Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana over the weekend by the kind folks at Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press. My review and discussion of the book could be influenced by the fact that I was given a copy at no cost. However, I am confident I would find this book amazing if I paid the full price for it.
I was anticipating the mail over the weekend because I knew I would be receiving a copy of Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, which is authored by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer; the book also has a foreward by Joe Manganiello. The mammoth book contains nearly 450 pages that span the game’s entire history. The one-page press release that accompanied the advance copy summarizes Art & Arcana well:
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill “art of…” book; rather, it’s more of an archaeology project that involved lots of needle-searching in haystacks….
The author team spared no expense in finding these pieces; unearthing sketches, memos and internal drafts of some of the game’s most iconic material; locating and interviewing early artists whose names had since been lost to D&D lore; gathering pristine products and obscure advertisements; and obtaining hard-to-get-licenses – a labor of love all leading to a previously unavailable visual archive and untold story about how D&D truly came to be. No matter what edition of D&D you play or played, or even if you are just a casual observer or pop culture enthusiast, this book will have something special for you.
Honestly, after I read the press release I wanted to immediately delve into some dungeons and fight some dragons!
Dungeons & Dragons has been in my life off-and-on for close to 40 years in some capacity, and that history is very important and personal to me. I even celebrated the classic art from early D&D modules by decoupaging my gaming table with those images, which still stands proudly in my home. So it feels wonderful to hold a study, well-produced tome that captures – and celebrates – D&D’s history!
Art & Arcana is a feast for your eyes as every page is lovingly curated to highlight moments from over four decades of Dungeons & Dragons history. From crude concept designs to massive, pristine spreads of iconic images, Art & Arcana will trigger those nostalgia neurons in your brain and cause your heart to skip a beat. No area seems taboo or off-limits as the book presents an overview of the rise and fall of Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) with never-before-seen artifacts such as personal communications and invoices. The sale of D&D to Wizards of the Coast is also covered in detail as Art & Arcana provides commentary and context for the movements and development cycles of the game over the years. It’s clear the authors adore the game, though the book is willing to examine (and delightfully poke fun at times!) D&D’s potential shortcomings. The treasures in the book provide a feeling of, “Whoa!” as nuggets of information are organized in a visually pleasing and accessible manner across the pages.
Art & Arcana is beautiful to consume visually, and it is also quite educational. I imagine there are new details in here for even the most hardcore fans of D&D. For someone like myself that skipped about 15 years during the 2nd and 3rd Editions, the book is a master class on how – and more importantly, why – D&D evolved over the years. Art & Arcana also has a sense of humor about it that makes the book fun to read, and I read every piece of text before writing a review; I encourage everyone to do that same! It has everything you could ask for from a visual history – classic advertisements, screen shots from computer games, pages from manuals, pictures of miniatures and toys, black-and-white photos of Gary Gygax and company, glorious maps of dungeons and cities, and an enormous collection of the best pieces of art that have been created for the game – quite simply, Art & Arcana will galvanize your fandom of Dungeons and Dragons.
The only situation that comes to mind that is comparable to how I felt after devouring Art & Arcana is my reaction after watching the documentaries about the making of The Fellowship of the Ring on the Extended Edition DVDs. I had previously read The Lord of the Rings and even taught a class on the books along with other modern mythologies while in graduate school. I enjoyed the film, but seeing how much care and devotion went into the making of the movie increased my adoration for the franchise. My wife and I even traveled to New Zealand back in 2012 primarily because we fell in love with the locations from hours of watching those films get made. I’m a much bigger fan of The Lord of the Rings because of those documentaries, and I believe Art & Arcana will have a similar effect for fans of D&D.
I just wonder where I should travel now that Art & Arcana has me fired up? Watch out, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, here I come!
If you are a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, then treat yourself to this book. I cannot imagine a material plane of existence where you would be disappointed.
Now, please enjoy my in-depth musings on Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History.
