Wednesday, October 24, 2018

[D&D] [Review] Art & Arcana first impressions

I received my copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana Deluxe Set in the mail yesterday, and while I've only had a few brief minutes to peruse it so far, my first impression is very positive - that this is a substantial and very interesting book that does everything the previous D&D art books (from 1986, 1989, and 2004) did not. While the focus is on the "visual history" of the game, they've taken a much more expansive view of that concept than the previous books, including not only art from the rulebooks and modules, but also extensive discussion and examples of things like logos, trade dress, maps, advertisements, etc.

The book is arranged in chronological order, from the earliest days of Chainmail and the Castle & Crusade Society up through the latest D&D 5th Edition releases, but there are sidebars interspersed throughout - on topics like the evolution of mapping and how different characters and monsters have been depicted throughout the years - that keep the "early edition" content that I'm interested in present throughout pretty much the entire book. I haven't actually read any of the text (aside from some photo captions) yet, but from flipping through the book there is a ton of stuff of historical and nostalgic interest, not just reproductions of art (cover and interior) and old ads and pictures of oddball 80s-era licensed products, but really cool unpublished tidbits as well. Some of this is stuff that people who follow historically-oriented D&D blogs (like Playing at the World) and ebay auctions (like those from  The Collector's Trove) will already have seen - like Gary Gygax's original "Great Kingdom" map that eventually became The World of Greyhawk, and pre-publication versions of some of the famous TSR cover art, but there's also stuff that is new (or at least new to me), such as Gary's hand-drawn maps of the village of Hommlet and the upper works of the Temple of Elemental Evil from his 1976 home campaign, that are intriguingly different from what was later published by TSR (Hommlet is the same but smaller - the "main street" around the Inn of the Welcome Wench is exactly the same, but many of the outlying buildings - the church, the jeweler, the brewer, and the tower - aren't present; while the Temple upper-works are almost completely different). The book is over 400 pages long, and I've only looked through a small portion of it (I confess I got so distracted by studying the TOEE maps that I didn't really look much further after that) so there may well be more surprises of that nature that I haven't spotted yet.

It's worth mentioning that (again, in contrast to the earlier D&D art books) this book is very solidly and well-produced. It is heavy. The paper is thick and glossy and all of the reproductions are very clear - many of them looking better than their original appearances. This feels like something you'd get in a museum store, and justifies its high pricetag.

An even higher price (which, of course, I paid) gets you the "deluxe edition" which includes not only the book with a special matte cover, but comes in a box (with the same cover art) that also includes a pouch of extra swag - loose prints of various key pieces of D&D art through the ages (text-free versions of the cover art of the AD&D Players Handbook and Fiend Folio, Dave Trampier's glorious art from the original AD&D Dungeon Master Screen, and various pieces of later-edition art) that are theoretically suitable for framing, though the larger ones are folded and have visible creases, and most intriguingly a reproduction of the original 1975 tournament version of Gary Gygax's Tomb of Horrors. This is a typescript of a dozen or so pages, a hand-drawn map, and 20 or so illustrations, just like the 1978 module version (but the art is by Tracy Lesch rather than Trampier and Sutherland, so it's of considerably lower quality). The map and at least most of the encounters appear to be the same (though even in a very brief skim-through I spotted at least one or two differences). The summer of 1975 is very early in D&D's history, long before TSR became a professionalized operation, but it's interesting how much of what later became the standard for TSR's modules is already fully formed here - the only real difference between this version and the 1978 version is the production values of the art and map and the typesetting of the text.

And, as a bonus to the bonus, and even more intriguing, the TOH booklet also includes a reproduction of a short dungeon (5 hand-written pages and one map covering 14 rooms) that D&D fan Alan Lucien sent to Gary and that inspired him to create the Tomb of Horrors - the "Tomb of Ra-Hotep." As the name suggests, and which has gone curiously un-commented-on that I've seen in a brief scan of other previews and reviews of this book (and the introduction within the book itself) is that Lucien's dungeon seems to have been a very close and direct inspiration not just for the TOH, but for Gary's later expansion of the same concept as Necropolis: The Tomb of Rahotep. Not only is the villain's name the same, but so is the map and many of the traps and encounters! Lucien was acknowledged with (presumably non-royalty-bearing) "special thanks" in the 1978 TOH module for inspiring its design, which is probably appropriate, since although the idea was similar the specifics are not really. But he curiously was not given any such thanks or credit for Necropolis, even though roughly half of that adventure's tomb section is directly lifted from his dungeon.

The deluxe version costs a lot more than the book version. I don't know that the TOH reproduction, even with the bonus Ra-Hotep content, justifies the price difference, but I'm still glad to have it.

