Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Power Creep: Oh My Beloved Dwarves

One of my graduate students is writing his major research paper on nostalgia in the aesthetic of Dungeons and Dragons. The premise is that pictures aren't simple images, but rather they reveal ideology. Given that my last value-laden post didn't go so well (wink) I thought I would present this figure we use in the analysis and get your thoughts and impressions. We are still in the draft stage and I realize the image is rough, but I wanted to ask: What do these images say to you?


  1. That's kind of cool really.

    Obviously there is a cultural aspect to these dwarves that shows they have more in common than they do differences. Helm, beard, mail shirt that goes down to the knees, axe or hammer as weapon.

    It is interesting that the 4th ed dwarf appears to be some sort of cleric, not a fighter like the other three. Of course this is choice on part of the person choosing the images, there are still plenty of fighter types to be found in the 4e art work.

    I think what might be more interesting is show a similar evolution to halflings, since they I think have seen the most change over the years.

    When looking at are I try not to ask what was the artist thinking, I have no idea about that, I only know what I am thinking. I see four dwarves that could all walk side-by-side in any system and not really clue me in on which one is which unless I happen to know the art well (like the 1st and 3rd eds ones are iconic images).

  2. I disagree. People know the art well, and even if they don't (say a younger player) they have a frame of reference already (4E)

    I don't see four dwarves that would walk side by side in any system.

    Although there are commonalities as you point out, their body types are completely different.

    A young player might consider the first image relatively weak-kneed, so to speak. Where the last image appears more tank-like (I'd say overdone but that's just my opinion).

    What does it say about contemporary gamers that the last image consitutes a "normal" look to an adventurer (or in the case of OSR gamers the first image)?

  3. Starting with the top left and moving clockwise:

    1.Awesome-great helmet-weird and sort of dark in a way that totally screams D&D to me.
    2.The Dragonlance years.
    3.Way too busy, like the mechanics that define him.
    4.Professional, in a nice, clean, corporate sort of way. Drizzt bad-assery now the norm for all characters.

    Just my absolutely subjective first impressions, since you asked.

  4. I think that the main evolution that has occurred with D&D Dwarves imagery is a matter of physical power. They become taller and certainly more muscular with each edition. The various other visual changes (complexity of accessories, etc.) are more a reflection of changes in the game as a whole than Dwarf-specific changes. Overall, I would consider the changes in Dwarves to be relatively minor in comparison to the other races. Gnomes were once visually 3/4 Dwarves with bigger noses, now they look very fey and child-like and are about 2/3 Dwarven size. Elves have become almost Human height and much more muscular. Halflings started off as Hobbits with the serial numbers filed off and now look like especially mischievous 6 year old Human children. An especially interesting visual evolution can be seen in the Orcs, as they transformed from purely cannon-fodder monsters in 1st ed to powerful PC races in 3rd and 4th ed. Either way, the research paper should be interesting. It would be good to see the resulting paper once it's published.

  5. Man, those first edition dwarves were ugly! ;)

  6. The First Edition has some pretty odd proportions--short and thin thighs, arms that would extend nearly to his ankle... On the other hand I think many of the oddities can be traced back to the fact that this was done before there was a lot of money to put into having professional, commercial artists work on the project. It doesn't scream "different!" as much as it screams "drawn by a friend of the guy who wrote the book who could draw slightly better than he could!"

    The second one is obviously more polished, and gives off more of the "short vikings" vibe to me. Something I always thought was odd, as the fluff described something more Tolkien-like, but the art always went the way of the diminutive norseman.

    The third seems almost... generic to me. As if the "drew a dude then messed with the horizontal scaling" body proportions are really the only thing keeping this from being just another human in scale mail.

    The fourth seems to have more cultural significance--the armor is more geometric, and the hallmarks on the weapon, symbol, circlet and beard adornment scream "ask me about my dwarf culture now that I have one!!!"

    Still, for 4th, I'd probably have gone with some of the art from the PHB. I wish I knew the name of the artist, but the guy who's done most of the "races" artwork for the series. Also you may want to consider trying to find and compare some of the female dwarf artwork from across the editions. I know they were widely ignored in the first two, and seldom seen in the third, but I think it would make an interesting edition to the article on a number of levels.

  7. Here's my thoughts when I see the pictures.

    1. Dwarves before they could afford refined artists
    2. Dragonlance.
    3. A character study of a sturdy and ready to fight dwarf. As an aesthetic I really like this style so it tends to be the most "iconic" for me (not just for dwarves, for everything)
    4. Dwarven priest or lord confronting a foe. A very "Actiony" shot.

  8. Weapon heads progressively getting bigger, up to the 4th ed's hammer as big as his own torso (shades of that one henchman in the Conan movie)...

    Must be cool to have grad students who are professionally into gaming. There's room for that in my discipline of social psychology, too, but more in terms of online gaming and MMOs.

  9. @Roger,

    Yeah, it's fun to go to work :)

    Yes, I think the observation re: halflings and gnomes may provide more of a contrast.

    However, dwarves are near an dear to our hearts :) The general badassery and all.

  10. The power creep in D&D started with 1st Edn. AD&D. By allowing players to generate characters with methods like '4d6, drop the lowest', your average first leveller became more than a farm-hand seeking fame and fortune. The power creep continued with each edition, through splat-books, feats and skills, all the way to 4th Edn.

    Now, instead of 1st level characters aspiring to be heroes, they start off play as heroes.

  11. That they are getting bigger, broader, and 'kewler' with each iteration.

    In case you haven't seen it, here's my recent rant on the same topic.

  12. 1st Ed and 3rd Ed look like guys that would hang out. The only difference I see is what others have mentioned, the talent of the artist. Otherwise, to me, they are short, armored dudes, ready to rumble. The 2nd Ed guy is too fuzzy for me to make out, but he looks a little more "primitive", as did a lot of 2e art. His leggings and clothes are more hunter-gatherer than highly skilled miner and craftsman.

    The 4e guy has a great face--especially that nose and beard--but his hammer and armor look fake. Is he wearing chain mail? Is it a metallic fabric? How does anyone lift that huge mallet?

  13. @Sean, a great post. Interesting that we discussed similar topics.

    When I show the 1E images to the young guys playing in my game they think the artwork is really cool. I think they enjoy learning the history of the game. They enjoy the challenge of Old School play. I'll post a game report after Thursday night's session.

  14. (1) and (2) are fairly prosaic, only differentiated really by better artistry on the second.

    (3) is more fantastical, and powerful looking, but is still static.

    (4) carries over the powerfulness of (3) and adds a greater degreee of dynamism.

  15. @Kiltedyaksman: Thanks very much; it is, indeed, an odd coincidence that we would make the same observances of dwarf illustration.

    What I find really interesting, though, is that you have a grad student writing a paper on D&D iconography. Thus has D&D made the transition from pastime that students pursue for recreation to a subject for research. Great stuff!

  16. Probably not what you wanted to hear but, they all look the same to my eyes.

    The earlier dwarf is crude, the latter looks polished. Neither are "better". They are all fairly "vanilla".

    I think the ideology/semiotics it conveys is; rigid fantasy stereotypes and ballooning art budgets.

    I'm not trying to be glib, I'm aware of art theory and all, but the images are only 30 years apart and there is little significant change.

    Regardless, I think it is an interesting exercise.

  17. @Sean: I teach popular culture, so it's all good.

    In our view these images say a great deal. The images speak to the ideology of the game(s) and the transition from playing as a simple nondescript adventurer to a hero. The body types support this view. The transition in the game from Low to High fantasy also fits this model.

    We also think this transition supports an immediate gratification impulse. People want heroes now, combat now - and that's what 4E provides. Who has time to wait around for your weak-kneed adventurer to become a hero? The same, of course, can be said of many of the monsters. It's the McDonald's of D&D.

    The wonderful paradox of looking at the evolution of D&D aesthetics, one could argue, is that once all the heroes look like Arnold Schwarzenegger - we've reached the death of the hero - heroes won't exist anymore.

    But where do you go from there in 5E (or whatever editions will no doubt some in 5 year periods thereafter)?

  18. For me, the 3E version is the most iconic. The one that looks most like I imagine a Dwarf adventurer would actually appear. The one that I would actually want to *play*. The 1E version looks like bad High School art. The 2E version screams Dragonlance, a setting I never liked. And the 4E looks like a cartoon. The 3E looks like an actual living breathing being to me.

  19. Well, my personal preference, which I don't think I've mentioned yet, would be for the 1E or 2E version. Primarily, I want my fantasy based within a medieval milieu.

