Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Fiends, Folios, and the Edge of Amateur...

As yours truly and his beloved are crafting the new Pits & Perils, I've been mining some (much-needed) inspiration from gaming's antiquity.  If the original rulebook was analogous to someone's home-brew Chainmail, where do we take our second edition?  Physical design wise, how do we preserve its old-school credentials while improving production?  Luckily, we aren't the first to have this so-called problem.  As it happens, D&D got there first and paved the way for those of us who would claim the power of gaming's amateur aesthetic.  

Talk about those crappy, amateur rulebooks from the 1970s, and OD&D springs immediately to mind.  And how could it not?  Take a look; it speaks for itself.  But as the game grew in popularity, it was clear a better edition was called for.  Enter Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (or AD&D for the uninitiated).  Starting with the Monster Manual, which created quite a stir among my nascent circle of gaming friends, onward through the Player's Handbook and the ever-useful Dungeon Master's Guide, it earned some well-deserved respect...

Here you had (gasp) full-color hardcover books with evocative artwork and definitely not embarrassing interior typesetting.  These tomes could hold their own on the shelves of your local bookstore (mine was a B Dalton Books at the Orange Park Mall).  But they were still very much an amateur endeavor - if that makes any sense.  The black-and-white interior art felt like the work of talented amateurs, and everything was bounded by the limits of 1970s production- and the low end of that, truth be told.  It was, to me, the perfect next step.

Visually, AD&D (at least in its early days) looked like what OD&D was trying, but couldn't quite manage, to be.  The Sutherland artwork, some of it recycled in the newer books, continued, along with the likes of Otus and Trampier.  It was both old and new - and totally familiar to folks like me who remembered what it used to be.  I suppose it's the nostalgia; but seriously, does AD&D look or feel remotely like anything which followed - aside from the superficial similarities all such materials share, obviously?  I'd say no way, man...


AD&D succeeded in being both primal and professional, and it probably achieved the uppermost limits of what could be called amateur.  Maybe it was an accident, but it clearly worked.  But the rising popularity of the game meant it couldn't possibly last.  The later rulebooks became increasingly polished, not to mention aware of themselves as products, although that's another story.  So when's the cutoff?  That's majorly subjective; but I'd put it at the release of 1981's superb Fiend Folio, that last hurrah of a vanishing amateur era.*

Quirky, cool, but not-quite polished cover art?  Check.  Stark, and sometimes grainy, interior production values?  It had that too.  Now there was some great artwork here.  I never said amateurs couldn't be talented.  Far from it.  But check out page 20 and you'll see something a friend might have drawn on the back of their notebook in math class.  Rough and polished, amateur and talented; this one walked the line like a circus tightrope act - and with content to match.  Easley and Elmore would change AD&D's vibe, making this a last stand.

I remember saving up my allowance to buy a Dungeon Dwellers miniatures set, only to see this prize at Hobby World (R.I.P.).  I didn't have the coin for both; but it was a choice any D&D-obsessed youth would have settled on.  And I never looked back.  Some people didn't like this one at the time, which kind of startled me.  The Drow finally made it into a proper manual, which meant no more dog earring my modules, and there were lots of awesome new monsters to throw at a party.  Luckily, time has vindicated most of my favorite entries...

Firedrakes gave me a low-level "dragon", and grimlocks offered a fresh alternative to the overused orcs of canon.  The githyanki would go on to fame in later editions; but they started here, so take that, you non-believers.  What was really cool about these was the story they implied.  Contrary to popular belief, we old-schoolers like stories too; and we definitely love a well-wrought setting.  Each felt straight out of someone's campaign, because they literally were.  Most were created by readers of Britain's classic White Dwarf magazine.

Quirky, amateur art, earnest, but rough-around-the edges production, and content from the community of gamers.  That's what make the Fiend Folio last in AD&D's amateur lineup, although the Monster Manual II held on to some of this.  I'm sure everyone reading this has their own opinion.  Oldsters like myself lean on nostalgia more than we care to admit; but my thesis has some objective support.  If not for the Fiend Folio, I'd draw the line at Deities & Demigods; but that, too is another story for another time.  We'd love to hear what you think...

*Ten is a nice, round number; and I'm tempted to demarcate any old-school era in these terms, meaning the amateur era ended in 1984.  That's certainly reasonable, although actual events do seem to show the hobby trending mainstream a few years before then.  

8 comments:

  1. New aesthetics for the new project? Always curious to see. One of this days I want to write a proper "review" of the Pits and Perils books. Good gaming until then!

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  2. One thing to note was that the art for The Fiend Folio was a bit rushed, in that apparently there was at least one artist that never turned in the finished work (hence why 14 monsters went to press with no art).

    Fast forward to 2014, and Jeff Dee did a Kickstarter to redraw the art he did for the Folio (the originals being destroyed back when TSR bizarrely trashed a lot of their assets before being acquired by WotC), with the backers getting a collection of signed B&W prints on nice cardstock (I got the smaller set of cards - they're nice).
    The stretch goals for that Kickstarter were Dee drawing art for all the monsters not drawn in the original book. I believe he put them all up on his Deviant Art page as they were completed.

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  3. I like to ser the art of Carlos Castilho from Brazil in the New edition, this guy have an unique old school style.

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  4. Love the Fiend Folio! It was that illustration of the Grell that really did me in when I was a kid.

    Also, excited that you are exploring new ideas with Pits & Perils second edition. Really excited to see where you take it.

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  5. I think calling the AD&D books amateurish is unfair. Color interior art is expensive.

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    1. When I say amateur, it's not an insult. I'd take a million Fiend Folios over all the watermarked 5e rulebooks in the world...

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    2. Fair enough. I just felt I needed to point out it was a design decision (or so I believe) and I think a good one.

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  6. This was the only 1e Monster Manual I had - and surprisingly it was a gift from my parents.

    And of course I still have it

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