Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Schindehette Part II: Art and Meaning in Old School D&D

Like many of you, the art of early D&D played a crucial role in shaping my understanding of the game.

When people talk about art though, they tend to reflect on their favorite artists rather than examining how or why their art is meaningful. Let's take a moment to look at the three things most often depicted in D&D: monsters, characters, and dungeons.

With most of the early D&D artists being gamers themselves, they understood the lethality of the game. They understood how fragile their characters were in a dark dungeon surrounded by voracious, fearsome monsters. If I could generalize, the art was about the monsters or about the scene, not about the characters. Monsters normally overshadowed the depiction of PCs. They were larger and took up the majority of the visual space. They would be presented in the foreground and made a priority, or, their superiority would be emphasized by being positioned higher than the PCs. Monsters would also be depicted surprising or surrounding unwitting adventurers - a technique referred to as dramatic irony. Normally, monsters would be sticking it to the PCs in some fashion, such that the scene would provide a  single over-riding message - things aren't going well and you are (more than likely) going to die. To old school D&D subculture, we could easily see the self-reflexive humour of it all. We, through the artists, were poking fun at ourselves and the situations we've all found our PCs in at one point or another. These were meaningful to us because they were evocative, otherworldly, and funny. In some cases, the worse the predicament of the adventurers, they more it peaked my interest. I don't think I was alone.

A similar approach was used with the representation of player characters. This is what I love about Stefan Poag's and also Pete Mullen's work today. Rather than gym-rats, early D&D artists depicted thin-armed adventurers who looked like they would have trouble holding up a sword (as an aside, I'm 6'5 260 lbs. I once tried picking up a legit 6' long two-handed sword and I couldn't even get the tip off the ground). So, when artists illustrated thin armed adventurers, they allowed us to see ourselves in the characters depicted. The PCs were accessible. This too was a self-reflexive form of humour. We/the artists were poking fun at ourselves. Just the thought of running around some dungeon trying to stay alive, wearing some snappy Erol Otus headgear, breaks a smile on the face.

The monsters and characters, for the most part, were backgrounded by dark dungeons or caverns. Yes, "dark" was the operative word. These were dank, dark, nasty places where only the foolhardy ventured. Unlike the default dungeons of 4E which are (were?) lit, old school dungeons celebrated the absence of light. Those sinister eyes always seemed to be following you through the dungeon from the safe confines of the darkness. So, the depiction of old school dungeons highlighted the play of light and shade. This was absolutely central to providing a sense of drama and atmosphere. It's a shame the people in charge at WotC don't seem to consider this aspect of the game's history in the same way. As far as I'm concerned, they've rejected their inheritance (see Edmund Burke on the French Revolution).

Of course, we all know where the WotC art has taken the game. Rather than an emphasis on monsters, the emphasis, by and large, rests with heroic characters in lit environments. How heroic would it be to hold the torch? The humour, by and large, is gone. The game is supposed to be fun and the art should reflect that IMHO.

Like Sean mentioned in the comments of a previous post, I don't believe the art of the editions can be reconciled. The art must reflect the mechanics, if it doesn't there will be a serious disconnect with the game. Schindehette may not want to here about THACO, but what about all the other mechanics that factor into how a game is played and communicated through art to its players? I think his comment was a little hasty. The art must fit the expectations of the subculture it's intended for - if it doesn't you won't reach your audience and people won't find the game meaningful. I'm not saying they should go whole-hog with old school art (although I wouldn't mind), but they're going to need to make very difficult decisions indeed. I have no doubt of this: the art of 5e will tell you a great deal about the target audience.

I'd like to say that I'm wrong in my outlook, but I don't think I am. I am willing to stand corrected, but the WotC Creative Team will literally have to pull a white rabbit out of Pinto's Conical Cap - and I just don't see it happening.


  1. I do miss the days of illustrations of bugbears clobbering adventurers with clubs.

    I think old school art HAD to look dark simply because of the budget: black and white ink illustrations. Don't get me wrong, I think some of the 4e artists have tremendous talent, but I still love 1e art the most. Even alot of the stuff that would be "bad" to today's standard. If it wasn't for that art, I'm positive I wouldn't be an illustrator today.

    If I could see any artist illustrate for D&D, it would be Arthur Rackham. Hands down.

    On a side note, is there a way for me to contact you directly to help contribute to the illustrations you need?

  2. You're 6'5" and 250lbs? Remind me not to disagree with you anymore on your own blog.

    Let the wookie win...

  3. Absolutely,

    kilted dot yaksman at yahoo dot ca

    In the next post I'm going to talk about why the early art left an impression, or at least I'm going to give it a kick at the can.

    Yeah Cr0m, think an aged NFL linebacker :)

  4. You're Fafhrd to my Gray Mouser (guess what books I'm reading right now).

  5. The new art sucks. Period. I can back my argument up quite simply. Good art makes the viewer into a participant. The new art fails in this regard. There is no sense of implied narrative (or very, very little), there is no ambiguity, it's all spelled out for the viewer. There is no interaction between art, artist and viewer. The new art is derivative, not necessarily bad unless the source material is from another company's product, WoW, cough. Good art does not even have to be technically perfect, in fact I would argue that the best art is not.

    Picture DaVinci's Mona Lisa. Why is it considered one of the greatest paintings ever? Is it technically perfect? Ha! Far from it. The reason the painting holds its place in the pantheon of great art is simple. Everyone who looks at it wonders one thing. "why does she have that semi-smile and what is her secret?"

    Picture Emirikol the Chaotic, how many stories are there to be told before and after Trampier's tour de force. The only story the art relays is the one occurring in the moment of the depiction, the rest is up to you.

  6. I will agree that you were not alone in your enjoyment of that art, but I will contend that it wasn't everyone. I probably lag behind you a few years, but not to much as i did start in the mid eighties and I'll tell you, I've never been a fan in the way you are of that old art work. I'll grant the artists being skilled (at least some of them), but a lot of that early art just struck me as.... mediocre. Not that it's bad, mind you, just it never did much for me. Back in the day Elmore's art, and Dizterelli when he came on for Planescape and such... that stuff triggered my "Yes, this is cool"... Otis and such, not so much.

    My first Dnd exposure was the Red Box with a fighter charging a dragon... and the first thing me and my friend did when we played was for me to be that fighter, fighting that dragon and killing it. I'm sure that doesn't make sense in the rules, but it was what made sense to our imaginations... I guess I've always favored the "big damn hero" games, as opposed to the "I'm a pig farmer who traded his pig for a stupid sword and I don't even have a name yet cause I'll probably die before level 3" style.

    (and for the record, I think that new FR book art /is/ system neutral in that to me it doesn't depict any specific time frame of art. To me it harkens back to any number of art pieces from Dragon's pre-electronic distribution age which represent a rage of editions...)

  7. Your note is an interesting one. I'll make a couple comments.

    The early versions of D&D celebrated the myth of the American Way - the idea of starting with nothing in the land of opportunity and building yourself up enough to buy a keep and eat grapes in retirement. The notion of starting out as heroes (basically 4th level characters) distrupts that notion entirely.

    You comment about the Elmore art is an interesting one too and it speaks to a larger issue of connecting the art and the game that I want to discuss in my next post.

    I too had that boxed set. I built the big jigsaw of that dragon and it hangs in a frame above my computer monitor in my office :)

    One thing about Elmore, the guy can paint dragons (and women) with the best of them. Although, Parkinson was always at the top of my list relative to realist D&D artists. Love that cover from the Dragonslance modules, Dragons of Hope? Brilliant work. Having said all that, realism isn't really my preferred aesthetic for the game.

  8. I guess I don't put much stock in the myth of the American Way. ;) I've heard that before (the American way thing), and it really does explain that style of gaming, it just didn't resonate with me. Perhaps I was to young to really get it when I was starting out gaming. I'm probably more of the "Cowboy myth" type.

    Honestly there are few artists who I really "know". Elmore, Dizterelli and Brom are the ones I really know. Though looking I do recognize the works of a number of others and the "Heyday" artists Caldwell, Elmore, Easley, Fields, and Parkinson (as I saw listed somewhere else) are all people whose art I recognize and are a strong part of what I picture as "classic" DnD art.