Friday, September 26, 2014

OSR Art Friday: Cover of Eldritch Wizardry

Okay, a controversial choice.

First, let's get this part out of the way. Is the above painting immoral, misogynistic, pornographic, inappropriate for teenagers (or anyone) or any other bad thing? For the purposes of this post and the following one or two posts I don't know and I don't care. Tonight and for the next few days I'm not interested in the probity of this piece. I'm just not. If that attitude itself annoys--if you think that that in and of itself places me on a particular 'side' or whatever, then go away. Go away right now.

If you're still with me, then let's proceed. The painting appeared on the cover of Eldritch Wizardry, published in 1976--the third and last of the 'regular' supplements to the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

It was drawn by Deborah Larson. Who was she? No one seems to know. As far as anyone is aware she didn't do anything else for TSR before or since. None of the contemporary sources that I'm familiar with knows anything else about her, including whether she is currently alive or dead.

If anyone out there has any additional information on the artist, it would of course be welcome.

So, in this Friday post I want to make one basic observation about the piece and how it relates to 'OSR' art, as well as comparing it to contemporary 'establishment' (read: Hasbro) Dungeons & Dragons art. I may make a few other points in the following days.

Look closely at the painting. What is one of the things (perhaps the one thing) that most stands out about it? Think hard.

The central figure is wearing no clothes.

(See, this is why you read this blog--for the incredibly incisive, deep, spot-on and smart analysis that you can get nowhere else.)

But here's a serious point. Pre-3e Dungeons & Dragons art was crammed with art that featured completely unclothed people, as well as three-quarter unclothed people and half-unclothed people. There was a lot of nudity, virtual nudity or partial nudity.

There was.

Here are some examples:
1978 1e Players Handbook: Shirtless Thief
The cover of the 1979 1e Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide:
An almost naked Balrog clutches an almost naked woman.
1989 2e Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 40: AC 9 Magic-User
These instances can easily be multiplied.

This phenomenon was partly due to the pulp roots of the game. But that's not all there is to it, as I'll explain in a moment.

Let's jump ahead to 2014. In the recently released 5th edition Players Handbook I counted 142 illustrations of player character types. Of those 142, here's the tally of, so to speak, visible body parts or sums of body parts, as it were:

Naked people: 0
Mostly naked people: 0
Half naked people: 1 (This was an extremely small representation of a shirtless Conan type attacking a Fire Giant or some such. The figure was so small I almost missed him. We only see him from the back.)
Bare chests: 0
Bare lower legs: 0 (I think)
Bare upper legs: 0
Bare shoulders: 2
Bare biceps: 1.5
Belly buttons: 1
Bare midriffs (without belly buttons): 1
Bare feet: 0
Knees: 1 (I think)
Bare elbows: Oh, I don't know, 3 or 4, if that.

Here's a typical example:
A Well-Covered 5e Character 
In truth, the positive numbers are 90% based on 3 and only 3 (out of 142) figures--that mini-barebacked Conan guy, a half-Orc fellow wearing shorts and a sort of t-shirt, and a female druid clothed with strips of fur. Virtually everyone else is almost completely covered with clothing or armor, with only hands (sometimes, when not wearing gloves) or faces (beneath caps or helmets) sticking out.

That's really weird.

Is that a rejection of the pulp roots of fantasy? Of course. But it's also a rejection of 2,000+ years of Western art. Art is often about people. People usually inhabit, well, bodies. Therefore, bodies are often the subject of art. I'm not talking about sex per se here. I'm just taking about life. Bodies (sometimes partially, or more than partially unclothed) are, from the point of view of artists, just...interesting.

Though not for the artists (or their superiors) of 5e.

For perspective, I attend a Traditionalist Catholic Church--the sort of place that is often caricatured as being 'anti-sex' or 'anti-sexiness' or whatever. My wife was once yelled at by a fellow parishioner for being dressed in 'tempting and inappropriate' clothing (she was wearing a mid-length skirt or something). But you know what? There are a lot of naked or partially naked people in there. Jesus on the Cross is almost naked. Mary cradles her almost naked son. The cherubs are completely naked. Most of the saints have flimsy cloaks. And so on.

Hey, we might say again, it's life.

The artists of the 5e Players Handbook want their subjects to wear layers.

Current 'official' Dungeons & Dragons art seems to have this odd sort of problem with, well, 2000+ years of art history. Or we could say that it's uptight about the human body.

Original Dungeons & Dragons art and current OSR art did not and does not seem to have any such problem.

Is there more to it than just the matter of clothing? Of course. There is the matter of that completely boring and uninteresting, and totally minor I'll try to address that in the next few days. Stay tuned.


  1. The shirtless Thief is awesome! He can touch his toes without bending over!

    Oh, the red monster on the cover of the DMG is an Efreet from the City of Brass (as noted in small text in this inside cover, beyond the cellar, down the dark stares, on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "Beware of the Leopard".), but don't feel bad, as everyone gets that wrong.

    I totally hear you about the lack of cheesecake and beefcake in fantasy art. In the past, such things were common with the pulps of the '30s and the novels of the '70s, now its ether built-up superhero-like characters (see Warcraft art for prime examples), or layered-up in protective body-condoms. WotC has been down with the latter since the 3rd edition, as they felt that past D&D tend to show adventures looking more like they are ready for a novel cover, than a the adventures people play, who are weighed down by gear, and a desire to give rich backstories through visual cues. As neat as that is, I find it boring.

