Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hey Schindehette, Does This Look System Neutral to You?

As readers will know, I've recently worked with a grad student on the creation of his MA thesis on module art and old school D&D subculture. We have the paper under academic peer-review at the moment and I've been writing additional material on my own on a similar topic. I have spent months studying the nuances, however small and seemingly insignificant, of classic fantasy art. So, it's from that standpoint that I wrote a long, long post on D&D art in response to John Schindehette's article (he's the D&D creative director) and then I deleted it. I'm convinced it won't matter.

Interestingly though - on the heels of Schindehette's column where he encouraged a broad discussion of D&D art in an effort to make 5e inclusive and welcoming to D&D gamers of all stripes - the cover of the apparently system-neutral splat Elminster's Forgotten Realms was released. If that's a troll, then I need to hire his personal trainer.
When I first heard of this system neutral supplement I commented on it - I ran some WotC Speak through my handy WotC 5000 translator.

As far as I'm concerned, this was yet another missed opportunity by WotC. This could have been a real nice set-up piece for the forthcoming AD&D books and to back up the inclusive speak with action.

Obviously, this is something else. I understand the Creative Team is in a really difficult position. If I were them I think I would take the rest of my holidays, quit, and then go into cat-herding. It would have to be easier than appealing to all generations of D&D gamers. Having said that, if this is the kind of effort we can expect from the creative team on the all-inclusive 5e then large segments of the people they are trying to get back will be in serious disappointment, or deeper apathy, whichever you prefer.

Ok, folks. Thoughts and feelings of the inclusiveness of this visual style to signify a system neutral D&D product?


  1. I love it! It's like, what would happen if a Gamma Bomb went off near Dagger Dale and all the monsters got irradiated and angry. That's a Gamma Troll! Troll smash puny human.

    Wait a second, a picture is starting to form in my mind - the Realms got nuked a little while back by a Spell Plague, I'm thinking the post-nuke realms involves Gamma Irradiated versions of normal monsters, and characters have to master Wuxia and Wire-Fu to survive in this Brave New Realms.

    Can I play Spider-Man, or Wolverine?

  2. I don't think that it is even possible to create a visual style that reflects system neutrality where D&D is concerned. Each edition has had its own distinctive aesthetic and I don't see how anyone can create an artistic vision that could include all of them.

    Mind you, I don't think it is possible to create a rules system that is compatible with all editions, either. Artistically and mechanically 5E (or whatever they want to call it) is going to a confusing, conflicted, and inconsistent mess that satisfies no one.

    I think it is sad and pathetic that we can even talk about a 'system-neutral' rule set for D&D. D&D should be one system, not many, and the fact that it is impossible to reconcile the various editions speaks to the lack of vision or understanding of the game by those at its helm.

  3. WotC seems more interested in copying World of Warcraft's style than doing anything original. I wish they would put effort into a new coherent style for themselves. Failing that I would like to see them emulate the old school stuff, there are a LOT of great artists out there doing this. I don't want comic book cover art. There are comic books for that.

  4. The sad thing is that this could have been a old school composition. Instead of having the ranger springing at the Troll, have the Ranger in the tree, weapons ready. Then, you could imagine what happens next: does the Troll notice the ranger and attack? Does the Ranger spring from hiding? Does the Troll pass by and nothing happens?

    That's what I loved about old school art. It allowed the viewer to fill in the details, to create their own story.

  5. I saw that cover the other day and my heart sank. I'd had high hopes that the guys over at WotC might finally be getting it and then I saw this. Oh well.

    (And, yes, as Sean so rightly says above, it is sad and pathetic that we're talking about "system-neutral" D&D products. I was going to write a post on this very topic the other day and then decided against it, since I figured it was pointless.)

    1. Don't give up James! Sometimes the only way to take down a Dragon is one hit point at a time. Lol.

  6. Is it just my imagination, or is there nothing particularly Faerun-y about that cover art anyway?

  7. Thoughts? I think there's way too much "This wasn't tailored to fit me therefore it's crap" going on.

  8. I may be getting a little off topic here but I don't understand why WotC doesn't release a separate product line aimed at old school gamers, like DnD Classic or something similar. I guess I'm not a marketing major but to me this seems like a great way to make a larger segment of their customers happy.

  9. Dienekes, I've long advocated multiple lines of D&D rather than the one-D&D-to-rule-them-all model. I will buy the core books, I'd like to play-test it, but my expectations are low at this point.

    Matthew, with regard to your comment I think you should look in the mirror.

