Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History

Image of Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History
Release Date: 
October 22, 2018
Ten Speed Press
Reviewed by: 

Art and Arcana offers glorious illustrations, fascinating backstories, and the occasional painful misstep of a franchise entering its 40th year.”

Roll for Initiative.

Prepare for adventure! With a few dice, a rulebook, and a benevolent DM (dungeon master), players use their imaginations to be knights, rogues, and wizards. For a playing field, the DM will construct a scenario on a surface with a grid pattern. Then all manner of beast and supernatural being will be thrown at the players. Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer traces the history of this famous fantasy role-playing game.

“As Dungeons & Dragons has evolved, so has the look of the game. And that’s exactly what this book is all about,” enthuses Joe Manganiello (True Blood, Magic Mike) in the foreword. Dungeons & Dragons Art and Arcana is, according to its lengthy subtitle, “A compiled volume of information and imagery for lovers of Dungeons & Dragons, including art, advertising, ephemera, and more.”

The history of the game involves chapters profiling each successive iteration. A plethora of sidebars, features, and pocket histories look at famous scenarios, artists, and monsters. (Full disclosure: This reviewer only started playing Dungeons & Dragons this year. The reviewer plays a chaotic good dragonborn outlander, epitomizing the description of “long-time fan, first-time player.”)

Despite Dungeons & Dragons (the game) being a world-famous multimillion-dollar corporate entity, it began as an idea from an unassuming Midwesterner. He was an insurance agent living in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, named Gary Gygax. It is a product of the upper Midwest as much as Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The book follows how Gygax’s “fantasy supplement” evolved from someone’s personal hobby to a corporate entity to a well-known brand.

Arts and Arcana does put more focus on the visual imagery than on the minutiae of personal biography or corporate history. This volume is, from start to finish, a product for fans by fans. The evidence is in the authorial roster. Michael Witwer wrote a biography on Gygax. Kyle Newman is a filmmaker whose work includes the documentary Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made. Jon Peterson “is widely recognized as an authority on the history of games,” and Sam Witwer is an actor and musician, but also “hosts a regular Twitch broadcast where his gaming chops are on display.” This combination has created a book that combines stunning visuals with succinct historical and biographical elements. For example, Mr. Peterson’s knowledge of gaming history comes into play when the book discusses the pre-history of Dungeons & Dungeons with an exploration of Victorian-era war-gaming.

One of the various features of the book include the “Many Faces of . . .” For example, they trace the visual evolution of such fan favorites as the Roper, the Owlbear, and Count Strahd von Zarovich. In some cases the amateurish pen and ink drawings evolve into professionally produced illustrations.

The main narrative reveals a more painful transition as TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) grew as an organization. A purge occurred when TSR became a full-fledged corporate entity. In order to professionalize its staff, it unceremoniously dropped several artists there from the beginning. This would be echoed years later when TSR would boot Gary Gygax himself. Arts and Arcana doesn’t shy away from unpleasant moments in the brand’s history. These include puzzling choices like the Dungeons & Dragons knitting patterns and the module mania of the eighties and nineties.

During this time span TSR faced competition from foreign and domestic competitors. Early rival, the UK-based Games Workshop, produced the popular Warhammer and Warhammer 40K gaming systems. The biggest challenge came from Wizards of the Coast, makers of the card-based role-playing game Magic: The Gathering. TSR, spread thin from producing numerous gaming modules and razor-thin profit margins, faced a fiscal crisis. Even though it raked in millions in revenue, it couldn’t remain solvent. It was sold to Wizards of the Coast and, in a strange reversal of fortune, Wizards of the Coast was bought by Hasbro.

Other stories include TSR’s dealing with the “Satanic Panic” of the eighties and the introduction of well-known gaming elements (miniatures, 20-sided dice). While the brand’s attempts to make the game appear more “family-friendly” may appear quaint in these times of mass shootings, it is sobering to see what America chose to prioritize. Once again mass hysteria triumphing over common sense. Yet TSR weathered the storm of clueless parents and sanctimonious blather.

Overall, Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History is a feast for the eyes and the mind. It should be noted there are two editions of the book. The Special Edition comes in a spectacular box and includes “recreations of class Dungeons & Dragons artwork . . . , as well as a pamphlet-sized, unpublished original version of the game’s most infamous adventure module and deathtrap Tomb of Horrors.” One for the fan and another for the hardcore fan. Art and Arcana offers glorious illustrations, fascinating backstories, and the occasional painful misstep of a franchise entering its 40th year.