Sunday, October 30, 2011

Old School, Art, and Ideology

This morning I've read a few interesting posts dealing with OSR art.

The first was at The Temple of Demogorgon where he rants about the sameness of OSR art, specifically taking aim at the piece shown on the Grognardia Blog.

Although not as hard-core a post as the first, the other was at Aldeboran where Stefan Poag (one of my favorite artists) wrote that he'd like to see more diversity in OSR aesthetics.

In my opinion, there's absolutely nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from the foundational D&D line art of the 1970s and early 1980s. In fact, I love it. I want more.

People who focus on "another damned knight in platemail about to open a door" miss the point. IT TOTALLY ISN'T ABOUT THAT. Art forwards ideology and game-play style, and the ideology of the Old School is the DIY, thumb-your-nose at Whotsie, low fantasy, Hail Gygax!, low rules, yer-damn-right-I-want-platemail, screw dungeonpunk, piss on standard torch-lit dungeons in 4E, piss on rules crunchiness, we're using a ten foot pole, screw challenge ratings perspective, that makes the early editions so evocative and fun to play.

So, the next time you see an artist using line art depict a huge spider about to jump an unsuspecting party, or a dude in plate opening a door, or a bug-eyed adventurer fleeing a huge fucking monster, don't hate - instead let fly the devil horns and say RIGHT ON BROTHER! Because the art isn't value-free, it's value-laden - meaning the art of the Old School forwards the ideology and play-style of a game that we love and want others to try out.

So OSR artists, do what you do with conviction. Our game will be better for it.


  1. Thank you so much for this post. It's made my morning.

  2. I was set to post on this last nite over at the Temple, but felt it carried an unnecessary tone held over from a crazy day.

    The community is truly one of contradiction. Change a rule, role or race and a fire storm can break out. Do a piece of artwork that reflects the time period of pre-'90s D&D and people want to leap about like their head is on fire.

    As for being 'old school' I don't think for those over 40 that you can escape that one. I'm 'old school' in everyway but my vision of that style is being cutting edge. It is a respect for that which has come and those things we haven't even dreamed of yet.

    One thing I did say right last nite though was love what you play and play what you love and don't worry about how somebody else finds their bliss...

    Now I got me some Elder Sign to play...those Great Old Ones aren't going to seal their own portals :)

  3. I agree. "Old school" art is evocative of feeling of the books of yesteryear.
    Yes there is a DIY feel and yes, dare I say it, cheap feel. But that is what I want to see!
    If I want new art I'll buy a new game, plenty of them out there.

  4. Seriously? You can't use old mechanics and new art ideas together?

    I went WAY out of my way to defend James' art choice on that one, but I think you're saying this in a way I can't get behind:

    I think whatever a person is putting out should reflect their aesthetic--fine

    but to reduce a picture down to an ideology and then support it based on that--rather than on the idea that pictures are real things wth characteristics outside their broad indicators of style--that's like saying "if it uses the old TSR typeface, you should like it, and if it doesn't it must represent some inappropriate new schoolness". Really?

    The OSR's strength is that it's -more- diverse than what WOTC's putting out, not less.

    If you make old school pics and wanna, great, but if the idea is if you don't you're somehow advocating...whatever set of playstyle choices you associate with other art. That's just as unfair in the other direction. And for -EXACTLY- the same reasons.

  5. i like that mark allen piece alot that james posted. i'll never forget my impressions the first time i looked through the 1e AD&D PH and came across the picture of the 3 dwarves and elf venturing down the stairwell(pg.108?). it shaped my whole concept about what the game was about-primarily, adventure into the unknown. i love everything about those sutherland and trampier illustrations. it's only on the rare occasion that an artist today can really recapture those feelings for me.

  6. I most value RPG art when it shows you something that you might have trouble visualizing. For example, I like illustrations of:

    bizarre monsters
    weird glyphs
    elaborate dungeon rooms
    outre and twisted magic items

    But I don't really care for illustrations of adventurers, inns, horses, etc. These things are fine when they are part of an illustration that includes the stuff I like (listed above). But an adventurer just standing there doesn't do anything for me.

  7. I argue that the best art for OSR gaming is that which expresses how much fun the artist is having with all this FRPG nonsense.

  8. @Zak-Yes, you can. Or have very expensive full color art or no art at all. That's the whole point. You can do ANYTHING. Whether everyone agrees with it or not is not the point. The experience is what matters.

    To me it falls under the same heading as 'you're playing it wrong'.

    Not if you are having fun.

    As silly as some might find it I will always believe the way to true artistic bliss and freedom is the IDIC.