Is this product (either version) worth buying? That really depends on where your primary interest in D&D lies (and, of course, how much disposable income you have). There's little if anything in this book that you will ever use directly in a game - its value is strictly historical and nostalgic and meta. If you're interested in the history and development of D&D you also probably already know most of what's in here and have seen most of the art and maps and ads and ephemera before (and maybe even own most or all of the products). This isn't a utilitarian product by any means - it's a toy, a luxury, a way to feel like you're still connected to the D&D culture even if you haven't purchased a D&D game-book in a quarter-century or more. And, on those terms, it's a winner. It's a very attractive, very well-produced set that will look nice on your coffee table, that you'll have fun perusing, and that might even make some of your non-gaming friends and family more interested in giving this thing a try than they would be from a dry (and, potentially musty) set of vintage rulebooks.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Community-spirit bloggy quizzy thing

Saw this quiz for "OSR" (i.e. old-school rpg) bloggers making its way around the 'net. Figured I might as well participate:

1. One article or blog entry that exemplifies the best of the Old School Renaissance for me:
The Other Moathouse

2. My favorite piece of OSR wisdom/advice/snark:
Mornard's Three Laws of RPG Rules

3. Best OSR module/supplement:
Classic Dungeon Designer's Netbook #4: Old-School Encounters Reference

4. My favorite house rule (by someone else):
Jeff Rients' table for what happens to PCs who don't make it out of the dungeon before the end of the session

5. How I found out about the OSR:
We were talking on the forums at sometime c. 2003ish about how it seemed like there was increasing interest in older approaches to D&D exemplified by stuff like Necromancer Games "3E rules, 1E feel" slogan and Hackmaster and the Dungeon Crawl Classics modules aping old TSR trade dress and Troll Lord Games' plans to create an OGL 1E-like system that Gary Gygax could use as the basis for his "Castle Zagyg" reskinning of the original Greyhawk Castle Dungeons, and so on, and someone said "it's almost like there's an Old-School Renaissance on the horizon" and the phrase struck a chord and we started using it after that, as a joke at first but a few years later people (mostly "come-lately" types like James Maliszewski) started using it more seriously.

6. My favorite OSR online resource/toy:
Dungeon Robber

7. Best place to talk to other OSR gamers:
Around a table, playing a game

8. Other places I might be found hanging out talking games:
DragonsfootDoomsday Message Boards, the 1e AD&D Round Table group on Facebook

9. My awesome, pithy OSR take nobody appreciates enough:
That D&D is better and more fun when you include the material Gary Gygax added to AD&D in the early 80s that was originally published in Dragon magazine and later collected in the Monster Manual II, Unearthed Arcana, and the World of Greyhawk boxed set, and when you continue to expand beyond it in the same aesthetic spirit. You can still have fun with D&D without needing to (a) remain permanently frozen in amber in 1979, (b) embrace all the lazy and tonally-dissonant garbage TSR and Wizards of the Coast churned out after 1985, or (c) reimagine D&D into something so "gonzo" that it's no longer recognizable to what we fell in love with as kids.

10. My favorite non-OSR RPG:
King Arthur Pendragon, by Greg Stafford (R.I.P.)

11. Why I like OSR stuff:
Because, before the OSR, D&D (versions 3.5 & 4.0) had gotten to be almost totally about math and bean-counting and "character builds" and had lost sight of the freewheeling spirit of actual play, and the OSR reminded folks (including/especially younger folks who missed the "old-school" era the first time around) that it wasn't always and didn't need to be that way.

12. Two other cool OSR things you should know about that I haven’t named yet:
i) Midkemia Press is selling (and in some cases even giving away) their old books in pdf format. Their book Cities is still one of the best, most useful rpg products ever published IMO.

ii) You can purchase legal Print-On-Demand hardcopies of a lot of the 1st Edition AD&D rulebooks and modules (and pdfs of most of the rest) at RPGNow. Tip to the wise: don't bother with anything published after 1985 ;)

13. If I could read but one other RPG blog but my own it would be:
Mortal Worm - Just Keep On Rollin' with Gene Weigel

14. A game thing I made that I like quite a lot is:
AD&D Companion (my "fan-fic" compilation of uncollected AD&D material by Gary Gygax combined with my own house rules and additions that try to maintain the same spirit and show that old-school-style AD&D can still be a vital, growing thing)

15. I'm currently running/playing:
Nothin.' But I've got a growing hankering to run another game someday, if I can find the time and energy. We'll see...

16. I don't care whether you use ascending or descending AC because:
The rules don't matter. They never mattered. If you think they matter, you've missed the point.

17. The OSRest picture I could post on short notice: