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.

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