Monday, May 11, 2020

The Problem With All of this Gorgeous Artwork

While working on the Monty Haul ‘Zine Project, I’ve been revisiting the aesthetics and materials of the 1980s gaming scene and I stumbled across something that I think is missing from the current version of the game: scale. Especially where the monsters are concerned. This is all the more galling because D&D has never looked better, but for some reason, the monsters have lost some of their oomph, and I think I know why.

Early D&D, from the blue box to the original AD&D hardbacks, featured illustrations that were, shall we say, varied in both tone and technique. A few of the illustrations in the rules were outright jokes, little more than single panel gags. But the various rulebooks, and later the modules, managed to convey a sense of genuine menace in their depictions of classic D&D monsters that are lacking in today’s game.

I’ll give you an easy example: The umber hulk. Classic monster, right? One of the chinasaurs, allegedly. But either way, a thing that only exists in the hallowed halls of D&D. Here’s what the current version of the umber hulk looks like.

A lovely piece of design work by Cory Trego-Erdner.

Okay. That’s cool and all, but it’s not really hulk-y. And it’s more insect-y, like a mutated praying mantis.Not as chunked out as the original Umber Hulk. Here was our first look at the monster.

The thing about the AD&D Monster Manual was this: all of the artwork was approximately the same size. That means that the dragons have the same real estate on the page as the pixie. That little space. A couple of inches square. And to be honest, from the angle, the umber hulk looks more cute than terrifying. Like a gremlin. The stats said it was large, 8’ tall and 5’ wide, but we really couldn’t picture it.

Then the module The Ghost Tower of Inverness was published. And this was one of the best things about the modules; they almost always featured artwork of a party of adventurers getting the shit kicked out of them by monsters. I cannot stress how useful this was, especially when dealing with things like, well, umber hulks.

Here’s Jeff Dee’s take on the umber hulk.

That fighter? He’s toast. And the umber hulk suddenly looks frightening, and that fighter looks completely out of his depth. Best of all is the scale that he clearly shows. Now you know why it's called an umber hulk and not an umber insect. 

But just in case you aren’t convinced, here’s Erol Otus’ version of the umber hulk encounter.

That’s a three on one fight and it looks to me like someone’s going to bite the dust before that umber hulk is slain. Now that’s a D&D monster. Now I’m interested in sending this against my party and watching them freak out when you show them the picture.

There are many instances where the original art teams got it right. The action scenes give these monsters a context that most of us didn’t have. For a generation of kids, the Monster Manual was the first bestiary we’d ever seen. Dragons, we got. Goblins, no problem. But the owlbear? What the hell was that?

We know now, of course, but back then, it just seemed a little silly. That is, of course, until Jeff Dee (again) showed us what we were really up against.

Side note: This thief is an asshole.

Now whenever I see a fifth edition owlbear, I think, "Nice artwork," and it is. But that's not scary. Not to me. Not like this big-ass-beak, bear-bodied, what-the-hell-man monstrosity scares me. 

And again, I want to say, the artwork in 5e is almost universally incredible. It's technically adroit, with lots of character and excellent design. Maybe the owlbear above isn't my favorite owlbear, but it's not the fault of the artist, Brynn Metheney, who is responsible for some killer work elsewhere in the book. I don't know who is to blame. 

Maybe they think the pop culture zeitgeist has done the heavy lifting for them, i.e. "oh, everyone playing D&D knows about owlbears, so we don't have to define the terms." All I know is, back in the 1980s, I was relying on context clues because there wasn't a place to google "owlbears" and get a treasure trove of information to parse. I was at the mercy of TSR. And sure, some of the early artwork wasn't particularly sophisticated, especially when compared with today's computer-painted graphics, but what it lacked in polish, it made up for in evocative imagery. And when even that failed, there were other illustrations to show you how things might be put into practice in your games. For example, Bill Willingham showed us all how a medusa could get the drop on a couple of characters by hiding her snake hair under a cloak. 

And Dave Trampier showed us why it's not a good idea to try and fight those goofy (and obscure) monsters like the catoblepas. 

Even mundane animals were challenging for a party of adventurers that were foolhardy enough to take them on. 

We, as fledgling DMs, would not have considered herd animals dangerous. Or frogs, or any of the other mega-fauna and seemingly silly things that are crowded into the monster manual and sprinkled throughout the early modules. We needed these illustrations to make sense of this strange new world. Maybe that's not as strong a consideration in 2020, with exponentially more sources to draw inspiration from, but I miss it in the new game, all the same. 


  1. There are also a ton of cool Easter Eggs in that old art. If you were reading X-MEN comics in the 80s when that second owlbear image showed up (and most of us were), not only was that thief's jerk, but what was Magneto's helmet doing in that treasure chest?

    1. Oh yes, we went through all of it when we first saw that. Some of the nods were too deep to get as 12-year olds, like Howard Pyle tributes, but that art was the gift that keeps on giving, for sure.

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