Monday, August 2, 2010

Old School D&D = Ridiculous Headgear

If there was ANYthing that would interest me in buying Pathfinder (it won't happen, but hypothetically), the ONE thing that might would be the great artwork used to illustrate the character classes. Really, the "class art" is some of the coolest, most inspiring pieces I've ever seen.

Not all of them. Specifically, I like the barbarian, the cleric, the paladin, and (God help me) the halfling druid-chick. The bard looks like a gnome on crack and the wizard reminds me of the dudes I see at astrology conventions (though less bald) and the other class pictures (the anorexic rogue, the monk with the curved sickle, etc.) are fairly "eh" ...but those first four are totally dope.

[why is it the chick pictures that are so cool? hmmm...another post for another time]

I know that some "old schoolers" absolutely hate the "fantasy chic" of Pathfinder and D20 and 4th Edition...not medieval enough or too "fantastic" or "unrealistic." You know what I mean: Over The Top. "Cheesy." Etc.

I myself have said much the same. Hell, at least Elmore's artwork had some semblance of decorum, right?

Well, the last week I've revised my opinion. Oh, not enough to buy Pathfinder (or 4E) for the pretty Final Fantasy-esque pictures alone (it will be a cold day in Hell, my friends...), but I have come to the conclusion that D&D fantasy is waaay crazier than what I was previously picturing it.

This inkling that has blossomed into a full-on epiphany started...oh, I don't know when. It's been bubbling along under the surface for months, I suppose, as I've blogged and read and researched the various books and trappings of the Old School...those pre-1983 works. After '83, Elmore and Easley and all the rest helped color the face of D&D turning out the art upon art upon art that made the game tame.

What the hell am I talking about? Jack Vance, folks. The Dying Earth. Michael Moorcock on acid. Psychedelic fever dreams, probably best illustrated by Erol Otus.

Here, go read this over at Axe and Hammer, if you haven't done so already. You see how weird-ass crazy those games were? How downright silly in some regards? It's like reading a Vance Dying Earth story, with pelgranes and demodands and bizarre incantations and fairly amoral treasure seekers. This isn't just "pulp fantasy." This is tripping balls on mushrooms.

And even if those early gamers were playing the game entirely straight, the adventures they wrote and published (things like Tomb of Horrors and White Plume Mountain) are cut from the same cloth. Yeah, they break the rules. Yeah, they are "un-balanced." Yeah, they are totally silly at times, completely illogical and resting on half-baked foundations.

But none of that gets in the way of them being a total blast to long as you can go with the weirdness.

I think those early mid-western gamers, who gamed in so many different diverse styles, making up their own rules to fill in OD&D's blanks...I believe they were at a serious loss as far as understanding what the game was all about. Because the tone of the writing and the artwork that accompanied those first, Little Brown Books failed to convey the weirdness.

I think that the artwork by those late 70's early 80's artists (Otus, Roslov, Dee, etc.) were both closer to the spirit of the game as Gygax intended (in a true Vancian/weirdness style) and apt enough at their artistic chops that they could express it in the artwork of those early modules.

Sutherland? Too serious. He had the gritty, down-and-dirty, semi-medieval hardscrabble going, but Dungeons & Dragons is MORE than this. Hell, I think Gary may have had a hard time even getting it across in his writing of the AD&D books (damn his need to be so dry and clinical) except in his occasional "light humor" touches.

I think D&D is supposed to be Over The Top fantasy. The Vancian magic system only works in that environment. The idea of ancient cultures leaving behind their sprawling dungeons is totally post-apocalyptic (as another blogger recently mentioned...not that I can find the frigging link!), much as Vance uses it in his Dying Earth stories.

[this is yet another reason why I am totally at ease with psionics in D&D]

Hell, it's certainly more like the way I used to play as a kid. Man, if anything rubs me the wrong way, it's trying to put some sort of "sane" world culture/background on your D&D campaign (you know, like the Forgotten Realms, etc.). Commercializing Greyhawk may have been the biggest creative mis-steps Gygax made, assuming the world of Oerth grew OUT OF his original D&D campaign (similar to what Maliszewski has done with the world surrounding Dwimmermount). By codifying it and selling it he said: look this is what you do! Create a whole world with factions and nations and religions THEN try to figure out how "your heroes" fit in!