  10. @Matthew; I could care less if the art is new school or old school or tailored for me. The problem with the art is that it is generic, highly derivitive of "other" products and basically mediocre. There is no implied narrative as Aaron suggested above, the emotion and feeling are lacking. Newer DnD art strikes me as being the Thomas Kincade of fantasy art. I know that may sound a bit harsh but I feel the assessment is totally warranted. However, as true as the statement may be, millions of people love Thomas Kincade. That will never make it great though unless it's a popularity contest.

  11. This is what outsourced, marketing-oriented art looks like. Boring, bland, and by-the-numbers (which were no doubt provided by WotC "brander").

  12. Action! Combat! Heroes! Villains! AC vs HP!

    In no way is this art marketing a world or a setting to me. It's not communicating a proposition of exploring a country or cultures, of strange alien vistas. In fact there is no sense of place at all, just some random old tree.

    If the art were for a combat section of rulebook, fair enough - the game is about OTT swashbuckling cinematic violence - which in itself fails Gregs 'system neutrality test'. But I think its worse than that, it's a failure to encapsulate the offering, a failure to correctly position and market a rich setting full of adventure hooks and ideas or world-guide of strange and exotic locales. It just looks like a combat encounter based adventure.

  13. At least it doesn't have fucking Drizzt on the damn cover. That's a plus in it's favor. Frankly, I would have done a different cover. A pic of ol' Elminster standing next to a table displaying a map of the Realms. Make the art reflect the title of the book.

  14. Zhu - spot on brother.

    Greg - I agree insofar as the cover MUST reflect the content of the book. There's just no question there at all. Even D or E stand or signify the Realms to my mind.

  15. "D&D should be one system, not many, and the fact that it is impossible to reconcile the various editions speaks to the lack of vision or understanding of the game by those at its helm."

    I don't agree at all with this statement.

    D&D's main strength, and the reason it has had so much longevity, is precisely because it can be drifted to play a wide variety of games. You can play roleplaying-focused games, you can play combat-focused games, and you can play dozens of others. And yes, you can even play Old School exploration-focused games with super-high lethality.

    The reason D&D isn't "focused" is because the fans aren't focused. D&D isn't one game, and when I read people in the OSR dissing WotC because they aren't sticking with our extremely narrowly defined version of D&D, it bums me out.

    I do agree that the art for that box set doesn't read well at all. Where is the troll's left foot?!

  16. I disagree Cr0m, one game played many ways. That's what D&D is. D&D only became many games played many ways over money. First Gygax to keep Arneson from royalties, then 2nd, and the WotC with third, and so on. They hide behind the discourse of "it's an evolving game" but that is corporate speak for we need to sell more books because Q4 wasn't profitable enough.

  17. The hobby is split between two generations, and they aren't going to merge, not in play style, not in art preference, not in anything. Call it pre UA and Post 3.0, and I don't think either side is remotely interested in the other.

    Wizards should simply make new rules for the 3.5 crowd, and reprint (as accurately as possible) the original books.


  18. I think you guys are misunderstanding me. I'm not talking about the differences between editions. I'm talking about the differences between play style within editions--or more accurately, irrespective of editions.

    Forget about catering to the Old School vs the New School. How do you cater to the guys who play story-heavy 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms vs the guys at Red Box Vancouver, who barely name their characters until they've survived a couple of sessions?

  19. Wait. I re-read Yaksman's comment and now I'm pretty sure we're in agreement. D&D is one game played many ways. It has nothing to do with a lack of vision by the designers--D&D is incoherent, design-wise!

    Lucky for us, that's a feature, not a bug.

    Me and Yaksman will have to agree to disagree about the ruthless capitalist imperative that leads people to found roleplaying game publishers... :)

  20. To answer the question posed in the title of the post, yes, this piece looks system-neutral to me. The artwork doesn't immediately bring to mind one specific edition of D&D. It doesn't look like 3E, it doesn't look like 1E. So yes, it's system-neutral.

    From the discussion here of the way the troll looks, apparently to some 'neutral' means 'just like the 1E Monster Manual'.

    That said, I also don't see anything in the piece that makes me think 'Hey, Forgotten Realms', either.

    - Greg

  21. This looks very strongly like late third edition to my eyes.

    It isn't basic. It isn't 1st. It isn't 2nd. That is crystal clear. Therefore it is not edition neutral.

  22. The problem for me is that this art in no way makes me think of the Realms. That's just my opinion but you think that they would try to at least tie the art to the setting. Show something that at least hints that this confrontation between man and radioactive troll is taking place in Faerun. as it stands its sort of just a bland generic fantasy picture that looks like it could have been lifted from any late 3E to 4E supplement. As for it being system neutral, my opinion is no it in no way reminds me of older editions.