Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fantasy Gaming and Art

I was a fantasy gamer long before I ever rolled my first twenty-sided die. As far back as I can remember, I was enthralled by fantastical artwork, and ruminating on the matter, I realize that a lot of it was directly related to Dungeons & Dragons.

Prior to knowing what a role-playing game really was, D&D's artwork had captured my attention. My dad was a model rocket enthusiast when I was a little kid, and we would often go to our local hobby shop, The Hobby Hub, for him to buy supplies. While he was purchasing his rockets and engines and such, I remember being transfixed by what was to be a big part of my life going forwards. In particular, I remember a large poster advertising something called The Dungeon Master's Guide.

At the time, I had no idea what a Dungeon Master was, but the image stuck with me. Who were these brave heroes, and what was this frightening red thing they were fighting? And who was I rooting for? I wasn't entirely sure.

At some point before or after that (it's all a bit hazy decades later), I became aware of D&D as more than just some vague concept. One of my earliest introductions, as it was for many my age, was through TSR's Endless Quest series of Choose Your Own Adventure-style books. The book that sticks out in my mind the most is Revenge of the Rainbow Dragons.

I was always fascinated by the aesthetic of and concept of the color spectrum, and seeing it combined with a fantasy element really captured my young imagination.

The other image that I always associate with these formative pre-gaming years is the cover from Dungeons of Dread.

The strange thing about this image is that in my memory, it's not only the illustration used for this booklet, but also the one used for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons video game for the Intellivision that my dad's friend had. I would play it endlessly whenever we visited, even though I had no real idea what I was doing. With some research, though, I could not find any images of the Intellivision game with this artwork. What I did find, tickled part of my brain.

The moment I saw it, I remembered it. Maybe it was the snake arching to attack that layered itself onto the memory of the water weird that made me remember the image incorrectly. In any event, it goes to illustrate (pun only slightly intended) my point that, for me, fantasy gaming has been largely informed and influenced by the art that goes along with it.

But, back to my dad's friend for now. At some point in the early 80's, a very important thing happened. We kids were digging through my dad's friend's closet looking for games to keep us entertained. That was when I came upon one of the most important finds of my life. It was a game, but smaller than any game box that I had ever seen before. And there was no board, only words and strange, almost hypnotic artwork, and bizarrely-shaped plastic dice like I had never seen before.

I was, for lack of a better term, instantly in love. I took it to my dad's friend to have him teach me how to play it. He admitted that he had no idea how to play it. He had bought it to play with some friends, but they could never figure it out. So he told me that I could have it if I was interested. Why he thought a six-year old would have a better shot at figuring out a game that a group of relatively intelligent adults couldn't figure out is, to this day, quite beyond me, but I'm glad that he did.

I spent the next couple of days trying to wrap my brain around the game, but it was a bit beyond my comprehension. So I spent a couple of weeks trying to get my mom to explain it to me. As it turned out, she had even less of an idea than I did, so eventually, the game went into a box in the attic. It sat, in the attic and in the back of my mind, waiting for a day that I had no idea was on the horizon.

Today, it seems a bit strange that I would have such a hard time grasping the game, but it was a much different time. Concepts like "characters," "levels," "classes," and "experience" weren't as widespread a concept in gaming as they are today. We had video games, but they were systems like the Atari 2600, Intellivision, and Odyssey2, and were largely the domains of the "bigger kids" and adults. For us, games were things like Memory, Battleship, Monopoly, and Sorry. Or running around in the yard, whacking each other with sticks. It was a simpler time.

So, years passed and that old Basic Set sat in our attic, but my fascination with fantasy continued. I read a lot of books about greek mythology, watched a lot of movies like Dragonslayer and The Beastmaster, read The Hobbit, and played with my Masters of the Universe toys. I also had a bunch of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons action figures. All of this helped keep alive the part of me that would eventually bloom into a fantasy gamer.

I remember being on a multi-school field trip in first or second grade (possibly later or earlier, the period is still a bit of a mish-mash). On the bus, I met a bunch of kids, a year or two older and from another school, who sat in the back with a bunch of books and papers and seemed to be having a great time. Investigating, I discovered that they were playing D&D. They had obviously been playing for quite some time, and weren't interested in teaching someone how to play, but I got to watch for a while. I didn't understand the rules, but I got first real look at role-playing, and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.

While I'm still not sure if the timeline really matches up, I'm fairly convinced that one of the books they had along on that field trip was Oriental Adventures.

The cover immediately captivated me. I had spent a lot of time watching the USA network's "Kung Fu Theater" on the weekends, and the thought that this game would let me play a ninja or samurai just made it so much cooler. But, as things do, the field trip ended, and I never met those kids again. At that point in time, kids who went to other schools may as well have been from other planets.

