Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Old Days

As I get older, my appreciation for In Search of the Unknown has been growing ever stronger. It was the first module I ever played -- it came packaged with my Holmes Basic set -- and I played the heck out of it with my friends. I've been re-reading it yet again (the second time since September, which shows how highly I regard it) and, in the midst of all the other thoughts and feelings it conjured up, I couldn't help but marvel at its illustrations. They're all by the late Dave Sutherland. I know it's commonplace to consider Sutherland vastly inferior to Dave Trampier and perhaps he is, but, for whatever reason, I find it hard not to like Sutherland's work. It has a clean, unpretentious quality to it that appeals to me. I consider DCS III and Tramp to be the twin esthetic pillars of the Golden Age.

One of the illustrations from module B1 that I just love is this one:

In many ways, it perfectly captures the nuances of old school D&D. Look at the scenery. There are fairy tale leprechauns around, as well as a valiant knight astride his steed as he charges past Cinderella's castle in the distance. Into the midst of this bucolic scene march a bunch of adventurers and their hirelings -- single file, no less! -- carrying bags, backpacks, and even a 10-foot pole. When did you last see a 10-foot pole in a RPG illustration? The magic-user is recognizable by his conical cap, complete with stars and moons, and the elf too has his requisite headgear.

This illustration is pure Sutherland: not high art but fun art and highly evocative of a time when adventurers looked like the excavation team that they were and didn't bat an eye at the lack of gender parity in their merry band. These guys look like characters from my old campaigns and, even now, this is how I envisage a bunch of D&D adventurers. Like Sutherland, they may not be cool, but they get the job done -- the ones who live anyway. We all know the guy up front and the elf are marked for death.


  1. I remember that illo, but from a borrowed copy of B1 back in the day. My Holmes set came with Keep on the Borderlands.

    Nicely said re: Sutherland's artwork.

  2. Wonderful post, James. I find myself nodding my head in agreement with point after point you make. I LOVE this module. After Gary's D trilogy of modules, it is my favorite module.

    On the ODD board we compiled 6 questions and sent them to Mike Carr, and he graciously gave long answers to all the questions. You can read them here:

  3. All good points. You're looking at a group of "normal" adventurers - not ubermenchen super-PCs. It's also evocative of the idea that gaming is about the GROUP, not about how L33T or cool your own PC is - and that's a "big" group, too - at least for today's supposed group sizes.

    Also nice because it shows adventuring taking place A) in a supernatural world, magical but not overblown, and B) in a world where things are going on ouside of the player's own dealings - where is that Knight going, and what is he doing? Preparing for a tourney? On his own personal quest? Lots of possibilities.

  4. I have very fond memories of this picture - it is one of the few from my Holmes set that through thick and thin stuck in my mind over the years.

    I think for me, it was this picture alone that made me think of the possibilities of life beyond the dungeon, and the magical world that may be there.

  5. I love that picture. It has often seemed an embarrassing love, because it goes against what's widely considered "cool." It suggests neither R.E. Howard nor J.R.R. Tolkien; perhaps the scene might be located somewhere in Dunsany's worlds. The magician's pointy hat and robes are iconic, probably due to depictions of Merlin.

    Sutherland's work sometimes seems like pages from the sketchbook of an adventurer in a D&D world, drawings perhaps sent home with letters. There's a "matter-of-fact-ness" about many of his illustrations. The landscape on the back cover of B1 is an example.

    [word verification = "inked"!]

  6. I love that picture as well, and coming back to it with fresh eyes I can't help but relate how I wind up scanning it (and I've re-experienced this over years):

    (1) Okay, party of adventurers in the woods, cool. (2) There's a knight charging in the background near the castle (clued in by the space & adventurer looking in that direction). (3) Oh, there's also a faerie hiding on the opposite side of the picture, almost missed that. And he's got a little door near him, neat. (4) So that's all of it. (5) No, wait, there's another faerie I missed in the middle tree smoking. (6) Oh, that's not a knothole below him, it's a window in that tree. But that would imply that the whole tree is a hollow living space, like a miniature apartment building. So there should have been, a, uh... (7) Oh my god, there *is* a tiny door hidden in the roots of the tree!

    So one of the great things about the composition of this piece is that your eye goes on the same "journey of exploration" that the gameplay of D&D itself is all about. You get a taste of discovering the unknown -- visually -- that literally leads you into the game and the same mind-set as those adventurers traipsing through the picture.

    "I've done better than those adventurers already," you say, "They missed the leprauchans entirely! I bet I can outplay them in the dungeon, too, and find the mysteries they missed, so let's get some dice and play!"

  7. You know, I have a lot of interest in and sympathy for the old-school movement, but this art is doing nothing for me. I can't fault the composition and the sense of environment and setting, but the general "wobbliness" of the linework and figurework is a huge putoff for me. This is one of those "I guess you had to be there" moments, alas.

