Saturday, December 20, 2014

OSR Art Friday: The Lace & Steel Illustrations of Donna Barr

From the original box cover

I bought the first edition of Lace & Steel--the game of faux-17th century swashbuckling and fancy court balls--in 1989, after seeing it on the shelf and flipping though it for thirty seconds. I never played it, but it has always enchanted me. Recently I realized that one of the reasons for that was its art. Unusual for its type, all of the illustrations are by one artist, Donna Barr. In addition, and also, somewhat unusually for the category, the pages are drenched in illustrations of all kinds. There are approximately 200 pages, distributed over four booklets. There are many full-page and even two-page drawings but also a huge number of smaller ones averaging out to at least three a page. Large-scale battles, duels, ladies and gentlemen at leisure or at fancy balls, monsters--warnets (intelligent giant hornets), pixies, harpies and "half-horses" (centaurs), to name a few--landscapes and maps, individual weapons, armor pieces or clothing, as well as musketeers with hangovers making faces into mirrors in the morning, are all covered.

In a roundabout way, Lace & Steel was one of the inspirations for Seven Voyages of Zylarthen. I wanted to make a 17th century "Lace & Steel" version of OD&D. That became a 16th century pseudo-Catholic version, which finally became a more conventional swords & sorcery-fairy tale version. But a few things from Lace & Steel survived almost intact--for example, the idea of using physical tokens to represent money in the game:
The author has found that a new dimension is added to game play when a player character’s funds are simulated by solid objects. One or two cent pieces can simulate copper groats, and heavy washers make good silver and gold pieces. Washers or disks can be had from any hardware store. Go for big washers (20 to 25mm is good) with small central holes, such as muffler washers. Brass washers are used for gold marks, and steel washers for silver schillings. 
“Real” money is excellent fun to use, and players soon develop odd habits such as fondling their money or stacking it into neat little piles. Parting with money can be a traumatic experience for miserly players, since they are handing over a physical object rather than just crossing a number off a piece of paper. Players will also tend to keep a less ready tag on their wealth, which adds a bit of spice to play.
A man bathing in coins
But to get back to the art. Is it OSR? Well, the game itself--authored by the still active Paul Kidd--certainly features some supposed new school elements, such as skills. But it is twenty-five years old, released at a time when 1e AD&D was still (barely) the standard. And to me, the evocative line-drawings of Donna Barr are the polar-opposites of the video-gamish color splatterings of most contemporary RPG art. But in any case, OSR Art Friday was never intended to be ideologically rigid (whatever that might mean in this context). And part of the fun is to choose a diverse variety of examples. Donna Barr's drawings are cool. They work. In the end, that's what matters.

Who is Donna Barr? One way to get to know her is to read her long-running and frequently updated blog. As many of you know, she's an incredibly prolific and still very active writer and illustrator, known primarily for comic books or "graphic novels" (though, she prefers the label "drawn-fiction"). Her output is distinctive. Her major works or series are The Desert Peach--about Erwin Rommel's fictional brother Pfirsich, an exuberantly homosexual Nazi general who leads a North African unit of homosexuals and assorted misfits--Stinz--about centaurs or "half-horses" interacting with normal men in a stylized German valley setting--and Bosom Enemies about two normal men who find themselves enslaved and transformed into half-horses. Obviously there's a sexual subtext to much of her material (also involving animals or, rather people that are half-animals), but without (on the main) being graphic or pornographic. Let us say, she at least occupies a niche. (Occupies? Scratch that. She dominates it and then uses it as a bridgehead.)
Musketeer with hangover making faces into his mirror in the morning
Wait, Nazis? Flamboyant, leather-clad, homosexual Nazis (that are to some extent made fun of, albeit affectionately), sexual themes involving animals or people half-way transformed into animals and then quasi-sexually dominated by other people?


(Oh, sorry. I was temporarily seized by the spirit of the age.)

Emphasizing the sexual part doesn't do the whole justice. Her series are witty and funny and at times moving and, yes, profound. See for yourself if you can.

In the late 1980's she also did some drawings for Traveller and GURPS. But her work for Lace & Steel was her most thorough RPG effort. That the game is now long out of print does not diminish its value or influence. For example, I would be surprised if James Raggi did not riff off of it for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Used copies of the first edition are now hard to find and expensive. A second edition came out in 1998 but featured an inferior cover and a somewhat different one-volume layout. Inexplicably it discarded many of the best and largest drawings.

Donna Barr is a great asset to the wider hobby. OSR Art Friday is proud to feature her.


  1. Donna Barr also did a lot of early illustration for Traveller, particularly in the Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society.

    I'm looking at the box for my 1st ed Lace & Steel, and I am certain that is a Donna Barr painting (the satyr and human dueling, apparently over the lady satyr in the background), so I think that she did all of the art for the game except for the TAGG logo and probably the rose and sword graphic.

    1. Also, fun fact, at the time that Lace & Steel came out, Barr lived within a fairly easy walking distance from me. She now lives a couple counties away. I swear that I did not scare her off.

    2. Re: the box cover. That's what I originally thought but then I read the contrary somewhere. And while the booklets are in front of me, I have no idea where my box is. But I'll check that.

  2. Okay, RPG Geek has a high-resolution scan and I agree with you. (The text has been edited. Thanks again.) I think I misunderstood that whatever I read was referring to the second edition.

    What do you think? Should I put the box cover at the head of the blog or is the "kids pondering swashbuckling and ball dresses" drawing more cool?

    1. Heh, I was just looking at the RPGGeek page when your comment notification came through my email.

      It's up to you, but I do love that color cover. The kids thinking about their characters is pretty good, too. I've always loved Barr's style, since Traveller days (she did the illustrations for the "Exit Visa" adventure in The Traveller Book, too, which totally fits that Douglas Adams-style romp).

    2. The other thing that I seemed to have slightly misunderstood is that to me it didn't seem like she was that into RPG work. I thought the Megatraveller thing was a one-shot where she was the fourth artist, and I hadn't realized she had done other Traveller stuff. I didn't put this on the post because it seemed too gossipy, but one blog writer claimed he had recently asked Barr about Lace & Steel and she didn't seem to remember it. So, my impression was she preferred stuff that she could write the text to. Or maybe that preference grew over time.