First Impression: Judging a Book By Its Cover
The primary color of the cover is black and the immediate sight that greets you is the famous illustration by Larry Elmore that first appeared on the D&D Basic Set – also known as “The Red Box.” The cover is framed with the latest script for Dungeons & Dragons at the top of the page while the bottom of the page has Art & Arcana A Visual History in gold foil with the author names in a red font. The cover is stunning; you’re left with wonder about what treasures this dragon is hoarding inside!
The back of the book features David Trampier’s cover for the first Player’s Handbook, Todd Lockwood’s cover for The Forge of Fury (3rd Edition) module, and Raymond Swanland’s recent cover for the Monster Manual (5th Edition). It also features endorsements and reviews from celebrities including James Gunn, John Romero, Deborah Ann Woll, Matthew Mercer, Adam F. Goldberg, Ernie Cline, and Amy Hennig. It also has a two-sentence summary of the contents of the book.
The other thing immediately noticeable is how sturdy the book feels. While an edge along the front cover of my advance copy got a little dent in it from shipping, the bones of the book feel strong. Flipping through the heavy pages does not seem like it’s going to hurt the spine in any way. And the book weighs over five pounds! I’m quite certain the reader could use Art & Arcana to inflict 2d6 + 2 bludgeoning damage in a pinch.
Contents, Foreward & Introduction
The Contents are presented on a single, stark white page with a clean black font next to a stunning, full-page recreation of Jeff Easley’s illustration that appeared on the cover of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragon’s Player’s Handbook from 1978. There’s no other way to say it, the image begins your journey by giving you an intense dose of nostalgia. The Contents of the book are organized into nine chapters, and each chapter is named after a D&D spell:
- Detect Magic (Original Edition)
- Pyrotechnics (1st Edition)
- Explosive Runes (The Crash of 1983)
- Polymorph Self (2nd Edition)
- Bigby’s Interposing Hand (The Fall of TSR)
- Reincarnation (3rd Edition)
- Simulacrum (V3.5 and DDM)
- Maze (4th Edition)
- Wish (5th Edition)
I found the use of spell names to be a wonderful touch; it adds to the overall vibe of Art & Arcana, and makes it feel like the team behind the book tried to find every way possible to guarantee this becomes a treasured keepsake for fans of D&D.
Turning the page from the Contents brings you to a full-page recreation of the iconic “Who needs to hang around? I’ve got Dungeons & Dragons” advertisement, which was recently paid homage to by Matt Mercer from Critical Role (and, yes, that also appears in full-page glory near the end of Art & Arcana). The foreword by Joe Manganiello is a heartfelt six paragraphs about his background with the game as a child of the 1980s and his love of the artwork through the game’s history. A full page is devoted to a picture of Mr. Manganiello standing next to a commissioned painting by Jeff Easley of Joe’s Dragonborn character, Arkhan the Cruel. He concludes his foreward by writing, “If Winston Churchill was right in saying, ‘history is written by the victors,’ then the fact that this book is in your hands means Dungeons & Dragons has won.”
A three-page Introduction follows and provides an overview for the reader of what to expect in Art & Arcana. It celebrates the entire journey of D&D and highlights how the game influenced individuals such as Jon Favreau and Ta-Nehisi Coates who have combined innovation, technology and entertainment to make geekdom relevant to the masses. It emphasizes that “the art informed the game, and the game informed the art.”
A single page educates the reader about the structure of Art & Arcana as the book relies on “devices” to narrate the history of the visuals in D&D:
- The Story – a chronological narrative comprised of “standard text”
- Arteology – a look at a component of the game that has changed over time
- Artist Favorite – several artists selected a single favorite piece of work they have contributed to D&D over the years
- Deadliest Dungeons – brief background and imagery on iconic and dangerous dungeons
- Evilution – displays the evolution of certain monsters over time
- Many Faces Of… – pays homage to iconic D&D characters that have visually changed over the years
- Sundry Lore – these encapsulated features cover major movements in D&D history
Let’s dive in!