  8. Sit and look at it a while and you may change your mind... PS it helps to activate your imagination a little ;-)

  9. In fairness, I only bat my eye because about 60% of everyone I have ever played D&D with was a girl.

  10. "...the general 'wobbliness' of the linework and figurework is a huge putoff for me..."

    Well, consider this: Isn't this art pretty close to, say, medieval tapestry art? And doesn't that help the sense of immersion?

  11. I love that interview with Mr. Carr. His answer to question #1 is, IMO, just perfect.

    I've always had a soft spot for B1, and stocked and placed it in my 4e sandbox game.

    I think part of the appeal of the art was that it it served to expand the imagination, rather than overwrite it. You don't see details like the leprechaun in gaming art nowadays.

    Modern gaming art does a really good job of showing you how the designer thinks a gaming world looks, and I quite enjoy it. But, there are times when it falls short in prompting the reader to imagine visions of his own.

  12. I up and bought the PDF of B1 today after not having read it for decades (except in its Hackmaster version) (my Holmes has B2).

    I realized that there's another, eminently practical, reason for the "put the monsters and treasures in where you want them, and don't use them all" design: this is the pack-in. Every single player has it, and has read it. So, although they may know which pool has the acid and which the illusion of the treasure, they won't know what's guarding which room, or whether it has treasure or not.


  13. Adam, that's a good point -- I recall that the pack-in module for the original Top Secret boxed set ("Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle") also used the same format, and even lots of the same introductory text, as B1.

  14. Tsk Recursion King, I'm almost offended by that. I have plenty of imagination, but that's different from overlooking or excusing dodgy figurework. ;)

    And Delta, no, it's not really all that similar to medieval art. If that was the intent of the artist, then you have a point, but I'm not sure it was.

    Again, I can appreciate all the little details, and the lack of pretension, but the quality f the actual drawing puts me off. Sorry.

  15. @kelvingreen: Yeah, I think it's a bit uncool to suggest you didn't use your imagination KG.

    That comment does not read well, Recursion King.

    Anyway KG, I think this is one of those cases where nostalgia is well mixed into the appreciation of the piece. It plays a big part in my appreciation of it, anyway. Personally, D. Sutherland always fascinated me because although he was obviously lacking in some skills, it didn't stop him from carefully flushing out a piece and creating an interesting scene.

    I find that a large portion of fantasy art out there (old and new) considers only one subject or event. Although most of the newer works are higher in quality, I think even more art is now subject-driven, where the background composition supports one main action. In contrast, some of these older pieces had almost a mural quality to them with multiple focal points of interest. -I'd like to see a combination of the two myself.

    I'm glad James brought this up as I am now going to keep it mind for my own future projects.

  16. Yes, there's no argument from me regarding the enthusiasm in the work. I too would like to see more of this kind of "storytelling" in rpg art, as to me it's more evocative than a simple depiction of a figure or event. The Eberron campaign book for 3.5e went some way in this direction by using comic-style pages to suggest a narrative within the images. It's not quite the same thing as we see here, but it's a similar attempt to put a story behind the image.

    I think that perhaps as rpg artists became more accomplished, they started to produce imagery that was more like "fine" art, only with a fantasy/scifi twist, and turned away from this creation of narrative and worldbuilding.

  17. Modern gaming art does a really good job of showing you how the designer thinks a gaming world looks, and I quite enjoy it.

    This is the esthetic side of the Hickman Revolution: art not as an aid to one's own imagination but as an illustration of the designer's. I love a well-realized fantasy world as much as the next guy, but, as an adjunct to gaming, I think this approach ultimately undermines the whole point of the hobby in the first place.

  18. I think it has its place. I remember being bowled over that the AD&D Monster Manual had illustrations of every monster. That was revelatory after trying to figure out what critters were supposed to look like based on the BD&D monster listings.

    However, art that inspires rather than informs is probably one of the most important aspects of D&D's early history. I think that shift in art style from 1e to 2e was one of the big reasons why I moved away from D&D back in the day.

  19. On the ODD board we compiled 6 questions and sent them to Mike Carr, and he graciously gave long answers to all the questions. You can read them here:

    The link didn't work for me.

  20. Try this link for the Mike Carr Q&A:

  21. Back in the day, I loved the simple art of adventurer parties in the books and modules of the time, even though they rarly looked like the figures or sketches of my players of the time. What they did was what they were created for: to give the feel of original D&D. That drawing would not fit anywhere else but within a D&D book.

    Man, second edition D&D came out, and the thing back then that I noticed more than the rules changes was the art. Somehow, it went from high fantasy D&D right into generic fantasy (usually the kind written by women). It was like, if a wizard from 1st edition walked into a 2nd edition scene, he'd have his moon and star stitched cone cap slapped right off his head.

    I loved that pool of acid, and used it a couple of times over the decades. Reach in for treasure, and *oops* my arm has been skeletonized.

  22. That illustration reminds me of back-in-the-day when we enforced Marching Order and always had a designated Leader in the Party