Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Changing Aesthetics of D&D

Seems I’ve been thinking a lot recently about art and RPGs. Lately, the two have merged in a discussion over at RPG.net on the surprising renewed interest in 1st edition AD&D. Among the differences between 1st and 3rd edition that have been discussed is the aesthetic themes both games embrace. If you flip through the rule books, it’s clear to see each game has a very different vibe to it, and it goes beyond simply black-and-white versus color. Where the heroes depicted in the new books are young, well-coifed, and heroic, 1st editions art shows grubby and greedy mercenaries, often engaged in combat, and sometimes even bearing the grime and scars one would expect on dungeon adventurers. There’s a moral ambivalence as well. It’s easy to tell villain from hero in 3rd edition’s art. The bad guys, always NPCs, are dark, often deformed, sneering and hunched, while the heroes are tall, leaping into the action, usually brightly colored and with unblemished features.

1st edition art isn’t quite so clear. A classic example is Trampier’s “Emirikol the Chaotic”, found on page 193 of the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. (You can find a poor scan of it here.) A bearded mage gallops up a narrow street on horseback, cloak flying in the wind. We assume that he’s Emirikol. He’s twisted back to cast a spell at a crossbowman behind him. A town guard? Perhaps, as another fellow in similar equipment lunges from the door of the Green Griffon, drawing his sword to intercept the marauding wizard. Another bearded man scowls at the scene from the safety of the Green Griffon’s doorway while some poor fellow smolders in the foreground, possibly another victim of Emirikol’s magic. Frightened citizens flee in the scene.

So what’s going on here? Why is Emirikol involved in a running battle with warriors? Are they the town guard, attempting to prevent a crime or catch a criminal? Or are they the criminals attempting to assassinate Emirikol? Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? Are there any heroes, or is everyone a villain? There are no clear answers. We’re left with only a scene of action, devoid of any moral context. Heck, we don’t even know that the bearded rider is, in fact, Emirikol.

What follows is largely from posts I’ve made over at RPG.net. I’ve tried to touch on what I see as the major differences in tone achieved by the art of both the 1st and 3rd editions of D&D, focusing primarily on the core rulebooks of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. I’ve also made some wild guesses as to the reasons for those differences.

I think a lot of the change in aesthetics can be explained as a collision between the corporate goals of TSR circa 2nd edition and general trends in fantasy literature. On the TSR side of things, there was clearly a move away from the moral ambivalence of 1st edition. 2nd edition not only assumed the PCs would be good-guy heroes, they actively weakened the villains (there’s nothing more pathetic than a 2nd edition necromancer played out of the PHB) and watered down the powers of evil. It’s clear from the early days of 2nd edition that TSR wished the demons and devils of 1st edition would just go away, like the assassin did. Pushing the idea of good heroes always triumphing over evil was an attempt to insulate the company against the “angry mother” syndrome. In the end, the growing cultural irrelevance of RPGs would combine with this strategy to insulate TSR not only from angry mothers, but also consumers, who would be tempted away by the dark anti-heroes of White Wolf’s “World of Darkness”.

Fantasy literature at the time of 1st edition’s publication was a dark genre. In spite of the central place held by Tolkien and Lewis, fantasy was dominated by pulp heroes migrating from the magazines into paperback collections. These heroes included Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser (cited frequently by Gygax as a personal inspiration). These heroes are violent and bawdy, eldritch and intimidating, and usually dirty and in danger. The art of 1st edition reflects this. 1st edition taverns are full of buxom tavern wenches chatting up celebrating adventurers (usually male), while heavy armour, often historically accurate or bulky, is common, and nudity and acts of violence abound.

By the time 3rd edition was released, fantasy had changed. A lot. While much of the “old guard”, like Conan and Elric, were still respected, others had been all but forgotten, like Leiber’s heroes of Lankhmar and Wagner’s Kane. Some were openly reviled, such as Norman’s Gor novels. Authors like Robert Jordan, Weis and Hickman, Elizabeth Moon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Terry Pratchet had transformed the genre. Where the heroes of the pulps were two-fisted adventurers, making their way through uncaring worlds with only their swords and wits, the new heroes were compassionate and concerned. They fought not just for wealth and adventure, but for causes they believed in. Many were unwilling heroes, yanked from comfortable lives by events beyond their control and thrust upon the path to adventure. Most simply wanted to return things to a peaceful and prosperous status quo, and to live quiet and unassuming lives. These heroes were almost always young people, untested and uncertain yet of their place in society.

Again, the art reflects this. 3rd edition art lacks the scruffy-looking vagabonds of 1st edition art, replaced by the “beautiful people” of TV and movies. Gone also are the casual cruelty and most of the bawdiness. (It is telling, I think, that while the art of “The Book of Vile Darkness” is wallowing in viciousness and pain, the nudity is barely on par with the 1st edition DMG.) The heroes are either bright and cheerful, or grim and determined. Where the unnamed thieves of 1st edition gloated over their uncovered treasure hordes, the glint of avarice clear in their eyes and blood sometimes still fresh upon their blades, 3rd edition’s perky Halfling babe grins happily at the single, though rather large, coin in her hand, glowing with satisfaction at having overcome the chest’s fiendish traps.

The action’s taken a more cinematic and extreme style as well. Where in 1st edition, you could show a heroic group spread out around a dragon, bows drawn and swords swinging, 3rd edition’s adventurers cling to a shattered bridge, threatened as much by the precipitous abyss that yawns beneath them as the raging dragon above. And there’s nary a drop of blood to be seen.

Yes, anime and comics have had their influence, but not so much as movies and TV, I think. The unscarred and youthful heroes owe more to “90210”, I think, than they do to “Record of Lodoss War”. The “wall of action” style that graces the Eberron books, as well as the funky “lens” effects, like flare and fisheye, are also an appeal to the cinematic imaginations of today’s fan of action movies and console gaming.

Is it any wonder, then, that the grognards recoil in distaste? They’re still reliving their Thieves World dreams of trodding the jeweled thrones of gritty and brutal worlds beneath their leather sandals. They wish to carve their own paths in their dreamworlds with sword and spell, blood and grit. They rage against the powers that be by plundering temples and evading town guards. They don’t want to rescue orphans, support good king Lomipop, or build hovels for the homeless. They certainly don’t want to be the town guards, who they know are all either inept and bumbling, or corrupt and cruel. At least, that’s the way it used to be…

Where 3rd edition has improved on 1st by clearing away the bizarre game-isms that never made sense and giving fighters a reason to keep adventuring past 10th level, it’s also maintained 2nd edition’s goody-two-shoes pretensions. The rough-and-tumble brawling feel of yesteryear has been replaced by the accounting and bookkeeping of feats and prestige classes. Granted, those feats and prestige classes solve some longstanding issues with AD&D’s mechanics. But they also change the feel of the game, and how it’s played. They’ve increased its complexity, and made it harder for by-the-seat-of-your pants DMs to weave adventures from a few jotted notes and the odd, stray daydream. Truth is, 1st edition AD&D is a very different game from 3rd edition, so it’s no wonder that people hold strong opinions on their preferences, especially when we keep being told it’s the same game, only “improved”.

UPDATE: I've tracked down some of the 3rd edition art I reference in this piece. When I first wrote it, it was easy to assume that just about everyone reading it was familiar with the art in the 3rd edition core books. Now that 4th edition is six weeks from release, I just can't make that assumption anymore.

Also, some have suggested that I hate 3rd edition's art. Far from it! I'm not crazy about the dungeonpunk look, and in general I prefer Elmore and Parkinson, but I'm also a big fan of Wayne Reynolds, Arnie Swekel and Todd Lockwood. This article isn't how one style is better than the other, but how they are undoubtedly different in themes, tone, and impact.

I've also cleaned up the writing a bit. Articles, stories, and posts are never finished, just abandoned. ;)

Friday, October 27, 2006

David Gemmell has Passed Away

You can find the Times obituary here.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Welcome to Paintpots

There’s a new artist blog on the block, Lea Sheler’s “Paintpots”. Ms. Sheler plans to post tidbits from her sketchbooks as well as other art projects. In addition to the title page of her latest sketchbook, she’s included photos of a paint job she did on her walls. Lovely stuff! The colors and style strongly remind me of a tiny nook in the church where my wife and I were married. The choice of a sharp, gothic peak is an interesting one. Typically, the gothic arch is very cool, apollonian, and humbling. Its use in churches and cathedrals draws the eye and thoughts upward, and the severe verticals shrink the viewer, dropping you into the bottom of a pit.

Ms. Sheler, however, has combined them not only with warm, earthy tones, but capped them with delicate, subdued floral motifs. She’s avoided the towering verticals that usually support these arches. She has, in fact, sunk the shape into the earth, and gently feminized it. The room is warm and inviting. It both frames and hugs the dark furniture. And it’s not like any other room in her city, I’ll bet. There’s a lot to be said for something that is both unique and of you.

While the colors say “southwest” the shapes say “Gondolin” to me. No shock there, as Tolkien themes seem to dominate at her Deviant Art gallery. Her work strongly reminds me of the better children’s books I had when I was a kid. Well, ok, I say “better”, but I mean the ones I enjoyed looking through probably the longest, and set aside later than most. Again, a strong sense of earthiness combined with weight and a scratchiness of pen and pencil digging into the paper, almost as if she were more carving then drawing. The images seem to grow up from firm foundations at the bottom of the page. Her characters seem scarred, tested by fire. Maybe it’s just being late October, but I get a strong vibe that speaks of rabbits and toads, oats and apples, dried herbs and corn goddesses hanging from the rafters, and ancient wyrms curled around granite boulders, sipping from a shaded stream beneath hoary oaks. A touch of Brian Froud, maybe?

She’s clearly still testing out her own styles and strengths, but has a strong foundation to build from. I’m not artist, but I’d look to varying the weight of her lines more, with bolder, heavier outlines. Be sure to check out her calligraphy, which is also very strong, especially in the map of Middle Earth. Strong nods to Tolkien’s own penmanship, but with a soft, inviting grandeur that is clearly her own.

The real mystery for me, however, is why she linked to this blog. No, I’m not just fishing for compliments. ;) I am very curious why people who are not looking for a review of Ptolus read this page.

And it makes me look at my paltry list of links. Tsk, tsk. I never finished putting up my original list, and it keeps growing. Back to the forge for this troll…

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Art Update

Lots of recent art activity to talk about.

First, there’s new black-and-white concept art over at the official Dragonlance movie page, including Laurana, Pyros (in human form), a goblin, and Riverwind. Nothing earth-shattering here; I’m still getting an old-school Saturday-morning cartoon vibe from this art. It is interesting to note that Riverwind is looking distinctly not very American Indian. After Ms. Lawless’ report of her experiences doing voice work for the movie, I would not have been surprised to see something a bit more Cherokee.

Pawn is still down, but there’s some new art in Mr. Andersson’s Elfwood gallery. It’s what we’ve come to expect from his work: a few tough-looking babes, interracial romance, a surprised father, and fairy abuse. Just what does Mr. Andersson have against fairies, anyway? As usual, his art is not safe for work, though these additions are safer than most.

And speaking of Pawn, Outsider is on hiatus while Arioch concentrates on some freelance work, proving my point from earlier about the costs of free comics.

While he doesn’t have new art, Hakan Ackegard has given his pages a spiffy new look. I enjoy the random image feature. And looking around, I notice that I haven’t reviewed the not-safe-for-work Underdark sketches at his Grigbertz page. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post some comments this weekend.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Trollwife Brings the Funny

Trollwife has just added a pair of new posters to RPG.net's motivational poster thread. (Scroll down past the hooker. ;) )

Hmmm... Is it just me, or is Max Zorin clearly thinking, "Damn! Should'a used more cowbell."?

Hit Locations for True20

Interesting thread on adding hit locations to True20 over at RPG.net. Normally, I’d be again’ it. The extra book keeping that would require seems antithetical to the spirit of True20. However, the abstract damage system doesn’t quite mesh with the “playing a novel” feel of the game, especially in its Blue Rose incarnation. I’m going to be keeping my eye on this one, to see if something inspired shakes out.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Payin’ the Bills with Your D&D Skills

Yeah, this looks like it’s for real:

“So my friends and I, successful professionals, were considering hiring a GM full time but we don't know much much to pay such a person.” – Ian Noble

Don’t laugh. The idea’s not as crazy as it might look at first. When you consider how many people want a good RPG experience versus how many people actually seem to be having them, you can easily see how good GMing is, in fact, a scarce resource. I certainly didn’t have to search long or hard to find a thread like this. Economics teaches us that scarcity creates demand, and markets generally form to satisfy those demands. I’ve certainly gotten far more, and better entertainment, from an afternoon playing RPGs than I usually expect from a movie or TV show. Even bad gaming is consistently better than most TV.

This does, however, bring up all sorts of questions about the dynamics of gaming. How much of a good game comes from the players, and how much is the responsibility of the GM? If the players are paying the GM, that implies the onus of fun lies squarely on the GM’s shoulders. A paid GM will have to provide quality entertainment to keep the players, and the cash, coming. But if the players are unwilling to do a minimum of homework themselves, such as keeping up with notes in the game, maintaining their character sheets, or even learning the rules of the game, there’s nothing even the best GM can do to entertain them. It’s a bit more like having a personal trainer than a paid entertainer. A lot of what you get out comes from what you put in.

And I don’t think money like this would ruin the game. Most of the world’s greatest art was done for pay. Bach composed most of his organ pieces while he was employed as a church organist. Shakespeare was a professional playwright who fully expected to reap a percentage of the Globe’s box office. Michelangelo not only got paid to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, but was practically forced to do so at sword’s point.

If you believe that “true art” springs only from the unsullied inspiration of unfettered artists, then art isn’t what you think it is. Cash and sex have been the root inspirations of almost everything now considered a classic.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Comics for the Comics God!

I haven’t played a game of Warhammer 40,000 in over a decade, but I still turn occasionally to the websites and magazines for inspiration and entertainment. I enjoy flipping through my old rulebooks and looking at the art, and hold dear my meager collection of novels by Ian Watson.

So I hope you’ll excuse me for not noticing this sooner: an original color comic series based upon the WH40k universe. The artwork owes a lot to the current cartoon fashion, with an emphasis on verticles and simplicity in design. Many of the elements feel almost icon-ish. And yet, it’s usually very easy to tell the different characters apart and there is a strong sense of heft and depth in every panel.

The first story, about a squad of Sisters of Battle, is a little simple, but does a decent job of introducing you to the styles of the artists, as well as their take on the 40k universe. After that begins a longer story promising more depth. I’m curious about some of their plotting choices (I would have told the sergeant’s story in a series of flashbacks, rather than all at once, in order to move more quickly into the story). And, unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to have been an update since June. Still, it certainly appears to be worth keeping an eye on.