That's the worst and hardest thing ever. It's what makes my head swim as a DM. So much easier to create the world a piece at a time, as needed, as the weirdness allows. So much more satisfying (to me at least)...and dammit, easier!

Otherwise, you're taking the game...a fun game, a sometimes silly and ridiculous game...waaay too seriously. Which is what I think Pathfinder (and D20 and AD&D2 somewhat) does, I'm afraid. 4E does something different, of just shits all over the entire scope of the D&D legacy. But those other editions, they miss the crazy-ass weirdness. The guy trying to get the giant spider/rot grub/green slime off his back while his buddies douse him with oil and try to burn it off with torches? That's just whacky, deadly, hilarious fun. Those dudes aren't worried about Eberron or whatnot...they are just trying to save their buddy (kind of) and keep the spider/slime/grubs from jumping them next. While searching for loot.

If you want to play D&D the way God and Gygax intended (I don't know enough about Arneson to even guess at his preferences...) it might behoove you to get a silly hat for your character. You'll notice none of those cool looking characters in Pathfinder are wearing a ridiculous hat (though many of them do appear to use some sort of "product" in their hair). Meanwhile look through any old copy of D&D product circa 1977-1982. How often are the depicted characters wearing some sort of head piece, hood, hat, or helmet? Most of 'em. That right there I would call Old School Aesthetic 101. It is very Vancian/Dying Earth to covet or blow money on something fancy for your noggin...hell, to worry about your character's features at all! Check out the pre-gen character descriptions in WG5:Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure:

"Bigby's attire is unassuming: a simple hooded dark grey robe. When this hood is thrown back from the usual covering of his face (for Bigby is a somewhat retiring and secretive man), his lean and healthy features will be exposed: studious brown eyes, light brown hair, and a laugh that precedes jokes on almost a forced level. To those who do not know him well, he might be viewed as oddly nervous (or paranoid), but this is nowhere near true..."

This for a module that might be considered pretty much a straight "dungeon crawl;" there's no over-arching theme or story after all, simply a fantastic adventure. Why give a rip what color a character's outfit, or how he wears his hair? Or what his personality is? Or how he talks. I know WotC/Hasbro wouldn't give a shit about such trivia.

I didn't get all that many comments of interest in my earlier tables for "customizing B/X characters with special features." Well, I'm not done with the tables yet, as part 2 of this post will show you (call it random week). Unfortunately, THAT will have to wait until the morning. Forgive the rants and typos...I'm a little sleepy...zzzzzz...


  1. I always loved the fact that D&D was a mash-up of Vance's weird (and not medieval) future-fantasy world and the mythology of Tolkien, with some of Robert Howard, Fritz Lieber, and others thrown in for flavor! I agree that we should not forget the game's origins in this strange admixture. The game isn't just about a pseudo-European medieval alternate universe where magic and monsters are real (although some of the settings, as with Forgotten Realms as you mention, are more firmly rooted in that sort of place). Thanks for another great post!

  2. The guy trying to get the giant spider/rot grub/green slime off his back while his buddies douse him with oil and try to burn it off with torches?
    this happens to my halfling thief usually once a week... :D

  3. Chello!

    Have to agree. Remember that wierd-ass illustration of Burne, the mage of Hommlet on the back of the (lime green cover) T1? Now that was a hat!

  4. If you like the class pictures from Pathfinder, but don't want the book, just get the GM screen. They're all on there.

  5. Can't say that the Pathfinder artwork floats my boat (too cartooney for my tastes) but everything else is right on. Silly hats rule! and 4e is the devil...

  6. @Kelvin: Whatever on earth would I do with a Pathfinder GM screen?

    I think I'll be content to keep the images in my mind's eye for the illos are readily available on the internet...
    ; )

  7. Great post, my old school brother! Yes, Erol Otus made D&D what it is today... or yesterday, rather.

    Also, I need to use that hat table in my game.


  8. Thanks! A lot of folks have gotten good mileage out of it (I know I did).