Lake Geneva & Wargames
The first chapter presents a large photo of “perhaps the world’s best-preserved example of the first printing of Dungeons & Dragons,” which was created by Gary Gygax and partners in 1974. The chapter details how Gygax became passionate about wargaming, which was already a popular hobby in Europe. Original artwork by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren is shown next to details as to how the cover for Chainmail was created, “the first true piece of Dungeons & Dragons art.” It also educates the reader how the artwork for Chainmail’s Fantasy Supplement was created.
Art & Arcana details Gygax’s love of miniatures and how he connected with Dave Arneson, and it was a joy to read. While many of you may already know the tale; it is another thing to read through that history with black-and-white photos from the 1970s along with pictures of hand-written maps and even a hand-written envelope of correspondence between Gygax and Arneson. There’s even a full-page photo of a type-written first draft of Dungeons & Dragons. Again, it feels like archaeology!
It discusses how other artists got involved “to create images of fantastic creatures that no one had ever seen or even imagined on paper.” It showcases how Greg Bell borrowed from comic books to illustrate the pages of D&D (perhaps the best use of space in the entire book, the two-page spread on this topic is amazing), and mentions that the entire budget for art in the first printing of D&D, which “can look amateurish, even crude,” was approximately one-hundred dollars. The story of likely the oldest piece of art in D&D is also explained, as the werewolf that appears in the first printing is from a childhood friend of Gary Gygax that passed away in 1963; it’s factoids like this that are fascinating to read along with the provided visuals.
Art & Arcana provides original illustrations from other artists that joined the company including Dave Sutherland and Tracy Lesch; for example, the mind flayer simply did not exist until Tracy Lesch created one. It sets the stage for the creation of the periodical, The Dragon, which brought in more artistic talent. All told, the first chapter on the Original Edition of D&D is 73 pages of vivid storytelling. It’s a wonderful journey down memory lane interspersed with high-quality images of the game’s visual history.
A Visual Game
The second chapter focuses on 1st Edition, and immediately describes how artwork educated new players about what to expect in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Dave Trampier’s cover for the Player’s Handbook lavishly fills the space of two pages so it can be seen in all its glory. The “Holy Trinity” of Advanced D&D books and the iconic art they contained are profiled in great detail. It also features the work of Erol Otus, whose images appeared in multiple books including the cover art for the 1981 Basic Set. The visuals provided in D&D were reaching new artistic levels, and the product’s success was certainly fueled by these professional illustrations.
The origins of controversy are presented as a clipping from a New York Times article about a missing student at Michigan State University is blown up on a single page. The Times referred to D&D as a “bizarre intellectual game,” and the “Satanic Panic” about the game is reviewed. While parents were scrutinizing the game, books like Deities & Demigods featuring numerous depictions of the occult and demons were released, which poured some gasoline on the fire. The team at D&D did attempt to provide art that was more appealing to children (and parents) through tame advertisements.
Art & Arcana documents the “Great Purge” of talent from the company as D&D attempted to move from “a happy-go-lucky group of gamers” to a multi-million dollar business. The chapter concludes with pages devoted to the efforts of Gygax and company to extend Dungeons & Dragons to a wider audience by professionalizing the art design and attempting to break into other forms of entertainment.
Tumbling Back Down to Earth
The third chapter begins with Dungeons & Dragons at the height of its powers in 1983; the game was selling well in the United States and beyond. Gary Gygax ventured to Hollywood to expand the scope of D&D, and the animated series debuted on network television. Artists such as Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley were cranking out spectacular images for box sets, manuals, and products for the new Dragonlance series. All seemed well, but the business side of D&D was struggling as “the company could no longer find a way to make a profit.” While the art direction attempted to sand off the rough edges of prior years, D&D continued to be framed by popular media “as the villain” including the famous 60 Minutes feature. The company was losing up to $4 million per year, and Gary Gygax was ousted late in 1985.
