Saturday, May 27, 2017

D&D Art Challenge: Ten Foot Pole

Lately I've been thinking about the (sometimes considerable) differences between art and play across 40 years of D&D.

Erol Otus and Jim Roslof were my entry-point to Dungeons & Dragons as a player, coming perhaps five years before I sat down to read Moldvay-Basic as a DM.

Image result for keep on the borderlands back cover
Trying to resolve my experience of the game with what I saw presented, I always focused on how this adventuring party was (or wasn't) equipped: unarmored fighter with club, m-u on horse, dwarf with axe, elf with short sword ... no packs, shields, or iron rations.  Maybe they're headed to the keep to get geared up?  We always purchased equipment as (the longest) part of character creation.
Image result for David_C._Sutherland_III

Though I didn't discover them until later, the art of David Sutherland III (DCS) and Jim Holloway came much closer to reflecting the game as I had experienced it.

These adventurers wore backpacks and, like Samwise, knew the value of good rope.

Image result for jim hollowayRaiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981, cementing TRAPS in our young brains, though I didn't need much help ... the very first room of the very first dungeon I ever explored featured an illusion-cloaked pit trap (the dwarf fell in).  

10-foot-poles were, therefore, not just a cool flavor item on Moldvay's equipment list (like Wolfsbane); they were essential trap-detection gear!

Oddly, though 10-foot poles were as regular a feature of my late elementary and junior high school games as crossbows or holy symbols, I've noticed that they are almost entirely absent in the artwork of Dungeons & Dragons.

Image result for morgan ironwolf
Morgan Ironwolf had one, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you where she kept it.

Maybe they are hard to work into a composition, competing with cool shields and swords for a spot in the party members' hands ... maybe the length makes them awkward to represent if the point of view is pulled in close enough to see the monsters' teeth. 

In any case, I can think of exactly one image from a TSR AD&D or D&D rulebook, boxed set, or module from 1974-1989 depicting the party toting a ten-foot pole.

Do you know which image I'm thinking of?

Can you think of others?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Of Pulled Pork, or the Fall of Ferdik

Last session the party holed up in the foyer of Dwimmermount amid headless statues of saints, waiting to ambush the Five Delvers before their rivals could descend to level three, awaken the perpetual motion spirits, and claim Loomis Dooin's reward for their own.

To bait the trap, Zekiel the Fool (a bard of sorts) sat on the steps outside the Red Gates, unarmed and unarmored, kicking his heels and waiting to tell his tale:

"Terrible monsters attacked my friends.  You got to come help--there was fire and death.  I made it out, but their a'dyin in there!"

When the Delvers did appear, their leader, the canny Asceline, wasn't in a hurry to trust Zekiel nor help rivals who got in too deep, but owing her reckless nature she pushed ahead, suspecting an ambush.

Though they had lost the element of surprise, the PC's party hit hard, wasting no time in parlay, and had they coordinated their attacks a bit better they might have finished the Delvers off then and there.  As it was, however, a few of the explorers dithered or waited to see how things would develop (including their skinwalker, witch, and magic-user) a few used ranged attacks, and only three closed for melee.  Then the party's elf tossed the azoth grenade, catching at least as many friends as enemies in the deafening blast.  This was enough for the Delvers and Asceline called a retreat at the same time that Matilda the witch called up a fog cloud to further confuse things.

The Delvers retreated up the stair toward the Red Gates, leaving a prone Lorenz behind under Kermit the Brute's relentless rain of blows.  Thonyn, the Delver's own magic-user, blocked the stair with a Web spell while Asceline poured oil down the steps.

Ferdik and the rest weren't so easily dissuaded, however, and once the Web was hacked and burned down he ordered a pursuit across the miles between Dwimmermount and Muntburg.  The Delvers had a big lead and when the party's skinwalker raced ahead, Thonyn Charmed him and sent him back to foil the pursuit.

In the end, each party lost one man.

Image result for castle wallsBack in Muntburg, the captain of the watch observed the last stage of the fight from the walls and he made it clear that should this quarrel spill over into the streets of the fortress town that he would see each and every member of both groups hanged.

About a week later, at the top of our next session, nine explorers assembled to do a bit of shopping before setting out for the mountain.  Zekiel bought an apron and a dribbling, greasy pack full of meat of questionable provenance: "Pulled pork!"

On their way out of Muntburg, an urchin approached Zekiel, begging for a few pennies or a morsel to tide him over.  Rewarded with a quantity of pork between two crusts of bread, the lad let slip that he had been paid to let the Delvers know when next Ferdik's group headed to Dwimmermount.  It sounded like there might be some payback in the offing ... but the party plunged ahead nevertheless.

Image result for BBQ pork sandwichOnce again under Ferdik's leadership, the party's focus on their quest lasted just one room.  Following some odd, low voices they happened upon a party of wary dwarves.  The group had made a habit of murdering these "Dwimmerlings" in prior encounters, finding their loot to be above average, but in this case Zekiel instead shouldered his way to the front of the line and proffered a pulled pork sandwich: 

"The first one's free!"

The dwarves accepted (with a critically favorable reaction roll) and ordered several more. 

Deciding that dwarves were good chaps after all and didn't need any murdering today, Ferdik led the group back toward the stairs to level two.  They paused only in a room with a pair of familiar, silent, quarreling phantoms ... the apparitions always appeared in the same place and seemed harmless ... just long enough to hold a pulled pork sandwich up to a phantom's silently speaking mouth so that it looked as if he were eating it.

