Art & Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer is both the newest history of Dungeons & Dragons and one of the most impressive. Two of the authors are returning history champs: Michael Witwer, author of Empire of Imagination, a biopic on Gary Gygax; and Jon Peterson, author of the academic reference on D&D‘s origins, Playing at the World. (Kyle Newman and Sam Witwer are newcomers to RPG history, instead having achieved success in TV and film.)
The premise of Art & Arcana is simple: it’s an art book depicting the history of D&D through illustrations. There have been numerous D&D art books over the years, including The Art of the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Game (1985), The Art of the Dragonlance Saga (1987), The Art of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Game (1989), The Worlds of TSR (1994), and The Art of Dragon Magazine (2007). But, they’ve all tended toward grossly sized-down versions of art, with just the lightest tidbits of history about the pieces and the artist. (And the less said about the Worlds of TSR advertising catalog, the better.) Art & Arcana is something entirely different.
That’s in part because of the care taken in curating the content, in part because of the high quality of the printing and reproductions, in part because of massive quantity of art, and in part because of the historical take on the material.
Art & Arcana is divided into nine chapters: seven cover major editions of D&D, from 0e to 5e, and two cover major events, the crash of 1983 and the fall of TSR in 1997.
Each chapter highlights a variety of artwork from that period of time, with the ongoing history talking about what was going on at the company. Occasional sidebars (side pages, really) detail things like deadly dungeons, the evolution of monsters over the editions, and similarly the evolution of iconic characters.
Obviously, the art is the heart of Art & Arcana, and it’s extraordinary.
If there’s an iconic piece of D&D art, it’s here; joyfully, a lot of it has been reproduced cleanly, without the cover titles and other branding of the printed products. So, if you’re looking for Dave Trampier’s infamous idol-looting Players Handbook cover (pages 78-79), Dave Sutherland’s City of Brass for the Dungeon Masters Guide (pages 86-87), or Trampier’s Emrikol the Chaotic (page 88) or Paladin in Hell (page 89), it’s all here, and that continues straight through modern-day pieces like the 3e Dungeon Masters Screen (pages 302-305) and 5e Rise of Tiamat (pages 416-417). And, don’t think that Art & Arcana just contains the big cover or full-page works. You’ll also find cartoons from the earliest publications and quite a few early pieces of black & white art (beyond the two Trampier pieces mentioned above).
But, Art & Arcana doesn’t limit itself to simple published works. There are also great unpublished sketches (like the stunningly cartoony first draft of the In Search of the Unknown cover on page 83 and Larry Elmore’s entirely gorgeous alternate take on a Basic Rules cover, on pages 154-155) as well as beautiful collages that compare and contrast different pieces of art, sometimes from the same era such as the comparison of monochrome and full-color covers for early adventure modules on pages 118-119 or the stunning comparison of all the major rulebooks on pages 426-427).
As a visual history of the game, Art & Arcana is comprehensively selected, carefully designed, and beautifully laid out.
However, Art & Arcana is more than that too. It impressively covers a wide variety of media, giving insight into licensed products of all sorts, from cartoons and comics to miniatures and computer games, board games and pinball machines. All of this, of course, continues to focus on the artwork, which means you get a good look at how these different media portrayed D&D and in some cases how the artwork in the media evolved from the D&D game itself (such as the great pictures on page 214 that show how the Pool of Radiance monsters evolved from the Monster Manual).
These arcana (and the D&D game itself) are also depicted via numerous ads from the eras. I’ve always thought that include historic advertisements was a necessity to really examine the artwork of a game, so I’m very happy to see it included in Art & Arcana.
But what about the actual history, you might ask? As a historian myself, that was one of my prime interests in Art & Arcana, and honestly, it’s the least of the elements incorporated into the book — though given the excellence of the art selection and presentation, that’s not saying much.
The spine of the history is the story of the Dungeons & Dragons game, from its origins in Chainmail and Blackmoor, through TSR’s frequent crashes and its two AD&D editions, into the multiple iterations of the game by Wizards of the Coast. It’s a fairly extensive history, but that still just skims the surface. The casual reader will discover a lot that’s new to him, but the serious fan of roleplaying history would find much more about the early years of D& in Peterson’s Playing at the World and more about the entire arc of the game in my histories of TSR and Wizards of the Coast from Designers & Dragons. (There are still interesting tidbits here and there that will be new.)
Where the history excels is in its focus on the artists and artwork of Dungeons & Dragons. This is a bit scattered, not forming a true narrative of all the artists that have worked with the game, but it’s almost entirely original, because it’s never been attempted before. As a result, it’s full of great, new details.
My favorite bit of art history in Art & Arcana is its discussion of the Wizards of the Coast editions of D&D (3e, 3.5e, 4e, and 5e) and how each edition was designed by WotC to fulfill specific goals. The discussion of 4e iswas especially insightful because of its comparisons to MMORPGs (something that we can thankfully talk about it now, without it being “edition warring”); for one, I’d never realized how complex and cramped the MMORPG-inspired 4e artwork was!
There were also some nice insights into the early D&D art team, particularly some early artists that are otherwise forgotten, and some nice backgrounds on artwork from a variety of eras.
Though the history of the game wasn’t new, it was a nice summary, and the artistic histories made the whole read worthwhile.
Art & Arcana has immediately risen up to become one of the best history books for the D&D game, with its visual focus making it a treasure on its own, and its scattered histories of D&D artists being pretty intriguing too.
This is probably the first D&D history book since Peterson’s Playing at the World that I’d say is a must buy!
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #22 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.