Dungeons & Dragons was now controlled by new leadership, and this story is told with pictures of likely never-before-seen documents and invoices. The company downsized and stabilized with successful products and the introduction of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, which originally appeared in the pages of Dragon magazine. It also started to produce higher-quality computer games such as Pool of Radiance, and refined a strategy of tying an adventure module, novel, and computer game together to the same story and setting.
So, how many hours did you invest in the old Pool of Radiance on a Commodore computer?!
Edition By Subtraction
The fourth chapter details how Dungeons & Dragons moved forward with designing a 2nd Edition to the game without D&D’s co-creator, Gary Gygax. Efforts were made with 2nd Edition to respond to the “Angry Mother Syndrome” controversy that still stuck to D&D. The company set on a strategy of introducing new campaign settings – Spelljammer, Ravenloft, Hollow World, Dark Sun, Al-Qadim, and Planescape – to support the core rule system. Other competitors jumped into the roleplaying game market, but it was “a small start-up called Wizards of the Coast” that changed the landscape of gaming with the introduction of Magic: The Gathering.
The chapter provides some context for Gen Con, which was founded in 1968 in Gygax’s home of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The convention continued to grow without his presence in the company, and Magic: The Gathering was introduced at Gen Con in 1993. Attempting to replicate the early success of Magic, D&D released their own collectible card game, Spellfire: Masters of Magic, which failed to connect with an audience.
This Is The End
The fifth chapter begins with the 20th anniversary of TSR in 1995 and the release of the revised 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule books, which were lavishly created with full-color art. Other products were thrust into the market and quickly repackaged in a never-ending quest to reach a larger audience. The sheer number of campaign worlds created during 2nd Edition, including the new Birthright, “managed to splinter the D&D fan base into disparate groups that were playing, in essence, separate games.” TSR would continue to struggle financially and was ultimately purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997.
Wizards attempted to win back longtime fans of D&D by celebrating the game’s 25th anniversary with re-releases of classic products and new offerings like Return to White Plume Mountain. It also found success in computer games with Baldur’s Gate and Torment, both of which are commonly found in all-time lists for computer roleplaying games. However, the sale of TSR to Wizards of the Coast ended an era, and it was unclear what was to come next.
What Is Dead May Never Die
A new design team was formed to create 3rd Edition, and new principles like multi-classing for players were introduced. The covers for the core books were a vast departure from previous designs; instead of fantasy scenes with action, the covers appeared to be “in-universe leather-bound” books. The team of artists responsible for 3rd Edition illustrations sought to create images that were more “lived-in and practical.” The rules also removed restrictions on class and race restrictions, signaling an invitation for a broader diversity in play styles.
Dungeons & Dragons started to become “chic” again as it appeared in all forms of media – televisions shows, computer games, and even the silver screen – though the film did not fare well. Under new guidance from a different design team and several new artists, D&D thrived in the early years of the century.
Miniatures & v3.5 vs. Digital Armies
Only three years after the release of 3rd Edition, Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 was unleashed into the wild to implement “some needed fixes to game mechanic glitches” and link it heavily to the D&D Miniatures Game, or DDM. Wizards of the Coast began releasing “booster packs” of miniatures in the same format as cards for Magic: The Gathering. “So, effectively the D&D brand was cloned into a collectible miniatures game.”
A new campaign setting, Eberron, was launched and more attempts such as another Basic Game were released to bring in new fans. However, many fans of D&D – and millions of others that likely never played a session of D&D in their lives – were flocking to computer screens to log into fantasy worlds to explore, defeat enemies, gather loot, and level up. World of Warcraft and other massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMOs) exploded in popularity, and D&D tried to cater to the same audience with an assortment of digital products.
A new edition would further these attempts to connect with the growing MMO audience.
