It sometimes feels staggering to me to realize that I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons, in various forms, for more than 25 years. But Dungeons & Dragons itself has a much deeper legacy than that, running more than 40 years, back to 1974. Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a massive, wondrous romp through that entire time frame, from the black & white pamphlets of the 1970s to the stunning 2014 rebirth that was Dungeons & Dragons (fifth edition). The lavishly-produced, 440-page tome places an emphasis on the iconic art and images that helped marked the game into our hearts and minds, plus a collection of advertisements and other ephemera surrounding the game. And it’s hard to pass up another appearance of Larry Elmore’s ‘Red Box’ cover art, which also graces the cover of Art & Arcana, and is probably the iconic piece of Dungeons & Dragons art. There’s obviously a review below, but the short version is that I’d recommend it for basically anyone who likes D&D.
Art & Arcana launches with meticulous detail from the very beginning. My entry point into the game, “The New Easy to Master Dungeons Dragons Game” box set, which released in 1991, doesn’t appear until page 235. The detail on older material is so deep that it includes things like a series of images from Strange Tales #167 that were used as the basis for several pieces in original D&D three-pamphlet issuance. For newer material, digital version of art may exist, but for many older art and objects, this required hunting down the best-preserved copies of posters, books, and pamphlets to take rich, high-resolution photographs. There are also a handful of archival photographs, such as one of Gary Gygax playing a game (not D&D) at the very first Gen Con.
Each new era of D&D is marked with a new chapter, and each chapter is named after a classic Dungeons & Dragons spell (including a quote from the original published description of the spell) – Detect Magic (original edition), Pyrotechnics (1st edition), Explosive Runes (the crash of 1983), Polymorph Self (2nd edition), Bigby’s Interposing Hand (the fall of TSR), Reincarnation (3rd edition), Simulacrum (3.5 and D&D Miniatures), Maze (4th edition), and Wish (5th edition).
The events alongside the game are covered as well. As can be seen from the chapter breakdown, this included momentous events like the Wizards of the Coast purchase of TSR, but also the appearance of D&D on TV and the 1980s freak-out about D&D and the occult, actions figures, and the expansion of Gen Con. There are also the many electronic implementations of Dungeons & Dragons, from the original Gold Box series games (a tetralogy set in the Forgotten Realms that started with Pool of Radiance, and a Dragonlance trilogy) to BioWare’s epic isometric Baldur’s Gate games (“Go for the eyes, Boo, go for the eyes!”) and Planescape: Torment, arguably the best cRPG there is. Miniatures appear early, fade away, and then show up again right before 4th Edition (basically the only part of the book whose subject matter I can’t get excited about). There’s even a reference to one of my favorite Futurama moments – the appearance of Gary Gygax (as himself):
Other features that appear throughout the book are “Evilution” and “Many Faces of …,” which show images of the same creature (purple worm, beholder, mind flayer, red dragon, owlbear) or unique character (Acererak, Demogorgon, Lolth, Drizzt, Strahd) throughout the different D&D editions, Deadliest Dungeons (highlighting some famous party-killers), and Arteology, which provides analysis of the history of some D&D images (such as the evolution of the art used in different printings of the same adventure module).
There’s a lot of text in here, but the art is given center stage, with page after page after page of full-page and two-page art spreads, including iconic images like the original Player’s Handbook (Dave Trampier) and Monster Manual (Dave Sutherland) covers, Keith Parkinson’s flying citadel art for Dragonlance (I have to admit I wish there was more Dragonlance art), Jeff Easley’s covers of the 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and D&D Rules Cyclopedia (one of the best D&D books ever), Robh Ruppel’s Planescape cover, Tony DiTerlizzi’s Lady of Pain, and Tyler Jacobson’s Zuggtmoy (Demon Queen of Fungi). One nice touch with these is that we often get a full-page version of the original art, and then an image of the product cover that used the art. And even when there isn’t full-page art, most of the space on most of the pages is art. It’s a smorgasbord of visual history.
The Special Edition, Boxed Book & Ephemera Set
In addition to the normal version of Art & Arcana, there is a special edition box set. The box has unique art, and the book has a different, black & gold cover (art on both by Hydro74). The contents of the book are the same. In addition to the variant book, the special edition comes a pamphlet reproduction of the original, unpublished version of the classic party-killing Tomb of Horrors adventure module (the oldest modules were originally printed in pamphlet form). It also includes ten posters of iconic D&D artwork. These ten posters lean towards the very earliest days of the game (for example, Keith Parkinson’s Dragonlance flying citadel is one of the more recent, and that piece is from 1985). I will admit that I wish that more of the amazing art from the more recent distant past could have made it into poster format. The extras are cool, but at more than double the price it is (as intended) more of a collector’s item. So, while I have the Special Edition, the normal version is probably better suited as an impulse buy or a gift (unless you know for sure that the intended recipient is very big into old school D&D).
While there was probably a lot more work that went into putting together the early history cuts in Art & Arcana, it’s hard for me to read through the second half of the book without a constant string of excitement as I get to flip through all of this great art that adorned all of these great books that I played and loved and still have sitting on my shelves. That goes for secondary products too – they’re a different beast from the tabletop RPG, but some of the Dungeons & Dragons games are some of my best computer gaming memories – they’re all available for download, but I still have (compact) discs and (floppy) disks, waiting for that magical day when I have enough time to play them. But until then, Art & Arcana can have a cherished place on my shelf, alongside books of the art of Larry Elmore, Brom, Keith Parkinson, and Wayne Reynolds. If you’re a long-time fan of D&D, or you know a long-time fan of D&D, or you’re new to and excited by D&D and you want to see where the game came from, it would be hard to go wrong with a copy of Art & Arcana.