    4e tried no add more skin into the art, but it weird and comical. If you look at the 4e PHB or DMG, you'll see a lot of bare midriffs. Even armored characters had bare midriffs! Well, on the WofC Forum, folks where making a stink of it, and calling the act "sexist." (but the less said about that community, the better) But the art in that line was over-the-top and cartoony under Wayne Reynolds' crazy-ass art style. I get the impression that the feedback on Wayne's style was such, that they want to make the new art more sensible and down-to-earth -- going form one extreme to the other. So instead of going with "how the characters would look in a practical way", and I find that option to be bland and boring.

    If you want to see who far D&D had gotten away from its pulp roots, compare Todd Lockwood's Orcus (that pic got him the job as a D&D artist) to Wayne Reynolds' 4e Orcus. It is a huge contrast in style, mood and content!

    1. So glad you chose Mr. Lockwood's piece! That was always my favorite image of Orcus. Dude just looks like the embodiment of sin, doesn't he? 4e Orcus'll just beat you up, maybe take your lunch money, but that guy... well, it's best not to even think about what he might do

  2. '...the red monster on the cover of the DMG is an Efreet from the City of Brass.' Of course. As I was writing the post I was thinking, 'isn't it neat that the back cover has that great City of Brass city-scape.' I really was. Argh!

  3. Since my wife and daughter started playing, I'm glad it's being toned down. I'd rather lose the chainmail bikinis in the art than not get girls into the game. Some nudity is realistic and/or artistic, but much of it is gratuitous.

  4. I think the conclusions in the article are a bit off.

    It's not so much a rejection of what came before as it is a different focus on realism and an evolution to where the genre is in today's society.

    The art went from pulpy in OD&D and 1e, to more realist in 2e (but with some cheesecake), to adapting some anime style in 3e and 4e, and now has swung back toward realism.

    Also, the audience is different. Whether you want to talk about sexism or not, it is ever present in society... and you can't have a male warrior in a full suit plate armor standing next to a female warrior in a chain mail bikini. That's clearly an appeal to teenage male id and leaves out a huge chunk of the gaming demographic.

    If all of your warriors are also wearing leather fur thongs, that's one thing. At least that would be consistent... but that's not what D&D art was in 1st and 2nd edition. Males were wearing sensible armor for battle; females were wearing outfits that would have them gutted in the first round.

    I see no problem with putting realistic, reasonable armor on all genders. That's not at all "really weird". It's actually natural and realistic.

    As a father of two daughters, I want my girls to look at the art and think "That can be me!" not as a pole dancer hanging off the hero's arm, but as the heroine killing the efreet, not being rescued from its clutches.

  5. I agree 80% with both of you (Marty and Robert). As the Catholic father of four young children (yes, two sets of twins), there are all sorts of things in the contemporary world--many of them pertaining to sex--that I don't want them exposed to, or at least don't want them exposed to too early or without guidance. In a few years I would love to play adventure games with them, which is one reason I wrote Seven Voyages of Zylarthen--a game which I think is very true to OD&D's romantic swords and sorcery roots while also being (here comes that dread term) family friendly. Thinking of my three-year old daughter who is eagerly soaking up what it means or should mean to be a women, Marty's comments on female role-models is spot-on.

    That's why I explicitly tried to exclude the issue of sex, per se, from the above post, and why I referenced the art in my Church, for example. Technically, the post was simply about clothing or lack thereof. Really.

    Sex (and related things) will be the subject of the third post. Weirdly, perhaps, I'm not looking forward to it.

  6. Well, actually I think the art depicts what actually happens in a D&D game. Who cares that it's roots were in pulp fantasy? The mechanics have never supported bare chested fighters, and boob showing or midriff armor just looks ridiculous to an educated eye.

    So, from the perspective of most games I have played, it looks far more like an adventurers than pulp art does.

    Note, this doesn't mean I don't like pulp art. I just don't find it reflects the world that the game mechanics have ever built.

  7. I'm not against bare skin in RPG art, but it has to have the appropriate context.

    In 1976, Eldritch Wizardry was intended for an audience of adult war gamers (who were transforming into RPG players). That was D&D in the 1970's, where much of the audience was still adult (before it exploded in the 1980's).

    In 2014, the target audience consists of an extraordinarily high number of "tweens", as well as their parents. That's a different audience and the artwork is bound to reflect the marketing realities of a brand that spans media from tradition print, to online virtual table top play to MMORPGs.

    One thing I forgot to note in my last comment, one can do "pulp" without the scantily clad women. Spirit of the Century and Leagues of Adventure (and it appears Amazing Adventures may continue this) has lots of excellent pulpy artwork that still has the ladies appropriately dressed.

    So, I think the main point is not so much that D&D is rejecting "pulp", so much as it is moving away from unreasoned bare midriffs.

    If you look at the cover of the PHB, that has a bit of the pulp style with the cleric flying through the air in a swashbuckling style at the face of the giant.

  8. How many characters do you know that go around without clothes? Perhaps a wizard who can't wear armor has freedom but pretty much everyone else goes around covered in the best armor their class allows. The art should probably represent that to some effect.