Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History

Kyle Newman

Book cover

This is an interesting book for a fan of D&D to peruse, but I think it falls short of its potential.

As the title suggests, it’s first and foremost an art book. There are lots of pictures, not only from published material down the ages, but also some original sketches that I don’t think you could see anywhere else. (A personal favorite is Greg Bell’s original concept sketch of a beholder from the Greyhawk supplement, on which Gary Gygax, the creator of D&D, has written “Don’t use” and “NO”–the beholder would of course go on to be one of the most iconic original creations in D&D.) It’s striking how the art evolved over the years. In particular, the book hammered home to me how much of a “passion project” the original D&D box was–the art is laughably amateurish, and the book describes how Gygax & Arneson literally were recruiting bored local high school students to do drawings for them. The book has some nice demonstrations of how some early illustrations were total copies of pulp novel or fantasy magazine covers. But I find the old art charming, in the way that a zine might be. I especially enjoy the inset pages that show the canonical illustrations of marquee creatures from each edition.

The book is also a decent history of D&D itself. I knew a little bit about previous editions, but never actually played anything but the current one (5th edition). It’s interesting how, after being its own paradigm shift in the gaming industry, much of the subsequent history of the game is its own (often clumsy) attempts to respond to later paradigm shifts–most importantly, Magic: The Gathering (which almost resulted in the failure of the company, only saved because it was bought by M:TG’s parent company, and pushed D&D to improve its artwork for 3rd edition) and World of Warcraft (which led to an overly complex and tactical 4th edition, which is mostly reviled by fans today). The book is mostly fairly self-aware and acknowledges some of the mistakes made over the years. One piece of history that I did know about before reading the book, though, is barely mentioned, which is the importance of Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder RPG on the game. Pathfinder was based on the “open access” D&D rules from 3rd edition and more or less became D&D for many during the missteps of 4th edition.

Another piece of this mostly unmentioned chapter of the story is that Pathfinder made a point of having more inclusive artwork and content, including higher and more respectful representation of women, which very likely prompted D&D’s own push in this direction in 5th edition. In fact, my biggest disappointment about this book is that it is virtually silent on the fairly ugly history of gender representation in the game’s art (not to mention related issues such as Orientalism). While the book includes several exploitative illustrations (starting with the cover of the OD&D “Eldritch Wizardry” supplement on p. 54, which shows a naked woman being sacrificed on an altar) and a veritable plethora of no-midriff and boob-window armor, the text doesn’t mention these issues at all–despite the fact that D&D has made some very significant strides toward improvement in this area! I think this was really a missed opportunity for the publisher, probably driven by the (hopefully shrinking number of!) fans it knew would be angered by any discussion of such topics.

Luckily there are some really good, and even quantitatively-based, treatments of these issues in D&D and gaming history that have been published either by academics or by dedicated amateurs. A few I would recommend are:
-“Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons” by Stanford professor Antero Garcia (it’s a paywalled journal article, but you might be able to find a copy with some diligent searching)
-“D&D 5E: Why so many wimmenz?” (https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.c...) and many other articles on the Go Make Me a Sandwich blog (the titles of the article and the blog are both tongue-in-cheek, FYI)
-Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” Youtube series (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...) which, as the title suggests, is about video games rather than tabletop games, but almost all of the analysis is pertinent

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars