Friday, June 9, 2023

Dungeons and Dragons - Art & Arcana


Every once in a while I like to take a quick look at some sort of artbook. This time, I got ahold of this particularly nice visual history of D&D. It's a bit of a trip down memory lane.

This book costs a cool $50 at the bookstore, but it's sure to transport anyone back in time. The back cover is full of testimonials from notable people about how many memories it brought back for them.

In my case, the story of D&D's connection to my youth is pretty simple: One time in the early 1990's I found a pile of old D&D modules stacked up in a musty basement, forgotten by the previous tenants of the place, and it started me on the course of being fascinated by swords, sorcery, monsters, and just games in general.

I like seeing these old ads from the 70's and 80's. When I was growing up in the 90's, the idea of "cool" in ads was usually a rad to the max kid in cool shades. In the 70's, it was apparently...overalls and hands in pockets?

Here are the very first D&D books ever published. My God. I've never even seen these before. My exposure to this stuff did begin with 1st Edition (what I found in the musty basement) but it was the streamlined 1st Edition of the early 80's. Not the original versions of the 70's which appear to be a bit more barebones.

We get these occasional two-page layouts of how a particular monster evolved over time through the 5 main editions. The Purple Worm on the left here bears a striking resemblance to the Dark Dragon / Pale Dragon from Final Fantasy IV. That's something you'll see a lot in the pages of early D&D, because FFIV and the games before it got quite a bit of inspiration from D&D. Especially the first Final Fantasy, which was basically a D&D game in everything except title.

The book also stops to showcase different notable dungeons from D&D history. The Tomb of Horrors here might be THE most memorable for long-time fans, and is well-known for being "the really difficult one". The dungeon layout is also the clear inspiration for some of Everquest's most challenging dungeons like Ikkinz and Inktu'ta, where the whole theme is that each area has some new trap or puzzle to deal with.

The boss of the Tomb of Horrors is the Demi-Lich, probably one of the more notable foes in D&D history. I don't think I could name the Big Bad of very many D&D modules, but I know of this guy.

Dice. They note that early releases of the game didn't supply all of the dice you needed, and no one else was making the more advanced dice yet, so finding full dice sets was often a challenge at the time.

Another of the game's more legendary big bads is probably Demogorgon. Actually, this is probably THE most well-known major foe the game has. He's the strongest of the (known) demon lords and his tentacle-arms can smash through a brick wall with ease. He's also the final uberboss fight of Baldur's Gate II. They decided to go all-out and spring for the biggest fight they could summon out of D&D's lore.

Here's the artwork for the original Monster Manual, which was one of the early things I read that got me interested in RPGs in general. None of the monsters in the book are as scary as the deadly CAT lurking in this shot though.

Worth noting is that not only can you find a lot of the original Final Fantasy's monsters in here, they even tend to have the same artwork as they do in that game.

A look at the very first prints of some of the dungeon modules. These got revised throughout the first edition to add color and so forth (these first prints are black and white).

Keep on the Borderlands here was the first AD&D module I ever acquired / read, and it was probably one of the best ones they ever put out at the time. So not a bad thing to start on. This got my 8 year old brain going.

Now we're entering the era of more colorful versions of the modules, which is where my exposure to this began. There were a lot of these and I think I had about 25-30% of them thanks to the musty basement.

This page demonstrates the art difference between the B&W covers and the color covers.

Temple of Elemental Evil is another dungeon worth showcasing, and it was a notable enough module that it actually got its own video game on the PC in 2001 or so. The turn of the century was apparently the golden age for expansive RPG-style D&D video games suddenly hitting it big, with Baldur's Gate I+II, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights, and Temple of Elemental Evil all dropping within like four years.

Here's the single most ridiculous dungeon map I've ever seen anywhere. This map has appeared around the internet for a while as a meme, and well, here's where it originated.

My God.

Here's Drizzt over time, probably the most well-known D&D character?

