Continuing from the prior post...
As several astute commenters deduced, this discussion on art in D&D was "goosed" into action by Delta's blog post on "old school" art from Monday. Delta's main point was that:
"...one of the biggest sensibility differences between old-school D&D art and and newer-school art is the amount of violence depicted against ostensibly player-character-types..."
I have some quibbles with Delta's conclusion ("flipping through the earliest 1st Edition materials, you're going to get the idea that in D&D, player-character life is cheap") but not with his declarative that the images presented are going to create particular ideas in the minds of the reader. Again, returning to my prior post, our imagination constructs ideas and images from memories, and memories at their base are generated from external (sensory) stimuli.
Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game that absolutely requires imagination (in all participants) to play effectively. I would go so far as to say imagination is probably the defining characteristic of role-playing games, as opposed to computer (video) games, board games, or card games, ALL of which are playable without imaginative input from the participants involved. As such the importance of exercising one's imagination (both through use and through assimilation of pertinent memories for use) cannot be understated. The ability to play the game is limited by one's imagination (or lack thereof), and as we wish to pay attention to how that imagination is cultivated, we should take a hard look at the purpose and objective of the game.
Dungeons & Dragons is a game of facing peril and overcoming its challenges.
This is clearly evident from the rules of the game. No, D&D is not a game about "telling stories;" as I have written (often) before, there are MANY role-playing games that are designed to create/tell stories (in many genres!) and that serve that purpose better than D&D. Folks using D&D as a vehicle to tell stories are pretty lazy (or else suckers for the marketing). Systems are not included to be ignored; dice are not rolled because players "like rolling dice." The fantasy world of role-playing IS designed to amuse, entertain, fascinate, astound, and escape reality. Yes, absolutely. But the game is designed with the mechanics it's given in order to face peril and overcome challenge. This is the reason for combat rules. And armor class. And hit points. And saving throws. Etc.
SO...given the above raison d'etre of D&D, let's take a look at the artwork that is Oh So Necessary for implanting those building blocks of imagination (integral to the game) and the job they do at conveying the perilous nature of the game.
I spent roughly three hours this morning combing through the core books (PHB, DMG, and MM) of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions of D&D making notes on the artwork and just how much "peril" was communicated. Things I looked for were instances of evident fear (either on terrified faces or actual flight), instances of helplessness or restraint/capture, killing blows (i.e. an attack from which the individual was most definitely NOT going to walk away from without clerical assistance), "zaps" (from traps or magical monster attacks that may or or may not be lethal), and the presence of Already Dead Bodies. At first, I attempted to do a simple count for each book, giving more weight to some illustration over other (half a point for a scared face, two points for a killing blow that shows entrails/viscera, etc.), but the results were somewhat confused and, for my purposes, not nearly descriptive enough. So I went back through all the illos (again) and simply made tallies for each particular instance of each category for each book.
For an illo to be counted, the recipient of the "peril" had to be a PC type (the dragon on p.21 of the 1E DMG doesn't count, for example, as all the creatures being killed are kobolds). Overwhelming odds (the purple worm on p.166 of the 1E DMG) or potential surprise (p.91 of the MM, p.99 of the DMG3) were NOT counted for purposes of "peril" as such illustrations could simple be viewed as "precursors to heroism," or some such. Neither were the cover illustrations of ANY edition counted in any way (as covers are prone to change, even within editions)...only interior artwork was reviewed. Artwork taken from earlier products (2E illos include a LOT of previously published artwork from 1st edition) still count towards peril, as the illos were used in the core books and thus help teach the game to prospective players.
Here then are the results, as I calculated them:
1st Edition (AD&D)
Kill Shot: 8
Dead Body: 6
Kill Shot: 2
Dead Body: 4*
DND3 (3rd Edition)
Kill Shot: 1
Dead Body: 2*
*Dead bodies! Okay...let's talk about these for a moment. Three of these four instances in 2E feature "bodies in repose" that may or may not simply be sleeping, they looked so peaceful (and no evidence of violence...see p.125 of the PHB2 and p.24 of the DMG2). The final one seems obvious; equally obvious, however, is the party's intention to raise their companion (p.116, DMG2). The "dead bodies" in 3E are even more "iffy" in nature: the caption on p.153 of the PHB3 tells me the individual is dead, but he looks more like someone having his leg regenerated. The other image (from the MM3) appears to be a mermaid helping a drowned man (p.135)...hardly "peril."
Oh, and speaking of iffy...the thing that's really absent from 3E, compared to the first two editions is any sensations of fear...hell, there's hardly any trepidation illustrated. The six instances of "fear" counted for DND3 all come from the MM3. Four counts come from the illustration of the tarrasque (where four small figures are seen running from one of the most tremendous threats of the D&D universe, p.174). Yes, I count each character as one "instance"...more fear, more death makes more impression from a single illo. The other two instances of fear in the MM3 are also instances of small figures running from gigantic foes: the remorhaz (p.155) and the red dragon (p.67). There are plenty of other illos where small figures stand toe-to-toe with impunity against huge and colossal monsters.
The illustrations of post-1st AD&D simply fail in communicating the perils inherent in the game. Keep in mind that 1E has plenty of illustrations that do NOT contain peril: images showing heroic confrontation, or fantasy and wonder abound in the pages of the PHB and DMG (whose share of "peril images" I count as 9 and 12, respectively). Yet, 1E still manages to communicate the danger of the game world to the reader. Not (as Delta concluded) that "life is cheap," but that fear and death are a part of the game. This is preparation for the imagination.
Failing to prepare the mind with art showing only heroic confrontation, victorious parties, and happy tavern scenes (a lot of these in 2E for some reason...) is going to lead to false expectations and, I can only imagine, DM fudging and protectionism to stave off player disappointment. At least in 2nd edition, which is close enough to 1E that players should be gaffled just as readily for stupid shit as in the original Advanced game. In 3E, I suppose disappointed expectations can be avoided with careful use of that edition's complex challenge system and obsessive attention to optimal "character builds."
Anyway... some folks asked me about B/X and how its art helps illustrate the perils of that particular edition. By my method of calculation there are only two instances of character peril illustrated in the contents (both in the Basic book; both of the "zapped!" variety). My own B/X Companion (which was illustrated to my specifications and in like vein to the original books) contains only two instances of peril, one each of the "kill shot" and "dead body" variety (actually, just a severed arm being gnawed by a Baba Yaga-like hag). That ain't much peril. However, Moldvay's basic book supplements this by providing detailed play examples (in both the Encounter/Combat section and the Dungeon Mastering section) featuring player character death. Gygax does likewise in the 1st edition DMG (p.71 and then p.97-100...the latter describes a particularly gruesome PC demise). While such textual examples are helpful in making explicit the perilous nature of the D&D game, I don't think there's any debating the old saw "a picture is worth a thousand words." More images of peril would go a loooong way.
Fortunately, we also have adventure modules to help us out:
By the way, I also calc'd out the first edition Fiend Folio art because I consider it part of my personal "core" AD&D volumes, even if the numbers weren't added above. Here's how that most grim and perilous tome stats out in terms of communicating "peril" through its artwork:
Fiend Folio (1E)
Kill Shot: 8
Dead Body: 2
I think the fact that the total instances of character peril in the FF alone is more than the combined core books of 2E and 3E says quite a bit about the game's art direction post-1988.
[I don't own copies of 4E or 5E so I can't comment on those particular volumes. However, as game play for those two editions are fairly distinct from earlier editions...even 3E...perhaps those editions' artwork conveys exactly what they're supposed to communicate]
Comments, as always, are welcome.