Friday, August 16, 2013

Three Paladins in Hell

Pretty much the coolest punk flyer EVER.
Browsing Tumblr the other day, I came across the following three images in a post. The obvious intent is to show the evolution of one of the great iconic D&D images over the course of three editions. Hack & Slash posted a similar entry a while back. What struck me, however, is how one can, by looking at the content and composition of each iteration, trace the evolution of how the visual aesthetic and fictional expectations of what exactly constituted "D&D" evolved over the course of roughly 30 years.

The original David Sutherland piece has a typically "First Edition" approach to the eponymous paladin and his gear: his plate, shield, and sword are straight out of a book on medieval weapons and armor, but there's a distinctly a-historical concession to the resource-focused realities of old school adventuring in the form of belt pouches strapped to his waist to hold all manner of rations, potions, and other such necessities. The devils in the picture are all identifiable in the Monster Manual - across the board, the feel of the piece is that this could have come directly out of an actual session of gameplay.

Here we have the Fred Fields homage that graced the cover of the 2nd edition module, "A Paladin in Hell". Here's where the analysis gets interesting: what we see is a more technically proficient rendering of the 1st edition version of the image that somehow lacks the engaging heart and soul of the original. Sounds a lot like the "common knowledge" view of 1e versus 2e, doesn't it? The two systems might have been 99% compatible (just as the pose of the paladin is almost identical in both versions), and the 2e rulebooks much easier to reference in play (just like how, on a technical level, Fields has got Sutherland beat), but a certain je ne sais quoi has been lost. Of note, too, is the change in visual composition. No longer do we see a single hero facing off against a horde of devils. Now, instead, the hero is triumphing over a single foe. Again, this mirrors the shift in gameplay expectations from 1e to 2e of PCs as gravely outnumbered interlopers into dark domains, their survival very much in doubt, to one of "PC-as-epic-fantasy hero".

Finally, the 3e version, rendered by Carl Frank. We're back to the original image's composition of a single hero standing on a ledge against a horde of foes, but interestingly, those foes are now homogenized into a single type of devil (and it's the Horned Devil, weakest of all the foes in the original). Read into that what you will. What catches my eye primarily is the shift in the appearance of the paladin. His armor is no longer slavishly copied from an historical example, rather being given a "fantasy" treatment, particularly with the shield. Gone, too, are the mundane adventuring accouterments, replaced instead by an oversized sword. The overall effect is much more cartoonish and/or Hollywood-ized.

And speaking of Hollywood conventions, our protagonist is no longer be-helmeted. Although this gives a greater feeling of emotion and humanity to the paladin, it also, strangely, distances the viewer. I've read multiple accounts of people seeing the Sutherland original for the first time and immediately projecting themselves into the paladin's place - with helmet in place, after all, that paladin really could be your paladin! Taking the helmet off and exposing a face reflects the emergence of "iconic" characters in the 3e/Pathfinder era - these are no longer meant to represent you, but somebody else.

Personally, having come to D&D via 2e, I was unaware of the original piece until just a few years ago, so it doesn't have the same strong nostalgic resonance for me as it does for many other gamers. Nevertheless, I can acknowledge that the original is one of the great iconic pieces of D&D art. In the end, I can appreciate each for different reasons, but what I found most interesting about the three different pieces was how the "look" of the paladin evolved, and how his positioning against his opponents was composed. In these three versions, I think we can see a bit of the soul of each of the three editions of (A)D&D.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Music For and Inspired By...; Or, The Role of the Campaign Mix

Jack's Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog has turned me on to a cool site called, a streaming playlist service. (One minor quibble is that track sequencing gets shuffled after the first couple playthroughs, but beggars can't be choosers, I suppose, and I understand the legalities of the policy.) I'm a big fan of gaming soundtracks, and will be using 8track for the foreseeable future should I feel motivated to share more of my mixes.

Jack's soundtrack posts have already inspired me to put together a playlist based on his Planet Motherfucker setting, but the comments to his latest soundtrack post brought up the more general issue of how one uses "gaming soundtracks." The example I'm sharing today is from my ongoing Deadlands: Reloaded campaign. I put it together before the campaign got started or characters were generated, which is in keeping with my usual M.O. Sometimes I make a soundtrack for a campaign I don't even have immediate plans for running (such as New Wave Requiem or Cthulhu Berlin). Usually the soundtracks are just for me - I listen to them in between sessions, or while engaged in campaign planning. In the case of the Deadlands mix, I also wanted to share it with my group prior to character creation, as none of them had more than passing familiarity with the setting.

I only recently started using music during actual sessions again, and those "soundtracks" are decidedly different - ideally, I want about 4 hours of instrumental music that can play inconspicuously in the background. So, with Deadlands for example, I've got the mix posted above (my "Music For and Inspired By" soundtrack) and the "OST" mix of instrumental and incidental music (mostly movie and videogame soundtrack music ranging from Neil Young's score for Dead Man to the Red Dead Redemption soundtracks).

I know most gamers, when they think of "campaign soundtracks," think of the OST-style mixes to use during play, but I'm curious how many folks besides Jack and myself also make inspirational soundtracks to be used outside of a game session proper?

(Incidentally, when I tagged my soundtrack as "weird west" on 8tracks, I noticed there was one other mix with the same tag. Clicking through, I saw that Jack has beaten me to the punch with a mix of his own! One day I'll get the scoop on that guy...)

Deadlands Tracklist, for the curious: 

Muse, "Knights of Cydonia"; Johnny Cash, "When the Man Comes Around"; Man or Astroman?, "Cattle Drive"; Ghoultown, "Drink with the Living Dead"; Trashmen, "Ghost Riders in the Sky"; Bobby Bare, Jr., "Demon Valley"; The Legendary Shack Shakers, "Fistwhistle Boogie"; Calexico, "Minas De Cobre (for better metal)"; Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Death Is Not the End"; Titus Andronicus, "Four Score and Seven"; Pedrito Diablo & Los Cadaveras, "El Hoyo"; The White Stripes, "Little Ghost"; The Reverend Horton Heat, "Big Sky"; 16 Horsepower, "Black Soul Choir"; Black Joe Lewis & The Honeydrippers, "Cousin Randy"; The Legendary Shack Shakers, "Misery Train".

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Actual Play Podcast

Starting sporadically last year and then regularly this year, I've been recording my Sunday night group's sessions. The recordings have been getting posted at the campaigns' Obsidian Portal pages, but I decided to go ahead and set up an RSS feed and podcast to create a central hub for the recordings.

I'm slowly updating the backlog. I currently have the entirety of the Cthulhu by Gaslight "Golden Dawn" campaign I ran over the winter and the first couple sessions of our ongoing Deadlands: Reloaded campaign uploaded, with more to follow in short order.

I'm looking forward to more actual plays to come, particularly "Horror on the Orient Express" next year and possibly a group playthrough of "The Great Pendragon Campaign" after that!

Subscribe at either of the above links if you're so inclined.
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