Tuesday, June 10, 2008

4e and Art

Still sort of leisurely making my way through the Player's Handbook. Frankly, the most interesting parts are now behind me--races and classes. I make characters based on what sounds fun to play, thus my interest in the races and classes above the feats and combat, rather than "optimal builds", which is probably why 4e isn't really my speed.

Well, that and the art.

I've had issues with the direction of D&D artwork since third edition. I think we're all predisposed to like the art that we remember from when we got into gaming. Gamers who cut their teeth on the Moldvay basic set or first edition AD&D fondly recall Erol Otus and the Daves as the paragon of D&D art. For me it'll always be the power team of Elmore and Easley, particularly their work in the BECMI boxed sets.

The "you are there" style of fantasy illustration that prevailed for about a decade is the kind that really fires my imagination. The art tells a story, and is often set just before or after "the action" which leads the mind to come up with a story for what is about to/has just happened.

It was a long-standing tradition in my group to occasionally base character concepts on Elmore illustrations. Not only concepts, but to actually use the scene in the illustration as a "starting point" for the campaign. For example, we once started a campaign based on this painting, with
one PC as the cleric and the other as the near-dead fighter.

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The DM described the giant making his way off through the forest, and it was up to us as the players to decide how we'd found ourselves there.

We've decided to dust off this old chestnut for our first 4e campaign. Des and I will be basing our characters, and the first scene of the campaign, off this drawing:

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Today's art is all about the action--and then some! Cram as much emphatic intensity into a painting, goes the current reasoning. It's a reflection of the age--music is mastered to leave no "open spaces", to be as loud as possible regardless of what the music sounds like. There is little room to breathe; it is an assault on the senses. It goes beyond mere action, which was amply illustrated in old school art (see the classic "Bridge of Sorrows" painting for an example of an action shot that still leaves room to breathe).

I've thought about this before, but I was reminded afresh by someone's effusive praise of 4e's art, particularly one of the splash pieces from the PHB:

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In the person's words, "This makes me want to play D&D!"

I just can't relate. The painting is just so crowded, you can barely tell what's going on. Compare it to one of my favorite Keith Parkinson works--this too shows a party of adventurers at the mouth of a dungeon, but evokes a feeling of impending adventure so much more effectively:

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There is room to breathe. The figures in the painting are clearly characters with personalities--the gnome trying to sneak off, the human casually grabbing him as if this happens before every dungeon... The characters in the 4e piece look like combat stats given fleshly form--there is nothing to differentiate them from each other besides their kewl powerz. And of course the Parkinson piece features that "you are there" realism that creates a sense of another tangible world--the adventurers have their gear, their battle-worn armor, their scars. And that dungeon entrance! The last Rules Cyclopedia session I ran had a dungeon entrance based on that and I had a blast describing it.

In summary, I'm not saying that 4e art is objectively bad; it just attempts something other than what I'm looking for in fantasy art. It's reflective of my overall views of 4e: more power to the people who look at that and get excited. Me, I'll keep basing my characters off Larry Elmore drawings.
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