    At this point - I'm speaking particularly of 1E now - D&D wasn't self-referential. It leaned on fantasy fiction and an understanding of the various medieval periods and their arms and armour as its starting point.

    For me anyway, D&D just becomes fantastical after that point and holds little interest for me.

  20. I feel the same as Tetsubo. The 3e art is a guy I'd want to play, rendered skillfully enough for me to like looking at him on my character sheet.

    Though I think generally B Portly hit the nail on the head. And with all due respect, I think you're projecting some of your feelings about the various editions on the art. The only difference between the 1e and 3e guy is that the 3e guy has better proportions and some equipment you'd actually need to go on an adventure (like a backpack).

    Of the 4e guy, all you can say about him is that he's got a shiny medal and someone behind him seems to have a glowing weapon. Neither of these things screams "death of the hero" or "I want my hero now" to me.

    Though I do think that 4e gives people their hero now, as opposed to older editions, which give people their hero later (or never, most of the time).

  21. Cr0m my man, you can't have it both ways. You can honestly look at these images and say the ideology of their respective editions doesn't, at least in part, drive their aesthetic? Sorry I just don't buy it.

  22. Wow...and all this time I thought you were just dumb as a post...come to find out that you're actually bat-shit insane.

    The art style of each edition has nothing to do with the gameplay and has everything to do with influences of other media. You can watch the progression of art styles in D&D and see how it pretty much mirrors the progression of art styles in videogames, comic books, movies, etc.

    To try and tie this to actual gameplay conventions is just, well, gibbering, frothing-at-the-mouth, pants-shitting, thorazine chugging, tinfoil hat insanity.

  23. Nice. What the evolution in style tells me is that American males have gotten progressively heavier and more beauty-conscious over the last three decades. And our design sense has gotten much more ornate as our materials become more sophisticated.

    Questions of draftsmanship aside, the PH1 dwarf is not especially bulky but is very ugly -- big Disney schnozz, undressed beard, the helm mercifully hides what looks like an oddly shapen head and probably bad skin (what we used to call "dwarf flesh").

    His axe is extremely utilitarian and probably chops wood very cleanly. Clothing is very simple, with trim limited to those bangles on the sleeves and a single studded armband -- probably functional to protect the leading wrist from parrying cuts. No other armor. He seems quite poor for a dwarf, or very miserly. I could probably outfit him for under 50 gp.

    By 4E, the frame has become massive but the hair looks very neatly combed. Skin tone is now conclusively Caucasian. Nose seems a little bumpy, but on the whole he seems like someone the Queer Eye team would not roll their eyes at (height, build and attitude notwithstanding).

    His stuff looks quite fancy and some of it glows. I'm not sure what his armor is made of -- rolled steel with copper trim? -- but the overall effect is ornate. He may still be poor by dwarf standards, but he's wearing a small fortune in worked metal.

    The interesting thing is that he is prettier (and stockier) than the 3E guy, but the drive toward fiddly ornament seems to have receded quite a bit. (It would be hard to be fiddlier than 3E but the move toward relative simplicity over the last decade is noteworthy.)

  24. @Shaz,

    You 4e fanboys are too much. Take the blinders off. The art is connected to each edition and how people perceive each edition. It isn't all generic.

    D&D doesn't operate in a vacuum, nobody here claimed otherwise.

    Also, posting your opinion is one thing, but if your going to act like a punk, your comments will get treated as such (deleted).

    Have a nice day :)

  25. Hmm. Mr Yak, what would you say the ideology of each of these editions are? And how does the art communicate that?

    I'm open to the idea, but I think it's a tough sell.

  26. All art is ideological. All art is political. All art carries meaning. Why would D&D be any different?

    Early versions of D&D espouse under-powered adventurers - think Erol Otus - weak-armed and weak-kneed, barely able to hold a sword (see 1E dwarf, not Otus but you get the idea).

    These 1E images do two things. 1) They encourage players to see themselves in the images. 2) They forward the realities of early edition play - getting your asses handed to you (again think any cover art by Otus, for example), they highlight the often precarious state of the adventurers, etc. The images fundamentally reflect the style of the game.

    In the 4E verson the art also reflects the style of game. Instead, characters start off heroic and look like the governator. It is much more an immediate gratification D&D.

    All I'm saying is, regardless of edition, the art reflects the style, or ideology, of the game.