Sometimes the book takes (very quick) looks at early D&D computer games. The top right image was the title screen of one of them, and also the cover art for the Castle of Illusion "choose your own adventure" book. That was my favorite of those books as a kid, though admittedly I only had like five of them.

Here's Mindflayer, of Final Fantasy fame. You can see the FF1 version in the upper side of the left page.

Dragons are pretty much the ultimate monster in fantasy and RPGs. They're half the title of D&D, so I'd expect to see a few of them in here. This shows off the Red Dragon, specifically, one of like eight different types and probably the most iconic type.

More dragon types. Most of Everquest's dragon models are on these pages. Besides FF1, that's probably the most D&D game that wasn't called D&D.

This section gets into the Infinity Engine and how it fueled those turn-of-the-century official D&D CRPGs I was talking about earlier. Click this image to read it (true of all of these) because it's pretty interesting.

Lot of really nice artwork in these pages, and this is probably my favorite of it. So many questions arise from this image. How'd they get there? Where is this? What's in those distant doorways?

More good artwork. How'd they get up onto a railway? Is it a working railway? What's this dragon guarding? Add in some anime speed lines and this picture has a lot of movement going for it.

Miniatures. As a kid I was more into the miniatures / "board game" aspect of D&D than the "picture it all in your head" aspect, though I eventually figured out the latter. Not sure how many modules really had miniatures come into play.

Now we're more in the later-edition artwork and you can tell, as it gets more...modern? looking.

The cover for the 5th Edition Monster Manual is on the left here. I'd still take the first edition Monster Manual artwork any day.

Another completely insane dungeon. Really enjoying these looks at legendary dungeons.

Here's a full map of the Sword Coast, which happened to be the location of not one, not two, but SIX of the turn-of-the-century CRPGs. And those are just the ones I know of. It's also home to Drizzt. Definitely the busiest area of the D&D world. It's like Paris in Highlander.

Here's Baldur's Gate and the surrounding land, AKA the setting of that series. While those games were fun enough as a relative noob, I imagine they're pretty amazing for people who grew up playing D&D in this setting and now get to see it realized onscreen.

To the north is the terrain of more games, namely Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights and their sequels. While both sound icy, NWN is more of a dark forested land while IWD is the one with all the ice and blizzards.

The full map, zoomed in. Baldur's terrain (which actually goes further south than the boundaries of this map) goes up to around Dragonspear city, and everything from there on up to around Neverwinter city would be the terrain from Neverwinter Nights if I'm getting things right. So NWN occupies most of the central area here.

To get even more in-depth, here's the most complete world map of this part of the D&D world that I could find. The Sword Coast is just one tiny area. Surprised they didn't mine a lot more games out of this setting using the Infinity Engine.

More Tomb of Horrors zaniness.

Ravenloft Castle

Here's Tiamat, the multi-headed dragon that has the powers of all of the elements at once. Inset is the very first depiction of it from the first edition. This thing appeared in both FF1 and Everquest (as Quarm) which is to be expected since it's probably the most fearsome/awesome creature in all of D&D's universe. Yeah, some demons/devils are more powerful like Demogorgon or Asmodeus, and yeah, it isn't even the most powerful dragon (Bahamut, the platinum dragon, is) but I don't think anything holds a candle to Tiamat on looks.

Towards the end of the book we get this look at how the three main manuals evolved over time (left to right), from their B&W modest beginnings through 1st edition all the way up to 5th. They definitely got a lot less colorful as time went on, and by the middle of this page (roughly the late 90's / early 00's) the designs had changed for the worse IMO. All I've got personally are the 1st edition stuff (the second vertical row) and that's the one to have if you're going to have one.

Well, this book did what it set out to do and brought me back to that musty basement. It's crazy, I can still remember everything about that weird moldy basement and how mysterious it all was. Yeah, exploring an actual dungeon and finding this stuff as loot... is what I think of when I think of D&D, which is kind of fitting.

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