Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Two Years of A5t!

So 5e’s been out for a few years now, two this January to be exact (counting the DMG), and it’s finally been graced with its own general-purpose rules addition in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. (I’m not counting Sword Coast because it’s very setting-specific and, frankly, appears to go largely overlooked, at least in my neck of the woods.) Now seems to be a good time to look back at the evolution of the art of 5e’s hardbacks.

The first thing that’s obviously different is the utter disappearance of the Robert-Howard-esque, checklist multi-culturalism that was everywhere in the PHB and largely gone by the DMG. It’s still gone. Instead, D&D art direction appears to have fully embraced the post LotR-movies “generic gamest fantasy” trappings you see just about everywhere these days. We’re a far cry from the Dungeonpunk look of 3e; weapons are armor look serviceable and realistic (except for dwarven armor which apparently revolves around sculptural paldron ornaments). The clothing and gear looks worn, sometimes even stained or tattered around hems. The further you get from the PHB, the more careworn the look and feel is. Also, the more practical it looks, with pockets, pouches, straps and hanging gear, without going full Wayne-Reynolds-kitchen-sink, and certainly not like the pants-made-of-belts Dungeonpunk of 3e.

Still, we’re not seeing a resurgence of ‘80’s you-are-there, either. What we’ve got now is a very digital look with a soft focus and lots of color effects, clearly inspired by Frazetta but with the heroics tamed down. The proportions are strictly human, the heroics more Aragron-with-his-feet-planted-on-the-earth than Legolas-leaping-through-the-air. It’s kinda reminiscent of the reskinned 2e with Jane and Bob from accounting, but instead of a near-photorealistic painting of them in their late-‘90’s renfest garb, the wardrobe’s up to Weta Workshop standards now.

Nor are we seeing the WoW-inspired, ultra-cool of 4e. The palette is muted, almost muddied to the point of ‘90’s-era computer games like Morrowind or Quake. There’s lots of browns, umbers, and sienna with very little crimson or royal blue. When we get bold, brilliant colors, they’re atmospheric effects like lava, or a magical effect inspired by a monster, and almost never on a PC.



In short, the WotC focus has moved from who you are and what you’re doing and into concept-art style moods. The wall-of-action is gone; in its place are almost contemplative scenes that promise that action is imminent, but not happening just right now. Unfortunately, the moods tend to be things that art conveys very clearly, but can be more of a challenge in an RPG. The eminent attack of this giant is neat, but PCs rarely wait around for the monster to strike, not when there are buffs to cast, weapons to poison, and plans to make.

The other very common piece of art is the head-shot and full-body portrait, very reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen Paizo do for their adventures. Unfortunately, while this sort of thing ought to be extremely useful to DMs running adventures, my own experience with the art has been very hit-and-miss. It’s pretty rare that I see one of these pics and get a good sense of personality. These portraits rarely tell me anything useful about the people they represent. The most interesting thing about the headshot of Out of the Abyss’ Sarith are the bright orange spots that blatantly give away the most interesting thing about him.

The end result is art that feels like it’s attempting to justify its inclusion through utility, attempting to be informative and inspiring, but stumbling due to the traditional limits and expectations of RPG art. NPC portraits should come on sheets that can be handed to the players, with ample space for the players to jot notes on. Mood pieces should accompany tools and tips for DMs to create and maintain that mood to useful effect at the table.

On the one hand, I appreciate this respect for the consumer. The art’s not there just to be pretty, it’s not there just because there needs to be art, the art is actively trying to make my game better. On the other hand, I think WotC needs to be even more experimental, or, at the very least, pay attention to the experiments of others. Why are the end papers in their books still blank? Why don’t their full-color illustrations have the vibrancy and life and character of their sketchy line-art? Where are the visual puzzles? Where are the hand-outs of items and locations that contain visual clues for the players to pick up on?

All-in-all, I’m finding 5e’s art to be ok. Not great, but not off-putting either. It’s just kinda there. I don’t mean to be damning with faint praise, but yeah, it doesn’t really inspire or excite me. I won’t be rushing out to purchase poster-sized versions of any of it. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I’m having to fight against it, either, which is a step in the right direction for me.



5 comments:

Warclam said...

A5t? What? Is that some kind of horrible typo of "5e"? But how could that happen?

And then the post isn't really talking about 5e, it's talking about… art.



That's terrible. You're terrible. You should feel terrible.

trollsmyth said...

I do. But then I take my meds and I don't care anymore. ;p

Ripper X said...

This is an excellent post! To me, I use the art only as landmarks in the text. I can't explain my fascination with 2e art, nor why 5e art isn't my thing. Art critic I am not! It is just something that disappears in the background, so I find your thoughts on the subject to be fascinating.

trollsmyth said...

Ripper X: thanks for the kind words. :)

Which era of 2e art is your favorite? The original books, with their blue line art, or the later black-book reprints?

Ripper X said...

It is the originals. I know that the info in the black books is more accurate, but I find them to be ugly. I don't even own a copy of the black DMG, but I've got somewhere around 3 of the originals. That picture on the cover, with the dragon fighting the wizard has to be my all-time favorite piece! It just screams "LET'S PLAY!" to me :)