Thursday, January 29, 2015

Old School Gaming and the New Shiny

My rebuilding of my old campaign continues apace. I'm doing it in fits and starts, as I can grab a half an hour or so to myself. I am vacillating back and forth between dusting off old components and bringing them up to new 5th edition rules, and fleshing out 5th edition to meet my campaign's specific needs. For example, in my world, there are five city-states that wield considerable economic and political power. And one of the themes for this new/old campaign is territory expansion, along with warmongering. Because of the emphasis on this environment over say, a Middle Ages King and court, I wrote a background for Bureaucrat. It's a good background. I may post it later. I am working on a background for an exterminator, as well. Another necessary function of city government that could yield an advantage in a dungeon party.

Whilst I was looking over my old notes, drawings, and books, I couldn't help but notice the artwork in the original first edition AD&D books. I know that we consider the early stuff to be crude and unrefined, especially in the wake of what came after. I mean, by any criteria you care to apply, this is a beautiful piece of artwork.

It's well composed, makes good use of light and shadow, employs intelligent color choices, and is well painted and nicely rendered. It's a great piece of artwork. Really nice. And the fifth edition game is literally festooned--gloriously festooned--with hundreds of color plates. We live in an age of bountiful riches, we do.

And yet...as nice as the artwork is, and I don't want to hear any dissent from the lot of you, for it IS nice, I can't help at the same time feeling that the goblins are...what? Informed by popular culture? Maybe they feel like guys in suits? I don't know, exactly, but there's something in this realistic treatment that settles in on my brain rather than opens it up.

Which brings me back to the first edition artwork, and specifically, those artists who contributed so much to the three core books. Diss it all you want, sure, there may have been some pieces that were rough around the edges, but there was something also evocative to the work that I found stimulating rather than limiting. I did then, and I do today.

Here's just a few of my favorite pieces from the books. Granted, these aren't very big; back then, they didn't have to be, the way we pored over every square inch of those pages like they were actual magical tomes.

 I came late to the party where Erol Otus was concerned. His work had a slickness and a stiffness that I didn't understand at the time. Now I look at it and I think he was a genius. This is the standard troll from the monster manual, but drawn in scale with humans and in a setting that would make him infinitely more terrifying. Note the use of texture on the loincloth, the armor, and the hair. Otus was a master at that stuff.







Speaking of texture, this is a frontispiece by Jim Rosloff. He did a lot of the illustrations in the Deities and Demigods books. Remember that amazing picture of Thor fighting the Midgard Serpent? Rosloff. I love this pen and ink treatment here, and the dragon head is also really nice and stylized without being definitive. I mean, we don't really know what color dragon this is. Could be red. Could be gold. It's a mystery. But that's what makes this so cool.






Jeff Dee, along with Bill Willingham, came right after the initial clutch of hardcovers, and they brought a super hero sensibility to their artwork that really resonated with me. I won't post any of Bill's old work because he hates it when I do that, but Jeff is actively trying to recreate his stuff, so good on him.







This piece was unsigned in the Player's handbook, but this is exhibit A when someone says there was no good artwork in the early days of TSR. This is a beautiful penciled piece with dwarven adventurers encountering a magic mouth spell in the dungeon. First of all, look at the cool hallways. Now check out the dwarves. Or are they gnomes? A halfling? I dunno, but it doesn't look like anything I'd seen prior to discovering Dungeons and Dragons.

The new crop of halflings in the 5th edition book look a lot like these fellows. That's probably not an accident.







Finally, no discussion of the early AD&D artwork is complete without mentioning Dave Trampier. This guy was a machine, and he contributed so much to the books that you can't really comprehend it all. Small pieces of art, flavor pieces, you name it--oh, and only three fourths of the Monster Manual. Tramp did it all, Jack. And this piece, in the middle of the Dungeon Master's Guide, is a favorite of just about everyone. We join our adventurers in mid-scene, with this guy just riding through town, setting people on fire. What the hell? This guy is a dick! But hey, when you name yourself "Emirikol the Chaotic," you have to maintain a certain standard for yourself.

Apart from that, this piece gives us a lot of contextual clues to help us build a dungeons and dragons town. Brick buildings, flagstones, thatched roofs, covered archway, etc. This town setting that Emirikol is hell-bent of messing up became the basis for the city of Greyhawk, and later, my own towns. I used the Green Griffin as a go-to tavern name so much, they were like a Starbucks franchise in my kingdom.

There was something fun, something evocative, about this rough-around-the-edges first edition artwork. A kind of rustic charm, like woodcuts, that gave you enough information to allow you to understand what you were looking at, but not so much that it supplanted your own imagination.

We're a different world, now, and the production values. Kids these days, with their fancy new roller skates and their Jazz records, have different needs than us old timers. And so, we go for full-color, painted dreamscapes and why not? Now the company can afford to produce such a product. I'll never complain about the upgrades, but for my money, in my secret heart, I still prefer Rosloff's goblins to the new guys.
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