s Orcus against even the revamped Mialee any day of the week.

    But the real offense is that it doesn’t invite us in. Even Otus’ work had a sort of fever-dream quality that invited to join in the madness. You feel like you could step into Sutherland’s hell or Elmore’s Krynn. You fear you might be sucked into the argument of Otus’ three wizards who are trying to decide who should get what from a collection of magical treasures.

    The fourth wall, though, is strong in 3rd edition art, and I’m not entirely sure why. Is it the impossible outfits and unwieldy equipment? Maybe, but I’m thinking that’s only part of it. Maybe it’s just my old eyes, and my expectations. But I know it’s there, because when that distance falls away, the effect is almost jarring. Check out these two by Michael Komark and see if you don’t have the same reaction I did:

    Yeah, those are 3rd editions iconics, but they seem to have wandered into the art of Parkinson or Jim Holloway, don’t they?

  8. RE: Otus's fever dream
    The stylization of so many of his figures and their gear certainly contributes, and the strange texture of so many of his landscapes: dripping stalactites, twisting vines and roots.

    RE: Second Michael Komark painting
    I believe that landscape is a deliberate allusion to the Caves of Chaos?

    Finally, RE: "Fred and Susie from accounting dressed up for RenFest"
    ...or dolled up for a night at their local BDSM dungeon club, as seen in my own least favorite 3e illo:

  9. Re: Trollsmyth's very insightful post

    I think you're right to pinpoint 3e as the major break in the continuity of D&D "artistically." It's also a huge mechanical break too and, while I have enjoyed it and indeed continue to enjoy it, there's no denying that it's another game entirely, albeit one that tries very hard to lay claim to the patrimony of Gygax and Arneson. Esthetically, though, it's a complete rupture with the past and often not in good ways. That's not to say there isn't 3e era art I like, but even the stuff I do like is very different from anything that went before.

  10. The art of the 2E players handbook was far worse than most of the stuff you see today. Whoever the artist was who did all the drawings that look like barely photoshopped photos helped keep me away from the 2nd edition.

  11. Barely photoshopped photos? Are you talking about the first printing, with the guy on a horse on the cover in mostly blues and yellows, or the second printing which had a black cover?

  12. I am a fan of the old artwork. Some of it was crude, but it lended a feel to the material that it was done by one of us, by a gamer. The black and white images required the viewer to use his own imagination to flesh out the scene in much the same way that the game itself did.

  13. Always fun to go back and read old posts. James's most recent post on D&D art brought me here. And even though I'm more than a decade late, I just want to thank @trollsmyth for his observation regarding Erol Otus, "His wizards looked like they’d paid for their powers with more than just a lifetime of study." So true, and I just love everything about it.