When D&D art put concerned parents ahead of players

In an interview for Mary Sue, Dungeons & Dragons lead designer Mike Mearls spoke about broadening the appeal of the game beyond its traditionally male audience through graphic design and art direction. “Very early on, we decided that we were going to avoid bare midriffs, cleavage, and other common gaming tropes. We only use those if a specific character would actually dress that way.” Illustrations in the Starter Set feature nearly equal numbers of male and female adventurers. (I cannot be certain of the dragon’s gender.) I hope the art inspires a wider variety of folks play D&D. Although I fall in the game’s old demographic, when I page through the D&D Starter Set, the pictures make me want to play D&D.

2014: For any fan of fantasy

2014 Starter Set: Art for any fan of fantasy

Back in 1989, TSR hobbies also introduced a new edition of the game. Then the art designers faced a different set of problems and got less-favorable results.

1989: nothing to concern mom

1989 Player’s Handbook: Nothing to concern mom

I remember paging through my new copy of the 1989, second-edition Players Handbook and seeing no pictures that made me want to play D&D. Quite the opposite, for the first time, D&D didn’t look like much fun. Instead of fearsome dragons, I saw adventurers posing beside a dead dragon barely larger than a turkey. Instead of dungeons, I saw no dungeons. The pictures featured

  • people laughing in taverns over cups that must have contained cold milk or cider
  • good-natured magicians who look like the sort whose spells always go comically awry
  • potential Disney princesses, but wearing less taffeta
  • gnomes from grandma’s garden

Much of the art looked like clipart swiped from a century-old history text now in the public domain. The art seemed calculated to feel safe and familiar to God-fearing folks whose experience with fantasy ended with Fantasyland and an anglicized version of the Arabian nights. While the art showed great technical proficiency, it seemed dull and uninspired. This was the opposite of Erol Otus. I felt ready to beg for a tentacled beast or three-headed, three-armed hermaphrodite.

1980: for wargamers only

1980 Dragon magazine: For adult, male wargamers only

So how did did second edition come to feature such uninspiring art? The edition came in the wake of controversy over whether the game lead players to witchcraft, Satanism, suicide, and even murder. Remember that this is also the edition that replaced demons and devils with the less-threatening tanar’ri and baatezu. I suspect that the art in those second-edition core books was commissioned less to inspire potential players, and more to calm parents, teachers, and ministers. So rather than art that drew inspiration from Moorcock, Lovecraft, and Howard, we got art that drew from from Disney, the Arabian Nights, and Camelot.

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