Time passed.

It wasn't until Christmas of 1988 that I would finally get to play D&D for myself. A phone call from my cousin set the whole thing off. His cousin from the other side of his family had visited from college, and brought his D&D books with him. He showed my cousin and his other cousins how to play, but had left. More D&D was needed, and I was the answer. I spent a couple of hours digging around the attic and uncovered the Basic Rules, the Keep on the Boderlands module, and most of the strange dice. I headed over to my cousin's, and came back a different person.

That was an epic week. Four of us shut ourselves in a basement, only venturing out to beg grown-ups to take us to a place where we could find more D&D books to buy. The Hobby Hub had long since shut down, but we happened across a place downtown called the International Toy Company. They specialized in Playmobil and other imported and expensive toys and games, but they had a small section of role-playing games. And dice... oh, the dice.

After a couple of our initial adventures, I had taken over as the Dungeon Master. This was a trend that has carried through my life. We blew through the Basic levels in a night, and so the first product purchased was the Expert Set.

Now, here was some art that changed my life. Sure, that old D&D art was cool in a weird sort of way. But this... this was cool in a COOL sort of way. Who wouldn't want to be a warrior on horseback facing down a pouncing dragon? Not to mention that it included an adventure with DINOSAURS! The moment I purchased this product was the moment that I consider myself to have really and truly become a gamer.

School went back into session and we began to show our friends this new wonder. And we began to make new friends to game with. Weekend family road trips became excuses to look for game stores. Two of the most important to me were Professor Books in Winona, MN and Pinnacle Games in Rochester, MN (both of which have been gone for a long time now).

Professor Books was the store where I picked up two very important books. The first was the brand new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player's Handbook. We had been playing for a little while now, so we were ready to take it to the next step. For quite a while after that, there weren't many distinctions, for us, between OD&D and AD&D. There certainly was never too big a distinction between 1st and 2nd Edition.

The more important of the two books, though, was actually a novel.

I picked up Chronicles, Volume 3 at the same time, but it was this cover that blew me away. I had, of course, read fantasy books before, but this was somehow different. This was fantasy that wasn't something that was just for kids. It took me less than a day to finish Dragons of Winter Night, and I didn't slow down for years.

Pinnacle Games is a singularity in my life for two reasons. The first is that, until then, I had been completely unaware that there even COULD be a store devoted solely and entirely to games. It was like entering a wardrobe or being whisked away by a tornado and ending up in an entirely different world. 

The second reason is the first issue of Dragon Magazine that I ever purchased.

This is my all-time favorite piece of D&D-related artwork. It spoke to me in a lot of ways. Autumn has always been my favorite season, and Halloween my favorite holiday. It also showed me that it was not only possible, but incredibly cool to mix horror in with fantasy. I still have the very issue that I purchased that day. It's one of my most sentimental possessions.

We discovered other stores back in town that sold D&D - Kay-Bee Toys and Waldenbooks in the mall both sold books. Kay-Bee had a ton of adventures that were on clearance for a dollar or two each. This was probably the single largest source for our adventures in those days. Waldenbooks, though, was our source for rule books. I still remember two very important books that were purchased there.

The cover of Unearthed Arcana still defines, for me, a "wizard's laboratory." I have a framed puzzle of this artwork hanging on my wall right now. It also opened our eyes to more options for play.

The second book was something that built upon my budding love of horror mixed with fantasy, and is a staple of D&D history.

This adventure shows up on a lot of people's favorite lists, and for a lot of good reasons. For me, it was the beginning of paying attention to authors and artists. A horror adventure written by the one of the authors of the Dragonlance books? Yes, please. And what was this strange, forlorn cover art? And this strange symbol as an artist's signature? I think Clyde Caldwell was the first artist to really make me realize how much my love of gaming tied into my love of the artwork. A lot of people criticize his art for various reasons, but he's still one the best in my book.

From here on out, it became a wild and wooly love affair with fantasy, horror, and art. I could go on for hours about just about every piece of D&D product art covering most of the span of the game and what it means to me, but instead, I will just leave you with some of my favorite product covers over the years.

Perhaps I will go into my relationship with art and other RPGs in a future post.


Atom Kid said...

The artwork that really sticks out in my head was the Red Box Basic Set. The warrior bravely attacking a red dragon head on just really sets the tone for a new player wondering what to expect from the game.

Larry Elmore, David Sutherland III, Errol Otis, David Trampier and Jeff Dee will always have a special place in my heart for their artistic contributions to role playing.

mat black said...

The Elmore cover to the red box probably would have stuck with me more if that had been the basic set i started with. As it is, I still think it's a GREAT piece of art, and one that really epitomizes the game. But it's just not one that's in my personal gallery of D&D memory. Or at least, it's nowhere near the front.