4th Edition: What Pulled Me Back Into D&D
The first chapter of Art & Arcana I read is titled, Maze, and it focuses on the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, which attempted to navigate an increasingly complicated digital landscape. I was eager to see how they handled the retrospective of 4th Edition because I continue to hold that edition close to my heart, and I also realize that many players were dissatisfied with the changes the game introduced to D&D. I was happy to see that Art & Arcana devotes nearly 40 pages to chronicling 4th Edition.
The chapter begins with a full-page splash of Wayne Reynolds’ art from the cover of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The art for 4th Edition “steered D&D in a brash new direction – one loaded with unbridled action, exaggerated poses, and extreme, often distorted angles.” Player characters in 4th Edition had an array of powers at their command, and those powers grew in strength and scope as they leveled up; the edition “gave player characters reason to expect to be godlike themselves” and the art captured that sensibility of design.
Look back at the illustrations that grace the cover of each volume of the Players’s Handbook in 4th Edition. Hulking warriors wielding enormous weapons, powerful magic users casting spells, and a deadly assassin grace the covers. These characters do not resemble the squishy characters of earlier editions, and 4th Edition featured gameplay that was closer to videogames such as World of Warcraft than to earlier editions of D&D. It in a relatively short span of time, dozens of books were produced with additional content for players and dungeon masters
As a consumer, the product release schedule was like trying to drink from a fire hose, and the gameplay for 4th Edition felt similar at times. The sheer number of options for players – and the adventuring party – during combat encounters compounded exponentially, and it was routine for one combat encounter to last multiple hours. I thoroughly enjoyed 4th Edition, and the review provided by Art & Arcana highlights the game’s intentions while chronicling how it did not meet the expectations of longtime D&D fans. The chapter concludes with the efforts by Wizards of the Coast to develop another iteration of D&D, which resulted in the largest playtest of a new edition in the history of the game.
All Good Things Must… Continue!
Early in the final chapter of Art & Arcana, the following sentence is offered, “To say that the 5th edition is a reaction to what came before would be a massive understatement.” The designers attempted to take the best elements of prior editions and simplify them into a clean system; “5th Edition” does not appear on the core books. The logo is a simple and clean: D&D or Dungeons & Dragons.
Art & Arcana notes that the art team for 5th Edition were guided by a unified philosophy to illustrate monsters and characters to evoke “new levels of emotion, humor, and drama… In short, this new iteration is more congruent with the earliest iterations of the game than anything prior, as if a sense of morality, or at least humanity, has returned to the game.” The company seems to be no longer actively competing with video games and competitors, and instead is embracing its Alpha Dog status of being Dungeons & Dragons – without the arrogance of the classic “I’m Keith Hernandez” moment from Seinfeld!
Other visual means to expand the game have also been found with applications like Roll20 that allow gamers from across the globe to meet in the same digital space. The Dwarven Forge brand of terrain is also mentioned with a mammoth two-page, close-up spread of the miniature pieces. The book closes with a note about the persistence of D&D and its ability to remain relevant over four decades, “…the geek has indeed inherited the earth.”
The final spread presents the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual from each edition all next to each other to chart the course of how the game and the art that infused it changed over time. It’s an impressive display to remind the reader of what has come before, and sparks the imagine of where D&D will go next.
If you have made it this far, then thank you for reading the review! Purchase Art & Arcana, or request it as a gift – the holidays are coming up after all. Or buy Art & Arcana for a friend or loved one that enjoys D&D; they will not be disappointed! Better yet, buy your favorite DM a copy; us poor DMs spend hours preparing for game sessions – so show us some love!
Also, please consider purchasing a copy of No Assembly Required, a book of 10 highly-detailed monster characters for 5th Edition D&D featuring quality art by illustrator, Grant Gould.
I partnered with Limitless Adventures to create the book in an effort to channel my grief into something positive after my brother ended his life by suicide; we are selling No Assembly Required for $5 and every penny of that $5 is donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
So far, we have sold over 500 copies of the book and raised $3,000!!