Review by C.J. Bunce
If you’re not a player of Dungeons & Dragons, a new journey through the hills and valleys of the roleplay game that started it all will get you up to speed quickly. Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a comprehensive, authoritative, and licensed look back at nearly 50 years of gaming, storytelling, and artwork. If you grew up with the game you are certain to find both nostalgia and page-after-page of new information in its more than 700 color images from the past, images of heroes and villains, monsters and other creatures, that brought in some 40 million players over the years. Boasting some 10-15 million active players today, D&D now features the results of writers/D&D celebrity fans Michael Witwer (D&D historian), Kyle Newman (director of the movie Fanboys), Jon Peterson (game historian) and Sam Witwer (actor, Being Human, Smallville, Battlestar Galactica) pulling together published images and source art from each edition of D&D’s core books, supplements, and modules, magazines, advertisements, tie-in products, sketches, and draft rules. Their sources include the archives at Wizards of the Coast, private collectors, and more than 40 designers and artists from every era of the game’s history. Released in two editions, fans old and new can choose from the standard 448-page hardcover alone or a special edition Hydro74-designed boxed set with some intriguing extras. You’ll find a 14-page preview below courtesy of publisher Ten Speed Press.
This… treatise… this behemoth of a book is smartly designed so readers can approach it for a quick burst of throwback fun or a detailed dive behind the creation and many changes of the game and the companies behind it. You can find a side-by-side evolution and comparison of monsters and other characters, soak in old maps and character sheets, and compare the covers and key art across all editions. Possibly the best contribution is comparative images showing specific pop culture sources for many of the designs that made it into the early books and supplements, everything from Frank Frazetta Conan the Barbarian paintings to panels of comic book art from Marvel Comics’ Strange Tales.
From Guidon Games’ Chainmail to TSR to Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro and the latest 5th Edition rule books, the D&D story is one of corporate takeovers, failures, successes and strategies, all to survive and ultimately consolidate with games including Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon, World of Warcraft, and the entire Milton Bradley tabletop game catalog, all under one umbrella. It all started with creators Gary Gygax and David Arneson, and their efforts to build on miniature figure battle games from centuries past, and modern rules for gaming that had a historic source: sci-fi/fantasy author H.G. Wells first penned a gaming rulebook for miniatures titled Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books, an influential book inspiring gaming to this day. The founders would pull in amateur artists and eventually professional artists, sprouting from a small headquarters in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, ultimately the source of Gen Con, the gaming convention that has been tied to D&D since the beginning.
You can learn what business models worked for D&D and what didn’t. Why selling dice as an add-on helped the company, why Ents aren’t allowed, and why failure to educate the masses about D&D once the game got traction almost set the company back. Readers will revisit several eras, Dragon magazine, digital expansion (Intellivision cartridges and CD-ROMs, to Open Game Licenses and today’s MMPORGs), brown boxes to red boxes and back again, a return to miniature gameplay, an animated series and a movie (and another starring a very young Tom Hanks), plus great throwbacks like tie-in novels, Bally pinball, Shrinky Dinks, Colorforms, View-Master, and in the post-Hasbro era, even D&D Clue.
Take a look inside:
Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History even documents pop culture inclusion of the game and references illustrating an ongoing change to become more accepted by the mainstream and even something for the cool kids, from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Chevy Chase on Community, Stephen Colbert and Stranger Things.
From the original Referees to today’s Dungeon Masters, D&D has a deep and layered history. Required reading for D&D fans, and an interesting real-life adventure into this giant niche of fantasy, the tabletop game business, a history of advertising and nostalgia curiosity for everyone else. Just released, with a foreword by actor and gamer Joe Manganiello, the standard edition of Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History is available here at Amazon, or get the special boxed edition (featuring classic D&D art prints, a copy of the unpublished original Tomb of Horrors by Gary Gygax in a Hydro74-designed clamshell box) here.