    Now, live long and prosper...or go back to the's your call :)

  9. I'm not surprized Zak.

    Take the opposite position: could 4E art, with their haughty, clean adventurers, be used to reflect early editions? I think the VAST majority would say no. Therefore your argument doesn't stand.

    The position that I'm forwarding is that old school art signifies (the game style and mechanics) in a way that other art can't simply because it doesn't have the same history or meaning within the subculture. This isn't news.

    Now you might have your opinion, but that doesn't mean the guy who played D&D in the 80s and never played since has the same one.

    You can want to make it something else, you can broaden the discussion, but as long as the foundational texts of TSR D&D are widely available what consititues as old school D&D artwill remain neatly outlined.

  10. Dr Rotwang! said...

    I argue that the best art for OSR gaming is that which expresses how much fun the artist is having with all this FRPG nonsense.


  11. @kiltedyaksman

    1.I'm not saying old school style art doesn't -signify- this that or the other, but I am also saying that you don't judge art's -quality- or whether to -support it- just based on what category it falls in. I mean: no matter what, some things are going to tickle your fancy and some things aren't. Do you like every Howard Conan story equally because it's a Howard conan story? Is every adveture published before 1983 EGQUALLY GOOD to you because it was published before 1983? Are you that much of a fetishist?

    2. Your argument in paragraph one falsely assumes there are exactly 2 kinds of art. There are 9 million.

    3. As for you not being "surprised"--why is that? Unfair guesses you are totally allowed to deny if you tell me the real reason are:
    -because I played D&D on TV using completely old school game philosophy (those players are around level 3 after all this time) yet it didn't "LOOK" the way you nostalgically wanted it to or imagined it.
    -because I made a book full of old school game tools but didn't print if on light blue graph paper and hire Erol Otus to draw it for me?

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  13. James was getting beat up on the (stupid) grounds that he should consider filling his book with stuff he doesn't like just because of what it signifies to other people who aren't him.

    You are making exactly the same argument they are.

    You make a product, you make it the way you want--that's the ONLY advantage to the hobbyist way of doing things. To start worrying what other people think is to lead right down the path to WOTC.

  14. "Take the opposite position: could 4E art, with their haughty, clean adventurers, be used to reflect early editions? I think the VAST majority would say no. Therefore your argument doesn't stand." -Kiltedyaksman

    False dichotomy much?

    "Seriously? You can't use old mechanics and new art ideas together?" -Zak

    New art ideas =/= 4e art

    The problem is, the realm of art for people who only look at D&D art is line art->fatastic naturalism (elmore)->expressionistic naturalism (diterlizzi)->Comicbooky(dungeon punk)->untrained artist paintings(4e)

    There are many more kinds of art people! Zak is saying, why not have awesome art (like his honestly exceptional Vornheim cover, which doesn't get enough good press) instead of just the same line art we've been using for years.

    New art, doesn't have to mean that 'proportions are all wrong, and colors are muddied' 4e style. It could be all monster brains.

  15. There's definitely a lo-fi aesthetic in AD&D that is awesome. I won't speak to OD&D, most of that art that isn't just swipes is pretty bad.

    But art style does not equal an ideology, that's an extremely fucked up notion. I'd also point out the utter dishonesty of saying "untrained artist paintings" or "'proportions are all wrong, and colors are muddied' is "4e style", I mean, that also equally describes Pete Mullen.

    I always hope that artists stay above this kind of fray- It's really edition war stuff, right? The way you play is 1) always glorify yourself and 2) always heap shame on the perceived enemy.

    But artists should really fly above this whole fucked-up thing.

  16. As an illustrator, who probably became an illustrator because of growing up playing D&D in the 80s, my work is still influenced by the "old masters".

    And again, speaking as a professional illustrator, calling 4e artists "untrained" seems ludicrous. Some of the art is outstanding (don't get me wrong, some of the 4e stuff really rubs me the wrong way) and I wish I was as talented as some of those guys. Keep in mind, illustrators are told what to create and what the style is, if they were told to do work in the style of 1e, they would. It's a rare day I'm paid to draw something I want to draw. But to call them "untrained" is simply a statement out of personal preference, and has no real weight their talents.

    I don't understand the "edition war" myself. 1e needs 1e art, 4e needs 4e art. 4e has to cater to the 13 year old boys of today, do you really think line art is going to catch their eyes as much as something that looks like slick, refined movie concept art?

    On a side note, one of my first professional illustrations shared book space with Jim Rosloff, my favourite "old master". That was a giddy illustrator-nerd moment.

  17. Art forwards ideology. You'd have a hard time convincing me otherwise: