Saturday, April 7, 2012

Schindehette/Cook Part III: Art and Meaning in Old School D&D

In my last post on this topic, I discussed the form and structure of art within the old school community.

To paraphrase, the post talked about how old school art is meaningful rather than why it's meaningful. There's a simple reason for that: from the standpoint of cultural study the how question is, in my experience, easier to address than why. Moreover, answering how is also the first step in explanation, and thus a good place to start. The why questions tend to be slippery - they are temporal, shifting, and subject to change. Also, one doesn't want to generalize more than necessary and why questions can lead down that road (not always, but sometimes).

So, we are still left with the question: why does the early art of D&D resonate so strongly within our community? Conversly, why do we have such strong feelings against the hero-worship in 3.5 and 4e? Is our over-riding motivation simply nostalgia as some might suggest?

I think the first step to answering this question is to look at the context.

For those who started in the 1970s, and even for people like me that began playing in the early 1980s, we experienced the creation of a brand new paradigm: the first fantasy role-playing game.

Although we may not have recognized it at the time, the experience was profound. This is called a first play experience. We have all experienced the sensation at one point or another - it's that feeling of liminality. The feeling of standing on the threshold between the imaginary "game" world and the "physical" world (this is a false dichotomy but that's for a different post).

The profound nature of this experience was backdropped with a unique aesthetic - module covers and hardback books that depicted the fever-dreams of Erol Otus, the scruffy adventurers of Jim Holloway, and the sheer brilliance of Dave Trampier. There were no viable alternatives in terms of RPGs in my neighbourhood, so we voraciously played TSR D&D and those AD&D Monster Manual images burned into our subconscious. They left an indelible mark on generations of D&D gamers. We can all point ot examples. The recent one that comes to mind is the episode of Community that highlighted AD&D instead of the currently-supported 4e.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions of the OSR is that, because we base the look of our games on previous editions, we are inherently backwards-looking. We know it's quite the opposite. The early art of D&D allows us to both look backwards in a form of homage (as a cultural historian I believe that's just wise advice in any venture), but I'd argue the old school community is inherently forward-looking. With an acknowledgement of the past (and thanks to the OGL) we can exert our own agency and chart a course for our individual games and the collective hobby.

So people ask, is it just a nostalgia trip?

Those who want to dismiss the OSR will say yes and move on, but clearly the answer is no.

Nostalgia was a part of my decision to return to old school gaming, but it was only a small part. I can't deny that I had great time playing previous editions. Most importantly, though, I believe the game I'm playing now is better. I believe the game I'm playing now connects mechanically, aesthetically, and culturally to the game Gygax intended - I want to play and write classic medieval fantasy. That isn't important for some, but it is important for me.

The best advice I can give to Schindehette and his visual team (as well as the design team), is the same advice I gave last time - do not reject your inheritance. The history, look, style, and mechanics, as well as the ease of prep and play. We certainly won't.

Because, if given the option to vote (with my wallet) between, in Monte Cook's words, the "simple-yet-wahoo style of old school Basic D&D and the carefully balanced elegance of 4th Edition" it's a pretty easy choice for this simple wahoo.


  1. Nostalgia played little role in my return to old-school gaming. The amount of effort that was required to prepare for each session of 3E was wearing me down and I was shopping for a new game system. Old school D&D was the last place I expected to find it, but when I sat down and thought about what I wanted out of a game system, it was the logical choice. Nostalgia is just an added bonus.

  2. I think there's a lot of insight there. Having absolutely no nostalgic connection to early versions of D&D I can say I enjoy it purely for what it is, unbiased. That being said I still do appreciate editions up to 3.5 (but not 4e, god no). I simply look at the various editions offering differing play styles. As a matter of opinion I enjoy the earlier editions more for the rules lite freedom it provides to the players/dm, and coincidentally the lack of god awful rule lawyering i've noticed so much in later editions.

  3. No matter what the edition was, I've always loved D&D art. If I had to state a preference, I'd probably have to go with the old works of Elmore, Easley, Otus, Nicholson, etc. I think a big part of that is nostalgia, because that was the art that captured my imagination and made me want to draw in the first place. Personally, I'd love to see the current 4e artists do some classic, old-school inspired art, just to see what they come up with.

    Would people's opinion of the new art change if the style was the same, but suddenly the warrior was now a skinny-armed guy, loaded down with gear as he battled a long nosed, rubbery thin troll? I don't know, but I'd love to see it.

    I don't think it's really fair to say that one style of art is better than the other, it really boils down to preference and who your audience is. I've heard parents say their 6 year old loves Star Wars episodes 1-3, and they thought 4-6 were hokey. I'm sure those of us who saw the original trilogy when we were 8 would have a drastically different opinion!

  4. Im completely with Sean about d20/3rd edition/Pathfinder wearing me down. And I also never thought Id find myself once more by going back to the basics, but I did. I felt casterated as a DM not only in capabilities, but also creativity and complete loss of control over the game to my powergaming players. I think the artwork of old appeals to me far more than the newer stuff. I can appreciate some of the newer artwork, but most of it just rubs me the wrong way ( one of the reasons myself and many in my present Pathfinder group were so against even trying Pathfinder was because the artwork was so over the top it turned us off to even considering the rules. Although, when we switched from 3rd to Pathfinder last year there was no going back for them). But when I brought up the subject of old art vs new art now their overwhelming response is that old artwork didnt reflect the kind of gaming they enjoy now or how they wanted their characters portrayed for that matter. I think the artwork appeals to the powergamer ( and online MMORPG enthusiast- which I have no interest in myself). In that sense I agree with Cory, it really boils down to your audience. I think old school enthusiasts ( either those who left and came back or those who never left), are going to prefer the old style of artwork over the new.

    1. That was the other thing I was going to mention, off the topic of art, the game mechanics. I play in a 4e campaign and my own home-brew retro-clone. From a DM standpoint, old school is FAR more enjoyable to run. Running a 4e campaign you get bogged down with so much micro managing, and keeping track of so many different types of monsters in one encounter. In addition to that, each player has so many abilities you have no way of remembering who can do what.

      A great example of that (in a 4e campaign I was a PC in) was the DM set up this massive encounter: 4 players, about 20 NPCs to help us, against a huge monster. The DM said he was worried it might have been too much to handle for us. I ended the encounter with 1 die roll. There's no way a DM can foresee that.

      There are a few concepts in 4e that I think were really good in theory, they just weren't executed properly.

    2. Wow that's insane, I'd like to hear more about that encounter, it sounds hilariously anti-climactic, how did the DM react to that?
      anyways I also feel that the DM gets shafted because of power gaming players, (I can't stress enough how much I hate min/max rule lawyers). Old school d&d does a great job of portraying medieval fantasy, it's just unfortunate so many new gamers are turned on to the min/maxy aspect of d&d which I think takes away from real tactics, planing and role playing. On the more relevant concept of art though, old school art really captures the essence of old school gaming, the same way the newer art captures the essence of 4e/pathfinder. The problem is I really dislike the essence of 4e/ pathfinder which turns me off of the art in general. It's a similar feeling to what yawningportal went through when he said it rubbed him the wrong way..

  5. I thought of a simple way to display the core spirit of old school and 4e in game terms. Demi-human ability bonuses:

    Old school: +1/-1
    4e: +2/+2

  6. I'm trying, in a round-about way, to get at the "why", by posting examples of art, and asking people "why" they are good examples of DnD art. We'll see what sort of results are yielded.