Level two proved to be fairly quiet and the lonely green slime encountered was tossed a pulled pork sandwich of its own.  When someone suggested burning the dangerous creature they were shouted into silence ... this slime was now a customer.

"Now we've got the beggar-kid market, the dwarf market and the ooze market ... we're gonna be rich!"

Running a little low on pork, Zekiel began keeping a sharp eye out for "dungeon meat" ... the kind that tends to accrue when you travel in the company of four or five fighters.

Soon they came to the "mean column lady" (as she was marked on their map).  A living stone pillar in the shape of a woman who guarded the descent to level three.  Previous encounters had shown that she was devilishly fast and would lash out with staggering strength at anyone who tried to pass her by.
Image result for woman column

After liberally smearing the front of the impassive statue with pork, Kermit the Brute tossed a sandwich past her toward the stair.  Reacting with blinding speed the edible missile was intercepted midair and swatted back at him hard enough to actually blacken one of his eyes!

The group was stymied so Ferdik simply began to beat on the column with his crowbar.  A fight ensued and the party was getting the worst of it under the statue's hammering, stone fists until their wizard flipped a few pages in his magic codex (its pages only turn one way) and cast Color Spray upon the column.  The spell left it confused long enough for the battered group to slip past and down to level three.

After finding and messing about with some odd, gray, stretchy robes, the party encountered a pack of rat-creatures--pulled pork time!

It seemed like the rat-thing market was soon to be all sewn up until someone decided to chuck a flask of alchemist fire at the creatures.  It was a miss, and the rat-people scattered, but a quarrel broke out and the party split, Ferdik leading Brunhilda, a goblin, Zekiel, and Merc the fighter back toward the surface while Ghaul the elf (who had the map), the kitten, Kermit the Brute, Matilda the witch, and the wizard pressed on looking for loot and these spirit-machine things they were supposed to find for Loomis Dooin.

While Ghaul's group accidentally made contact with a creepy scarab spirit, learning that the sun is apparently just an edible dung-ball that it rolls across the sky daily, Ferdik back-tracked to the stairs with his group.

Unfortunately, Ferdik completely forgot about the mean column lady guarding the top of the stair.  She had recovered fully from the spell by now and promptly struck Ferdik down with a single mighty blow.

Pausing a few moments to consider the broken shape of the party leader heaped on the steps, the goblin tried to dash past and was also struck down with a single mighty blow.

Merk the fighter, in his turn, also paused to consider this development from across the bodies of both his party leader and fellow explorer.  With a shrug he tried to dash past the column and was struck down with a single mighty blow.

Zekiel, perhaps after an off-camera pause to restock his "dungeon meat," opted to retreat back down the steps into level three to rendezvous with the rest of the party.

As we closed the session, the surviving party members were together on level three, but did they still have the strength of arms to accomplish their goal, and if so, how would they escape Dwimmermount?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

D&D: art vs play

Image result for moldvay basic
This was the very first image that I ever associated with Dungeons & Dragons.

I encountered it when my older brother brought home a 1981 Moldvay Basic set from KB Toys with hard-earned cash from mowing lawns (I bought a tauntaun with mine).

The image was fascinating.
The magic-user's face reminded me more of Jadis the White Witch than Princess Leah or any other female hero I'd ever encountered.
The dragon lacked wings and was apparently aquatic.  

The warrior was so stoic that, unlike his companion, he appeared unconcerned about the fanged horror just a yard or two away ... in fact, he wasn't really even looking directly at the beast from what I could tell.  His goggled helm and beard reminded me more of Ming the Merciless than Prince Valiant.
Image result for narnia illustrations                             Image result for ming the merciless

The second image that I ever associated with D&D was this one:

Image result for moldvay basic

It too was striking.  None of the three adventurers were turned so that their faces were clearly visible, but rather it was easier for me to focus on the hobgoblins (for whom I eventually found myself rooting--they were more relatable as they defended their territory against attack).  By age six, I knew a bit of history ... enough that I thought the armor of the explorers was odd ... more Classical than Medieval.

Another thing I noticed about these images by the time I was 10 or 11 was how sharply they contrasted to some aspects of the D&D game.

In actual play, we readily spent every last gold coin equipping new characters and carefully calculated our encumbrance values so that we knew just how fast we could run away from pursuing critters.  The adventurers in D&D art, on the other hand, seldom had more than two or three pieces of gear on them.

Image result for moldvay interior
not a backpack in the whole bunch
"That guy would never survive.  All he has is a bow!"

The cleanness and simplicity of the art was lost on younger me as I looked for  (and seldom found) images that matched my experience of the game.

Image result for classic D&D art

Sometimes I'd even invent a narrative to explain a piece that I liked ... "Maybe their mule, supplies, and retainers are just out of sight to the right."

This "problem" persisted over into miniatures too and, though we mainly used them to record marching order or simply as display pieces, the incongruity was still there.

I picked up Swords & Wizardry Whitebox last year, not because I needed another rules set (my Moldvay is in fine shape, I also have that text in pdf, and I occasionally carry a copy of Labyrinth Lord just in case I want a spell reference, wandering monster chart, or treasure table), but mainly because I was charmed by the digest-size, minimalist approach, and simple (almost naive) artwork.  
Image result for swords and wizardry whitebox
as lovely as it is simple

Clearly D&D artwork remains very distinct from D&D play.


Why do you suppose that, with exceptions like Jim Holloway's contributions, D&D artwork has tended to remain heroic or mythic rather than reflective of gameplay?

The dialectical relationship between art and play is strong.  How do you suppose that the "unencumbered hero" image has affected game play and changes in published rules?  

How do you suppose the rules as written have impacted gaming artwork?