Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Sad End of a D&D Era (in Art)...

In my 39 years of gaming, I've seen a lot of artwork.  And as far as D&D is concerned, I've identified discrete periods that define the illuminations of the game:

THE CORE RULES (1974): To call the art in the original D&D rulebooks amateur is an understatement.  Sub-amateur better fits the bill.  The pictures alternated between clever doodles and stuff that was clearly lifted from Marvel Comics.  But there was a primal charm as well; one that conjured images of enthusiastic amateurs making their own fun.  Fun, incidentally, that transcends the physical appearance of the finished product.

Although the artwork depicted fantasy, it wasn't necessarily a fantasy that mapped well to the game's subject matter, and it never defined the experience in my mind.

One of my favorite images from
the original rulebooks.  It really nails the intro...

THE SUPPLEMENTS (1975-76): Starting here, the artwork got better.  The illustrations depicted specific monsters, like beholders and umber hulks, as well as adventuring parties plugging away in the dungeons.  The amateur aesthetic was still there, but these were talented amateurs, including the likes of David Sutherland (!), who, by now, were heavily involved in a hobby that was developing its own culture and conventions.

This, to me, in D&D's true artistic history.  The artwork was wedded to the game's subject matter while preserving a sense of enthusiastic amateurs doing their own thing.    

THE HARDCOVERS (1977-79): At long last, the work laid out in the supplements was gathered into a coherent whole.  The expanded ability modifiers (Greyhawk), assassins and monks (Blackmoor), and druids, demons, and additional magic items (Eldritch Wizardry) coalesced into a complete and unified system that would define the state of the hobby for the next decade.  The production values were excellent, and if you'd been using the original booklets and photocopies of Dragon Magazine articles, the new hardcovers were mana from Heaven.  Artwork-wise, Dave Trampier joined Sutherland, among others, to offer up a balance of professional delivery with an amateur ethos.  And it really worked...  

By the supplements and early AD&D,
the artwork began to capture its subject matter and
did so with an amateur flair that underlies
everything that makes our hobby feel accessible...

Imagine getting really into D&D in 1980 and seeing the same artwork you remembered from the booklets your first DM (a guy I'll never forget) had in '78.  Ancient history, man...

MAINSTREAMING (1980-1988): Here at last, we see the Great Schism: D&D and AD&D and all the legal horseshit that followed.  But it sure did yield some great art:

THE B/X SET (1981): Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham (by then, TSR staff artists) introduced artwork that was increasingly professional while preserving an amateur ethos, and Erol Otus delivered his trippy art for added flavor.  There were others, but these stand out...

THE BECMI SET (1983-85): Larry Elmore's art came to predominate by now, with Jeff Easley and (much later) Roger Raupp adding their own flourishes.  Fewer artists meant less variation and, overall, the rulebooks were increasingly slick and well-produced.  The visual link to the game's distant past was severed at last.  A precursor to the next edition...

Elmore is (rightly) held in high regard, but I've always thought his stuff looked too much like He-Man with too many nods to 1980s fashion.  Sorry about that!

Wait, is this from He-Man?  While
obviously talented, Larry Elmore's art never
really clicked with me.  Perhaps it was
D&D's growing outreach to younger players and
it's departure from its amateur past...   

As the decade wore on, Elmore, Easley, and others came to predominate in the AD&D lexicon and finalized the game's transition into a fully professional context.  Fortunately, these artists had already been a fixture in the pages of Dragon Magazine, so it felt like a natural evolution.  I was never into Snarfquest, but it really was a gradual transition...

SECOND EDITION (1988): I remember rushing out to buy the Second Edition Player's Handbook and how my smile faded as I flipped through its pages.  Yes, there was some great stuff here.  Non-weapon proficiencies, in particular, were an excellent idea that followed intuitively from AD&D's weapon proficiency system.  But the artwork, although attractive and professional enough, felt bland.  Lifeless.  I already missed the earlier rulebooks, although I still had (and would continue to use) them, happily incorporating the new rules while rejecting what I didn't like.  But it was the end of an era and weirdly heartbreaking.

At this point, D&D had ascended into the sky, where its blessing would fall in the form of innumerable sourcebooks that would, eventually, drive TSR into the ground.  Make no mistake, I had some great times with this edition (including a lost-world campaign), but in 39 years of gaming, it always goes back to what I now call the hobby's true Golden Age...


  1. I have to say I started with elmore/easley art, and I loved it!

    1. The subject matter transcends the art and, yes, Elmore and Easley were/are tremendously talented for sure...

  2. I always loved the art of the 1st print of 2nd Edition, the redesigned reprints had better facts but they were just so ugly that I still prefer the old ones.

  3. I am a Tramp and Russ man myself.

  4. Diterlizzi and Brom were amazing artists that I think solidly beling in the history of D&D art. Great to see DCC commissioning Erol Otus even now.

  5. It was Basic era Larry Elmore for me, I loved the medieval look of his work. Unfortunately, as the years went on, his art stiffened up. And Jeff Easley's art devolved into a swirl of colors, though I love his DM's Guide cover. I find modern D&D art to be (mostly) ridiculous. Good post.